Little Miss Not so Sunshine

I think it’s fair to say that I could never be described as “having a wonderfully cheerful disposition”

In fact, Mrs Gibbons, my infant school teacher back in 1977, once described me as ‘a rather solemn child with a frightful frown’.

Perhaps it is because I was born on a Wednesday, since we are all familiar with what they say about poor Wednesday’s child in the poem ‘Mondays Child’

Or perhaps it’s because according to ‘Astrology experts’:

Born on the day ruled by Mercury, the Wednesday born are restless individuals who question everything in life.

This definitely sounds like me!

Though a different one also said ‘Born on a Wednesday: Daring, great humour and a positive personality who loves to enjoy life’

Hmmmm… this one, not so much.

Anyway, putting aside the completely conflicting astrology bollocks and the nonsense nursery rhymes, I can recall with clarity that, whether it be my frightfully-frowny face, my Ice Maiden resting bitch face, or my android-like blank emotionless face, over the decades many people have commented on just how unapproachable I come across.

In addition to my steely countenance, my seeming inability to outwardly express joyful enthusiasm, has been a source of curiosity and entertainment to others. To them I am the stick in the mud who ‘refuses to take part’ or the slow one that ‘doesn’t get the joke’ and is therefore, often the brunt of other people’s.

Having written this piece recently, I had initially intended to delay its publication until later in the year, not wanting it to effectively wrap-up the summer season and be a bit of a downer, but then I realised that this is exactly the problem with society today, everyone is too busy hiding behind a stupid grinning selfie snapped in the sunshine and no-one knows the private battles that people fight when the camera is no longer lurking.

It is also quite long and detailed, so without wanting to put off any prospective audience members, you may wish to wait until you have sufficient time to allow yourself to adequately appreciate my efforts, I think twenty minutes should suffice. I thank you.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware there is already sufficiently depressing news on the world stage to keep us woefully subdued, it’s not that I’m trying to add to this mountainous shit pile, I’m just trying to be honest.

I too have wrestled with my demons.

I daresay I am considered difficult, impatient, uncompromising, somewhat sullen. My ability, or rather more my capacity to be content to do absolutely nothing and ask nothing of most anyone else can often be mistaken for being moody, distant and a little despondent.

In truth, I am difficult, impatient and uncompromising, but I am also far more than just that. Where others are concerned, I am loving, generous, kind, thoughtful, practical, efficient, helpful, loyal and honest. I try to put myself out for other people but I won’t deny that I find it far more difficult to do these things for myself.

I am neither generous or particularly kind to myself.

As an adult I have, naturally, periodically questioned why I am like this.

As a starting point, It would be almost impossible for the upward trend in mental health issues to go unnoticed and I am not the first person to draw a direct correlation with social media and the negative impact it can have on one’s own expectations in life or a general feeling of well being.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that a constant barrage of other people’s glossy highlights and life achievements will often lead to others feeling perhaps resentful, unfulfilled or a little downcast by comparison, add to this the continuous, relentless feed of world news that is frankly beyond disheartening, what with global warming, the endless plastics pollution problem, the Amazon burning, hurricanes devastating thousands of people’s homes, Brexit for breakfast, Brexit for lunch and Brexit for dinner, not to mention the fact that the ‘loonies’ are effectively now running the asylum (I talk of the nations that have total undesirables/imbeciles in charge and an almost endless supply of fuckwits lining up behind them to take their place) is it really any wonder that now, more than ever before, more and more people are suffering from mental health issues or at the very least a severely dejected state of mind.

It has been widely disputed in studies as to whether there are statistics that effectively support this upward trend but that is possibly because so many cases go unreported and thus untreated.

Yet, you only have to look around and open your eyes and your ears to know that more people than ever have a general feeling of disenchantment and many people simply believe that they feel or categorically are depressed because the world around us is in fact, a depressing place to be or at least that is what we are led to believe.

Thankfully, I am both aware of this and actively try to take steps to minimize the impact of this.

I’m not talking about burying my head in the sand as to what is going on in the world, or denouncing all technology and going to live hermitlike in a cave. I’m talking about redressing our expectations in life and not buying into the bullshit so frequently.

As I said, I have periodically questioned why I am, the way I am and perhaps why a number of people over the decades have unreservedly asked me “What’s wrong with you?”

So, just why is it that I have little or no interest in activities that to most other people bring pleasure?

Why do I feel practically no feelings of excitement or positive anticipation for holidays or sociable events? 

Why do I often feel so uninvolved?

I do completely understand how odd it must be to encounter someone like me.

I have seemingly no genuine want, desire, motivation or aspiration to do anything beyond the ordinary.

If someone offered me free VIP tickets to a sell out concert, a private jet to get there and all expenses paid accommodation, I would probably just shrug and think to myself “I really can’t be arsed” before politely declining the invitation and suggesting that the opportunity is passed to someone more deserving of the experience. Someone who would fully embrace it.

I know I have joked before about having a serious case of CBA (can’t be arsed) but really it is no joking matter. 

In more recent years I have started to analyse these behaviours. At first I thought it was just me getting older and being somewhat less inclined to do things that I have already experienced numerous times before, especially when I didn’t really enjoy them all that much anyway, I mean, do I really need to ever go bowling again?

But on reflection, I discover that I have always possessed elements of these unenthusiastic traits about me; as a child, crossing my arms, wearing my most frightful frown and point-blank refusing to go on the rollercoaster at Dreamland or crying for the entire duration of the ride on the more gentile roundabout because I was forced to go on it and therefore I absolutely will not ring the bell on my miniature red double decker bus or look at all like I am enjoying myself. 

When I was a teenager I perhaps forced myself to do things that I didn’t genuinely feel inclined to do for fear of missing out (FOMO) or just to go along with the crowd but since my late twenties I have definitely said “No” to things if I honestly didn’t want to do them and the more that people have tried to persuade me to ‘join in the fun’ the more I have dug my heels in.

I realise now that I have always had this rather unequivocal approach to things and that I have always experienced, to some degree, suppressed or subdued emotions with regards positivity and enjoyment, though anger, sadness, disappointment and frustration carry on unhindered, but feelings of excitement, anticipation and sometimes joy are very blunted for me.

I don’t know why I am like this, but I realise now that I have been this way for a very long time.

Don’t misunderstand me, I can and do experience joy on a daily basis.  I am grateful for many wonderful things in my life everyday, I have a husband that I adore, a home that I love, great step children, a small but cherished network of family and friends. I can go for an evening walk in the sunshine, hand in hand with my husband and I will look around me and truly fully appreciate where I live and how lucky I am.

So it’s rather difficult to explain, but let’s take for instance the earlier example of ‘bowling’. It’s not that I’m no good at it, I just don’t see the point. I get absolutely nothing from it, the same with any other similar ‘activity’ that is supposed to be fun, I’m not competitive enough to want to win and I glean no satisfaction from just the taking part. To me it is utterly pointless though, naturally, I have forced myself to do these things in my many years as an adult, as a step parent it is impossible not to and of course the obligatory team building nights organised by employers. What a laugh! Fast forward to the free bar!  

I’m also not saying that I can’t understand why other people want to do these activities. I realise perfectly that other people have fun doing these things and I genuinely like to think of my friends and family and other people enjoying themselves, I mean it’s not as if I resent people that can wholly enjoy themselves and I certainly don’t want to limit their opportunities, in fact quite the opposite, it pleases me greatly to see other people become highly excited about something, probably because the feelings are generally so absent for myself. I enjoy such occasions far more when I can simply be a spectator to other people’s enjoyment.
On watching Mortimer and Whitehouse Gone Fishing the other day, it was decidedly satisfying, one might even say, delightful, to watch Bob Mortimer’s cheeky face light up as he rejoiced at catching a magnificent Bass on the Devon-Cornwall border. Paul Whitehouse was clearly similarly moved and full of compliments and congratulations for his fishing novice friend when he exclaimed in good humour,  “You jammy little northern git”.

Sometimes, however, on very, very flat days, like it would be for anyone else,  it is a little harder to watch other people enjoying themselves when you can’t feel involved or experience the enjoyment yourself. Not so much jealousy or envy but perhaps a longing, or a feeling sorry for yourself that you can’t fully share the moment and this will naturally involve a degree of distancing yourself from those events.

Where others enjoy the adrenaline rush of a fast ride or the competition of a sport, or the personal challenge of learning how to play an instrument or mastering a skill, ostensibly I have none of these desires for myself.

My brain is seemingly not wired to create a want or need to do these things and without a genuine desire to do them, there can be no pleasure or reward in doing so.

For me it’s like pressing a button that has entirely zero effect. You press it, nothing happens, you press it again, still nothing happens.  It is a rather deflating feeling.

It led me to look further into why I am like this because I know that it is not simply a case of me being a miserable bitch. I am a nice person, a good person, a thoughtful person.

I also tried to identify if this has become more acute over the years, if my amassed experience of low levels of excitement have further reduced my ability to anticipate or experience it, like an ever decreasing circle.

I personally think that perhaps, one of my problems is low dopamine production.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain

One of dopamines functions is to relay information in the brain and signal reward-motivated behavior. This in turn instinctively tells us to repeat any behaviors deemed as satisfying or rewarding, those experiences that give us a good feeling, because when we participate in an activity which triggers the release of dopamine, the message we receive is to do this activity again and feel a reward.

The correct levels of dopamine are essential for our wellbeing.

Low dopamine has commonly been linked to excessive drug use but I can safely rule that one out since I’ve never been on long term medication and I’ve never taken recreational drugs,  I tried smoking weed once with my father, since he saluted it’s benefits on an almost daily basis for his entire adult life, but I didn’t really get on with it. It just made me feel sick! I have always been too chicken to try any ‘party drugs’, probably because I am such a control freak and a bit too sensible and also because I am already aware that I react badly to adrenaline spikes (see below).

Perhaps my low dopamine production is moreover a learnt behaviour. Just as we can train our brains to be smarter, better, more active, maybe I have trained mine to avoid certain situations, for instance, in the past I have had several bad experiences with adrenaline peaks which have led to severe panic attacks. I don’t know if the panic attacks were caused by something else and then the panic attacks themselves caused the sudden spike in adrenaline or if the situation at the time created the adrenaline spike and my body’s natural reaction and interpretation of that was to become terrified and thus it resulted in a panic attack. Basically, I have discovered that my body does not react well to adrenaline spikes.

Just as some people find an adrenaline rush a very pleasurable experience, hence the term ‘Adrenaline Junkie’, I react very badly to these and perhaps, directly because of this, my brain and my sub-conscience has learnt to avoid any such situation so as not to repeat these undesirable side effects,  effectively my subconscious self equates adrenaline with a bad experience and therefore it does not crave an adrenaline rush or anything that might peak my excitement too heavily.

In summary, perhaps I have inadvertently suppressed my own levels of experiencing excitement and thus reduced my dopamine levels.

Does that make sense? I’m certainly no scientist!

Whatever the cause, this ‘thing’ that I have, is definitely something that seems to be beyond my control, for now at least, and if there is any chance that I might be able to improve it, perhaps by naturally increasing the production in my levels of dopamine or bringing about change from some neuro-linguistic-programming or brain re-training then I’m more than willing to give it a go.

My explorations into answers led me to a syndrome called Anhedonia.

I will do my best to explain anhedonia in a nutshell: essentially it is an inability or a reduced capacity to experience pleasure or joy in activities that would ordinarily be pleasurable. It is an anomaly in the pre-frontal cortex. Therein, lies a problem with the reward system part of your brain and with the reward of enjoyment gone, it’s harder to be motivated to become involved in those such activities because you no longer feel that there is any benefit in taking part.

Anhedonia is considered a major symptom of schizophrenia, often preceeding the onset of the disorder.

Anhedonia is also commonly present in anxiety, depression and stress related mental disorders such as PTSD and is often misdiagnosed as depression, because naturally when you are depressed, you are less inclined to want to do fun things or join in social activities but anhedonia can be experienced with or without accompanying depression and it is broken down into two different types: Physical anhedonia and social anhedonia.

Physical anhedonia represents an inability to feel physical pleasures – foods can have little appeal, physical contact with people feels empty, low libido etc.

Social anhedonia describes an incapacity to experience interpersonal pleasure, such as having little or no interest in spending time with people or attending sociable events.

My research into anhedonia and feeling flat led me on to another disorder known as Positive-Emotional-Flatlining and to the remarkable story of Jackie Kelm; previously a management consultant who then decided to apply the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to become a successful life coach and help numerous people dramatically improve their lives, Jackie then suffered a massive setback when, following a medical intervention for a very serious leg infection and some very strong antibiotics to aid recovery, she experienced emotional flatlining.

Here are some excerpts from Jackie’s story:  

In 2013 my life was devastated by emotional flatlining. I felt absolutely nothing positive. I lost interest in everything and everyone. I couldn’t enjoy hobbies, vacations, getting together with friends – even food had no pleasure. And worst of all I felt absolutely no love or connection with anyone, including my own children.

I felt like a zombie – numb to everything. My life felt pointless.’

‘While having no feelings is disturbing for anyone, it was really disturbing for me, because I was a happiness expert who had written 2 books on Appreciative Living and helped thousands of people find joy through teleseminars, coaching, and other programs. I had healed myself from years of depression and was one of the happiest people I knew.

And then my entire world fell apart in one fell swoop.

I promised myself that if I ever got my feelings back I would devote the rest of my life to helping others.’

NB: I will include a link at the bottom of this post for any one who would like to read more about Jackie’s journey and also read more about Anhedonia and emotional flatlining.

After researching these syndromes I rapidly came to the conclusion that I am neither a physical or social-anhedonia sufferer and quite clearly I am certainly not suffering from emotional flatlining where I feel nothing at all.  

How I am, what I feel, what I don’t feel is simply something akin to anhedonia or on the same spectrum.

Similar but not the same. Comparable but by no means identical.

For instance, when people ask me if I am looking forward to a holiday, I genuinely don’t know how I am supposed to feel. Naturally, I know what I am expected to say and I nod and smile and do my best to appear outwardly enthusiastic but the reality for me is that a holiday means I’m just going to continue to be me in a different part of the world for a short period of time.

A true holiday for me would be to experience the time through the eyes and emotions of someone else. A holiday from myself if you will.

As I said before, it is probably why a number of people over the years have bluntly asked me “What’s wrong with you?” or some have more directly asked if I have ever been diagnosed with ADHD, or Autism spectrum disorder, perhaps Asperger’s syndrome?

All I know is that I have always been a little bit different.

I suppose the plus side is that being the way I am makes me very well equipped to cope with monotony. I’m very good at just getting on with the boring and mundane, the mind numbingly repetitive. It’s almost comforting to me, I know where I am and there are no disappointments to be found in those tasks. To me, they simply pass the time. I actually find them quite enjoyable. It probably also explains why I am a creature of habit and have some OCD tendencies. I like familiarity, I like symmetry, I like going on holiday to the same place over and over again and equally I like returning home.

Also, from a purely practical point of view, its quite handy for my family to have someone like me, the one that will unquestionably stay behind with all the bags whilst everyone else piles onto the ‘thrilling rollercoaster’, the one that will be taking the pictures whilst everyone else grins from behind a row of thumbs up before their next big adventure.

However, for all that I can be quite alien to most other people, most other people are often completely alien to me.

There seems to be a constant need for attention and entertainment, a constant greed to have to have the latest things all the time, an inability to cope with boredom or just a lack of ability to be able to amuse oneself. A need for people to talk about themselves constantly whether you asked or not, one-up-manship is now a common practice on social media and the thing that always strikes me as most peculiar is that, more often than not, it is generally considered that…..

I am the odd one. 

Or maybe that should be

Am I the odd one? 

Dr. Archibald Hart, clinical psychologist and expert in behavioural psychology shares in his book entitled Thrilled to Death: How the Endless Pursuit of Pleasure Is Leaving Us Numb his theory that to some extent, ‘our pursuit of extreme and over-stimulating thrills hijacks our pleasure system and robs us of our ability to experience the pleasure in simple things. We are literally being thrilled to death’.

In a similar vein, the title track by Roger Waters from his Amused to Death album talks about how consumerism has become all, how we try to buy happiness, our empty desires to be thrilled are killing our more sensory perceptions. That as human beings this species has amused itself to death.

I personally, agree with these beliefs and you can clearly see compelling evidence of it every day with that nauseating phrase #YOLO (you only live once).

The suggestion that we are not living life to the full if we are not doing every possible activity available to us. It was probably another well engineered social media advertising campaign, a way of selling to us luxury goods that we really don’t need and can ill afford, but hey, why the hell not? Because…… #YOLO.

#YOLO is what has us aspiring to spending our time and money on expensive, manufactured experiences that are designed to enhance our lives, when realistically they mask the much simpler pleasures in life.

Also it’s a bit of an untruth, because you actually live every day that you are here, it’s the dying that you only do once so it is rather preposterous to suggest that we could and should live every day like it is our last, and again it is this suggestion that could lead to a plethora of feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s everyday life, because let’s face who wouldn’t rather be swanning around getting their kicks instead of working a fifty hour week in an unrewarding job, all the while witnessing everyone else’s highlights on their newsfeed.

If you ask me, this #YOLO attitude has a lot to answer for; it makes it harder for people to do the right thing and make the right choices when there is the constant suggestion that we should all be doing exactly what we want.

What’s more, #YOLO provides an excuse for total self-indulgence, for selfishness, for reckless or unbecoming behaviour, sometimes people even treat it as a justification for breaking the law in search of their thrills.

Even IF we were all in the privileged position to be able to live each day to the max, I’m sure it is not the intention that bungee jumping, jet skiing, base jumping, expensive vacations and #selfies at every global hotspot and number one rated restaurant are really the message we should be taking from this.

I think the ideology behind the original philosophy is that we should take the time to appreciate our life and the people in it and for me this has to start by spending less of our time fixated on ‘unreality’ (social media and an endless stream of YouTube content) and more of our time actively focused on our own realities.

I often find pleasure in the more subtle things, things that to me are strangely gratifying.  For instance, having something noted on my shopping list and finding it on special offer when I arrive at the supermarket, a little frisson of what I assume is excitement will course through me. I am delighted by the look and feel of a freshly made bed with hospital corners!  I love to find what I believe will be the perfect gift for someone even though I am an absolute nightmare to buy anything for because I don’t want, need or truly desire anything material.  I love to surprise my husband and, despite that I personally hate surprises because I have not been able to mentally prepare for them, I still work on the assumption that other people just love surprises.

Returning to the point about spending too much time in unreality, I for one would love to spend whole weekends free of smartphones where they actually get put away and don’t come back out until Monday morning. I fully respect that my husband genuinely needs his smartphone at all times during the week for his work and I too need mine in order to be able to keep in touch with him,  but at weekends and on holidays, I feel they could and should be retired!

“But what if someone needs to get in touch with us in an emergency?” he says in thinly veiled justification (an emergency in our household being that our nineteen year old can’t find his baseball cap or needs to know how to cook chicken nuggets)!

My thoughts behind living without smartphones for just two days of the week would simply be to pretend it’s 2007 again, because I’m sure that just twelve years ago, we managed to survive perfectly well without being constantly available to all and sundry, every single minute of every single day!

I know that smartphones have realistically been around since the mid-nineties but it was the advent of the genuinely good Blackberry devices and the launch of the first iPhone that really set the stage and led us to the current sorry state of affairs…a mass global addiction!

Imagine, abandoning our phones at home and just taking pleasure in

going for a walk, or a meal in a restaurant, or a day out without feeling the need to document it all and upload it for other people’s approval!

Imagine the wholesomeness, the freedom, the novelty of just doing things for the sake of doing them again, rather than to provide a running commentary of our lives on social media….yawn!

Like going for an early morning walk on a quiet beach, leaving nothing but your footprints, knowing that they will be washed away at the next tide, like you were never there, and taking nothing but your memories of the sounds, the smells, the exquisiteness of the ever changing scene.

No photos that immediately need to be uploaded to Instagram, Facebook and goodness know what other Apps!

So, instead of thinking that people who don’t have a smartphone/smartdevice are a bit weird, (Yes, Mum this is indeed your moment of glory) perhaps start thinking that they genuinely are a bastion of hope, when we are eventually all checking into rehab for our smartphone addiction, we can instead look to these people to once again learn how to live without these incredibly intrusive devices constantly shaping our lives.

That would certainly be a start in turning the corner on generally improving our own lifestyles.  

The answer for me though, perhaps lies more in my previous lifestyle changes.

My husband and I, aim to live a simple but comfortable life with as few dramas  as possible and maybe that is part of my problem, maybe my life in many cases is too easy, maybe I’m not having to try hard enough, maybe a peaceful, tranquil life in rural France, as lovely as it is, has effectively switched my brain into ‘off mode’.

I can certainly concur that after I moved to France in 2012, my lifestyle in the main has become far more sedentary as I sit on the sofa writing, also it is often quite solitary as my husband frequently has to spend the working week away from home, during those days I admit that it can be very hard to be motivated to do anything, as the long, quiet, empty week stretches ahead of me. Like a strange character from a bad sci-fi film, I sometimes only feel fully reanimated on the day that he is due to return home.  

One of the suggestions I studied for increasing one’s levels of dopamine is the age old adage of more exercise, healthier eating, drinking less caffeine and alcohol; so, all the usual recommendations. Tsssk!

Perhaps, as well as attending to all the aforementioned, I need to set myself some proper goals, beyond just getting up and doing some light Pilates before I can justify treating myself to a Cappuccino and a cake of some description.

In addition, I have ordered myself a copy of Jackie Kelm’s book The Joy of Appreciative Living: Your 28-Day Plan to Greater Happiness in 3 Incredibly Easy Steps just to read more about the principles of Appreciative Inquiry and reconnecting with the joy in life, because I realise that over the years I have become somewhat more cynical.

In fact, those who know me, will fully appreciate the complete and utter irony of me actually ordering a ‘self-help/self-growth book’ given my views on such things in the past.

The Virtual Recluse

And for no other reason that I always like to end on an amusing note:

Jackie Kelm info:

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