Witzelsucht and Thabo Mbeki

I really really wish sometimes that my mind didn’t work overtime – because it means I lose a lot of sleep for no good reason.

Last night was no exception and no matter how many times I’ve tried to square various (frankly inconsequential and unimportant) circles in my head last night they just wouldn’t change shape. As soon as I am tired of thinking about one then another one comes along, and cumulatively they all conspire to keep me awake.

Yesterday didn’t start in a great place – and after a few days back to back with practically no rest at all I started the day (once again) mentally on the back foot.

Probably because I was so knackered it wasn’t long before a situation arose that enabled me to prove to myself that my worst (and probably nonsense) fears were true and I wasn’t good enough at my job.

There’s little worse than being faced with a situation where something needs to be fixed, there’s only you to fix it, the person that needs help really genuinely needs it fixed – but you can’t do it.

There are many many things I love about my job – and most of them are tied up with the fact that nothing – not one thing – is about shareholder value or capitalism. In this respect it differs from many of the roles I’ve had in the past and mostly because of this I get a real sense of satisfaction from fixing technical problems (albeit in a small way) for people that care for others.

There’s always a need and in my current role I can usually help.

However – there are times when you simply can’t – and it’s galling if it’s because your own (lack of) technical know-how is what stands in your way.

In previous workplace lives I’ve been responsible for managing the restoration of massive intercontinental telecoms failures for blue chip customers – and I’ve been at the sharp end of many a heated escalation related to many well known commercial brands.

I’ve navigated my way through heated conference call after heated conference call over the years – many of which were filled with senior managers that were pushing me hard for resolutions to their technical woes.

Often the impact of outages simply came down to lost money and time though.

Sometimes lorries were delayed or ships got stuck in ports for a bit longer than they needed to be – but only once was there a threat to life that I remember.

Most outages I managed simply halted the production or delivery of something.

Maybe in the interconnected and closely linked ‘just in time’ world that we live this could be considered ‘important’ (everything affects something else) but I ended up feeling that what I was really engaged in was working for shareholders to generate and protect revenue, and in doing so all I was achieving was oiling the gears of capitalism and greed.

The company that I worked for was huge. Its workforce was global, and its often brutal decisions about who should have a job and who should not (based not on someone’s effort or worth but often simply what they cost) left me feeling increasingly disillusioned.

When I was made redundant from my very well paid position I had already wanted to leave for a long time.

Sitting on those conference calls with executives in various countries however bothered me much less than being unable to fix a device that someone needed to do their job in the nhs.

It doesn’t even have to be a life threatening situation either – because practically every piece of equipment I touch is going into the hands of someone that is trying to help someone else.

It’s not about money – it’s about people. Since fundamentally I’m a people person this motivates me – and because I find that I really care I occasionally feel acute pressure.

Still I guess we all have to learn and not everybody knows everything.

Although my day started badly I eventually figured out how to resolve the issue (via several pints of coffee) and everyone lived happily ever after.

Before I figured out what was wrong though I was in a dark place.

My mind was calling me every name under the sun from stupid to useless – and I was muttering to myself quietly (not saying good things I might add) in the corner that I work because nothing felt like it was going right.

You know what though – I’m tired – and working when you’re not at your best is never going to produce stellar results. I need some unbroken sleep and I’ve really not had it for months.

My main reason at the moment for not getting any rest (apart from occasionally thinking about life too much) is my propensity to obsess over words and the way they sound.

This is both a blessing and a curse.

I love words – and see them as puzzle pieces to constantly tinker with in my head. I’m always thinking about ways to slot them together so that they contain multiple messages or meanings.

Probably because of this I’m endlessly making up ‘dad jokes’ too. My partner (already long suffering in this respect) sent me this link the other day – which sounds like it describes some elements of me to a tee.


If you read this short article you’ll see the theory about why Witzelsucht occurs (particularly in people with brain injuries – such as a subject he discusses called Derek) and how it relates to stimulating pleasure centres in the brain:

Three guys stranded on a desert island find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says: ‘I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.’

Ok, maybe these quips are funnier when told by a professional comedian. But the point is that each is built around an “incongruity” in the punchline, and your brain must jump through a series of hoops to unpick the logic. You (edit) need to place yourself in the shoes of the people stranded on the desert island. (edit) there’s an element of surprise as you realise the twist in the tale. Resolving that puzzle tickles the brain’s pleasure centres, making us laugh (or at least, smile politely). “The ‘ha ha’ moment is not very far from the ‘aha’ moment,” explains Jason Warren at University College London.

This brain processing appears to occur in a network of regions around the frontal lobes – the seat of more complex, analytical thought and the very same areas that are damaged in patients like Derek. “. “They cannot see the relationship of the punchline to the joke, so they do not show surprise,” says Mendez. Paradoxically, this brain damage seems to “disinhibit” some of the signalling between those frontal lobes and the pleasure centres. So while others’ jokes may leave them cold, their own thoughts and feelings – stemming from any random connection or association – may end up triggering the dopamine kick as they collapse in fits of giggles.

It’s the dopamine kick that I think I get from my own linguistic tinkering – and it’s probably why I feel so calm after putting a blog post together.

My own personal obsession with (and pleasure generated from) playing with words unfortunately also has a downside – and it’s here where not only my sleep but day to day thinking gets disrupted.

I end up helplessly and endlessly repeating random things that come out of no-where.

As an example yesterday I woke up several times saying ‘Thabo Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki’.

These words had been in the back of my mind for a day or so and had refused to budge.

I couldn’t even remember who on earth it referred to – just that the name sounded interesting and the spelling unique. Then (after a quick Google) I remembered he was second the president of South Africa (link).


Quite why this name – which had been tucked away in my head for years suddenly decided to resurface is beyond me – but this happens all the time.

Thabo Mbeki is similar to the word ‘Oklahoma’ – which Steve Martin hilariously repeats over and over in a sequence of the 1988 film ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ (link). Periodically I’ve been saying this over and over in my head almost every week or month since I saw it thirty years ago.

I also can’t stop whistling ‘Jingle Bells’ regardless of the time of year – and have it continually going around and around in my head whenever I try to concentrating on something. They only way to remove it to start whistling it.

You get the idea.

Either way I’m now facing another day with less than four hours sleep to my name – and I’m typing away in the hope that this will empty my mind and allow me to relax – at least when I’m awake (sleep is a lost cause).

I’m going to have to do something productive with my day to ensure my mood remains buoyant!

Wish me luck



7 thoughts on “Witzelsucht and Thabo Mbeki

  1. Oh gosh dear. I am so sorry you are still having a hard time sleeping. Maybe it’s time to call the doctor to see if they can try to prescribe you something calming?
    As for being extra vulnerable when you are tired: people do not realize how much of a thing this is. And it can be really hard to manage. The only advice I can give you is to try and reason with yourself in the moment. Why am I reacting like this? Is it cause I am tired? Yes. Then, that most likely means that it’s not a rational response. Has this happened before? List some examples to yourself. Also, is this response helpful? No… Then let’s park those thoughts and focus on the task at hand. <– this requires some training and getting used to, but it really, really helps in the long run.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Does it help to know you’re not the only one? 🥴 As a fellow disrupted sleeper – not habitually insomniac – I can only say, given current circumstances, it’s hardly surprising. You have my empathies and sympathies. My go-to is ambient sounds, relaxation music – the sort of thing they play in yoga classes, no beat, no words. Worth a try and helps restore steady breathing and calmness too. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🤗

      The main issue with the ambient noise of course is that it might not enhance the sleep of the (normally spark out) other occupant of my bed 😂

      I’ve been for a nice walk already today so I’m hoping it will help later this evening x

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So, I read your blog post and then went out for my brisk morning walk….Jingle Bells was playing in my head. You are a very influential writer!! I even elaborated on the theme with the Dixieland version, Ella Fitzgerald scat singing, twangy country sound, the Chipmunks and even Bob Dylan. So, I am a fellow sufferer. And when all this visits in the night it is a sort of torture. One of the things I’ve learned is that when I try to address it directly with “reason” it only returns stronger after a momentary pause. As it is said “what we resist persists”. Instead of direct warfare, I’m having some success with just ignoring it – like it’s someone else’s radio playing and I can’t control the dial. And then shift my attention to my breathing or my body’s need to relax and rest. It’s a skill and it takes practice. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s less the music and more the words for me (although I’m particularly susceptible to dextrously written lyrics) that linger and repeat.

      On the bright side it means I’m cursed with a lack of sleep – but simultaneously gifted with an ever expanding vocabulary that can be deployed when I need to describe life’s torments and tribulations to my readers 😂

      Liked by 1 person

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