Hostility to emotions, and the consequences

This post probably falls into the category of “cans of worms I probably shouldn’t open, but need to in order to stop them running round inside my head forever”. (Apologies for the horribly mixed metaphor there).

Not long ago I read an article about the shameful male suicide rate in the UK. I think the article was in the Guardian and I can’t find it now, but there are plenty of similar ones from the last couple of years, and they all make pretty grim reading: suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45 in Britain, and the rate has been increasing. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to call this a crisis.

It’s not just a male problem, of course, but the suicide rate for men is around 3 times higher than it is for women. Intriguingly there doesn’t seem to be a correspondingly higher rate of mental illness in general in men, so naturally there’s been a lot of speculation about why that might be. Whilst I’m not of course claiming to speak for all men or to understand what all of them might be going through, I do feel that as a man who’s struggled with suicidal feelings quite a lot in the past, as well as spending a lot of time learning about mental health, I may at least be more qualified than most to stick my oar in.

The first thing that strikes me (and I’m aware I’m probably stating the obvious here) is that we have real problems with emotions in our culture. People aren’t just made to feel like they can’t express their emotions, which in itself would be bad enough; they’re often made to feel like they shouldn’t even have them at all.

You can see this attitude in almost any online debate, for example. Those raising concerns about how something might affect people’s emotional wellbeing are routinely ridiculed, dismissed as oversensitive snowflakes. Anyone who admits to experiencing negative emotions, no matter what their circumstances, is seen as weak and is brusquely informed that they just need to “grow up”, “man up”, “get over it”, “deal with it”, etc. (or worse), and that under no circumstances should they expect any help or support from others.

I can sort of see where this comes from, but for reasons I’ll go into shortly I think it’s a very flawed, irrational and destructive way of looking at the world. People defending this position are quick to point out that it wouldn’t be possible to have a world where no-one is ever upset by anything. Since everyone reacts differently to the world around them, we can only be directly responsible for our own words and actions, not for how other people might respond to them.

In this at least they are correct. It isn’t possible to engineer a society where no-one ever upsets anyone else, and attempting to do so would lead to serious problems, such as severe restrictions on freedom of expression. I also agree that it’s better if people have some measure of control over their emotions so that they don’t experience wild mood swings due to external factors they can’t control. But many commentators go much further than this, making various other assertions that don’t actually follow from that first one, and are in fact highly debatable. For example:

  1. That there is no downside whatsoever to upsetting people, so we don’t need to bother considering other people’s feelings before deciding to speak or act.
  2. That it’s possible and desirable for human beings to reach a state where they are no longer emotionally affected by other people’s words or actions.
  3. That when someone claims something has had a negative effect on them emotionally, they’re not genuinely hurt, they’re just being a crybaby and seeking attention, or trying to manipulate others.
  4. That people who are emotionally sensitive could quickly and easily become less sensitive any time they wanted, they just choose not to.
  5. That people who are emotionally sensitive just don’t have enough life experience, and a good dose of cold, hard reality will make them toughen up.
  6. That mental illness is some distant, mysterious, tragic thing that can’t be helped (or can only be helped by specialist treatment), and is not influenced at all by the way people treat each other in normal, day-to-day situations.

All six of these statements appear to be widely held beliefs, but I would dispute all of them. I suspect that many of the people espousing these beliefs are doing it because they want the world to work that way rather than because it actually does. I used to believe a lot of that stuff myself, back when I was badly depressed, and I used to think that attitude would help me get better, but as I described in my Safe Spaces post last year, it didn’t. It was a disaster. I think that’s why I feel so strongly about this… I hate to see vulnerable people being led down a path that might result in them experiencing years of needless misery, like I did.

“But”, I hear you say. “Isn’t your way just as bad, if not worse? Aren’t you just encouraging people to be self-indulgent, to wallow in self pity and demand that others walk on eggshells around them, instead of taking responsibility for their own lives?”.

No, I’m not. I’m encouraging people to face reality instead of denying it. In this case, the reality that human beings have emotions, that they’re an essential part of our existence, that we cannot live life to the full without them and that the things we do and say affect others whether we want them to or not. I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with emotions; they see them as troublesome, or childish, or mushy, or irrelevant, or effeminate, or whatever; but pretending they’re not there or pretending we don’t need them simply doesn’t work.

Whenever I think of someone trying to deny their emotions or bottle them up, I’m reminded of my old next door neighbour, whose solution to his water tank overflowing was to stuff plastic bags into the overflow pipe until the water stopped coming out. I never actually saw the end result of his endeavour since it would have played out inside his house, but I can’t imagine it ended well. Bottling up emotions tends to result in similarly bad consequences.

I think this is what a lot of people fail to understand. They present a false dichotomy between thoughts and feelings, with logical, rational, sensible thoughts on one side and hysterical, irrational, sentimental feelings on the other. They talk disparagingly about emotional people while seeing themselves as superior, rational beings driven by logical thoughts alone. But in reality, as Dr Jonice Webb puts it in Running on Empty (a brilliant book which I would totally recommend to anyone who’s struggling with their emotions, or even just finds this stuff interesting), the happiest and most successful people tend to be the ones who are comfortable with both their thoughts and their feelings, who have found a way to make both work in harmony, helping them towards achieving their goals rather than getting in the way.

I have read a lot of self help and psychology books over the years, some good and some bad, but Running on Empty puts forward one of the most helpful models for how emotions work and how to solve emotional problems that I have ever seen, and does it in a very clear and readable way. Here are some of the main points that I took away from it:

  1. Human beings evolved as emotional creatures, and there’s no getting away from that. Our emotions will always be there and trying to get rid of them isn’t a healthy or useful goal.
  2. Emotions are incredibly useful, indeed essential, for navigating the world. Every emotion is actually a signal trying to tell you something. Life works much better when you are able to listen to those signals and respond appropriately.
  3. Emotions are important and every emotion you feel is valid and acceptable. There are no “bad” emotions, only bad actions.
  4. Emotions that are expressed and out in the open are far less likely to cause problems, both for you and for those around you, than ones that are bottled up and denied.
  5. Many people do not learn good strategies for dealing with their emotions during childhood, for various reasons. This can lead to a range of problems later on in life: depression, anxiety, feelings of emptiness or not fitting in, even suicidal feelings in some cases.
  6. Being made to feel that your emotions don’t matter or that you somehow shouldn’t be feeling them can be particularly destructive.
  7. These problems can be overcome in adulthood by learning how to deal with emotions effectively, as well as other related life skills. Contrary to popular belief it is not “too late” if you didn’t learn this as a child. However, it can be difficult and time consuming, and some people may need external help to be able to do it.

This, to me, is a far healthier, more constructive and balanced set of beliefs than the ones I listed several paragraphs back.

This post is getting much longer than I intended, so I’ll try and wrap it up now. Getting back to my original point, I believe that at least one reason for the high suicide rate is the hostility towards emotions that’s unfortunately often displayed in our culture – especially if you’ve had bad experiences in the past, it’s difficult to cling to the belief that your feelings are important and that you’re entitled to feel the way you do when you’re bombarded with the opposite message several times a day. And I think the reason males seem to be more at risk is the old macho stereotype that men are supposed to be strong and stoic and not show emotion (and especially not “negative” emotions like sadness and fear).

If I’m right, though, what’s the answer? I don’t know. But I do think it would be a good start to at least acknowledge that emotions are, and always will be, central to our lives, and that living in a culture that’s hostile to them does have adverse consequences.

And we need to stop letting those who would have us do the psychological equivalent of sealing a dripping overflow pipe with plastic bags get away with claiming they’re the sensible, rational ones.

Refurbishing my brain, one neurosis at a time

Five years ago (to the day in fact!), I posted an entry on this blog including a photo of me holding a tarantula. At the time I remarked that I didn’t mind the tarantula but that you’d never get me to hold a large house spider.

Then this happened.

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On Sunday I attended a “Fight Your Spider Phobia” workshop at Edinburgh Zoo. I hadn’t been planning to, but when our mum gave Alex a ticket to it for his birthday, I decided I’d like to go too and asked for the same for my birthday.

My spider phobia has always been weirdly specific. I didn’t mind tarantulas, as I mentioned. I was also fine with small spiders, and other things that are very spider-like. (“How can you even need that workshop?” Laura asked me a couple of weeks beforehand as she watched me picking up huge harvestmen from the roof of the caravan awning and putting them outside). But big house spiders always freaked the hell out of me and made my skin crawl, no matter how often I tried to tell myself they couldn’t hurt me.

I wouldn’t say the phobia had a huge impact on my life, but it could get pretty annoying and inconvenient at times. I would avoid tasks like clearing out a dusty corner or an old shed in case there were spiders in there. Back in my days of living alone I would occasionally “lose” entire rooms of the flat to a spider I couldn’t bring myself to catch, sometimes for several days. And plus there was the general humiliation inherent in trying to think of myself as a rational person, yet being uncontrollably terrified of these miniscule, completely harmless creatures. I wasn’t sure if the workshop would help, but I knew it had to be worth a try.

The workshop took up a whole afternoon and there were several parts to it. First there was an introduction to phobias and how they can develop. Second was a talk about spiders from one of the zoo’s experts, including a lot of myth busting. For some reason, spiders seem to provoke a lot hysteria and bad press out of all proportion to the harm they actually cause. There are around 40,000 species of spider in the world and only 12 (none of which live in the UK) are capable of harming humans in any meaningful way. Even in countries like Australia where there are poisonous spiders, it’s very rare for anyone to actually die from a spider bite – bee stings kill far more people, yet there doesn’t seem to be this whole hysteria around bees that there is around spiders.

So far, so theoretical. While I did learn a few new interesting things (for example, those big “fang”-like things on the front of house spiders aren’t actually fangs at all – they’re the male spider’s sex organs!), I already knew that house spiders couldn’t hurt me, but that knowledge didn’t stop me from jumping out of my skin and running into the next room if I suddenly encountered a big one. The second half of the workshop was more geared towards addressing this automatic emotional reaction. This took the form of a very relaxing hypnosis session, then it was time for the part I was most excited, but also most nervous, about – facing our fears in the graded exposure session!

The exposure session started off very gently. The first spider we were exposed to was a furry cuddly toy one, followed by a slightly more realistic plastic toy. Most of the group were OK with this, though one or two did get a bit anxious. After we’d all had a turn of passing the toys around, followed by some preserved spiders in sealed boxes, we were ushered through to another room to meet the live spiders.

There were three of them: two fairly large British house spiders (Tegenaria Domestica is their scientific name, I believe) and one False Widow spider (so called because of its similar appearance to the infamous Black Widow, though the False Widow is harmless). An involuntary shudder went through me as I saw the first house spider sitting at the bottom of its tank – it was exactly the kind I was most scared of.

The staff and volunteers were amazing – very patient, but also encouraging. With their help, we all worked up towards challenging our fears more and more. We started by simply getting comfortable with looking at the spiders in their sealed tanks, and then with the tank lids off. Next, everyone had a go at catching a house spider with the aid of a clear plastic tumbler and a piece of card. I didn’t find that too bad, as I knew the spider couldn’t get out of the tank even if I fumbled and dropped the tumbler.

The next few steps were much more challenging. It took me a while to muster the courage to put my hand in the tank near the spider, even though I wasn’t touching it, but I managed to eventually, and that was the point at which I felt something shift in my brain as if I could feel my unconscious mind saying “Actually, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”. Next step after this was to lay my hand flat on the bottom of the tank while one of the staff gently persuaded the spider to walk across my fingers. I could hardly believe this was happening and I wasn’t freaking out!

The spider that helped me overcome my fear.

The spider that helped me overcome my fear.

Then suddenly, my fear had gone, almost completely. I wanted to actually hold the spider, and I knew I could cope with that now. The keeper lifted it out of the tank and let us each have a go at holding it in our hands. Strangely, it looked smaller to me now, as if I was finally seeing it in its true proportions rather than distorted by the phobia, and I was hit by the realisation of how vulnerable this creature actually was, and how there was nothing to fear from it, nothing at all. All my life I’d lived in terror of a house spider touching me, and now here I was standing calmly while a big one wandered across my bare hands, so lightly I could barely even feel it, as the keepers and other attendees around me applauded.

What amazed me most was that, as far as I could see, every person in the group got to the same stage – they all managed to hold the spider in their hands by the end of the session, even the ones who’d had a much more severe phobia than me to start with, who previously couldn’t even look at a toy spider without getting anxious. I was stunned by how effective the programme was – I would highly recommend anyone to give it a go, whatever their level of arachnophobia!

Of course it’s one thing to be able to handle spiders in a safe, controlled environment where you can go at your own pace. The real test will come the next time I unexpectedly encounter a spider in real life (and it could be a while before that happens – another fact I learned yesterday was that almost all house spiders die off in the autumn so there won’t be many big ones around now until next summer). Will the fear come flooding back at that point? Possibly, but I’m hoping it’ll also die down a lot more quickly and I’ll remember that there really is nothing to be afraid of. At the very least, my experience yesterday has got to have helped a bit.

Common Sense Is Overrated

I won’t be popular for saying this, but what the hell. I don’t write these articles to make myself popular.

Right now it appears a lot of people believe that what this country really needs is a good dose of common sense. We should stop getting entangled in the nitty gritty details of things, stop listening to so-called “experts” with their big words and their complicated arguments, and just trust ourselves to know what we should do. After all, the answer is obvious, isn’t it? Politicians have kept it from us all these years, tried to pull the wool over our eyes and confuse us, tried to make sure that only the elite have a voice, but not anymore. This time we’re going to do what should have been done years ago, and to hell with all of them!

It’s an appealing sentiment in a lot of ways. But it’s also, I would argue, badly wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. Common sense is certainly useful in a lot of situations, and I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing in itself. I could do with a bit more of it myself, I think. It’s great for getting you through the grind of day-to-day life with the minimum of fuss, and for solving problems that are similar to ones you’ve encountered before. But for deciding how to (for example) run a country, for making the really big decisions and looking beyond the obvious, it’s pretty lousy.

Let’s put one thing to rest before we go any further: people need to stop taking it so personally whenever anyone dares to suggest that someone who’s devoted their life to working in a particular field might know more about it than the people who haven’t. That isn’t elitism or snobbery, that’s just stating a fact. The reality is that many areas of life are so complicated these days that it takes a lot of time and a lot of research to properly get to grips with them. That’s just the way it is. Stating that most people aren’t realistically going to put in that time and effort for any given subject isn’t an insult, it’s simply a recognition that people have lives and don’t usually have time to learn about more than a handful of topics in real depth, no matter how intelligent they might be.

It’s undeniably true that human civilisation has got far more complex over the past decades, to the point where even experts in a certain field can’t realistically know everything there is to know about that field anymore. I remember years ago my girlfriend at the time was complaining about Microsoft Word behaving weirdly and wrecking the formatting of one of her assignments. It amused her greatly when I dismissively said “Yeah, Microsoft Word just does whatever the hell it wants”. She imagined that being a computer professional myself, I ought to have a perfect understanding of Word’s behaviour… but the truth is, that version of Word was probably made up of hundreds of thousands or even millions of lines of code, code which I’d never seen since it wasn’t relevant to my own work. Even the programmers who originally wrote it probably won’t be able to remember the reasons behind all of its behaviour without going back and looking at the code again.

Computer software and hardware is just mind-bogglingly, unbelievably complex these days, and it’s the same in many other fields as well. It wasn’t always this way though. Back in the early days of civilisation’s progress, new inventions and discoveries tended to be simpler and more intuitive. Even if not everyone could have had the spark of inspiration required to invent the wheel, almost everyone would be able to see how it worked, how to use it and why it was such a good idea once it was there in front of them. This was also true to an extent with early industrial technology such as steam engines: although it took a genius to envisage them before they existed, the concepts that make them work are relatively simple and understandable. Not so today: how many people really understand how a nuclear reactor works, or how a computer processor works, or for that matter how the global financial system works?

It’s easy to see all this complexity as a bad, intimidating thing, but is it really? I would argue that no, it’s actually a good thing… the reason we have so much complexity now is largely because we’ve solved most of the simple problems at this stage, so naturally what’s left is the more complicated problems. If anything, the fact that we as a civilisation have come this far should be cause for celebration, not lamentation.

It’s true that there are downsides to complexity, of course. Some fields (economics comes to mind) have got so complicated that even their best experts struggle to understand them, and any field that’s too complicated for most ordinary people to understand is liable to be viewed with suspicion (whether deserved or not). But to me, that isn’t a reason to throw away all our progress and go back to making decisions on the most shallow, simplistic grounds instead. It’s a reason to come up with better ways of dealing with the complexity. That goal isn’t necessarily as hopeless as it may sound: going back to computers, they may be vastly more complex than they were thirty years ago, but they’re also vastly easier to use, thanks to software engineers using some of the computers’ power to hide most of the complexity when possible.

“Common sense” would never have got us to where we are now. If everyone had always lived their lives by common sense, we’d still be living in caves. Before aviation existed, common sense would have told you that it was impossible for humans to fly, but it obviously isn’t. Before the era of modern medicine, common sense would have said that we couldn’t cure diseases by swallowing tiny little pills, or prevent other diseases by sticking needles in our arms, but we do those things every day now. What’s more, common sense would have said it was a waste of time to work towards any of that stuff, and that people should spend their time on something useful instead, like hunting enough animals to feed the tribe for another day.

And this is why I’m so suspicious of the “common sense” solutions put forward in politics. There are certainly a lot of them around these days, mostly put forward by loudmouth right wing types: we should leave the EU to save money, because it’s just common sense that paying them all that money leaves us with less. We should send home all the immigrants, because it’s just common sense that life would be better for British people then. We should stop doing anything about climate change, because it’s just common sense that it’s not really happening. We should stop paying benefits to the mentally ill and force them to work, because it’s just common sense that they’re faking it. We should stop pandering to transgender people, because it’s just common sense that they’re really attention seekers or perverts and don’t deserve our help. We should bring back the death penalty, because it’s just common sense that it must be cheaper and a better deterrent than jail.

No thanks. I’d rather listen to the experts (who incidentally disagree which pretty much all of that last paragraph), flawed as they may be. Then there’d be at least a chance of not dragging my country back into the dark ages.

I also think it’s interesting that the politicians who apparently want to listen to “common sense” are very selective about which common sense policies they’ll support. For example, I could suggest that it would be common sense to tax the rich more and give the money to the poor to eliminate poverty. Or that it would be common sense to prioritise the environment over the economy, since we can’t even survive without a healthy environment. As far as I can see those more left wing suggestions are at least as much “common sense” as the right wing ones I listed above. But try suggesting them to Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, and I think you’d find they’re quite happy to go down the “Well, it may sound like a good idea, but it’s not really as simple as that…” route when it suits them.

The truth is, the Brexit supporters are appealing to “common sense” not because they believe it’s a good idea, but because it’s all they have left at this point. They know their arguments don’t hold any water with people who actually understand the realities of the situation, so instead they’re attacking the very concept of understanding, trying to make out that knowledge and insight are somehow elitist and undemocratic.

And sadly, judging from the recent polls, it looks as if they’re succeeding 🙁 .

Casual ageism… and why it’s bad

This is another thing I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, and something I saw posted by a couple of friends on Facebook has spurred me on to finally do it.

I’ve always found it slightly curious that ageism often doesn’t seem to be taken very seriously compared to the other -isms. There are countless articles online about things you shouldn’t do once you’re over 30*, for example, and although many people do find them annoying, they rarely provoke more of a reaction than that. Yet just imagine the uproar if there were breezy lifestyle articles on popular sites entitled “20 Things Black People Shouldn’t Do”, or “10 Things Gay People Need To Stop Wearing”.

The difference in response just seems odd to me… after all, you can’t choose your age any more than you can choose your skin colour or your sexuality, so why should it be considered more acceptable to judge and pigeonhole people according to age?

(* Full disclosure: the specific article that got me thinking about all this again was actually entitled something like “30 Things Women Over 30 Should Stop Wearing”. Now, I’m not a woman so I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the sexist aspect of the article – why “women over 30” and not just “people over 30”? – but I still feel entitled to stick my oar in when it comes to the ageism. In any case, I’m not really going to focus on that particular article much, it was more just a catalyst that got me back to thinking about the whole issue).

The underlying message of that kind of article always seems to be the same: you’re 30 now, so your life is over. Stop pathetically trying to enjoy yourself and get in the box we’ve made for you.

Let’s be honest: I’m the sort of person who probably gives those article authors nightmares. I’m nearer 40 than 30 now, but I still go to gigs; most days I still dress pretty much the same way I’ve dressed since I started high school (jeans, trainers, T-shirt); I love going on roller coasters; I explore abandoned structures that I’m not supposed to be in, just for fun; I had a massive buffet of Haribo sweets at my wedding reception; I still go to dance events where most of the attendees are students; I hang out with people for whom a good party is one that involves stripping naked and running into the nearest body of water; I called my largely pointless blog “Gcat’s World of Stuff”; when I go travelling I stay in cheap hostels like a gap year student, not because I desperately need to save money (though that is a nice side effect), but because I feel more at home in places like that. In short, “acting my age” is not really a concept that exists for me.

Front row on Nemesis

Front row on Nemesis

I have zero intention of stopping doing those things any time soon. If and when I do stop, it’ll be because that’s what feels right for me at the time, not because I happen to have been alive for some arbitrary, meaningless period of time. Hell, I didn’t even start doing about half of that stuff until I was already over 30!

At this point you may be thinking “Hang on, it’s not fair to compare ageism with racism and sexism. It’s different, because everyone gets the chance to be young once, so it’s reasonable to judge people who failed to get the ‘young person stuff’ out of their system at an appropriate age, people who refuse to grow up and move on”.

And I, in turn, could respond by pointing out that not everyone does get the same chances when they’re young. Many people’s childhood and adolescence are blighted by abuse, mental illness, physical illness, or any number of other circumstances that might make it difficult for them to spend time on enjoyable activites. In my own case those circumstances included bullying as well as very long lasting depression and anxiety… and now that I’m finally making real progress on getting over all that, I’m damned if I’m going to miss out on having some fun at long last, just because it makes some judgemental idiots squeamish to see over 30s enjoying themselves.

But I think to go down that line of argument would be to miss the more fundamental point. I’d be trying to justify something that should require no justification, buying into the underlying assumption that I should somehow be ashamed of what I’m doing, that I should feel I have to make excuses for my behaviour. I don’t have to make excuses, because there is nothing to excuse: I’m not hurting anyone.

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I suppose people might argue that I’m hurting myself, though, and missing out on proper adult experiences by not acting my age. I disagree. I’m married, I work in a fulfilling and highly skilled job, I own a nice house and a nice car. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything… and I think the people who believe you need to stop doing what you love and start putting on some dull, soul-destroying act of “maturity” in order to succeed in the fields of dating and career are utterly, utterly wrong. You have a MUCH better chance of finding a partner or a job that’s right for you if you’re happy, relaxed and enjoying life than you do if you’re uptight, repressed and wasting all your energy on putting up a front to the world. Believe me, I know this from bitter experience!

It seems highly ironic to me that people who claim to value maturity so much are often the ones who judge others based on trivialities like what clothes they choose to wear or what activities they enjoy in their spare time. That doesn’t look much like mature behaviour to me… in fact that looks very much like someone who’s desperate to appear grown up to cover up the insecurities underneath, but lacks any understanding of what being grown up actually means. I’m reminded of the famous C.S.Lewis quote, “When I became a man, I put away childish things… like the fear of childishness, and the desire to be very grown up”.

But why does it matter?

You’re probably wondering why I chose to write a blog entry about this. After all, I could have just ignored it… I could have rolled my eyes, muttered “idiots” under my breath and moved on. And that is what I usually do these days, because if I let every ignorant comment get to me the way I used to, there wouldn’t be enough bandwidth on the internet to convey all the things I wanted to say back.

But this issue, I thought, merited a response, because I think it could easily turn into more than just an annoyance, to some people at least. I mentioned above that I was clinically depressed for a long time. There were a number of factors that helped me to get better a few years ago, but by far the most important one was re-learning to listen to my feelings and do things that would make me happy, regardless of what I felt I “should” be doing. In other words, it was mainly starting to do all of those supposedly age-inappropriate activities I listed above that finally lifted me out of the depression I’d been mired in for well over a decade.

Mattresses

In light of my experience, I think it’s downright irresponsible for anyone to be dishing out “advice” that amounts to telling people to give up on the things that make them happy. I’m sure the article authors would retort that they’re not forcing anyone to take their advice, and that’s true; but knowing what it’s like to be in a deeply depressed and vulnerable state, I suspect that the people who are least likely to be able to brush off things like this are also the most likely to be damaged by them. Of course some vapid, click-bait list that even the person who wrote it probably doesn’t really believe isn’t going to ruin someone’s life in itself, but I can easily see it pushing someone over the edge if they’re already in a precarious state. So I stand by what I said: it is irresponsible.

But then I’m 36 and I still wear trainers, so I suppose that disqualifies me from talking about responsibility anyway.

In defence of “Safe Spaces”

Also, why a broken brain is a bit like a broken leg. And why I’m suspicious of people who don’t like trigger warnings. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while… but recent events have made it feel a lot more pressing, to the point where I felt like I wouldn’t be able to rest until I’d written it out, just to stop it from bouncing around in my head.

Lately, “Safe Spaces” are coming in for a lot of criticism online. The discussion around them generally seems pretty one-sided: the anti-safe space side tend to set themselves up as the voices of reason, staunchly defending free speech and all that is rational from the hysterical, hand-wringing, over-emotional, politically correct do-gooders on the other side. I don’t think this is right, for several reasons. In this piece I’m going to argue that there are good, logical reasons to support safe spaces, and that some of their vocal opponents who appear to pride themselves on rationality and pragmatism are actually being quite irrational and idealistic.

 

What are “safe spaces”, and what’s wrong with them?

First things first: I’m aware that not everyone might be familiar with the term “safe space”… so what is a safe space? Basically, it’s when a group or institution has a policy that tries to make certain groups of people feel safer and more welcome by disallowing conduct that those people might find threatening or anxiety provoking. (I know that’s not a fully comprehensive and correct dictionary definition, but for the purposes of this blog it will do). These groups may include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, sufferers of mental illnesses (such as anxiety disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), members of ethnic minorities, survivors of various sorts of abuse, and so on. (From what I’ve read online, it seems safe spaces may have originated as homophobia-free spaces, but I’m going to talk about them more from the point of view of mental illness sufferers, since that’s where my personal experience is). For this blog post I’m going to draw on the Safe Space Policy of my local students’ association as an example – I don’t think they’ll mind as it’s posted online in a publicly accessible location, but if it is a problem please contact me and I’ll remove any references to it.

Skimming through the safe space policy (it’s only 3 pages long), the first thing that struck me was how basic and uncontroversial most of the points are. They’re things you’d hope civilised adults would do anyway without having to be told. You could pretty much sum the policy up as “Don’t be a dick” (in fact, one organisation that I know of actually does sum up its policy using those four words!). The main points are: don’t discriminate against people on the basis of factors such as age, gender, sexuality, race, disability, etc.; don’t talk over, interrupt or heckle people during meetings, or make rude gestures; be respectful towards other people. That’s about it.

Given how straightforward and benign the policy actually is, why do “safe spaces” generate so much animosity? From what I’ve seen, the main arguments against them boil down to: 1. they restrict free speech; and 2. they mollycoddle people who should be facing up to the realities of the world rather than being shielded from them.

I’ll talk about the free speech argument first. I think a lot of this stems from people misunderstanding what safe spaces actually are. You see a lot of ranting online about “special little snowflakes who can’t cope with hearing opinions that are different from theirs”, but this view doesn’t seem justified going by the safe space policies I’ve read. Both the policies I have open right now are very explicit that expressing differing opinions is fine, even something to be encouraged. It’s expressing them in disrespectful or intimidating ways that’s a problem. In fact, surely in some circumstances safe spaces could actually increase people’s exposure to different points of view, by allowing people to take part in debates who might otherwise feel too anxious or uncomfortable to participate.

And while I would agree that national governments clamping down on free speech would be worrying and should generally be resisted, the clubs and societies setting up “safe spaces” are not governments. They’re independent organisations and as such they have every right to decide for themselves what sort of behaviour they’re willing to accept at their meetings and on their premises, and people who don’t like their decisions have every right to go elsewhere or even set up their own organisations with different rules instead.

It strikes me that the sort of conduct that’s typically prohibited in safe space policies has also been prohibited (in practise, if not in any formal written document) in many work places for decades without anyone really batting an eyelid. Most people wouldn’t expect to be able to go to work and heckle their boss during meetings, flip them the V-sign, or make racist and sexist remarks without any consequences. Yet when a voluntary or educational organisation tries to hold its members to the same standards and calls it a “safe space”, certain people go nuts about it.

 

The other argument is, I think, more complex and more interesting. Let me tell you a story about how I tried to overcome some of my own difficulties, and in the process completely changed my opinion on the subject of “mollycoddling”…

 

“Tough love”, and why it doesn’t work, no matter how much you’d like it to

Many years ago now, I joined an internet support forum for people with certain mental disorders, having been struggling with depression and anxiety for a while. One of the most heated debates that would rage on the forum from time to time was what I’ll call the “free speech vs. mollycoddling” debate. On one side were the people who felt the forum should be strictly moderated to remove personal attacks and other things that members might find upsetting; on the other were the people who felt it should be mostly left unedited and shouldn’t try to shield people from reality. (The poor moderators, of course, were caught in the middle of this and couldn’t win no matter what they did… either way, whether they deleted abusive posts or left them up, lots of people were unhappy about it!).

At the time, I was firmly on the “free speech” side. Although I was in a very low and unstable state emotionally and frequently did find posts on the forum upsetting, I felt it would be counter-productive for those posts to be removed – after all, if I was ever going to get better (and I wanted to get better more than anything), I would have to get used to the things I found difficult… what was the point in avoiding them?

Most of the anti-safe space commentators seem to take a similar view to this. If they do ever give advice to people who are struggling emotionally, it tends to be in the form of a curt “get over it”, “man up”, “grow up”, “pull yourself together”, or “stop being pathetic”. Let’s be charitable for the moment and assume that this really is intended as advice (“tough love”, if you like) rather than as kicking people who are already down: what would it look like to try and follow that advice? Well, that’s pretty much what I tried to do all those years ago, so let’s return to my story.

For years, I pushed aside my bad feelings as best I could and just got on with life. I forced myself into situation after situation that I hated and really wasn’t ready for. When I found things online that upset me, I didn’t avoid them, in fact I would keep reading them for hours at a time, looking for other similar things, convinced that no matter how painful this was I would eventually become desensitised, eventually become a man, become an adult who could deal with anything life could throw at him without flinching. I did the same in real life as well: I kept going back into situations and social groups that all of my feelings were telling me were completely wrong for me, but I ignored them and did it anyway. After all, feeling were for wimps, for people who thought they were “special snowflakes” and deserved special treatment, right? I wouldn’t need them anymore once all my hard work finally paid off and I became a Real Person, fully pulled-together, manned-up and no longer pathetic.

Although I did hear alternative, less extreme suggestions for things that might help me from therapists or self help books from time to time, I ignored everything that didn’t fit my preconceived narrative and carried on with my plan. I knew it had to work eventually if I could just keep going for long enough!

But… it didn’t work. It never could have worked, not if I’d kept at it for 50 years. I can see that now.

After several years of this, I still wasn’t feeling any better… in fact with hindsight I can see that I was actually in a much worse state than I had been before I started trying to get better. Although the intense anxiety had mostly gone, it had been replaced by a constant, never-ending morass of depression, resentment and apathy. I’d lost the ability to enjoy anything, even things that used to really excite me. I seemed to have lost the ability to feel sadness as well – losing two close family members had frighteningly little effect on me. So in a sense, I had got what I’d thought I wanted – I had lost most of my feelings, but it hadn’t made me better. It had just made life feel like a pointless, soul-destroying drudge.

At this point you might be thinking “Whoa, whoa, whoa! You can’t blame that on people who said harsh words to you! They may not have been very helpful, but they didn’t force you to do all that!”. And no, I don’t blame them, not entirely at any rate. But my point is: if your only advice to people who are struggling badly is along the lines of “grow up”, or “get over it”, what do you expect them to do with that? It’s not exactly much help, is it?

Maybe you think those people aren’t really struggling badly but are just acting out for attention, and need to be shown that they’re not going to get any sympathy for it, then they’ll stop it. But here’s the thing: some people really are struggling badly, probably far more of them than you think, and being overly harsh with them is not just unhelpful, it can be intensely damaging.

 

If tough love doesn’t work, then what does?

Well, that all got a bit intense and gloomy, but keep reading, it’s about to get better. I’m happy to report that I did eventually find a way to reverse the damage and I’m now well on my way to recovery. In order to explain what worked for me, and why it’s even relevant to the topic of this blog entry, I’m going to use an analogy with physical illness and injury, something that I find is often helpful when trying to explain mental disorders.

Rather than viewing my emotions like an adversary that needs to be crushed because it’s too pathetic for any kind of redemption, I prefer to look at my “broken brain” in much the same way as I’d look at a broken leg. Just as a broken leg can’t perform its normal functions of holding up the body’s weight, walking, and so on, a broken brain can’t necessarily cope with things a normal brain would be able to. But there’s no point getting judgemental about either of them – they are what they are, and hurling abuse won’t change that. Calling someone with an anxiety disorder “pathetic” won’t stop them being anxious any more than calling someone with a broken leg “pathetic” will make their leg instantaneously mend itself.

There are quite a lot of similarities between the two. Broken legs can heal, given time and the right treatment… and so can broken brains! But time and treatment are both crucial here. What I was doing in the past when I kept pushing myself into difficult situation after difficult situation with no respite was the psychological equivalent of getting up and trying to run across the room on a broken leg every five minutes – it not only puts you in a lot of unnecessary pain, it also disrupts the healing process and puts you back to square one (or worse) every time. One day, if you give your leg a chance to heal, you’ll be able to walk again, and you might even be able to run a marathon on it. But that day isn’t going to come if you don’t let it heal properly first.

Further trauma doesn’t help either broken legs or broken brains. Trying to help someone “get over” a mental disorder by being harsh with them is a bit like trying to help them get over a broken leg by hitting it with a sledgehammer (and then acting like they’re the one who’s out of order when they don’t immediately leap out of their wheelchair fully cured).

The key in both cases is to take small steps, baby steps if necessary. It may take longer, but in the long term it’s a much more reliable way to get better than overreaching yourself and potentially making things worse. During this process, it’s a good idea to listen to the signals coming from your leg/brain. A little bit of pain and fatigue is to be expected if you’re doing something you haven’t done in a while or that you find particularly difficult… but if it’s screaming at you that you’re going to collapse if you don’t take the weight off it right now, you should probably listen to it. One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned was that I could listen to what my feelings were telling me and use them constructively to get more of what I wanted in my life, rather than trying to shut them out.

In both cases, you might need professional help in order to get better (a physiotherapist for your leg, a psychotherapist or counsellor for your brain), but there’s no shame in that.

In both cases, you need a combination of rest, and gently pushing yourself when you’re able to. You need to push yourself sometimes or you won’t make any progress, but the resting is just as important, because your leg/brain needs time to recuperate if it’s going to build up its strength again. Back when I was pushing myself way too hard, I was keeping my brain in a highly stressed and anxious state pretty much the whole time. When it’s in that state it’s just focused on surviving – it’s not receptive to making the kind of constructive changes required to recover from a mental disorder.

(I’m still bad for pushing myself too hard and too fast and not taking enough time to rest. I’m a lot better than I used to be, though, and it shows in terms of the progress I’ve made recently).

Finally, depending on how badly damaged it was, a broken leg or a broken brain might never quite heal 100%. You might still get twinges of pain from it years later, or you might still have trouble coping with situations that other people manage more easily.

 

Nice, but what’s this got to do with safe spaces?

Viewed in light of the “broken brain/broken leg” analogy, safe spaces become not places to hide away from reality forever, but places to build yourself up ready to face it. They can be wheelchairs and crutches for the broken brain, until it’s ready to walk unaided. In my experience, being able to take gradual steps towards coping with more and more situations is absolutely critical to overcoming an anxiety disorder, but that is only possible if there are relatively non-threatening situations available to start from, as well as places where it’s safe to switch off for a while and relax without having to worry too much about people doing things that trigger your anxiety. The people who advocate removing safe spaces and making everywhere harsh and unforgiving are, whether it’s their intention or not, advocating creating a much more difficult world for people who want to recover from psychological problems.

You might say “Well, it’s not the job of a university to provide that sort of space. The sufferers should create that space for themselves with help from their family, friends and therapists”. The problem with that is that not everyone has supportive family or friends, or access to therapy. Even the ones that do could probably benefit and make faster progress by having more places they can feel safe.

Or you might be thinking “Fine, if everyone used safe spaces that way I wouldn’t have a problem with them. But most of those people have clearly got no intention of getting better, they’re just hiding away in the safe spaces, avoiding things that make them feel uncomfortable”. In response I would say: how on earth can you possibly know that? Are you close friends with everyone who uses a safe space? Do you know the intimate details of all their lives, so that you know which ones are trying to get better and which aren’t? Or are you just looking at them and making a sweeping judgement that happens to fit your world view, based on very little actual information? I find it highly unlikely that anyone is “hiding away” in a safe space… safe spaces make up such a tiny proportion of the social world that it would be virtually impossible to live your life completely within them.

In any case, I don’t see anything wrong with spending some of your time in safe spaces even if you’re recovered or mostly recovered. It’s just nice to relax in situations where you don’t need to worry too much about getting hassle from people. Think of it this way: you may not need a wheelchair any more once your broken leg’s healed, but that doesn’t mean you’re never going to sit down in a chair again, does it?

 

So what about “trigger warnings”?

“Trigger warnings” are when people put a note at the start of a piece of writing (usually an online post of some sort) warning about any content within that certain groups of people might find upsetting – for example, references to child abuse, or homophobic terms. The idea of them seems to generate a lot of derision from the same sort of people who dislike safe spaces.

To be honest, while I can just about understand the “free speech” argument against safe spaces (although I don’t agree with it), I’m really struggling to get my head around how anyone could rationally object to trigger warnings. They don’t stifle free speech, in fact they don’t do anything at all unless you let them! No-one is going to force you to put them on your own writing, or to take any notice of the ones other people have put on theirs. They’re like the “May contain nuts” warning on a chocolate bar – if you don’t have a nut allergy, just ignore it and move on with your life.

The fact that so many people object to trigger warnings despite their total innocuousness makes me question their motives… for all the lofty talk of defending free speech, I can’t help thinking that for a lot of people this is motivated more by contempt (or even outright hatred) for groups they perceive as weak and undeserving. They hate trigger warnings because they hate the thought of those people being given the tools to avoid something that might upset them and take control of their own recovery. They’d rather watch them suffer and fail than have them be able to make their own decision about whether reading a particular article at a particular time would be beneficial for them or not.

 

Why we can’t just go back to the “good old days”

You know, the good old days when men were men, and although life was harder, people just got on with it. They didn’t complain about their situation, and they certainly didn’t go and get themselves diagnosed with a mental illness, or rely on medication to get them through. They just stiffened their upper lip and carried on.

You don’t have to look too far to find sentiments like this expressed online. In fact some variant of this opinion tends to come up in pretty much any discussion involving mental health sooner or later. It seems to be a commonly held belief that mental health problems are over-diagnosed these days; that some of the supposed illnesses aren’t even real health issues at all, just people being lazy or weak; that people in the past were much stronger than today’s cry-babies; that we as a society are medicalising things that shouldn’t be medicalised; that drugs such as anti-depressants are prescribed much too freely to people who don’t actually need them at all.

In this piece I will argue that this way of thinking is misguided and, in fact, quite self-centred.

Actually, that’s not entirely true… there are a couple of points there that I sort of agree with. Firstly, the over-reliance on drugs: I do think there is too much reliance on anti-depressants for treating depression and related conditions, but not because I don’t think the recipients need treatment: rather, because I don’t think drugs are the right treatment for everyone, and tend to be prescribed a lot because they’re relatively cheap and simple (compared to, for example, long term talking therapy) rather than because they’re actually the most effective.

And secondly, I think it would be great if there was more tolerance at all levels of society of people who are different in some way, rather than immediately labelling someone as having a problem and needing treatment just because they don’t fit in with those around them. This would undoubtedly have a very positive effect on many people’s mental health, but it wouldn’t eliminate the problem completely.

The other points, though, are nonsense, and destructive nonsense at that.

For a start, let’s lay to rest any notion that today’s mental health problems didn’t exist back in the 1940s, or 50s, or Victorian times, or whenever this supposed golden age of stoicism is meant to have taken place. Of course we’re never really going to know for sure how many people were suffering from clinical depression, or social anxiety, or ADHD several decades ago, because there wasn’t really any awareness of those conditions back then. But what we do know for sure is that a lot of people ended up killing themselves, or turned to destructive coping strategies like alcohol or drugs, or spent their lives locked away in grim asylums. The same problems that we have today almost certainly existed, and wreaked the same havoc on people’s lives that they do today if left untreated. The only difference is that people back then didn’t talk about how they were feeling or have a name for it.

Of course, a lot of people did just “get on with it”. They didn’t have any other choice, because often their conditions weren’t well enough understood to be diagnosed, and even if they were there wouldn’t be any effective treatment available. A lot of those people would have lived pretty miserable lives, constantly battling demons in their own heads and getting no help or understanding from those around them. But is it reasonable to demand that people should do that now, just because that’s what people had to do in the past? The situation has, after all, changed dramatically. We understand mental illness a lot better than we did even a few decades ago, and there are treatments available that can relieve or even cure many conditions. To me, saying that the mentally ill shouldn’t get help now because their ancestors had to go without is as pointless and cruel as suggesting that people undergoing major surgery should do without anaesthetic, because that’s what people had to do before anaesthetic was discovered.

Even if there has been a genuine increase in the incidence of mental health problems in recent decades, it doesn’t follow that it must be because people now are somehow “weaker” than in the past. Whilst many aspects of life have undoubtedly got a lot easier and more comfortable in the past 50 or 100 years, that doesn’t automatically mean that everything is becoming more conducive to good mental health. The human brain evolved to live in small hunter-gatherer tribes, but that society has been turned upside down in a remarkably short timescale, the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, and the pace of change shows no sign of slowing. Although most people would probably agree that the changes are largely for the better, if you look at the bigger picture we really haven’t had a lot of time to adapt – it doesn’t seem at all surprising that some people are struggling.

I think a lot of the antipathy I was describing at the start stems from people not really understanding how and why mental health problems are diagnosed. They’ll read a description of, for example, social anxiety and think “That’s just shyness! It’s ridiculous that people are being given therapy and medication just because they’re shy! They just need to get over it!”.

It’s true that social anxiety does have a lot in common with shyness… but the key deciding factor between the two is more about the impact on someone’s life and happiness rather than any innate biological difference. One person might be quite happy with being shy and mostly keeping to themselves, and in that case no-one is going to force them to label themselves as “clinically socially anxious” or to accept treatment for it. But another person might find their “shyness” to be seriously getting in the way of what they want to do with their life and causing them a lot of distress (like I did), and feel powerless to change it on their own, in which case they would probably welcome the chance to get some help. This seems entirely reasonable to me – I don’t understand why anyone, other than a terminally grouchy misanthrope, would object to someone getting treatment for a condition that’s massively impacting their quality of life, even if it’s not something that would have historically been considered a medical problem.

It’s true that the bar for a diagnosis of depression or social anxiety might be set lower than you’d expect: I’ve seen estimates that a full 7% of adults are suffering from clinical social anxiety at any one time, and 25% of adults will experience some form of mental health issue in any given year, which does sound a lot. But there’s a good reason for this, namely that even relatively mild cases of these disorders can cause a huge amount of disruption and distress to sufferers. As Dr David Burns says when talking about a scale for measuring levels of depression in his famous book Feeling Good, “Don’t be fooled by the term ‘moderate’. A score in this range can indicate pretty intense suffering”.

And I’ve always remembered something similar that was once said to me about social anxiety: “‘Mild’ social anxiety isn’t necessarily mild in terms of its impact on your life. It can mean, for example, no love life” – in fact, in my case that was exactly what it did mean. My social anxiety was “mild” compared to some people’s in the sense that I was able to leave the house and (mostly) function day-to-day, but even a mild case was enough to essentially close off an entire area of life (and, I think most people would agree, a pretty important and rewarding one) to me until I had treatment to bring it under control.

I find it quite disturbing that so many people seem to think they are qualified to decide whether others have mental health problems or not, whether they deserve treatment or not, despite having next to no knowledge or experience of the subject themselves. Personally I would rather trust the professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to studying and treating psychological disorders, and the direct experience of the people who live with such disorders every day, but it seems as if there is a growing distrust of experts in all sorts of fields lately (climate science being another big one just now). Thing is, it’s fine to be sceptical. It’s fine to research things yourself rather than just blindly believing whatever you’re told. And it’s fine to acknowledge that so-called “experts” have been spectacularly wrong sometimes in the past. But what’s not so fine is starting from a position of assuming that the experts must be wrong, assuming that they’re either incompetent or corrupt and that you know better, based on no evidence whatsoever, just because you don’t happen to like the implications of what they’re saying. Science may not be perfect, but it’s still far and away the best tool we have for understanding the world and making it a better place.

Ultimately, I think the people wishing we could go back to the “good old days” before mental illness existed are being very selfish. Because there never were any such days. What most of them really mean is “I wish we could go back to the good old days when I didn’t have to think about mental illness, when sufferers knew their place and kept their mouths shut, before they started getting all uppity and wanting to talk about their experiences, wanting people to understand and help them”.

Or, to put it another way, “I want ill people to suffer in silence so that I can maintain my comfortable illusion about how the world works”. Well I’m sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Things I’ve Learned in my struggles with depression (part 1… probably)

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I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2015 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.

The official Blog For Mental Health 2015 site.

I mentioned my depression and anxiety last year. I’ve been meaning to post more about it for a while and taking part in Blog For Mental Health 2015 seemed like a good way to do that.

One thing that’s become very obvious to me over the years is that there are a lot of misconceptions around depression and indeed mental illness in general. In this post I’m going to attempt to address some of them, from the point of view of a mostly-recovered depressive. A lot of these things do wind me up quite a lot, so this post may come across as a bit strongly worded… but hopefully you’ll appreciate that there’s a good reason for this; namely, when you’re already struggling daily with an illness that makes your life feel not worth living, the last thing you need is to have to deal with other people’s ignorance on top of that.

Anyway. On with the things!

Sometimes mental health issues don’t have any identifiable cause. But sometimes they do.

For some people, depression and anxiety just seem to appear for no obvious reason, maybe caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. But in other cases they can be caused, or at least aggravated, by life events. My own illness was definitely in the latter category.

I’ve seen both sides of this belief put forward by people in the past… on the one hand, the belief that no-one has the “right” to be depressed unless they’ve gone through something truly horrendous; and on the other hand, the idea that depression is 100% caused by random chemical changes in the brain and has nothing to do with your life experiences, so you should just suppress it with drugs and forget about analysing your past. I don’t think either of those tells the whole story.

In fact, this is the same for many physical illnesses. Some people get lung cancer from smoking twenty a day or working with asbestos for decades; others have led apparently healthy lives but just seem to get it anyway for no identifiable reason.

 

The amount of psychological suffering isn’t necessarily proportional to how bad your experiences were.

Again this is the same with various physical ailments. Some people get struck by lightning and survive while others die after getting a much lower voltage shock from their household wiring. The result doesn’t necessarily correlate with the apparent severity of the accident.

It’s the same with mental health issues. Some people go through the most horrific experiences and only seem to have mild problems afterwards. Others go through something less extreme and end up severely depressed or anxious. There isn’t necessarily any rhyme or reason to it, at least not one that can be ascertained without doing a lot of soul searching. I used to beat myself up constantly for being in such a bad state when others who’d been through worse than me were coping much better, but eventually I learned that there’s no point in thinking that way. Mental illnesses are complicated and often unpredictable things. They don’t follow a nice neat scale where if you get stung by a wasp you feel mildly depressed for exactly one day but if your entire home town is destroyed in a hideous disaster you get twenty years of severe depression and anxiety.

 

Different treatments work for different people.

One of the things that made me feel the most hopeless over the years was the fact that it felt as if I’d tried every treatment on offer and nothing was working. Medication, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and exercise are often touted as being good for depression, but they did almost nothing for mine. It wasn’t for want of trying either… in despair I filled several notebooks cover to cover with CBT exercises and spent many years taking various different drugs that were giving me nothing but side effects.

This wasn’t helped by the attitude of some of the people I talked to. Some of them seemed to assume that if these treatments didn’t help me, it had to be my own fault… I wasn’t trying hard enough, I had a negative attitude (I’ll come back to that particular accusation later on), or even that I “didn’t want to get better”. I’m sorry to say, a few of these people were former sufferers themselves… you’d hope they of all people would be more understanding, but I think they had a bit of a “zeal of the converted” thing going on and were determined that what had worked for them had to work for everyone else too.

Thankfully I eventually discovered things that did help me, and gradually I recovered. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to recover or wasn’t putting in the effort before, it was the simple fact that not all treatments work for all people. So if you haven’t found what helps you yet, please don’t give up hope… the next thing you try could be the one that helps you finally turn the corner. And PLEASE don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you that the fact you haven’t got better yet is your own fault… they have no idea what they’re talking about.

 

“If you’re well enough to do X, you’re well enough to do Y” is a nonsensical statement when it comes to mental health.

This often seems to come up in the context of someone who’s claiming some sort of sickness benefit for mental health issues, and when it’s revealed that they went to the pub/went on holiday/did some other leisure activity, there’s a chorus of people proclaiming, “If they’re well enough to do that, they’re well enough to work!”.

It really doesn’t follow, though. Different situations present very different mental challenges and it’s perfectly possible (indeed common) for someone to struggle with some of these but not have much trouble with others, sometimes in combinations that seem to make little sense to an outside observer. For a while I was fairly comfortable with giving presentations at work, even to quite large audiences, but at the same time the thought of dating or even having a relaxed conversation with someone at a party terrified me. For some people it’s the opposite.

Even “simple” phobias can often be strange and seemingly contradictory things. For example, I’ve handled tarantulas before (in fact I think there’s even a picture of me holding one on a very old post on this blog) and they didn’t bother me in the slightest… but if anyone tried to get me to hold a large house spider, you wouldn’t see me for dust. It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s just the way it is.

 

Being fit for work is not a binary thing.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been able to carry on working throughout most of the period when I was depressed. But at the same time, I’m not under any illusions about it; I know it’s only been possible because I was lucky enough to find a very understanding and enlightened employer. They’ve supported me when I needed it and made a few adjustments to help me cope more easily. I’ve been with them over ten years now and am very happy with how they’ve treated me.

But I also know it could have been so different, and for many depressed people it unfortunately is. If I’d ended up in an environment where I was pushed into things I wasn’t ready for, where my time off sick was held against me, where the employer wasn’t willing to compromise an inch to help me, I don’t think I would have lasted long in work. I could easily have ended up on benefits and in a worse state than when I started. I’m not being negative here, just realistic… I know what a close call it was at times even with a very good employer, and I know that if I’d been placed in one of the nightmare situations I’ve heard about from other sufferers, I simply would not have coped.

Unfortunately the medical profession and the government don’t seem to take this into account. In their eyes, you’re either fit for work or you’re not. You’re either fit to handle any gruelling, draining, high-pressure situation that life might throw at you, or you’re not fit to do anything productive at all. This seems ridiculously black and white to me… surely almost any person, depressed or not, will be able to cope well with some jobs and not at all with others? And surely it would be better for everyone concerned if the government would actually recognise this fact.

I remember once at a particularly difficult time, I realised it would help me a lot if I could work from home some days, as being around people was making me stressed, and most of the tasks I do in my job can just as easily be performed at home. I went to the doctor and explained this and asked him if he could write to my employer and recommend that I be allowed to work from home for some of the week. The answer was no… if I felt I wasn’t coping he could sign me off sick completely, but there was seemingly no middle ground. I didn’t want to be signed off completely, I felt I was still able to do my job but that more time to myself would give me some breathing space and help me recover faster. Thankfully in the end my employer was willing to do this for me even without a letter from the doctor, but I know a lot of other people who might benefit from something similar would not be so lucky.

 

“You won’t get better without a positive attitude” is the last thing you want to hear when you’re depressed… and I don’t think it’s necessarily true, either.

In all sorts of areas of life, you often hear about how important it is to have a positive attitude, and how you won’t achieve anything without one. A lot of self-help books will tell you it’s the most important thing that you need in order to get better. I used to hate reading things like that. I think it’s supposed to be motivational and inspiring… and maybe it would be if your goal was to lose 20 pounds, or start your own business, or overcome your fear of flying, or whatever. But when you’re suffering from depression, having a positive attitude seems like literally the last thing that’s ever going to be achievable. People who are depressed have trouble thinking positively, almost by definition in fact. So reading that I needed to have one would reliably make my mood sink even further and make me think “Oh great, in that case I’m going to be stuck like this forever”. I honestly think that I’d have felt less despondent about my chances if the book had said “The most important thing is to build a rocket out of household items and fly to the moon in it”.

Ultimately, though, I don’t actually think a positive attitude is the be-all and end-all that some people make it out to be. I got better eventually and I don’t think my attitude through most of my recovery could really be described as “positive”. I was pretty pessimistic about my chances of ever getting better, but I reasoned that it was better to keep trying anyway, because maybe I was wrong and I would get better some day, and that would be so amazing that it was worth trying for even if the chances seemed slim. I was probably 95% convinced that I’d be depressed and miserable for the whole rest of my life… I wouldn’t call that positive by any reasonable definition. But that 5% of doubt was all I needed to stop myself from giving up completely.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that a positive attitude isn’t a good thing… it most definitely is. My recovery would have been a lot quicker and easier if I’d had one, no question. But it annoys me to read “advice” that talks as if you can just conjure one up from thin air, no matter how bad your experiences have been, no matter how badly depression is dragging you down. It’s nowhere near as simple as that, and it’s misleading and damaging to talk to people as if there is no hope for them unless they can manage to do that.

 

Some problems have to be dealt with by accepting them. Others can (and probably should) be changed.

I sometimes feel as if there’s too much of an emphasis on accepting things the way they are, even when it’s not the way they should be. Now, obviously in some cases there is no other choice – if someone close to you has died, for example, there’s no way in the world anyone can change that. But some problems are less clear cut.

One of the things that kept coming back to haunt me over a period of many years was the idea that I’d missed out on a lot of social experiences that most people have in their teens and early twenties, because that’s when my depression and anxiety were at their peak and I’d spent much of those years isolated. When I talked to counsellors and therapists about this, their “solution” was usually the same: I needed to “mourn the loss” of what I’d missed out on. I also read a number of self help books that said much the same thing.

But I didn’t want to mourn the loss. I wanted to find a way to have those experiences. To me, a life where I couldn’t have the same social experiences as other people wasn’t a life that was worth working towards and was never something I was going to willingly accept. And with hindsight I’m very glad I stood my ground and didn’t accept it, because over time I managed to find ways to get what I felt I’d missed, to a much larger extent than I ever dreamed would be possible, and I’m a lot happier and healthier for that. (I also found one brilliant self help book whose author agreed with me wholeheartedly that this was the right way to tackle the problem; it’s nice to have your feelings validated!).

To an extent I suppose I can understand my therapists’ response to this issue. Their role is mostly about helping people deal with their feelings… helping someone to find (sometimes unorthodox) ways to do things most of their peers did a decade earlier is not really in their remit, even if that happens to be the most helpful course of action. “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” and all that.

 

That’s all for now. I had more things to write up but this post has got long enough already. I’ll probably write a follow-up at some point with some more items in the same vein.

 

Childhood bullying still affects people at 50? Doesn’t surprise me.

I saw a study reported in the news recently. Apparently people who are bullied as children can still be affected by what happened to them even at the age of 50. I have no trouble believing this. I’m still quite a way off from 50 myself, but I’m quite convinced that the after effects of childhood bullying continued to cast a shadow over my life for at least the first 15 years of adulthood.

I know that’s a strong claim to make, and I wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t my honest opinion. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering all this and trying to make sense of it, both on my own and in therapy of various kinds (because I eventually realised I had no choice but to understand it if I ever wanted to get past it). I wasn’t even sure whether I should write this post or not… I know how easily things like this can be taken the wrong way. But screw it. If I’d been suffering from a physical health problem all these years I wouldn’t feel ashamed to talk about it. Mental ill health should be no different, whatever the cause and whatever other people’s misconceptions about it.

I’m not writing this in an attempt to elicit sympathy, or to “blame” anyone for all my problems. At this point I have no need of either of those things anymore. Life is good now. I have a partner who I love, friends and family who I love, a job that I love, and a lot to look forward to. I don’t hate the kids that bullied me. I don’t believe most of them intended to cause me serious harm. A lot of them were probably insecure themselves and were just glad it was someone else on the receiving end of the abuse rather than them. All I want to do is share an honest account of my experience and hopefully show how it is possible for something that many people view as a bit of harmless fun to have such a lasting negative impact.

The strange thing is, most of the bullying wasn’t that bad, taken in isolation. It was mostly just name-calling and similar. It did get physical a few times (including once when I was beaten up badly enough to need medical attention, and another time soon after I’d left school, which resulted in the bully being prosecuted for assault) but those incidents were the exception, and I don’t actually think they did me much lasting damage.

The contrast between the utter triviality of most of the other incidents and the turmoil they eventually caused inside my mind haunted me for a long time. I couldn’t believe how badly this had broken me. I was so angry, mostly with myself for still letting it affect me all these years later… but then of course the anger just became another stick to beat myself with, keeping me stuck in the cycle of negativity even longer. Ultimately it’s pretty pointless to beat yourself up over the way you react to something. No-one consciously chooses to react to something in a way that has an unnecessarily negative impact on their life, after all.

Eventually I realised the truth: it wasn’t the nature of the incidents that had got to me, it was the sheer number of them, and the fact I had no way to escape. One person shouting out a rude comment about your appearance probably wouldn’t have a lasting effect on you. You’d shrug it off, or laugh at them for being such an idiot, or at most might feel hurt for a little while and then forget about it. But what if it was happening everywhere you went? What if you were being bombarded with those same comments multiple times a day and there was no way to escape? What if even when you were on holiday you were getting the same sort of comments from random strangers you’d never seen in your life before? What if it seemed like the vast majority of people in your age group were joining in with making those comments at some time or another, and consequently no-one was willing to be friends with you? And what if all this was happening during your adolescence, before you’ve even had a chance to build up some confidence and/or a support network that might help you deal with such challenges? At that point, believe me, it does start to get to you, no matter how innocuous each one of those comments might have been in isolation. I should know: that’s the world I inhabited for several miserable years as a teenager.

I can still remember quite vividly the day when something snapped inside me and I just stopped trying to get on with the other kids. It must be about 20 years ago now which is quite scary. Up until that point I’d kept on trying to socialise and to make friends and to be a part of everything despite the fact that no-one seemed to want me there. But then one lunchtime when I’d been laughed at and forced to sit on my own yet again, a dull feeling of hopelessness descended on me, and I just thought “What’s the point?”.

So I gave up, mostly. From then on I kept to myself as much as I could instead. I started going home for lunch, even though we only got a fifty minute lunch break and home was a twenty minute walk each way, so it wasn’t very practical. I even started going out and wandering the streets during break times to get away from everyone. Technically that was against the school rules but I never got caught. I stopped trying to make conversation with people and only talked to them if they talked to me first.

It’s probably pretty obvious to most adults reading this that that wasn’t a healthy way to respond. I can see that now too, but at the time it wasn’t at all obvious… in fact it felt like shutting myself off was my only option if I wanted to stay sane. I’d tried pretty much everything else I could think of: tried befriending people, tried fighting back or answering back, tried ignoring the abuse, tried reporting it to the teachers, even tried changing myself in small ways so that I wouldn’t stand out as much. Nothing had worked. What else was there to try? From my point of view as the confused teenager I was at the time, people didn’t want me. It appeared that pretty much my entire peer group had rejected me. What was the point in keeping on trying to engage with them if the result was going to be constant humiliation? It was as simple as that. At the time, giving up didn’t just seem like a rational choice… it seemed like the only rational choice.

Sometimes a kindly adult who could see some of what was happening to me (though probably didn’t realise the extent of it) would take me aside and tell me things wouldn’t always be this way, that the other kids would grow out of the name-calling eventually and I’d be OK in the end. I could never take much comfort from this, sadly. It always seemed a very hollow and distant possibility compared with the grim reality I was faced with every day.

Weirdly, my darkest days weren’t actually during the time I was being bullied, but afterwards. When I left school and moved onto university, I never encountered bullying there… but the past had left its mark. It turns out that once you’ve started to feel as if your entire peer group has rejected you and wants nothing to do with you, it’s very hard to stop feeling it again, even after the abuse itself stops. I felt as if I still didn’t understand why I’d been picked on so much, and until I did understand it I would have to assume that it was going to keep happening with everyone I met. It was the only way to be safe.

University is supposed to be four years of non-stop fun and partying, so they say; for me it was four years of non-stop anxiety, too scared to talk to people, suspicious even of the ones who were nice to me in case they turned against me (as had happened a few times at school), and intimidated by how much life experience they all seemed to have compared to me. I continued to keep to myself as much as possible, only going in for lectures and always coming straight home afterwards. Occasionally I would hit such a level of despair that I was willing to try anything to get rid of it and I’d force myself to try a new social activity, but it never went well. I was simply too anxious to have any sort of meaningful interaction with people.

After a few months of this, I plunged into the clinical depression that was to plague me on and off (mostly on, especially in the early years) for the next fifteen years. The future looked very bleak and I couldn’t see anything to look forward to. I felt completely broken… I didn’t know if I was ever going to be happy again, ever going to have friends again, ever going to have the confidence for a relationship or a job or any of the things normal people did. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and say “Well, of course you were! It was only kids being kids for god’s sake, get some perspective”, but at the time those worries were very real and very disturbing.

So was it all due to the bullying? No, not entirely… depression and anxiety run in my family and I was probably always susceptible to them. But spending years feeling as if everyone of my own age was rejecting me certainly exacerbated those problems massively. There was no way it could have failed to. Maybe someone else would have bounced back from it more quickly than I did… but I defy anyone to live through what I lived through in my teens and not be affected by it in some way.

This is already way longer than I meant it to be and at least four times more depressing, so I’ll try to end on a happier note. Yay, I got better! Mostly, at least. In 2013 I had a largely depression-free year for the first time in my adult life, and 2014 has been even better so far. The anxiety is way better than it was and mostly doesn’t stop me doing what I want to do anymore. I feel as if I’ve got a hell of a lot of lost time to make up for, but I’ve made some big inroads into that and it’s been a pretty enjoyable process so far. The idea of living a normal life no longer seems like some impossible dream but actually within reach. Though these days I tend to think “I’m just going to do what I want, to hell with whether it’s normal or not!”.

To anyone who relates to anything I’ve said I would like to say: don’t give up hope. No matter how hopeless it all seems, no matter how left behind you feel, no matter how long it’s been like that, things can change… and probably faster than you think.

*looks back over the wall of text up above*. Wow. I’ll be amazed if anyone actually read right to the bottom of this. If you have, then well done 🙂 .

 

Meditation

I’ve been taking a meditation course recently, at the Edinburgh Buddhist centre.

It’s been interesting, and hopefully useful.

I find it a bit hard to describe what it’s about without very quickly getting into talking about what meditation isn’t. So maybe that’s what I’ll do. A lot of this is my own misconceptions I’d picked up over the years, but I think other people may have similar ones.

First of all and most fundamentally, meditation isn’t really about drifting off into a nice relaxing place. It’s not about becoming less conscious and escaping, but about becoming more conscious, more aware of what’s happening in your body and mind and the world around you. It isn’t about avoiding difficult feelings or making them somehow magically disappear, in fact it’s more about confronting them (though “confronting” doesn’t feel quite like the right word either. Maybe just “being aware of them” is better).

Secondly, there’s not really anything religious or supernatural about it either. At least not the kind I’ve been doing. (This is just as well as I have fairly little patience these days both for most kinds of religion and for unproven “alternative”-style remedies). Although the class is at the Buddhist Centre, they’ve hardly talked about anything Buddhism-specific. It’s all been pretty similar to the meditation I’ve read about in a book which was written by some pretty mainstream and down-to-earth seeming psychologists. Mindfulness, which encompasses meditation as one of its key components, seems to be gaining ground as a practise that’s considered helpful for lots of conditions (depression, anxiety, etc.).

So, what were we actually doing? There were three main meditations taught: the body scan, meditation on the breath, and the Metta Bhavana (which means cultivation of loving kindness, though “love” in this context is more what you might think of as deep acceptance rather than romantic or affectionate love). The teacher would guide us through each one, sometimes interspersed with relevant (and beautiful) poetry… I really need to ask him the name of one of the poems before the class finishes. The first two are basically what they sound like… in the body scan, you focus attention on each part of the body in turn, feeling the sensations as you go. It’s amazing how much you can find that you normally aren’t conscious of at all, and it’s also amazing how sometimes all you need to do is become aware of a feeling of tension and immediately you can feel it releasing and the muscles relaxing without having to deliberately do anything. (Relaxation may not be the main aim of meditating, but it is sometimes a nice side effect).

The breath meditation was similar to one I’d tried from a CD, but I somehow found it much easier in a room full of other people meditating. There was nothing to get distracted by, no suddenly remembering something I meant to do and interrupting my meditation to go and do it. Also the advice on the posture was extremely helpful… it makes a huge difference getting into a position where you can comfortably sit still for fifteen-plus minutes, and I found it surprisingly hard to do that on my own.

For me the biggest thing I took from it was the idea that there’s another way to deal with your feelings. For a long time I thought you either had to bottle them up completely (which risks them coming out in unwanted ways that you then don’t even understand), or let them out and basically be forced to do whatever they want you to do. But there is another way… you can become aware of them, explore and understand them, and then consciously decide “I am choosing not to act on this feeling”. I don’t think I fully saw how different that is from bottling things up before. Meditation can be immensely helpful for this. Highly recommended.

Why some things bug me and others don’t

It’s interesting how sometimes being exposed to something for years on end can desensitise you so that you become more tolerant of it than most people. And sometimes it seems to have the exact opposite effect and leave you with an irrational aversion to whatever it is.

I was thinking about this earlier because I realised I was far more bothered than I should be by the fact that one of my car doors is stuck shut. It shouldn’t be a big deal… the car still works fine, and most days I don’t even have any need to open that door. Sure, it’ll be a pain if I go on a trip away with several people, but there’s plenty of time to get it fixed before that next happens. Yet as soon as I discovered the problem I felt agitated. I couldn’t rest until I’d tried to fix it myself (no luck; perhaps ironically, there seems to be no easy way to get the door apart to get at the lock components without opening it, which is exactly what I can’t do!), then when that failed, booked it into a garage.

But I realised I’m always like this when something breaks, even if it’s only minor breakage. Whenever it happens I just have to fix it, arrange to get it fixed, or replace it with a new one as soon as humanly possible, or else it won’t stop bugging me. I think this is because when I was growing up we often had things that weren’t working (or weren’t working properly) for weeks or months at a time. Partly due to not having enough money to get them fixed, partly due to no-one being as bothered about them as I am now. Usually it wasn’t anything all that serious – stereos with only one speaker working, cookers with a ring that you couldn’t use because it would trip all the circuit breakers, cars that basically worked but would overheat if you were stuck in traffic for any length of time, toilet seats that weren’t actually attached to the toilet, that sort of thing – but once we were without a working fridge for several weeks, and that wasn’t fun.

So now, I just can’t be doing with those things anymore, even the ones that should only be minor annoyances. It’s like all my tolerance for them has already been used up and I’ve got no patience left.

But it interests me that with certain other things, it went the opposite way entirely.

Smoking, for example. Now I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and I’ve got no intention of letting that change, but I’m not that bothered if other people want to. A lot of non-smokers seem to recoil in horror* at the thought of being in a room where someone’s smoking or the idea of (gasp!) living with a smoker, but I just don’t really care at all, probably because I’m so used to it, my dad having smoked the whole time I was growing up. So in this case I did develop a tolerance rather than using up all my capacity for tolerance. I wonder what the difference is.

(* I’m not saying people are wrong to recoil in horror… given that passive smoking isn’t exactly good for you, I do think they’re within their rights to object to people smoking around them. It’s just that I happen not to object to it myself, and I find it sort of interesting that I don’t).