Category Archives: Community

A matter of trust

I’ve known for a while that I have a hard time trusting people to like me, or think well of me. When life is smooth and straightforward, it’s not that big a problem – if the people around me are affirming and encouraging, I feel ok and can trust them enough. However, if anything goes wrong, it leaves me rapidly in a place of having no emotional resilience at all.

I’ve put in the time to work out why I have trust issues of this particular shape. I didn’t get here by myself, it would be fair to say. I got here through a number of key experiences where it was made explicitly clear to me that I was not loved or wanted. The details won’t be useful to anyone else, so I won’t go into them. I’ll ask you to take it on trust that they were the kinds of experiences that shaped my reality and that it was reasonable of me to respond that way.

It is really hard to notice the things that enter our realities as normal and being simply how the world works. For me, it has been so normal to think no one would want me, that I’ve had a hard time noticing when people do. I’ve struggled to feel like I have a place anywhere. I don’t feel like I belong. I struggle with this around relationships of all shapes and around involvement in communities. It has, for many years, also undermined my ability to hold boundaries. It’s part of why I feel that having any place at all is totally conditional on doing what everyone else wants, never asking for anything, never being awkward or making a fuss or saying no. This has not gone well for me, historically, and reinforces the sense of not being wanted beyond the ways in which I am useful.

I did not get here on my own. I am not overcoming this on my own either – I could not have done so.

Recent experiences tested my ability to trust to the limit, and beyond. I don’t think it was a scenario in which a really secure person would have found it easy to stay confident. I broke down, over and over, banging myself against that rock of unacceptability. It was in that repeated breaking process that I became able to see the mechanics of how I see myself in relationships. I was able to line up the experiences informing my sense of self, and to look at them properly, and to be properly horrified by them.

I became aware, during this process, of the many people who have gone out of their way to be affirming. The many people who make explicit that they want me in their lives. I have hit a tipping point recently. The people who want me and are clear about it are simply more numerous, more present, more vocal, than the people who taught me I was worthless. The people who value me have enabled me to shift how I see myself. I am, suddenly, able to imagine that I am someone it might be worth loving and caring about, beyond my utility. I am, for the first time in my life, able to imagine that I am a good person to have around – at least for some people.

Self esteem issues are not problems we develop all by ourselves. A sense of self worth is usually underpinned by our relationships with other people. I am increasingly convinced that anyone who says you should not base your self-worth on external things or other people’s opinions simply has enough security to make that security largely invisible to them. A person’s self-worth is very much dependent on how they are treated. We do not get hurt around this stuff alone, and we do not overcome it alone either.


Why I’m not debating

I don’t like debating. It’s now something I tend not to engage with, and when I find people who want to argue recreationally, I tend to express an absence of opinion. I very much like being in situations where I can exchange ideas with people, but as soon as we’re into arguing and winning or losing, I’m out.

The win/lose approach of the debate means people have more invested in making their point than in deepening their understanding. That often means that the pushiest, thickest skinned and most aggressive debater wins – it’s not really about ideas at all. It promotes a culture where aggression carries the day and opinions supported loudly are more important than facts and experience. I will not be part of that.

It’s rare that these debates are balanced. The odds are that one person knows more than another. If I’m in a situation where someone has more firsthand experience than me, or more academic insight than me, I want to listen to them. Their knowledge and experience is clearly of more worth than my less informed opinion. Put me in that scenario I won’t debate, but I may well ask a lot of questions.

Sometimes I’m on the other side of this as the person who knows the stuff. I will – time and energy permitting – cheerfully dig in and share that with anyone who is interested. But, I’m not inclined to offer that up so that someone who knows less than me can try to shoot me down with their opinion. If I have knowledge and experience, and that isn’t being recognised there’s not much point being in the conversation.

In my experience, people who argue recreationally don’t invest much time in finding out what the other person really knows. This is especially problematic around firsthand experience. Wanting to argue with someone about their life experiences and how they interpret them, is deeply problematic and there’s a lot of it on social media. White people who want to argue with Black people about experiences of racism. Men who want to argue with women about sexism. We should not be debating people’s lives for fun or to reinforce power imbalance and prejudice. We need to listen to each other more, and recognise that an uninformed opinion isn’t worth bringing to the conversation.

Debating takes energy. As a consequence it tends to be an activity that goes with privilege. The less privilege you have, the less likely you are to have the time, energy and emotional resources to argue with people. This is weaponised. I see far too much effort online going into exhausting people who are trying to make changes and get their voices heard. Debating people can be an oppressive thing to do, and deliberately so. Demanding that people educate you while you try and pick holes in them is nasty stuff. There’s rather a lot of it out there.

The only way to truly win a debate is to not waste energy on it. The people who can afford to argue for the fun of it, to play devil’s advocate, to indulge in their opinions and to shout down those who disagree are not owed anything. They do not deserve anyone’s time. No matter how they demand attention and the right to play this particular game, none of us has to do it. The more of us refuse to do it, the less culturally normal it will become. Adversarial debating is just a game to such people – it achieves nothing but gives the winner a kick. It is of no real use.


Community Solutions

When the problems are yours and yours alone, there may be no answers. You may well not have the knowledge, skills, resources or clarity to deal with whatever is going on. So often, we’re under pressure to find individual solutions and not ‘burden’ other people with the issues. This is especially true around mental health problems.

No one gets into trouble on their own. There’s always a context. In matters of mental health, sources of stress, anxiety and trauma are certainly part of the mix for many of us. How can we fix alone what was done to us by others?

Certainly, there’s a macho component to this. The idea of the heroic self having to stride out there and fight the demons single handed. And when you can do that, it can be empowering. But sometimes, it’s not feasible. Often it’s not feasible in my experience.

We’re more resilient when we share resources. We don’t need as many resources to get things done. Our lives are better when we take care of each other. Being able to help someone else is heartening, and everyone benefits. Why should we keep re-inventing the wheel at the worst moments in our lives when the wisdom and experience of others might enable us to cope better?

When you’re in crisis, it is difficult to think well. It becomes hard to assess what is the panic speaking, and what the real issues are.  It can be very difficult to see the bigger picture, to plan, to hold any kind of perspective. Crisis can freeze you up, at which point, rescuing yourself from it is bloody difficult.

This has been a really tough week for me in a number of ways. Personal crisis things going on, plus the horrible impact of sleep deprivation on my body. Lack of sleep increases my pain levels, and beyond a certain point is also really triggering. Stress and heat have combined to mess up my digestive system. I’ve not been able to think properly. This is not a situation in which I can do much to help myself. I am however blessed with wise and kind friends, who are quick to offer support, reassure me and share wisdom. It has kept me going and stopped me from entirely falling apart. I could not do this on my own.

I’m not good at asking for help. When I’m depressed, I struggle to believe that help could be available. This is not an irrational response, there are things in my history that make it entirely reasonable. However, it’s an out of date response.

A while ago, I ran into some pre-history content about how we decide we’re dealing with modern human cultures. One definition, is when we see evidence of people taking care of each other – injuries that have healed are a good indicator of this. To be civilized, arguably, is to take care of people who have become unable to take care of themselves. Sometimes it feels that we, as a species are becoming deeply uncivilized on those terms. There’s always scope to push back against that, by taking care of each other and recognising that cooperation and community have a great deal to offer us all.


Everything changes

If you watch my youtube videos, you’ve already seen a fair amount of my flat – it’s a small space and I either film in a bedroom or the living room. I am however a rubbish photographer and I don’t have the kind of phone a person can take pictures with, so I don’t tend to post images that much. This, evidently, is going to change thanks to the skills of Dr Abbey, who does excellent things with cameras.

We have recently expanded as a household and as a creative team. It’s been fairly easy on both fronts – which when living in a small space is remarkable. Projects that Tom and I have worked on intensely together are now opening up to be three person projects and I’m excited about how all of this will play out. And here we are on the blog, which is usually my little corner of reality, with odd guest posts in it, and today I am sharing photos that Dr Abbey took of Tom while he was working.

I’m excited to see what happens for me creatively as we saunter on. It seems likely there will be more images on the blog as well. I have no idea what will happen. Adventure calls!


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.