Category Archives: Community

Health crisis, mental health crisis

I’ve been seeing a lot of comments from medical professionals all around the world – that they can’t cope emotionally or psychologically with what’s being demanded of them.

We forget at our peril that humans are finite creatures. No one can work all the hours there are, indefinitely, without consequences. We’ve asked our doctors and nurses to hold the front line against a disease that kills, and that is more likely to kill you if you get a high exposure to it. Many of them have died. We’ve asked them to work without the proper protective equipment – especially in the UK. Also in the UK we’ve declined to pay them properly so that nurses can end up at food banks.

People become mentally ill when too much is asked of them for too long. Even people who expect their jobs to involve death and distress can only handle a finite amount of that. 

Exhaustion, burn out, overwhelming fear, and unbearable pressure can have an array of impacts on a person. It becomes harder to make yourself move or to act. Decision making becomes harder, even impossible. Every situation becomes overwhelming and impossible. Clearly it’s not possible to keep doing a job where you need to think quickly and act decisively to save lives if you can barely function. And yet that’s exactly what we’re expecting people to do.

At the beginning of the pandemic we were talking about slowing the curve, because there are only so many beds and ventilators out there, and if we have too fast a spread we’ll overload the system and people will die. If we overload people, that also matters.

All too often,mental health is treated either as a luxury, or as a problem for people who are just weak to begin with. Everyone has a breaking point. There is only so much stress, pressure, misery and exhaustion that any one human can take. We’re approaching the two year mark with covid and it’s amazing really that so many people in the medical profession have held up for so long in face of all this.

But they can’t do it forever. 

We need to recognise the humanity of our medical professionals, and that we have asked too much, and we need to do what we can not to end up in hospital. We’re all in this together, we are all impacted by each other’s individual choices, but we’re asking one group of people to bear the brunt of the consequences. And then, ill and unvaccinated, the most selfish amongst us show at the hospital expecting to be helped by the very people they’ve accused of genocide, sometimes while shouting abuse and demanding miracles. 

I don’t have any large scale answers to this, but as individuals we can at least try not to be part of the problem, and to be kind to the people we hope will save our lives.

Making Mistakes

We all make mistakes. Having the freedom to make mistakes is essential to learning, growing, studying, creating and exploring. We hold spaces where people can develop if we allow them to mess up with no fear of blame or shame. It’s not a good idea to make people responsible for anything important when they have yet to learn how things work!

Admitting mistakes can feel painful. However, it’s a really good thing to be able to do. Being able to appreciate someone taking the time to correct and inform you is a blessing. Being able to own errors so as to know more and do better is enabling. 

Humiliating knock backs teach people not to take risks. It can be especially hard on children, who learn not to voice their opinions, and not to try things. If you require people to be perfect, most of them will never even dare to have a try. No one does things perfectly from the outset. It has to be ok to be wrong, inept, ineffective, inaccurate and so forth when you start out.

However, for this to be possible, it helps to have that treated supportively by others. It’s not good to humiliate people for not knowing things. It’s best to assume ignorance rather than malice – especially when you’re seeing errors for the first time. It is totally possible to correct someone without knocking them down – and if it’s done with respect, then the person being corrected is more likely to want to take the new information onboard.

It’s also worth asking whether a person is wrong, or simply different. Is there a right answer there? Is there only one acceptable way of doing things? Might there be reasons for what you’re seeing? Who actually knows what’s going on here? If you’re in a situation where you only have a superficial grasp of things, it’s well worth being alert to the possibility that you might be the one who needs to learn. Are you making assumptions about the other person based on race, gender presentation, age, class, disability or apparent education level? Take a moment to consider those assumptions if you have them. 

If it turns out that you’ve tried to correct someone who knew more than you, then you get to go round this loop from the other side. Will you be gracious in the lesson, or will you double down? We all make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with making an innocent mistake because you didn’t have the right information. It’s what we do next that really defines who we are.

Music to die for

When the pandemic started, my greatest anxiety was that a bad choice on my part could kill someone. My decisions during lockdown and my willingness not only to follow rules, but often to go further than required, has been entirely based on the determination not to harm others. 

At the same time, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about what makes life worth living. A life without time spent in person with people I care about is hard to bear. A life without free access to the countryside is grim. I’m not convinced that a life without live music is worth living. The last thing I did before I went into lockdown (ahead of actual lockdown) was to go to a small, local gig.

There are important questions to ask about what we live for, and what gives joy and meaning to our lives. What value do we find in simply existing? What is it worth risking your life for? Lockdown has given us the chance to find out what really is essential. It’s raised questions about what we’re willing to put ahead of our own health, what we’re willing to risk other people’s lives over, what we can’t do without. For many, this has also been a time of finding out how a person’s economic worth relates to their social usefulness. It turns out it’s the lowest paid workers who are doing the most essential things.

With gigs cancelled, musicians struggled financially. So did all the people whose work depends on venues being open. I watched our government shaft the entire sector. 

At the weekend, I went to a gig. I reckon the venue capacity was about 250 people, and the space was well ventilated, so it wasn’t especially risky. I’m double jabbed, and like a lot of people there, I was wearing a mask. It seemed like a decent risk to take. There were a lot of older people in the audience who were taking a bigger risk than me in being there. As the music started, I wondered whether this was worth dying for. 

Yes. Yes it was. 

A life without the things that make life worth living is not a life worth living. It might be reasonable to endure that over a few months as a temporary safety measure. It’s not possible to live there. Music is essential to me, but there’s a huge difference between listening to a recording and being in a space where people are making music. Much as I love the internet, being online is not the same for me as physically being in the same space with people.

If music helped you in lockdown, please note that most musicians had a really hard time of it. Streaming music doesn’t result in musicians being paid much. If you have any resources to spare, buy a track, or an album, leave something in a tip jar or on Patreon. If we want music, we have to keep our composers and performers economically viable.

Never too weird

One of the things we always end up doing at steampunk events is trying to come up with pithy explanations for what steampunk is. There are always curious people with questions. And for every steampunk there’s a different answer – much as there’s a lot of diversity when Pagans try to explain what Paganism is.

It struck me that one of the things steampunk is, is a space where no one will ever judge you for being too weird. I didn’t look especially Victorian when this occurred to me – I was wearing a hand made waistcoat inspired by Japanese boro and sashiko, some knickerbocker type trousers and some devil horns. These days I mostly go to steampunk events wearing my clothes, rather than having specific steampunk attire. It seems to work.

I’m used to being too weird. It’s come up a lot during my life. I’m too emotional, too intense and also too emotionally unavailable (good, isn’t it?). I’ve spent a lot of time finding round holes in which to be an awkward square peg. I’ve been told off for giving too much, caring too much, trying too hard. I’ve been told how I hug is weird. There’s very little about me that hasn’t faced serious criticism at some point, and it does make me socially anxious. 

Steampunk gatherings are spaces where I don’t feel socially anxious. Part of that is having the confidence that no one is going to accuse me of being too-anything or have a problem with me on those terms. I would be prepared to bet that being too-something is an issue I have in common with a lot of steampunks. For everyone else, the desire to be polite and inclusive will incline them to be less judgy anyway. 

I’m seeing ever more memes online that suggest if people demand that you be smaller, you tell them to find someone else for that. It’s a new thought for me. Perhaps I don’t owe it to anyone to turn up as a small, comfortable thing for their benefit. There are spaces where I don’t have to be small to fit in. There are people who are neither offended nor intimidated by enthusiasm, passion, delight, silliness or anything else I might happen to have going on. There is charm in being around people who are at least as bonkers as I am.

I’ve spent a long time carrying all of this as a failing in myself. I was fourteen when my first boyfriend told me that I was too serious and too much and he turned out to be the first of many. I’ve been trying to tuck parts of myself in, to be tidier and more acceptable ever since – but I’m not very good at it. I’m used to thinking of how I am as being likely to cause offence, that I am inherently flawed and difficult to put up with. But not for everyone. In recent years I’ve started to figure out who my people are. I don’t hang around so much for the ones who might grudgingly accept me and I no longer feel grateful to the people who manage that grudging acceptance.

In steampunk spaces, people do not judge each other for being too weird, and that’s wonderful and liberating and I’m very glad of it. Good things happen when we make more space for each other. Especially when we make room for delight and enthusiasm that doesn’t show up in the ways we’re used to. I’m tired of joylessness, of cynicism and apathy being benchmarks for being a proper grownup.

Accessible art

Recently we had an art show in our home town. It’s an accessible gallery space, with ramps and an accessible toilet, and we did get one visitor on a mobility scooter.

Art is usually hung at a height that assumes the viewer is an adult, and standing up. We took the decision to hang art at various different heights so that some of it was actually inconvenient for standing adults – who could and did crouch down to have a look.

During the course of the week we had a lot of people bring children in. I had the pleasure of watching children work their way along the images that were at a good height for them, looking at the art and enjoying the experience. I’ve never been to a show that hung anything at a child’s eye level before.

It’s all too easy as an able bodied person to go into a space and only see how that space works for you. It’s all too easy to assume everyone else using the space will use it in the same way that you do. I’m committing to thinking more about this, and trying to make what I do in spaces more accommodating of more people.

Here’s a video of the exhibition in which you can see the child-level art, amongst other things.

Saving People From Themselves

The short answer is that it can’t be done. People only change when they want to change, and there’s not much scope to save people who do not want to be saved or who do not want to do the work or make the changes that would sort them out. Also, this stuff is subjective, and one person’s considered life choice can be another person’s hell. Like most creators I’ve had my rounds with people who thought I should be sensible and get a ‘proper job’. I undertake not to have anyone ‘save’ me from my own preferences and life choices.

If you are the kind of person who cares, it can be all too easy to get into a situation where you are protecting someone from the consequences of their own actions. I think a lot of abuse victims end up protecting their abuser in this kind of way – it can simply come from a desire for that person to be a better person than they are, but trying to make it so doesn’t fix things. You can end up doing vast amounts of extra work to try and offset what should have been the consequences of their actions and you may feel you need to do that to stay safe. Sooner or later it becomes impossible to protect an abuser from the consequences of what they do. Or to protect someone from the consequences of their laziness, lack of care or other shortcomings.

What’s even more problematic is when you are set up by the person to feel obliged to save them from themselves. It can feel powerful at first, imagining you are the hero they need, that you are the one who can break them out of toxic behaviour, and that you can save them. All too often what happens is you become the person whose fault it is that they are as they are, and they continue unchanged. It’s good to ask for help when dealing with life issues, but if someone is making you responsible for their problems, it is a serious red flag and the best option is to get as far away from it as you can.

We can and should support each other. We can cheerlead and encourage people when they try to make changes. We can share stories of our own struggles and solutions. We can cheer the victories and help people not be defeated by setbacks. But at the same time, there are limits. You can’t pull a person out of a burning building if they keep running back in. You can throw a person a lifeline, but they have to be willing to grab it and hold on. You can wait for a person, you can give them options, but you can’t do the work for them.

Learning and criticism

The conventional wisdom is that to learn, you have to be open to robust criticism. I’ve been teaching various kinds of creative and spiritual things for a good twenty years now, and I’m increasingly convinced that the criticism approach doesn’t work that well.

What does work, is drawing people’s attention to their own successes. Tell someone what they do especially well, or what makes their work stand out. Tell them what you like about what they do, or where you can see progress. 

People who intend to learn and grow are often really harsh critics of their own work. They mostly don’t need other people to pick holes in it as well. If you’re in a position of being able to offer feedback, praising the stuff that works is really useful. It boosts and encourages the person, and you can learn a lot from hearing about what you are doing well. Criticism, on the other hand, can be demoralising, and if it doesn’t come with solid feedback about how to improve, it might not help a person in the slightest.

It is easier to rubbish someone than to lift them. It takes more skill and insight to feedback to a person about their strengths and very little insight to say ‘that’s crap’. Positive feedback boosts the other person, negative feedback does more to assert the authority and superiority of the person making the criticism. The idea that you have to be able to take harsh criticism to survive as a creative person can push out gentler and more sensitive people. 

The people who can take brutal criticism are often the ones who pay no attention to it. People not interested in learning from others or convinced that they have no need to develop can deal with harsh feedback by simply ignoring it. As a consequence, harsh criticism can mean selecting for people who ignore feedback at the expense of the people who genuinely wanted to learn and improve.

Unsolicited criticism can be really counterproductive, even when you’re in a teaching role. It can come across as asserting dominance and it can be more about the teacher’s ego than their being useful. Critical feedback is best given when it’s actually sought. If someone says ‘I’m not happy with this but I don’t know how to fix it’ that’s the time to come in and talk about what, technically can be improved on, and how. It’s also worth noting that if you don’t know how to improve something, you aren’t especially well qualified to comment on how good it is.

It’s also important when teaching or feeding back to recognise the difference between whether or not you like something and whether or not it is good. All too often, unsolicited harsh criticism is just people asserting that they don’t like a thing. Maybe it wasn’t made for you. It’s ok not to like a thing, but always worth thinking carefully about whether the person who created it needs to hear about that. Good critical feedback tells a person how to do a better job of the things they were doing. Useless feedback tells them that you wanted them to do something else. If you aren’t supporting a person to be themself, you aren’t supporting them at all.

Dances with Algorithms

Social media can be toxic for the individual user, and there’s a growing school of thought that some of it is harmful to society as a whole. However, social media is a significant percentage just people, and as people participating in it we get to contribute to how it all works.

I’ve spent many years doing social media professionally for various companies, organisations and individuals. This means I’ve spent a lot of time having to think about how various platforms work, and how to get people to engage. A lot of engagement tactics are unethical – clickbait, and more problematically, outrage bait. Make people feel something and you are more likely to get them to engage with you. Outrage is pretty easy to invoke and channel because when people feel it, they often don’t think calmly or clearly and become easier to manipulate.

Social media algorithms are informed by engagement and speed of engagement. That which gets a lot of reaction fast, travels and becomes more visible. So, if you don’t like something and you engage with it, you’re actually helping to move it around.

The internet is an attention hungry toddler and is best treated as such. It craves your attention because that’s how it makes advertising money. Attention hungry toddlers don’t care what it takes to get your attention, they just keep doing the thing that gets most reaction. If that’s you losing your shit, the toddler learns to wind you up. Sometimes, the most effective way to teach a toddler is by being boring and disinterested. Algorithms are the same.

If something makes you angry, don’t respond to it. Don’t comment on it, don’t argue with people on it, don’t share it to express your anger. Screenshots don’t send traffic or energy back to the source of the problem. If it’s bad enough to merit a report, a block or an unfriending, do that quickly and move on.

Facebook in particular will show you more of what it thinks you want to see. It judges this based on what you interact with, and what your friends interact with. If you spend a lot of time arguing with people, you’re going to see more content featuring the key words you were arguing with. Your social media experience thus becomes more angry and unhappy.

You have to teach the algorithm what it is you want to see. I mostly see adverts for cat related things and cute cat videos and a fair amount of queer news. I curate hard on sites I use, and I don’t stay friends with strangers whose posts make me cross. I don’t live in an echo chamber because I actively seek all kinds of information. I don’t make myself available to people who are going to make my life miserable. 

I’m active about sharing nice things, because I think we could all do with nice things. Sharing warmth and beauty is also political, and seriously radical, and all about the kind of world I want to live in. If I need to argue, I do so as gently and politely as I can, and if I am concerned I can’t stay gentle and polite I get the hell out. I leave likes and loves and hearts on things that cheer me, for the greater part. I do a bit of political critique sharing on Twitter, but I stay away from anything that is abusive or divisive.

Most days, my experience of social media is positive, cheerful and adds richness and delight to my life. No site has to be a hellspace, you just have to tame it and bend it to your will.

There are people who are nourished by your outrage, and who will starve for want of attention if we just ignore them. Don’t name them. Don’t engage. Undertake to be bored by what they do, and direct your energy towards what’s good and interesting instead.

Invisible disability

For many years now, people with chronic illness, mental health problems and other apparently ‘invisible’ disabilities have been campaigning to raise awareness. Recently, I’ve seen a shift away from explaining and towards questioning, and I realise it’s long overdue. Most illness isn’t visually self announcing, and the bigger issue is around what people individually, and society as a whole prefer to ignore.

I have read so many stories about people having their disabilities minimised and ignored by others. This happens a lot to younger folk who are dismissed as too young to be disabled. It happens so often around mental health – the minimising, the dismissal and denial.

“You don’t look like you’re in pain’ is the most common form this takes. This is because when you live with pain all the time, you learn how to not have that on your face. It’s a necessary social skill if you’re going to do anything other than scream all the time. I got most of the way to being ready to give birth with medical professionals not taking me seriously because I wasn’t exhibiting enough distress. This is not an unusual thing to have happen. 

The problem isn’t invisibility, it’s the ways in which people habitually read each other’s bodies and faces. It’s the refusal to accept that a person can both need a wheelchair and be capable of standing up. It’s hearing a person talk about how crippling their anxiety is and then just assuming they are being flakey when they don’t make it to your party. Undertaking not to notice or recognise a problem is not the same as it being really hard to notice.

It doesn’t help that representations of ill people in film and television are written by able people, for the greater part. This tends towards stories full of drama, heroism and/or tragedy. The grind of living long term with a limiting disability doesn’t feature much. Alongside this we have a government and media inclined to shame and blame ill people as scroungers who want something for nothing. Unless it affects you directly, these are likely your key points of reference for thinking about what other people experience.

I’m not that difficult to see. I carry a cushion when out because my circulation is poor and hard seats do terrible things to me. Getting out of seats is seldom a smooth or graceful thing for me. I can’t always get in and out of clothes without help – this can be entirely publicly visible with coats sometimes. I get tired far too easily and it impacts on my concentration. But I still get people responding with massive surprise when I explain how much should mobility I’ve lost, or that I really can’t handle a late night.

Illness isn’t always about obvious drama. Long term illness is something people tend to learn how to manage, but this doesn’t mean that anyone who appears to be managing doesn’t have a real problem. The issue is not really one of visibility at all, it has far more to do with what is noticed, taken seriously, respected and remembered.

Social identity and not fitting in

I’m trying to make sense of myself to figure out how to navigate life in ways that are more comfortable for me. In recent years, I’ve had quite a few people suggest to me that I might be autistic, and it’s something I’ve been looking at, because there are certainly areas of overlap.

I struggle with social situations. As a child I could see there were rules for interaction but had no idea what they were. As a teen I did a bit better in geek spaces, and favoured spaces where music or dance dominated, because these are things I can do. I’m fine if the structure is overt – as in a class or a folk club. I’m fine running a space because then I know who to be and what to do. Curiously, the social spaces I don’t find stressful are steampunk ones, and that may have given me the key to unlocking this, because at the same time, spaces dominated by straight women terrify me.

I have never known how to perform femininity. I wasn’t taught how to do it as a child, or given any of the usual props – no pretty shoes, no toys targeted at girls etc. My mother and grandmother did not perform femininity either so I didn’t learn it from my environment. All of the gender based aspects of social interaction made no sense to me as a child, but I also didn’t know that was something I was struggling with. I also wasn’t a tomboy, I didn’t have any idea how to perform ‘boy’ either. 

Many of the unspoken rules for social spaces involve gender performance. Those performances change over time for young humans, especially around how your gender is supposed to interact with the other gender. The child who cannot perform gender appears weird and incomprehensible to the children whose sense of self already has a strong gender identity wired in, and a strong binary sense of what gender means. I didn’t want the things little girls were supposed to want, or the things the little boys were supposed to want. I had missed all the gender stereotyping memos. I had no idea how to interact with anyone else.

Steampunk spaces are remarkably uninformed by gender. People wear what they like, enthuse about whatever they like, there’s not much social performance of gender, no expectation based on apparent gender. You might think with the dresses and corsets that there would be, but mostly, there isn’t. How I present socially actually works in a steampunk space.

I recognise and empathise with things autistic people say about navigating neurotypical spaces and the stress this causes. But I think for me the issue has been the way in which so much social interaction is underpinned by the expectation of, and performance of binary gender identities. I never understood what the rules might be, to be honest I still don’t really get how any of it works. I have no idea whether social interactions based on gender binaries are intrinsic for some people, or just constructs that they get along with – and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What I need for my own wellbeing are the spaces where gender performance isn’t a key part of social interaction, and if I’ve got that, I’m good.