Category Archives: Community

Lockdown and mental health

It has worried me from the start that politicians aren’t factoring mental health impacts into their choices. I thought today I’d talk about some of what I can see happening, in the hopes that if any of you are experiencing this, there will be some comfort in identifying the mechanics. This is UK based but may apply other places.

We’re social creatures, so being asked to isolate is really hard. Doing it heroically to save lives is feasible, most of us can get behind that and sustain it. Doing it when economically based contact is allowed, but love is not, is brutal. We can go back to work, but we cannot go to family, friends and lovers who do not live in the same house as us. We are allowed our economic relationships, but not the ones that matter.

None of this ever made any sense. The biggest source of spreading is households. If one person gets it, everyone gets it because most of us don’t have room to isolate from our families. We should never have been asked to do this. Ill people should have been isolated in medical facilities, keeping their nearest and dearest safe. If you have vulnerable people in your household the advice has been to go to work and isolate from them at home. Technically difficult, and emotionally harrowing. We should be able to cling tight to the people we love, and be confident we can keep them safe.

Big events with hefty financial aspects were allowed to go ahead when they should have been cancelled. Plane loads of people from virus-afflicted areas were allowed in unchecked. We were put at risk, all of us, for the sake of money. This kind of treatment will impact on your mental health. We’ve been lied to and blamed, over and over. This is gaslighting, and it makes people mentally ill.

The whole thing has been organised the wrong way round from the beginning. We should have been protecting close relationships and getting people away from numbers of strangers. We’re safer when we can assess our risks together. The friend I can talk to about how we handle this is far less hazard to me than the stranger who coughs on me in a supermarket. Not being allowed to keep the people we live with safe has massive mental health implications for many people, as well as the hideous virus implications.

Usual mental health advice is all about staying connected with people who can support you. We know what people need to be well, but that knowledge has been ignored throughout this crisis. If we put mental health first, we give people resilience. If we had protected intimate relationships and sacrificed economic ones, we’d be better off. If we had done this the other way, people would have felt less need to push back against the rules.

Usual mental health advice also tells us to get fresh air and exercise. The mental health of people with no gardens, and people living in cramped conditions is not being talked about. It should always have been ok to sunbathe at a distance from others. It should never have been ok to force non-essential, usually low paid workers to keep working and commuting. One of these things runs the real risk of spreading disease and the other, simply does not.

Faced with political choices where you and your loved ones are at risk, and you can’t do the things that might sustain your mental health – little wonder if many of us are suffering. We should always have been putting life ahead of money, and mental health is a key part of life, not some kind of luxury extra for the better off.


What stories shall we tell each other?

Humans are story telling creatures. We do it all the time in the normal scheme of things. We have our daily adventures, and our people we check in with about how that went. How was your evening? How was your date? How was your day at work? How did the appointment go? And of these small story interactions we affirm and build our relationships with the people around us.

How is your lockdown going?

I notice on social media that there are a lot more people posting and far less is being said. We’ve been doing this for weeks now. We are over the novelty. Most of us are not getting much done because this is all so stressful and depressing, so we aren’t doing new things that give us stories to share. For some people this makes drama and conspiracy theories appealing – they are at least something to talk about, and if you provoke someone else then you have a story to tell.

Relationships depend on stories to share. We need to find each other interesting. If we are bored with ourselves and bored with the people we usually communicate with, this is a recipe for misery.

It’s important not to be living too much in the future, as well. It’s easy to start telling stories about what we will do when this is over. But, those stories further dislocate us from where we are now. They aren’t an answer to everyday stresses. We don’t know when we will be able to do all the things, so setting yourself up to watch the things you want staying unreachably ahead of you isn’t a good long term mental health choice. It is better to think about what you can do now. If there are things you want, it’s a good time to be figuring out how to move towards that and what you can do. Have a castle in the air if you want one, but also work out the means to approach it.

I have several castles in the air at the moment. I want to move, and being stuck in this small flat with no garden makes that a powerful imperative. I have to believe I won’t be stuck here forever. Even so, I’ve taken the decision not to move at the first opportunity. I could get out of here, but I have been offered a truly lovely air castle that can more likely be made real if I stay awhile, so I’ll stay. There is a story to tell, but I’m not ready yet. As a bonus, but not my major motivation, if we can get that to work, one of my biggest and most outrageous castles in the air becomes more feasible – that daydream about setting up a small movie studio.


Soulmates

I’ve never liked the idea of the soulmate as a romantic consideration. That one perfect person who is so perfect that you are bound to them for all eternity. Your twin flame. The other half of you. I’ve been in some pretty intense relationships that did not endure. The person I thought might be the love of my life when I was nineteen. The person I thought might be the love of my life when I was twenty six… lovely people, but not my one true forever person, either of them.

I don’t like the idea that we are only complete in the context of a relationship. The focus on the one true love thing doesn’t work for me either. I’ve always been plural in my affections. The focus on romantic/sexual relationships when it comes to relationships of the soul also makes me uneasy. I like the concept of the soul friend, and I think that’s just as important when it comes to thinking about soul mates. Your most emotionally significant and enduring relationships might not be with the people you enjoy shagging. Not everyone has sex as their primary and most life-defining activity

I like the idea of soulmates as a plural and not exclusively romantic notion. Soul family, or tribe, or community. People who belong to your heart and who are in some way a part of you. They may not always be with you, but their influence always will be. People who are in relationship with your soul. Mates in the sense of chums, not mates in the sense of mating, necessarily.

That way, if a person comes into your life and they bring magic and resonance, you don’t have to dump the previous person who brought magic and resonance or downgrade them as less special. You can just have more of all of that. You don’t have to burden your sexual or domestic relationships with the pressure to be the most important person in all things for all eternity. You can base your most important relationships on what makes most sense to you – that might be about the people you dance with, or make music with, or do ritual with – they may be your soulmates.


Obliged to live together

I’m seeing a lot of people online talking about how difficult it is having to spend all of their time at home with their partners, and in some cases also their children. Many of the people doing this will never have done this before. I’ve been in relationships in the past where space and distance were key to keeping things viable. What do you do when you don’t have anywhere else to go and being cooped up increases frustration?

For two years, Tom and I worked and lived on a boat – 45 feet long, 6 feet wide, boy and cat also onboard. It wasn’t easy, but we learned how to do it.

The absolute key thing for surviving with other people in a small space, is not to take your feelings out on each other. It’s easy to do this without noticing – snapping at someone because you feel grumpy, getting angry over small things that aren’t really the problem. From there it’s easy to get into cycles of passive aggression, people feeling hurt and not being able to express it well – this way lies misery.

When you can step away from each other, there’s less frustration. If you are taking your feelings out on each other, normally you at least get some breathing space in which to recover. Many people no longer have those options.

The trick is to share your feelings rather than venting them. There need be no problem being sad, bored, frightened or frustrated if you deal with it by saying that’s what you’ve got, or by expressing the feeling in relation to what’s causing it, not dumping it on the person nearest to you as though this is their fault. It takes a certain amount of self awareness to do this, but, you’re probably going to have lots of time to practice…

When you share your emotions with the people closest to you, trust is built. Support and understanding become available. There’s scope for cooperation to alleviate problems. Good things can come of this, everyone gets to feel better, no one is ground down. Using a person as your emotional punch-bag is a terrible thing to do, and will make their life a misery. It also deprives the person doing it of any meaningful comfort or support.

Living and working in a small space with other people and never having much scope to be away from them isn’t easy. But it is totally possible. Care, cooperation, negotiation and patience make all things possible. Also remember that the people around you do not magically know what’s going on in your head. They aren’t psychic. If you think they are supposed to know, or supposed to understand and you get cross with them when they don’t… this may not be their shortcoming. If you can explain calmly, using small words, they have a chance of understanding, where resentment of their lack of psychic insight will only make things worse.

For some people, isolation is going to make apparent that the other person in their home likes using them as an emotional punchbag. I am worried about the way in which extra stresses and forced proximity might escalate abusive relationships, and how much harder it will be to get out if we end up in lockdown. I can only hope there will be resources in place for people who find they aren’t safe.


Isolation and mental health

There are reasons we use prisons as punishment and solitary confinement is considered especially harsh. Most humans are social creatures and isolation is bad for us. However, we’re faced with a pandemic that requires us to at least do some social distancing, and that for some people means as much isolation as possible in the hopes of survival. Isolation is bad for mental health, and depression also kills so there is a lot to consider here.

I’ve had a lot of firsthand experience of isolation impacting on my mental health. Living with a few other people does not reliably offset it, and it puts a lot of pressure on those people to provide emotional support. They might not be well enough resourced to do that. Isolation can feed anxiety and depression because there’s not enough to counteract it. There’s not enough positive reinforcement, counter-narrative to the distress, or distraction from it. If you have mental health problems already, being isolated with your own thoughts is hell.

If you start out mentally well and are isolated, you may be ok at first. However, you can still end up feeling unable to leave the house after a while. Boredom can slide you into depression. Apathy can take over, with loss of motivation, loss of joy in life, you do less, you feel worse, you cycle into depression.

Our minds and bodies are not separate systems. Poor mental health is poor health. It can often lead to choices that further undermine health. The things we do for short term comfort may only make our situations worse. The process is likely to be slow and it may not be obvious what’s happening if you haven’t dealt with it before.

Here are some suggestions. Having a voice and a face to communicate with helps – use online tools, use your phone, get the emotional intimacy of talking directly. If you don’t feel able to ask for help with being isolated, contact someone else and ask how they are doing. Rescuing each other often works best.  If there’s no one you can talk to, I find the radio helpful – it’s immediate, and feels more personal than television.

Think about who might be unable to communicate. Consider older relatives who aren’t tech savy. Make sure you know who of your friends is vulnerable. Who is old enough to be at extra risk? Who has underlying health conditions and may need to totally isolate? Who already suffers from anxiety? Don’t wait for them to ask for help. The nature of a mental health crisis usually makes it very hard indeed to ask for help. After all, people are dying out there, how can you approach your friends and family – who no doubt have their own problems – and ask them to give you some time because you are overwhelmingly sad? Mental health conditions are good at persuading sufferers that they are making a fuss and/or don’t deserve help anyway. Make the first move.


Relationship assumptions

The dominant stories we have about the kinds of relationship shapes available to a person, are, from my perspective, unhelpfully narrow. Emotionally speaking I’m polyamorous – I can choose fidelity, but it is fundamentally in my nature to love. I’m attracted to pixies and wizards – gender has never really been a factor. As someone with wizard and pixie attractions, it makes no sense to me that one set of genitals equates to potential lovers and the other to potential friends and that you shouldn’t be friends with people who have different genitals to you.

I find the hard lines we draw between friends and lovers a tad perplexing. It doesn’t leave me much space for adoration, for people I want to hold and kiss but maybe not shag. It doesn’t allow for my massive and very intense creative crushes or for what happens with me when people inspire me.

Conventional relationships tend to assume similarity of age. Again, this has never worked for me. There’s a huge age range across my love/friendship relationships.

For me, entering into a relationship with a person has always been about finding the shape that is right for that particular exchange. That may, or may not be sexual, it may be affectionate, it may be a creative collaboration, or something else entirely. I’m interested in what might happen, and not in getting an interaction with a person to fit a pre-determined shape.

I’m also entirely comfortable with unbalanced relationships. I often love people who do not feel the same way about me, and I’m fine with that. My emotional response does not create an obligation. I might want things that aren’t available – again I’m fine with this. I am confused by people who expect balance. I am very confused by people who think I should feel about them something that reflects how they feel about me! I am largely convinced it’s because we tell each other so many stories in which two people fall in love with each other at the same time and to the same degree that we assume this is normal. It’s never worked that way for me.

I want there to be more room. I don’t want to be told what I am allowed to feel, or be cut down by the limited nature of other people’s stories. I’ve had more than enough of that already. I want space, for all of us, to be who we are, explore who we might be when dealing with each other, and to engage on whatever terms actually make sense.


Body Stories

We attach meanings to bodies. We pass around stories about what certain body shapes mean. Some bodies we sexualise, and some we desexualise with no reference to the nature of the person whose body it is. The racists amongst us have stories about the meaning of skin tones that has nothing to do with the people those stories are imposed on. Those stories are used to cause harm and to reduce opportunities.

We tell stories about disabled bodies that are profoundly unhelpful to the people they are about. The stories of liars, scroungers, and fakes beget violence. The stories about what a disabled body means regarding the capability of the person, keep people out of jobs, social spaces and opportunities. The stories about being brave and inspirational are perhaps less toxic, but just as much about imposing a narrative on someone else.

If you have big breasts there is no way of dressing short of using a binder, that makes your body look modest in some people’s eyes. It is, by all accounts worse if you are a black woman, much worse if you are a younger black woman with curves –  that your body will be read in a sexual way no matter what you do, or who you are. The power to impose a story on someone else’s body is the power to say they were asking for it, they were dressed provocatively, their consent can be inferred.

When we read poverty on a person, we judge them for being lazy, dirty and feckless. When we don’t see those things, we judge a person claiming poverty as lying.

It doesn’t get much more personal than the story about what your body means. When people are able to read your body and impose their meanings upon you, there is a massive power imbalance. When you are told what you can and cannot do because your body is read as old, or female, or black, then you are at a huge disadvantage. If you don’t get to act based on your own body story, you are compromised in so many ways.

People who consider themselves normal measure other people’s bodies in relation to their own. All too often, no one asks what a person can do, or how they feel. We put superficial readings of bodies ahead of finding out what a person actually does.

Who gets to tell the story about what your body means? Who gets to impose limitations on you based on how they read your body? Who do you judge on appearances? What assumptions do you make when you look at someone who is different from you? None of us are entirely free from this.


Being Seen

For many of us, the visible self doesn’t really match the internal self. This can take many forms – around gender and sexual identity for example – there are so many invisible bisexuals. Not everyone is entirely out of the boom closet with their Paganism. We may have passions, fetishes, obsessions, issues, wounds, and histories that we mostly can’t share with other people. Sometimes because it’s safer not to expose that. Sometimes because we fear how others will respond. Sometimes because it’s just so complicated to explain.

As a consequence of this, being seen can be incredibly powerful. Having someone recognise the unspeakable things, and not only see them but respond in a positive way to them. To be seen as a sexual being when your age and body shape make that unacceptable in many spaces. To have the invisible bisexuality honoured. To have someone see the heroism that accompanies the scars, not the brokenness… I have no doubt this can take many forms.

I think it’s one of the most powerful gifts a person can give to another person – to see them as they truly are, and not just accept that but honour it. To give a person room to be more than we expect or assume. To give people space to be their true selves, fearless and unmuted.


Druid Leadership

When I first encountered Druidry about twenty years ago, it seemed structured. Groves, Orders, arch-druids, hierarchy and Very Important Druids. Perhaps it was quite anarchic all along, but from outside, it looked like a movement with a few key leaders and a lot of followers.

I’m reasonably confident that I’ve seen a shift since then. I think there are a lot more Druids who, while interested in learning from others, have no desire to submit to anyone else’s leadership. I think a lot of membership now is held more lightly, and people turn up when it suits them. I think there are not many people coming forward to be Druid leaders. I also think these are all good things.

One of the problems inherent in leading is that to do it well takes time and energy. Of course for the person on a bit of an ego trip, this isn’t always a problem. I see experienced Druids who could have stepped forward to lead choosing not to do so – in no small part because they want to be Druids far more than they want to be leaders. I see such people sharing experiences and teaching in lighter and less authority-laden ways, and I like how that looks. We don’t have to follow someone to learn from them, we do not have to surrender power to them or imagine they are better than us. We can just swap notes and pick up whatever seems useful.

What I see increasingly is Druids communicating through networks of interactions. I see something that looks a lot more organic than the Druidry of twenty years ago. There’s less drama in it. Wind the clock back fifteen years or so and I looked after the Druid Network’s Directory for a while, which meant I was in touch with a great many orders, groves, arch-druids and whatnot. It was drama-laden work, and frequently full of weirdness. I see all the same odd assertions, beliefs and ego stuff playing out in Druid groups online, but without the same power base. Without the confidence that having self-identified as an arch-druid should mean something. We still get our fair share of preposterous folk with outrageous ideas, but with a wider community full of people who know about Druid history, there are plenty of folk able to step in and offer some reality.

It suited our ancestors of revival-druidry to adopt a hierarchical view of Druids. It fitted the patriarchal, colonial times in which they lived. It fitted their desire for fame, fortune, notoriety and followers. Druidry as it exists today has grown out of that revival period stuff, and become something a lot more anarchic. There’s a much more democratic sharing of ideas, much more room for more people to be heard, and far fewer people who want to start their own even more ancient than anyone else’s Order so that they can get invited to meetings of some sort or another and get angry with other near-identical Orders consisting of one arch-druid and his dog…


Notes on parenting

I had a suspicion that how I parented my child as a toddler would have a lot of impact on how things went in his teens. There are similarities – the sudden increase in options and personal power, the need to test boundaries, the hormones undermining common sense… I thought how we handled that when he was small might be key in what came later. He’ll be eighteen this year.

I thought back to my own teens and to the things that made my friends miserable. It was all about the need to be heard and taken seriously, to have your feelings respected. How much we wanted not to be told that we did not know our own minds. How we wanted our emotional attachments taken seriously, our ambitions, distress and frustration as well.

So I started along those lines when he was small. I asked about preferences. I asked him what worked for him and what didn’t. I heard him out, and if he couldn’t have things his way, I explained why. I told him he was always entitled to ask questions, and always entitled to an explanation. I promised him that if I claimed I knew best I would produce some evidence for this. I made sure that what he felt was factored in, and that he knew he was being heard and taken seriously. I promised that I would only order him to do something if it was an emergency and he had to do what I said right then with no time for explanations. Which meant that if I gave on order, I expected it to be followed unquestioningly.  There have been a few instances of physical peril, and I have never abused that deal.

We’ve always negotiated. I’ve always been in charge because that’s what it means to parent a young human. He’s always had the definitive say on how he feels about things, what he wants and doesn’t want. Of course along the way we’ve had the odd strop over things that didn’t seem fair, and I’ve stopped and talked through why they might be fair after all, or why they might be shit but that’s how it goes sometimes. That being an adult means taking responsibility for the dull things, the crappy things, the things you don’t want to have to bother with and that your freedom and your responsibility are closely interlinked.

He’s never rebelled against me, because there was never much authority to rebel against. I’ve never claimed to know what was best for him, I just advise based on what I do know. We’ve got this far with no blazing rows, no angry outbursts from either of us. Neither of us has said anything we have any reason to regret. I’m really proud of that, and of the kind of relationship we have at this point in his life.

With university on the horizon we’re negotiating the next set of changes, working what he needs to know, clarifying what he’s responsible for and what backup will be available.

It would be easy to run roughshod over the ideas, feelings and preferences of a child. It is often more convenient to ignore that sort of thing. It may be satisfying to the parental ego to take total authority, demand obedience and assert control, but these are, I feel certain, the things that pave the way to an angry, fight-laden teenage. Respect is something we learn, and being respected is a really good way of learning how to respect others.