Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Connection: It's Not Just About The Wifi

I am not above using ridiculously cute pictures of dormice snuggling to get you to read this post!

It’s been a tricky decision, but after much discussion, debate and dickering (on my part anyway!) we have called an end to our nomadic wanderings and come to rest in Berlin for the next six months. It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t be travelling any more - after all, that’s what we had planned to spend the year doing, and it turns out I get quite attached to a plan once I’ve made it! 

There’s a few factors that influenced our decision - in March we need to be back in the UK for the van’s MOT, and we need to pay for road tax and insurance (we might have escaped council tax and utilities, but bills of one kind or another seem to be inevitable however you live!) So we need to make some money, and Berlin seems like the best place to be for non-German speakers. The cold weather is coming, and we feel like life would be easier if we were in one spot, where we can maybe store some firewood and get a hot shower now and then. 

But all that practical stuff is secondary to the fact that for the last few months, I haven’t been feeling ‘myself’. I’ve been struggling, feeling stressed, and familiar feelings of depression have come creeping back. For a while I did whatever I usually do when this happens - ignore it and hope things will just get better. I didn’t want to admit that anything was wrong, I wanted to just keep on travelling like the happy care-free hippy I was trying so hard to be.  But no matter how idyllic life seemed, something was missing, and although it took me a little while to figure out what it was, once I did I realised that travelling had to go on hold. It was time to prioritise what I needed to do over what I wanted to do. 

A little while ago I was watching a TED talk about addiction by Johann Hari, a British journalist whose investigations and research shows that we have fundamentally misunderstood addiction. This has caused serious problems in the way we treat and feel about people with addiction issues, the most serious of which is the War On Drugs and the criminalisation of what is essentially a mental health issue. 

He described an experiment, which a lot of people are familiar with, that was done with rats to demonstrate how addiction works. Rats in a cage were offered two things to drink - plain water, and water with cocaine in it. Over and over again, the rats chose the water with cocaine, it affected their health and eventually they died. Conclusion - drugs are addictive, if they are available people will always choose to take them, and it is the substance itself that is to blame. Result - substances become illegal, users become criminals and the punishment is isolation from society in prison. 

Some years later scientists revisited the experiment and saw a huge problem with it - the rats were kept alone in empty cages. What would happen if they were kept in a Rat Palace, with family and things to play with? It turns out that, even after trying the water with cocaine in, if the rats had companionship and entertainment they wouldn’t go back for more. The rats in the Palace preferred the plain water, they flourished and thrived, even though they had continuous access to cocaine water. The conclusion - addiction has a lot less to do with the individual substance than with an individual’s circumstances, and that if we can address issues of isolation, loneliness and simple boredom, we can make real progress. As Hari said in his talk, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

As soon as I heard that, I realised what I needed. I might be sober these days, but sometimes I feel like a bit like one of those rats in the empty cage. The nomadic lifestyle has many many pros, but one of the biggest cons is a lack of connection. I have been travelling for nearly ten years, and in that time met many wonderful people. But when you move towns, or even countries, every six months or so it’s hard to put in the time needed to build deep and lasting friendships. And if you have managed to do that, now your friends are scattered all over the world and keeping in touch is a challenge. 

I spent some time thinking about what connection meant to me, and how I could start to feel more connected. Friends is definitely a good start, spending time building relationships.  Yoga is something I love to do and want to learn more about, so I want to start practicing regularly at a studio again. And finally, I eventually admitted to myself that, however much I love travelling, I needed some structure and continuity. I realised that all these things require time in one place. My attachment to our original plans and the image of a perpetual traveller had blinded me to the quite simple things I needed to feel whole again. 

We live in a world that seems designed to disconnect us, even as we’re being told we’re more connected than ever. At the press of a button we can message someone on Facebook, tell someone we ‘like’ what they’re doing, or show people what we ate for dinner. But it feels like technology is replacing real human interaction - you might have got 50 likes for your photo of brunch, but did you have a hug today? Did you take the time to say hello to the person serving you the coffee you Instagramed, or does work make you feel too busy to talk to your barista like a human being rather than a vending machine? Connections, big or small, are what we need as people to flourish, like the rats in the Palace, rather than languishing and eventually, perhaps inevitably, turning to substances to fill the void. 

So, how can we bring more connection to our lives, and the lives of people around us? It can be hard, especially if, like me, you’re in a new place. Here are some things that I’ll be trying out:

Learn something new - Like the rats, we need ‘something to play with’. I want to play the ukulele, so my plan is to find someone who already can who wants to trade some time teaching me for tea and cake! On the flip side, if you have a skill you want to share, find someone who wants to learn it! You’ll meet people who have common interests, and have something to focus your time and attention on. See if there's a local skill-sharing scheme in your neighbourhood, or get involved with this amazing organisation, which is building an app to bring refugees and local people together to share skills and interests. 

Routine - Going to a yoga studio regularly, taking a course, or even using the same cafe to work in all bring a bit of routine to life. At first this sounds boring and restrictive, but it brings you into contact with the same people over and over. Eventually you’ll say hello, maybe get a coffee together…from small seeds great friendships can grow, if you give them enough time. 

Time, time time - We’re constantly being told that we don’t have enough time, but it’s amazing what can happen when you slow down, stop worrying about having ‘enough’ and act as if you actually have all the time in the world. You’ll take the time to smile at people, to have a chat with a stranger, visit a friend or maybe volunteer at a project that you care about. 

If you think that all sounds great, but there’s just no way you could fit anything in, one suggestion I have is to do a ‘time audit’ - take a typical day and note how you spend your time. Pay attention to the time you waste flicking through TV channels, scrolling through social media, or just plain staring out the window. Is there 30 minutes, an hour (or more!) that could be used differently? A coffee with a friend will make you feel so much better than the same time spent staring at Facebook, guaranteed. 

Building connections makes others feel good, which will make you feel good, so you can keep making others feel good, and so on and so on, until that cocaine water (or equivalent) holds no interest any more. Now, that’s a War on Drugs I’m happy to fight for. 


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