Geek!

Value-added Existence

My drafts folder is ridiculous at the moment. I have one, almost fully-formed post, along with about three with titles and a couple of lines. I have a tendency to begin things, but never see them through.

I left my job a little over six months ago. I planned to take a little time off, to clear my head, settle in, get the lay of the land, and then get back into work. My birthday, which is at the tail-end of January, came and went, early thirties slowly becoming mid-thirties. Time to start looking for a job, earn some money while I figure out what I want to do.

You can probably guess what happened. Or didn’t happen, more accurately.

Our past predicts our future, to some extent. Every choice we did or didn’t make, every action taken or delayed or missed, every act that happened to us, or by us, or because of us… they have impact. They have consequences, far beyond the immediacy of now, or then. Simple choices like deciding to walk to work, instead of driving, or taking the bus; what to eat at lunchtime; even what clothes we decide to wear on any given day; all of these tiny, seemingly insignificant choices, they add up. They shape a future that we can only guess at, but have inevitably created without realising.

Of course, the so-called ‘big’ choices have impact, that much is obvious. Whether to apply for a job, or to continue education. Whether to live in another country (funds and status permitting), or to never leave your hometown. Whether to have children, or to adopt, or to remain child-free. These can be, and in various combinations are, the tentpoles of our individual futures, the at-a-glance highlights of the movie that may be made of our lives someday. Some of us may even become famous and be heralded as a bastion of humanity. Some of us may even end the world as we know it.

But our future, for all its unknowns, can be shaped by our past. Every single choice, action and reaction we take, lays down another piece of our personal yet-to-come. It’s not quite our destiny, but more a writing of roles in a production as-yet unconfirmed.

What gives our lives value? In the west, it is considered to be a person’s economic contribution to the machine that is late-stage capitalism. From a very early age, children are able to recognise brands; before they reach puberty, they are capable of having brand loyalty; by the time they’re teenagers, they understand their role as a consumer, with the ability to make decisions about purchases. They are taught, literally and figuratively, that a career is desirable. They are infused with the notion that hard work is admirable and that if they work hard, they will be rewarded. They are taught that they are only worth anything when they are working.

If they are incapable of working? Their worth is instantly destroyed. For a particularly chilling example of this, take a look at the way people with disabilities are treated by the current UK government. Fitness to work is seen as the only way to contribute meaningfully to modern Western society. But I digress.

So what does this have to do with my job hunting?

I went to uni at 19, after deferring for a year. In that year, I worked in a ski resort in the French Alps, and hated every single minute of it. I was one of the youngest there, and as I worked in a kitchen, I frequently had to deal with hungover/drunk/high chefs. I can tell you one thing I’ve learned from that time: chefs can be bastards. Anyway, I came home, older, wiser and slightly worried about the lack of French I’d learned. I went to uni, and everything fell apart. Long story short, I dropped out after a disastrous year abroad.

University is not a good place to be if you’re mentally ill. Cheap alcohol, a lack of boundaries, a mental illness and newly-found independence leads to a collapse of identity and an increase in self-loathing. It takes every grain of resistance and bloody-mindedness to stay in an environment like university, when your own brain is telling you to jump off the tallest building on campus.

Worth becomes a significant factor in scenarios like this.

When I made the decision not to return to university for my final year, I was relieved, to a certain extent. I wasn’t enjoying the course, I was drinking and cutting heavily, and I was 90% convinced I would barely scrape through with a degree.

I was made to feel like a fool for this decision. My worth as a human being, as a family member, was non-existent. I’d squandered this opportunity to be the first in my family to go to uni, and that my family had spent so much money on me, which was being wasted. I came home from Europe, to face my family. There was a lot of talking, a lot of shouting, a lot of bargaining, but I remained firm in my decision.

I found a job with Borders (the book company, who are sadly now out of business) at the airport, and fell into a rut. Get up, go to work, come home, sleep. Repeat ad infinitum. But it was ok, I was earning money, I was proving my worth. I got promoted, with a pay rise and extra responsibility, and the job promptly consumed my life. I would work long hours, come home late, get up early (3:30am alarms were common), and gradually became less and less satisfied with the job.

But I couldn’t just quit. Bills needed to be paid. Food needed to be bought. I went to work exhausted and miserable, came home exhausted and miserable. The whole situation was beginning to take a toll on my marriage (which was barely months old at that point). We had talked about moving back up to Lisa’s hometown, as she was missing her mum. So I began, on my days off, to look for work in that area. After a few weeks’ searching, I found a job with a well-known tech company, applied, interviewed and was hired.

The cycle began anew.

This employment lasted 9 years. I gave all of myself, worked my way through opening two stores, contributing to sales and eventually training, developed a specific skill set, based on facilitation-based training. Until I burned out. I didn’t do it spectacularly, with some sort of public breakdown. No, it happened slowly. It became harder to care about the job. Harder to care about my place in the business. Harder to care about the customers. By this point, I had been in the retail sector for over a decade, and I had just had enough. I found myself questioning what my value to the world was.

The western world has instilled this sense of work being a noble and admirable thing; that to work is to be a good, upstanding member of society. Capitalism has done a fantastic job of attaching self-worth to economic output, and this attachment has led to demonisation of the welfare state, people with mental and/or physical disabilities, diminishing of the value of the arts, and has done so in a astoundingly sinister way. A casual glance at the rhetoric from political parties, from businesses, even from education will show a society built around the concept of work = value.

So when you’re out of work, and unable to work/find work? You might as well not exist.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I signed on for Jobseeker’s Allowance about four weeks ago. Anyone who tells you it’s easy to get benefits is a liar and probably a conservative. It’s long, drawn-out, humiliating and requires the same amount of commitment as working. The initial interview lasts about an hour and makes you feel like you’re a waste of a person. It makes you question yourself far more than just sitting on a sofa, watching Jeremy Kyle, does. Now imagine if you’re disabled. Or have a mental illness. Some days, it is nigh-on impossible to get dressed, because the thought of job hunting makes me feel so anxious, I get light-headed and flighty.

There is a very real problem at the heart of western society. Because we have allowed ourselves to believe that capitalism (and consumer culture, something I became acutely aware of during my time with the tech company) is the best solution of a bad bunch, we have also allowed the slow, creeping dehumanisation of people to numb us to each other’s inherent, non-economic worth. This saddens me profoundly. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution, except to suggest that the arts need to be given more prominence and support, so that creativity can be nurtured, and some of that worth reclaimed by people.

Or maybe I’m just being too idealistic.

 

 

 

 

Geek!

When we’re too afraid to be who we really are

[Nothing graphic this time, but I’ll throw up a content warning anyway. This post is not going to have any real point to it, I just needed to write.]

I’m writing this in the middle of what could charitably be called a ‘global clusterfuck’. In this green and pleasant land of the United Kingdom, our unelected Prime Minister recently called a snap general election. Theories abound regarding this decision, particularly as she is on record previously denying she would call such an election, but the general consensus is ‘because Brexit.’ The actual voting doesn’t take place until the 8th of June, but we’ve just this past Friday had local elections, with a pretty poor turnout. (In the interest of full disclosure, I got my dates wrong and didn’t vote.) The Conservative party, a more covertly evil counterpart to America’s Republican party, did pretty well out of it. Mostly because our opposition party is hilariously non-existent.

As if to one-up us in the ‘let’s see how badly we can screw people over’ competition, the House of Representatives just passed the thoroughly vile and disgusting American Health Care Act. I don’t want to go into the details (better people online have done that with insight and intelligence), but suffice it to say, a lot of people I care about in the US stand to lose healthcare coverage, and possibly die. The one silver lining is that it is unlikely to pass through the Senate in its current form, and will probably be amended. The point is, though, that this was considered a ‘better’ alternative to the ACA (or Obamacare, if you must).

It’s easy to take universal healthcare for granted. The NHS has problems, a lot of them politically-inflicted, but it is a legitimately great service, with wonderful people who work hard to save lives. It would not be an exaggeration for me to say they literally saved my life.

Thankfully, France has seen sense and not voted in the far-right, fascist FN candidate. Granted, Macron isn’t really an amazing choice, but lesser of two evils and all that.

But I don’t really want to talk politics tonight. I’ve just about got my anxiety under control (thanks to medication and camomile tea), and I really don’t want to start an argument. That crap belongs on social media.

I’m not even sure if I actually want to write this post. I’m in a bad headspace at the moment (unemployment and mental illness will do that to you), but I feel like if I don’t, I’ll regret it. Or something to that effect, anyway.

My posts have been largely autobiographical, with a scattering of more creative endeavours, such as they are. It’s strange, but aside from sessions with my therapist, and my marriage, I feel most comfortable laying down my feelings here. I don’t even know how many people read this blog (yes, I know there are stats, but that just shows clicks, not amount of time on page), I don’t even know if it’s interesting or not, I don’t even know if any of you care enough not to remove me from your friends/following lists. But I guess I’ve always been something of an exhibitionist and a drama queen. Perhaps I should have gone into acting as a career. There are always casting calls for hideous monster of the week.

I think I’m just in need of a space where I don’t need to worry about people. While there is always a chance that one of you might reply in the comments, I’m pretty confident that you won’t. And that’s ok.

My natural urge is to isolate, to remove myself from everyone and everything. I’m not going to retread the reasons for this, but I am so, so much happier in my own company. Actually, no. Not happier. That would imply that I’m doing something to make me happy. It’s… safer. Every time I interact with someone outside of home, my anxiety and fear become all-consuming. The medication helps, a bit, in the same way that a plaster might help stop a bullet hole from bleeding everywhere.

What is safe? Like every other word in this messy language, it can mean countless different things. Is safe when you pull away from someone because they might hit you again? Is safe when you pull out a knife to defend your family? Is it isolating from everyone, for fear of being hurt?

Or is it the primal instinct that we justify with words and deeds, because we can’t comprehend our own animality? Am I pulling away because my flight reflex is constantly triggered? Or am I trying to justify the fear I have of other humans? Am I trying to humanise the animalistic? Or am I, like so many times before, simply overthinking these things?

My therapist tells me that I’m too hard on myself; that if I continue to exist, but not live, I’ll be forever miserable. I haven’t told her, yet, that I have to be vigilant, or else I might not be able to run away.

I haven’t even hinted at the gender stuff yet.

 

 

 

 

Mental Health

Kids Sure Like the Devil These Days

[TRIGGER WARNING FOR SUICIDE AND SELF INJURY. IF YOU ARE NOT IN A GOOD PLACE TO READ THIS, PLEASE STOP NOW. GO AND WATCH THIS VIDEO INSTEAD: https://youtu.be/dy3RTFFhSYs]

 

 

This post is partly inspired, for want of a better word, by Netflix’s newest drama, 13 Reasons Why. Full disclosure: I haven’t watched it, because I’ve been warned that it will be intensely triggering. I’ve heard mixed things about it, some saying it’s good, but intense, others saying it’s glorifying mental illness and suicide. I’m not going to address the show directly, because, as I said, I haven’t watched it. But it, coupled with an intense therapy session earlier this afternoon, serve as the backdrop for this post. As mentioned in the warning at the top of this post, this will more than likely be triggering, so please go and practice some self care.

Ok, it’s apparent that I’m mentally ill. I’ve documented as much in previous posts, and for those of you unlucky enough to know me, know that I struggle with it on a daily basis. The pieces that any of you are exposed to are the parts that break through the carefully maintained shell around my mind. What you may not know is this:

I frequently have suicidal ideations.

I should clarify, before anyone feels the need to call emergency services. I don’t have suicidal intentions, I’m not actively suicidal. I don’t plan on taking my life. Suicidal ideations are (sometimes) vivid thoughts about suicide, fantasies almost. They can range from idle passing thoughts about not existing, all the way to vivid, detailed fantasies of killing oneself. They differ from intent, as they are not intended to be acted upon, in most cases.

I have these ideations, because I dislike myself enough that I would prefer to not be alive. I don’t act on them, because the fallout would be devastating to the few people who can bear to be around me. That sounds so self-centred, doesn’t it? Therein lies the irony of suicide. It’s ironic, that in the loneliest state a person can feel, where all they can think is how much better off the world would be without them, and that no one will notice or care (or even benefit, in some cases), they will more than likely cause untold damage to the people around them. If they, like my more vivid ideations involve, decide to step off a platform and in front of a train, the act will result in deep psychological trauma for the driver (as they will be unable to stop the train), and any witnesses who were on the platform at the time.

I refuse to believe that suicide is a selfish act. Suicide is the end result of a chain of events that led a person to that precipice. Mental illness has a horrible habit of consuming a person, of devouring any sense of place in the world. The idea of self becomes distorted, and strips away any sense of love for said self. It also distorts relationships, to the point where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to believe why any one would want to be friends/partners/spouses with someone like themselves. Selfishness comes with the feeling of burden. The feeling of lumbering someone with your broken mind, and worrying that you’re asking too much, even if you don’t ask for more than an occasional hug.

The path to suicidal ideations for me is wrapped up in numerous things. Firstly, the body issues I’ve talked about previously, specifically the way I look and the cranial condition I have. Secondly, I blame myself for the break down of my family, even though I know that my parents had problems before I came along. I feel like I just made everything worse. Thirdly, I feel like a burden, almost all of the time. I deprive myself of enjoyment and pleasure, because I feel selfish for doing so (there’s that word again). I am afraid to share these feelings with the people I love. They’re terrifying and bleak.

 

It’s very difficult living with someone with a mental illness. Not knowing what they’re feeling; worrying that you’re making things worse; scared that if you leave them alone, they might hurt themselves; upset that they won’t (or can’t) share with you what’s happening in their head. The sad reality is that they probably believe they’re protecting you, without necessarily realising that the opposite is true. I’ve long kept most people at arm’s length, because I’m scared of what people will find if I let them become too close. I don’t want to let them see that dark mass in my heart that is all my pain and fear and confusion and despair, but by protecting myself, and convincing myself that I’m protecting those around me, I’m actually hurting them.

Suicide and self injury are two issues that need a delicate hand. Self injury is poorly understood, and often derided as something teenagers do to get attention. Naturally, that is an awful statement, and completely invalidating to any teenager who IS self injuring. People self injure for varying reasons, whether it’s for release, in punishment, or, in my case, for control. It is hardly ever for attention, and if it is, it’s because that person is asking for help. I don’t cover my arms any more, because honestly? I’ve had scars all my life. I’m used to stares.

I know people who have committed suicide. One was a friend whom I’d drifted away from, as our lives took us in very different directions, but we were close for quite a while. I miss them, but I don’t blame them for their decision. I feel intensely sad that they weren’t able to get the help they needed. I feel guilty for not doing enough to sustain the friendship. But I don’t blame them. I don’t believe that what they did was selfish. We are a social species, but we are also individuals, with the power and ability to make our own decisions. But we are not impervious.

Disease exists. We fall ill. We don’t blame someone for contracting cancer. We empathise, we support, we aid. Mental illness doesn’t get the same treatment, and it’s so, so easy to feel alone. To feel isolated. To feel unwanted. To feel impure. Taking that last step, to remove ourselves from living, it seems so easy. That someone could feel this way is not their fault. It is the society which holds discussions of mental illness as taboo which is accountable, ultimately.

13 Reasons Why, and other shows and media like it, doesn’t help. If you know, or suspect you know, someone who is struggling, some advice:

Don’t give them ‘tips’ on how to feel better. It doesn’t help, at all, and is more likely to drive them to withdraw even further. Do offer a kind ear, but don’t push them to talk. Often, the simple knowledge that someone is willing to listen can have a positive effect. Don’t expect them to be cured, if they do decide to seek help. Mental illness is life-long, and for most people, learning to cope is the most important skill. Also, don’t expect change to happen overnight. The therapy, depending on what type it is, will take time, and will quite often take years to see any kind of result. Do support the person. Offer hugs where appropriate. Give the person space when they ask for it. Let them talk when they want to. Offer kind words, but not platitudes. People can tell the difference.

Remind them, gently, that they have someone in their corner. Again, knowing that someone cares, even a little, can help. Finally, they may regress during treatment. This is to be expected. Therapy is hard work, and it will frequent uncover trauma from the past. The person will react to this, and will fall back on whatever coping strategies they have to survive. It will be difficult, but try not to be disappointed with them. They will already be feeling raw and likely to be self loathing. Expressing disappointment, even if it’s mild, won’t help. Instead, give them space, remind them that you are there.

Compassion is a powerful thing, even more so in a world determined to prove otherwise.

 

 

 

 

 

If you need someone to talk to, or feel unsafe, or are worried about someone you know, here are some resources for you:

The Samaritans Tel: 116 123

Turn2Me offers free online counselling

PAPYRUS UK offers phone, text and email support (a splash screen will greet you with these as soon as you land on the page)

Mind offer urgent care support at the top of the main page (Full disclosure, I am about to start volunteering for my local Mind group. Mind have had no involvement in this post)

 

 

General Musings, Mental Health

Birth and Beginnings

I want to tell you a story. It starts, as most things do, with a birth. Actually, it starts with two, maybe three (the numbers change with every retelling) missed births. This birth was successful, so much as it produced a child. This child was born during a time of deep and penetrating uncertainty; during a war that never quite happened; in a time of strife and class warfare, with effects still felt to this day. This child was born during a time of endings, of possible annihilations.

This child, who we shall call Aurelia for the sake of labels (the grasping necessity of language, always needing to name things in order to understand them), was born not that long ago, but long enough that medical science was still learning about genetics; long ago enough that names didn’t exist for what was about to happen; long enough ago that decisions made then still don’t quite make sense now, despite persistent examination.

Aurelia means ‘golden’, Aurelia often feels anything but.

Birth is a messy, painful, emotional affair, despite the somewhat sanitised versions our entertainment industry offers forth, and that is in perfect circumstances, with a healthy baby as a result. Aurelia, golden being that they may be, was not a healthy baby. Genetics, impartial, cruel judge that it is, bestowed upon the poor child a difference. Language, as frustrating and impotent as it can be, didn’t have a name for the difference. The doctors had to make one up; a long, polysyllabic jumble of consonants, Latin and vague promises to give it meaning in the future. To this day, Aurelia has it memorised.

The child caused a stir the day of its arrival. Stunned, the doctors retreated to a room adjacent to the delivery room, whispering nervously, debating possible courses of action, reasons for the deformity they saw. The mother, spent as she was from pushing the child out (with a little help from surgery), knew something was amiss. No one had talked to her since the child entered the world. Time passed, relativity keeping a careful eye on perception, until a senior doctor told the mother that they didn’t understand (remember, Aurelia hadn’t been named yet, and this name is a name of their choosing) what was wrong, and that the child needed to be sent to a specialist hospital. That would be the last the mother would see of the child for over two weeks.

The human body is a curious mechanism. It is a beautiful and elegant harmony of biological processes, an evolutionary marvel that creates human art forms. It has moments of forgetfulness, or of malice, or of incompetence. Genetics is complex, understood to a certain degree, and confuses to all but specialists (and even then, they don’t understand everything). Make no mistake, the human body is beautiful in all its forms, regardless of external pressures. At least, that’s what Aurelia tells themselves most days.

Not too long ago, Aurelia, in a quest to understand what happened to them, requested their medical notes from the hospital to which they were sent as a child. Oh, they understood what happened, on a sensory and experiential level – they were the person being operated on after all -, but they wanted to know more. Perhaps more importantly, they wanted to know why. Perhaps they felt that enough time had passed, that the wounds had healed enough to withstand poking through surgical notes, letters between the surgeon and the GP, letters between the surgeon and a younger version of Aurelia. It is probably best left unsaid how that turned out.

Life is spent chasing meaning. For some, that is a career. Others, making lots of money. Others still, saving and protecting people. Life is spent trying to create a why.

“Why was I born?”

“Why do I go to this school?”

“Why do I look different?”

People are taught to look forward, to look towards a potential them that may exist, if they eat their vegetables, do well at school, behave responsibly and kindly. People are taught to trust that if they work hard, knuckle down and grit through, eventually they will be rewarded as is their due.

What very few people are willing to admit, is that luck dictates the future. Luck dictated the past, dictates the present, and it will continue to dictate the yet-to-come. For some people, this luck is benevolent. It puts them in the right country, in the right family, at the right time. Others, it is ambivalent, makes for a life much harder and narrower in scope. It is not malevolent, luck. It bears no ill will to those it does not favour, but it does not tend to assist everyone.

Luck also does not suffer fools, and grows impatient with people who squander it. Aurelia squandered their luck, by endlessly looking backwards.

A brief biological interlude. Aruelia’s exploration of their medical notes did yield vital clues about the past. Clues that they hoped might answer questions that hadn’t yet been asked. Clues that might present some sort of resolution to the mental turmoil Aurelia had subjected themselves to for close to twenty-five years.

The condition they’d been born with finally had a name. Two geneticists had isolated the defective gene that had caused the deformity, classified it, and as is custom, had the condition named after themselves. Gone was the overly long, made-up temporary name that had been created in haste, replaced with three words.

Imagine, if possible, the human skull. It’s probably a smooth, rounded oval shape, with the jaw and chin jutting out at the bottom, eye sockets spaced evenly apart, teeth aligned in fairly even rows. That domed part? Where the brain lives? It bears a striking resemblance to the Earth. Continents are huge sheets of rock, slowly moving across the globe, held up by the mantle. Fault lines exist where two sheets meet, and friction eventually releases as earthquakes. Take a few steps back, and hold on to the idea of sheets, or plates, as the geological term describes them.

The human skull is not one solid mass of bone. It is three smaller plates of bone, that grow with the brain in the womb, eventually fusing to become the archetypical domed shape that is so familiar. This process takes years, ordinarily. This now-named condition, a subset of a broader category, causes that fusion process to happen, prematurely, while the child is still in utero. Understandably, this causes a problem. The brain is still growing, but it has nowhere to go. The skull, which should be growing with it, has instead fused too early. The brain does what it must, and continues to grow. The skull has fused, but the bone is still malleable. The brain pushes against the bone, deforming it. This has the effect of creating an elongated skull. This results in a child with, delicately speaking, a unique cranial profile.

What happens next is a cascade of events, both biological and medical. The child is unable to breathe properly, so must be intubated. Surgery needs to be conducted to resolve that as quickly as possible, and the child must remain in intensive care for an indeterminate period of time. What happens in the surgery? Well, the gory details will be spared, but rest assured, they’re not pretty.

Aurelia requires close to 16 years’ worth of surgery to reach a point where their face and skull are passable. Physically, Aurelia is as close to normal as they can be, circumstances permitting.

But Aurelia grew up without a normal childhood. A heartbreaking story, if ever there were one. They spent a lot of time on their own, or in hospital, and to this day, they prefer their own company. They have let in an achingly small number of people, but exclude and push away almost everyone else. Their family has broken apart, and Aurelia feels responsible for this, despite protestations to the contrary. Aurelia cannot stop looking back.

They also find it difficult not to end their own life.

Aurelia is married now, to a woman who loves them, much to Aurelia’s bemusement. Aurelia is fascinated by beginnings, because they cherish the idea that a new start always exists for someone else.

But they never forget that, but for luck and timing, things could have been different. And they’ll never stop feeling guilty for the disruption they brought to the lives of others. And above all else, rings that name, the one finally given to their condition:

Saethre-Chotzen Syndrome.

For Aurelia, it marks the beginning of understanding, the beginning of healing.

Perhaps that is why Aurelia is so obsessed with beginnings.

 

 

 

Postscript: it would mean a whole lot to me, if you feel like doing something, to donate to Great Ormond Street Hospital. They do amazing work for very sick kids, and they’re close to my heart.

General Musings, Mental Health

Worthwhile self.

What is self worth?

I’ve been struggling to settle into the new town that I now call home. I left a well-paid job, in which I was capable, well-liked (somehow) and that was relatively easy. I moved from a town that was pretty big, but not overwhelmingly huge like London is, and had the luxury of having London itself a 15-minute train ride away. I moved because we could actually afford to own this flat, it’s a moment’s walk from a lovely park, and Lisa’s mum lives here, and I get on really well with her.

So why do I feel so out of place? Why is it taking a long time to feel like this is where I should be? What do I have to do to make it happen?

Mental illness is something that thrives on free time and isolation, both of which I’ve had in abundance since December. My depression and anxiety have both grown stronger and more determined to dictate my approach to any given day, even with a really great new therapist. I’ve been spinning around on the same spot, day by day, hoping that something will stop the revolution.

Lisa described it, accidentally and without realising, a couple of days ago. It’s something I’ve been struggling with articulating to my therapist.

I lack self worth.

I start volunteering at my local Mind chapter (group? Wing? I don’t know) as a support worker soon, which means helping other people dealing with their mental illnesses and providing support. The irony is not lost on me. But, if you know me and my insecurities, it makes perfect sense.

My time with the giant fruit was both the best and worst time of my life. I’d given them nine years of my life, they’d supported me with my depression and anxiety, they’d trained me, given me skills in facilitation, presentation. In return, I’d given them me. Not work me, just me. I’m introverted to a fault, as I said a couple of posts ago, and the job got all of my social energy.

I would go to work, be this confident, energetic, mostly cooperative person, and when I got home, there would be no energy left to do anything else. My self worth became tied to my job. I became Bill, the trainer. Bill the person became an asterisk that I never fully detailed to people who asked. I would be dismissive, evasive and generally distant. But I still tied my sense of existence to being this employee. Until its demands took their toll on me, and I became disillusioned, disaffected and difficult to work with.

I don’t have that now. Instead, I have this hole in my personality where a curious, confident, somewhat intelligent person used to be. My brain, in rushing to fill it, has replaced that person with an anxious, shy, depressed, fearful lump. This lump is ill-fitting and feels unpleasant, but it has taken root and is now infecting the rest of me.

What is self worth? What does it mean to hold your head high and trust in yourself? I’m pretty sure that for all the confidence people project, there exists a part of them that is anxious and nervous. What pushes them past that? How do you create yourself and not worry that you’ll place a piece wrong and shatter yourself?

What fills you? What energises you? What gives you a reason to get up in the morning?

What is self worth? What does it mean?

General Musings, Mental Health, Sociology

Hearts on sleeves; manifestations of faith

On my left arm are three accoutrements: an ‘I Volunteer with Pride’ wristband from last year’s Pride in London parade, at which I volunteered (obviously); an aluminium band with hearts pressed into it, bought from Olivia Bradley’s Etsy store, that were pressed with the genderfluid flag colours, which have now faded, although the hearts remain; a Pandora charm bracelet that was a birthday present from Lisa to me while we were in Florida in January of last year. It currently has two charms: a butterfly (which is almost an emblem for me these days), and a round charm that says ‘family’ on one side and ‘love’ on the other. This was a lovely and very thoughtful leaving present from my most recent job. There is, of course, the work-in-progress tattoo, but that is not the focus of this post.

I’ve taken to thinking of the jewellery as armour, of a sort. Whenever I leave the flat, especially if I’m doing something like going to therapy or an interview, or something stressful/anxiety-provoking, I always make sure to ‘put on the armour’. It’s symbolic, sure, but it helps. That got me to thinking about the nature of self-assurance, rituals and symbolism, and their role in a greater picture of faith, belief and survival.

We live in a world of external influences. We may try hard and tell ourselves that we’re free from influence, but alas, this is not true. From a very early age, children are able to recognise brands (around 3-5 years old), and by the time they’re 10, brand loyalty has been observed. This is encouraged by an advertising industry determined to market products and induce loyalty very early on in a life. Coupled with the current upgrade culture that proliferates in Western society right now (which originated – partially – from GM’s Alfred P. Sloan Jr’s idea to introduce annual model changes, in order to convince people to buy cars every year), this has resulted in a consumerist society that places material ownership at the heart of social status.

We’ve probably all been there, upgrading to a new phone because the new one is shiny and takes a slightly better photo, or buying a new games console because it processes X amounts of polygons a second and thus gives more fidelity to headshots. At least that’s what we tell ourselves, anyway. It would be easy to blame our world view on the evils of capitalism, but this is not the only aspect of our lives that influences.

I live in the UK, an increasingly secular state (at least where government is concerned), with the nominal religion being Christianity. The UK is a multicultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnicity country, with a history that is bloody, and a future that is uncertain (at the time of writing, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has been officially triggered, and the formal process of the UK leaving the European Union has commenced). I grew up in a town that was a great mix of ethnicities, just west of London, and while I dislike it because it’s a medium-sized Berkshire town with very little in the way of entertainment, I loved (and still do) the mix of nationalities and ethnicities that could be found.

The point is coming, promise.

We’re all aware of the current environment surrounding immigration and religion in the West. I don’t need to explain what’s happening in the US, UK and Europe at large, I trust you’re all up to speed with at least the broad strokes. Travel bans, electronics restrictions, Brexit, just some of the political problems faced by people at the moment. In the face of this, people continue to defy bullies and critics and express their faith, or their orientation, or even their existence proudly and without fear.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by ‘self-assurance’. It can be interpreted in a few ways. The most obvious one would be the way in which someone carries themselves, in an assured and confident way. They know who they are, they know what they want, and nothing else matters. This may very well be the first thing that you thought of when you read it at the top there.

Probably a better way to think of it is as ‘self-reassurance’. I spent three weeks as a patient in the Priory in North London last year, and part of my treatment was group therapy. Some of this was mindfulness training, where we were taught, through breathing and meditation, to be more aware of our thought processes. This included a technique known as grounding, where if your anxiety was spiralling and you were losing track of your thoughts, you would ground (hence the name) yourself by touching or deliberately noticing physical objects in the room, in order to aid in bringing the mind under control.

This leads me to the core point of this whole post:

In a world so packed with mental and physical stimulation, where the senses can be bombarded and overwhelmed, and it is easy to lose a sense of self and hand yourself over to consumption, does the role of physical grounding tools aid in reassurance? Does my wearing the jewellery I talked about aid in helping me cope with the world at large? Do other people experience this? Does asserting existence through physical objects help in any way? This is where faith and the nature of belief, for me, start to show themselves.

I am not religious. I’ll say that now. I never have been. When I was 18 and thought I knew everything, I was pretty anti-religion, for the usual reasons. I thought it was deceptive, dishonest and manipulative, and held no love for it. As I’ve grown older and more open to differences of opinion, I realised that religion plays a huge role for people, in very different ways. I’m still not religious, but I have a huge amount of respect for people who are and who derive a sense of being and belonging from it.

Most religions have forms of clothing that represent the faith, whether it’s crosses, hijabs and niqabs, yarmulkes, or colanders (really), and they’re worn by millions of people the world over. They’re a symbol of faith, representative of that person’s commitment to said faith, and they’re a visual identifier of their religion. That’s the belonging aspect: the display of affiliation, which has roots in survival, where a strong community would weather hard times more easily than an individual might.

A physical display of faith is as much performative as it is affirmative; the wearer is displaying to the world their social identity (performance), while reinforcing their personal identity and belief (affirmation). This interaction between performance and identity is far more nuanced than I can possibly write here, and I don’t want to bore you (I suspect many of you have stopped reading long before now!), but suffice it to say, identity as we know it is more than we think.

Belief is expressed in countless ways, not least through choice of clothing. But the question then arises: is belief reinforced by wearing the symbols, or is the symbolism reinforced by the belief? After all, symbolism is exactly that: the use of symbols to infer an idea or quality. An object itself does not carry any inherent meaning, it is ascribed one by the culture in which it was created. This is why something like money has value: it is a symbolic tool, used to compensate someone for their time. Even time is symbolic. Units of time don’t actually exist, but they were created to explain why the sun rises and sets, and why the seasons happen. What gives an object its true purpose is the belief that it is imbued with some sort of metaphysical, economic, political or spiritual significance.

Returning to my earlier statement about my jewellery acting as symbolic ‘armour’, I wonder if other people wear their clothing or jewellery, whether it’s religious, cultural, just because it’s pretty and makes them look good, or even a combination of the three, in much the same way. I wonder whether the concept of ‘personal is political‘ is something that influences people’s clothing choices more than they realise. I wonder if their reasons for wearing what they do are rooted in the same need to prove that they exist and have impact in the world.

Everything that we do is influenced in some way, whether we choose to believe it or not. Understanding that, however, and consciously choosing how to present yourself to the world, and the sense of self-reassurance you gain from it, that is powerful.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking things again.

Mental Health, Poems

Home

This town is an ending,

An offering to the gods of letting go.

An offering of accepting that maybe life didn’t quite go

The way I expected,

Or wanted.

I lay down the fragments of someone else’s dreams,

Adopted as my own,

Because I couldn’t create a dream that wasn’t defeated

By anxiety

By depression

By the distant feeling that ambition was

Something I was supposed to have

But never met.

Its face everyone else recognised.

So this town is the final full stop

Of a sentence that ran on for too long,

My similes confused themselves,

Working too hard to compare me

With a life that mattered more.

My metaphors were broken,

Incoherent and childish;

Lazy writing of a mental state.

This town is unambitious,

Its heart is tired,

Its mind is decayed,

And its body is neglected.

This town is now home.