Moods, unlike proper, rubber-stamped emotions, are difficult to map, and hard to disperse. I like a reason for things. If I am sad, I usually know why; if I am angry or happy, I can see the origin of it. I am quite intolerant of people who indulge their moods, and let a rotten one infect the atmosphere like smoke, so that everyone else must suffer with it. I have read all the damn psychology books; I know that you cannot change the thing itself, but you can change the way you think about it. I like to believe that we have some dominion over our own selves; we are not unregulated pre-rational creatures, constantly startled by woolly mammoths. I am a tremendous believer in the wonderful attribute of free will: somehow, somewhere along the line, for a reason that even the neurobiologists still cannot quite explain, we developed oddly large pre-frontal lobes, which gave us the power of reasoning, and choice. One of my enduring beliefs is that humans, unlike other mammals, do not have to be slaves to our baser natures, chained by our own instincts. One of my crazier ideas, nurtured by too much education, is that you can think your way out of almost anything. Come along, fire up that grey matter, and all manner of things will be well.
So when I wake up, as I did this morning, in a five star stinker of a mood, the kind that you can’t dodge (everywhere you go, there it is) I have several instantaneous reactions. There is a cussed refusal to accept it: this is not right, this should not be happening now. There is a dogged desire to hunt it down and find out where it came from: there must be a reason for everything. There is a slight sense of disgust: oh for God’s sake, you are not living in the Congo, butch up. And there is a determination to find a remedy: now, how am I going to shake this off?
Then there is the slide into a disconcerting division of self. There is the good, rational, well-brought up self, which knows that life is earnest, life is real, and you just have to get on with it. This self understands how to call in The Perspective Police and write a little gratitude list: I have all my arms and legs, I live in a nice house with two enchanting dogs, I have command of all my faculties. I am not being held in a Burmese prison, or watching my children be sold into prostitution. I do not live in a theocracy, where I may not go outside without a close male relative by my side. Even as I count these blessings, and remind myself of the reality of things, there is another self, the one that slinks out of its lair when the bad mood hits. This second self is like a furious child, who cannot be reasoned with. This self says: I feel shitty and I won’t do my work and I’m not going to tidy the kitchen and why won’t everyone just bugger off and leave me alone? And then there is a shouting match between these two entities going on in my head, and I mostly want to go and lie down in a darkened room until it has passed.
There are remedies. I find that drinking a great deal of black coffee, putting Janis Joplin singing Take a Little Piece of My Heart on the stereo and shouting along to it at full blast is tremendously cathartic. Sometimes just jumping up and down in a room and shouting fuck fuck fuck fuck very loud can get those demons out. Walking in the open air can be good, although when I am really grumpy I may refuse to go outside. And, of course, there is writing it down. Writing a thing down is the surest way I know to draw its sting; there is something about getting the hurling words out of the head and onto the page which has an almost miraculous restorative effect on the sanity.
But thinking of this now, I wonder: must a remedy be the first resort? Clearly every functioning adult must work out a way of banishing hideous moods, so as to avoid spreading the contagion over innocent bystanders. It is unfair to drag other people into your demonic day. But what if the house is empty, and you have a little space? I tend to think of bad humour as a moral failing in myself: I must be a little ray of sunshine, come on, of course I must. Jung had the idea that deep in our dark side lies a lode of gold; by refusing to countenance the blacker side of human nature, we cut ourselves off from our greatest potential. Which is all very lovely in theory, but quite alarming in reality. It is so much easier and more comfortable to be sanguine and blithe. I begin to ponder: perhaps, sometimes, in the safety of my own room, I should just sit with my filthy mood, and see where it takes me. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just a thing. (Oddly, even as I write those words, I feel my shoulders begin to come down and my mouth curving into a small smile.) My co-writer Sarah, who has a good practical streak in her which I lack, is quite straightforward about these things. ‘I am in a terrible mood,’ I say, when she calls up for our daily morning talk. ‘Oh, all right,’ she says, unfazed. ‘I’ll ring back when you are less grumpy.’ She knows that not all things can be, or even must be, fixed. Let it run, and it will pass. I, on the other hand, must anatomise every element, explain it, put it in its place, until order is again restored to the universe. She knows that a bad mood is just a bad mood, not a national emergency.
I wonder how much of this is a woman thing. I know that not everything in the whole wide world can be put down to gender, but there is still, even in these post-feminist times, a low expectation that women should be sugar and spice. We are not really supposed to get scratchy and shouty, because we are the ones who are spilling over with empathy until our ears fall off. There is, even now, a lingering idea of the importance of being ladylike. I think this might be a contributory factor to my excessive alarm at a bit of bad temper. But I think the real fault line is my own irrational belief that everything must be rational. I don’t like things that just gallop up for no reason and take over the day.
Much as I long to imagine there is an answer to everything, and an explanation for everything, and a nice neat solution to everything, I may have to concede that this is not always the case. Maybe I should finally learn to understand that life is messy and muddly and unpredictable, and, however much I might want to, I can’t make it shiny and straightforward and explicable every day. The entire underlying premise of Backwards is the importance of accepting one’s very human flaws. I know this to be true. It’s just that every so often I have a slip, and fall back into the mad idea that the human condition is, in fact, perfectible. So I am going to sit very still, and embrace the random and the messy and the inexplicable, and put on Janis Joplin very loud indeed.