politics of the hap

Fieldnotes from elsewhere: Loneliness, emotional entanglements and the PhD.
December 17, 2014, 11:02 pm
Filed under: PhD chat | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’m finally reaching the end of a challenging year. This second year of the PhD I have spent planning and carrying out fieldwork. I have travelled miles around the country, I have met a host of different faces who shared with me their stories. Stories about how it feels to lose the person you love, stories of how to recover and how to fail, stories about how to help and support flourishing. I’ve encountered great generosity, I have encountered disinterest and rejection, I’ve been blessed with luck and chance and been challenged by obstacles and blockages.

If I could do it all over again I would do it differently. I procrastinated away months due to fear: fear I wasn’t ready, fears over my ability, fear I wouldn’t find the data I needed. I faced many ethics committees and bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I learnt research was a lot about unanswered emails and phonecalls and fruitless journeys into forms and admin. I learnt a lot of people really don’t care about your little project or they just don’t get it.

If I could do it over again I would do it differently. But I’ve realised I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. And I’ve got so angry at it all. Angry at the process you have to go through. Angry at the loneliness – angry at the loneliness most of all. I accept now that the isolation and loneliness is an inextricable part of the PhD process, but its not an easy acceptance. Because its preposterous really. And many people will not understand what I’m trying to say. And there lies the seed of the loneliness: no-one can understand what it feels like to be me in this research.

I have written in the past about researching your own life and the crises and freedoms it can bring. It was a hideously painful article to write, but more painful was the research experience from which the article was borne. The PhD experience has been different after clearing those cobwebs, but still the research encounter has left me feeling heavy and burdensome. I left interviews feeling much heavier than I began. I would go home and curl up in my bed with a fuzzy mind. I started to feel tired before the interview would begin as though in anticipation of the burden I would be carrying home later. It was such a long journey to access and find participants by the time it came to meet and speak to them, I was already exhausted.

The burden though was not something given to me by the participants – sometimes it was – but it was me too taking something from them. I was over-identifying, putting myself in their shoes. What if that happened to me? What if I lost the person I love most? How would I live? Being able to feel is what allows me to enter the world of my participants. This is essential to capture their story. And yet in the process of entering, becoming immersed, it is easy to lose oneself and boundaries as a researcher. I couldn’t tell where my stuff ended and where their stuff began. I was reliving my past through them and I was imagining a future that hasn’t happened through their telling of their past.

But when it became too much about me I was no longer listening to their story. Empathy is a delicate balance of which there are no clear guidelines. It was an ongoing negotiation that only became easier when I became more confident in my capacity as a researcher. Even if that confidence was a performance, the maintenance of composure provided a boundary through which I could control what I let in and what I didn’t. It was a filter of sorts, a necessary one because it protected me from taking it too personally, and it protected my participants from me distorting their stories.

People always want to know why you are doing the research you are, what are your motives, what is your reasoning. I am still searching for the right answer to that question. I haven’t quite measured my distance from my research object, I don’t know how I stand in relation to it. Sure its personal. But its also pragmatic. Its contradictory and conflicting. There’s no easy way to describe that relation.

Undertaking the fieldwork for this research has put me in a vulnerable position professionally, mentally and emotionally. Professionally it pushed me into situations I wasn’t at all comfortable and so I avoided and avoided and nearly gave up. It pushed me to very unpleasant places that I can’t look back and simply say I am glad about because it helped me grow. I think there may have been nicer routes to learn the same things. At times I have wondered why I was inflicting such a situation on myself for so little return. I can’t blame it all on any one thing. It was everything all together, and having no control over emotions that would make me come undone again and again. I made no sense to those around me a lot of the time.

I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. It had to be messy and heartbreaking. I had to feel isolated from the person I love the most because it was a journey I had to take alone. And it feels sad, but in that sadness is a purpose. Just as in the stories people so generously allowed me to listen to, the sadness has a purpose. The purpose is in writing a story that hasn’t been told. And its a story that can’t be told from outside. So whether it pains me or not, its a story that has to be told from the vantage point of the liminal space of the researcher. And that’s okay because in the space of liminality all types of things can happen. There’s possibility and alternatives in the liminal space even if there’s no certainty and stability. That’s how things happen: just close your eyes and take a leap. But if you can, I ask, keep holding my hand as I venture down the rabbit hole.


Navigating the liminal space of grief
June 29, 2014, 8:38 pm
Filed under: Grief, Recovery | Tags: , , , ,

Navigating the liminal space of grief. Paper presented at the Between Spaces and Places: Landscapes of Liminality conference, Trinity College Dublin, June 2014.

Points of Departure ICA Jumana Emil Abboud I Feel Nothing 2012-blxigW_0

Jumana Emil Abboud – I Feel Nothing, 2012.

It is often claimed that one’s sense of being in the world is disorientated at the event of loss. The experience of grief has been described as having the potential to destabilise the world one lives in and shatter the meanings people use to hold up their world.

The experience of grief can feel like a loss of origins and a loss of a dwelling place. The potential of grief to dis-embed people from their sense of being in the world suggests the importance of space and place in the experience of grief.

Following on from this sense of disorientation at the event of loss, I seek to suggest in this paper that people who have been bereaved enter into a liminal space.

Describing grief as a liminal space is to suggest that the boundaries that previously provided a secure understanding of the world and sense of self have, following bereavement, become destabilised or permeable.

Following Yi-Fu Tuan in his seminal text ‘Space and Place’ I am here distinguishing between ‘space’ and ‘place’. A place has a degree of permanence; it is secure and familiar. For example, the cemetery or the mortuary which have been the focus of research into death and landscape, are physical, sanctioned ‘places’ in which death or grief come to inhabit, whereas ‘space’ has no set boundaries.

Grief and Place

There has been much research exploring how the deceased and dead bodies are located in place as well as how the dead are memorialised in certain places.

These studies have explored how landscapes can work to contain or relocate the deceased as part of the process of grieving and memorialising.

Studies have also demonstrated how death is often located in spaces behind the scenes of day-to-day life.

kurt cobain bench

With the death of public figures in particular we tend to see the creation of public memorials, which also receive a lot of media coverage. The deaths of Amy Winehouse, Jade Goody and of course Princess Diana for example provoked widespread public forms of memorialising. The picture here is a replica produced by the artist Graham Dolphin of the bench once frequented by Kurt Cobain that subsequently became a fan shrine following his death.

The ways in which people memorialise their dead ones in contemporary society has highlighted some of the paradoxes around how death and dying is hidden from view and yet creative public mourning seen in roadside memorials and online memorials have made grief visible.

In Avril Maddrell’s (2009, 2010) research she argues these these public places of memorialisation are ‘permeable’ places, which reinvent and negotiate traditional rituals, blurring the boundaries between secular and sacred practices. Places of memorialisation are liminal spaces, that serve to bridge the gap between the living and the dead.

Liminal Objects


It is not only places but also objects that act to tie people to their dead ones. People hold onto to certain objects of the people they have lost, items are passed down as heirlooms, photographs help keep the memory of the deceased alive, all of which are used to help manage grief.

Work by Paul Koudounaris has explored the role of skull rituals amongst the indigenous communities of Bolivia. People believe these skulls bring them good fortune, and they bestow the skulls with names and identities. These are not the skulls of deceased family members just unknown skulls. An annual festival is held in Bolivia to bless and celebrate their skulls, in likeness with the Mexican Day of the Dead festival.

These liminal objects can be seen then as a way to bring death into the routine of living, as well as a way of maintaining bonds with dead ones.

The meaning of spaces therefore has a role to play in how death and grief are experienced, not only in the spaces of the cemetery or the funeral home where death is expected to be but also in the everyday familiar spaces such as the home.

However, though the meaning of spaces and landscapes of grief has begun to be explored further, I would like to suggest that grief itself should be seen as a space in its own right. Grief then is not simply something that comes to inhabit a place or something to be relocated, but is a place people transition into.

Grief as linear process

Grief theories have tended to view grief as a linear process that involves a number of stages and phases to move through. These have varied and been adapted over time but the idea of grief stages is one that remains prevalent in popular discourse on grief. The first stage is normally shock and denial moving through to acceptance with some depression and anger along the way.

The focus in grief recovery is on acceptance or adaptation or restoration. Following bereavement people are encouraged to either in some sense return back to the life they had before, or to move on, as though grief is an experience that casts people outside of what is considered the normal realm of everyday experience.

Bereavement is often seen as an occasion for transformation (being better than before) or professional intervention (due to failing to act correctly), that is to say it becomes an extraordinary experience, outside of the ordinary and mundane.

Following bereavement people are encouraged to reintegrate back into society and to return back to a sense of ‘normality’, but where exactly does the experience of grieving cast people out to?

Grief as a liminal space

And what might it mean to view grief as a liminal space?

Victor Turner (Turner, 1974, 1982) utilised the work of Arnold van Gennep from his book Rites de Passage (1909) to develop his definition of liminality.

Van Gennep in his anthropological studies outlined three stages in a rite of passage undergone by members of tribal societies: the initial stage of separation from one’s group or society, the middle stage of liminality and the final stage of reintegration. It was the middle stage of liminality which Turner explored further; the state of being ‘betwixt-and-between’ two defined identities and freed from the normative obligations they imply. A state of liminality is one where the usual order of things is suspended, the past is momentarily negated and the future has yet to begin. In a state of liminality individuals stand outside not only their own social position but all social positions. A space of liminality is full of potential for transformation and for experimentation and exploring alternative avenues, or in other words it is a space of ‘becoming’.

The space of liminality can provide limitless opportunity to forge new identities and allow for creativity and subversive acts due to the eradication of the normal structures that tend to inhibit or obstruct behaviour. In a liminal space there are potentially multiple avenues to follow. Yet a liminal space is also a space of heightened affectivity, uncertainty and insecurity.

In a liminal, insecure, and uncertain space people may seek out models of behaviour to follow and imitate. These models may appear to be contrary to their own interests, but in favour of other interests; on the other hand they may be against the interests of others but in favour of their own. But under liminal conditions the idea of interests is superfluous for there is no structure with which to objectively define ‘interest’ against. For this reason, rituals and customs are used in order to help people navigate through the space. So whilst a liminal space provides opportunities and possibilities the space is highly determined to guide people in a particular direction. In Turner’s description of liminality, these rituals and customs serve to provide staging to the process, not in order to close down options, but to facilitate a productive becoming.

In terms of grieving, rituals such as funeral rites and traditional burial customs have historically been considered to assist the mourning process. In contemporary society, services and interventions such as bereavement therapy, medication, or treatment for complicated forms of grief as well as popular self-help books that proscribe steps through the process, like the stage model as already mentioned, similarly act to assist people through the liminal space of grief to what is considered to be the agreed ‘good’ ending.

In my doctoral research I am exploring the role of the different places and people that populate the liminal space of grief and how they guide people through liminality towards what is viewed as a successful recovery.

In contrast to dominant grief theories that look to the individual and the psyche for explanations I am focussing my attention on the space and the environment in which people are located and how and why the discourses that dominate that space are constructed and popularised as truth.

A (flourishing) Impasse

In this space of liminality people may also undertake their own habits or practices as a way to bring stability, to ward off the threat of chaos and destruction which are far more likely in the ambiguous state of liminality. These habits might include behaviours considered to be unproductive to the recovery process, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, avoidance, and dwelling on the past. Yet I would argue these ‘bad’ habits and attachments might also be read as a strategy people use to maintain a foothold in the liminal process.

The sort of questions I am posing in my research are why people may choose to follow some models and not others and why do some people follow and invest in the model of recovery and why do some fail to imitate this model effectively or resist the model altogether?

Conceptualising grief as a liminal space then is to problematise the idea of a ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ process of grief often promoted in grief theories. Whilst there are normal processes to follow this does not make them natural, and these vary depending on the theory that is popularised in any given social and political context.

In Turner’s concept of liminality there is more emphasis placed on the importance of experimenting and play, and undertaking activities that do not follow a linear pattern. The time restraints placed on grieving, as demonstrated in the diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder where the display of grieving symptoms at 6 months following bereavement could lead to clinical intervention, could be seen as a way to reintegrate people who have been cast into this space of liminality where time and order no longer exist, back into a linear routinised sense of time.

Grief as a liminal space can be seen as providing an impasse in which people can reflect upon alternative modes of living and identities without the concern for working towards an immediate future.

Losing and drawing new boundaries

Thinking of grief as a space of liminality can prevent against seeing grief as an extraordinary experience (thus relying on an assumption that the experience of living is either normal or abnormal) but rather as a rite of passage in which normative modes of living are suspended. Grief as a liminal space also sets out a social space in which grief is placed in the mundane, everyday aspects of living a life. It is not a phenomenon that exists purely in the psyche but in relation to other people, ideas and institutions. This can allow for the exploration and uncovering of how the boundaries of appropriate and normal grieving are drawn and how the different theories, policies, and practices around grief are wrestled with; both conflicting and connecting with one another in a complex interface through which grief emerges as an identifiable object. By viewing grief as a liminal space, grief is not taken for granted or presumed to possess a natural or normal process but can be seen to be constructed in different ways, in interaction with and being attached to historically specific contexts and discourses.

Its is hoped that in this paper I have begun to outline how the grieving person might navigate and negotiate their way through the liminal space of grief. In a space of liminality all choices are equal, that does not make them meaningless, simply that the goal or end point of endeavour is still open to question. By incorporating the concept of liminality and comparing the experience of grief to that of being in a liminal space I am arguing that grief be viewed as more than something to be overcome.



Maddrell, A. (2009). A place for grief and belief: the Witness Cairn, Isle of Whithorn, Galloway, Scotland. Social & Cultural Geography, 10(6), 675–693.

Maddrell, A. (2010). Memory , Mourning and Landscape in the Scottish Mountains: Discourses of Wilderness, Gender and Entitlement in Online Debates on Mountainside Memorials. In E. Anderson, A. Maddrell, K. McLoughlin, & A. Vincent (Eds.), Memory, Mourning, Landscape (pp. 123–145). Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Maddrell, A., & Sidaway, J. (Eds.). (2010). Deathscapes: Spaces for death, dying, mourning and rememberance. Surrey: Ashgate.

Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, Fields, Metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The human seriousness of play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.

I am not my blob, Or It’s all chemical baby // some sketchy notes.
March 3, 2014, 1:03 pm
Filed under: Grief, Mental health, Recovery | Tags: , , , , ,

Recently I have become engrossed in discussions around the shifts in psychiatric research toward the brain.

This shift includes a number of different activities occurring in different disciplines and domains, most notably:

  • Change in focus in mental health research from the psyche to identifying ‘biomarkers’. It is quite evident that funding is increasingly directed toward research interested in uncovering brain activity and biological causes that may underlie a mental condition, this also includes complicated grief.
  • Part of this change in focus has come about due to growing criticism of the DSM and standardised modes of diagnosis based on self-reported symptoms. The director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Tom Insel, has been openly critical of the DSM, critiquing its scientific validity. In response he has created the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) which proposes to improve diagnosis of mental illness by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system. This framework is based on the assumption that mental disorders are biological disorders involving brain circuits that implicate specific domains of cognition, emotion, or behaviour, and that mapping the cognitive, circuit, and genetic aspects of mental disorders will yield new and better targets for treatment. The RDoC aims to move away from using the DSM as the gold standard and base diagnosis on emerging scientific data.
  • On the level of theory there has in recent years been a flurry of interest in social and cultural theory toward affect, and thinking about neurobiology, the human nervous system and brain functions to explain the self, subjectivity, consciousness and what it means to be human (writers such as Deleuze & Guattari, Nigel Thrift, Brian Massumi, Lauren Berlant, Eve Sedgwick, are often cited as proponents of this move). However there are considerable problems with how ‘affect’ is used, and varying interpretations of what affective awareness means of implies, often supported by wrongly or selectively interpreted neuroscientific data.

What reading this literature has brought up for me is:

  1. How to understand the self/subject, and avoid lapsing into either essentialism (it’s all chemical) or relativism (it’s all socially constructed)
  2. What can we take from affect theory?
  3. What bearing these different explanations have for grief, and the increasing focus on defining complicated grief?

I will try to outline some of my thoughts on each point below.

i. It’s all chemical or it’s all socially constructed: Moving beyond duality

Human behaviour is increasingly explained in reference to the brain, implying that the brain fundamentally shapes who we are and our capacities and attributes. Yet the increasingly fashionable focus in psychiatric research towards finding a biological – neurological, genetic –  basis for mental illness speaks of a broader move to understanding the human as a biological organism that is no longer deterministic or essentialist as it was once criticised to be, but as providing an opportunity. The idea of biology as an opportunity, not destiny is becoming a prominent explanation for mental illness (Rose, 2013a). However as even my brief foray into neuroscience has shown, the more that is known about the brain, the more we realise we don’t know (ibid). It also produces basic or crude analysis of mental states where areas of ‘activity’ are pointed out on brain scans and sections of the brain are singled out as responsible for aspects of human functioning, when these areas of the brain involve billions of synapses of which little is still known. Studies into complicated grief (CG) have sought to identify what areas of the brain are activated in people with CG compared with people with ‘normal’ grief (O’Connor, 2012). Further a study (O’Connor et.al., 2008) revealed that the areas of the brain activated in people with CG is the same as the areas of the brain activated in people with addiction, a part of the brain concerned with reward. On viewing a picture of the deceased this part of the brain would be activated, thus leading the researchers to argue that people with CG find pleasure in their distress unlike people without CG. However whilst these provide interesting explanations and interpretations, often research that seeks out specific brain activities or biological markers ignores how the human organism works as a whole and how the brain is affected by its social environment. A project headed by Nikolas Rose seeks to understand precisely how experience gets under the skin, by situating the brain in its milieu. As Rose (2013a) states:

The scientist (is required) to realize that the conditions they are dealing with, whether they be psychiatric diseases, brain diseases, physical diseases are all diseases of human beings living in their social environment and they are not things that happen with genes in petri dishes in labs and that that’s a rather important scientific thing to recognize and not just, kind of, an addendum from the social sciences or from the ethics. Recognizing how the problem feels for those on the other side, for those who are experiencing it, and therefore what the solutions may look like for those on the other side.

By acknowledging the social embeddedness of neurobiological processes, and of biological processes this research is at the forefront of a new wave in thinking about mental health that seeks to bring together the knowledge from the social sciences and the biological sciences. It is argued that biological traces are produced through the practices and ideologies of modern social life and thus the biological and sociological life of the body and brain are inseparable. Both brain, body and environment all impact upon one another. The discourse that merely seeks to identify ‘biomarkers’ or ‘cognitive biases’ glosses over the complexities of understanding the situatedness of a mental disorder; of how the outside gets in.

This then poses a problem for how to account for the subject, the self, a self that is both social and biological and further is both social and biological in a way that the biological self and social self do not exist as discrete categories. Maurice Bloch’s ‘The Blob’ still perhaps for me presents the most convincing attempt at accounting for how a human – or the blob – can be both a process, a relational being and yet also have some type of biological consistency that makes the blob identifiably human. In thinking about grief, it has always been the potentially destabilising and disorientating power of grief that has been, for me, interesting to theorise. Borrowing from Judith Butler and Lauren Berlant I have been working with a description of grief as an instance which can make a person ‘come undone’. This is a coming undone of a self that was already not the sovereign person they took themselves to be. What this means is not that grief or loss merely breaks people down before they put themselves back together again (a recovery narrative that relies upon the self as normally integrated) but rather an instance that reveals the relational nature of their sense of self; the capacity to affect and be affected. Injecting some incoherence, ambivalence, resistance into the blob then, the question is less about what makes us come undone – the impact of trauma etc – but what holds us together. Grief might be one experience that can expose our potential or capacity to be different and yet we appear or tend to stay from one day to the next more or less the same. Or to take a Deleuzian line: how do we hang together when we are multiple?

ii) What can we take from affect theory?

I got drawn into affect theory as it promises a means of describing the self that incorporates ambivalent, irrational, and contradictory behaviours. Affect theory grew out of cultural theorists borrowing from the developments in neuroscience. What binds the affect theorists and the neuroscientists is their shared anti-intentionalism (Leys, 2011). Affects can be described as a non-conscious intensity, unlike emotions they exist prior and outside consciousness. Affects are only contingently related to objects in the world; they are non-signifying forces. What the establishment of a theory of affect has provided then is to draw attention to and elucidate the gap between a person’s affects and the cognition or appraisal of the affective situation. In other words, it gives space to suggest that behaviours are not always consciously directed, or further we are not always consciously aware of what might trigger a particular pattern of behaviour or action. Affect theory’s use of neuroscience has its own problems and contradictions which have been criticised (Leys, 2011; Rose, 2013a). However despite the precarious stance of arguing for anti-intentionalism, I don’t want to dispense with the contribution of affect theory mainly for how it emphasises a radical relational model of the self. Thinking about the capacity to affect and be affected I would argue goes further than talking about embodiment or materiality in that it places more focus on the spaces in between people; how people through interaction get caught up in an energetic exchange. This also avoids relying on a model of emotions that either go from the inside out or from outside in. Rather affect theory argues for the mutual interplay; where emotions belong neither to the individual nor exist somewhere outside. It opens up space for thinking about surfaces, impressions and atmospheres.

In terms of grief I have found these ideas useful to work with as it highlights how the experience of loss is one in which the self enters a space of liminality, of non-sovereignty, which involves violating an attachment to intentionality. But further there is an object in grief, the intense yearning for the deceased as described in complicated grief diagnosis, which gives grieving an intention – but this may not be easily available for conscious deliberation. This brings us back to the continuing bonds thesis, that provides little room to think about the how the grieving person’s sense of self is composed, rather an integrated self is presumed as the norm. It also glosses over contradictory and messy feelings, ambivalence, suggestibility, resistance and how these can all exist at the same time without necessarily being pathological. To reiterate the question above then; by thinking about the self in this way, the interest lies less in how people come undone – if we alternatively assume the subject is always somewhat prone to incoherence – but rather how do they hold themselves together, and what form this holding together takes and why.

iii) What bearing do these different explanations have for grief, and the increasing focus on complicated grief?

Attending a recent talk at St Christopher’s Hospice on complicated grief brought up some interesting questions around the diagnosis of complicated grief. Whilst the shift towards brain science is starting on the level of research, psychiatric practice still remains shaped by the diagnostic categories of the DSM and ICD.

In Colin Murray Parkes’ talk he focussed on the DSM-5 and the relevant developments and associated controversies as related to grief and bereavement. His presentation was quite skeptical and he felt that the DSM had put ‘too many eggs in one basket’. He also elucidated some of the politics behind the DSM-5 and the inclusion of the proposed criteria of ‘Prolonged Complex Bereavement Disorder’ (PCBD). According to Parkes, Holly Prigerson initially proposed ‘Prolonged Grief Disorder’ to the APA for inclusion in the DSM-5. This was then countered by Katherine Shear’s description of ‘Complicated Grief’, and in the midst of the controversy over the grief exclusion and Major Depressive Disorder, the DSM backtracked and ended up with PCBD, to be considered as a ‘condition for further study’. The definition of PCBD is quite evidently a mixed combination of symptoms lacking cohesion and agreement.

Here’s some of the criteria for PCBD:

To have at least one of the following symptoms for at least 12 months after death:

– Persistent yearning/longing for deceased

– Intense sorrow

– Preoccupation with deceased

– Preoccupation with circumstances of death

At least 6 of the following symptoms persisting for 12 months or more after death:

Reactive distress to the death

– Difficulty accepting death

– Disbelief/numbness

– Difficulty in positive reminiscing

– Bitterness and anger

– Mal-adapative appraisals about self

– Excessive avoidance of reminders

 Social identity disruption

– Desire to die

– Difficulty trusting people

– Feeling alone/detached

– Feeling life is meaningless/empty

– Confusion over one’s role in life

– Difficulty planning for future

Further this disturbance has to be deemed to be causing ‘clinically significant distress’ or ‘impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning’. The ‘bereavement reaction’ is considered to be ‘out of proportion to cultural, religious and age-appropriate norms’.

There is a lot to comment on here, wading through the loaded language. What is quite striking as with most psychiatric diagnosis is how a pathology is defined by the extent to which it exceeds what might normally be expected, when someone becomes unable to function. As can be seen in the list of symptoms, it is pathological to either excessively avoid or be excessively preoccupied with the deceased and/or the death. The implied norm of functioning is understood to depend on the individual social context. This appears as a way to avoid stating a general norm of functioning and grieving for all people who have been bereaved. This apparent cultural sensitivity neatly hides the contradiction of why acting in excess of a norm – which is itself variable, arbitrary, and historically context-specific – is necessarily pathological, and further not recognising how by developing a standardised criteria, specific habits and behaviours have clearly been selected as being, in any social and cultural context, somewhat problematic.

At the St Christopher’s talk, whilst there was some interest in these broader debates around diagnosis, there seemed to be a feeling amongst the attendees that this was not relevant to their daily practice. One person commented that he felt it was distracting from the main issue which is helping people (to recover, we could add). This was not exactly a surprising perspective to hear but it does speak of the disjunctures between theory and practice. The actual process of diagnosing grief as complicated, prolonged or complex might not yet be regular practice in the UK, but some practitioners did speak of how a medical diagnosis of abnormal grief can/could be useful in referring people on to other services, or as means of protecting/preventing people from more severe mental health problems. In the end there was little conclusion and there was a sense that this sort of language was ‘clinical’ and hard to understand. Grief then continues to be an ambivalent object, at times medicalised, and at other times seen as part of the natural order of things. There’s more to say here but I think there is something interesting in this management of excess or the inappropriate that produces a certain form to a person (or perhaps rather it gives a person-like form to the blob). Similarly the person who doesn’t recover isn’t formless but has their own shape too. I still remain too clueless about the brain and genetics to talk in any conclusive way about a biological core of what it might mean to be human, and so the task remains to look to the discourses that might mould the form of the grieving blob into an identifiable recovering/recovered/not recovered subject. That is to say what are the discourses, structures, norms that may impinge, limit, obstruct the capacity for flourishing or for becoming otherwise. And perhaps by exploring what holds these identities together, space can be found for thinking about relationality, the non-conscious, and how experience gets under the skin.


Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. & Singh, I. (2014). Urban life and mental health: Re-visiting politics, society and biology, Discover Society, Issue 5 February 2014.

Leys, R. (2011). The Turn to Affect: A critique. Critical Inquiry, 37: 434-472.

O’Connor, M.-F. (2005). Bereavement and the brain: invitation to a conversation between bereavement researchers and neuroscientists. Death studies, 29(10), 905–22.

O’Connor, M.-F. (2012). Immunological and neuroimaging biomarkers of complicated grief. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 14(2), 141–148.

O’Connor, M.-F., Wellisch, D. K., Stanton, A. L., Eisenberger, N. I., Irwin, M. P., & Lieberman, M. D. (2008). Craving Love?: Enduring grief activates brains reward center. Neuroimage, 42(2), 969–972.

Prigerson, H. G., Horowitz, M. J., Jacobs, S. C., Parkes, C. M., Aslan, M., Goodkin, K., … Maciejewski, P. K. (2009). Prolonged grief disorder: Psychometric validation of criteria proposed for DSM-V and ICD-11. PLoS medicine, 6(8), 1–12.

Rose, N. (2013a) The Human Sciences in a Biological Age. Theory, Culture & Society, 30(10): 3-34.

Rose, N. (2013b) What Is Diagnosis For?’, Talk delivered at the Institute of Psychiatry Conference on DSM-5 and the Future of Diagnosis, Kings College London, 4th June 2013.

ways of being (human) that were never sovereign

I’ve always been interested in people who don’t do as they’re told. They excite me, intellectually and personally. In my current work I am interested in those that are seen to have failed to recover from their grief over losing someone. What’s interesting is that it is hard, if not impossible, to identify cultural examples of someone who hasn’t recovered. The non-recovered mourner – like Freud’s melancholic – is the silent, shadowed figure that strikes fear in all us as we inevitably face the loss of someone we love. This is partly because in the modern rhetoric of recovery everyone is always on the road to recovery, and even if we haven’t faced a traumatic event we are (or should be)  always on the way to bettering ourselves, trying to be happier, grasping that elusive ‘good life’ fantasy. The non-recovered are read as resistant, refusing, problematic, troublemakers because they appear to be actively rejecting the normative fantasies to which we are all obligated to subscribe. There was a telling moment in episode three of the Channel 4 programme Bedlam (an insight into the work and patients of the Maudsley psychiatric hospital), where we see a social worker knocking on the door of the home of a woman whose health he feared was taking a ‘downward spiral’. “Why are we going to these lengths when she is living the life she chooses?”, he remarks. And yet the woman, Rosie, was deemed as not having the mental capacity to make a choice, and so by law choices had to be made for her.

Many things are happening here and here’s a few to point out: having capacity to make a decision is part of what is considered to be a functional, mentally fit, human being yet these decisions and choices have to fit into a pre-existing framework that already decides for you what is normal and what is not normal, e. g. going to work, waged labour, owning a home = normal; singing Christmas carols to yourself in July, having a fear of bedbugs = not normal. Being normal then could be seen as more about making the ‘right’ decisions than about the level of perceived control one has over the decision. Yet we are encouraged to believe that by virtue of being human we have sovereign control over our lives, our behaviour, and our choices. The problem with sovereignty is that when someone makes a choice society at large disagrees with, and this could range from being overweight or a refusal of a 9-5 capitalist regime, it is deemed a fault of the individual. The problem individual just needs to be turned to face the ‘right’ way. In what follows I am going to attempt to unpack the notion of sovereignty by heavily drawing on Lauren Berlant’s ”Cruel Optimism’ to consider how sovereignty can be unsettled by affective experiences such as grief and love and can only ever be an aspirational concept that might better be expressed as a temporary display of ‘composure.’ Composure, as detailed in the middle section, is also worn thin by an unending desire for the good life where for the worker the act of reproducing life is also the means of being worn out by it. In closing I start to move on from Berlant and think about what responses might be possible to an attachment to a wearing way of life that is not working.

i. How can I keep my composure?

Sovereignty, in a truncated form, is about having the power over one’s life and having the ability or capacity to decide how you live your life. Sovereignty is mostly used on political terms, as in the sovereignty of the head of state. As a ‘death’ scholar, I explore the ways sovereignty is interrupted, and eventually destroyed, through the inevitable act of death. Ideas of sovereignty, and autonomy have only ever appeared to me as unsustainable pipe dreams, that provide at times a necessary illusion in the face of getting on with life.

In a previous post I argued that melancholia and the refusal to recover or let go of attachments to the dead can not only be read as a sign of pathology but might be understood as an active choice to not be sovereign. This presents a contradictory twist – the right of choice we have over our lives can also be used to reject those choices. But there is also something more subtle taking place, it is about injecting the unconscious into the intentionality of the subject. It is suggesting that certain affective experiences such as love and grief can reveal to us we often do not know to what we are tied and why, the one who refuses to recover might not be aware of the ways they are attached to something that is actually becoming an obstacle to their ability to live a life. We rarely get to choose what interrupts our lives or the attachments we forge to people, to ideas, to habits, to objects. Grieving and being in love are great exemplars where these features are exaggerated, where to be able to grieve and to be able to love require violating the attachment to our own intentionality, our sense of sovereignty. Why is it, we wonder, that when we are around a certain person we cannot keep our composure?

Composure is something we try to keep, maintain or that we lose. It is the ‘default’ setting, it’s something already there. Showing the right levels of composure at the right time is all part of the performance of normal. Composure is a way of holding the self, it is a maintainance of social identity, it helps provide a distance from our desires. A healthy level of composure is required in order to function and perform well in a world where losing one’s composure brings shame, or is read as incapacity, madness. The anxiety we feel over the struggle to keep our composure around certain people is a struggle over the fear of being mis-recognised by those whose recognition is so fundamental to our sense of self. I decided to do away with sovereignty too following Berlant when grief taught me that other people undo us over and over in ways we are unable to predict and control. These sort of experiences reinforce the importance of composure whilst simultaneously it’s fragility becomes all too apparent. But in the face of loss composure is about all you have to protect you. Keeping your composure means the world can come up to you when you choose and you can keep it at a distance. You can protect yourself from the world, other people, from coming in and interrupting you again.

Then love taught me that composure is only a holding ground until you find an environment in which you can relinquish your composure. Love doesn’t let you keep your composure, it’s too greedy. Composure is willed not natural, love is fantasy, not conscious – that comes later.  A sense of sovereignty is considered a part of being a functional citizen and yet the moments of non-sovereignty are paradoxically seen as the moments where life truly takes place. Finding an easy friend, needing someone, thinking about someone, is what colours the otherwise weary days. It’s not so much the dependency that lifts the spirits but the chance to be recognised by another, for them to say ‘I see you’, for us to ‘feel ourselves’. I got obsessed with the MTV programme ‘Catfish’ as it documents a fascinating array of moments of misrecognition, of misplaced fantasies and overwhelming investments in a desired other. But as Catfish reveals, this sense of recognition is only the misrecognition we can bear, what we want to believe. We let someone carry an image of us, better than the one we can hold of ourselves.

ii. …never enough money, never enough love, and barely any rest…

Stories of love are all too often the plaster that fills in the cracks of the everyday overwhelmed life. Berlant’s ‘Cruel Optimism’ is remarkable in numerous regards but particularly in the way she describes how in modern industrial society the act of reproducing life (working for a living) is also the means of being worn out by it. We might not be fighting life and death on a daily basis, in fact the clinical, sanitized workplace might feel very detached from anything quite like a real experience. There’s something very ordinary about the crises encountered in the modern workplace. The labour is numbing and mundane, but still the dangers of precarity, little money, little time, work stress, and an exhaustion so very old and new all at the same time, feels pressingly real. As Berlant argues the feeling of deterioration is a fundamental part of the experience of modern working life. This not about a desire for the good life; it is the search for a less bad life. It is about finding resting places, someone who might understand our struggles, spacing out in mindless entertainment or seeking nourishment in food not for thought.

And modern life does provide pockets of intimacy to distract and soothe our overloaded sensorium: selling smiles and anecdotes on dating sites, or picking up whatever you can find on the weekend for some quick thrills and empty affection, or sleeping with him/her in the office.  We are provided with things that promise reprieve but not repair: sex, mindfulness courses, energy drinks, all help keep the machine running smoothly, help us to catch up with a present that is always already happening too quickly. We’re keeping our composure even in intimate relations, discomposure is too unsettling, we haven’t time to come undone. The situations within which lie the potential for change are kept at bay – even the previous radical practices: mindfulness, yoga, are emptied out, re-branded and co-opted as a form of niceness production that keep us striving for the status quo. We’re not aiming for the horizon, just spreading out sideways, passing under the radar. But this is not a comfortable position, there’s little safety inhabiting the normal. It is a constant bargaining with what you can bear.

iii. The concrete realisation of being the odd one out.

Even if it doesn’t feel like it, the boundaries of normal are shifting all the time. This is what learning a bit of history can give you. ‘Doing your homework’ as Gayatri Spivak would say. This might sound less dramatic than it actually is. Encountering the fact that the prescriptions of the ‘good life’ you are encouraged to follow are not inevitable, and are in fact quite disagreeable, is the first step in the realisation of being the odd one out. Staying proximate to normality is a way of keeping out of view, toeing the line, not ruffling feathers. This is easily done if you happen to be born and grow up in a environment that is in line with the normative discourses on how best to live a life.  But you might grow up as always already the outsider. You’re the odd one out without even trying. Either way, interruptions can work to destabilize the most comfortable of existences – the wearing out of working life, death, loss, scouring love – can elucidate in an often very banal and depressing way that the life you were living was held up by a series of attachments: to a person, a job, an ideology, a cat, or anything in which you had invested your sense of endurance about life. Losing that thing, interrupting the fantasy to which you had attached to it, is I think crucial in coming to a critical awareness of the world in which you live. I don’t know, this is just a hunch, but I think there has to be a loss. Even if not tangible, just the process of losing your sense of privilege.  I don’t think there can be sovereignty in freedom. This is a view contrary to perhaps most movements that seek freedom, such as the recovery movement in mental health care, where freedom is conflated with reclaiming autonomy.

Discovering you are the odd one out, in my view is rather not about reclaiming sovereignty or autonomy but about dispensing with it entirely. Being the odd one out might sound like a passive position, but whilst yes you may feel as though you do not fit, you are also not accepting the life on offer. Who rejects who first is hard to tell, and perhaps not important. The rejection is not necessarily conscious either, we might spend many tiring years attempting to pass as normal before we realise that we had already given up on believing in the sustainability of this form of life a long time ago. This lag might mean we come to this impasse a little late, or not at all.

Talk of freedom might seem too corny and idealistic for jaded ears but again this might sound less radical than it actually is. It is a response that says: don’t try and reason, persuade, convince, expend energy as it does not serve you. When the system does not respect you, you owe nothing to it and you can make yourself free. And when I say freedom, I’m not speaking in sugarcoated tones, freedom without sovereignty is entering into what I can only describe as the realm of the ‘I don’t know’. It’s a liminal space, without boundaries or form, it is being in transit without knowing where it is leading. If you decide to reject the fantasies of the good life, than this is what you get. How to build a world that is not hopeless? Where to find a life worth living? In the liminal space of ‘I don’t know’ there is all to experience and different roads to go down. Choice is not pragmatic but whimsical. In this liminal space subjectivity is allowed the space to be non-sovereign, to be incoherent, changeable. We can mourn, love and lose our composure. The challenge is to find a sense of stability built through not being attached to what we attach to. Some call this nomadic theory, but I quite like unequal attachments that are sticky and messy. We might never quite become the person they wanted us to be, but in this liminal space of becoming the odd one out, unlike the cruel optimism of the fantastical good life, there are multiple exits.


Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Reflections on Recovery: Research notes, Part I: Beginnings, complicated grief and happiness.
March 12, 2013, 9:41 pm
Filed under: Grief, Recovery | Tags: , , , ,

31st January 2013

As a way into thinking about the current debates surrounding recovery I have been quite drawn by the debates around the omission of the grief exclusion in the DSM-5’s definition of major depressive disorder and how that has raised issues surrounding the normative boundaries of grief. Complimenting this is the establishment of a category of ‘complicated grief’, or sometimes referred to as prolonged grief disorder. The proponents of the establishment of a ‘complicated grief’ diagnosis include Katherine Shear and Holly Prigerson and colleagues who have outlined a ‘scale’ or ‘inventory’ of complicated grief. The boundaries of what constitutes CG however seem to still be in flux, yet its supporters argue a concrete category is necessary in order to separate those that have ‘difficulty in progressing through the natural healing process’. The implication here is that there is a natural and instinctive healing process that is impeded in some way and thus requires correcting in order to reach the appropriate recovery.

Omega also dedicated a journal issue in 2006 discussing CG which highlighted some interesting points. Neimeyer in his article interestingly commented how the existence of grief as a real phenomenon is not the issue but rather the ways in which it is constructed by various groups. His argument was thus that ‘complicated grief’ was not a thing to be essentialised but a social construct reified in discourse. Whilst in agreement with viewing grief and complicated grief as a socially constructed, or at least socially manipulated emotion, Neimeyer’s argument that CG is comparable to abstract concepts such as ‘democracy’ or ‘power’ I found unconvincing. For while Neimeyer seems to admit that CG does not exist as a ‘real’ thing, diagnosing individuals with CG does become a real thing in terms of a labelled, categorised aspect of someone’s personality or emotional landscape; it becomes something to overcome. In the same Omega issue, Walter made some poignant points in asking ‘What is complicated grief?’ and listed some of the key contributing factors that have brought about the idea of CG. One point he made that I thought was salient was how the only thing that separates CG from ‘normal’ grief or from mourners in general is the time period in which feelings of grief last. As Walter remarks:

This reflects popular notions that grief is something one should get over quickly, and that it is embarrassing and/or inconvenient if colleagues or family members’ functioning is impaired by grief for extended periods. Indeed, it reflects a widespread duty in American culture for its members to be self-determining individuals and, moreover, happy.

Further Walter put forward an argument for the usefulness of complicated grief as a political tool and thus not something to be ‘therapied away’ but something that may lead to a more just society. I feel this is a particularly neglected line of enquiry and reminded me of Sara Ahmed and how she demonstrates the political and emotional uses and benefits of unhappiness in her book ‘The Promise of Happiness’. The way in which Walter linked the obligation to recover from grief with a wider sense of duty to be happy also paves a way for my own research.

The shifting boundaries of CG also provides a rich basis to explore the ranging definitions of what constitutes abnormal and normal grief. As Arnar Arnason also highlighted in his work, bereavement counselling exists as a way to make ‘visible’ feelings that ‘already exist’ but remain incomprehensible to the mourning individual. Bereavement counselling and the increasing medicalisation of grief can be seen therefore as a way of re-ordering the chaos of grief into tangible categories. This clearly brings up thoughts of Foucault and the medical gaze as well as Nikolas Rose’s work on psychotherapy and the normalising role of medicine. Intervention is made on the basis of the correct naming of things. The questions that arise for me so far from beginning to read the literature around CG, is to ask why does grief need to be defined or categorised in this particular way. CG is an example of how boundaries can be placed on grief and certain grief experiences can be labelled as pathological, which in turn assumes a normative healthy grieving process. In this act of naming CG – which as Neimeyer remarked does not exist as a ‘real’ thing – there is the sense that something is being created; grief is being ‘made-up’, or performed, in a certain way. Throughout some of the literature there is also a – I feel problematic – assumption of grief and feelings of grief as something that already exists out there, the process of naming and categorising thus becomes a way to capture them and act upon them. Yet I am interested in posing the question: Rather than identifying what is ‘already out there’ are we not creating categories, symptoms and pathologies where they do not exist? For how do we know things exist if we cannot name them and why do we think these categories, say CG for example, are the best means to capture them?

13th February 2013

I have been tentatively exploring the historical contexts of the contemporary conception of recovery. There are a few intersected factors that have emerged from some very preliminary readings, those being the impact of WW1 and WW2, the creation and proliferation of cognitive behavioural therapies and increased experimentation with psychiatric disciplines. One of the key impacts of war was the prevalence of ‘shellshock’. Shellshock as a non-physical injury posed an interesting problem to the medical profession that allowed what was arguably the first wide-scale intervention into the mental health of the population. The treatment of shellshock is a key instance of mental illness becoming a matter of ‘social hygiene’ (Rose, 1989). The sheer quantity of cases of shellshock shifted the perception of madness from something that was dependent on individual personal history and childhood trauma to something less discriminating and capable of affecting all individuals. Viewing shellshock as a treatable disorder promoted the idea that the individual was open for intervention and further that intervening into individual mental health was a matter both of public health and individual autonomy and freedom. This perspective has its legacy in contemporary healthcare as displayed in the Foresight report (2008) – a government directed project into ways to create ‘positive mental capital’ and well-being:

Positive mental health has an important societal value, contributing to the functions of society, including overall productivity. It is an important resource for individuals, and nations, contributing to human, social and economic capital.

Indeed another recent document published by the Department of Health was entitled: ‘No health without mental health’ (2011). It could be argued that following the world wars emerged an opportunity for mental health to become far more central to the understanding of what it means to be well, and further that positive mental health became a requirement for a productive and efficient workforce. Mental disorders such as shellshock thus became something that needed to be treated and to be overcome, which stimulated the experimentation with new behavioural therapies at places such as the Maudsley hospital (Marks, 2012). The indiscriminate nature of shellshock – the fact it was a mental disturbance produced from the experience of war rather than an internal trauma based in family history – complemented the rise of CBT that dispensed with Freudian heavy psychoanalytical approaches while retaining the element of the unconscious and unconscious drives.

This in some ways mirrors the view of positive psychology. Positive psychology believes the potential for happiness lies in our own hands and is something that can be achieved through correct training and adjustment. In the UK, Action for Happiness is an organisation that established itself with the aim to promote the way to achieve happiness. One of its slogans found on its website (http://www.actionforhappiness.org/) is quite instructive of the idea that positive mental health is a individual choice: ‘If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it’. I can’t help but draw parallels with the NHS website and their slogan: ‘Your health, your choices’. The emphasis on individual choice and the fostering of the idea of autonomy frames the way recovery is understood. Recovery from unhappiness or illness becomes a matter of making the right choices; unhappiness is a product (or defect) of the individual not the social context. For if you can’t change it you can at least change how you think about it. Unhappiness becomes synonymous with the inability to act on ones own and take responsibility for ones own life (Binkley, 2011). To fail in taking steps towards attaining happiness is a shunning of responsibility but also autonomy – making ones self happy becomes a matter of individual freedom.

Positive psychology reaffirms its status by claiming it has scientific measurable techniques that are proven to make you happy. The idea of happiness as a measurable entity is now widely assumed with the first national well-being measure carried out last year. Recently the department of health also put forward its support for a scheme that would promote 30 self-help book titles in GP surgeries and libraries. The idea is that when an individual turns up at the doctors showing signs of depression they will be directed to these titles which include much of the ‘Overcoming…’ series and self-help classics such as ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’. This promotion of self-help books is seemingly an extension to the IAPT scheme which a government initiative to increase access to talking therapies throughout the UK.

What is interesting is how recovery became something individually directed to something guided by experts. Perhaps this is a bigger question that directs us to much bigger shifts in healthcare. To return back to positive psychology, the conception of the self is an interesting one. As mentioned above, positive psychology rejects psychoanalytic models that emphasis the unconscious or early childhood, employing in Binkley’s words ‘a strikingly truncated view of the human psyche’ (2011, p384). Yet positive psychology and the happiness proponents centre their belief in the need to guide and advice people about happiness by claiming we don’t always do the things we ought. We are prone to making mistakes about our happiness, says Paul Dolan (2011) and so we need our attention redirected to the right (happy) objects. Positive psychology thus seems to imply we have an unconscious that leads us to unhappiness and needs redirecting but this is something we need to be helped with – in the name of autonomy. I also feel this conception of the self and emotions echoes how bereavement counsellors and psychiatrists seem to work on the idea that feelings are already existent in the grieving individual, but simply need a language through which to articulate them.

With the ‘happiness agenda’ the problem occurs when the promotion of certain ways of living a life are at the expense of other ways of living, of being free to be unhappy, resulting in a decrease in the toleration of the different ways people live their lives. Indeed the pursuit of happiness can in itself mean happiness is decreased through failing to attain the objects that are designated as creating happiness. This is an argument put forward by Pascal Bruckner in which he attacks the ‘duty to be happy’. His argument also draws interesting parallels with Lauren Berlant’s idea of ‘cruel optimism’. Cruel optimism is when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. The attachment to the desire (say to be happy, or to recover) becomes cruel only because the object that draws your attachment impedes the aim that brought you to it initially. These objects come in to represent happiness or freedom but ultimately by becoming attached to them they get in way of any chance we have of sensing freedom or happiness.

This has lead me to think more about emotions, and return to Sara Ahmed’s work on happiness and emotions (2004, 2010) and sociological explorations into emotions, in order to reflect on the understanding of grief I am assuming in my own analysis.


Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: EdinburghUniversity Press.

Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism.Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Bruckner, P. (2010). Perpetual Euphoria: On the duty to be happy. Oxfordshire: PrincetonUniversity Press.

Department of Health (2011a). No health without mental health: a cross-government mental health outcomes strategy for people of all ages, London: Department of Health.

Dolan, P. (2011, 8th February). ‘Absolute beginners: Behavioural economics and human happiness’. Department of Social Policy Inaugural Lecture delivered at the London School of Economics. Video of talk available here: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2011/20110208t1830vSZT.aspx

Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project (2008). Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Making the most of ourselves in the 21st century. Final Project report – Executive summary. The Government Office for Science, London.

Marks, S. (2012) ‘Cognitive behaviour therapies in Britain: The historical context and present situation’ in Dryden, W (ed) Cognitive Behaviour Therapies. London: Sage.

Rose, N. (1989) Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. Second Edition. London: Free Associations Books.

“You’ll Never Get Over It”
January 17, 2013, 4:58 pm
Filed under: Grief, Mental health | Tags: , , , , ,


Some stories won’t ever stop being told. Funny, I watch this: BBC Three’s Growing Up Poor and I’m 16 all over again. Twelve years down the line and how the memories of the weekly queue in the Post Office with my benefit giro book in hand suddenly emerges from a murky recess. Another life I tell myself. But I still remember queuing alongside the pensioners and the unemployed, me 15, 16, 17, 18 years old. A freak, scary, tragic and alive. I can still feel the stares. This shit doesn’t fade. In those sad girls I see myself. No-one now would place me in the same category as them. But I know them.

Funny because I was thinking about grief and categorising grief and the DSM-5 and I had this rant all planned out. And then a relinquished memory re-appears and illustrates the work of grief. “Complicated grief”, “Prolonged grief disorder” could be labels for this form of pathology. Grief research has told me there is a need to refine diagnostic criteria in order for formal intervention. Grief doesn’t make sense. The grieving individual doesn’t understand what is happening so new names and forms emerge from the experts in order to “work through” and “deal” with emotions.

I don’t want to deal or work through. I still want to feel it all the time. I want to remember this. Recovery becomes a means to forget. But some things shouldn’t be forgotten. It is easy to forget, especially in a world where very little is given the time it requires to unfold. Even love. Even love we don’t give time to.

Feelings always tell the truth right? We just need someone to pick them out and arrange them for us in a pretty pattern. And then we can flick through the DSM-5, “Ah, yes major depressive disorder. That’s you”. They gave me anti-depressants too at 19. Oh and steriods and other stuff. A whole kaleidoscope of medication in the morning.

If only someone had given me the opening chapter of Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender then. It would have helped. Or someone saying “You’ll never get over it”. That would have helped.

I didn’t want boundaries on my grief thanks or names. It was mine, and it was all I had along with my £40 a week (or however much income support was then).

But naming gives the opportunity to take a chaotic state and squish it into an acceptable coherence. I don’t know what I’m going through so please tell me. I read the books, I did the counselling with the patronising tissue box and bland wall paintings, I did the psychotherapy group for three years. Searching for a form for the intangible to fit. A medicalised form, a form borne out of the current thinking in psychology, counselling, bereavement literature, self-help jargon. These currents change though. The language we use to describe grief changes. The DSM diagnostic criteria shifts continually. What was grief is now depression and so on. Feeling down and not sleeping for more than two weeks is a pathology these days (by this logic I must have been schizophrenic in India…).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know if I want my mind or my personality to be shaped by a whim in ill-advised research. I’d much rather find my own means to articulate a sensation in my mind and body. That might not be through language. It might be hard to to find a medium that can escape the double-bind of counselling speak – autonomy through other peoples versions of autonomy. And of course these feelings can take ‘maladaptive’ forms (as said to me by a doctor many years ago). Maladaptive behaviours like eating disorders, anxiety attacks, and the like.

Behaviours adaptive or mal- seem to me to produce a similar false consciousness by accepting the obligation to deal with emotions by first labeling them problematic and then seeking means to remedy them. In the quick-fix to remedy a distance is formed when we seek remedies not of our own making. It fosters a false sense of self that is contrary to the maturing of a person who knows herself and contrary to our best visions of what it is to be a human being (paraphrasing Ian Hacking in Rewriting the Soul).

My sister and I often remark on how ‘well’ we turned out. We’re miraculous and impossible beings. That doesn’t mean I don’t flinch every time someone I know talks about how much they love their parents, or people ask me where my home is. But remember:  there’s no use in talking to people who have a home. They have no idea what it’s like to seek safety in other people, for home to be wherever you lie your head.

Emotions are unwieldy and can be immature, why would we want it any other way. To borrow from Lauren Berlant: sometimes we need an impasse in our present to place those events that have not found a genre. Maybe there is nothing to figure out after all. Maybe all that is needed is just a space for unhappiness to lie.

Ghost Stories
April 25, 2011, 10:16 pm
Filed under: Grief | Tags: , , , ,

A bad dream. I remembered everything… Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. But they were part of me. They were my landscape
. (Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar)

I want to speak a little about the places we travel in our memories, in our dreams and our imaginations, and what these imagined landscapes do.

I have a recurring dream about hamsters. I was 11 when I had my first hamster. His name was Lollipop. I loved that hamster more than anything I had ever loved before in life. We would go for adventures climbing up and down the staircase and run free in the garden lawn. A year and a half later when Lollipop got a tumour and died, I cried and cried and wrote letters to him and put them in his hamster-sized coffin to take with him until we met again in heaven. I got another hamster, and then he died, so I got another and another. And then my mother died and I was 15 and I couldn’t look after the hamster anymore and I didn’t feed him anymore or clean his cage or give him new water. And one day I went to his cage and saw a little bundle of fur curled in the corner, all stiff and cold.

In my dreams the hamsters come back to life. They appear in different colours. Sometimes one, sometimes multiple. Sometimes fancy cages, sometimes the cage is dirty and neglected. In the dreams I am overwhelmed by a suffocating dread when I realize the hamster is still alive. I thought I had escaped the responsibility of looking after the hamster. I am weighted by the guilt that I didn’t look after him properly, that I killed him. These dreams continued for 10 years.

On the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death late last year, I received a letter from my grandmother. This was purely coincidental. My grandmother and I write to each other once every couple years. (This is largely due to my laziness). My grandmother’s letters are normally full of niceties and pleasantries (weather and its variations). In my last letter I attempted to break with convention and broach a topic we had never discussed: her dead daughter. In her reply one sentence remained with me:

‘Your Mum always had to have her own way, though it didn’t seem to make her happy.’

Over the ten years grief has revealed many different faces. I gave myself many false promises, fraudulent optimism, delusions of freedom. I clung to the hope of escaping my mother as tightly as I clung to her breast. My mother, I found, was so rooted inside of me, I tried to destroy myself in all sorts of ways to cut her out.

But she began haunting me. In my dreams, she comes back to life. In the dreams I am overwhelmed by a suffocating dread when I realize my mother is still alive. I thought I had escaped the responsibility of looking after my mother. I am weighted by the guilt that I didn’t look after her properly, that I killed her.

For my grandmother, my mother always had her own way. For my grandmother the assumed reason for having ones own way is happiness. It didn’t seem to make her happy. My mother’s choices were a failure – point-less – because they didn’t make her happy. Happiness validates actions; it gives a point actions can be oriented around. When risky, irrational or spontaneous decisions are taken they are justified by a happy outcome.

Perhaps my mother always had her own way because she didn’t know what she desired and she was just trying to find out. Perhaps she was pursuing happiness. Perhaps she was so set on happiness, she neglected the happiness of others. But the truth is I’ll never know who my mother was, her thoughts, hopes and fears. My memories are blurs, rarely given the chance to be active and so fade inconsequentially as life creates new, grey memories to smother the old.

‘You deserve to be happy.’

This burden weighs on me. If you deserve happiness, do you still need to pursue it or will it just arrive. But everywhere I looked, she was there. But it was not really her. She was merely a mirage, fragmented.

Her body presses on me. I feel the strength seep from my limbs and I crumble down to the ground, her body heaped on top of me. My mothers tall slender body feels like a mass of throbbing flesh; an unbearable weight.

Another dream. This time I run to my mother’s bedroom. She is under attack. She is lying in bed as I climb over her and shield her vulnerable body. I scream, ‘Don’t hurt my Mummy’.

When I wake I am relieved, angry, frustrated. I wonder how I can find this happiness I deserve when I cannot undo myself from the unhappy past I revisit again and again in my dreams. In the waking hours I physically travel distances far and near, see new faces, places and experience different sensations. Yet in my dreams I continually walk down the same street. I walk through the same gate, through the same door. I inhabit the same rooms, the same air, touch the same objects. Each dream no matter where I am; a desert, a wasteland, a rainforest; I return back to the house of my childhood.

To revolt is to be undone – it is not to reproduce an inheritance.’ (1)

I keep writing the same story. Each narratives feeds into the next in a never-ending spiral. When will it end?

It will end when I let go. When I let go of my mother and our bond of ambivalence I will be happy.

Memories blur and smother, and confuse, forming new realities that distort and disintegrate. The complex tangle of dreams and memories fuse together violently and tear at my daily reality. The memories persist in dreams inhabiting my subconscious. The memories of the dreams – memories of memories – linger in my conscious life. I travel physically, mentally but still remain in the same suffocating space. A space that doesn’t even exist. I visit my old house, it appears changed, no longer easily recognizable. I hope the viewing of this changed image will erase the memory. But it doesn’t. I don’t live there anymore, but I can never leave.

I keep coming undone but without a revolt. I am simply reproducing my inheritance.

You never come back from elsewhere because elsewhere always comes back with you.’ (2)

I had another hamster dream. This time I took the hamster cage and put it in a bin. I woke relieved. This was the end I told myself. I do not have to feel the guilt any longer.

But then a few months later the hamster appeared again alive and well.

(1) Sara Ahmed, 2010, The Promise of Happiness.
(2) Mark C. Taylor, 2009, Fieldnotes from elsewhere: Reflections on dying and living.