Category Archives: The quiet revolution

Environment and health

‘What is wrong with her?’ They asked.

Not ‘what is wrong with her environment?’

It’s a vitally important question and one that we too often overlook. When it comes to mental health and physical health alike we’re too quick to focus on the individual who is suffering and far too unwilling to consider the context.

Poverty, work stress and insecurity make people ill. We know this. The evidence exists. Poverty equates to poor diets, lack of access to green spaces and other insufficiencies that undermine the health of the body and the mind. We know that it is lack of control over your situation that causes the most stress and the most damage. We know this is why people in insecure jobs, zero hour contracts, short term contracts and at high risk of debt suffer from stress and all the illness stress causes. We know, but when people break, we make it personal, individual, specific.

We also know that people are happier and healthier when they have access to green spaces. We’ve seen this around lockdowns. The evidence was there before 2020 from studies from all over the world. Without access to green spaces, our health suffers. And yet, if we get ill for lack of time outdoors, this won’t be part of the discussion we have with our doctors, or the welfare system.

When children can’t cope with sitting for long periods at school, we ask what is wrong with the child, not what is wrong with how we approach education. When people aren’t especially productive in the workplace, we ascribe it to things that are wrong with them, and not to the workplace. When people don’t engage with each other socially, we blame them, and their relationship with screens. We don’t ask what’s creating the pressure to behave that way in the first place.

The environments in which we exist, work and attempt to live are not inevitable. They are co-created. They are often dictated by those with the most power and forced upon those with the least. But even so, they can be changed. We need change. In the meantime, resist the temptation to blame individuals for things that are done to them. Look for the collective in both the problems and the solutions. Support other people where you can, share resources. Resist the culture that says any of this can be fixed through hard work – this is a lie. Resist the culture that says suffering is good, or necessary – this is a lie designed to keep the many placid as we work for the benefit of the few.

Health – for the body and the mind, are very basic needs and essential for human flourishing. We need to live in environments that support human health, not spaces that undermine it.


Justice and the family

Yesterday I ran into a very powerful blog post about the treatment of women and children in the family courts. It is a tough read, CW for a lot of abuse detail https://victimfocusblog.com/2020/09/22/misogyny-in-the-family-courts/

I spent a couple of years in the UK family court system. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t gone through it appreciates what a harrowing system it is to be in.

Firstly, the assumption is that contact with both parents is what the child wants, and in the child’s best interests. This largely isn’t affected by what the child says. Or how the police assess risk in the situation. My solicitors told me that if I had been killed by my ex, he could still expect contact.

I was questioned repeatedly about traumatic experiences. This is the worst thing to do to someone who has been traumatised, but I was made to revisit those experiences over and over again. No one seemed to care what that, or any other aspect of the process was doing to my mental health. My poor mental health was, however, raised as an issue about whether I could be a good parent.

It is normal to threaten to take the child away if you don’t co-operate with contact. The parent who is seen as being hostile to other parent, will be told that non-cooperation can mean they are seen as the problem and the child will end up with the other parent. This is a terrifying situation to be put in. Give the child to the abuser, or the abuser gets the child for most of the time. The blog link I shared details examples of how this happens even when the child themselves is reporting being abused by the other parent. It is also normally the case, from what I’ve heard from other women, that victims of violence and sexual assault are treated as unreasonable if they don’t want their child to have contact with the person who did that to them. In all other contexts we try and protect children from known sex offenders.

I was upset, terrified and emotional the whole time. My ex was calm and reasonable. This counted against me. I was treated as though I was irrational. I never felt anyone considered that I might have had good reasons to feel as I did.

The family court system will put pressure on parents to present the other parent as a good person. This is hard when an adult is setting a child a really bad example. It’s also highly problematic if there is abusive behaviour. It’s really hard to parent well if you don’t feel safe telling your child if they are being treated badly, if something unsafe is going on, or inappropriate. For example, if one parent decides to ‘win over’ the child by letting them stay up late, watch whatever they want, eat what they want, not do their homework, and buys them anything they want it is the parent who stands up to this who is going to be in trouble with the family courts.

I’m just talking broadly here. I could write pages on the things that were said to me that haunt me still. It was a process that had a terrible impact on my mental health. But, I got my child through with no direct contact with the father he did not want to see. I was told repeatedly that he would want contact at some point. The boy is 18 now, and free to do as he pleases and oddly enough, he still doesn’t want contact.

This is a system that needs to change. There needs to be much better recognition of the widespread nature of domestic abuse. It needs to be clearly understood that an abusive person is not going to be a good or safe parent. Children who report abuse in this context should always be taken seriously. Safety should be the first concern, always. Better support needs to be in place for abuse victims.


Rules for them

One of the signs that you are in an abusive situation, is that there are different rules for different people. It’s one thing if someone chooses to hold themselves to higher standards than others. Quite another when someone gives themselves permission to do things others are not allowed to get away with.

This is the situation in the UK right now. Our government has just voted to break international law. They’ve done this after a long summer of playing fast and loose with the rules, letting each other and their advisors off the hook for behaviour that would see the rest of us fined or otherwise in trouble. We find, for example, that most of us are not allowed to meet in groups of more than six now, unless you want to go hunting and shooting, which is different. I doubt the virus sees any difference, but we know who goes hunting and shooting, and it isn’t most of us.

If this country were a household, no one would be in any doubt that we were an abusive household, experiencing emotional and psychological abuse and rather a lot of coercive control. Rules for them and rules for us makes it clear that we’re second class, that the power imbalance is huge and that we just don’t count in the same way as people. Little surprise that they keep talking about scrapping human rights laws.

If we were a household, the police would help us leave safely. There would be, if we were lucky, some space in a shelter where we could hide and recover from the impact of what’s been done to us. We might go on a course to help re-build our relationship with reality. Being manipulated in this way causes cognitive dissonance and makes people crazy. I know, I’ve been there. But, there are resources an individual can tap into that a country cannot. The only thing that can tell a country it’s not entitled to behave this way, is international law, and our government has just decided it doesn’t really take that seriously anyway.

If we were a household right now, we’d be identified as at high risk. Social workers might be thinking about how best to protect our children. Friends might rally round to support us and help us get out. The police might get involved, because for ordinary people, deciding that the laws do not apply to us is not an option we really have. If we were a household, we’d be in a lot of trouble right now. We’re not a household, we’re a country, and the danger is real.

All we can do is look after each other. Support each other in remembering what is true, and what is not. Remind each other that double standards are a very bad sign. Do what we can. Try to stay sane. Try not to lose our personal sense of self worth, validity and importance under this torrent of being devalued. It is not going to be easy.


Systemic Oppression

Anyone from any demographic can be horrible to anyone from any demographic. However, it is easy to not realise that you are contributing to a problem that involves systematic oppression. What systematic oppression means is that there are social norms, legal structures, institutionalised ways of dealing with things that massively disadvantage a group of people. The most visible example of this at the moment is the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter issue. Systemic oppression puts Black lives in danger.  It’s not about disinterest in white lives and safety, it’s about exposing and changing the norms, structures and behaviours that put Black lives at risk. Individual unpleasantness does not function in the same way as unpleasantness reinforced by wider society.

I’m going to hammer out some examples in the hopes that this will prove useful. If we can’t see how the system oppresses a specific group of people, we can end up adding to that. We should not be adding to existing oppression, we need to figure out how to dismantle it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully catches an array of ways in which this all happens.

Fat shaming and skinny shaming are not the same. Yes, skinny shaming is horrible, but a thin person will not have a medical condition ignored while they are told to gain weight. A thin person will usually be able to find clothes that fit them, is unlikely to be removed from an aeroplane. Thin people will never find they can’t get into a toilet cubicle because it’s too big for them. There are lots of things that make life hazardous and hard if you are fat, and there are no real comparisons for thin people. Thus if you get into a size conversation and try to present skinny shaming as the same as fat shaming, you’re adding to the burden in fat people.

Sexism against women exists in a context where there is a real pay gap between genders. Your chances of having pain taken seriously are lower if you present as female. The odds of being raped, assaulted, harassed or suffering sexual abuse are much higher if you are female. Your odds of securing a job with real power are lower – just look at who sits in government.  So yes, while women can be massively prejudiced against men, sexism against women is backed up by society in all kinds of ways, including religion, and cultural gender-norms.

We treat straight sexual identities as normal and anything else as deviant. What this leads to is people suggesting that it is wrong to talk to children about queerness, as though being queer is something you get into by choice, and not intrinsic to who you are. The failure to recognise difference and the equal validity of different experiences is one of the ways on which systemic oppression manifests, and not just for LGBTQ people. We treat neuro-divergent folk in much the same way, trying to ‘normalise’ them towards what the rest of us do rather than creating more supportive environments.

One of the places to start doing the work on this, is to look at our own responses. If you want to say ‘but white people experience racism too’ or ‘but men can also be abuse victims’ or ‘being a pretty girl is just as hard as growing up ugly’ or whatever else you have, take some time to sit with it. Think about why you need to respond to someone else’s distress by demonstrating that you, as the person who seems to have the easier deal, are a victim too. Does is reduce your feelings of responsibility? Do you feel you need more attention? Have you thought about how much equivalence there is between these experiences? Have you thought about your relationship with your culture and how other people’s experiences of it may be very different?

We are products of our cultures. Systemic oppression exists because people are taught to think of it as normal, natural and inevitable. Challenging that is hard. Scrutinising it is uncomfortable. We can however dismantle oppressive systems. First we have to see them, then we have to deal with our own involvement, then we have to stop participating, then we have to actively challenge those systems. It’s good work and well worth whatever time you can give it.


Measuring your worth

I write this on A Level results day in the UK, a day on which measuring the worth of young people happens every year, and happens badly. I don’t really think any system of assessment is going to deliver fairness – it could not hope to do so without the context of a fair society. The child who goes to school hungry is not going to get the best results they are capable of at eighteen. The child who has no quiet place to study is set back. Inequality means that testing is in part a test of privilege.

Exams measure your ability to remember and recall. They measure your ability to perform quickly under pressure. Stress and trauma make accurate speed under pressure that bit harder. Not everyone is fast thinking, and speed is not the only measure of capability. I have known a few amazing slow thinkers in my life, and their not being fast has everything to do with the remarkable fine detail they are able to contemplate. Exams are not a great way to measure creativity or original thinking. They probably aren’t the best way to measure problem solving skills. They do not measure social skills, emotional intelligence, compassion, dedication, or what a person might be capable of in the future. Sometimes they do a very good job of measuring sheer luck.

We don’t live in a meritocracy. Your chances of being rich have far more to do with the wealth of your parents than any personal attributes. The cream does not naturally rise to the top. The well connected stay at the top and tell us they are the naturally rising cream in a meritocracy. Exam results can create an illusion of mobility, but you only have to look at who is in power and what kinds of backgrounds they have to know that in the UK, most of us don’t have that many options.

Imagine how the education system would look if our primary concern was to help young people become healthy, happy, well rounded adults. Imagine what would change if we considered education to be a lifelong endeavour, and not something you have to crack in your teens. What would education look like if it was not primarily about readying people for an ever shrinking jobs market? Imagine if it wasn’t about getting a job! What would we want our young people to learn if we accepted that many of them might not find meaningful work? What would we want them to learn if we were focused on the implications of climate crisis?

The school system we have is not inevitable, and not the only way of doing things. The ways in which we measure worth underpins a social structure that doesn’t work for most of us.


Gift economy

I like the principal of gift economy and I like what it does to how we value things. Mainstream economy in the northern hemisphere, white colonial economy is based on exploitation. You pay less for the work than it is really worth, and then you sell for more than the product is really worth and between these two, profit is achieved, often for people who did none of the work. Value, in this system, is what can be squeezed out of people. The more something is needed, the more scope there is to put the price up. Cost is artificially raised by making things more scarce than they need to be.

Gift economy has a completely different logic. If you have more than you need, you give stuff away so others may benefit. Status is achieved not through ownership, but through gifting. Looking after people becomes a marker of social standing, not a perceived weakness.

In many ways the internet lends itself to gift economy in that it is so easy to give things away here. It’s something I enjoy and am glad to be part of. It’s interesting to ask what can be given away – time, care, attention, money, creativity, ideas, experience, support… it’s good to be able to do that and to help other people. I wish more people saw social media as an opportunity to help and uplift others, not a place to feel important by arguing. We could do each other a lot of good if we took to empowering ourselves and others. It’s a happier way to live than point scoring.

Giving away isn’t just about money, and there’s more to a gift economy than the economic side of it. There’s a principle of sharing and taking care and of not wanting to have a great deal when others have little or nothing. It’s underpinned by the idea that we are of equal worth as people and not measured by our economic value. The value in work and in objects come from their being needed, and getting them to the people who need them – it’s a very different logic from exploitation. If value is about how we improve things as widely as possible, the whole logic of our culture changes and a better way of life becomes possible.


There is no normal to go back to

The idea of ‘back to normal’ has appeared regularly in ideas about a post-virus UK. As though our previous ‘normal’ was a good thing. It’s increasingly obvious that many people do not want to go back to how things were, and that there’s less appetite for long commutes, heavy traffic and air pollution. For people who have had an opportunity to learn from the virus, new, exciting ways of doing things may emerge.

For many people, there is no normal to go back to. For some, very little changed – many people are isolated at home by illness. They’ve had more stress and pressure in recent months but many of the practical realities haven’t changed much, except that it was far harder to order shopping online. As the rest of us ‘go back to normal’ hopefully we can remember that not everyone has that option. We might all better understand now what being forced into isolation does to people. We might be more alert to the ill, disabled and elderly people around us who live in isolation because no one much bothers with them.

For people whose lives were precarious, there may be no real normal to go back to. Early on, the government demonstrated that they could get every homeless person off the street and into a room, if they felt like it. A few weeks later they went on to demonstrate that they really couldn’t be bothered to keep doing that. We can, and must do better.

For some people, back to normal means going back to being excluded. We’ve established that many things can be handled at a distance using the internet. We could make work, entertainment and socialising a lot more accessible for people whose ‘normal’ is exclusion.

Recent months have made me aware of what it means to have a ‘normal’ you can measure things by, and what happens if your sense of the normal is dysfunctional. The idea of ‘back to normal’ only works if what you had before worked for you. If it didn’t, if you were on the wrong end of systems, and economics, if normal was miserable and hopeless – there is nothing you’d want to re-instate. The idea that there is a normal everyone wants to get back to is, I realise, a massive expression of privilege and insulation from suffering. For the worker on a zero hours contract, for the person forced ever deeper into debt, for those facing benefits sanctions and going hungry, ‘normal’ is a terrible place.

We live in a culture that takes ‘normal’ as a meaningful measure, and never properly questions what that means or who it works for.


Taking pain seriously

I grew up hearing that I made a fuss about pain. It’s understandable in that what was going on with my body wasn’t really recognised  then, but still, it would have made a lot of odds if there had been a bit more kindness in the mix. PE at school was the worst – painful and also humiliating and with no sympathy at all. But, it wasn’t just school, and it included my doctor. I internalised the idea that I make a fuss and I learned not to take my pain seriously. Of course doing that means you can’t ask for help, relief, slack cutting or anything like that.

A few years ago, I saw a friend talking about hypermobility on Facebook like this was a thing that merited care and concern.  This surprised me. All of my body bends in ways it shouldn’t, but I hadn’t connected that with experiences of pain. I decided to educate myself, and discovered that hypermobility is a soft tissue issue. People like me damage easily, we feel more pain, everything takes more effort, and as a soft tissue issue it can impact on the gut and other things as well. It’s helpful when things make sense. It’s useful having some idea what to do to avoid hurting myself in the first place.

But more than this, it is validating of how I’ve experienced my own body.  I’ve experienced this information as permission not to be ok, and having spent the first thirty or so years of my life being given to understand that I make a fuss and must have a low pain threshold, this is a very big deal.

The pain is real. The pain is real enough that I am allowed to take it seriously. Taking it seriously opens the door to trying to avoid it, trying to get help, trying to manage it better. It also gives me space for the emotional impact both of living with pain and having internalised the idea that the pain I live with doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be taken seriously. It means considering that I’m not some kind of pathetic drama queen who over reacts. This is quite a shift in my self-perception.

Sometimes we do need permission. Especially if there’s been a big push in the other direction. Validation can be a powerful thing.  It’s another reminder that none of experience life in a vacuum. We’re all impacted on by each other’s words, deeds and ideas.  Wellness and healing are not isolated individual issues, they are community issues. The stories we tell each other about what our bodily experiences mean have massive impact, for well and woe.

I’m watching similar things happen around the growing recognition that trauma has real, measurable effects on the body. I think we’re moving away from old stories that hive emotions off as irrational and not situated in the body and that instead we’re moving towards recognition of people as complex beings where experience can impact on wellbeing.

We’re challenging the stories that are quick to write off some experiences as over-reacting – the medical profession does not have a good history of responding to female pain – and even worse if the women is poor, or Black, or all of those things. But this can change.  We can have new stories in which pain deserves care, and in which we don’t tell people off for making a fuss when they are suffering. We have to stop assuming that being a certain kind of person means something about whether we really feel pain or not  We can stop telling stories that block the way to getting some people’s pain taken seriously. We can do better and we can be better.


A haircut to die for

It may seem strange that so many people are keen to get out and shop, have haircuts and do other non-essential things during a pandemic. I wrote last year about the way in which white western culture especially, pays to get its needs met. More of that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2019/08/04/buying-your-needful-things/

Often, a haircut isn’t just a haircut.  For a lot of people, it’s also about confidence and self esteem. It’s about fulfilling that need – created by social pressures – to look certain ways. It may also be the only time someone touches you kindly.

If retail therapy was your anti-depressant, of course you want to go shopping. If being in the pub was as close as you got to having friends, then you’ll be missing the pub, not specific people. The things people are clamouring to have back may not seem worth dying for, but these are things that we’ve been substituting for quality of life for some time.

Paying to meet your basic human needs keeps the economy moving. The less able we are to meet our needs through real relationships and meaningful experiences, the more willing we become to pay for them. Little wonder then that the UK government doesn’t want you hugging people or seeing your lover, but is happy for you to get in a crowded shop with a bunch of other emotionally fragile people who just want to feel better.

Is a haircut worth dying for? No. But a lack of self esteem might kill you, and having no one to touch you kindly may well give you such a poor quality of life that you can’t face it. Right now, a lot of people are going to make risky choices as a consequence of normal life being so inadequate. Most humans could be emotionally sustained by relationships. What we’re seeing, is people turning back to the things that they used to depend on as substitutes for the things real relationships give us.

Try not to be too hard on them, or on yourself if it affects you. Colonial capitalist culture has been ill, and making people ill, for a long time. This is a new manifestation of that.


Teenage Nimue and the quest to rescue Severus Snape

My good friend Meredith has written an excellent blog post about the problems with JK Rowling – so let me start by directing you there  https://meredithdebonnaire.wordpress.com/2020/06/08/when-you-have-to-break-up-with-an-author

A person could spend a lot of time (and I have) picking over the race, gender and class politics of the Harry Potter books.  But, I thought I would pick up on one of the issues that has always bothered me, and that I would do so by writing about my favourite character, Severus Snape.

Snape, like almost every character in the HP books, has his whole life defined by the person he loved as a child. He’s not allowed to move on, he’s not allowed to heal, or fall in love again and rebuild his life. He is obliged to live in the hell created by one ghastly mistake. This is true for most of the characters, whose lives are defined by their teens – especially who they will love.

Most of us were still working it out in our teens. The more out of synch you are with hetranormative mainstream culture, the longer it will have likely taken you to figure out who you are and where you fit. To tie people to their teenage identities is to leave no room at all for who we grow up to be, and to leave no room for the idea that most of us will change. Some of us will change a lot. It is an awful, untrue story to tell that what happens in our teens is the most important story of our lives, but the HP books tell that story in pretty much every character’s life.

I’d like to rescue Snape. I’d like to rock up in his twenties with an assortment of characters of various gender and body types, and seduce him out of his grief. I’d like to get him some counselling, and give him the opportunity to live in a safe and healthy environment for a few years. I’d like someone to be kind to him, and not leave him in a space of being constantly emotionally manipulated by bloody Dumbledore.

I have thought about this a lot because it bothers me so much. It’s been one of the dominant stories young people of recent years have grown up with, and so much of what it tells us is really problematic. Stories matter. Stories tell us who we are and who we should aspire to be.  The Harry Potter books tell us that we’re never going to get over what happens to us in our teens; that our worst mistakes will define our entire lives and that the only redemption is death. No one grows up. No one moves on. No one heals. This is not the story to tell ourselves.

I am not my teenage self. There’s continuity, but there has also been a lot of growing and changing. I am a much bigger and more complicated version of that person. The mistakes from that time in my life are behind me, the wounds are healing, the choices did not define everything. I will rescue Snape as much as I can. I will quietly tell myself stories in which far better things happened to him. I’m also going to get myself a Snapeish sort of coat, and let my non-binary self play with this a bit. Yes, my teenage self did understated cosplays of male characters I identified with, and I like the idea of going back to that. Not because I am defined by my teenage choices, but because some of my ideas back then were really good. I will be a sexy queer sort of Snape.

Sometimes, ideas and characters turn out to be a lot bigger than the authors who first encounter them. Ancient literature is full of this sort of thing. Shakespeare borrowed other people’s stuff all the time, so there’s a good literary tradition to not letting JK Rowling define her own literary legacy.