Category Archives: Observations

Being diseased

I’ve made some considerable effort not to get covid – I wear masks when I can (I get panic attacks so sometimes I can’t wear them). I’m vaccinated. I stay out of crowds and I don’t do much indoor stuff with people. But here we are, and it is in me and has been in me for a few days.

At this point there are no legal requirements for me to behave in any specific way. There is only advice, like working from home if I can. Little wonder that I have it. Part of the problem here is that we have a fundamentally broken system when it comes to work. We expect people to go to work when they are ill – spreading diseases of all kinds, and slowing recovery. Working when ill is horrible. The person who can just take a few days off and rest will recover faster. But, a lot of workplaces will punish you for doing that. Most people can’t afford to be unpaid or to lose their jobs over taking care of their health.

I feel grim, but not as grim as other things have made me feel in recent years. I’m very tired, but I was very tired anyway so it’s hard to know if this is new and extra very tired, or pre-existing very tired. My concentration is rubbish, but it’s mostly been rubbish this year.

I’m looking at how body stressors add to my experiences of panic. I’m starting to think that my panic experiences aren’t just silly things happening in my head for no reason, and that panic might be what my body does when it starts to feel dangerously under-resourced. I’m usually the first person to assume I’m making a fuss and taking a thing far too seriously, but here I am with covid and it is by no means the most ill I have felt this year. 

What if the panic isn’t an over-reaction? What if the panic isn’t something I need to learn how to control, but a genuine and reasonable response to hazards? What if the problem is one of being under-resourced, not one of just making a fuss? Everything I’ve encountered on the mental health side assumes that panic is an over-reaction, and that the problem is the panicking, not whatever caused it. Last week I had panic attacks caused by being in more body pain than I could take. Maybe the fact of the panicking isn’t the problem here. Maybe I’m not just making a fuss over nothing, and maybe that’s even relevant when the things going on are more about mental health as well.

The Power of Absence

It’s all too easy not to realise what you aren’t seeing. I grew up with stories about kind and helpful little girls who were neat and good. All of the wild adventurers of my childhood stories were boys. All of the pirates and scientists were boys. I could have done with knowing about Mary Read, and Mary Anning at the very least.

It’s still the case that the odds of finding a film or series with an all male cast is far higher than finding an all female cast in anything. I seek out authors from diverse backgrounds, but mainstream publishing remains so white and middle class and much of it doesn’t speak to me. There’s a lot more queer representation than there used to be, but I grew up with nothing on that score. I grew up not having the words for the person I was, and having no maps or stories for how to move through the world as me.

Things are improving. Female people get to actually do things in stories more of the time rather than just being victims, motivation sources and prizes. I have seen nonbinary representation. There’s precious little polyamorous content. What’s most lacking is the content that isn’t about the struggle of being different – so often what mainstream publishers want from diverse people is basically their story of what a hard time they’ve had being diverse – stories of racism, of prejudice, of coming out. Not stories where diverse people get to do interesting things while being themselves. 

I see a lot of talk about this online from authors with all kinds of backgrounds who would like to write escapism and fantasy that comes from their own needs and preferences regarding fun things. It’s depressing not being allowed to do that, and not having those stories to read. Of course anyone who wants to write about their struggles should be supported in doing so, but that’s not what happens, often it’s the only thing people who are ‘diverse’ are allowed to write, and that’s so problematic in so many ways. 

The trouble with series

Committing to a series is a risk. Sometimes the creator dies before it’s finished, or loses interest and gives up. Sometimes the creator isn’t capable of handling the setup in a satisfying way, or turns out to be awful in some unexpected fashion. Sometimes the whole thing gets cancelled and there’s no proper conclusion. Sometimes the thing is so successful that people keep making new instalments long after they’ve run out of ideas and it all gets a bit sad and repetitive. You’ve been there. We’ve all been there.

However, if people don’t take a risk on a series, you can be sure it won’t work out. Publishers ditch authors with low sales. Netflix cancels shows that merely do ok. It’s incredibly frustrating for audiences and creators alike.

Which leads me round to the Hopeless, Maine graphic novel series I’ve been working on for the past ten years or so. It was written with a plot arc from the start. While I’ve tinkered with that, it’s basically the story I intended to tell all along. We had a false start with a crappy American publisher who messed us about a lot. However, we’ve got a secure home with Sloth Comics, and a strong relationship with Outland Entertainment who are doing hardcover editions. The penultimate book came out with Sloth this year, and we’re talking about 2023 for the final instalment.

That final instalment is most of the way to done and handed in. Over-penciling, scanning and doing the lettering remains. These are the smaller jobs. And then it’s done, the series is finished and the story is complete. If you were wondering about having a look but don’t enjoy the uncertainty attendant on reading a series, I think it’s safe to say that this is no longer an issue for Hopeless, Maine graphic novels.

This is the last graphic novel we’re going to do. It’s a labour intensive form, and doesn’t give us much time for anything else. We want to explore other kinds of storytelling more – in film, on stage and on paper. It’s not the end of the Hopeless, Maine project, but my intention from here is that everything we do should stand alone so that you don’t have to have read the whole thing to have a shot at it.

The Perfect Criminal

Like a lot of people, I am attracted to stories about certain kinds of criminals. The Robin Hood model, robbing the rich to help the poor is always a thing – smugglers, highwaymen, pirates and the such tend to fall into that category. Anyone who was outlawed for political reasons. Also the vigilantes and people for whom there can otherwise be no justice unless they take matters into their own hands. It’s not ideal, but when the system itself kills and steals, what choice is there but to break the law?

In practice, these are not the criminals who routinely get away with it. Those who can bribe their way out of a situation and those who have friends in high places remain the ones most able to get away with criminal activity. 

Here in the UK there’s a lot of evidence of bribe taking in the highest places. Inappropriate and illegal foreign donations to political parties. Invitations to pay for luxuries suggest corruption. Massive contracts going to the friends of those in power, only for those friends not to be able to deliver in the slightest. What happened to the billions of pounds we invested in a track and trace system? And yet, despite this evidence, nothing seems to be changing. Many people don’t even seem to mind.

We’ve bought into a story that says a certain kind of person is entitled to have a great deal of wealth. The person who claims they can barely make ends meet on eighty grand a year, but who thinks poor people can reasonably feed themselves for 30p a meal. The people who are entitled to have their heating bills paid for them while they do nothing about the suffering of people who can no longer afford heating. 

Are they better than the rest of us? Is the man with multiple children by different partners but who went to Eton somehow intrinsically better than the man with multiple children by different partners who lives on a council estate? Why is the person who takes a few billion from the public purse to give to a family member somehow more acceptable than the person who steals someone’s purse for the few quid in it? Why do we allow ourselves to be persuaded that the criminal in the expensive (if ill fitting) suit somehow doesn’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else?

The perfect criminal takes more than they need. They feel no shame and no regret. If anyone dares to question it, the newspapers can be expected to justify the crime. The police will find there’s nothing to investigate, or that it isn’t in the public interest. The perfect criminal can steal and kill in plain sight with no consequences, because the system belongs to them. After all, if you have taken control of the electoral commission, it’s hardly likely that body is going to question any aspect of how you run an election. 

The perfect criminal is the one who can send you to prison for protesting against their crimes. Currently that doesn’t extend to writing blog posts.

The Perfect Victim

CW abuse

When we don’t believe someone who says they have been a victim, this may well be because they don’t fit our ideas of what a victim should look like. It’s worth taking the time to consider those ideas, because all too often they are immensely problematic and serve to support and enable abuse.

The victim is too calm when they talk about what happened. We feel they should show more emotion. The victim is too emotional when they talk about what happened, they seem unhinged and unconvincing. Everyone handles trauma differently, neurodivergence can inform this as well. Focusing on the manner of delivery and not the content being delivered isn’t a good choice.

The victim is not a perfect and blameless person so it was probably their fault. Most people, if you scrutinise them, turn out not to be perfect and blameless in all possible ways. Outside of self defence issues, if someone has been harmed it is because someone has chosen to harm them. Harm is the choice of the aggressor, it is not an inevitable consequence of the victim’s behaviour.

The victim cannot recall everything in perfect detail and their testimony is muddled and confused. Again, trauma does this to people, and human memories aren’t that clear. Tell me what you did on a Tuesday morning, three years ago. Include exact quotes from conversations and the precise time those conversations took place. 

The victim didn’t go straight to the police. This happens a lot, around bullying and domestic abuse. If someone jumps out at you unexpectedly with a knife you probably know that wasn’t ok. If the person you live with just pushed you too hard and didn’t mean to scare you and was only doing it for your own good and was drunk and was just upset about the thing you said… it can take a while to decide to go to the police.

If it was really that bad, they would have left. No. Controlling behaviour is all about manipulating people into staying. Abusers often isolate their victims. When the choice is between staying and homelessness, which one do you pick? Walking away isn’t easy if you have children, and the family courts have obliged many victims to be in regular contact with their abusers.

Often we judge a victim based on what we think we’d do in the same situation. We think we’d fight back, report quickly and recall things in clear detail. This is the kind of thing people believe when they’ve not been traumatised by violence and gaslighting. We think we’d be credible and that everyone would believe us – and let me tell you it’s a real system shock when that turns out not to be the case. You probably don’t think you’ve done things that would make you easy to blame – I was surprised by what was weaponised against me, people often are.

There’s a defensive aspect to it. No one wants to believe they are the sort of person who could become a victim. If the victim deserves it, or is responsible for it continuing then clearly it wouldn’t happen to you and that makes you feel safer and more comfortable. Victim blaming comforts the people who are not victims (yet) and does nothing to change or improve anything. Victim blaming enables abuse, and demanding that a person be the perfect victim in order to be taken seriously makes it difficult for anyone to be taken seriously.

Teaching the cat new words

Dogs are fairly open to commands and can be taught to do what they’re told to quite an impressive degree. Cats, less so. It’s not that cats don’t understand words – they are smart and can figure out meanings. They just aren’t motivated to please and obey in the same way.

All creatures have a better shot at language if you use the same phrases or words to signify the same things, and you keep it short. For some time now, Mr Anderson has understood many words pertaining to cat food and cat treats. He understands ‘cat go out?’ as meaning we’re going to put him on his lead. ‘Cat go down?’ is a question for when he’s being carried. He prefers to be carried out and walk back, most of the time, and it is helpful to remind him when we’re heading for home.

Saying ‘no’ to a cat is pointless. They hear you, but they are seldom that concerned about what you want if it doesn’t align with what they want. In recent weeks I’ve been working on the phrase ‘bad idea’. I say it when I think something isn’t going to go well for him, and I reinforce it by saying it when he makes a bad choice and it doesn’t play out well – usually this involves Mr Anderson having made unreasonable assumptions about how physics won’t impact on him. Saying ‘bad idea’ doesn’t get him not to do a thing, but increasingly I see him pause, and reconsider. Sometimes he changes his mind. Sometimes he clearly fancies picking a fight with physics and does the thing anyway.

Much of this has applications for people, too. It’s worth thinking about how individual people use language, what kind of language they respond to and what actually motivates them. Most people are far more like cats than like dogs. If you can find a way of communicating that engages them in the right way, what it is possible to communicate changes dramatically.

Resting Hard

Over the years I’ve had many rounds of getting ill and/or exhausted, being obliged to rest and then having to try and rebuild strength and stamina. This spring has already been really tough, with the impact of heavy bleeding leaving me anaemic. I’ve spent a lot more time horizontal than I wanted to, and of course it has cost me in strength and stamina.

In the past, when I’ve got to the rebuild stage, I’ve focused on the physical activity I could add to the mix. I have an indoors trampoline, which is great for a number of things. I have small weights, and resistance bands, so even if the weather isn’t good enough for walking, I could still exercise. Before I messed up my previously hypermobile shoulders, I used to swim as well. I did Tai Chi. I danced.  That I’m not very fit, or strong, or slender is not from lack of trying – and I mention this because so many people assume that body shape is just about your lifestyle choices and really it isn’t.

This time, I’m going to try something different. I will of course get back to all the active things I can do, and I’ll try to do at least something every day. However, I am also going to try resting hard. I have been doing all sorts of things to try and improve my sleeping – with some success. I’m working out what kinds of things are good for me as down time – reading and crafting are particularly important. Also cat snuggles. I’m putting more of that into my day. 

It doesn’t work to try and go flat out all the time whenever I’m well enough to get away with it. Sooner or later, I get ill. That may be going to happen anyway, but I think I can be better resourced if I plan more rest time into my life.

All too often, activity is framed as an unequivocally good thing while rest is treated as lazy, indulgent and unproductive. I’m going to change my language use. I’m going to rest hard. I’m going to have rest plans for building up my health. I’m going to be highly motivated to rest regularly. Resting gives me more resources, and if I pair it with things that feed my brain, I am ultimately making myself into a more functional and probably more productive person anyway. 

Exhaustion and burnout are hardly efficient, nor do they result in good thinking, wise choices and quality output. Working people to exhaustion isn’t about productivity at all, it’s about subjugation. It’s time to reject that relentless work hard, play hard model. Work wisely, play happily, rest hard.

A matter of limits

I’ve always been wary of the kind of thinking that says there are no limits, we can have, or do, or be whatever we want. In practice, this can only be true if you are rich and healthy. Even then, you are likely to have to deal with aging, adversity and some kinds of problems. Wanting something really hard isn’t enough to get you there.

When I was a child, I really, really wanted to be Batman. I wanted to be able to do all the cool, gymnastic things Batman does. This body is hypermobile and doesn’t work very well and also I hate being upside down. And I get vertigo. As the years have passed, I’ve become ever less interested in the idea of dealing with crime by punching people and much more interested in social justice and restorative justice. 

I’m all in favour of wanting things. I think it’s good to go through this life having things you care passionately about, aspiring to stuff and wanting to do things. It helps to have the wisdom to know what you can realistically aspire to. I’m also a big fan of the low set bar, and the small goals that can be reached. They’re a lot more rewarding.

There’s humanity in finding our limits. It can be exciting pushing to the limits of what you can do – even if that isn’t very much. There’s precious self knowledge to be had around chasing after dreams. Wisdom and compassion can be learned when we try and we fall short of our intentions. Life isn’t about being a limitless superbeing, it’s about finding what we can do. Rather than imagining yourself to be limitless, we might be better placed trying to help remove restrictions from others so that everyone has more options. How many barriers can we take down? How much more space can we create for each other?

Crafting for sanity

Things have been tough this week. This year has so far brought experiences that have taken me into the depths of panic and despair. I’ve spent a lot of energy just trying not to be crushed by that. Fighting the panic is exhausting. Trying to fix the things that were causing the panic has been brutal and ineffective. You only have to look at my face to see what a mess I am in. I am going to make a point of showing my face when I’m not ok because I want to challenge the idea that mental illness is invisible illness.

There is patchwork on my lap in this photo. I made six jumpers through the winter. Crafting has always been a coping mechanism for me. The rhythm of it soothes me. If I can take ruined, useless things – as with these dead jeans – and turn them back into something useable, that helps me. I feel better about myself when I make things. If I can use my craft skills to put something attractive into the world, that also helps with the mental health issues. I like upcycling for my friends, too. This jacket will be for Susie and with this jacket made all four of the Ominous Folk will have denim patchwork items.

One of the main reasons I never sell craft work is that this is stuff I do for my mental health. I need to be free to do it on my own terms. Who I make things for is an important part of the process. I can cheer myself up by making things for me. Often what I make is an expression of relationship, and how I feel about the person I’m making something for is part of what makes it a restorative process. A garment like this takes a lot of hours – I don’t count the hours. It is better for my emotional wellbeing to give these pieces away out of love than to find people don’t want to pay a pound an hour for my efforts.

I’ve started on the embroidery part of the process now. It’s a way of making that is inspired by Japanese boro, and it’s something I get a lot of comfort and delight from.

Learning to be less efficient

One of my big personal projects at the moment is that I’m trying to learn to be less efficient. I’ve got a significant attention span – I can do things with my brain for longer than is good for my body, and I need to tackle that. It isn’t good for my hands if I colour for a couple of hours flat out, or type for extended periods.

Just because I can doesn’t mean I should. 

Years of practical and economic pressure haven’t helped with this. Taking breaks and being gentle with myself has, all too often, felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford. It’s not like that at the moment. Rest should never seem like a luxury. Basic self care to avoid pain and damage is not a luxury. I am not a machine, but I’m not very good at treating myself like a person.

So I’m trying to figure out how to slow down. How to take more breaks, and be gentler. It’s an interesting process not least because it means I have to be alert to what my brain is doing while I’m working. I’m obsessive, and I can fall into the rhythm of a thing and get stuck there, and some bits of my brain really like that and find it soothing. It takes a huge toll on my body if I’m not careful – too much strain on my hands and not enough movement elsewhere.

There will be a balance to find. Enough rhythm in what I do to sooth my brain. Enough movement for my whole body to allow me to be reasonably well. Enough rest for my hands to avoid hurting or damaging them.