On winning the battle, for once

It’s hard to pin it down to a moment. For me, depression is not something that I encounter in an instant. It has crept up on me. Like my decision to become a Christian, it’s something that I gradually became aware of rather then felt turn itself on in an instant. Like my faith, it ebbs and flows. I may have been in this round of depression for more than 4 years, but like my faith my depression ebbs and flows. There are days it’s there, but I’m still scarcely aware of it (shamefully, in the case of my faith; joyfully in the case of depression). There are days it snaps at my heels occasionally, like the arrow prayers prayers I remember to shoot off in a moment of particular need. Then there are the days when I wake up and its all I know. These days are few and far between in terms of my faith – the days when my faith consumes, envelops, enfolds me. Similarly, there are a few days when depression is all I know. Make no mistake, they are there. The black dog isn’t so much snapping at my heels occasionally as it is demanding to be taken for a long walk, curled up unmovingly on my lap, or snarling and spitting in my face. Like the days when my faith just happens joyfully and freely, I can rarely point to a reason or a trigger for the depression overwhelming me. It’s just there, and I have to accept its reality.
Those days are hard, nightmarishly so. If they were the whole of my reality these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to function at all. Mercifully, they are relatively few. But just as I can’t point to one reason for their coming, neither can I fully explain the experience of the last few weeks.
Because for the last few weeks, for the first time in years, I’ve felt like I may be winning the battle. Not that the battle is won. Nothing like that – yet. But that we may may be travelling in the right direction. There are a few triggers that I think have contributed. A time of prayer with a friendly, godly soul (hardly the first I’ve had, so what makes this one different, I don’t know). A dignaosis of ADHD, and the treatment that has gone alongside that. Slightly warmer weather. But in other respects there is no rational reason for an upturn; our financial stresses have, if anything, got worse not better over this time. I still have my other chronic conditions with which to wrestle. My father’s state of health has worsened. I still have a tendency to melancholy.
So it feels odd. One of my medications has been lowered in dose. A small, but nice, moment. Temptations to suicidal thoughts or other self-punishments still come, but it’s as if they are kept in a box rather than erupting all over me and those around me. I have no way of knowing if this will last, or if I will stop here, or if I will continue to make more positive progress from here. But for now I’m enjoying the sun on my back, the taste in my mouth and the sense of walking more lightly.
As the prophet sang, walk on, with all that you can’t leave behind.
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What’s normal anyway?

To those whom much has been given much will be expected – or something like that. It’s the Bible’s equivalent of the maxim directed at Spiderman: ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Much what, though?
To two learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, ankylosing spondylitis, I recently had added a diagnosis of AD(H)D. I but the ‘H’ in brackets because we’re not sure yet quite how much ‘h’ there is in me – the hyperactivity of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I’ve been on Ritalin, the medication of choice for this, for a couple of months now and the effect of it has been transformative. Is this what I’ve been missing out on all this time? Does everybody really have the capacity to sit down and just get on with stuff and not be fighting a permanent battle of distraction? I thought my magpie mind was symptomatic of the human condition, not a quirk of my brain.
There’s often a worry with treating this kind of thing that in doing so you lose some of the spark that makes someone unique, the fire of creativity, the fingerprint of the personality. I’m still learning about that, and how to make sure my whole family gets the benefit of the more focussed me – not just those who happen to come across my orbit in working hours. There’s much for me to learn, and yes I’ve been leant A Useful Book that does actually appear to be useful.
It’s quite a cocktail of diagnoses now. One would be more than enough, but there’s web of corollary, apparently between them. People with A.S. get depressed; people with depression get anxious. People with ADHD have learning disabilities. Chicken? Egg? Who knows.
None of them are going to kill me (I suppose you could argue that depression could, but you know what I mean); all of them are limiting, restricting in some way. It’s quite a collection of limits that I’m constantly learning to live within, to navigate around. Someone said to me that I now have a better idea of what makes me unique and special which is an interesting way to look at it. I’ve been living with me for a long time now and don’t think of me as unique – in my eyes, I’m normal. No matter if I’m normal or unique (or both), it feels as if this collection of defining characteristics is enough to be getting on with. If much is required of whom much is given, then what exactly is the much expected of me? Some days getting out of bed feels like an achievement (I spent 3 hours in a hospital waiting room for someone else yesterday; as a result of the dodgy chairs my A.S. is flaring which makes every moment of ‘normality’ today a victory); some days, filling out a form by hand is too much (thanks, dysgraphia!). Is the much that’s expected of me just to live, exist in a way that most people would recognise? Or is there more? What’s God’s call? To live within the limits, or transcend them like a bad afternoon tv-movie?
If only we all came with some sort of personalised users manual, telling how to get the best out of us. Everyone has to wrestle with these issues, of course – what am I for? It’s just that when you seem to have more quirks than others, it feels trickier to navigate.
We don’t come with user manuals, of course. We do come with an image, an imprint of a creator but that feels increasingly marred and chipped and cracked. And how do you speak of that when there’s so much about you that feels like it doesn’t bear the stamp of a wise and good creator? Is the image of God about perfection because God is perfect, or is it something more complex than that? There’s something there about our calling  – to steward creation on God’s behalf, and that creation presumably includes ourselves. So what does stewarding myself mean when the reflection is warped?
Questions, and few answers. Assuming that I now have the last of the diagnoses – at least for a while – maybe I can start to discern a way forward. Today this is less of dead-weight then it is a challenge to be surmounted, a puzzle to solve. It doesn’t oppress me today, but it does present these questions to which I struggle discern answers.
My only conclusion: normal is an illusion. There is both no such thing as normal; and also that normal is whatever your state is, wherever you habitually land. It’s not a target to be reached; if you see it that way it will always be out of reach. Instead it’s simply what you are.

West Wing Leadership Wisdom S1E4: “Five Votes Down”

1. Personal life can fuel leadership – but the former must always be in a healthy, life-giving blend with the latter.
2. Relationships count. Invest in people who might seem insignificant – some of the five votes down are people who might seem insignificant but feel neglected. In reality nobody is insignificant.

3. The alcoholism which we learn about Leo and Hoynes living in this episode shows us that no one is immune from addiction. Get help, whoever you are.

imdb.com plot summary

When an admittedly weak gun-control bill the White House has been backing turns out to be five votes short of House passage, Josh makes deals and threats to several Democratic reps, while Leo appeals to Hoynes for help. Elsewhere, while working the bill, Leo misses his anniversary, which he tries in vain to atone for, but eventually his wife Jenny decides to leave him.

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode

West Wing Leadership Wisdom: S1E3 “A Proportional Response”

1. Good friends and colleagues – like CJ and Leo – tell you what they think and then work to protect you, even when they disagree with you. Foster those relationships; make them your first port of call.
2. In your anger do now sin. Anger in itself isn’t sinful, but ut can often lead us to do is.

3. Leaders are held to a higher standard – both by God and by people. It doesn’t feel fair – especially from people – but it’s true.

4. Even righteous anger can be dangerous – listen to dispassionate and trusted people, willing to speak truth about the dangers of your course action.

imdb.com Plot Summary

After being offered “a proportional response” to the Syrian military’s downing of a U.S. military plane on a medical mission (and carrying his newly named personal physician), the president demands an option that will have greater impact. Leo gradually must talk him down, while Bartlet snipes at everyone, including Abby. The president ultimately agrees to the initial option, but is not happy about it. Charlie Young is introduced as an applicant for a messenger job whom Josh decides to hire as Bartler’s personal aide (note: he mentions being sent to Josh by Mrs. De La Guardia, who is later introduced in season four as Debbie Fiderer, who becomes Mrs. Landingham’s replacement)

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode

West Wing Leadership Wisdom: S1E2 Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Series 1, Episode 2

1. Jokes can backfire – use humour wisely.
2. Your strengths (in this episode, look how Bartlet’s intelligence, specifically his Latin, alientates CJ) can alienate people if you get too absorbed in them rather than using them to the ends you’re called to use them for.
3. All of us have a past which accompanies us everywhere and could trip us up or affect how we see people (even someone as intelligent as Bartlet feels insecure with the Joint Chiefs); get to know how your past dogs you – and get help with it.
4. Personal involvement in a decision – especially in a crisis – can affect you for better or worse. To get to know which, involve people who know you well and whom you trust.

IMDB.com Plot Summary

Josh trumps a potential Democratic challenger in a masterful political move and then hires the challenger’s chief of staff and ex-girlfriend Mandy Hampton. Toby tries to warn Sam away from his friendship with the call girl, but to Toby’s horror, Sam seems intent on reforming her. CJ tries to spin the latest clash between President Bartlet and Vice President Hoynes. After an American plane is shot down carrying Bartlet’s physician, Bartlet’s response leaves Leo worried about the President’s response.

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode

West Wing Leadership Wisdom S1E1 – Pilot

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode. 

Series 1, Episode 1

1. When handling news about yourself as a leader, even embarrassing news, honesty and truth is best – especially once the gossip starts. Truth – even about a bike accident – robs embarrassment of some of its power.

2. If you’re in a heated interaction, don’t say what you’re dying to say. It may feel good in the moment, but it may also cost you everything – Josh comes very close to losing his job.

3. Know your audience; Sam looks for Leo’s daughter in the class rather than in front of the class – leading to yet more embarrassment for him.

IMDB.com Plot Summary 

The West Wing staffers are introduced as each learns via phone or pager that the President was in a cycling accident. Josh faces the possible loss of his job after an on-air insult of a political opponent, which Toby tries to prevent by having Josh make a personal apology. Sam’s fling the previous night with Laurie, who unbeknownst to Sam is a call girl, puts him in hot water, which he compounds when ineptly lecturing a class of 4th-graders about the White House and then asking their teacher which child is Leo’s daughter. Leo must deal with the fallout from Josh’s blunder, as well as 137 Cuban refugees who escaped on rafts and are seeking asylum. The president walks in during Josh’s apology, recites the First Commandment, and lambastes three Christian pols for not denouncing a fringe group.

After getting called in early in the morning due to President Bartlet having a bicycle wreck, the staff deals with the problems of the day. Josh faces losing his job after infuriating millions of Christians on a Sunday morning talk show. Sam learns he accidentally slept with a call girl the night before and then accidentally tells Leo’s daughter about it, placing his career in possible jeopardy. Leo works to convince the President to let Josh keep his job as Leo tries to make peace with infuriated Christian leaders.

 

Stuff of The Year 2016, 1: Movies

As a new (foster) dad in 2016, my movie watching and blogging in general has been curtailed; an app on my phone has a lengthy list of ‘must see’ when South African release dates or TV schedules or plane journeys or streaming services or life in general permit  Despite that, here’s a few comments (in no particular order) about each of the films I’ve seen this year that I’m recalling with good memories at the end of 2016 (note: they may not all have been released in 2016). Where possible, I’ve linked to earlier blogs about them, and/or a trailer. I’m confident that all of these films will enhance your life; but there’s no accounting for taste … 
 
 
By rights this should be a traumatic, so painful it’s barely watchable, experience. That the film manages to do justice to the pain of the situation it portrays without ever feeling invasive or voyeuristic, is a testament to the brilliance of the direction; that it goes still further, finding beauty, hope and even transcendence is almost miraculous. Brie Larson’s central performance is extraordinary, and Jacob Tremblay as the young boy through whom the awfulness is seen puts in a turn that somehow weds maturity and innocence. It’s an almost overwhelming film; one that breathes some life and hope into a painful 2016.
 
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Quentin Tarantino needs someone to say ‘no’ to him; or at least to cut 30-45 minutes from most of his films when he’s not watching. The Hateful Eight isn’t immune to those truths; but I really enjoyed it. The self-imposed restrictions of the setting force a kind of economy (granted, not an economy of length) onto the film; the film drips with the simmering threat of violence and treachery in which Tarantino specialises. There’s a swathe of fine performances, the cinematography is brilliant. It’s been a long, long time since this prodigiously talented director made a truly great film; but this one is the most out and out enjoyable one he’s given us in many years.
 
I was fully prepared to take a tone of sneering distance to this film; especially as some mentioned it in similar tone to Kick Ass, a film which had much to admire but with which I had some significant problems (though not the ones some had). I was totally won over by Deadpool, though. I laughed, and I kept laughing for the whole film; I don’t think it’s in the same league as Shaun of The Dead, but I think that was the last film in which I laughed as much as I did in this one. Ryan Reynolds has superb comic timing; the rest of the cast know their roles, and play them well. The postmodern knowingness never alienates; the film has a surprising warmth despite the tone of the humour.
 
Due to my personal connections with this film’s subject matter, I approached it with nervous caution. I was surprised, and encouraged, to find an exciting story that does justice to the complexity of my own journey around how to respond to the terrorists who murdered m y friend. I’m a little biased to any film with Aaron Paul, and on reflection perhaps Helen Mirren was miscast; but I’m deeply grateful for a film which makes an attempt to do justice to the complexities of one of the defining issues of our era. I suspect I’ll find it hard to re-watch, but that’s no criticism; it’s simply the story of my experience.
 
This is a joy filled piece with the Coen brothers displaying the lightness of touch that lies behind the best of their comic work. As is so often the case, tremendous performances are drawn from all the players, and there are so may scenes that still linger with me months later, causing me to chuckle out loud in awkward silences when my my mind wonders. Would that it were so simple for me to just recite to you the jokes; this isn’t, though, a film of jokes and one-liners. It’s rather a delicate plot that strings together a series of brilliantly funny, carefully constructed comedic moments and exchanges.
 
Of course I was looking forward to this; I’ve always enjoyed the Harry Potter stories; I felt the films were patchy (the first two especially so). I was excited to see how her world would play out on screen without a book to adhere to. I was also apprehensive; as a new foster dad, I’d taken my 13-year old foster son to the cinema a few times this year. I don’t think he’d seen many films before coming to us; he certainly found it hard to sit through a whole film this time last year. He saw The BFG with my wife which he really liked (I’ve not caught up with it); Zootopia/Zootropolis (again, I missed it) was enjoyed. As a child who has experienced a lot of loss in his life, he thought Finding Dory was too sad to really enjoy. I wondered about Fantastic Beasts; was it too British for a boy who’s never been outside the Western Cape of South Africa, and is only just learning to read? Does he even like fantasy? His comments on coming out: “It was brilliant. It was scary. I want to see it again”. Job done; the first time he’s come out of a film with me, desperate to see it again (he has). I loved it too – much to say, joy and wonder in the right measures. Small criticisms – like the scenes inside the suitcase don’t quite work – don’t detract from this is a magical piece of storytelling.
 
An 80s (Irish) school romance-musical? Too much? Not at all. This is one of those films that you can’t help but walk away from smiling. Life-affirmingly uplifting, with proper new songs that work in their own right. If you watch this and don’t come out happy, then I’d find it hard to love you.
 
A few years ago the director of Arrival made a thriller/drama (Prisoners) that was much lauded but didn’t quite work for me. Then he gave us Sicario, an excellent thriller around the Mexico-USA drug trade. Then Arrival, which is simply wonderful. Though the plot is largely a staple one, it still kept the tension brewing and boiling; I didn’t see the resolution coming, which is testament to how engrossed I was. It demands much of star Amy Adams, who puts in a performance of depth and compassion; the soundtrack is devastatingly powerful (and, to my non-musically trained ears, unconventional); the cinematography creative – there some startlingly beautiful images that you just can’t shake from your mind for weeks to come. It recalls 2001, Momento, Inception, Interstellar and much else  – doing justice to all of them whilst still being its own vision. It’s themes are never more relevant at the end of such a difficult year; and to those of us nervous as to how this director will approach the Bladerunner sequel in 2017 now have much excitement and hope to manage.