Doctor of philosophy

That’s the title of a (Polish) jazz record my guitar teacher made.

(In 2014, the time when I was seeking self, meaning and homeland in dusty & martyrological Warsaw and on the side benefitted from spending the British pounds I’d shnorred from the last PhD scholarship on professional guitar lessons with an actual jazz musician for the equivalent of €11/$13 per hour. Oh Poland.)

You can listen to it as a background track to this post if you like (tho I find it somewhat disconcerting personally; my preference goes more in this direction).

Personally, I haven’t actually finished any of the three PhD’s I’ve started so far. 

Particularly not the philosophy ones. 

I’m thinking, I’m still not too far from being a doctor of philosophy, given all the hours I’ve spent thinking. Doubting. Questioning.

Add nights of rumination to the mix, and it’s a habilitation.

The years of analysing (probably the dominant activity; I force myself to do art and music and movement (and a bunch of esoteric things) to avoid getting incessant headaches from it). 

The hours and hours of philosophical conversations, aimless apart from finding new ways of conceptualising old things and doing nothing whatsoever with the results. (Beyond rejoicing in intellectual pleasure.)

The cycling hours of day and night marinating Kierkegaardian existential dilemmas, and certainly entering and exiting dark nights of the soul first-hand.

The biopsychological energy of youth frittered away on doubting and questioning the foundations of most facets of contemporary life – not just in theory, but in practice – fairly Socratic.

I certainly have more than the required hours, altitudes and depths together.

After three years of a “mental health” time-out, contemplating whether it makes sense to go back onto the formal path.

Contemplating is one thing, the actual question is whether I can

The chief strategy I’ve come up with in order to reduce the frequency, duration and depth of my personal mental health crises, or perhaps the only way I’ve found to somewhat regulate them, is to not do too much of stuff that I don’t want to do, don’t like to do, that stresses me and makes me nauseous. 

That makes me numb, or makes me feel trapped, or lets me slip into dis-embodiment and dissociation. Ungroundedness.

I suppose I chose the path of authenticity, to try it out, 

a bit the path of the Tao, 

of finding (somewhat) and following (as much as possible) the inner nature.

Inner nature of things.

Means my biological rhythms;

my cognitive processing rhythms (the bite-size and proportion and timing of eating information);

soul tides and ebbs;

the fluctuations in physical  condition.

Even the random and whimsical changes of focus, energy, interest:

one day I love something, the next day it makes me want to throw up – ok, so I don’t do it. Cause otherwise I’ll be nauseous and migraine-ish and get depressive. And then, bet you nothing will get done either way. (But I also decided that it’s not worth sacrificing my life blood and soul light on things that I have to force myself to do; unless otherwise my life and safety would be in danger; I decided the biggest current danger to my well-being is probably getting depressed and then gradually suicidal, hence prioritising accordingly. Pleasing myself. Pleasing my moods – outrageous.)

My current companion book on developmental trauma, Heller & LaPierre’s Neuro-affective relational model (NARM), actually brought this to the point, perhaps.

Because I do think the focus on authenticity, including authenticity in biology and physiology (energy life cycles, the fine-tuned physical and sensory needs of someone on the autism spectrum in particular), authenticity in the small bodymind needs that wreck the system if they go on and on being ignored, has helped in some ways. I couldn’t quite say how or why. Or where the problem came from in the first place. 

NARM has a fairly good explanation in terms of developmental issues with autonomy causing an inner split into a fakely obedient “nice” child personality and an inner self that secretly rebels and sabotages; it’s striking how the book describes what seems like just the pattern of constant internal conflict, endless dilemmas and decision paralysis (ask how tired my friends and family were of me asking for advice and essentially decisions on my behalf, because I could somehow never get out of the dilemmas until the last moment and would regret or change whatever I did in the end anyways) that I’m so familiar with. It also describes the cognitive predicament of being forced to frame any situation or choice, especially involving authority, in terms of either giving in, selling out or rebelling and defying (there is no neutral ground).

Grounding in biological needs and limits and following physiological whims does help with decisions: it simplifies choices by ruling out that which burdens or damages the psychobiological system (growing up on the autism spectrum without realising that I’m that different and having sensory needs ignored and denied on a daily basis means many, many things I was doing were actually damaging my – esp. nervous – system but I took that as a normal part of life; the idea that I should be guided in life also, to a reasonable degree, by not experiencing near-constant discomfort seemed outrageously bizarre and egotistic to me, apart from basically impossible). 

That actually really does simplify decisions, banal daily decisions and perhaps also larger decisions. Having a reasonable level of comfort, required for psychobiological integrity, as an outer limit (although this thought still triggers unbelievable guilt).

Yet, coming back to that doctoral train of thought – this new authenticity to psychobiological needs also means that there are limits where previously I didn’t perceive them (I’d just override everything, by willpower, to crash and burn in cyclical meltdowns that I couldn’t understand, define or explain. I still do but I try to do it less).

I don’t know these new limits yet. (Pity, I could have known and integrated them since childhood / adolescence and experienced far less mental illness probably.)

I don’t know whether I can actually do anything expect painting, piano and walks in the park without going back to major burning and crashing. 

The fact is, I still frequently crash and burn even while trying to live a self-attuned life focussed on learning the operating manual for my own physiology and nervous system, essentially trying to balance and please and experience joy now and then (apart from money and other existential, practical worries which eat a lot of energy and fertilise permanent anxiety).

I wonder if the mere outside pressure, as soon as I commit to anything again, will be enough to shut me down. Send me down a spiral in which I won’t be able to fulfil the commitment, not because I intrinsically can’t, but because my system will shut down in a panic spiral expecting a replay of the major violation it was experiencing for all the years when I didn’t know the manual and was overriding all the signals. It gave me a big “screw you” in three years of paralysis essentially (depression/burnout). 

Makes me think, a friend recently brought up Gabor Mate’s book When the body says no. Hell of a no – although I guess mild compared to what might otherwise happen (see that book), perhaps if depression had not been enough to paralyse me and make me re-evaluate pretty much everything and give up a lot (of aspirations, expectations, self-concepts, values, world-concepts; this process of burning contracts is by far not over). 

The thing is, I think once I’ve overused the body’s patience – forced it into a corner tight enough for it to give me the big F you – once I’ve reached that anger and fighting back limit, my scope to do that again is … very, very narrow.

The patience and tolerance is finished.

Where previously there were minor, gentle kicks in response to major, irresponsible wrongdoings, now there are major kicks in the face just for minor thoughtlessness. This organism is angry, I think. It is in a mode of fiercely defending itself, from me – or the rational mind, social expectations, ego ambitions part of me – trying to even very gently and mildly abusing it again. 

This looks like I’ve become crazily (I allow myself ableist language since I’m fairly crazy) inflexible and intolerant. I won’t budge, do stuff that’s just a minor pain in the ass. 

Perhaps also the phenomenon of a child that discovers boundaries (the word No) just to overapply and abuse it all over the place. 

But this is what some part of me seems to be saying, the part that is most closely tied up with the body again – screw you, may you lose your social standing (if there was ever any) or illusion of career prospects or ambitions/ego trips or pride or your only socially acceptable justification for existing, I don’t care, you are not going to do this again.

It’s interesting that for me (the soaring, flying, flittery mind part of me) this kind of “hard limit” in a sense feels … reassuring, relieving. So there are limits. So I can’t just endlessly pile demands on myself. So I can’t just make myself into anything my ego or social conditioning wants me to be (as seems to be the neoliberal ideology for a young, theoretically able, educated and “smart” white person). 

If I wasn’t able to say “I don’t want”, at least I’m able to say “I can’t”. 

But it’s better to go back from can’t do don’t want to; better to learn to sense and assert autonomy and the right to stand behind one’s actual (also bodily, also psychological) self and choose what’s beneficial for it, out of love and respect for creation (or the Tao perhaps), rather than use the hard limit (of depression and burnout and cyclical meltdowns) as the only excusable justification for a No. 

That’s hard because guilt; because insecurity; because of perceived – and probably real – unconventionality of needs, values and life choices; the fear that perhaps a far greater external storm will have to be weathered when the more grounded aspects of the self are allowed to demand of me (in terms of actions) what they actually need. 

The fear that integrity might come at quite an external cost. 

I think realistically my fear is greater than life – it might be that things will be quite ok. I’m unconventional and odd, weird, there’s few people I get and who get me, yet I also have some amount of resources at my disposal. I mostly decided to try this because I don’t think the cost can be greater than depression with the weekly (sometimes it was even more frequent) serving of suicidal thoughts. 

Probably what I have to learn is to attune to needs, develop deep honesty with that, and set limits. Throw things out the window quite mercilessly if they suffocate me (getting out of depression and suicidal thoughts, sorry but can’t afford to be suffocated). Trust that the new will come to replace the cherished old that had to go, painfully.

Essentially face the shapeless, innocent unknown (delicately shimmering it is), allow the self itself to slowly and irregularly develop a shape that’s not predictable or controllable now.

I think it is now obvious while I’m pretty much a doctor of philosophy.

I just always end up talking that way, metaphysically. 

Doesn’t tell me if the formal PhD work will come, or go. (Goodbye to that one.)

The question probably is, can a major project be taken on again without shocking my system into a complete panic-rejection state. I know now I can’t work against my psychobiological rhythms and limits. What is actually doable within these limits?

And the priority is now largely on staying within the limits, not on getting stuff done. It’s more important. But can I keep that loyalty once I actually take on something? Once my mind gets sucked into a project and can’t get out (autistic tendency) and my anxiety drives me to work on meeting expectations by sacrificing other signals and needs? 

The meta-project is still balance.

Elusive, fairly unachievable with an unruly mind and passions.

{concluding with a strange-bird sketch}

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