Covid restrictions, coping with depression, and so on

For the past 15 months, I’ve pretty much been fixated on the covid restrictions. I obsessively comb the news looking for any signs of when they might change or disappear. I panic over even the vaguest suggestion that they might be around for longer than another few months. I alternate between feeling “this isn’t so bad, I can deal with it a while longer”, feeling “this is intolerable, I can’t cope”, and just sheer disbelief that this can even be happening at all.

I don’t think this is good for me. I don’t like that I’ve become so self-centered. Or maybe I was always self-centered but it wasn’t so obvious until these weird circumstances brought it into sharp focus. There’s no point in pretending… ever since the start, the restrictions have occupied my thoughts and feelings far more than the virus itself has. Maybe that’s natural given that the restrictions have shaped almost every aspect of my life for over a year now, whilst I’ve been very little impacted by the virus. Hardly anyone I know has actually had covid, and most of them have had it pretty mildly. Intellectually I know that covid is (or at least was prior to the vaccination of the most at risk) a huge threat and has killed an almost unimaginable number of people, but emotionally? I just find it impossible to get my head around. I feel numb to it. It’s just numbers that get read out on the news. I’m disappointed in myself for feeling this way but there’s no point denying that I do.

I also don’t like that this has made me feel more distant from many of my friends and colleagues. Not just in the obvious sense that I haven’t seen very much of them for a while, but also in that I no longer feel the same understanding with them that I used to. They all seem so noble and so good about the whole thing, and I’m failing to live up to that. They make the best of things, using the time in lockdown to enjoy different aspects of life, adapting to it as best they can. I do try, but even so I seem to spend half my time simmering with resentment that my life is different now from how it was in 2019. Whenever there’s talk of restrictions being eased, most of my friends are concerned in case it’s too soon and it causes another wave of suffering, while I find myself quietly praying that they get eased anyway because I just want my old life back. I don’t know how I’m going to feel if and when we do get back to normal. I worry I may struggle to trust people who’ve whole-heartedly supported policies that I’ve found so hard to deal with, even if it was for the best of reasons, and I expect the feeling will be mutual.

I’ve even found myself sympathising more with people I normally disagree strongly with and previously felt I had little in common with, because often they’ve been the only ones not expressing full-throated support for the restrictions that I struggle with so much. I guess when you feel lost and like your life’s been completely turned upside down and you don’t understand half of your friends anymore, finding out that someone else thinks you should be allowed to have your old life back, or at least understands why you’re upset that it’s gone, suddenly feels very important and makes it surprisingly easy to overlook any other differences. Maybe they are just offering easy, comforting false hope… but when that’s the only hope that seems to be on offer, it’s very tempting to cling to it anyway.

In My Defence…

Before I go any further, I feel like I should say a few words in my own defence here. What I’ve written above probably makes me sound like I’m just whining childishly about minor inconveniences and not making any effort to see the bigger picture, but I don’t think that’s entirely a fair assessment.

First of all, much as I dislike them, I have reluctantly supported the restrictions up til now. I don’t think the government had any choice but to bring them in. The alternative would have been catastrophic. I’ve complied with them about as well as I think most people have, probably better than most during the first lockdown. But I am conflicted. I also hate what those same restrictions have done to my life and to other people’s, and sometimes I find that hatred too strong to brush aside, much as I feel I should be able to.

Secondly, I have a history of mental health problems that I feel has made all this particularly difficult. I suffered pretty badly from depression for the first 15 or so years of my adult life, and only really started to get better and enjoy life again during the period from around 2013 to 2019. During that time I built a life that wasn’t perfect, but it worked for me far better than anything I’d had before. It contained a balance of work, play, family, friends, and so on. I found that the crucial element, the thing that really relieved the depression in a way nothing else could, was to always have some fun activities lined up to look forward to, things that I felt genuinely excited and passionate about.

Then covid came along, and smashed it all into a million pieces. Literally all of the “fun activities” I’d carefully built up over the years were banned overnight. Most of them haven’t been allowed at all since March 2020, and some still won’t be allowed even when Scotland moves down to Level 0. So when people say stuff like “Oh, it’s not such a big deal, it’s really just large events and foreign travel that’s not allowed now”, it makes me very angry. For me it is a big deal, because although stuff like that might not be a big part of life to most people (certainly not most people of my age), I was relying on it to keep me out of the soul destroying depression that blighted most of my adult life. And if anyone suggests I need to find alternative ways to do that, I just want to dig my heels in and tell them to fuck off. I’ve done all this once already. It was a hell of a struggle, it took years and years, but I did it. Why should I accept my hard won progress being taken away against my will? Why should I have to start from square one again?

Thirdly, I lost my dad towards the end of last year (to cancer, not to covid). I think I’m entitled to feel at least a little aggrieved that during the last 8 months of his life I hardly got to see him, he couldn’t go out except to hospital, and he didn’t see his only grandchild at all, thanks to the restrictions. This is the problem with platitudes like “Oh, it doesn’t matter that you can’t do stuff now, because you can just do it next year instead”. Sometimes there is no next year.

What now?

Lately, though, something else has been on my mind. I’ve been so preoccupied with wanting rid of the restrictions that I’ve barely thought about what’s going to happen, what life will be like, if they finally do go.

For a while it just felt as if that was never going to happen. But it’s starting to feel a bit more likely now. Israel has just lifted the last of their covid restrictions, as have some US states. We know for sure now that getting back to normal (the proper old normal, none of this “new normal” pish) through vaccination is feasible. Barring some major unforeseen setback, it’s likely only a matter of time now until Scotland follows suit. But what then?

I worry that I’ve become too invested in the end of restrictions without really thinking about what life will actually be like on the other side. Sure, it’ll be fantastic to get back to everything that I’ve missed… but if I’m brutally honest, is that really all I need? Is that really what I should be focusing on to the exclusion of all else? I’m in danger of looking back at 2019 through rose coloured spectacles and forgetting that actually, life was far from perfect even then. The way I’ve reacted to the restrictions has worried me. The stuff I’m still missing now (big events, adventurous holidays, nights out and so on) should be the icing on the cake, but it probably shouldn’t be as essential as it is to me. I shouldn’t be feeling as if I can’t live without it, to the point where I find myself more concerned with getting it back than I am about whether people are safe from a deadly virus. I should be able to be content with the basics, at least for a while… but I’m not, and I don’t know how to be.

Fear Of Missing Out (or in my case “Fear Of Already Having Missed Out”

I saw this fantastic article posted on a friend’s Facebook. I read it thinking that it might relate to my own experiences, and I wasn’t wrong.

I’ve suffered from the “fear of missing out” (or in my case maybe more accurately the “fear of having already missed out”) for most of my adult life. But before I delve into that, here’s a bit of background. Not because I want to moan about how hard my life’s been or elicit sympathy, just because what I want to say will make a lot more sense with that background.

You see, in my case the “fear of missing out” wasn’t entirely groundless. I did miss out on a lot of stuff in my late teens and early 20s, a time of life when everyone’s supposed to be out exploring the world, bonding with their peers and having amazing experiences. For me it wasn’t like that at all, in fact it was the lowest point of my life so far. By the time I left school and went to university, years of bullying (plus some other more complicated stuff that I won’t go into in this post) had left me with anxiety and depression that was almost crippling.

Throughout my entire time at university I had no close friends, no love life, in fact hardly any social life at all (at least to begin with). I would go in for my classes but afterwards I would come straight home to my bedroom in my parents’ house, certain that there was something terribly wrong with me but with no idea how to fix it, or even what it really was.

Thankfully, things did start to get gradually better. As I got more used to being around people, my social anxiety subsided slightly. I still wasn’t really up to forming meaningful relationships, but at least I got better at dealing with everyday situations without wanting to run away and hide. The depression was alleviated slightly as well, helped a bit by therapy and a bit more by experiencing some major successes in my life (namely getting my first job and passing my driving test).

I started to socialise with my new colleagues and soon I was going for nights out reasonably often and coping with them a lot better than I used to. I tried out various social groups outside work as well, finding some that suited me quite well. Eventually I finally got to the point where I started to form meaningful relationships, and I was also living on my own by that time.

At that point you might think that my problems were nearly solved. After all, I had overcome the depression and anxiety to the extent that I was able to live independently, work, socialise and have relationships. I was more or less functional in every major area of life. But my stupid dysfunctional brain had other ideas.

It really started when my first relationship ended very badly. Of course, there’s nothing particularly unusual about that; I think most people’s first relationships end quite badly. Relationships are actually quite hard work and not all as fun and glamourous as they’re made out to be. The problem was how I handled it. Instead of picking myself up, shrugging and moving on with my life, I became fixated on the idea that this had happened because I’d left it too late: I’d missed out on the experiences that most people had in their teens that taught them how to deal with relationships, and as a result I would never be able to have a proper, healthy relationship.

It wasn’t just in the field of relationships, either. I found myself obsessing over how I’d missed out on all the amazing social experiences most people have at high school and university, and I thoroughly convinced myself that nothing I could possibly do in the future would ever live up to that. Of course, even if that had actually been true, the rational response would have been to cut my losses, stop fixating on it, move on from it and get on with making the rest of my life as good as it could be, regardless of whether it was going to live up to what I’d previously missed out on or not. But I found myself unable to stop thinking about those lost years.

Thoughts like that are pretty debilitating. Although I continued to attempt to socialise in the present (after all, what else could I do?), constantly comparing it to an imagined past that I should have had was a pretty good way to kill any enjoyment I might otherwise have experienced, not to mention putting up a barrier that stopped me from really getting close to anyone. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about going out for drinks when all you can think about is all those amazing wild nights that everyone else was having as a student, and about how boring and tame your night is going to be compared to those. And it’s hard to feel a connection to anyone when you’ve written yourself off as damaged goods due to not having had the proper formative experiences that everyone else has.

I think a large part of the problem is that a lot of this stuff is so over-hyped in the media that the reality is almost certain to fall short. The ideas that (for example) teenagers and students are constantly bonding with each other and having wild parties, or that sex is unimaginably, mind-blowingly amazing are constantly rammed down our throats these days. So when various “firsts” for me (first time in a nightclub, first time having sex) left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed and thinking “is that it then?”, it was easy to assume that I must have somehow done them “wrong”. And instead of thinking that maybe those experiences just weren’t the be-all and end-all like I’d been led to believe, I convinced myself that they would have been if only I’d done them at the right age. They were only disappointing because I’d left them “too late”.

(Don’t get me wrong, I like going for nights out and I like having sex. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, and I’m not saying they aren’t enjoyable. It’s just that they’d both been built up to such ridiculous levels in my head that I was expecting them to be completely off the scale compared to everything else I’d experienced before. And they just weren’t).

As I became more and more frustrated with this feeling of having missed out, I started to go out of my way to try and have experiences more like the ones I was convinced I’d missed out on. I even contemplated a really major life change that I thought might help, though with hindsight I don’t think it would have and it’s probably for the best that I didn’t go through with it.

Looking back now, though, what interests me most is the complete lack of consideration I gave to whether I actually wanted those experiences for themselves or not… were they things that were important to me, things I thought I would get a lot of enjoyment from? Not really, no. They were really just things I wanted to tick off a list so that I wouldn’t have to feel as if I’d missed out on them anymore. To paraphrase Mark Manson’s article, I wasn’t motivated by the joy of experiencing something great. I was motivated by the fear of not experiencing something great.

If I’m brutally honest with myself, the idea of being a stereotypical young person who’s constantly out drinking and sleeping around didn’t really appeal to me when I actually was a teenager, which is probably why I didn’t make very much effort to live that lifestyle at the time. At that age I was actually happier working on my computing projects, going out for walks and having uneventful nights in with my handful of friends. Sure, I liked the idea of having a relationship at some point, but I wasn’t consumed by the idea and was happy enough on my own for the moment. It was only afterwards when I started to panic about having missed things that Everyone Else seemed to have done and bonded over that I started to obsess over it. And in fact, I started to feel much better as soon as I started to ask myself what I really wanted out of life, and realised that I wasn’t so far away from it after all.

Realistically, I doubt I’m the only one who didn’t do all that stuff at the “normal” age. In fact I know I’m not from various conversations over the years. More than that, everyone’s lives are different: there isn’t some gold standard Young Person Experience where you work your way through everything in some prescribed order, ticking off each life lesson at exactly the right stage in your development and moving cleanly onto the next one. That’s one of the reasons why it was so futile for me to fixate on trying to recapture this lost experience. I was chasing after something that simply doesn’t exist, something that never existed except in my own imagination.

If my life had panned out differently, maybe I would have ticked off some of those things at an earlier age, maybe closer to the average age. But I’d bet my bottom dollar that the main difference wouldn’t have been that they were materially better at that age; it would just have been that I would have learned sooner that those experiences rarely live up to the hype surrounding them.

Ultimately, if I missed out on anything, it wasn’t getting laid in Freshers Week and going out clubbing three times a week for the duration of my course. It was living in the moment and enjoying things as they come. And I’m starting to see that that can only be fixed by getting away from the whole mindset of having “missed out”.

My take on “Codes of Conduct” for software projects

The news that the Linux kernel development project has adopted a new code of conduct has prompted a lot of comment. As someone who’s been a software developer for all my working life and who’s written about vaguely related stuff before, I thought I would stick my oar in as well, at least to address what I think are some widespread misconceptions.

First off, I’ll say a bit about myself and my own experience. I’ve been a software professional for 16 years. During that time I seem to have impressed a lot of the people I’ve worked with. I have more than once “rescued” projects that were previously thought to be doomed and turned them into success stories. Collaborators who have worked with me in the past have frequently requested to work with me specifically when they approach my organisation for further consultancy. Last year I was promoted to a fairly senior technical position, and also last year I did my first paid freelance project, receiving glowing praise from the client for the way I handled it.

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m normally a pretty modest person and believe me, talking about myself in those terms doesn’t come easily. I’m saying it because it’s going to be relevant to what I say next.

I’m also, by pretty much any definition, a snowflake. (That’s the term these days, isn’t it?). I don’t like confrontation and I tend to avoid it as much as I can. I find it hurtful being on the receiving end of harsh words or blunt criticism and I also tend to avoid situations where this is likely to happen. When it does happen I find I need to retreat and lick my wounds for a while before I feel ready to face the world again.

I didn’t choose to be this way, and if I’d been given the choice I wouldn’t have chosen it, because to be honest it’s pretty damned inconvenient. But it’s the way I am, the way I’ve always been for as long as I can remember. (Again, this may not seem relevant yet, but trust me, I’m bringing it up for a reason).

It’s maybe not surprising, then, that I’m broadly supportive of any initiative that tries to make software development a friendlier place. I don’t follow Linux kernel development closely enough to have a strong opinion on it, but some open source communities certainly have acquired reputations for being quite harsh and unpleasant working environments. This probably is a factor in my choosing not to contribute to them – although I have contributed a bit to open source in the past, these days if I want to code for fun I prefer to just tinker with my own solo projects and avoid all that potential drama and discomfort.

Not everyone agrees, of course, and sites like Slashdot are awash with comments about how this is a disaster, how it’s going to destroy software quality, and how it’s the beginning of the end of Linux now that the Social Justice Warriors have started to take over. I’m not going to attempt to address every point made, but I would like to pick up on a few common themes that jumped out at me from reading people’s reactions.

Fear of harsh criticism makes people deliver

The main justification put forward for keeping the status quo seems to be that people will up their game and produce better code if they’re afraid of being flamed or ridiculed. I don’t believe this works in practice, at least not for everyone.

I remember years ago when I was learning to drive, my first instructor started acting increasingly like a bully. When I made mistakes (as everyone does when they’re learning something new), he would shout at me, swear at me and taunt me by bringing up mistakes I’d made weeks before. But far from spurring me on to improve my driving, this just wound me up and made me stressed and flustered, causing me to make even more mistakes, in turn causing him to throw more abuse my way, and so on. It got so bad that I started to dread my driving lessons and when I was out in the car with him I lost all confidence and became terrified of making even the tiniest mistake.

After a few weeks I got fed up with this so I phoned the driving school and told them I wanted a different instructor, someone who would build up my confidence rather than destroy it. They assigned me to a great instructor, an experienced and patient older man who I got on very well with, and the contrast was dramatic. My driving improved straight away and I started to actually look forward to my lessons. Within a few weeks I was ready to take my test, which I passed on the first attempt. I always remember this experience when I hear someone express the opinion that abuse will make people perform better.

Of course, everyone responds differently to these situations. I knew someone who said he was glad his driving instructor shouted at him because, after all, it was potentially a life-or-death situation and this would help him to take it seriously. So I’m not saying everyone’s experience will be the same as mine, just pointing out that not everyone responds positively under that sort of pressure.

Furthermore, someone who goes to pieces in the face of abuse might still be perfectly capable in other circumstances. I was able to drive just fine once I got away from that first instructor, and since then I’ve driven all over the country, driven minibuses and towed caravans without incident.

People will use the code of conduct to blow grievances out of all proportion and seek attention

Personally, as someone who hates conflict and hates being the centre of attention, I can’t imagine anything I’d be less likely to do than go out of my way to draw attention and publicity to myself. If anything I think I’d more likely be far too reticent about seeking help if someone was violating a code of conduct, and I imagine it would be the same for most of the people who would actually benefit the most from the code.

That’s not to say everyone would be the same, of course. There might well be a vocal minority who would act in this way, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to improve things for people who genuinely do need it. In any case, whether a given behaviour really constitutes gratuitous “attention seeking” or whether it’s out of proportion is very much a subjective judgement.

Emotionally fragile people have nothing to offer anyway

I hope my description above of my own working life has shown that we do have something to offer. I think this belief is due to confusion between “people who are good at software development” and “people who are good at being loud and obnoxious”. If you create a working environment so toxic that 70% of people can’t cope with it and leave, that doesn’t mean you’ve retained the 30% best developers, it means you’ve retained the 30% of people best equipped to thrive in an abusive environment. I see no reason to think there’s going to be much correlation there.

I think a similar argument can be made about the contentious “safe spaces” I’ve written about before. Many of their opponents argue that it’s healthier to be exposed to a diverse range of different points of view rather than living in a bubble. I completely agree, but I disagree about how best to achieve that. A complete free-for-all isn’t necessarily a reliable way to foster open debate – you can easily end up with a situation where the loudest, most abrasive people come to dominate and everyone else is reluctant to express a contrary opinion for fear of being abused and ridiculed. If you genuinely want (and I’m not convinced many of the detractors actually do want this) to hear as wide range a of opinions as possible, you need an environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves.

Maybe if there were unlimited good software developers in the world you could make a case for only working with the emotionally hardy ones and avoiding the possible difficulties of dealing with us “snowflakes”. But there aren’t. In most places developers are highly in demand, so it makes no sense to dismiss people who might actually be able to make a valuable contribution.

It’s not up to us to accommodate your emotional frailties, it’s up to you to get over them

Of all the views expressed in these discussions, I think this is the one that irks me the most. It implies that anyone who reacts badly to harsh words and insults could easily “get over it” if they chose to do so, and that just doesn’t tally with my experience at all.

I’ve spent many decades trying to “get over” the problems I’ve had. I’ve spent a five figure sum of money on therapy. I’ve read more self help books than I care to remember and filled notebooks cover-to-cover with the exercises from them. I’ve forced myself into numerous situations that terrified me in the hope that they would be good for me. I’ve practised mindfulness, attended support groups, taken medication, taken up exercise, talked things over with friends and family, spent long hours in painful introspection. You name it, I’ve probably tried it.

And you know what? I’m a lot better than I was. At the start of the process I could barely even hold a conversation with someone unless I knew them well, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to hold down a job. Now I function reasonably well most days, I do pretty well at work and I have a decent social life as well. But despite all this progress, I’m still pretty emotionally sensitive, and I still don’t cope well with insults and intimidation. Maybe I’ll get even better in the future (I certainly hope to and intend to), but I suspect I will always find that kind of situation unpleasant enough to want to avoid it when possible, even if I no longer find it as debilitating as I once did.

So it makes me pretty angry when people who don’t even know me assume that, because I still get upset more easily than most, I obviously just haven’t tried hard enough. It’s noticable that these people almost never mention how you should “get over it”. Some of them seem to just assume that if you keep putting yourself in the situation that upsets you then you’ll eventually adjust and be OK with it, but this has never worked particularly well for me – as with the driving lessons example I gave above, it typically just leads to me feeling more stressed and harassed.

Basically, I think this one is an example of the just-world fallacy. It’s uncomfortable to realise that some people might struggle with certain situations through no fault of their own and that there might not be any easy solution open to them. It raises all kinds of awkward questions about whether we should be making adjustments to help them and so on, not to mention the fear of “maybe this could happen to me too some day”. It’s much neater to pretend that those people must have done something to deserve their problems, or at the very least that they must be “choosing” to forego a perfectly good solution.

Whilst I do have a tiny bit of sympathy for some of the objections to the way things are going (I wouldn’t personally relish software development becoming yet another field where social skills and confidence are valued over actual technical ability, for example), overall I find it really hard to take most of the objectors seriously. They moan and whinge about what a disaster it would be to have to treat others with basic civility, then go on to accuse the other side of being over-sensitive and blowing things out of proportion. They heap disdain on people for having problems they never asked for and almost certainly don’t want, but fail to put forward any useful suggestions on how to deal with those problems.

I’m struggling this year

In my last post I talked about how I thought it should be OK to share more about your mental health issues on social media and that there should be less stigma attached to it. I’m starting to realise, though, that I haven’t really been practising what I preached, and maybe it would help if I did.

The truth is that so far, I’m not doing so well this year. Over the course of my adult life I’ve had a lot of years (the large majority in fact) in which I haven’t done well in this respect, but 2018 is a bit different in that it’s come after a run of comparatively good years. Up until about Christmas last year I really thought I was starting to get this under control, but now I don’t know anymore.

(I should preface this entry by saying that I’m not about to do anything daft and irreversible, so please don’t worry about that. I’ve been through far worse than this for far longer in the past and I’m still here, so I doubt this latest down period is going to finish me off).

I’m not entirely sure what has made the depression start to come back, though I have a few ideas of what might have contributed. Being ill three times already this year certainly hasn’t helped; I feel like I’ve spent half of January and February either suffering from the cold or flu, or trying to recover and catch up on everything, and by the time the third virus hit I was getting seriously fed up with living that way. I also feel I haven’t been doing enough in the way of socialising or fun stuff lately, which usually doesn’t help either.

But in truth, while those things obviously haven’t helped, I think the problems run much deeper. I’m starting to question whether the progress I thought I’d made since about 2012 is really progress, or at the very least whether it might be built on much shakier foundations than I thought.

You see, the only thing that was ever really effective in making my depression go away was to find activities that excited me and do as much of them as possible. These included taking up Scottish Country Dancing, going hostelling in Europe and, probably most of all, urban exploration (which for a time was such a large part of my life that I made a second blog completely dedicated to it). At the time, doing all this stuff felt amazing and I didn’t waste much time worrying that it might not be the right approach to solving my psychological problems. For the first time since 1997 I wasn’t feeling dragged down by depression at every turn, and that was more than good enough.

The best antidepressant I’ve found so far

The trouble with using excitement to combat depression, though, is that for it to keep working, you need to keep on doing exciting things, and that’s not always easy. Life intervenes and the time, energy and money required are not always plentiful. More than that, no matter how amazing any activity seems at first, the novelty just tends to wear off a bit after a while. Take the urban exploration, for example. The places I loved exploring the most were the disused urban tunnels… but there really aren’t that many of them in Scotland. Once you’ve explored Scotland Street, Botanic Gardens and a handful of others, you’re left with ones that are either far too difficult or risky to get into, are a huge anti-climax compared to what you’ve already explored, or both.

I’m now wondering whether all I really did for the last few years was try to outrun my real problems, but now they’re catching up with me and I don’t think I’ve got the strength to run any further. “What real problems?” you might ask, and that’s understandable. After all, I’ve got a good job, a happy marriage and a nice house, and I haven’t suffered horrific abuse on a par with what some people go through. What right do I have to feel so depressed?

Well, the biggest problem is a constant feeling of being out of place, disconnected, and different from other people. It’s bothered me pretty much my whole adult life, other than fading into the background a bit during the last few good years. I experience it with almost everyone (I think I can literally count the exceptions on one hand), almost all the time, and it can get intense enough to make me just not want to be around people anymore. And I really don’t have a clue what to do about it 🙁 .

Over the years I’ve already exhausted the obvious potential solutions. Most people seem to think (and I used to as well) that if I just pushed myself to be sociable despite my discomfort, I would then realise that actually there’s no reason for me to feel out of place and the feeling would go away. But unfortunately it doesn’t, not even when I spend quite a lot of time around people and get used to them.

The worst thing about this is that it becomes a sort of vicious circle. The more I keep myself apart from other people, the more I don’t just feel different from them, but actually am different. For example, whenever any group of people around my age socialise together, it seems to be only a matter of time before the conversation turns to reminiscing about the great times they had at uni or in their teens. I don’t have any great times from that part of my life to reminisce about (the depression and social awkwardness was at its worst back then) so it makes me feel utterly alienated and depressed. So then I avoid that group, I miss out on yet more life experiences, and I feel even more out of place in the next group.

(Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with them reminiscing about that stuff. It’s obviously enjoyable for them and I’m certainly not going to ask anyone to stop it for my benefit. I’m just observing that it inevitably puts up a barrier between me and everyone else, one that I haven’t yet found a way to get past).

I suppose, since the simple and practical solution failed, all that’s left is to dive into the murky waters of my emotional mind and try to work out what the hell’s gone wrong down there. I have tried this in the past (in fact I once calculated roughly how much I must have spent on private therapy sessions over the course of my life, and it was quite jaw-dropping), but I think for various reasons I shied away from doing it properly. There are certain upsetting facts about my life, and more generally about how the world works, that I didn’t feel ready to fully accept, but I probably need to accept them if I’m ever going to conquer this.

Do I feel ready now? Frankly, no, and I strongly doubt I ever will. But maybe realising that’s what I need to do is the first step.

Thanks for reading.

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.

30961273665_5e3aad3c7c_k

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.

DSC_6428

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.