A Non-Constructive, Life-Saving Coping Mechanism

A while ago, I listened to this short talk from therapist Gilbert Renaud where he talks about depression as a coping mechanism that helps us protect ourselves from harm:

Gilbert Renaud on Depression

To say the least, this is questionable because clinical depression is an illness that often takes lives. However, if we’re talking about a depressive mood that is handled with support from friends and/or professionals, Renaud nails it. A depressive mood handled with care lets us go through the difficult emotions of grief, sadness and hopelessness, without inflicting too much harm on ourselves. It gets us preserved throughout the bad times — like a pickle in a jar.

Difficult emotions need acknowledgement. We need to take the time to listen to them, and see what they can teach us. They may be telling us that we lost something important, remind us about something that happened in the past, or simply indicate that our present life is just difficult.

I was surprised to find out that letting myself be depressed and listening to myself may help me in any way. Before I first tried it, it just seemed so counterintuitive. But now, I agree with Renauld that depressive moods may protect our lives and, with time, deliver us to a better place — where we can grow. A place where we can learn new coping mechanisms that are more conducive to our well-being, where we can accept and appreciate ourselves, and experience an array of emotions — good and bad — that we have kept frozen.

Some time after watching Renauld’s talk, I met with a similar approach to coping in an article by Alicja Senejko:

Senejko Alicja (2017). Szczypta optymizmu, czyli różne wyjścia z sytuacji bez wyjścia. In: Gdzie się podziało moje dzieciństwo. O dorosłych dzieciach alkoholików (pp. 85—94). Kielce: Charaktery.  In Polish, pp. 53-57 at scribd.com.

Senejko divided coping mechanisms into constructive and non-constructive ones. The former are reactions to stress that actually help relieve the stress, such as discussing the possible ways of resolving a problem. The latter are seemingly irrational reactions that help us adapt to the stressful situation without really getting out of it. Examples that Senejko gave were avoidance of situations and people that we associate with the stress, and engaging in activities that help us temporarily dissociate from it.

Arguably, a depressive mood is one of the non-constructive methods of coping with difficult emotions. Without promoting progress, it allows us to adapt, and preserve ourselves until the time we feel strong enough to confront the stressful situation. According to Senejko’s research, people who use both constructive and non-constructive methods of coping, cope with stressful situations more effectively.

That’s a reason not to beat ourselves up for feeling low and apathetic, but to accept this state, and employ some constructive coping mechanisms as well, such as seeking support from other people and/or professional help.

I’m living proof that this combination works — after a long time of going through depression and staying in therapy, I’m in a place where I can grow, learning and trying out new things, trying to reconcile my past with the more self-aware person I’m becoming. Placing carefully there a strange thing and a known thing here… Carefully moving a perhaps fraction of flower here placing an inch of air there… Yes, spring is coming, and I had the urge to finish this post by quoting e. e. cummings.

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Sociability Isn’t About Partying

Hey, fellow introverts! The internet says staying at home is a sociable thing to do. So… it must be right, right?

Why Truly Sociable People Hate Parties

Well, I think it’s about right.

Waiting

A piece from the collection Over Land, Over Sea, written by Kathleen Bell, that I translated as part of the Journeys in Translation project (which is still open to contributors!):

***

In English:

Waiting

When morning came, she knew that the people outside were not ghosts. Cautious, she stood, walked to the window, and looked. There were more than she thought. Their silence had deceived her. They were careful too. Grown-up hands steered infants away from her flower-beds. Next year’s vegetable harvest was safe. A man looked up and the bundle close to his chest stirred. How unwise to bring a baby here. The man’s glance caught hers, and beneath his patience she perceived a dreadful urgency. They were not ghosts – not yet. She drew the curtain across, returned to her chair, and waited.

***

In Polish:

Czekanie

Kiedy nastał ranek, wiedziała, że ludzie na zewnątrz nie są duchami. Ostrożnie wstała, podeszła do okna i wyjrzała. Było ich więcej, niż myślała. Cisza za oknem ją zmyliła. Byli ostrożni tak jak ona. Dorosłe ręce zawracały dzieci z drogi, kiedy szły w stronę jej grządek. Przyszłoroczne plony były bezpieczne. Jeden z mężczyzn podniósł głowę i zawiniątko, które trzymał przy piersi, poruszyło się. Jak niemądrze wziąć tu ze sobą niemowlę. Spojrzenie mężczyzny schwyciło jej spojrzenie i pod pozorem cierpliwości dostrzegła przerażenie, i naglącą potrzebę. Nie są duchami – jeszcze nie. Zaciągnęła zasłony, usiadła z powrotem na krześle i czekała.

Stories from ‘The Jungle’

Here’s another poem I translated for the Journeys in Translation project. In this one, Emma Lee retells the stories of six people from the Calais camp and their families. It was a challenge to render the already long lines in Polish, a language that tends to stretch sentences even more, but I was determined to translate this one. “Stories from ‘The Jungle'”, each one very personal and moving, really stuck with me.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in my previous post: by buying the original collection of poems, you support the foundations Doctors Without Borders, Leicester City of Sanctuary and Nottingham Refugee Forum.

***

The poem in English:

Stories from ‘The Jungle’

Everything Abdel sees is smeared, despite his glasses.
With the sleeve of a dusty shirt, he pushes grime
From the middle to the edges of his lenses.
They’ve witnessed family fall victim to war crimes.
He could shower for a fortnight and never feel clean.
English is an official language in Sudan.
At sixteen he wants to join relatives already in england.

To dodge military conscription, Sayid, 20, fled from Syria.
Inspired by the story of one of his heroes, William Gibson,
Sayid got to Egypt, then packed on a small boat to Lampedusa,
Through Italy to France, from where he can only move on.
On a borrowed laptop he listens to Syrian pop music.
He’d love to cook. He still has to pay a trafficker
weekly for the right to chase lorries to his brother in England.

With a bandaged hand Abdul, 21, tells of imprisonment
And gestures to describe the electric shocks he received
After his arrest by the Sudanese government.
His tribe also harassed by rebel militia. He feels deceived
By traffickers. Despite his razor-wire injury,
he’ll try again. Sudan was an English colony.
He wants to stop looking over his shoulder.

When a tiger stalks, play dead. But it’s hard not to run.
When his friends were arrested in Eritrea, Hayat fled
and moved from Ethiopia to Libya and across the Mediterranean.
He became tiger, his prey an England-bound train. His hunt failed.
His broken arm cast, he hunkers in a makeshift, tented cave.
A tiger fails nine of ten hunts. He’s five down, four more to brave.
English is the only European language he speaks.

At Baath University in Homs, his English Literature studies
were interrupted by conscription. Firas drew and followed an isopleth.
Three family members were killed by Syrian government forces,
he couldn’t bear to see or be responsible for any more death.
Skin torn by razor-wire, he still dreams of Oxford spires.
Relatives live in several English towns, all with universities.
He wants to use the language he’s immersed himself in.

Ziad was a respected lawyer in Daara. Now he fidgets,
grubby and injured from climbing fences, dodging
security and avoiding dogs. The pack of cigarettes
crinkles as he weaves it in his fingers, emptying
a last curl of tobacco. He didn’t smoke them but can’t finish
with the packet. He translates legal arguments into English.
He wants to join relatives and practice law again.

These stories are based on newspaper reports. Names have been changed.

***

The poem in Polish:

Historie z „dżungli”

Przed oczami Abdela wszystko zamazane, mimo że ma okulary.
Rękawem brudnawej koszuli rozciera sadzę
Na szkłach – ze środka na brzegi.
Widzieli, jak cała rodzina pada ofiarą zbrodni wojennych.
Mógłby myć się co chwilę i ciągle czuć się brudny.
Angielski jest jednym z języków urzędowych Sudanu.
Szesnastoletni Abdel chce dołączyć do krewnych, który są już w Anglii.

Aby uniknąć poboru, dwudziestoletni Sayid uciekł z Syrii.
Zainspirowany historią jednego ze swych idoli, Williama Gibsona,
Sayid dostał się do Egiptu, wsiadł do łodzi w kierunku Lampeduzy,
Przez Włochy dotarł do Francji – stamtąd może tylko ruszyć dalej.
Na pożyczonym laptopie słucha syryjskiego popu.
Chciałby być kucharzem. Na razie co tydzień musi płacić przemytnikowi,
By gonić za ciężarówkami do Anglii, do swojego brata.

Dwudziestojednoletni Abdul opowiada o swoim uwięzieniu
I gestem – jedna dłoń w bandażu – pokazuje elektrowstrząsy,
Które dostał po aresztowaniu przez rząd Sudanu.
Rebelianci również nie dają spokoju jego plemieniu. Czuje się oszukany
Przez przemytników. Pomimo rany od drutu kolczastego
Spróbuje jeszcze raz. Sudan był kiedyś kolonią brytyjską.
Abdul chce przestać oglądać się za siebie.

Kiedy tygrys się skrada, stój w miejscu. Ale instynkt każe uciekać.
Gdy aresztowano jego przyjaciół w Erytrei, Hayat uciekł z kraju,
Przebył Etiopię i Libię, a potem Morze Śródziemne.
Stał się tygrysem, a celem – pociąg do Anglii. Polowanie się nie udało.
Z ręką w gipsie przykucnął w prowizorycznym namiocie-jaskini.
Tygrys wraca głodny dziewięć na dziesięć razy. Stawił czoło pięciu,
Zostało więc cztery. Angielski to jedyny europejski język, jaki Hayat zna.

Jego studia z literatury angielskiej na uniwersytecie Al-Baath w Homs
Przerwał pobór do wojska. Firas narysował na mapie linię i podążył za nią.
Troje z jego rodziny zostało zabitych przez wojsko rządu syryjskiego.
Czuł, że nie mógł być świadkiem lub sprawcą ani jednej śmierci więcej.
Ze skórą zszarpaną drutem wciąż marzy o studiach w Oksfordzie.
Jego krewni mieszkają w różnych miastach w Anglii, w każdym – uniwersytet.
Firas chce mówić językiem, który tak go zafascynował.

Ziad był w Darze uznanym prawnikiem. Teraz kręci się,
Brudny, pokaleczony od wchodzenia na siatki, ukrywając się
przed strażą i unikając psów. Paczka papierosów
Szemrze, kiedy skręca ją w palcach, wyciągając ostatni
Zwitek tytoniu. Wcześniej nie palił, ale teraz
Jedna paczka nie wystarcza. Tłumaczy teksty prawne na angielski.
Chce dołączyć do krewnych i znowu być prawnikiem.

Powyższe historie zostały oparte na wiadomościach prasowych. Imiona bohaterów zostały zmienione.

But One Country

Here’s a poem by Rod Duncan that I translated as part of the Journeys in Translation project, a project that calls upon translators around the world to translate poems from Over Land Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge from English into other languages. You can still take part! More information: Journeys in Translation

The poem in English:

but one country

our home
is but one country
truly, the whole earth
is there for them to settle
tell us if you can, where else
shall we go when they have come?
they do not belong in our homeland
you should blush when you say to us
we must turn our vision up-side down

 we must turn our vision up-side down
you should blush when you say to us
they do not belong in our homeland
shall we go when they have come?
tell us if you can, where else
is there for them to settle
truly, the whole earth
is but one country
our home

The poem in Polish:

Tylko jeden kraj

Nasz dom
— Jeden kraj
Na całym świecie
Jest dla nich dość miejsca
Mówcie, jeśli wiecie, gdzie
Mamy pójść, gdy się tu zjawią?
W tym kraju nie ma dla nich miejsca
Powinno wam być wstyd mówić nam, że
Czas wywrócić swój świat do góry nogami

Czas wywrócić swój świat do góry nogami
Powinno wam być wstyd mówić nam, że
W tym kraju nie ma dla nich miejsca
Mamy pójść, gdy się tu zjawią?
Mówcie, jeśli wiecie, gdzie
Jest dla nich dość miejsca
Na całym świecie
— Jeden kraj
Nasz dom

What Would You Like?

The question that our title
has cast in deathless bronze
is painful yet so vital,
we owe it a response.

~ K.I. Gałczyński, trans. S. Barańczak and C. Cavanagh

We all have dreams – I could start by saying this if I didn’t know better. Dreams never come true – I could also start by saying this if I wanted to discourage you from reading my blog. This post is going to be about dreams and disappointment – I start by saying this because I don’t feel like trying to sound clever.

It would be nice to believe in what we get from films, books, and people who are perhaps too lazy to think over the old truths that they repeat: that all of us have dreams. But unfortunately, not all of us, and not in all circumstances, can keep up enough hope to sustain a dream.

All it takes is to face a terminal disease, extreme poverty or violence. In other words, if your life falls apart, you may become temporarily unable to dream.

A tragedy is not always the case, though. Some people, at certain points in their lives, simply don’t have dreams. And I’d think it’s perfectly all right if only I couldn’t be bothered to think about the reasons. But I am bothered, I am indeed very much bothered by the reasons.

There might be a multiplicity of them, and I might not be able to account for all of them here. All right, all right: I’m actually able to account for only two reasons, namely that:

  1. We’re happy with our lives as they are, and at this particular moment we just want to enjoy it, and dreams get kind of sidelined, or…
  2. We’re afraid of disappointment… which is completely understandable because disappointment is unpleasant. If it felt pleasant or neutral, I guess it wouldn’t be called disappointment anymore.

Well then, let’s be afraid of it, I’d say if I didn’t know that this fear might become unhealthy and lead us to give up on dreams.

It’s a very simple mechanism. If, as children, we were repeatedly told that we can’t disappoint other people because we hurt them by doing so; if, all too often, we saw other people being unable to cope with disappointment; if we experienced disappointment ourselves and couldn’t cope with it – we’re almost sure to be afraid of disappointment later on.

But there’s nothing to be afraid of… or at least there shouldn’t be, don’t you think? Disappointment is part of life and, in most cases, the human psyche is strong enough to cope with the pain it brings.

However, that is not enough for us to stop being afraid. Perhaps those of us who are will never stop being afraid. So, perhaps it’s worthwhile to learn how to cope with it? Learning a few coping methods should help to relieve anxiety, no matter the cause of it.

But who are we supposed to learn from if so many of the people around us are so clearly not good at handling their own disappointments? So many of them, resenting life that it’s not as good as they expected it to be, obstinately offended, neglect their own, and sometimes also their loved ones’ well-being.

I don’t know. I don’t know who to learn it from and, as you’ve probably noticed by now, I haven’t come up with any tricks of my own either. So far, I don’t think I have answered a single question I asked myself on this blog – I just write them down as homework to be done in the future.

But I already know one thing: I don’t want to give up on dreams for reason number two. I don’t want to forget how to dream just because I am afraid of disappointment. I don’t want to linger in this special kind of apathy which prevents us not only from making our dreams come true, but in the long run, also from knowing what they are.

That’s why, for a start, I suggest pulling your old dreams out of the waste bin and examining them closely – perhaps they still fit? And if not, I suggest asking yourself once again, bravely, in a demanding tone, this one important question: what would you like?

It’s painful yet so vital – you owe it a response.

Have a good day,
Renata

Post scriptum: You can read a Polish version of this post at uczesiemowic.blogspot.com.

Tolstoy’s Thoughts while Cleaning

Reading an article about the language of poetry, I came upon what you could call a super-serious shower thought by none other than Leo Tolstoy [*]. Only it wasn’t technically a shower thought, but one conceived while cleaning. I guess they didn’t shower in those days.

I was dusting the furniture and as I walked up to the settee, I couldn’t recall whether I had dusted it or not. Because the activity is of the simple and unconscious sort, I couldn’t recall it, and felt that the moment was gone. So if I had dusted the settee but didn’t remember it, i.e. I acted unconsciously, it’s like it hadn’t happened at all. If someone had been consciously watching it, they could recall it; but if no one had been watching it, or if someone had been watching it unconsciously – if someone’s whole life passes without them being conscious of it, as it often happens, then it’s like they never lived.

And I just thought, what an ending to this otherwise mundane story.

Because it happens all the time that we do things, go to places, talk to people, etc. automatically, and then forget that we’ve done something, been somewhere, met someone. It’s not bad at all. In fact, with the amount of information our brains are flooded with every day, it’s only healthy that we keep some of it out.

But what if this forgetfulness, on a higher level, brings us to a tragic ending?

A woman once asked me at the end of an unconscious rant, during a severe bout of schizophrenia, “So I’ve managed to live my whole life in oblivion?” It was then that I realized that ruining your life doesn’t have to be this one-time event that produces enough Wolverine-style guilt to hold out for all your remaining days on earth.

It can be the small things: the fact you gradually came to terms with teachers calling you a moron, and stopped caring about your education; the important decisions you let your parents take for you; the longer-than-bearable time you spent in one flat with your ex; the hundred times you decided to go to work instead of to a doctor when you felt ill.

Because we’re all conscious of the fact that it is our responsibility, and ours only, to keep ourselves satisfied, free of misery and healthy, right? But then, life in general, and our inner lives, too, are so full of everything that we sometimes neglect this responsibility.

Take it from me, then: before it all comes to an unhappy ending for you, or for anybody else — yes, I mean: do that quickly! — go and do something good for yourself.

Whatever you choose to do, let it be the thing you need and/or want most right now. Something that will make you happy, or put an end to you feeling unhappy, something that will make you grow, something you’ve never experienced but always dreamed about.

Or at least make a plan and keep to that plan, okay?

Regards,
Mulan

[*] The excerpt comes from Tolstoy’s diaries as quoted by Victor Shklovsky in “Art as Device” and translated, for the lack of an English translation at hand, by myself.