Pollution is something we talk about a lot these days, but sometimes we forget what it means. If an oil tanker crashes on the road, and the oil leaks out, that’s not pollution, because it can be contained. But if the oil catches fire and the smoke goes everywhere, that is pollution. The difference is containability. What makes it pollution, in other words, is that it is all-pervasive. Inescapable. It is part of our environment, where we live, eat, drink, breathe, and so becomes part of us. And we know, now, that these things can make us very sick indeed, even kill us, even if they are invisible, because we live with them. Eat enough fish and you can die of mercury poisoning even though the doses themselves will be tiny.
So we’re learning – slowly – to control our environment. To ensure that our air and our water are clean, because we take them in so often we can’t afford anything less.
But what we also need to think about is emotional environments, and the pollution that gets into that.
Emotional health and physical health have much in common. Particularly in that they have levels of resistance, and that that resistance can be overcome both with single strong attacks and by long-term small ones. And when that resistance runs down, we cease being able to function properly, and need to hole up somewhere safe until either the threats die down or the resistance builds up again.
We’re familiar with the big, strong attacks to our resilience. Some of them are massive, crippling attacks, like the loss of a loved one, or a sudden change in our lifestyle. They’re the getting hit by a bus attacks. Then there’s the thumbtack in the foot attacks like negative feedback or breaking your favourite thing. There’s the slow cancer of not liking what you see in the mirror. We know these ones.
But there’s others. Some we can’t avoid. There’s missing the bus even when you ran for it. There’s the elevator being broken and there’s vomit all over the stairs. There’s not having a shirt without a hole in it to wear. There’s the screaming kids in the restaurant, the rude person at the traffic lights. The cold look from a stranger who decides to disapprove of you. Coming home to a messy kitchen, where the doorknob’s still broken and the stove smells funny all the time. All the little things that fill us with weltschmertz as the Germans call it: the sense that things are not necessarily bad, but not what they could be. Bad enough to notice.
This is emotional pollution, and like the mercury in fish, it can build up and up, and it can – it absolutely can – kill.
One thing I’ve learnt in the last few years with my excellent psychologist is there are two ways to attack mental health. One is building up your inner resistance – making your self image, self resilience and self esteem strong so it can repel attacks. The other is reducing the attacks coming in. Avoiding or lessening the attacks. And where possible, purifying the toxins from your environment.
Some toxins will always get in. No matter how much you plan, there’s always going to be a bus you miss; eventually there will be a soup splash on your favourite shirt. But some of these things can be fixed, but we often don’t think to, or we think they’re too small to bother with, or that they’re just part of life. And then they build up, and then they kill you.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that dealing with a lot of these things takes emotional strength in the first place, so sometimes we’re so worn down we can’t solve these problems, or can only tap away slowly at the tiniest levels. It’s also really important to note that most of these things require money to solve, and if you’ve ever been poor you’ll know what I mean. All the little things that money could solve, like catching a taxi when you miss that train. Buying a new shirt when the old one tears. Having insurance so you don’t have to worry so much about running for the bus on a slippery road. Being able to afford the gym so you don’t have to go running in the cold, freezing rain. If you’ve been poor, you know. How they break you down and kill you by inches, and how just trying to stop them wearing you through to bone uses up every resource you might have used to fix them.
Being depressed is a lot like that, too. It is a poverty of emotional strength, an impotence to change anything at all about your environment. Depression’s friend, anxiety, is more like having massive immunodeficiencies: everything is an attack, or a potential one. Together they make your environment so poisonous you can barely breathe, and give you no strength to do anything about it. Little wonder we depressives retreat to the comfort of bed – like the boy in the bubble, it is the only way to survive.
But for those of us who are doing better, all of this is still useful, still important. If you’re struggling with something, if you’re going beyond yourself, if you’re pursuing something creative or ambitious, you are running your emotional reserves ragged. Whether it’s a marathon or a sprint, you need your reserves strong. And while we often do a few things to pep us up (like taking some vitamins for the soul) we often forget to control our environment.
It can be simple, tiny things. If you are trying to write something, and you can see the dirty washing pile, your mind may turn to something else you “should” be doing. It can be big, life-planning things, like having a day job or savings so not every word is life and death. I’ve done that kind of writing – where if it cannot be sold that week you will literally starve – and it kills creativity and enthusiasm pretty fast. The environment is too toxic, there’s too much terror of survival, eating away at your emotional reserves. But it doesn’t have to be that critical; it could also be that you’re not going to write your best with your current computer because the keyboard sticks a lot or the screen flickers; it could be your novel isn’t going to come until you’re in just a generally nicer house or better neighbourhood or can afford some new shirts, because right now, your goal to live in a nice place or better clothes is eating those reserves and you can’t eat into them further.
It can be adding the positive, by hanging up motivational posters or making plans for the future or visualising goals. It could be giving yourself restoratives, like buying yourself lunch on the day you do your big writes, so you don’t have to lose that tiny bit (or not so tiny bit) of your reserves making your lunch. It could reducing the chances of attacks, like taking a taxi on writing days so there’s no chance you can miss a bus. It could be as simple as walking home a different way so you don’t see the cold strangers or hear the screaming kids. They are tiny things so they might seem frivolous, if you even think of them at all. But again, it’s about pollution: if you eat the tiny thing every day, it might not kill you but it will make you weaker.
A lot of writing is learning to be a resilient writer: to write every day no matter what, no matter how sick you are, or tired, or whether you have no ideas or no motivation. That’s the resilience part. But you can’t learn resilience when you’re being attacked all the time. Yes, I’m sure the fire makes the steel, but the human body doesn’t work like that. If the wound isn’t cleared, the blood can’t clot and the scabs can’t form. You have to wrap it up in gauze and keep it clean and dry. Writing – designing, creating, changing, striving – is much the same.
A better metaphor might be keeping a plant. You need one with strong roots, but you also need a good pot, good soil, potting mix, water, sunlight, and to protect it from all the things that could hurt it. You know how to spray the aphids, yes, but sometimes we leave them in too hot a sun, or above the exhaust fan. These are the little deaths, the slow, invisible killers. Yours are out there too. Some of them you might have to be a millionaire to fix, or at least well off. Others you might need to think really hard or wait a long time for them to get better. But if you’re aware of them, you might be able to do the tiniest thing.
There are spiders in my backyard. Every day I go out that way, they take away a bit of my strength. It’s a tiny thing. But it matters. And all I have to do is remember to go out the front door instead, and I stop that bit being chipped away. And I grow stronger, bit by bit. Day by day.