Monday, May 18, 2015

Alcoholism: A love story - Part VIII: Sober

At this point I have written so much about the dark side of alcoholism, I think it's time I mention "the other side" that I've come to know recently. After detox in August 2009 I stayed sober for two and a half years. It was a pretty shitty time because there's some sort of post-alcoholic depression that I don't know whether it's something semi-official doctors know about or just my bad luck or my brain's way of punishing me. Symptoms of my anxiety disorders were going rampant, couldn't leave the house, felt like crap all day every day.

I was however in psychiatric treatment, and though I went through many false diagnoses - mainly schizophrenia - and thus went through the wrong types of treatment for a long time, through trial and error, doctors eventually found ways to alleviate some symptoms. More and more of them over time. This is turn made me more social and I generally found myself doing a little more, which helped, too. Anxiety disorder and depression were still a big issue, but I had some slight relief in some areas.

Eventually I felt comfortable enough to have a few drinks here and then. It was never a big deal to me because I was never convinced that you'd relapse from drinking once, you'd have to drink over a longer period of time for addiction to kick in again. And I was right. Drinking occasionally was no issue at all. In fact, doctors told me that it really isn't that much of an issue as long as I pace myself and don't overdo it. It did however become more of an issue every now and then, there were times when I would drink several days in a row, or when I'd drink regularly every week. Those times were usually associated with a general feeling crappy. A lot of depression usually means I am more prone to drinking not entirely out of control, but with less than full control. I did have to do one smaller detox in December 2014, not in any way comparable to the big detox in 2009, but it was something I had to do at the hospital because I had overdone things a little and my body told me it was not amused. After that I was still fine with drinking occasionally, but I still had periods when I couldn't fully handle it.

So about a month ago I decided that's it, I'm going to stay sober for the time being. Things have changed since the last time I stayed sober. As you can see in the first post of my "Pills..."-series, I got new stuff called ziprasidone which helps a lot with my depression and anxiety. Had it since February 2015. With that stuff in my system, sobriety really is an amazing experience I haven't felt in a very long time. All of a sudden there's all sorts of stuff I find myself being able to do. Just look at the amount of posts on this blog I have written recently. I've also been working on a lot of music (I'm a musician, guess the genre), been working on drawing band logos which I think I am quite good at, have been starting to get into learning to code (website stuff, as in html, css, php, javascript), and there's a ton of other things I want to get into. I've even been starting on my idea of writing a novel. I have a lot of creative energy and with the new med and the extended period (by my standards) of sobriety so far I have a lot of drive and ambition to put all my ideas into action, make everything a reality.

Whether or not I will eventually get myself two sixpacks of some nice German beer eventually and have a little party with myself or friends I do not know. Tomorrow I start a long-term inpatient anxiety therapy at a very high profile clinic, which could be around three months, obviously no drinking there. But after that I do not know. What I do know is that right now, being sober works miracles for my disposition. I feel great. I feel better than I have in a long time. It's something every drinker should do sometimes, take an extended/open-ended break, live your life a little. A few years ago, "yolo" aka "you only live once" has been a popular slogan among morons to justify doing some total shit with your life. For me, "you only live once" means that you should use as much of that one life you have to make an impression on the world people will remember. Do something good, or at least something you think is good. Being wasted can be great, but spending most of your time not being wasted leads to something even greater. Something like a rewarding, fulfilling life.

Not trying to preach here, and I certainly didn't turn anti-alcohol. Just enjoying this extended/open-ended break a lot. I'll likely have a couple drinks again some time in the future, but after my current experience with sobriety, I'm going to make long, productive periods my focus in life. It's the true "yolo." And it's awesome.

Alcoholism: A love story - Part VII: Believe in yourself - say "No!" to AA

This is a subject that is very close to home for me. Those of you who have known me before reading this blog know that I have a long history of addiction, with many ups and downs, good choices and poor choices and a lot of stories to tell. Being an addict is not something that is easy to deal with, and in most cases you need help. The problem is that a lot of people who offer you help do not have your best interest in mind. There are some really shady groups out there, and chances are that if you have dealt with alcohol abuse in your life, there's one you will inevitably have come across.

What I would like to talk about are the lies perpetuated by Alcoholics Anonymous and its subgroups (Gamblers Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous, Foot Fetishists Anonymous and a thousand others devoted to just about everything you can develop an addiction to) and an alternative solution to the problems it deceitfully proposes to solve through shady methods. Basically two very different ways to go: Their way, or the right way (one that I and others I have met with similar experiences went.)

First of all, there is their way: The Twelve Steps:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
 Let us examine everything that is wrong with these steps, one by one, shall we?

The first is the worst. Admitting to be powerless is the worst thing you can do as an addict. This is what I would counter with an attitude of "addicts' empowerment" to address the issue properly. You are never powerless. It was you who got you into that mess and it is you and no one (or nothing) else who can get you out of it again. You didn't become an addict as the result of some disease or demons or whatever they have you believe in, you made the choice to go down that road, and you can make a choice to go a different way. You have the power. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. Believe me, I know what it is like when one's life becomes unmanageable as a result of one's addiction. There is only one solution: Take control, make a cut, and start back from square one.

Then comes number two. I know from U.S. TV shows that people in the United States refer to taking a dump as "number two", and it seems very appropriate for the AA's second step. First of all there is the matter of addiction and sanity. Yes, insanity can be the reason for addiction: For example, a lot of my meanest drinking habits could be attributed to myself attempting to use alcohol to suppress panic attacks that were the result - I did not know back then, the diagnosis came years after I quit - of obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, addiction is not a form of insanity by itself. It is, in almost every case, a symptom of a deeper problem, be it insanity or other deeply entrenched psychological issues. And it should be treated as a symptom. Direct and rapid treatment, read: detox, in the case of alcohol it is over in one week and the symptom is dealt with, works like a nasal spray or cough syrup. Once you have eliminated the symptom, and only then, can you deal with the underlying issue. And here you do not need "a power greater than yourself", in fact that might even do more harm than good because belief in something immaterial might bring some short-term relief but distract you from actively dealing with the problem that led you to addiction. No, I am afraid there is no quick fix. In most cases, that being almost all, you will need proper treatment. How involved this is can be your choice. You can see a doctor once a month or you can commit yourself to an in-patient institution, usually rehab, to work on your problem intensively. But the minimum requirement is a proper diagnosis, from a doctor, not WebMD, research into proper solutions, with the help of your doctor and through research of your own (unlike with the diagnosis, here you can freely search the internet for pointers), and the will to work hard to overcome whatever underlying problem led you to addiction. It's going to be a rough ride, but you want to get out of the mess you got into, no? Toughen up and bite your way through. "Greater power" my shiny metal ass.

Does it get worse than step two? Oh yes, the Twelve Steps have the unique ability to surprise you with yet more revolting and misguided "advice" with each new step. I already quoted it above, but let me repeat step three once more, in all caps for emphasis: "(WE) MADE A DECISION TO TURN OUR WILL AND OUR LIVES OVER TO THE CARE OF GOD AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM." (Love the italics on the last four words. Tacky attempt at suckering people from other faiths into the true path™.) This one makes me furious! First of all: You made a decision? Thought you were powerless. But that's just nitpicking. It's not even the bit about "God" that infuriates me, it is the eight words after "decision": "To turn our will and our lives over." No! You don't turn your life over to anyone or anything! Nothing good will ever come from that. And your will? Are you serious? Turn over your will? Then you lose everything that makes you a human being. I hear Nietzsche rotating in his grave as I type this. What you do with your will and your life is the exact opposite, take control back over them. Adjust them to a new purpose: Beating the burden that bogs down your life and fucks you up in a way you hate more than anything. Your will and your life are what you depend on the most at this point, they are your only hope to get out of this in one piece. Hang on to them, they are of the essence to your recovery. Hand them over to anyone or anything and you have already lost. You, like other AA drones, may stop drinking, smoking, gambling, injecting, snorting or watching porn for a while, but you are running away from the hard road to recovery by refusing to take responsibility of your life.

Step four gets into morality. You have read the exact quote above, and you will have noticed how it is deliberately vague. Okay, so you are looking into which times you have done well morally and which times you fucked up. That's not a bad thing to do per se, on the contrary, it's something every addict just as much as every non-addict should do occasionally. The implications of the context of the Twelve Step Program are of course a little more sinister, since it just spent the previous three steps blathering about God and greater powers. So it's not your own moral guidelines they want you to examine yourself by, it's theirs. That's a load of bull. If you want to quit whatever you're into right now, religious rules are the last thing you need to screw up your bearings. But even if there wasn't the shady context of the first three steps, examining every time you fucked up is not something you should concern yourself with in the immediate process of getting out of the addiction, it is something to do when you go through therapy to take care of the underlying problems for your addiction, because these underlying problems are likely the true root of your screw-ups. Basically, what step four is trying to tell you is that you should blame your addiction for the times you screwed up. Prime example: Beat up your wife and kids while drunk? It's the alcohol's fault! Reality check: Nope, it isn't. Alcohol was a catalyst for something seriously wrong inside your head and when you remove the alcohol something is still seriously wrong inside your head (you beat your wife and kids, should be self-evident), you are just less likely to act on it. In the example I just named, you need some SERIOUS therapy. No seeing a doc once a month, this is the stuff for prolonged in-patient rehab. No way around it. And it's going to take a long-ass time. And you have to face the fact that it might be better if your wife and kids ditched you, and if you are serious about making a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself you will have to present them this option and let them know you would be okay with it if they left, otherwise you would be, pardon my French, an asshole. That is just one example, there are many other ways you can screw up in ways that are amplified by your addiction BUT NOT CAUSED BY IT, but they all only have one solution: You have to make a serious commitment to fixing this. No scapegoats, no blame game, no greater power, get off your rotten ass and do it.

You may have noticed that step four did not mention God by name. Fear not, he's back with a vengeance. I don't know what else to say about this fifth step that I haven't already said in my paragraph about the fourth step, except for the fact that step five is, well, pretty pointless. Yes, once you reach the point in your road to recovery that it is time to examine your screw-ups as detailed in the previous paragraph, you must of course accept them yourself and, God aside, seek an outside perspective, preferably from a professional. Shouldn't this be self-evident?

The sixth one just gives me a headache. Yeah, that's gonna work just beautifully. Ten Hail Marys and *poof* your defects of character are gone. Do I really need to get into how this is a load of nonsense? You obviously got to work on your flaws yourself. I'm afraid magic tricks from supernatural entities won't get you very far. Quite frankly, provided you believe in God the way Christianity teaches him, and you assume that he created you, and you go to him saying "Hey God, thanks for creating me (and the universe and everything else), but you screwed up here and there, would you mind fixing that?", how do you think he'd feel hearing this, being an all-powerful, all-knowing entity who makes no mistakes, and certainly none a mere human could spot and know how to fix? That doesn't make much sense from a theological perspective, is frankly quite rude towards the guy who created the universe and everything in it, and is most likely just a way for AA to sucker you into becoming more and more deeply entangled in their cult, because if God isn't fixing your character, surely you gotta pray more or something? Go to church more often, empty your wallet, there are still defects in your character you bum!

Step seven is just an addendum to step six. Yeah, God's gotta get rid of those shortcomings for you, too. Because shortcomings are obviously not included in "defects", so they gotta be an additional step.

The eighth step is something that if you went to a psychiatrist or therapist or anyone with proper training in the field and told him a group advised you to do that, they would ask you what the hell kind of purpose that is supposed to serve? I mean, yeah, people close to you, obviously, such as your spouse, your children, your family, closest friends, if you put them through a hard time, you gotta try your best to make it better, especially if they remained loyal to you throughout the years, you owe them. But AA wants you to make a list of all people you have ever harmed. What for? Don't you have enough to worry about without making a list of people on whose mailbox you peed twelve years ago? Nah, you gotta focus on what's important. First, get yourself in order, then get your life in order, then get the lives of those around you in order. Focus your energy on these three things instead of spending weeks trying to find the name and address of the guy you punched in the nose during a bar fight in 1997. Focus on your life and the life of those you love and who love you. AA is just trying to overwhelm you so you offer less resistance to their proselytising. Don't give them a chance to make a mess of your head and turn it inside out, you made a mess of it already, and your goal is to make it less of a mess, not more.

Next two steps are pointless filler again like the seventh, just repeating what was said in previous steps.

What the hell is wrong with the people who wrote the eleventh step is inexplicable to me. No one can be that far gone. This is basically "pray the gay away" for alcoholics. In fact, this is literally "pray the gay away" for alcoholics. It's not going to work. It's never going to work. In the United States, people are told by courts to either go to AA or go to jail. And thanks to the poor appeal of U.S. jails, this is what people end up with. This type of shit is not a treatment or help for anything, they are literally saying outright that their only purpose is to convert you to Christianity, and sending you to jail as an alternative is the exact same thing Islamic State is doing to religious minorities in Iraq and Syria right now. That's the kind of thing we want to be like? Joining a cult has never done anything good for anyone. What you want is therapy. You want to work on your problems. You want to get yourself in a position in which you can deal with all your problems without resorting to alcohol or whatever else you may be addicted to. This is hard work, and it requires help from trained professionals who base their work on hard science and decades of experience in how to properly deal with addiction. You can't "pray the gay away", you can't if you're gay, and you certainly can't if you're an alcoholic. Fuck this shit, seriously, it pisses me off to no end.

Last but not least, once we're fully brainwashed into this creepy little cult - at least that's their goal, the smarter ones of us never gave them the satisfaction - we spread the word to anyone we can get our hands on. At this point their intentions become obvious even to those so blind that they could not see them in the first eleven steps. This is an organisation to promote Christianity, and to get people to forego proper therapy in order to maintain their underlying illnesses, keep the relapse potential high so AA can always be sure they will keep coming back. In short, they are deliberately keeping people ill so they can maintain a dependency on the organisation. It's disgusting as shit. How it can even be legal in a civilised society in way beyond me. They are deliberately inflicting harm by preventing treatment of serious mental conditions, all in order to maintain permanent control over the person. And then they openly urge their subject to lure in other people who are at their weakest point in life, increase the flock of submissive drones, brainwashed into believing they are powerless and only the ways of the cult can keep them alive. I repeat, this is enforced as the only alternative to jail in the world's leading superpower. And offshoots of this sickening sect exist in every other Western society and exact a good deal of power there. If that doesn't make you a little nauseous, you have a higher tolerance for modern barbarism than I do.

You are not going to be helped by any of these steps or anything this organisation does. A lot of people say it has helped them, but it is always short-term relief. Since they actively prevent you from seeking proper treatment for your underlying problems, these problems are always going to be there to steer you on the road to relapse. And the numbers are obvious: Do a little Google search on the relapse rate of people going to AA compared to people seeking proper medical/psychiatric treatment. It's horrifying. And this is still done in 2015. Always remember that we live in the 21st century, not the early 20th. Shit like AA should not exist in the world in which we have such great medical advances as we do. It should not exist in any world.

What should exist, and I can't say this often enough, is a mindset that you are in power of your life, that it is up to you to take control back over your life, that you are the one making the decisions, that it is you who is going to work on your issues, that you are going to work hard and not be distracted or deterred, that you are the one who holds the cards and decides your future. You are not powerless. Nobody is powerless because of addiction. You may feel that way sometimes when you lose all control over what happens, but control is not power. Power is something you will always have. And with that power, control is something you can regain just as well as you could lose it. It's up to you to exercise your power to MAKE A DECISION. You decide that you want no more of your addiction in your life, that you want to be in control of your life, and you decide that it's time to stop letting an addiction run your life, that it's time to do something about it, and that you will do the right thing about it. You will not hand over your will and your life and pray the gay away, you will take charge and seek the professional help that you need. Never let anyone tell you you are powerless. You got into this mess, you can get out. Fuck AA. Believe in yourself.

Pills against the ageless ills - Part V: Alternative medicine

Alternative medicine is something I've been guilty of a lot. I no longer do it, but for years I took all sorts of stuff. Used to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia searching for cures for my various illnesses and looking into things that have had one or two scientific studies into whether they might be effective. Usually the control group tests with a small sample size. Not much to go on. But for me it was enough to try a lot of different things. And of course I never consulted my doctor, no self-respecting consumer of alternative medicine would talk to a trained professional about it, that would be preposterous. If the internet says it could work, that's good enough for me!

Thinking back, it really is kind of ridiculous. What went through my mind when I got myself some of that stuff I got and took it? With no real scientific evidence to back it up? Possibly with interactions with some of my actual medication, that just aren't researched yet? There basically two people who do this sort of stuff. Those who see alternative medicine as sort of a way of life, such as hippies, hipsters and other nutjobs. You know the type. And people who are really desperate. People like me. Suffering so badly from your afflictions and seeing no way out, proper medications not helping, we seek out anything that promises relief with however shady half-facts to back it up. It really seems like a ridiculous thing to do when you think about it, but when you're in a really, really bad situation and all you want is some relief, you'll do almost anything that you think can make things better. Does any of it actually work? To give you an idea, let me think of some of the stuff I tried out while acting on my vague hopes.

Of course the first thing anyone will get into is vitamin supplements. Minerals, too, but vitamins are the first thing. Vitamins are of course very important to human biology, and we all need them to function properly. Easily done when you eat properly. Of course we are all told that we don't get enough. Go to a doctor and have your blood examined for deficiencies, test comes out negative, and you still believe you're not getting enough of anything. There's a whole industry around telling people that. Now I can't speak for everyone, some people really do need to take supplements because they don't get enough of one thing for a variety of reasons. But for most of us, if we eat like we should, vitamin deficiencies are not something we should naturally worry about. Being in an awful situation with mental illness and looking into what you can do to help, it's the first thing you think of, though. B-vitamins in particular are praised just around every corner as a cure-all and B-vitamin complex capsules or tablets are a huge market targeting people like us, showering their product with all sorts of praise about what it can do for mental health. So that's something I really ate up. Quite literally. Don't think it did any harm, but much to everyone's surprise it turned out to be a dead end as far as improving mental health was concerned. Could have thought of that considering I did the aforementioned blood test at my doctor and had no deficiencies, and also am a vegetable nut who surely can't complain about a lack of  vitamin intake. Had to try it anyway.

Next came a whole array of things I stumbled upon in various Wikipedia articles. Usually reading an article about the illness of choice and the treatment section. There'd always be bits about how the university of wherever had done a study on whatever substance and it tested well against a control group. Usually only a single study done on it, always with a small sample size. For me, in my situation, that was always good enough to think "awesome, scientific evidence!" and see it as a very promising lead, conjuring up all sorts of hopeful scenarios to the point that I told myself I could be cured if I tried this.

The very first thing I came up with was L-tryptophan. It's what your body needs to synthesise serotonin, the stuff a lot of science-y guys tell you make you calm and happy. So the story goes that if you take L-tryptophan, you get a lot of serotonin and everything works out for the better. Aaaactually it doesn't quite work that way biologically, and what really happens is that you end up shitting out a lot of tryptophan that your body didn't know what to do with. L-lysine is another one that promises miracles in making you calm on the internet. It's another thing that certainly is a nice chemical to have in the food you're eating, but which as a supplement is pretty useless, because the human body just didn't evolve to absorb these things from supplements. Pretty much goes straight through your digestive tract and out the other way virtually unchanged. Money well-spent. Another chemical that's great to have in food, but dubious as a supplement is inositol. I mean, things are a little better here. Your body does absorb some of it, and several scientific studies have shown a beneficial effect for afflictions usually treated with SSRIs (depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, mainly.) You need a whole tablespoon of it at least, but that's okay. Thing is, the positive effect is pretty much comparable to an SSRI at a very low dosage. And that's a type of med that with depression and/or an anxiety disorder (such as OCD) you are already taking. At a medium dosage at least. Basically compare it to taking one quarter of the smallest type of paracetamol pills along with your max dosage ibuprofen for pain. The ridiculously low amount of paracetamol is going to make all the difference, right? Nah, forget about inositol, not much use for it.

At one point came acetylcysteine, the miracle cure for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Again there were one or two scientific studies into its effect, and they yielded very positive results, but they were also on a very small scale. The results showed signifiant improvement in some of their small samples. They said it was due to it affecting the neurotransmitter glutamate, which supposedly plays a role in OCD. This was a very promising lead. Bought a lot, took the dosage recommended by the study, kept it up for weeks. Can't really give you a scientific reason as to why, because I am not a scientist, but it really did absolutely nothing for me. No effect of any kind. Further research might give us some insight into the workings of this substance, maybe lead to improvements to make it useful for patients, but as is, I can't really say it was something worth spending my time and money on. Not to mention that the extent to which I was starting to test chemicals on myself without consulting a doctor was starting to get really worrying at that point.

The one thing there really is solid scientific evidence on is fish oil. Most of you will have heard about it, and there's a very strong case for its effectiveness in a number of areas. It's no substitute for proper medication, and it can interact with some, but in some cases it is even recommended by doctors as a therapy aid. Of course this is also the one "alternative" medication I can't take, the capsules are about the size of a phone booth and there's no way I can get them down. I tried many times, I just can't get myself to swallow those things. It's a shame, there might actually have been some benefit to it. What interests me at this point is that a friend of mine who is into nutrition a lot told me once that fish don't produce the active ingredients in their oil themselves, they get it from their food, and you'd be just as well off taking algae tablets such as spirulina. That could be interesting for a number of reasons. Getting the active ingredients of fish oil, getting a complete protein with all essential amino acids (spirulina is one such rare protein), having tablets that are easy for me to swallow, and last but not least getting to be more serious about my vegan lifestyle choice. If my friend is actually right, and I unfortunately have no science available to back up that he is, it would be the perfect alternative, and something I could talk to my doctor about trying out.

There are a few more minor things I gave a try at some point, but I don't think they need specific mention. I ended up really liking turmeric (curcuma) as a spice after trying it out based on something said about possible benefits, and use it a lot now for its taste. But really, the whole idea of self-medication just doesn't work for me anymore. I want something that had some real, extensive scientific work put into it, with solid proof of its effectiveness. And I want everything I take to be discussed with and sanctioned by my doctor, who is a very smart man and someone I trust to know a hell of a lot more than an article on the internet written by whoever. Alternative medicine has never done anything for me, and the only semi-positive thing I got out of it is that at least it didn't do any harm. My recommendation is that no matter how desperate you are, and I know how desperate one can be, the best address for proper treatment is always trained professionals. Get off the internet and see your doctor. Just trust me on that one.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part VIII: Morpheus Descends - Ritual of Infinity

Since this "best metal albums"-series is starting to appear a little lopsided towards more well-known albums again, I think the timing is perfect to throw another bit of a curve ball since "best" does not always mean "most famous" or vice versa. Morpheus Descends is not a band that is entirely unknown, or known only to die-hard tape traders from the early 90s, especially now that they've been picked up by Dark Descent Records. However, they never were and still aren't a band that achieved anything near noticeable fame. In fact I doubt they are known at all outside the circles of those curious about what the New York death metal scene has to offer besides the big names and those curious about hidden gems in old school death metal, and both those groups are limited in number. To this day you are more likely to have heard of Incantation knock-off #74553 than this band - a band which ironically is pretty much on par with the Incantation original quality-wise - though not all that similar in style.

The type of death metal Morpheus Descends play is actually not that straight-forward to define, since you could group them in either old school death metal or brutal death metal, and yet they are not really all the way on either side of the fence. They're generally more brutal than the average old school death metal band, but also generally more old school than the average brutal death metal band. It's not like they mix elements of both in a way that'd be the most obvious to imagine, as in first an old school death metal part, then a brutal death metal part, and so on. Rather it can be described in the way that a child does not look half like its father and half like its mother, but rather a perfect intermingling of elements from both, with a distinct identity of its own. It's a unique product of the New York scene in the early 90s, something you could only possibly find right there, right then.

If I was forced to draw comparisons, the Immolation debut would be the closest match I can think of, but Morpheus Descends were far, far ahead of what Immolation were doing at the time. It's Dawn of Possession not only on steroids but an array of stimulants as well. Where Immolation at the time played pretty simple stuff (compared to what they would later win acclaim for), Morpheus Descends crammed as much material into the tight space of a few minutes per song as possible. Dark, menacing riffs of the unique New York death metal variety follow each other in quick succession, riff after riff, they don't let up, and every riff is better than the last. And to spice things up they often bridge two riffs with a technical but commanding half-riff that only lasts for a few notes. There's something going on constantly, they never give things time to settle down. There is a commanding presence to the dominance of riffs that won't let you escape, you are sucked in relentlessly, powerless to the primal yet complex force these songs command.

It's impossible to get over just how good this band was, especially for 1992 when technical leanings were still in their infancy. I would not call Morpheus Descends a technical death metal bands by any means, they are too much of a cavernous old school act in essence for that, but the complexity and precision of the instrumentation makes drawing comparisons to the technical side of the death metal genre inevitable. And what makes it so good is that everything has substance. They don't string up random notes, everything has well thought-out progressions that set moods and create atmosphere, it's all highest quality stuff that is both incredible catchy and incredibly intelligent. For the nutjobs who compare death metal to classical music, Ritual of Infinity might actually be a good candidate, because it has that perfect combination of drawing the listener into another world created by the music, while at the same time keeping the listener's mind busy with the perfectly crafted complexity of its songwriting. Morpheus Descends certainly knew how to turn the dark and malevolent riffing and song structuring of New York death metal into an experience.

But that isn't all. Aside from the complexity and intelligence of the material, those of us who don't delude ourselves into thinking we're listening to the new Prokofiev, those of us who want something to profanely bang our heads to, Ritual of Infinity also gives us all we need. With all the aforementioned elements in the mix, the songwriting on this album is also incredibly catchy, with a commanding (using that word a lot and it really applies) intensity urging us to swing our hair windmill-style. The sheer amount of quality of its riffs and the amazing songwriting contrasting these riffs with each other creating tension and release on a relentless level, it pumps your body full of adrenaline and gives you a real rush of undirected fury for which there is no other release but to raise your fist, throw the horns, flail your head around like a madman.

This is really death metal at its best: Dark, menacing, complex, intelligent and fucking awesome to rock out with your cock out to. It unites all the qualities you could desire from a death metal album. That this album does not get the recognition it deserves is a crime against art. Best thing to do for the moment is to get the new Dark Descent compilation immediately, skip the awful new songs and go straight to this album, and prepare yourself for an onslaught of every quality of greatness death metal offers at its highest level.

Life with an anxiety disorder - Part VI: Social anxiety

Oh finally I get to the interesting part, huh? Yep, we're going straight to the core of my issues here. Social anxiety: The devil of the mind. Let's face it, the fewest of us can live happy lives living alone in a cabin in the woods writing manifestos and sending letter bombs to politicians. Humans are social animals, we need other humans around to function, to be content, to be happy. Look at any study any scientist has done over the past century on what isolation from other humans does to the human mind. We can't handle being without others of our kind. It's one of the things that are at the core of our being.

Social anxiety messes all that up. You still want to be around others, but you fear any situation in which others are around. Remember the Greek myth of Tantalus? The punishment of wanting something, needing something, but whenever you reach for it, you can't get near. This is social anxiety, the fear of a thing that you need to be a human being.

Many people with an anxiety disorder have issues with social anxiety. In fact it is a common companion of most mental illnesses. Aside from depression, it might be the most wide-spread issue in the psychiatric field. And it is so god damn troublesome. It takes away one of the things most essential to life. I think if you were to dissect the issue, there would be many reasons for social anxiety among different people, and many different ways it manifests itself. It ranges from discomfort to an outright phobia. Some hide it well and somehow cope with situations, others react to the sight of another human the same way I would to a huge spider. (see previous post)

For me, the issue is that I am incredibly socially awkward, just react to people in ways that are weird to most, and I am incredibly self-conscious about it. The latter is where my anxiety stems from, the constant fear of screwing up around people, making an ass of myself, looking ridiculous, embarrassing myself. Every time I feel I do or say something that looks or sounds weird to people who see or hear it, I get the typical issues with trouble breathing and the high pulse, symptoms of a panic attack. I am so incredibly scared of what my social awkwardness looks like to other people. It doesn't matter if it's in a conversation and I say something I feel was stupid, which I then think about over and over while freaking out inside, or if it's something as simple as riding my bicycle and people see me, and I feel I hold my arm in a way that might look weird or something. I have this massive fear of what people might think when they see me or hear me talk. That's why any situation involving any other human beings causes huge amounts of anxiety, and why I came to avoid such situations as much as I can.

What begins there is a vicious cycle. For one, isolation makes you more socially inept. Social interaction is something that requires constant practice, and the more you get out of the loop, the more you unlearn it, the worse you get at it. And to add to that is that the anxiety puts you so on edge that you are more likely to make mistakes, or what you consider mistakes, and the more the anxiety increases. More anxiety leads to more isolation, more isolation leads to more anxiety. More anxiety leads to more social ineptness, more social ineptness leads to more anxiety. It's a hellish conundrum that once you're in it, you can't go anywhere but sink deeper, and getting out or even getting better is nearly impossible. And like I said, it is depriving you of something you need, something you want and desire, but like Tantalus it is impossible for you to reach it. Your social anxiety pushes you deeper into isolation for every attempt you make to get out. And with isolation comes depression, to the point of despondency. You are in a prison from which you cannot escape, and it is one of the most desolate prisons imaginable.

There are ways out. I've been out once in my life when I did a day clinic type of thing in 2012. It requires social situations you can't avoid for one thing. The next thing it requires is that the social situations are with people who share or at least understand your problem. So either other socially anxious people or people with a related illness who can imagine what it's like. Another point that is important is that they are what I call "good-hearted people", people who mean well and care about you feeling well in a social situation as much as they care about their own situation. That point really comes down to luck, unfortunately. Of course another point is that you always have to have a therapist handy to guide you, explain problems to you and reassure you. And finally the most important point: Once you have all the aforementioned factors together in one place and have these social situations with that type of people, repeat it. Repeat it all day, every day, for at least weeks, ideally months. You have a lot of catching up to do in terms of practicing social situations, so cram as much into whatever time you have as possible. Repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. That's how you eventually learn to get comfortable and handle social situations well, eventually not just in the safe circle of the clinic people but in daily life as well. It's not a failsafe method and probably won't work in a hundred percent of all cases, but for the majority of people that's the best shot.

Unfortunately after the day clinic I slipped right back to where I was because nobody cared to give me a follow-up thing to do. What's important is that after therapy to get out of the social anxiety problem, you continue to be in and seek out social situations. You gotta keep your practice up. That's really the big issue with social anxiety. It comes back instantly the moment you allow it to. There's no "oh, I'll spend a week alone to relax" for someone with social anxiety, you don't have that option, no matter how appealing the thought is, because you are inviting the illness right back into your life. Staying social is the only way to keep these torments of Tantalus out of your life. Stay in frequent contact and interaction with other people, or relapse all the way back into the deepest depths of isolation. Social anxiety is one torturous illness, so if you suffer from it, seek therapy, find a safe environment to relearn social interaction, then, for the sake of whatever values you believe in, do everything to keep it from coming back into your life.

Life with an anxiety disorder - Part V: Four legs gooood, eight legs baaaad

As I am typing this, a big fat crane fly is sitting on the wall next to me. I am not bothered by it in any way. It is basically the same size as a house spider. The body is basically the same size as a house spider's. The legs are the same length and thickness as a house spider's. It just has two fewer, and a set of wings instead. Other than that, very similar in appearance to a house spider. It just doesn't bother me that this crane fly is sitting on the wall right next to me. If it was a house spider, however...

Well, if it actually was a house spider, I wouldn't sit here typing. I'd have jumped up, possibly yelping, fled to a bit of a distance and stared at it in mortal terror. My pulse would be going through the roof. I'd take short, flat breaths. I'd be sweating. Cold sweat. I'd be in a state of fear as intense as if I were facing death. It's fight or flight. It's my apartment, so flight is not an option, so I can't go and wait until the spider leaves by itself. What do I do? I can't get closer than two meters to it, too terrified. I could call my mother, who leaves nearby, but that would be pathetic. It's got to be the vacuum cleaner with the long pipe. Poor animal, some would say, but it's it or me. I am dying a little inside as I approach to the length of the pipe and am mortified at the thought of it escaping the suction and getting under the couch or behind a cabinet where I can't get it. I succeed. The terror does not subside. The rest of the day I'll be a nervous wreck scanning the walls for spiders with my eyes.

That's right, today's topic is phobias. Because what would an anxiety disorder be without a good old fashioned phobia to mess it up even more? It's spiders for me, but many people have a phobia. Many people who are otherwise completely healthy as well. But what's really interesting in the context of this series of posts is how phobias interact with an anxiety disorder. If you are anxious all day every day already, how does the prospect of mortal terror being literally around every corner ready to hit at any moment without warning sound to you?

One defining factor of an anxiety disorder is what therapists in Germany call "the fear of the fear": The idea that your anxiety is not just focused on high states of anxiety itself or panic attacks in particular, but that these states are actually so horrible to you that you spend your whole time fearing their next occurence. "There is nothing to fear but fear itself" gets a whole new meaning for those suffering from this illness. Fear is literally the worst thing to fear. And then you add one or more phobias to the mix and you're in a permanent condition of fear of what will happen one minute from any given moment, or even one second. They can really kill it all. You can have a good day, have your normal fears under control, can go to the grocery store without a panic attack, can talk to people without your social anxiety giving you much trouble, generally feel it's one of your better days, then a big house spider decides to explore your apartment and everything is fucked. It doesn't matter anymore how well you were dealing with your normal problems that day, everything is ruined. Imagine scientists announcing CO² emissions are at an all time low and global temperatures are stabilising, and half an hour later Putin launches nuclear missiles on half the planet. That's pretty much what a phobia does when you're dealing with an anxiety disorder. It's the "terminate all"-button that doesn't care how you're dealing with your life that moment otherwise.

So you always have that in the back of your head. And the feeling that no matter how well you do with dealing with your main illness, "something is out there that can ruin it all" just puts an impossible strain on your confidence in your coping with your daily life. It puts you on edge automatically, because you can never feel entirely free or relaxed and enjoy a moment of your anxiety disorder letting up in intensity, because you  know there's something out there that can change the situation to the worst any given moment. So fear always remains part of your thinking no matter what happens. And I put animal phobia as one of the worst type of phobias to interact with anxiety disorder, because it is one of the phobias that is hardest to control or avoid. A claustrophobic can avoid enclosed spaces, an agoraphobic open places, but you never know where a spider or other animal you fear is coming along. Not saying animal phobia is the only type of phobia with such an issue of lack of control, it is one of a group of phobias that occupy a special circle of the hell that is phobia as a whole. Phobias where you can't predict when or where you are confronted with them, and have no way to prevent that situation from occuring. Like a constant dark cloud hanging threateningly above your life.

Anxiety disorder and phobia are a very bad mix, because they interact in a very bad way, amplifying each other constantly to unbearable levels. The good news is that you can do something about it, and phobias are generally much easier to treat than anxiety disorder, with a much higher rate of success. For me, of course that would involve being in a room full of huge spiders with the guidance of a therapist, eventually taking a few in my hand and letting them crawl on me. I'm sorry, but fuck off. Or in more polite terms, I am not ready to do that yet. It's literally the least desirable thing in the world to me. Waterboard me instead. But to end on a positive note, once I conquer my weaker self, it really is a pretty easy treatment. Hang around some spiders until it doesn't bother me anymore. And it's something anyone suffering from a similar problem should consider: It really is quite simple stuff, you just need to get yourself to do it. And you can be damn well certain that it would take an enormous weight off your shoulders.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

My thoughts on Pagan Altar - R.I.P. Terry Jones

Yesterday, Pagan Altar singer Terry Jones died age 69 after a long battle against cancer. I'd like to make a post talking about my feelings for his work as sort of a personal memorial service. It's sad to see the man go at what is really still a young age, considering what he has given to the world. My condolensces go to his family, friends and bandmates. It's never easy to deal with the death of a loved one, but what's important is to keep the memory alive, and Terry Jones certainly is a man who will never be forgotten. Not for his personality, of which I have heard account from many people who have met him in person, and certainly not for his creative work.

Pagan Altar is actually a band I don't really listen to anymore. My tastes have shifted a lot in recent years. Those who have known me for a while that what I reviewed in my series of best metal albums is not something I would have rated so highly two, five or ten years ago. Pagan Altar kind of drifted out of my field of interest as I moved into much darker territories. But it is a band that I was once so passionate about that I still almost remember every note of their albums. I have nothing but infinite respect for the band's output, and no matter how much my tastes shifted, they still have a special place in my heart just for how unique and emotionally intense their sound is.

Playing doom metal correctly is something almost every band in existence gets wrong, and only a handful of bands get it right. Pagan Altar get it right. It is a genre that needs perfection in its songwriting and performance, and if it fails to miss the mark, it becomes awful. Hard-hitting riffs, the perfect sound, meticulously accentuated percussion, solos that send shivers down your spine, and finally a vocal performance that is out of this world - that's how Pagan Altar avoid the omnipresent trap of getting doom metal wrong, and instead tower above the genre like titans. Their sound is one crafted to perfection through passion, hard work and a cunning sense of what works and what doesn't. They are not the kind of band you would show someone new to the genre as an introduction - their sound is too unique and different from what you'd expect of a classic doom metal band, but they are a band anyone familiar with a genre should know and cherish.

What makes them so unique is that they take the classic doom metal backbone and expand it with elements you'd be more likely to find in old progressive rock bands. I've heard them compared to Jethro Tull (minus the flute, thankfully), and it isn't far off the mark. There's more of course, some elements remind you of other bands from around the early 70s. It gives Pagan Altar a very adventurous ride, like they're taking you on a ride through a mysterious land they create through their music, like they're telling you a story about the happenings of this enigmatic world that exists in the band's unique sound. A lot of times acoustic interludes would build up little arcs of tension and suspense, released in monolithic doom metal climaxes. They don't go a straight line, they are taking you through unexpected twists and turns, occasionally employing small releases to give the build-up a new dimension, taking you through a faceted storyline that keeps you interested at any given point.

And finally, the vocals. Holy fuck, what a voice. Anyone who has ever tried taking up singing knows that pouring all your emotions into your singing and communicating them to the audience is as hard as playing Yngwie Malmsteen solos on guitar. Terry Jones does it like it's the most natural thing in the world. I used the word "passion" a few times to describe the music - the vocals are brimming with it. It is a one-of-a-kind voice, one you'll never have heard in any other band, and one you'll never hear in any other band, and it's so perfect. I don't think I can properly describe the style, it's just not something you'd expect in a metal band - more of a style you'd think of in an obscure 70s progressive rock band that is too serene in temperament to ever make it big. He delivers it with such deep and honest emotion, however, so that you can't help but hang on every word, every syllable. It commands attention like few vocalists can, and it is one of the truly defining elements of Pagan Altar's sound. This man will forever be a legend.

Like I said earlier, I am not really into this type of music anymore, it rarely ever gets a spin. But I have nothing but respect for this band's unique and amazing creative output. The three albums recorded - with a fourth in the works, the vocals thankfully completed before Terry Jones' tragic passing - will forever stand as classics not only in the doom metal genre, but in metal as a whole. Essential listening for anyone interested in some of the unique works of art created by the passionate and dedicated dwellers of the underground. Give this band the recognition it deserves and Terry Jones a legacy that won't be forgotten.