Thursday, 29 May 2014

Trigger Happy

     Trigger warning: This post contains discussion of trigger warnings, what they are, how they work, and when they can be helpful. If you find discussion of trigger warnings triggers you, you may wish to consider if you wish to read on. Also stuff about sexual assault, abuse and rape. Your choice.

     I started this post last week, then deleted it and gave up. I was too angry, it felt too raw, I felt I was making myself vulnerable by writing it. But when I heard about Maya Angelou yesterday, it reminded me that I’ve only ever read one book of hers – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Her poems, her articles, her tweets, no problem. But I read Caged Bird when I was nine years old and it had an impact on me that I don’t think I possess the eloquence to adequately express. Specifically, it was a few short pages. I read them, I understood them, I relived them.

     I vomited. Not just because of the horror of what happened to her, but because she was describing something that had happened to me. It’s a flashbulb memory. I can still see myself, as though I am an onlooker in my own life, sitting on my bed, in my green Tammy Girl blouse and capri denim trousers, reading the book with the blue cover, and suddenly vomiting down the side of my bedside table. Before then, I didn’t have the words to say what had happened to me. Now I knew. Reading her description, I was triggered. I’ve never been able to read that book again.

     That’s what a trigger is. It’s not something that might make you a bit sad, or angry, or fed up, or annoyed, or happy, or uplifted, or tearful, or desolate, or grieving. It’s a visceral, physical, hurtful thing that forces you to relive something so painful and traumatic that it’s easier to pretend it doesn’t exist, it didn’t happen, I can’t think about it. That’s what it is. It can hit you with such force that your mind is unable to cope, that you’re knocked to the floor, that your body rebels and you vomit. You’re plunged back into the moment, into something that paralyses you, that makes you sweat, shake, cry. Makes you tremble, makes you so fucking scared that you daren’t open your mouth because you’re not even sure if you can make a sound, or if you do, you might start screaming and never be able to stop.

     And even afterwards, after that moment when you’re triggered, it doesn’t go away. Like a bruise that won’t heal, it’s always there. It stalks you in your dreams, makes you cry in your sleep and physically attack the person sleeping next to you. It makes nightmares become routine and your only hope as you go to sleep is that tonight won’t be too bad. It makes you terrified when you’re out of the house alone, and have to pass a stranger. It makes you constantly have your phone in your grip, with a number predialled, just in case. It makes you so agitated that you have to leave the house and walk for miles and hours, because you need the distraction.

     That’s what ‘triggering’ is.

     This article appeared in The Guardian last week. It’s appallingly badly written, never defines what a trigger warning really is, and seems to mistake emotion for trauma. It’s a load of crap, basically. I read it and it pissed me off mightily. But what pissed me off more was the reaction to it. Lots of people read it as a trigger warning being the same as a content warning. They are two very different things. A content warning is similar to a BBFC guideline – ‘includes mild peril, car chase sequences, alcohol and dinosaurs’. Basically, just letting you know if it’s suitable for children or not. A trigger warning is more than that.

     A trigger warning is generally used ahead of discussion/mention of sexual abuse, sexual assault and/or rape. It’s recognising that just using those words, never mind any kind of description of such an event, can act as a trigger. It can cause a reaction so intense and traumatic that it becomes physical. It’s consideration. It’s not being precious. It’s not saying ‘ooh, this is an emotional scene in which Jane Eyre leave Mr Rochester, you might get THE FEELZ’. It’s saying ‘If you have had an experience similar to this, I’m warning you now that I’m going to mention this, and that you might find it hard to cope with’. It’s allowing your audience to decide whether or not they feel able to handle what’s coming. Because some days, most days, practically every day, I’m fine. But, every now and then, things hit me, and a trigger warning allows me to decide, for myself, if I’m able to cope with it.  Without a trigger warning, essentially I’m being handed a live grenade. I might react, I might not, but the decision about whether or not I’m being exposed to a trigger has been taken away from me.

     You can condition yourself not to react to certain triggers, of course you can. I know, because I’ve done it. Do you know what one of my triggers used to be when I was younger? Oranges. Fucking oranges. Do you have any idea how bastarding common oranges are in everyday life? VERY FUCKING COMMON. And only oranges. Satsumas, tangerines, clementines, mandarins… Nup, nothing. Orange juice? Not a bother (and do feel free to make your own ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ joke).  But oranges made me want to curl up and cry. I got over it. Eventually, slowly, progressively. Did I think oranges should come with a trigger warning? No. That would be precious and demanding. That would be rounding off the corners to a ridiculous degree. Asking for a trigger warning about oranges would be petulant and selfcentred and all the things that critics of trigger warnings seem to think I am.

     And it’s to the critics of trigger warnings that I’m trying to explain. I’m not advocating everything being labelled and plot spoilers agogo, and every single thing being neatly assigned a trigger warning in case someone, somewhere is hurt or offended, or worried that someone else might be hurt and offended. I can read a lot of fucked up shit and while it might stay with me, change my mood, affect me emotionally, it won’t trigger me. But for me, and other people like me, reading something about rape is triggering.  If you could spare me pain, would you? If you could prevent me from reliving something traumatic, would you? If you thought that you might be directing my attention towards something with the potential to damage me, would you want to warn me first? Would you want to give me a heads up and say that I might find it hard to read? Or would you think that I was demanding to be mollycoddled, that I couldn’t handle literature, that I was unsuited to reading and writing because of my past? Would you think I’m just a feeble little flower, wilting and swooning under the direct heat of words on a page? Would you tell me to stop reading anything, because clearly I’m pathetic? Would you sneer at me, for appreciating consideration?  Would you feel intellectually superior to me, because you can manage to read about the rape of a child and not vomit because of the memories it claws up?

     If so, congratulations. I apologise for being human.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Call me

     What’s in a name? That which we call a rose… blah blah blah.

     There’s actually quite a lot in a name. I was reminded of this this afternoon when I read Jon Snow’s heartbreaking celebration of his friendship with Maya Angelou, and her great friend, Decca Mitford. It made me smile too, because my mother named me after Decca. When she was pregnant with me, she read an autobiography of her and was inspired by this passionate, crusading warrior queen who ran away to Spain aged 14, joined the Communist Party, fought against segregation in the USA, and refused to be cowed. So, hoping for some of that to transfer to me, I was registered with that name.

     Am I anything like Decca Mitford? Am I buggery. I am poor, obscure, plain and little. I did run away from home a few times as a teenager, for no more than a day or two, slinking back with my tail between my legs. That’s about as close as I’m going to get. Sorry Mum. When Alistair and I were bickering deciding what to call The Blondies, the meaning of their full name was important to me, but I didn’t name either of them after anyone.

     This is just as well really, because we never use their full names in any case. The Boy is known only as ‘Bee’ for the most part, and The Girl is ‘Cuckoolala’. And sometimes ‘Cement’ (it’s a joke, not an insult). Everyone who knows me calls me a shortened version of my first name, everyone except Alistair who uses my full name, always. He called me by my nickname a few weeks ago, and I was freaked out by it for days afterwards. Seriously. He just doesn’t call me that. Instead, he chooses the form of my name that no one else uses, because it’s *his* name for me.

     Growing up, everyone in my family had their own special nicknames for one another. My sister, for example, is known as Doobs. It is nothing like her real name, nothing. But through a convoluted series of leaps from one name to another, that’s the name her phone number is stored under on my mobile. When I told Alistair what her full real name is, he refused to believe me.  That’s how strong these names become. By using our own name for someone, we subconsciously seek to claim them, even just a tiny part of them as our own, as an intimate, as someone we trust.

     That’s what we do with those whom we care about. We don’t use the name for them that everyone else uses. Anyone can call me by my given name. But nicknames, endearments, even insults, are only used between people who feel close to one another. Darling. Sweetheart. Babe. My love. Bellend. You massive twat. Unless I was really quite atrociously drunk, I wouldn’t use any of those when I’m talking to you. Or you. Not you either. But you? You can call me what you like* ;-)

*But never Jessie. Never. If anyone calls me Jessie, they won't live to regret it.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

If you tolerate this...

     I’ve found myself in a bit of an awkward situation. Oddly, it’s facebook related. Yes, ok, I know, facebook, I was asking for trouble, etc… I hardly ever go on there these days because I find it all a bit false and full of sentimental mawkishness which really doesn’t sit well with me. There’s also the added risk of offending someone you know, and my life becoming even more of a cringefest than it usually is. But I wanted to check something. Specifically, I wanted to see if anyone I’m ‘friends’ with liked two pages – those of UKIP and Britain First. Because if they did, an unfriending would follow, as surely as a painful nose burp follows a packet of refreshers.

     First up, UKIP. ‘One friend likes this’. Meh, some bloke I went to middle school with. Was a massive bellend then, obviously still is. Unfriended. Britain First… I gaped at the page and the open bigotry, racism and hatred being indulged in. ‘One friend likes this’ What the actual holy god of buggery? Someone I’m friends with likes this vitriolic vomit served up as patriotism? WHO…. Oh. She’s not really a friend. She’s the mother of one of The Boy’s friends. She added me as a friend a while back. I could unfriend her, but she’d notice and ask me about it. Can I blame a glitch on the android app? Not really.

     So I took the path of cowardice, and posted a status instead about twats who like Britain First, and why they shouldn’t be friends with me, hoping she’d see it and either ask me about it, or unfriend me silently. It’s been a few days, and she’s done neither. Bum.  So now I’m annoyed. Not just with her for sharing with the world that she’s a hideous racist, but with myself for not challenging her about it. And logging onto facebook this morning, I see now that she’s said she’s voting for UKIP… and still I haven’t said anything.

     It’s cowardly. I find her views repugnant. I’m horrified that I know someone like this. But yet I’m not directly calling her on it, in case it makes for a strained atmosphere in the playground. I’m tolerating her narrow-mindedness. Does that make me guilty by association? And her children... Am I prepared for them to turn into people who start sentences with ‘Now, I’m not being funny, or racist, or anything, but…’ then continuing on to make some kind of hugely offensive sweeping generalisation about ethnic minorities, other nationalities, religions, LGBT, lefties, political correctness, the world’s gone mad, where’s the common sense in that, little Englander who doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a bit of chest swelling outrage? Is that right? That I’m tacitly allowing her to think I don’t find her views disgusting and hateful?

     It feels as though in recent years, there’s been a subtle and slow shift in opinions. The views of UKIP, Britain First, the EDL etc., seem to be gaining ground, appear to be becoming acceptable. It’s extremism that is moving into the mainstream. People no longer seem to be ashamed of being a bit racist, a bit bigoted, a bit ‘us and them’. For all the huge strides made towards equality, a significant number of people seem to be looking at the world around them and feeling some kind of deep, simmering resentment that they don’t have the world they used to know. And the easiest group to scapegoat for that are the people who aren’t quite the same.

     I said before that humans are creatures of routine. We like familiarity, are comforted by it. So something that’s slightly ‘other’ or not exactly as we are might make us a little uncomfortable. Not in a way we want to acknowledge, but it’s there, a little glowing ember of unease. And when our lives aren’t quite what we think they should be, it starts to heat up. And the extremists work on this. They point out one or two small problems so the uneasy are nodding along and thinking ‘that makes sense’. And that’s when the real problems start. I wrote before about the flattery, ‘the truth’, and how seemingly normal people have their heads turned towards some pretty nasty ideas. And there’s strength in numbers. The more people they see agreeing with them, the more confident they become in their vicious little assertions, the more entrenched they become. If so many other people think the same thing, then it can’t possibly be a dangerous road to take, can it? And look, no one I know in real life is saying anything bad about it, just the keyboard warriors online.

     And that’s where I am guilty. I’ll happily tweet about it all day. I’ll update facebook with rants about fascism. But in the real world, I’m standing back and not doing anything about the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are intending to vote for a party that would scrap the Human Rights Act, privatise the NHS, get rid of paid maternity leave, abandon action on climate change and has a tax policy that would punish the low paid and reward high earners. That’s their public face. And as the car crash of Nigel Farage’s interview on LBC shows, underneath there’s a repellent and xenophobic true identity.

     So what can I do? If I won’t point out the reality of what UKIP are to people I see every day? I can write a twatty blog about it of course. Or, I can get off my arse tomorrow, go to the polling station and vote for a party that isn’t UKIP. My one small vote won’t make a huge difference in the scheme of things. But it will cancel out the UKIP vote of my friend who’s not a friend. In the 2009 European elections, 64% of the electorate didn’t vote. I’m included in that figure. I won’t be this year, and I hope you won’t be either.

Friday, 16 May 2014


My name is Lucy Benedict* and I am a People Watcher.

     I don’t know when or how it started; it’s just something I’ve always done. Nothing makes me happier than sitting in a public place, notebook on table, pen in hand, and observing the people around me. Looking at what they do, how they do it, what they’re saying, the subtle little things that tell me what they’re really thinking and feeling. Not in a weirdy stalkerish way, but just because I like it. Same thing on the school run – seeing the same people day in, day out, the little quirks they have, whether or not they’re with friends or alone.

     And one thing I can tell you is that people love routine. They love the soothing nature of things being as they should be, everyone doing what they’re supposed to do, events neatly slotting into place as expected. When we moved house two years ago, I couldn’t believe the number of other parents – most of whom I’d never even spoken to – who approached me to say ‘Ooh! I thought you must have moved schools! We don’t see you on the way to school in the mornings anymore!’ They had sensed a great disturbance in the force.

     We all have routines, sometimes even rituals. My dad’s coming to stay with us next week, so I’ll be witnessing his personal Holy Trinity – coffee, fag, crossword. First the coffee (spoonful of Alta Rica, enough water to just cover the spoon, a suspicion of full fat milk), the cigarette (Samson tobacco, Job rolling papers, Sharrow filter tip) finally The Times cryptic crossword (downloaded, printed, filled in with blue biro). I tease him about it, and he grins and points out that routine is not a bad thing, the house is a tip, I’m a rubbish cleaner, and I ought to have a rota to sort things out. Touché.

     Despite being generally disorganised, chaotic and messy, I do have routines of my own. The difference is that these have been foisted on me by The Blondies. The most obvious one is the goodbye to The Boy at school. Hug, say we love each other, hug, kiss, release, he turns around & makes the heart gesture with his hands, I do the same. He goes in, heart gesture again through the window, hangs up his stuff, heads to his classroom, turns round again for the final heart gesture. Every day it’s the same.  Yesterday, Another Mum kept talking to me throughout it, and I was outraged. It just didn’t feel the same at all! I felt weird about it all day.

     But there are other ones too, like the way I have to tickle The Girl, or listening to the same song in the car when we drive down a certain road, or always getting chips from the market when I take them out for the day. Greeting a certain house when we go past it, always having the same dinner on the first night of a guest’s visit, me screeching ‘Stop shouting and come here and talk to me’… oh no, that’s not routine, that’s pretty much a constant.

     The worst one though is The Walk Home. Walking to school is fine, because we’re in a rush, we know we have to get there for a set time, there are no distractions, just chat. Coming home however, seems to take an absolute age. And it’s All My Fault. Unwittingly, unknowingly, I have set up too bloody many things that must be observed. From who stands where on the pavement, who gets to press the buttons at each of the pedestrian crossings, what I have to say when they’re going on the stepping stones, the same bloody jokes I have to make every single time… Woe betide me if I fail any of them. The final one is when we get onto the last stretch of pavement before our house, and I make a big show of releasing their hands and cackling ‘Now fly! Fly!’ like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. If I forget this crucial line, they stand motionless next to me, faces blank. So I sigh, take their hands again and perform for them, at which point they pelt off towards the gates.

    Why do I do these things? Why? And now I’ve given myself an earworm of ‘Slave to the rhythm’, except that I keep singing ‘slave to the routine’…

     There has been a new addition to the routine, however, and it’s nothing to do with me. It’s a car. A car with personalised number plates ending in ‘WOO’, belonging to a woman who has a daughter at a local school. I see this car every afternoon when I’m on my way to school just before three o’clock, and again on our way home, the driver immersed in her book. Nothing unusual about that, might as well do something whilst you wait. Except that the school doesn’t finish until four. So this woman spends at least an hour of her day, five days a week, sitting in her car, reading. But that’s not the routine part, no. She always parks in exactly the same spot. I mean it, exactly the same spot. To the millimetre.  Never closer to the school gates, never further away. Just neatly kerbside, carefully aligned with a sign, in exactly the same spot.

     Something about this strikes me as quietly hilarious, except that it’s not really funny, but I think it is, so every time I see WOO I am brimful of giggles which last most of the way down the road. I amused myself by imagining what she would do if she arrived At Her Spot and found another car had parked there. I all too easily imagined her having a complete HULK SMASH on some hapless vehicle that had dared to invade her property. I was chatting to The Blondies about it and we got quite inventive about the ways in which she would make her fury known. The Girl took WOO completely to her heart, and whenever we walked past on our way home, she would do showbiz shooting fingers at WOO and sing ‘I love WOO, yes I do’ to the tune of Special Brew by Bad Manners, the woman inside completely oblivious.

     So you can imagine my apprehension yesterday when I was on my way to school and… the prophesy had come to pass. Some poor soul HAD parked there. But where was WOO? I looked from left to right, then left again. No sign of WOO on the road. Plenty of parking spaces, including both in front and behind the Imposter Car. No WOO. But… wait a minute… why is that car parked in the middle of the driveway? Bloody hell, I’m going to have to step into the road to get around it… OH MY GOD IT’S WOO. This shit just got serious. I felt like the world had turned upside down, then watched as WOO revved out of the driveway and shot up the road away from the school, as if pursued by the very devil himself. And then as I got to the end of the road, WOO came past again, as though heading towards the designated parking spot…

     When I informed The Blondies of the situation, they remained calm, but I could see the fear in their eyes. Were they going to witness bloodshed on the leafy streets of Norwich? What was WOO capable of?

     We soon found out.

     The road gets absolutely blocked at times, because of parents parking all over the place to collect their precious darlings at home time. Again, it amuses me, seeing inconsiderate people becoming completely enraged by other inconsiderate people. There are loads of other places for them to park, but NO. I WILL PARK ON THE YELLOW ZIGZAGS AND CAUSE OTHER CARS TO HAVE TO REVERSE 200 METRES. Things were especially snarly yesterday because of a couple of minibuses, but also because there was a car, seemingly broken down in the middle of the road, making it very difficult for the black Range Rovers to squeeze past. It was just sitting in the middle of the road, parked cars on either side of it, at least twenty cars lined up behind, waiting for it to move or be moved so that the road stopped being a car park. Being frightfully nice and polite, no one was yet tooting their horn, or getting out of their car to ask what was going on, but it could only be a matter of time before someone asked the driver (shoulders tensed, eyes fixed dead ahead, white knuckled grip of steering wheel).

     You’ve guessed, haven’t you?

     It was WOO. Left indicator on, waiting for the Imposter Car to leave. As we approached, the driver of Imposter Car returned to their vehicle with child, got in, and drove off, blissfully unaware of the tailback on the road.

     And WOO, happy at last, nudged forward, neatly kerbside, carefully aligned with a sign, in exactly the same spot. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.

     *My name is not Lucy Benedict

Sunday, 11 May 2014

This is my truth. Tell me yours.

     For some reason yesterday, I remembered Miklos. He’d had a fairly normal, average life. And then he met Deon. Deon was a charlatan, a poseur, the worst kind of snake oil pedlar, who flatters his intended with compliments praising their intelligence, their capacity for thought, their perceptiveness. He claimed to have some kind of knowledge of higher thought process, of a kind of enlightenment he would share with you if he thought you worthy enough. Or gullible enough (he didn’t try it on me). A dangerous man.

     Every time Miklos got drunk or stoned (fairly frequently), he would start to gaze wide-eyed around him and say, wonderingly, ‘Now… I see it… I see it all… What is here… What we are…’ On being pressed to explain, Miklos and Deon would smile ruefully, shake their heads sadly, say in tones of sorrow ‘You won’t get it. You don’t get it. You don’t know what the truth is.’ Dangerous words.

     Dangerous because it made Deon’s followers believe themselves to know ‘the truth’. They ‘got it’, we didn’t. We were poor, hopeless, blinkered saps, trundling along, eyes fixed on the road beneath our feet, not stopping to question things, blindly accepting. Whereas they were beyond all that. They were superior.

     Superiority is a strange way of feeling about other people. I don’t like it. It paints the world as being unequal, the ones who know at the top, the rest of us below. A bit like the way conspiracy theorists think. A bit like the way UKIP supporters believe.

     I had a run in with a UKIP supporter on here a few months ago. They took exception to a throwaway comment I made about ‘a swivel eyed UKIP supporter’ and took me to task for it. Unfortunately their opening salvo was posted not on the piece where I’d used the phrase, but on a short story instead. Here you go:

     I may have been a bit of a tit in my responses, but what struck me most was the tone of his (I’m assuming it was a male UKIP supporter for some reason) words. The overwhelming sense of superiority. The ‘You don’t like UKIP, therefore you have no common sense, you don’t know what the truth is, you must love lefty lentil weaving neo Marxist EU whores. Oh, and have an insult to your mental health too.’ I clearly really annoyed them, because my blog stats showed they hung out on here for over 24 hours after their first comment.

     And I was thinking, yesterday (‘steady!’, I hear you cry) and I realised that’s the appeal of UKIP. Just as Deon manipulated Miklos and others into believing he had access to the ‘truth’, so UKIP flatter their intended targets.

     A lot of people who say they’re voting UKIP say they’re doing it as a protest. I understand where they’re coming from. We live in an age where career politicians have their noses in the trough, are groomed and polished, resolutely on message. They represent us, but they are not representative of us. We feel increasingly disenfranchised and unengaged with politics. So it’s tempting to a party that appears to have a bit of personality, that seems to get it, that isn’t po-faced. They smile lots, they drink beer, they talk about returning to common sense, and they tell opposing politicians ‘we all know what’s going on here.’

     So the UKIP supporters preen, and think to themselves ‘I’m not like non UKIPers. I can see beyond the surface. I know the TRUTH!’ It’s dangerous. Because once UKIP have fooled people into believing that they genuinely admire their supporters, the supporters will follow UKIP slavishly. They become more than mere supporters. They become devotees. So when it’s pointed out to UKIPers that actually, if you do a bit of digging behind the smiley mask of UKIP, the real face is a pretty nasty, intolerant, misogynist, racist sneer, they feel they are being personally attacked. ‘But I am none of those things! How dare you? It’s true what Nigel says! You’re scared that we know what the truth is, and you’re smearing us!’ Then they retreat to the bunker, an enemy to logic.

     It’s easy to mock UKIP supporters. Easy, and quite a lot of fun. But now I’m starting to think it’s actually the most dangerous thing we can do. Because it plays completely into their hands. When we mock them, we dismiss them; hence we reinforce their belief in the truth of UKIP, and the fact that we’re too blind to see it. And UKIP embraces them, it hugs them to its breast, it smoothes their hair and tells them ‘Don’t worry. We know we’re right.’ And subtly, it pulls them closer, and more aligned with UKIP. This is the smiling, friendly face of British extremism, subtly fanning the fears and worries and divisions. Michael Rosen put it far more eloquently than I could:

     I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. Fascism arrives as your friend. It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were, clear out the venal and the corrupt, remove anything you feel is unlike you...It doesn't walk in saying, "Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

     We’re sleepwalking towards extremism. And mocking the extremists makes them stronger.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Enough of ATOS

     Last Wednesday was… rough. Massively rough. One word. ATOS. It’s enough to drive me into a trembling, sweaty, puking, panicstricken puddle of fear and terror.

     It’s been four years since I had my first Work Capability Asessment. I sat, zombie-like, words bouncing off me, completely blank. I was dosed to the eyeballs on Valium, anti depressants and sleeping tablets. There were two ways of determining whether or not I was alive. 1. Hold a mirror in front of my mouth to check for condensation. 2. Look at my right hand, the nails tearing into the flesh of my left wrist. Scratching, plucking, twisting. Blood ran down my palm and onto my fingers. I didn’t even notice.

     Neither did my assessor. Despite it being a mere eight weeks since my suicide attempts, despite me still being regularly visited by the Mental Health Crisis Team, despite the psychiatrist’s report stating that under no circumstances should I return to employment, I was assessed as ‘Fit for work’. My benefits stopped within ten days of my appointment.

     I asked for a copy of my report, and despite the medical evidence provided by qualified professionals who knew me well, I found that apparently I wasn’t depressed ‘enough’. My clothes were clean. My hair was washed. I didn’t become distressed. I didn’t visibly sweat. I had a partner. I was capable of cooking a meal, on a good day. Obviously there was nothing wrong with me. I was trying to be a drain on society, a sponger, a scrounger. Scum.

     I appealed. Six months of no money coming into my bank account (my credit rating is officially ‘KLAXON’ as a result), but eventually I ‘won’. And every year since, I’ve had an assessment, and been found too ill to work. And that’s it. No other support, help or suggestions of what else to do. So I hate ATOS. I cheered when they lost their contract for determining Employment & Support Allowance suitability. But not long after that, the letter arrived. An appointment had been made for me. I sweated. I panicked. I phoned up to change the date of the appointment to something more suitable. And once you change your appointment once, that’s it. You can’t change it again. No matter if you have a sudden relapse. Or your child becomes ill. Or any other unexpected calamity befalls you. That’s it. You get one shot.

     And the day came. And I felt sick. And I cried. Fuckloads. And at 10:20, I presented myself to the hardfaced cow on reception who flicked her eyes over my sweaty and tearstained face, and told me to sit down. I sat in the corner, shrivelled up in fear, trying not to make eye contact with the other occupant, who took pity on me.

     ‘Don’t worry, love. They’ve just got to check. It’ll be fine, honestly.’

     I nodded, gulped, tears streamed. I was in fucking pieces. And just to make sure it was as agonising as possible, I was kept waiting for twenty minutes. And then the door opened. And it was THAT moment in Jaws. You know, THAT moment. Fucks sake, this moment…

     It was her. The woman who had decreed I was in rude health four years ago. I actually dryheaved, before bursting into tears like a twat. She ignored the tears. At that point.

     I’ll draw a discreet veil over what followed. It wasn’t great. So not great in fact that she forced me to take a box of tissues with me.

     And I stumbled, wildly, out onto the streets of Norwich. My legs felt wrong, like my knees were on backwards. My eyes were full of tears. Somehow, somehow I made it onto Colegate and found a little patch of sanctuary, sitting on the steps of the churchyard in the sunshine, and gave way to helpless weeping. People might have seen me. Or heard me, even. I don’t care.

     Because that’s what ATOS do to people. The assessment is designed to be painful, distressing and damaging. The force you to confront every worst aspect of yourself. Everything you hate about what you’ve become. Focus on all the things you can’t do. Everything you try not to think about. The bad stuff. How you are at your worst.

     And the thing is, you wouldn’t normally share this stuff with anyone, except perhaps a qualified psychologist or therapist. You wouldn’t open up and reveal the dark side without being sure of a soft landing. And you don’t get that with ATOS. They cleave your soul, draw out your demons and then… That’s it You’ll get a letter in a month or so. So your entrails spill out before you and there’s no one there to put you back together again.

     It hurts.

     Contempt. That’s how it feels. As though one is nothing more than a specimen to be examined, notes taken, and conclusions drawn, then discarded. Do you feel bad enough? Do you feel weak enough? Distressed enough? Do you look destroyed enough? So I sat, and I howled, and tried to swipe away the tears with my fists, and I bent double, just in so much fucking anguish from having to tell that fucking woman how I felt.

     Where should this music be…
     This music crept by me upon the waters,
     Allaying both their fury and my passion
     With its sweet air.

     St. George’s, Norwich-over-the-water. I used to know it well. I sang there a few times when I was in the CHOIR. I wrote about it as part of the Local History module in the first year of my GCSEs. There was music, organ music, playing inside. And slowly, I calmed down. And sat, listening to the music, in the sunshine. I don’t believe in god, or fate, or any kind of preordained path for people to follow. As far as I’m concerned, we make our way through life, and things just happen. That’s it. But I do believe in serendipity. And the power of one stranger to reach out and touch someone, just in passing, unintentionally, unknowingly, sublimely unaware. ATOS might have tried to break me. But the organist put me back together.

UPDATE: 12/05/2014 A letter arrived today from DWP. I've been awarded Contributions based Employment and Support Allowance. Also, wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone who's been in touch, both at the time of the assessment and since I blogged this. If I thanked you all by name, this would sound like an Oscar acceptance speech, but thank you all more than I can say. I feel very humbled by the support and encouragement I've had, and I'm lucky to have people like you in my life.

The Heat

     That's been my earworm for a couple of hours now. I'm playing it on repeat as I type. And wailing along to the chorus in a slightly worrying overearnest manner.

Going crazy, trying hard to forget
From your heat now
I just want to go back, hold on, to the way that I was
'Cause you took away all my young life
And I hate who I've become
From your heat now.

     It’s fair to say that my upbringing was not conventional. Except it was. .. But it wasn’t. I’ve kind of touched on it before, but there’s a whole other heap of weird. More than half of my life was spent on a former Prisoner of War camp in East Anglia.

     Yes, you did read that right. From the age of eight, I spent weekends, school holidays, coughtimeswhenIshouldhavebeenatschoolcough there, before I ended up living there full time for eleven years, until I was thirty. It never struck me as odd. Which is odd. But children just accept the everyday as normal, and this was everyday. Mundane, even.

     So it was just as normal for me to say ‘We’re out of loo roll, I’ll get some from the gaolhouse’ as ‘We’re out of loo roll, I’ll nip to the shop.’ Or ‘I think there’s space in the old theatre. Or you could try the chapel.’ More frequently, I could be heard saying ‘Fuck off! Bollocks is this place haunted’ although I did have one or two experiences that were a bit *woo*. But it was just normal for me to be there. It was home.

     It was only really when I was a teenager and my friends came to visit that I realised how exceptionally lucky I was. Because in Norwich, we all lived a fairly similar existence. Home by x o’clock. Schoolwork. Meeting outside Topshop on Saturday lunchtimes. No phone calls after nine. But from April until November, I could go through the back of the wardrobe and disappear. I had a whole other world to escape to.

     A whole other world where I could, and frequently did, stay out all night from the age of fourteen. I met people from all over the world, who were (thrillingly) interested in me and what I had to say. My age wasn’t a barrier to getting to know anyone. We would sit up all night, discussing music, poetry, philosophy and other wanky staples of student life. I had twelve acres to roam, dog by my side, lounging in long grass, or exploring old, forgotten buildings with a set of skeleton keys. I had complete freedom. I was happy.

     But it changed as I got older. Familiar faces faded away, conversation dried up. There were no more all night conversations, or joints smoked in lunch breaks. Things became more polished, more efficient, less human. And I changed too. I stopped laughing so much. I didn’t romp around in the undergrowth and thickets. I grew up, but I shrank as a person. And then depression seized control for a time. I used to say, slyly, that the only way I’d leave that patch of land would be in a box. It nearly came true.

     It’s been four years and ten days since I was there last. I remember it so very clearly, that last leaving. It wasn’t a goodbye, or a farewell. By that point, I despised it with a venomous and toxic hatred. I wanted it destroyed, razed to to the ground. Every brick, every Second World War stanchion, every gate, I wanted to grind into dust beneath my heels, tear the whole place apart, rip the bars from the windows with my bare hands. With fairly unsubtle twatty symbolism, I refused to look back as we drove away. I’ve barely allowed myself to think about it since, because I hated that place, what it did to me, who I became as a result of living there.

     But an hour ago, I was walking home, along the streets of this fine city I call home, and the outline of houses against the sky suddenly jolted me into remembering how strange I found that when we moved back here. How odd it was to suddenly be surrounded by two storey buildings again, to see them silhouetted at dusk. And around me, there was blossom in the trees, sun on my back, warmth in the breeze. And a hauntingly familiar feeling came over me. That May feeling. That sense of being on the cusp between the long, cold, dull months, and the whisper of new green shoots of promise. And I had the remembrance of summers long gone and buried. That feeling, entirely unique to me, of what May meant. As soon as I thought it, I tried to banish the thought. I don’t want to think about it. I won’t think about it. But the memory was kind.

     May was always my favourite month. Getting things ready for the summer ahead, setting up, cleaning, painting, welcoming people back. May was when they would return, like the swallows, like the sunshine, the warmth flooding back. The camp became alive once more, waking up from hibernation.

     I’ll never go back there. In the welter of bitterness after I made my abrupt departure, it’s become even more firmly associated with alienation, bitterness, recriminations... I could go on. I have no links to it now, no reason to be there. And from what little I know, it’s a very different place again now. Maybe better. Maybe.

    But I’m glad I remembered today that it wasn’t all bad. There were good times. I was happy there too. I hope that the people who are there now are fully aware of how precious it is.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Please RT

     Thinking a bit about the 'X is missing, have you seen X? Please RT' stuff. I know it's done with love and compassion, we're trying to help...
     But for someone with mental health issues, it could be more than they can handle. The internet knows who they are and that they're 'mental'.
     In my darkest days, this would have made me worse. I'm not saying the RTs are a bad thing - they can be used to tell people they're loved >
     And cares about. But to know that thousands of people know you are in distress? not always helpful. Not a dig, BTW, just a thought.

     I tweeted this last night, and I’m a bit paranoid about it now. It was because, more and more often, I’m seeing tweets and retweets about people going missing. Usually with a photo, and their real name because, DUH, that’s how we recognise people. But increasingly, there are links to people’s twitter and facebook accounts, details of where they live and work, the fact that they have mental health issues, or are considered vulnerable. And I find that concerning.

     I went missing a few times when I was at my lowest. And trust me, I know the absolute fucking agony and torture I put my family through when they didn’t know where I was, what I was doing, fearing the absolute worst (which they were right to do). When they would have done anything to have me home safely. And each time I was brought home, I felt worse than I had before I vanished. Because I still felt terrible, still distressed, still vulnerable, but added to that swirling horror was a raging fire of shame for having worried them so much. I couldn’t meet their eyes, couldn’t talk to them, just wanted to hide away from them. I already felt unworthy of their concern, how dare I make them suffer?

     When I see tweets about someone who’s gone missing, like most people, I feel sympathy and compassion. For the person who is missing, for their friends and family feeling the unquantifiable pain of not knowing. And when I see that someone has been found safe and well, then there is relief and hope that they will recover. What makes me uneasy is that they will almost certainly discover that their face, their name, their personal details have been shared many, many times across social media by complete strangers with the very best of intentions. The intention of reaching out to the missing, telling them they are worthy, they are important, they matter, that total strangers they will never meet care enough to try and tell them to come home. It’s a very kind and empathetic thing to do.

     But. Imagine that you are in very great distress. So great that you do not want to exist any longer. That the only thing you can do is to try and let the world swallow you up in a crowd. You don’t want to cause your loved ones further distress, you just want to retreat from life. But you’re found, brought home and now the world (as it seems to you) knows this. For some people, this might be a comfort, a reassurance that they are deserving of love and care. But for me, it would have made me so much worse. Already filled with self-loathing and disgust, I would have hated myself more for causing so many people to worry, for complete strangers to take time to find me.

     And a further concern is that for many people with mental health issues, social media can be vital to maintaining contact with people. When I had my ATOS assessment on Wednesday, the amount of support I had on twitter was overwhelming and humbling. But crucially, I was the one who chose to disclose that information about myself, it wasn’t tweeted by someone else. I’m happy to talk about it, because I’m no longer ill. But if I was, and then found that thousands upon thousands of people knew about my state of mind that I hadn’t chosen to tell them… I could never come back to twitter again. And I would lose contact with a lot of people who have a very positive impact on my life.

     I’m not criticising people who tweet or post about missing people, please don’t misunderstand me. I guess I’m just trying to say have a little care in what and how you retweet or share things. If retweets get someone found, and saved from danger, then of course it is a good thing. I don’t question the motives of anyone who does it, it’s reassuring to know that I’m connected to people who care about people, even those whom they will never meet, or talk to. But after the missing person is found, they’re going to have to put their life back together, and it’s a painful and hard thing to do. I don’t want a kind gesture on twitter make it harder for them.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Bit touchy

     We beat ourselves up, don’t we? As parents, I mean. We obsess over every decision. Breast vs bottle. Cot vs cosleeping. Gina Ford vs babywearing. But the devil is in the detail. The tiny things.

     Do you know what? For 34 years, I have been unable to hug anyone without patting them on the back. Seriously. Come here. Give me a hug. Feel that? That’s my right hand, patting you on the back as we embrace. Do you know how old I was when I started doing that? Eleven weeks old. My mum would feed me, then shift me up over her shoulder to wind me, her hand gently patting my back. Then one evening, she felt my tiny infant arm stretch, my fist unfurl, and my palm began gently patting her back. She’s told me this story many times and how her first thought was ‘Ooh! That’s weird!’ But because she’s the kind of instinctive mum who has an incredible understanding of young children, she immediately understood that I was reciprocating. Thinking that an embrace meant a back pat. So here I am, 34 years later, still patting people on the back. I’ve tried to stop. But I can’t.

     And hair… Oh god, hair. Just mine. Not yours. Around the same time that the backpatting started, my mum had long hair. And I would wrap my fist around her tresses like buggery handles. By the time I was six months old, Mum had had enough of this, and got her hair cut short. But by then, my hair was long enough for me to hold. And fondle. And twist. And twiddle. Even as I write this now, my left hand is entwined with a hank of hair, twisting, tangling and generally creating some atrocious knots. These days, I hardly ever wear my hair down, because the result is something not too dissimilar to a King of Rats.

     But who would have said that two teeny little things from infancy would turn out to linger so strongly? I’m sure my parents agonised over certain decisions about me (I hope they did, at least), but no one could have predicted that my mum holding me a certain way meant that I never style my hair other than with hairbands. And the small things matter, as I’ve discovered with The Boy…

     Have you met my sister? She’s wonderful. Basically a nicer version of me. She’s very sweet, kind, thoughtful. We look very similar, although she doesn’t have my Unfortunately Massive Face. She’s also slimmer, with bigger tits, the bitch. But she is really lovely. When The Boy was born, she gave me The Best Toy Ever – a treasure basket. It’s just a small, shallow wicker basket, filled with things. A wooden spoon, a sink plug, a plastic cow, ribbons, a square of muslin, two wool pompoms. Essentially the idea is to have a basket of things of various sizes, shapes, colours and… textures. Tesxtures… TEXTURES…

     The Boy adored it. Keep your overpriced Fisher Price plastic tat, the treasure basket was his THING. We spent so many happy hours exploring all the bits in it, pulling them out, touching them, seeing what they looked like, me explaining them to him. Anything that was soft, smooth, fluffy, or just plain nice to feel, I would gently stroke against his cheek before I handed it to him. And then, when he was nine months old, he was playing with his basket by himself. I watched as he pulled out a pompom, regarded it momentarily, then brushed it against his cheek, and smiled. He’d learnt that from me! Warm glow of Being A Good Mother suffused me.

     And then I saw it happening all the time. Everything he picked up, he would place against his cheek. Sometimes not even the things he picked up. When he was tired, sad, or just generally in need of comfort, he would rub his cheek against my arm. I loved it. Still do, because he still does it. He’s nearly as tall as me now, but I can still (just) heft him up in my arms, his legs gripping my hip, arms around my neck, his head on my shoulder, just like I used to when he was a toddler. But mostly, anything he touches, he has to stroke against his face, feel it, touch it, test it for face stroking comfort ability. If it pleases his fingers, it gets introduced to his face. Sounds sweet. But um… it’s getting a bit weird.

     Yes, that’s a lampshade. A bog standard, cream, brushed cotton lampshade. But actually, it’s more than that. It’s HIS lampshade. When we started renting this house, it was already fully furnished, right down to the table lamps. And um. The Boy is obsessed with this lampshade. He refuses to sit anywhere in the living room, other than one corner of the sofa, facing forward, left arm extended behind him, touching, stroking, fondling.

     A lampshade. Rubbing it between his fingers. It’s permanently on the huh as a result and streaked with dirt, food debris, felt tip pen, and straight blond hairs. He rubs his face against it before he goes to school in the morning. The first thing he does when he comes home is to lovingly embrace it. He hugs it before he goes up to bed. He’s asked if we can buy another lampshade for the living room, so he can have that one in his bedroom. Not for any functional use. Just to have and to hold. He is in love. With a lampshade.

     If anyone had told me, nine years ago, that when I pressed a ribbon to The Boy’s face, I was ensuring that his first great love would be a Laura Ashley lampshade, I would have given them a very dubious look, and locked the doors. But it’s here, it’s real, it’s happening.

     I have created a monster.