Last month, we in the UK were encouraged during Mental Health Awareness Week to consider the concept of ‘Body Image’. This was done as a specific part of its general remit to raise public awareness of mental health issues, and to encourage compassionate and constructive attitudes towards those affected by mental health issues.
As ever, much of the activity stimulated by such initiatives was mere signalling of the most perfunctory and superficial variety. Some employers provided a small pamphlet about Sleep Hygiene, some television programmes included mental health issues in a topical storyline with accompanying support information, and some pressure groups initiated half-baked social media campaigns to get their particular hobby horse tag ‘trending’ above those of other causes.
At time of writing, we’re now in Pride Month – implicitly, pride for the group I shall refer to as ‘Gender and Sexual Minorities’ in a likely hopeless attempt to immunise this article against dating itself too rapidly by using any particular configuration of the alphabet soup letters. At least in the UK’s major cities and mainstream internet culture, affirmations of support for this form of Pride are now so ubiquitous as to dissolve the concept’s counter-cultural underpinning into meaninglessness. I have resisted switching my workplace lanyard to either of the approved Rainbow or Trans motifs for the same reason I disliked the near-compulsory culture of Poppy fetishism during Novembers in school.
Whether or not any given cause is virtuous in itself is less interesting to me; adhering to peer pressure can never be seen as individual courage. It’d be an appropriation of genuine struggles to believe that wearing something – the same thing everyone else has also been emotionally blackmailed into wearing – would equate to supporting an underdog. Much like ‘Satire’, I’d defend the necessity of GSM Pride only as a paradox, a sort of Canary or Bellwether indicator to disprove its own relevance at that particular moment. The free existence of satire illustrates that any given administration which has been the target of such disparagement therefore CANNOT be using fascistic means to suppress dissent, and the free existence of very conspicuous GSM Pride support throughout mainstream culture illustrates better than anything else could that the famed systemic biases against that community can’t currently be as systemic as all that. In fairness, I believe this is the overt attitude of at least some such activists today – the signs and signifiers which once permitted this persecuted minority to find their then-illicit pleasures having been consciously reconstituted as a marker of territory, almost as a provocation towards those imagined to be against those causes for their own sake. When global megacorporations are one-upping each other on social media with regards to who can better pander to your particular niche, it’s safe to say you’re not doing too badly in the culture wars.
Mental Health is not, for whatever reason, at this level of what might cynically be called ‘market penetration’. For instance, you were likely unaware that its official support colour was green. Like everything else about that sanctified week, Mental Health’s ‘branding’ largely failed to penetrate the protective filters we necessarily maintain to permit focus on what is ‘my problem’ and avoid being distracted by the rather greater set of matters which can safely harbour the perceptual tag ‘NOT my problem’.
These earnest calls for change faded inevitably away into the background noise of modern society. The same employers resumed their habitual practice of withholding information from staff and then blaming the same staff for making poor decisions. The same television programmes resumed their profitable practice of recalibrating their viewers’ life expectations via false comparisons. The same advocacy groups went straight back into the vicious and cannibalistic competition which has always afflicted those with such powerful confidence in the primacy of their own righteous virtue.
Nevertheless, some artefacts of value remain from that otherwise tawdry effort. I was intrigued by a particular series of articles for two reasons – firstly because I know their author personally, as will you if you read them*. Secondly, and perhaps more callously, because I found their description of a particular mindset to be unusually effective in conveying the subjective experience. Somehow, though I’m not a synesthesiac, the fact that ‘orange’ was invoked rather than the more traditional ‘black’ to articulate a depressive state was a sufficient literary device to surprise and thus engage; rather than mentally filling-in otherwise abstract text with habitual cliché I was compelled to actually engage with and visualise the descriptions. Certainly I don’t claim that this is the same thing as empathy – and my life experience entirely lacks the historical richness described throughout this series of articles, for comparison – but it was still an attractive ‘hook’ to the analytical part of my own mind, compelled to understand all things especially when others insist that they’re impossible to understand or irrational to contemplate.
I do not regard myself as someone with mental health issues as such, but I do recognise that some of my quirks would be instructive to analyse for myself and hopefully entertaining to glimpse for yourselves. I’ve been inclined towards introspection in general for as long as I can remember, but a specific set of questions had been of particular interest for several months and I’ll aim to set these out.
I confess to wasting a lot of time in attempts to work out what I actually want, which is much less obvious than it might seem. At which level is it appropriate to analyse this question?
Biologically – rattling off a list of our favourite neurotransmitters? Sociologically – focusing on the aspects of modern life with which we’re uncomfortable? Philosophically or Theologically – involving a certain level of assumption about the nature of Being itself?
These are all worthwhile questions, but infamously they point only to more questions. A more pragmatic response for me was to ask a seemingly more convoluted question, which in fact related to a much more simple concept: “If you observed someone else doing everything you do, what would you think they want?”
This made it immediately possible to realise the complete truth and sincerity of what I’d hitherto regarded as a slightly self-deprecating joke; “my motivations have remained unchanged since about 1997, I want to play computer games and for everything and everyone else to leave me alone”. While this does not tell the entire story, it is a truthful statement and can be seen as the logical nexus of most decisions made by me over the intervening years – consciously or otherwise.
I engage to improve my living situation, on the basis that it will improve my comfort during the playing of the vidya or by increasing the proportion of time I’m able to spend doing so.
I continue to learn about the world around me, either to improve at specific tasks to the point of doing them better/faster OR to refine my concept of what is most efficiently enjoyable. And beyond even efficiency, I have an almost pathological tendency to pursue independence in every possible domain and context.
I am aware of nothing in my upbringing which would have prompted a temperament of mistrust or avoidance as such, indeed my family and early friends were predominantly kind and supportive at every level – and even the exceptions to this (some paternal sternness, some shoddy teaching) never reached the level of drama which would constitute some traumatic event of betrayal or abandonment. There is no easy psychobabble reason why I have such a marked preference for solitude and a resistance to complex interpersonal situations.
It’s probably more accurate to say that what ‘I’ in the unexamined black-box sense actually want could consist of several values – perhaps including attainment of ‘flow state’ upon encountering manageable challenge, sensation of exploring something new whether geographical or conceptual, experiencing improvement over time as a direct and correlatory reward following valid action, learning and retaining and applying quantities of interrelated information, however arbitrary and meaningless it is beyond the immediate conceit – and that gaming in and of itself is simply the most reliable way to reach a satisfactory level of each at the most manageable financial/temporal/emotional cost. The fact that any failure in games is rarely permanent is likely to be significant too. Loss aversion bias is a strong factor in how my existence is mediated, and I’ve largely made peace with the inevitability that some seemingly plausible opportunities will be missed when operating with such low ‘risk appetite’.
In hindsight, the otherwise incongruous efforts I’ve indulged in over the past few years relating to other forms of activity could be seen as attempts either to discover whether anything else is better at meeting those mental sensation criteria, or to see whether I have more which I didn’t yet know about, and/or as means to rule some pursuit or other definitively out of consideration to thus reduce wistful speculation during loading screens.
Any definitive step I’ve taken in life has ultimately served to increase my capacity for autonomous activity, which I have in some cases utilised. These advancements were fuelled exclusively by what are generally regarded as the negative emotions – anger, resentment, fear – and this is perhaps inevitable given the prematurely developed sense I seem to have towards prioritising stability in experience rather that riding the highs and lows of extreme sensation. I’m not inclined to push myself up, but can be roused to debatably positive action only to avert the prospect of being dragged down – at every timescale.
On the initial topic of Body Image, my attitude is likely one common amongst nerds but difficult to comprehend for others. My body image is very negative, but this doesn’t greatly matter because the body itself is deprioritised and disprivileged. Intellectually I understand the means by which one’s body presents demands and how the Self is a construct fulfilling higher-order imperatives. Subjectively, however, my sensation is that the Self is at the root of this ‘stack’ and that the physical body is merely yet another point of origin for interruptions. I accept the necessity of physical fitness and do a certain amount of work to maintain it, but the aesthetic element is almost a non-factor. The average person’s attitude towards some niche craft is analogous to how I regard my mildly derisible outer form; I’m not greatly interested in the field so am unbothered that I regard myself as having a low position in that domain’s hierarchy. If there were some extremely trivial way to improve that facet of the self then I’d probably pursue it in a low-hanging-fruit kind of way, but I’ve never been able to relate well to those who focus entirely on how they appear in the moment.
To the extent that body image relates to sexuality and sexual identity, I don’t particularly consider myself to be a sexual being and the nested caveats of ‘demi-grey-a-hetro-whatever’ aren’t particularly relevant to a real scenario. My attitude can again be described with an absurdist-sounding metaphor – intercourse is akin to the moon landing. It’s probably a real thing, there’s certainly some video evidence, some people have done it, when I was younger I thought it seemed appealing to pursue after sorting everything else out – but then eventually accepted that it wasn’t for the likes of me.
There was a slight disruption to this complacency at one stage, which was probably pleasant but my memory is better at abstract thought than on sensory matters. What I remember mainly from those strange months was how rapidly I became accustomed to compromise, and how breaking the subsequent preoccupations was nontrivial to the point where I’d not take the prospect of relationships seriously at any stage. If I did, the precise configuration of events which led to that connection is profoundly unlikely to be repeated, even were I not inclined to actively reject them (which I am).
Despite my post-Randian appreciation of Thatcher’s famous claim ‘there is no such thing as society’, I’d also not dispute the genuine (if acausal) power of group associations – even in the context of individual action.
The strictures I described earlier relating to risk aversion somehow cease to apply in the same way when I act as (in my own mind) an agent of another entity – company, volunteer organisation, whatever. Something about having a ‘mask’/’hat’/namebadge/boringly straight lanyard/whatever has the transformative effect of granting a level of license and intensity not otherwise available when pursuing my own interests in my own name (unless actively engaged in the avoidance of a credible bad outcome as detailed above).
This is the part of the puzzle which led to all the other questions touched on so far, and one that survives them unanswered as-yet. Why can the same person, in nominally similar situations, who regards himself as unashamedly selfish as a point of political philosophy, be imbued with such a degree of additional animus when fulfilling other agents’ goals rather than his own? A wise lady recently subjected to a far longer and more slurred version of this question believed that in the case of acting with the empowerment of an external identity I could offset negative responses – rejection, insult, etc – to the other party rather than internalise it, while this option is not available when I myself am already the ‘client’. I imagine she’s correct about this, though it doesn’t inherently provide any new way to address the situation. The options remain as they always have: to either subject myself to a high volume of negative social stimulus (or at least the risk thereof) as a skin-thickening exercise as recommended by PUAs and other self-helpers, or to develop an actually consistent amphetamine habit which would negate this issue and introduce ten more of its own. In all likelihood, things will instead remain as they are.
For those unaware, ‘skitching’ is extreme sports slang for the act of holding onto a moving motor vehicle – while travelling on some unpowered conveyance such as a skateboard – in order to build speed, some of which can be retained when travelling in a new direction.
This is how I conceptualise the aftermath of involving myself in some kind of goal-oriented team activity, even one which isn’t inherently enjoyable. The worlds blur for a certain time, and the energy/focus/confidence granted as a product of group or task identity can be co-opted (albeit briefly) and refocused on my own cause. This might last days, or hours, or not happen at all – and I’m getting better at knowing when any given ‘source’ of not-really-external inspiration is starting to exhibit diminishing returns.
The fact that this is all plainly internal energy really, and that everything I’ve described here pertains to exploits by which it might be tapped, implies that I may yet determine a more reliable way to unlock the inner force presently kept in the custody of some miserly subconscious administrator – hopefully I’ll devise a better term than ‘mental dinnerlady’ to represent this entity which seems to decide whether or not I’d be permitted to use my full capabilities in any given scenario.
First stop: 🅱️aganism. Why get fancy when they might have cracked this millennia ago?
markbickerton.com – not dissimilar to what I’ve described of myself, Mark’s capacity to embolden and uplift others via speaking engagements should not be regarded as having been compromised by the personal and somewhat brutal revelations described with commendable honesty here…