Wednesday, 2 November 2011

All the World's a Stage

I have begun to change the way I think about my life. I used to think of it as being linear, straight, from birth through each year until my inevitable demise at some unknown point in an unknowable future. I visualised my life as being akin to a long stretch of highway, or a rail track, on which I travel forward; all the while steadily and relentlessly approaching the end whilst drawing away further from the beginning. I have no way of knowing, but I assume this is how many people view their life and their passage through time.

I came to a realisation a few weeks ago that viewing my life through this paradigm is at best unhelpful and at worst painful and destructive. You see, I don't like where I am in my life at the moment; I don't like the fact that my disability is worse now than it was from my teens until my early 30s and I don't like the fact that I have lost my independence and my career has been prematurely aborted. This aggrieves me, it angers me and it frustrates me. This is not how I envisaged my life turning out. But, to go back to the original analogy, my trip along life's highway has detoured unexpectedly, veering off road and ploughing headfirst into a tree. Or, using a rail analogy, you could say my train's been derailed, flipped over and burnt out. Which ever way I look at it, because I will never regain the strength and mobility I previously had and have lost forever, no matter what I do I will not be able to get on to the highway, or back on track, to reach the final destination I had pictured so vividly my mind.

So I think that continuing to view my current predicament, and the rest of my life from now until I turn to dust, in this way only prolongs my anguish and consigns my remaining years to perpetual darkness and turmoil. I can't do this much longer, it's an emotional burden that I am finding increasingly difficult to bear. Furthermore, I don't think I deserve to subject myself to such visceral hatred, self loathing and derision as I have put myself through for the past 2 1/2 years. Besides, it's gone on so long it's like a broken record and I have grown tired of the same morose and self critical thoughts swirling around in my head. It's as if I have been on an emotional treadmill - it leads you nowhere but it saps your strength and leaves you weak.

Coincidentally, I've been thinking lately of William Shakespeare (a bizarre segue, I admit) and the question of the authorship of Shakespearean literature. Simply put, there is a school of thought that believes that the works attributed to William Shakespeare, of Stratford upon Avon, were in fact authored by one or a number of persons (most of whom were of the aristocracy) who, for largely political reasons, were unable to write under their own name. Essentially, it has been suggested that Shakespeare - the man of modest means and limited education who by all accounts had never ventured outside of England - could not, and did not, write the plays and sonnets penned under his name. Personally, I lean towards that view myself (why? Google 'Occam's razor') but I am not sure who the author(s) was. I doubt this question will ever be resolved and will forever be one of the great mysteries alongside other unsolved mysteries such as the identity of Jack the Ripper and the reason for, and the parties who planned and carried out, the assassination of John F Kennedy.

Whilst thinking of Shakespeare, recently it dawned on me that most plays - and for that matter, most movies and television drama - are composed in a three act style. I started to think about that, and why this is such a preferred method of storytelling.

For those who don't quite know what I am referring to, the easiest thing for me to do is quote from Wikipedia. This is the first time during the life of this blog that I have borrowed words from another author but it is, firstly, more convenient to borrow a few paragraphs than write my own and, secondly, I am not guilty of plagiarism as I have freely acknowledged that I am not the author of the descriptions below. I realise that referencing Wikipedia may be slightly lowbrow, but let's face it; I am not writing a Ph.D. thesis here!

Act One - Setup
The first act is used to establish the main characters, their relationships and the normal world they live in. Earlier in the first act, a dynamic, on-screen incident occurs that confronts the main character (the protagonist), whose attempts to deal with this incident leads to a second and more dramatic situation, known as the first turning point, which (a) signals the end of the first act, (b) ensures life will never be the same again for the protagonist and (c) raises a dramatic question that will be answered in the climax of the film. The dramatic question should be framed in terms of the protagonist's call to action.

Act Two - Confrontation
The second act, also referred to as "rising action", typically depicts the protagonist's attempt to resolve the problem initiated by the first turning point, only to find themselves in ever worsening situations. Part of the reason the protagonist seems unable to resolve their problems is because they do not yet have the skills to deal with the forces of antagonism that confront them. They must not only learn new skills but arrive at a higher sense of awareness of who they are and what they are capable of, in order to deal with their predicament. This cannot be achieved alone and they are usually aided and abetted by mentors and co-protagonists.

Act Three - Resolution
Finally, the third act features the resolution of the story and its subplots. The climax, also known as the second turning point, is the scene or sequence in which the main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the dramatic question answered, leaving the protagonist and other characters with a new sense of who they really are.

You have worked out where I am going with this, haven't you? It's not a subtle point I'm making. I'm now seeing my life as a three-act structured continuum. I'm not saying I'm special, probably most people's lives could be described thus if one thought about it for long enough. Often times a person's career can mirror the three-act structure, particularly those who have had an obstacle or two to surmount. On the big screen, not only were the six Star Wars movies each made in a three-act style, the two trilogies making up the series (first, Episodes 4 to 6 and then nearly 2 decades later Episodes 1 to 3) were done in a three act style with Episodes 1 and 4 being the first act, Episodes 2 and 5 the second act and Episodes six and three the third act.

Applying this idea to my life, I shall deal with each act individually and discuss the elements therein as they apply to my life and how I have lived it:-

Act One
Obviously, the 'characters' are my friends and relatives and people I have interacted with as my life has progressed.

The 'dynamic, on-screen incident' occurred at the very beginning of Act One immediately following my birth when I was diagnosed as suffering from a then (as is now) unknown neurological condition which caused me to have a lifelong significant disability.

I see Act One as that part of my life running from birth to when I reached my early 30s. During that period I sought to live as normal a life as possible and to pursue what I saw as my Holy Grail; which was to have all the trappings of a normal life, in all areas of my life. That meant success academically and in my career, physical independence and my own residence, a fulfilling social life and a serious relationship with a woman who could see past my disability (and maybe, just maybe, starting a family of my own).

Act One sees me reaching with all my might for the things that I truly valued in life, and it chronicles not only my successes but also my many mistakes and mis-steps.

The First Turning Point comes (it seems to me) in my mid to late 20s when I had gained my qualifications, I had a good job, I had total independence and a home of my own, yet I was still one piece of the puzzle short. I was yet to enter a serious relationship. Sure, I had a series of mainly drunken encounters and although I have never regretted any of these I still felt hollow and emotionally unfilled. I wanted someone to love me back but somehow I never found the right girl, the one who would reciprocate my feelings.

The First Turning Point I guess is a feeling of disconnection that I began to have. All around me, my friends were all pairing up and I was sitting on the shelf like a piece of rancid cheese. I was becoming emotionally exhausted, and there were times I felt somewhat suicidal. I began to see the issue of my romantic failures as a millstone around my neck, it became the first of the two unsolvable puzzles I have carried with me through the second half of my life. I began to experience what I call affection deprivation, which is the feeling - and the knowledge - that no woman you know - or will likely meet - wants a relationship with you. It's a form of negative reinforcement which steadily builds over time. It can get quite destructive - and I might write about this at a later date - affecting the way you relate to the world at large, and the person you see yourself to be.

In short, when your self-esteem is so low that you'd pretty much date any woman that comes along who gives you the slightest bit of attention, you find yourself looking judgmentally all the women around you - even those with whom you share a platonic friendship.

It goes a little bit like this:

Such is your desire for affection, that you would date pretty much anyone who gave you the time of day.

Therefore, you conclude that if someone you knew was interested in you, you would already be in a relationship with them because you'd jump at the chance.

As you are not in a relationship, it follows logically that no one you know wants to be in a relationship with you.

And, if that's the case, it seems reasonable to infer that all women you know obviously (a) don't think you could make them happy, or (b) are too superficial and can't see past the disability, or (c) have ruled you out for some other reason with the upshot being that, regardless, you still sit on the shelf.

I have had the flaws of this thinking explained to me, and I can see why it is unhealthy and I readily acknowledge that it has caused me quite a degree of heartache over the years. I can also see that - at least as far as I have been told - the female mind often makes a clear distinction between men who are friendship material and men who are relationship worthy. I can't profess to clearly understand this concept, and sometimes it has seemed to me that it can be used as an excuse, but I have learned to respect it in friendships I have wanted to preserve. But that doesn't mean I understand it.

The kicker from the whole thing is that when those who know you better than most aren't interested in a relationship with you, that can be hard to take at times because you realise all you've got at your disposal is your personality and that never seem to be enough.

There came a point when I began to apply this reasoning as if it were some sort of thought experiment and it really began to skew my worldview. Mentally, I adopted a kind of emotional first strike approach for self preservation purposes. In the end it caused more pain than it avoided.

I would tell myself that X doesn't want a relationship with me, and that is unfair because she's shallow for not seeing past my disability (or some similar thing). That would lead me to a judgement against that person who - objectively speaking - hasn't actually done anything wrong, but in my head it is easier for me to resent somebody for something they haven't done rather than expose myself to the risk of rejection. Yet the whole thing comes undone because I often realised that, underneath it all, I was searching for someone to love me rather than for someone I was naturally compatible with. I was like a passenger on the Titanic, trying to cling on to whoever I could regardless of little else. Maybe that's why it never manifested for me?

My road to this point has been a long one, and in the vast majority of cases I have been pretty swiftly rejected. The reinforcement has been overwhelmingly negative and I have been made, on occasion, to feel guilty for putting somebody in that position requiring them to expressly reject me. Ever since my teens I have been made to feel completely un-dateable. It is as if the perception is that I don't have feelings.

I am not sure if I could have my time over again how I would do things differently. I mean, yes, I can think of numerous things I would do differently but I don't think any or all of them would necessarily change the outcome too much. I think I would probably still have ended up alone.

This affection deprivation has been a far greater burden than being in a wheelchair has been. Yet everyone has their challenges in life, I suppose. Unfortunately, I would often feel self-conscious and inadequate in social settings and could sometimes drink too much as a result. I realised at the time, and my view on this has not changed, that I often overindulged to allow myself to believe the next day and beyond that the reason I had been romantically unsuccessful was because of the over indulgence and not because I, as a person, was un-appealing. That sort of thinking is a fool's paradise, yet I believed it for far longer than I care to admit.

Another aspect I can add to fleshing out the First Turning Point is the thought that I was running against the clock, I was running out of time. In the back of my mind I knew that living independently was taking a physical toll on me and I began to fear that at some as point in the future I may reach the stage where I could not continue doing so indefinitely. I also feared I was running out of time to find myself a partner, given that my greatest chance of finding someone was when I was holding down a good job, was socially active and living in my CBD apartment. I was also becoming increasingly depressed, predominantly through the sheer anguish and anxiety I felt about trying, as they say, 'to have it all'.

To add to my mental exhaustion, was an ever increasing level of physical exhaustion. I was becoming increasingly withdrawn as I struggled to meet the physical demands of living by myself. An ever growing sense of dread started to hang over me as I could see that my life as I knew it may be coming to an end sooner than I had ever imagined.

Act Two
Act Two begins with multiple hospitalisations during 2009, and the realisation that not only had my disability increased to the level where I could not live by myself anymore but also meant I would need to medically retire from my job. Initially, and for many months after, I refused to believe the medical advice I had been given. I tried and I tried to recuperate, but it slowly slipped away from me. Being unable to continue, physically, as I had before - and the search for an effective response to this, to beat this, to get my 'old life back' - became the second of the unsolvable puzzles I carry with me now.

Thus, Act Two sees a deterioration in my physical and mental health. Physically, I became weaker and less mobile. I developed several areas of pain and I put on quite a lot of weight. Paradoxically, and rather ironically, far from making me look fat the additional weight has seen me fill out quite a lot and I now look far healthier than I have at any point in my life.

I have talked at length elsewhere about how my current state of health has affected me in both physical and emotional terms. I do not feel it is necessary to add any further detail here, suffice it to say that losing so much in such a short period of time is such an utterly enormous and almost inconceivable event that one will either emerge from the experience or one won't.

I know that every person has a breaking point and every person is susceptible to losing their sanity under extreme conditions. I know where my border is, as I pushed right up against it. The scary thing is that, at least for me, when your emotions are at breaking point and your sanity is under duress, you don't seem to care much which ever way it goes. Those around me, especially my family, who saw just how close to unravelling I was played a greater role in saving me and I did myself. At that point, all perspective is lost. A person who believes they have nothing, has nothing to protect. I know now that I have many things worth living for, and worth preserving my sanity for, but that is because I have come down off the ledge (so to speak). My perspective only returned when my acute emotional stress subsided.

So, in short, Act Two sees my decline both physically and psychologically. It sees me unable to accept what has befallen me as I am wholly unable and unprepared to cope with events as they unfold. It shows me ever more drawing into myself and withdrawing almost entirely from contact with anyone bar my immediate family and medical professionals. It shows the horrible realisation dawning upon me that I have begun living my own wide-awake nightmare. And I realise that my last, best hope, for a fairytale ending has passed me by. Whilst ever I had my job, my home and my independence I kept the dream alive that - one day - I would find that special girl who would settle for me. I kept telling myself past failures were not necessarily indicative of my future, and that, as I seemed to have no trouble making friends, surely it was only a matter of time until the right woman came along.

Act Three
I feel that I am currently at the beginning of Act Three. I'm looking for a way to turn my fortunes around, to get my life together around some semblance of what it used to be. It's a practical question, more so than anything else.

I keep asking myself 'what can I do and what do I want to do?' I still don't know how to answer these questions, but I need to find an answer in order to move my life along. Above all else, I am determined that my story - the story of my life - can't end so ignominiously. I will have to use my brain as I can no longer trust my body, but there remains a number of things to juggle including my constant nerve pain and the effects of the medication taken daily to treat it.

Sometimes I think to myself, 'Jesus, you have a Masters degree, so you are not a complete dill, why can't you settle on your next challenge and then set about achieving it?' It sounds simple, but what is a person in my circumstances to do? The task ahead seems so massive, and I don't even know where or how to start, but I know I have to rise to produce something of which I can be proud otherwise I am just wasting my time.

The only shadow of an idea I presently at have is to write a book. But that is an idea far too easy to have, yet far harder to execute. Moreover, this desire of mine transcends the pursuit of my own vanity as it worries me that my niece and nephew will only ever know that which I have become and won't ever know the person I was. I would like to do something for them. In a way that's part of the reason why I have begun this blog in the first place, because I think it is part of human nature that people wish to leave a legacy.

I know that I have a very long way to go before I can satisfy myself that I have conquered this disease of mine, and I have no map to help me find my way. Yet I take small solace in the knowledge that viewing my existence through the prism of a three act play allows me to view my future as open and subject to change. I can then believe that I have a chance to steer my life in a direction of my choice. Perhaps I can get myself out of this hole that I am in, maybe I'm still in the game?

I may have to sacrifice my quest for a partner - let's be realistic, if no one wanted me when my life was going somewhere then surely no one is going to want me now - but it occurred to me quite recently that I've made it this far alone so another decade or two shouldn't matter too much. Besides, I seem to be almost unconsciously remaking myself into a sort of dark, brooding writer-type, a tortured soul with a cynical and somewhat nihilistic view of life. I remember at one point my acerbic wit earned me the nickname 'the Prince of Darkness' at work, and I must say I enjoyed that enormously.

I am actively plotting my resurrection. That's my Second Turning Point, where I achieve something again. My sense of pride - and there is some of that left - will not allow me to give up whilst my life is in such a slump. I know my family love me and my friends care and I can't help but think that because I worked so hard earlier in my life that to give up now would make the previous 36 years an utter waste of time. Looking at my life as a three act play still gives me time to add more to my life. It means that I can at least imagine I have things to achieve and to offer. To do otherwise is too much of a copout.

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