Saturday, 10 October 2015

20 Things I've Learnt about mental health in 20 months of working for an NHS mental health trust

1. Mental health is misrepresented to make it more palatable. Anxiety & depression are often the only mental health problems discussed and are often reduced to "being a big worried" and "feeling a bit sad". These conditions are presented in such a manner that makes them easier to accept. This is damaging to people with these conditions and those with other conditions that aren't mentioned.

2. NHS services categories are often damaging. The NHS uses the following categories to provide services
- Adult Services
-Child & Adolescent Services
-Forensic Services
-Learning Disability Services
-Older Adult Services
-Substance Misuse Services
-Eating Disorder Services
 So essentially if you are a fifteen year old person with an eating disorder and a learning disability your treatment is decided by a clinician deciding which service you will use. It may be that you're stuck in the learning disability service, the only young person there, or that you enter treatment for your eating disorder only to find barrier to your treatment due to your learning disability.

3.  Anti-medication rhetoric is empty rhetoric. "People with mental health problems need support not meds". This is far from true and often contributes to the erasure of huge groups of people. Having been on psychiatric medication for my own anxiety & depression (whilst having a supportive partner and friends around me) I know for a fact that medication allowed me to live my life. In fact some people's medication alleviates symptoms like psychosis & delusions of grandeur that no amount of chatting about with friends would stop.

4. There is no shame in seeking treatment. Just like there is no glory in recovering from a broken leg without the appropriate treatment of a cast, there is no glory in "getting through" mental illness without treatment and treatment includes medication. If medical professionals, family or friends try to pressure you out of using medications with the shame argument they are using social biases towards non-disability to do this. You should consult (further) medical professionals who don't use this kind of argument for less biased advice.

5. Treatments aren't usually to cure. For most of us, the treatments we receive via the NHS or other avenues are mostly to help us exist with our condition rather than to "cure" us.

6. Treatments include (I've put some loose examples after each.)
 -Self help (practising breathing exercises for anxiety)
-Hospitalisation (being put under a Section to prevent suicide or harm)
-Peer Support (an assigned Peer Support worker assisting with everyday tasks such as filling in forms)
-Neurosurgery (surgery used to treat conditions not aided by other treatments, very uncommon)
-Social Care (a social worker to help someone leave an unsuitable housing situation that is causing stress)
-Medication (someone with bipolar disorder using the mood stabilising drug lithium)
-Psychotherapy (a child attending play therapy or a person with OCD being referred to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)

7.  Since 2010 many local authorities have been forced to cut their social work budget increasing strain on NHS services (especially in dementia care, where people who were functioning in the community find their condition deteriorates due to reduction or removal of social care and support for their carer's or family).

8. Forensic mental health services should be more funded & prisons should be abolished. Forensic mental health services are those that cater to inmates of prisons. With statistics showing that 9/10 people in prison have mental health problems, it's clear that prisons aren't a suitable treatment to social 'ills' or to mental health problems. Now if 9/10 of those inmates would be better placed in a a mental health setting the population of prisons would essentially render them useless.

9. The reported statistic that  1 in 4 people experience mental health problems is actually much higher. ('Obviously!' I hear you groan).

10. Mental health services are a gendered experience. 'women more likely to receive treatment than men' & 'men three times more likely to commit suicide than women'  (no evidence about non-binary gendered people or even current statistics on transgender people's experiences in contrast to cisgender experiences)

11. Mental health services are incredibly institutionally racist. Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic people are 'less likely to report their mental health problems' & they are 'more likely to be turned away from services'. (

12. NHS Staffs' mental health is impacted negatively by cuts. Now this is not absolute evidence, but as the person who coordinates the staff mediation service for a mental health trust that had £8 million cut from its budget, I noticed that after the announcement my case loads had basically tripled in comparison to my pre cut caseloads. Which means that for some reason (fear for their jobs, stress, etc) staff began arguing more.

13. You can see if NHS staff would recommend the mental health trust they work for (a very telling indicator) by looking at staff surverys.

14. The majority of violent crimes are committed by people who don't have mental health problems. (So you can stop using the word psychopath or schizo to describe behaviour of violent people, now, thanks.)

15. Everyone has the legal right to NHS mental health care in an accessible language. This means whether you communicate in English, Urdu, British Sign Language or German, you are entitled to have letters, instructions, questions and results communicated to you in an accessible language. This is the same for all public sector organisations and is often a contentious issue for right wing pressure groups in the U.K.

16. Addiction services should be preventative services. Often in the U.K addictions are presented as something that puts a blame or burden of "cure" at the hands of the individual addict. The media (press & social media) tells us that addicts are weak and criminal. This is wrong. Addiction is a mental health problem that can be helped with mental health treatments such as therapy and medications. But importantly addiction is best treated by reform of drug laws, fully funded & appreciated social work & education. When I was 17 I found myself needing to enter treatment for addiction. I received help from addaction that I believe saved my life. When addiction is seen as the fault of individuals and not a societal problem addiction services are more likely to be cut which is dangerous.

17. Your employer has a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for you mental health condition. (e.g. Allowing a person with PTSD to work in a quieter office)

18. Specific diagnosis's aren't always useful. Although often a necessary key to open doors to treatment, for many, the broad, changing and varied mental health symptoms they experience aren't always usefully diagnosed. Having a term to apply to something say 'anxiety' may mean medical staff don't always know to factor in symptoms outside of anxiety.

19. Even the government acknowledges that mental health problems can be disabilities.

20. Given that mental health and physical health are for most an intertwined state- our healthcare system should be able to treat both. It is exhausting, expensive & frustrating to have to traipse around to seven different medical appointments a month at different hospitals, in different towns and be treated as person who is purely defined by their need for psychotherapy one day  and a person who is defined by their need for physiotherapy the next. Many mental health services are working on making physical health more of a priority and I for one have my fingers crossed this works and is reciprocated by other health services.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

"I turn a lot of heads, I turn a lot of stomachs" what it's like when you're not the object of desire

A friend on Facebook posted this article by Sarah Einstein and my response to it feels bigger than I could reasonably call 'a status'. In the article Einstein talks about her experience of being an older, less physically attractive wife to a younger, more physically attractive man. The two speak freely about their situation- he is not attracted to her body and she is working through her negative feelings about this. He is however attracted to her mind and she feels good about this. 

Like Sarah Einstein '(...)beautiful has always been beyond me. If people find me so, it’s only after they’ve come to know me. (...) I minded this quite a lot in my teens, when it seemed that only beautiful people mattered, that it was a prerequisite for a good life.' But more than her writing about how she doesn't turn heads or has always been plain, I find I turn plenty of heads. I have always repulsed people (especially men) and can't walk down a street without an extended look. Hardly go a day without comments being made  about me. On my first day of my current job my boss gave me diet advice. I get comments about my unattractiveness online a lot (A LOT). And why is this? Well, it's not because I'm plain, I wish I was plain! Plain would be a godsend.

 By conventional standards I am deeply ugly (in part due to my being a fat person, in part a hairy mixed white/arab woman, I have a heavy brow, a giant chin and a strangely cartoonish look). I also have large disfigurements on my body. I can say these things. I can say them and know that they are true to society's standards but not absolute fact. I spent many years feeling like it wasn't my job to be beautiful, I rebelled against beauty, wore sexy clothes on Wednesday mornings without waxing my eyebrows. I took a few years out to readjust what I expected of my body and myself. 

Somewhere down the line I began to feel my subversion of norms was actually, very attractive. I am not easy on the eyes, my presence requires space and attention & work. It always has, but importantly I stopped trying to make myself smaller & I started occupying space in my own life.

When I was seventeen a (frankly mediocre) man once said to me 'I think about us being together. Usually I go for good looking women but you've got this intellect'. 
but you've got this intellect.
He's married now, to a beautiful woman, a friend actually. And I hope at least for her that he has let go of the abstract standard beauty he had decided it was his job to enforce on women. 

Though this statement stung (stings, even after eight years) I can see where he was coming from.I can see why she is his wife. I can see why I am not. I can see why Sarah Einstein is doing herself a favour by working through her feelings on her desirability.

I'm not Sarah Einstein. I'm a queer, fat, disabled and working class person. I'm also polyamorous. I work really hard to undo the messages society has taught me about myself (in the full knowledge that not everyone I sleep next to has bothered to do the same). I try my best to avoid toxic media messages, I look at myself naked in the mirror even on the days I don't want to. I read books written by other fat people. I shout at men who harass me in the street. I call out abusive behaviours in the queer scene (usually to my own exclusion and suffering). I take myself on decadent dates. I eat in public. I talk about sex. I care more about Janelle Monae than Jeremy Clarkson. I have several sexual and romantic partners. I cut toxic people out my life (where safe and possible to do so). I do most of my online interacting in explicitly queer femme spaces and the people whose opinions I listen to are mainly other fat working class femmes.

But something is rotten in the state of Denmark (my life). On a daily basis I feel my relationships (despite my attempts to work against it) have been/are still highly impacted by the thinking that my body is unsexy, undesirable and that my merit (smash merit tbh) is based purely in how much I can perform the role of funny fatty and clever prole.  I know lots of other people I know feel the same. And I want to tell you- it is not your job to fill in the deficit others consider your body to make with with, intellect or entertainment. Beautiful, thin, young people are allowed to be vapid & so are you.

The other day I was thinking about polyamory and the very real and harmful way in which people stack, hierachalise and demote their romantic/sexual partners. Polyamory is supposed to an alternate method of loving and dating to the typical white heterosexual nuclear family of Western economic creation. It's not a massive surprise that it ends up reinforcing a lot of the really shitty dynamics that already exist. I can't tell you how many times I found myself pushed out of relationships by people who were more conventionally attractive than me. You see in our relationships there's no need to break up, we can just invest more time in the people we think gain us more social capital. And slowly us uglies fade away.

And I'm sorry Sarah, but I'm just not as strong as you, I can't make peace with being the person who is the last resort date (or friend, femmerades, let's not pretend we aren't stuck doing the dishes whilst the cool andro and masculine people gain queer points by misquoting Marx). I can't make peace with my body being a barrier or a hurdle for people to love me. 

Me stating this doesn't mean it isn't something that effects me. If only acknowledging this shit meant it went away. I assure you, I'm well aware that all my relationships are subject to my partners not finding someone more attractive and thinner. And yeah, I spend a lot of my time stuck in scarcity mentality (warning on this link for discussion and take down of dieting).  Reading Einstein's article I felt deeply emotional at the passage 'In our early days, before my husband could articulate the ways in which he both did, and did not, feel desire for me, we sometimes fought about our sex life. I’m tired of always having to be the one who makes the first move, I’d say, and do you think I’m ugly, and of course are you sure you love me? (...) And we’d make love that night because he’d reach for me, and then not again—sometimes for weeks—until I reached for him.' because man, I know those feels. And it's not just about sex because as other people who are reminded daily by the behaviour of partners, friends and family- we all know that it's difficult to feel loved by someone who to all intents and purposes feeds our self-loathing. I feel like we (fat femmes, working class women) wake up every day and exist, fight through family meals and obnoxious men and horrible media messages about ourselves. We are strong. But your oppressive body politics are your issue and something you need to work through to be safe to date us. It's not about education it's about work. Your pseudo sex positive 'preferences' don't exist in an apolitical vacuum. 

A while back a friend who was having a difficult time read me this article by Derek Sivers entitled 'No more yes. It's either HELL YEAH! or no' (warning there for overly enthusiastic straight dude). We need to be 100% clear that being fat doesn't make you unsexy and being older doesn't make you undesirable and being attractive in a non-conventional manner isn't an excuse for a lack lustre approach to us or our bodies. Equally, the kyriarchal bullshit that slips out the mouths of your partners and family is no excuse for a half-arsed approach to loving yourself. It will hurt when the person you were filling in time for (shout out at this point to Samantha Peterson for writing this amazing poem) comes along and they are thinner, and funnier(although funnier is unlikely) than you. They are literally you lite. It will hurt and then it won't. It is not evidence. It does not confirm anything other than the person who pushed you aside is a grade A trumpet. You do not have to spend another moment being pushed aside or undesired. I could tell you that I will always find beauty in the piece of you that they recoiled from, and I will, but the most important thing is that we find ourselves worthy. Even when how we feel about ourselves is negated by someone we love. Sarah Einstein's article registered with me in several ways, and I know that what she is saying is important and true and sad and beautiful. But for me, it's not the end of the story. 

If nothing else- it is a lot of work to be the person holding up both (or all) sides of a relationship. Call me an entitled millenial (or whatever bullshit term people are using to describe young women who they disagree with these days) but I'm not willing to hedge my future happiness on an Ann Summer's catalogue & the hope that I find someone who tolerates my powerful, exciting body.

 You cannot validate yourself through other people. And if they leave you in the fruit bowl in hope of finding less bruised fruit, then- fuck them. Or rather, don't. They are not your safety.

Lately I have been writing things down to make sense of them, I have been reading more in order to improve my writing and in my reading I found these words. I repeat them to myself when ever I feel devalued by someone I love, or am invested in

'you can't make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful 
something not everyone knows how to love.' 
-Warsan Shireh
For women who are difficult to love

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

This year my birthday present to me...IS ME

I know, I know, that sounds super cheesy and a bit hippie right? But there is definitive proof me and birthdays don’t get on well (*see at bottom of page for self pitying list) and I think I know why. It seems to me that birthdays are another front where my inability to surround myself with loving and respectful people, or (as suggested by my therapist) my inability to consider myself wholly worthy of (and demand) a decent level of respect sees me spending every August and most of September with a low sinking feeling in my stomach. The pressure is on to organise ‘A Thing’ or have ‘A Thing’ organised for me.

Suddenly Facebook events become a rite of passage for validation. Sentimental baby pictures taped up on lampposts are a necessity and ideally you have your own hash-tag. Because of this I am nervous. I am neurotic. I am 100% sure that everybody hates me and I am going to spend my birthday in another family's caravan, resented and alone. People like drinking, but I don't drink. Queers are supposed to be able to smoke weed and drink gin, but I have found myself deeply & unfashionably sober since the age of 21 (and constantly excluded for it). We're supposed to spend our birthdays being showered with gifts by our (presumably wealthy) families. But that's not really how stuff goes for me either. If nothing else we're supposed accept this yearly occurrence with grace and dignity. But I seem to be stuck with grace and dignity's working class cousins- money problems and anxiety. The resonating pressure of those two words 'supposed to' means that by early September I am a mess.I have only ever had one friend who seems to have the organisational skill and reckless determination to tackle me and my birthday phobia, who has listened to me cry from bed after being let down by friends, who has rang me up every year since I was 17 and said ‘So what are we doing for your birthday?', who made sure I was never forgotten never invisible on my birthday (it’s you, Lucy, in case you’re wondering) and whilst I truly love her for it, those aren’t very good odds are they? One person out of hundreds?

Don’t get me wrong when I say me and birthdays don’t get on. I mean there are good elements of all the birthdays listed below (I mean, who wants to speak to humans anyway, goats are way cooler) and I have had good birthdays. When I was little, birthdays were magical. I got to dress up in a BIG POOFY DRESS and wear a ribbon on my head. I got shiny toys and I got to see family. But most of all, the loving attention that was laid upon me made me feel replenished, special and capable. People being happy that you were born is like, a pretty nice indicator.But when you're not living the dream life (not even on instagram), when 'Suddenly I see' by KT Turnstall doesn't play as you walk down the street, when maybe not everyone is overly excited about the fact that you still exist, where does that attention come from?

I am a common, fat, womanish person with holes in my shoes and no postgraduate degree who doesn't take sh*t from people. Societal norms dictate that I am not first in line for loving attention. So what do I do? Well here comes the super cheesy idea- maybe I give myself that attention? (Not in that way, although maybe, I mean, self-love right?) Maybe you could give it to yourself too? After all, for those of us who are pushed out of spaces, spoken over in our social groups and sidelined at work is there really any other option?

Here is my action plan

1. Take it from Akua Naru “self love is the very first romance”
Everyday I am trying my best to remind myself that I am in a life long relationship with myself and that I am a gift that only improves with age. Every year I know more, try new things, meet new people, and achieve new things. Even if it’s getting out of bed, making it to work, writing this blog post. I am reminding myself that the aging process is not negative and that I am a worthy person all year round.

2. Forgiveness is a virtue
Forgiving myself for being imperfect in a world that demands an oppressive standard, forgiving myself for not doing enough work or forgetting to pick up milk. I am doing my best to look upon myself with forgiving eyes because like it or not, I am stuck with myself for the long haul. Forgiveness is difficult when you have no money and limited prospects. Forgiveness is difficult when you are unhappy with your place in the queerosphere, the workplace, the family and society. Forgiveness is a process, and it will probably take me the rest of my life, but guilt will ruin the rest of my life & I know which I'd rather be working towards.

3. Enjoying the ride
Everything I achieved I achieved in this body with this brain. When I am distracted by negative and toxic messages about my self worth I am being drained of my energy. Energy to be an attentive partner, energy to be a supportive colleague, energy to organise politically, energy to confront the trauma in my past. I have started looking at baby photos. I have started making lists of my adventures. I have started spending time with the old friends who I can laugh with at shared memories. But most of all I have started have started celebrating my life in its current state, no apologies. Being at war with myself is not sustainable. If I am working towards living & forgiving (as in points one and two) then this point to say that I must also work towards surviving and thriving. 
Me (far right) running whilst fat

This year I am my own birthday present. I am ensuring that I lavish myself with loving attention, that I feel replenished. This year I am fat, and worthy. Disabled and capable. Anxious and loud. Sober and entertaining. Ugly and beautiful. Serious and hilarious. Working class and yes, probably a little bit more intelligent than you.This year I am imperfect, my own little state of anarchy. It's not all planned out. I'm not looking forward to a holiday or a promotion, and it's highly likely that I'm not going to be 'achieving' things in the way that I'm 'supposed to'. But I'll make do with what I've got and what I've got has a lot of potential. This year I am wearing a BIG POOFY DRESS and a ribbon in my hair. And even if I spend the day on my own, or don't hear from family, or things don't go to plan, this day doesn't define me. It's not a test, not another chance to flaunt my social capital. It's enough to just get a year older and still be alive. I am taking responsibility for myself and that is scary, yeah. But god, the odds of getting through the month are so much better when I’m not at war with the person in the mirror.

*Self Pitying List 1. There was the year when I spent my birthday on a family trip in Wales with some family members, wandering lonely and only comforted by the presence of goats, stranded with a little family I wasn’t really a part of (seriously you wanna see the pictures from the disposable camera taken on that holiday, a picture of me with a dog, a picture of some rabbits, a picture of a pony, some more rabbits, the cloudy Welsh sky, a goat, two goats, three goats). 2. There was the year I spent my birthday in bed crying after being let down by a friend. 3. There was the year a parent forgot how old I was. 4. There was the year a family member forced me to have a ‘tea party’ against my will & when they then proceeded to get drunk and to flail around the house to a soundtrack of Bob Marley and my father saying (louder than he thought) ‘doesn’t she (me) have any friends?’. 5. There was the year I became '& co' at a joint party. 6. There was the year my foster mother forced me to spend my birthday watching her cry in a KFC car park, and gave me a box of chocolates & and old bottle of perfume in the gift bag I gave her some Mother’s Day presents in. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about the money or the gifts, but she got a bloody grant on my birthday. 7. There was the year all my ‘friends’ at my primary school didn’t come to my birthday sleepover because I was the fat kid with a single mum and we lived in a council house. 8. There was the year when I had the flu & a family member organised a meal in the local Italian restaurant & shouted at me for not dressing up enough so I spent the day half crying. 9. There was the year when I threw myself a party, had a panic attack and thought I was dying. 10. There was the several years I lost out to aggressive, careless, cruel or controlling partners, illness, self loathing. 11. There was the many years where my birthday was just a way to keep the electricity meter going, just a token from people who offered no further support during the rest of the year.

On women only train carriages

I often utilise women only spaces (officially ones or unofficial ones) to avoid harassment in public & at social events (toilets, gyms, kitchens at parties, clothes shops) and, you know what? It works. The issue of public transport is the issue of choice. Now, it would be real simple if you and your buddies could make the honourable choice to stop flexing your metaphorical members in a cat call-off on a Friday night, but my experience has concluded that you can’t. So the idea of women only coaches on trains and tubes (proposed for consultation with women by Jeremy Corbyn) is one simple (by no means 100% solve-all option to give women a choice to be in a carriage with no men in it. Now, whilst there may be problems with this idea (that would be useful  for women to discuss together) men have taken to twitter to air their disgust at this policy idea. 

I have been harassed on public transport since the age of 14. Telling me that this ‘could easily happen to men’ even though it doesn’t is telling me that I, at age 14 on the train from Southport to Appley Bridge deserved to be cornered and & have middle aged men interrogate me about body.

Because the truth of the matter is in the last eleven years I have grown to expect to be sexually harassed and assaulted on public transport with very little support from other passengers. And when that support comes it is usually from other women.

Every time I have been harassed on public transport it has been (to my knowledge) by a man 99.9% of these instances the man has been white 99.9% of instance he has been unchallenged.

-It was a man who repeatedly tried to touch me on an empty platform in Liverpool when I was 21.

-It was a man who harassed me on a weekly basis on the 395 bus from Ormskirk to Skelmersdale, who got annoyed when I refused to speak to him and followed me part of the way home when I was 19.

-It was a man who rubbed his genitals on my hip on the London Underground when I was 18.

-It was a man who intercepted another man who was drunkenly propositioning me at Ormskirk bus station only to then sexually harass me for the entire journey home when I was 22. Imagine that- getting sexually harassed whilst you’re being sexually harassed.

-It was a group of boys (age 12-16) who spat at me, threw food and drinks at me & chanted names at me every morning on the school bus in Shevington when I was 14.

-It was a man who touched my body without my consent on the 143 bus in Manchester when I was 23. And who got the funny looks when I shouted over to my friend  ‘Ew this man is trying to grope me’? Oh yeah, me.

-It was a man who rubbed his thigh against my leg and read over my shoulder on the bus last night.

-It was a group of four men who made comments about my fat body this morning at the coach station.

I am 25.

I have been spat at, cornered, followed, groped, shouted at, whispered to, blocked from moving, stared at, spoken about, had pictures taken of me, been called names, been coerced into conversation, been sexually shamed & had my belongings confiscated.

I have tried ignoring it, challenging, discussing it, reporting it, shouting back, glaring, asking other passengers for help & physical confrontation.

Any whilst it might hurt a few feelings for men who have decided that this is ‘segregation’ (which is not only pretty flagrant use of a racially charged word but just horrifically incorrect) or that ‘all carriages should be harassment free’ (yeah, they should, but erm, they aren’t & I don’t see you looking up from your copy of the Telegraph to challenge other men on their behaviour) I can’t help but feel cheated.

Yet again men’s views are privileged above women’s safety and autonomy. That same privilege that comes into play when a man decides his desire to touch a woman comes before her permission. Your feelings are hurt?  Your FEELINGS are hurt. Fine. That doesn’t make your beliefs correct. This isn’t Dawson’s Creek. This is the real world. And I have a life time of research called ‘Being a Woman on Public Transport’ to support my ideas.

So I’m sorry if the idea that women want to be safe from the daily barrage of crap you throw at us is hurtful. It seems so many of you are moved to tweet, maybe whilst on public transport, maybe whilst ignoring the awkwardness of a woman being harassed three seats down.

I am tired of pretending to be on the phone, pretending to know other women on public transport to defuse harassment situations and most of all I am tired of pretending to care about your feelings. Close your legs,  get your hand off my thigh, log off twitter and shut up.

Monday, 10 August 2015

On Jump Stories of Life, Love and Fear by Paula Kelly-Ince, justice & quiche.

In university, where Paula & I met (studying creative writing), each semester we had an assignment entitled 'Reading as a Writer'. And sometimes, when I wasn't too busy protesting or talking about representation, I did the assignment. We analysed the work of playwrights, poets, screen writers, novelists and memoirists. We discussed their form their structure, what themes we would apply to our own work and how, if the work was effective and (audible gasp) what we would improve. 
Now, it's one thing telling your classmates their time travelling-rapping-werewolf-romance novel would be a more consistent read if the dialogue was tighter, but comrades, it is an entirely different bag of fish to critique a "real" writer.  A "real" writer with that elusive published masterpiece (following film adaptation, cult classic t shirt references). Yes, obviously I chose George Orwell.

Believe me. I am picky. I may not be Judy Blume myself but I can sniff out holes in stories at the speed a quiche disappears at a family buffet (dead quick). I guess the reason I'm saying this is that when I read Jump I felt that I was reading as a writer, reading the work of an established and effective writer. Paula writes beautiful and delicate stories of people (mainly women, woop woop feminism) at their extremes. These circumstances that life pushes up to live through, documented in such a grounded style. 
And that's the point. Paula's work is effective because it's written about women I could know. Working class situations we recognise, grief, crushes and money problems, community. Struggle, really. How often is it that we see our own experiences played out on the page interspersed with magic realism and hilarious dialogue? Never. 
On reading Mr Phillips I  was transported to my own teenage years. And with Paula's gentle, yet uncompromising humour I began to recognise the hilarity of youth. The story plays out before you and after all you can do is think God, do you remember -. Even now I spend time too wrapped up in social justice causes (arguing with Tories on the internet) to consider the relationship between activism and fiction. But I believe healing is part of justice and Paula's work was, for me, healing. 
Jump is a story that rings with heartbreak and shines light on an area so often wrought with shame and secrecy.  Tara is a story that twinkles with promise and the unsaid. The fact that these three stories can sit side by side in unison is a testament to Paula’s skill, precision and bravery. It is brave to speak out, to construct these voices that whisper truths to us, in a world that seeks to scare us into silence. 
Seeing the stories of working class people, especially women written down, it's transformative. Sometimes, just existing in a world where you are abhorred and tested is radical in itself. Depicting the stories we are too scared or embarrassed to tell is one step further. If doing so with elegance & care is not justice I don't know what is. 

  • To buy Jump (for less than £1!) click here Content note for still birth and child death in Jump, slut shaming in Mr Phillips. 
  • For weekly updates on Paula's hilarious life and musings on feminism and parening you can follow Paula's blog.
  • To keep up to date with Paula's writing you can like her on facebook or follow her on twitter @paulakellyince.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

# 1 things you thought would be different in the queer community that aren't - Productivity

  Like many people with mental health problems, disabilities & addictions & regressions I live in fear of someone asking me THAT question
'What have you been up to?'
1. Because they are usually only asking this so they can tell me about their new job/house/other thing that garners them 'productive human' privilege in painful, smug, insensitive detail.
2. Because when I answer honestly 'Nothing' it seems to unsettle them.
3. Because what I have been up to is eating nutella out the jar, crying & harboring resentment towards everyone in the world who doesn't feel as shit as I do.

I've not been writing. (In fact I've not been writing, working, smiling, exercising, socializing or any other verbs that are expected of me).

I've not been writing for a while now. Not writing poetry, not writing job applications, not writing much of anything. In university my favorite tutor once told me that writer's block was just ego. As if your particular words are so precious that you can only pour them out over a page when they have crystallized into a literary masterpiece. Get over yourself, learn some humility, develop drafts. But I don't have writer's block, not least because (like that tutor) I don't believe in it.

 I have life block.

I have life block & I can't talk about it to people within the wider queer scene because our dominant ideas about mental health center around palatable, imagined try-hard-activists-who-somehow-manage-to-struggle-through-their-problems-to-contribute-in-a-meaningful-way. And I am not contributing to shit. I am regressing & retreating  & relapsing into behaviors I used to need cushion myself from immediate dangers I don't even experience any more. I am breaking. Every aspect of my life seems to some how be on the verge of complete failure, I am in a grey area of my own inability to human, And if I'm honest it's fucking sad & boring  enough without feeling like I need to create a long list of imaginary shit I've been up to.

The thing I've noticed most by my newly found desire to spend all day alone in my bedroom crying is this; productivity as a superior trait is not a concept that is challenged enough. And that little question 'What have you been up to?' eats into me, sets my brain desperately searching for a truthful response because I don't want to lie to you when you ask me. But given that you just spent ten minutes explaining how busy you've been (and leaving spaces for me to make impressed noises) I kinda need to. I know this because when I don't I see a flicker in your eyes that tells me it's not only that I'm not contributing to the conversation, I'm not contributing to the community. And that you think that makes me (get ready for some oppressive nonsense) 'Lazy'. Surely I have Things To Do? Surely I have Ways To Be Productive?

The fact of the matter is; this bullshit around productivity is capitalist, lifestyleist cuntery. And I've let it make me feel bad for too long. So I've stopped engaging in circles where capital is awarded to the people running the most zine making, lesbian knitting, yogurt weaving, beard recycling, vegan whittling, post grad smoking, guitar protesting workshops/marches/petitions/meetings.

 I'm not even mad, kids, I'm just opting out of this verbal wankathon of Judith Butler/<insert relevant event>, I'm just sitting this one out. 

It's not that I have no desire to do anything, it's that the big tasks in my life are so big that every time I think I might go for a walk or write a letter or take a shower my brain says 'Hey, what about all these things you should be working on/obsessing over?'

And here we come to my main point of writing this. I have decided that I'm stepping out of this unacknowledged privileging of productivity (in queer spaces particularly). And instead of meeting, and advising, and workshoping I'm going to give myself permission to do nothing. And I'm going to do nothing until I feel like trying another verb; healing (whatever the fuck that means).

I've lost count of the amount of times I've been knocked off my feet by wave upon wave of regression & relapse & I know I'm not the only one who is struggling to stand up and dust myself off to try again. I think those of us who experience life block, whose lives fold in on themselves every few months or years (who suddenly find themselves unable to leave the house or answer their emails or speak to family or friends, or go to work, or eat properly or wash or get dressed, those of us whose parents don't financially pick up & put us back on our feet, those of us whose conditions aren't curable) need to take time to recognize that our mental health problems, our day to day struggles aren't what most people are talking about when they are discussing mental health. Because recovery for us isn't a story ark, it's us bracing ourselves against the storm long enough to try and function (whatever the fuck that means to us) for a short while.

If you know that you, like me, fear that horrible question, and other variations of it (no, I don't know where my 'career' is going, and I don't want to hear about yours, thanks) let's make a pact. Let's decide instead to ask each other about how we feel (and genuinely care about the answer in a non-condescending manner), congratulate each other on getting out of bed, high five over surviving life thus far, even if we have gotten here in week old pyjamas with stains on them  and our friends/family/partners have become repulsed by our endless ability to fuck up and freak out.

 Even if we've not written anything for a while.  

Monday, 23 June 2014

Being a care leaver, being a survivor.

What does it mean to be a care leaver? 
In policy terms it means a relevant child or former relevant child who has been under the care of their local authority as a young person. For the purposes of our everyday lives I will discuss what being a care leaver means on a practical, emotional level and what it means within society. These discussions may not be confined or limited to purely legal definitions depicted in government policy.

The experience(s) of young people in care is one of the most important  measurements of society’s values.We need to talk about our experiences in care, because they shape who we are after care. We are taught how and where we fit into society whilst in care. But we also learn about how society functions in relation to us because being in care means you are very aware of how the state treats some of its most vulnerable citizens. The entire country’s ideas and values are built around the government and politics of the time (whether people agree or disagree with them is less important than the fact they exist.) And because so much of our interactions with the local government are taken up by initiatives and new schemes (does anyone remember free laptops?), we understand which parts of our lives society sees as important and which parts it chooses to forget or ignore.

 Abuse, representation and reality
For example of young people in care being yardsticks of values I will discuss a time paedophilia and child abuse were less discussed, engaged with and investigated. An instance of this is the widely discussed case of Jimmy Savile, whose celebrity status and power gained him entry to the homes and lives of vulnerable young people in care.  In the 2012 documentary produced by the BBC entitled ‘Jimmy Savile What the BBC knew’ the  investigators spoke with people who were in care and abused by (or witnessed abuse by) Savile.  Young women were often taken out in Savile’s car and didn’t realise that his actions were abuse, some even believed them to be romantic. In a lot of cases it seems safe to say that the lack education on relationships that these young women received contributed to them believing the interactions they had were healthy, and the abuse they endured was a ‘trade off’ for escape from their homes and for getting some attention that made them feel important. This, along with the workers in the homes being in awe of Savile, and the Police dismissing the young people's reports meant that many of these young people, now middle aged and older have never spoken about their experiences.

So celebrity culture, the police and the care system created a free pass for Savile to abuse young women. 

Obviously some things have changed now. There is policy in place by for both the police and local authorities that should prevent this situation from happening. It is worth noting that this policy is often overlooked, or ignored by the police in situations relating to rape. Sometimes those who work with care leavers and young people in care don't get given the practical skills to put the policy into practice. This isn't the fault of those people, but rather a result of policy being written with lots of jargon and little understanding of how we live our lives.  Thus we see that the power dynamics of young people in care (with little or no power and understanding of the love and care they're entitled to) and adults with power over young people means that abuse occurs often. And just as often is goes unrecognised. 

Most recently there was the representation of (again sexual) abuse in the  Channel 4 drama The Unloved, this time they showed a young women being abused by a member of staff. The media often uses young people in care as a story, they sensationalise our experiences and turn us into statistics to scare their readers, but the media is often silent on other forms of abuse and the rest of the difficulties that face young people in care and care leavers.

Why abuse. why now?
I’ve had many interactions with other care leavers, at special events, and just personal chats and what seems most common is the widespread experience of abuse, before, during and after they have been taken into and left care. Obviously sexual abuse is important, but I’d like to define a few other kinds and open discussion about one. Physical abuse is  violence and physical harm, neglect is failing to meet a persons care needs, emotional abuse is bullying a person verbally, psychological abuse is more commonly understood as ‘mind games’. Abusers can be people in authority or our peers, it can happen at any point and all abuse is wrong.

 Most of the people in care I have spoken to and all of the care leavers I have gotten to know (and myself) have experienced at least one of these forms of abuse, usually more. I’ve never attended an event for care leavers that didn't turn into those present talking about their horrible experiences. Drunken foster parents, possessions stolen, or kept, physical harm, blame, lies told to social workers. I think one of the most important things I can say is- I believe them all. Care leavers and young people in care are so often not believed, so often people tell us that we ‘must’ have done something to provoke abuse towards us, but abuse is always the choice of the person committing it. We are not responsible for their actions. Because of the poor resources and structures that aren't effective we often have to work very hard to keep ourselves safe. That may be one of the reasons why so often care leavers live with a fight or flight response. We have strange habits, we may appear unusually protective of our possessions or unusually relaxed about them.We may get very upset when certain topics are mentioned, or seem very detached when we talk about topics that other people think are sensitive. We might feel scared that our homes and our things are going to be taken from us, this isn't because we're unnecessarily paranoid, but because we have been taught that this is what we deserve and should expect.

 Our experiences of abuse are real, they are difficult to process and we carry them with us as care leavers absolutely every single day. This is not to say we are weak, or we can’t let go of the past, or we can’t form healthy relationships, but that we have a very different experience to our peers who have not been in care. Of course other people can encounter all the forms of abuse I have listed above, so what’s the difference? 

 What's new?
Being 'looked after' by the state/government means we are automatically at the mercy of whoever is in power. And the people in power may change and have different ideas about how to run the country, and how much funding the local authority(/ies) should have. In fact, from what I have seen, funding problems are more consistent than any scheme or project. Funding is reallocated or the terms of receiving it are changed, it's suspended, lessened or replaced with alternatives but this usually means the same thing- less money for those who need it. This is the same for all who need the help of the government, from people's benefits to hospitals to libraries. Very often care leavers are seen as an unnecessary expense.

I don’t want care leavers to feel oppressed or like they have to put up with endless suffering, but I feel it’s really important that we name the harm and sadness caused to our lives by the ever disappearing funding and the bureaucracy we encounter in just trying to live our lives. I think we should call it 'administrative neglect'. Our needs as care leavers are being ignored by the administration the people high up who run the government.

 This is not about the people who have cared for us, or social workers, it’s not a personal problem, it’s a problem with the system. It's a problem with the people who decide that our local communities can cope with millions of pounds less. The problem becomes real when the local government decide us, care leavers, are the best place to start cutting that money from.  This is offensive and unfair because the person deciding to cut funding has never lived in a kids home, has never run away from foster parents, doesn’t understand that university funding is sometimes the only reason some of us consider university. They are not qualified to make decisions about our lives, (but, just like the examples from before) because they hold power over us they are able to make choices about our lives that negatively effect us.

Why does it matter?
There’s a very important reason for us to recognise the failures and abuses that have happened; they impact our quality of life and our mental health, our aspirations, our physical health, our living conditions, our opportunities and self-esteem. Without understanding how these problems have changed our lives we can't begin to think about recovery. Much of the time care leavers attempt to go on with their lives like other people do, we get jobs, have families, or form relationships, but there’s always something that seems different. Often these walls of a life that we’ve built for ourselves fall down, and we feel unable to perform the average tasks to keep our lives flowing normally. It can be as simple as being scared to open letter, or as complicated as being scared to interact with the state via the NHS and not seeking adequate medical help. When this happens, we blame ourselves. Self-blame can tear lives apart, can make us believe that we didn’t try hard enough, or that our interactions with drugs, or with the judicial system are just incidents we’ve brought on ourselves. The reason we need to recognise administrative neglect is that these cuts often mean that there's not enough resources to teach us how keep our lives going, and how to mend them when they break. If that is the case, then the system of one person holding power over another is harming people. If, like I said earlier, young people in care and care leavers are the yardstick by which we can measure the values of society then what does that say about those values? It often seems like the media who were so interested in reporting about how many of us are 'victims' of sexual abuse don't want to report when powerful people in our country make cuts that make our lives worse.

So where does this leave us? 
Well often care leavers will find solace in another community, it might be friends we’ve met through college or university, it might be a community based around drugs, or other young parents, or a political community. I’m not here to say that any of those are wrong, we do what we need to do to build ourselves a family, to make decisions for ourselves, to get support.

One of my communities is feminism, (women’s rights) which is tied up a lot in children’s rights too. In  feminist discussions people who have experienced abuse aren’t called ‘victims’, they’re called survivors. If there’s one thing I would encourage all care leavers to do it is this- the next time you think about how you have been treated, or any abuse received and begin to feel weak remind yourself that being stood where you are now means that you survived it. You have overcome it. And though there might be nights when you feel anxious or scared, though you’re not always managing to juggle adult life just you, getting out of bed this morning (or staying in bed for a rest) means that you are surviving.

I don’t believe that there will be big changes to the government structure that will allow young people and care leavers to exist free from administrative neglect. But I do believe that the idea of a society where people in care are treasured and not condemned to suffering through administrative neglect is an idea worth hanging on to. After all, we’re all allowed to hope, right? Until the point when this is a reality I’ll stand tall with all of the other people who have suffered abuse in care and as care leavers and say- I’m not a care leaver, I’m a care survivor. Because you can take the kid out of care, you can't take the care system out of the kid, and if I'm going to carry so many experiences with me, I want to do it as someone who is still standing, I want to do it as a survivor.