Uppsala and Stockholm (again)

I was in Sweden last week. I seem to have been there a lot lately; that was my third work trip there and I’ll have my third midsummer trip in a couple of months as well.


Although I usually like to explore new places while I’m away, I was more in the mood for just chilling out and doing nothing this time, what with life getting very busy back home with work, Beltane and wedding stuff all at once. So I decided after the meeting I would book myself into my favourite hostel in Stockholm for a couple of days and spend them doing nothing at all. (Sometimes I find it easier to relax and unwind away from all the distractions and half-ticked-off To Do lists at home). The work part of the trip felt familiar as well, as I was staying in the same hotel and having a meeting in the same venue as I did two years ago.

At first it looked as if I was going to have to be at least a bit adventurous after all: when I first looked at accommodation options, my normal hostel was fully booked for the nights I wanted. But there must have been some cancellations as when I went back to actually book, they had two beds available. I booked one quickly before they changed their minds again. Although some of the other hostels looked alright, I knew that this one had a good lounge for relaxing in, whereas some of the others apparently didn’t have much common space, or didn’t allow alcohol in it. Plus City Backpackers is supposedly the best hostel in Sweden so I felt that going elsewhere after staying there twice probably would have been a bit of a come-down.

The Journey

I booked onto a nice quick direct flight to Stockholm Arlanda. As luck would have it, not just one but two things came along later and annoyingly clashed with my chosen flight: firstly, an all staff meeting at work. I wouldn’t normally be too upset about missing a meeting, but this was an interesting one as there’s a lot going on right now (reorganisations, pending move to a new building). Ah well. I’ll read the minutes later.

And secondly, the London Transport Museum announced that they were releasing tickets for their next wave of tours of abandoned tube stations and hidden tunnels, which I really wanted to go on (I like that sort of thing, you see) but which I was sure would sell out insanely quickly. The time that this would go live? 10am Tuesday, exactly the time I was boarding my plane. Grrr. Why did they have to pick the ONE day in several months that I wasn’t able to be in front of a computer at 10am?

(Laura kindly volunteered to try and get me tickets instead. Despite a surge of demand reminiscent of the Raspberry Pi launch 4 years ago, she succeeded in getting us tickets for the Down Street tour, the one I most wanted, and apparently the most sought-after one by far. So that’s something to look forward to, although it’s not til December. It’s expensive, but what the hell, you have to treat yourself sometimes. I have to admit I find it slightly amusing that the last people to be caught sneaking into a disused tunnel in London were apparently fined less money than I’ve just paid for a legitimate underground tour).

Anyway. On the plus side, it was a lovely clear morning for a flight (a rare treat when flying from Edinburgh), and the plane was amazingly empty (a rare treat when using a budget airline), which is always nice. I had a whole three seats to myself and was able to enjoy the view of West Lothian spread out below me like a map (though not get any decent photos of it, since the window was very dirty and a jet engine was blocking a lot of it). I was also able to see miles and miles of stationery traffic on all the local motorways, even though it was way past rush hour time… apparently it’s been chaos due to accidents this morning, though thankfully I avoided most of the chaos on my way to the airport. I wonder if the plane was empty because all the other would-be occupants were stuck in the jams down there.


We made it to Uppsala, where our meeting’s being held, pretty easily (though it seemed slightly bizarre that we had to enter our names into the ticket machine when buying tickets for a less than 20 minute train journey! It also seems slightly bizarre that, in contrast to the blandly corporate or edgily cool jingles they use to precede the announcements in most airports and stations, the one at Arlanda sounds like Grandpa Flump playing two quavering notes on his flumpet). Uppsala is actually the fourth largest city in Sweden, but it really doesn’t feel much like a big city at all to me… though it only has about a third of the population of Edinburgh, so I suppose it is small compared to what I’m used to. The hotel was nicer than I remembered, and it turns out it has fast Eduroam access in the rooms which is great for me – when Eduroam’s available it usually seems way faster and more reliable than whatever random public networks you can find. So I didn’t have to attempt any accidental dodgy hacker tricks in order to get online this time. Ahem.


I noticed the disgusting old white sock and the miniature Jaegermeister bottle on the lower storey roof outside my window straight away, but it was a bit longer before I noticed the (bare foot!) foot prints in a chaotic pattern on the other half of the roof. There surely has to be a story behind those…

The Meeting

We were treated to some lovely Swedish weather (clear and sunny, though still cold) as we walked down to the meeting venue, on the Uppsala University campus. The walk was a picturesque and relaxing one, along the river with its pretty bridges and boats (although it’s not quite so relaxing if you do what one of my colleagues and I did the first time we came here and walk right down the wrong side of the river, assuming there’ll be another bridge further down, then find there isn’t). I always think the campus itself looks more like a woodland summer camp than one of the top universities of northern Europe (in case it’s not clear, I do mean that as a compliment!). Apparently it was originally built as some kind of army base, so it makes sense that the layout is a bit unusual for a university.

The meeting itself was an interesting one, and since I’d actually got a decent night’s sleep for a change, I didn’t even come close to falling asleep at any point during the proceedings. It seems to do my brain good being away for a bit, because I always seem to come up with lots of new ideas for all my projects when I’m travelling. I made sure to note them down for later.


Our dinner was in an old station building. It was in slightly better condition than the old stations I normally find myself in.

The Holiday

After the day and a half of meeting, it was off to Stockholm for my little holiday. The train was on time and very nice, as they usually seem to be in European countries other than Britain, and after finally excusing myself from a crazy old woman on the platform who seemed determined to talk to me in Swedish and completely unconcerned by the fact that I couldn’t understand a word, I was on my way.

Coming back to somewhere I’ve visited before sometimes does strange things to my perception of time; I remember on my second visit to Madrid it felt like ages since I’d been there before, when in reality it was only just over two months, but coming back to Stockholm after 18 months, I didn’t feel as if much time had passed at all. The hostel “upgraded” me from the eight bed dormitory I’d booked to a 6 bed “apartment”. They were using the apartments as extra dorms, probably because they were so busy, so I still had to share with other people. But it did mean we had our own private loo, shower, small kitchen, and even a sauna (which I didn’t dare to use as I didn’t have a clue how to work the thing, though one of my room mates did manage to get it working).

I slept better than I normally do in a hostel room. I hadn’t had any plans for Friday at all, but when I discovered my pyjama top was missing, and confirmed via email that it was still at my hotel in Uppsala, I decided I was going to go and get it back. (I’ve no idea how I managed to do this; I’m normally ultra-careful not to leave anything behind when I stay in a hotel, to the point of even checking inside cupboards that I know perfectly well I’ve never opened before I leave). I probably wouldn’t have bothered as it would have been cheaper just to buy a new one than to pay for the extra return train ticket, but I felt bad as it was a present from Laura. Anyway, I didn’t really mind relaxing on the train for a couple of hours. There are worse ways to spend a morning.

I spent most of the time just relaxing, either in the hostel lounge or in a nearby bar, and was glad that I’d ripped my mother’s Reginald Perrin DVDs to my laptop to keep me entertained. It was what I felt I needed. Of course, I’d done most of the important stuff around the hostel on my previous visits here anyway – for example, photographing the local tunnel:


And the local unfortunately-named cafe:


My second day in Stockholm was slightly more energetic, though I still found the time for plenty of Reggie Perrin as well. I went for my first run since the horrible flu/chest infection/laryngitis that I was suffering from last month. Although I’d worked up to being able to run for 40 minutes non-stop before the illness, I didn’t want to do anything that strenuous after over a month’s break, so I did a gentle 20 minutes (with short pause to remove gravel from my trainer). It went surprisingly well and didn’t even cause me to have a coughing fit, so I was happy. I also went for a wander along the sea front, far enough to see Langholmen (a nice, mostly rural-feeling wooded island that’s surprisingly close to the city centre), but I was too tired to cross over to it this time.

The Return

My return flight left at 7:55, so I had to be up before 5am to get the bus. (It was the only direct flight of the day, so it was that or waste about 5 hours getting home). As always seems to happen when I need to be up early, my hostel roommates, who’d been perfectly well behaved throughout my whole stay, decided to pick the final night to make a lot of noise and keep me awake. All I can say is I hope they enjoyed the sound of my 4:45 alarm… I certainly didn’t.

The flight was the first time I’ve ever used wifi on a plane. I remember when the internet was only in the uni computer labs, or at home via excruciatingly slow dial up modem. Now, the number of places that you can escape from it is ever-diminishing: planes have wifi; my last two phones have been waterproof so being in the bath or shower is no excuse; hell, even one of the abandoned railway tunnels I explored had a perfect 4G signal (though admittedly that’s probably just an accident of microwave propagation rather than any deliberate desire on the part of Glasgow City Council to let urban explorers broadcast their crew shots more easily).

I came home feeling happier and more relaxed than I had done in weeks, thanks to the couple of days of doing nothing at all other than what I felt like. I decided I should book my next unwinding trip straight away (well, after next payday) so I have it to look forward to.

A little light relief

This blog’s been getting a bit intense lately… a lot of the last few entries have been long rants in response to things that have annoyed me.That’s fair enough, one of the reasons I started the blog was so I’d have somewhere to post those, but it was also to give me somewhere to write about more light-hearted and fun stuff that interests me. So here’s a post about my walk today. Look, this one even has pictures!

View from Almond Aqueduct

I couldn’t decide what to do with myself today. Laura’s out at her hen do (much more of an event than my “stag do” was, it would seem!) and Alex is through in Glasgow editing, so I couldn’t do anything with them. I’ve been exhausted all week and I’m away in Sweden most of next week so I didn’t want to overdo things, but at the same time I felt like getting outside and taking some photos, something I haven’t done enough of lately. In fact I sort of felt like doing an explore, only I wasn’t in the mood to drive far or to risk a confrontation if things went wrong, which ruled out most of the sites on my list.

Then I remembered about this walk I’d been meaning to do again for a while, from the Almond Aqueduct on the Union Canal, down the river to the next couple of bridges. Alex, Gavin and I did it about five years ago (I’m not sure why, I think we were just bored and looking for something to do) and I enjoyed it a lot. It felt surprisingly adventurous considering how close to home it was – although that was before I started clambering into derelict hospital buildings and railway tunnels for fun, so my threshold for what constitutes “adventurous” has probably gone up somewhat in the meantime. But anyway. I decided it would be worth trying it again. I might get some better shots of the bridges now I had an SLR, at least.

Canal Feeder

After stress testing my new car’s suspension on the impressive collection of potholes on the access road, I reached the start of my walk: the Almond Aqueduct. Back when I first got interested in bridges and canals and stuff, this used to be my favourite bridge. Although the Avon Aqueduct on the other side of West Lothian is much bigger and more impressive, there’s something very nice about the setting of the Almond one, and it’s also impressive in its own right (though annoyingly hard to get good photos of, I discovered!).

Almond Aqueduct top

As I went down underneath to cross to the north side of the canal where the towpath is, I noticed that the access gate into the interior of the structure was open. I probably would have had a peek inside if I could, but it’s pretty high off the ground so I wouldn’t be able to get in there without some sort of equipment. This video, on one of the best YouTube channels ever, gives a pretty good impression of what it’s like in there.

Almond Aqueduct Access Gate

At the far side of the aqueduct, I turned off into the trees, along a rough track which may or may not actually be a path. (One of the nice things about Scotland is that thanks to the right to roam, you don’t need to worry too much about whether something is or isn’t a path – as long as you don’t damage anything or walk into a live military or transport site, you can pretty much go wherever you want). The first part of the walk was a gentle, quite picturesque stroll through the trees, with the river down a steep bank to my right.

Woodland stream

The last time we were here, I actually saw a deer cross the path ahead of us and then swim across the river. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my phone camera ready in time, but it was amazing even just to see it – I normally think of deer as being something you get up in the Highlands rather than something you can see while walking through a narrow strip of woodland only a few miles from home. I didn’t think I’d be so lucky a second time, and indeed I wasn’t. I did see quite a large bird of prey, but it had disappeared into the woods before I even had time to get my lens cap off.

(Speaking of last time, I’m sure we also had an orange helium balloon with us when we did this walk before. I think Gavin had insisted on stopping for ice cream at the Newbridge McDonalds on the way and had somehow acquired it in there. As you can probably guess, it didn’t survive the walk).

Mill lade entrance

The path got narrower, more hilly and more muddy as I walked further from the canal. I seemed more difficult going than I’d remembered, but maybe that’s just because I was on my own this time. About halfway along was a feature I remembered: an old mill lade, now so full of earth and vegetation that the water wasn’t high enough to get into it anymore. Next to it was a very rough, but still clearly manmade, weir in the river itself. I was curious about this so I checked an old map when I got home… the lade used to run for quite a distance, powering a mill called Bird’s Mill, roughly where the viaduct of that name stands today (more on that later).

Old Mill Lade

Part of the lade, though, has been obliterated by construction of the M8, which crosses the river on a high concrete bridge. The area around this bridge always feels curiously desolate to me, I guess because it’s quite difficult to get to, and the quiet and stillness down below contrasts nicely with the traffic constantly thundering over the top. Thousands of vehicles a day pass overhead, but I wonder how many people have stood underneath since I was last here five years ago?

Under the M8

There’s only one bit of graffiti on the bridge (that I noticed, anyway), and it hasn’t changed in the five years since I was last here. I remember we found it strangely unnerving. There is a lot of rubbish either side of the bridge, but none at all actually underneath, indicating that it’s all been thrown down from the road above rather than dropped by anyone on foot.


Just beyond the M8 bridge is an older, slightly nicer looking bridge: the Bird’s Mill Viaduct. Until recently this carried a fairly minor single track branch line from the main Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway to Bathgate; but in late 2010, the previously-closed line was reopened from Bathgate to Airdrie, and the whole route was electrified and double tracked at the same time, creating a new line between Edinburgh and Glasgow, so frequent electric trains now pass over the viaduct.

Birds Mill Viaduct

It was annoyingly difficult to get decent photos of the viaduct due to all the surrounding trees. This was about the best I could do.

At this point I retraced my steps back to the car, not wanting to overdo things. As I picked my way slowly up a slightly precarious slope, with the river quite a way down a steep bank to my left, it struck me that this walk is probably actually more dangerous than some of the urban explores I’ve done (you’d have to try quite hard to come to any significant harm in Kelvindale Tunnel, for example), Yet if you tell people you’re going for a walk by the river they go “Ooh, that’s nice”, but if you tell them you’re going in an abandoned rail tunnel they look horrified!

I enjoyed my day out and I’m glad I decided to do this walk again. I didn’t get as good photos as I’d hoped, though; too many trees in the way of the bridges. This was the best shot I could get of the Almond Aqueduct from my path.

Almond Aqueduct

On the way home, I stopped off to do something I’d been meaning to do for a while: namely, take photos of the new Edinburgh Gateway station that’s currently under construction at Gogar. (My interest in railways is starting to get out of control now. Yesterday I spent a whole 20 minutes watching a YouTube documentary about the Intercity 125 on our new Chromecast – this one, if you’re interested).

Edinburgh Gateway Station

The works currently underway to build an underpass so that people can safely cross the road to get to the station made it nearly impossible for me to safely cross the road to get to the station.


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.