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Locus of Evaluation: who makes your decisions?

There is a spectrum when it comes to decision making:  at one end is using an internal locus of evaluation and at the other is using an external one.  A person lucky enough to have an internal locus of evaluation, my oldest daughter, for example, makes decisions by consulting herself.  She always has!  I joke that she raised me and not the other way around, except that it isn’t a joke.  When Abi was 6, she decided that animal consumption was immoral and cruel, and in my maternal ‘wisdom’, informed by mainstream thought about meat, protein and growing children, I persuaded and cajoled her to continue.  Sorry, Abi!  But by the time she was 9, she pointblank refused, and I realised that she really was going to exist on potatoes, pasta, vegetables, baked beans and toast unless I intervened.  So I joined her in the meatless way of life but persuaded her to continue eating fish and dairy and eggs, for protein and Omega 3.

Abi continued to consult herself on these matters, doing research and ordering informative leaflets from a range of animal welfare organisations, and made it increasingly clear that she considered fish eating also immoral and bad for the planet, as well as dairy and eggs.  She presented me with information that corroborated her internal suspicions, and she educated me about the reality of the egg industry (which involves shredding up male chicks) and the dairy industry (which involves shipping unwanted males off for veal or just shooting them in the head at birth or a few weeks old).  By the time she was 12 we were vegan.  I couldn’t unknow the facts that she had presented me, and we have been vegan ever since – her more successfully than me as I have had the occasional unvegan day. 

My point is this: up to the age of 30 something, I had believed all the nutritional advice that I’d been taught, never questioned it, did the same as everybody else and didn’t question the status quo.  Having a prophet in the family – somebody who is prepared to stand on the hill and speak truth loudly and clearly – somebody who is prepared to question the status quo and ask:  ‘Is this right?  Does this sit right with who I am on the inside?’ isn’t always convenient but I am deeply grateful for her.  She has brought me to a more ethical life and one that is better for the planet.  Without her, I would undoubtedly not have made those choices all those years ago.  She has also brought most of the family to her way of thinking and made a significant difference to our carbon footprint as a result.  All because she has an internal locus of evaluation.

I have always had a largely external locus of evaluation.  This isn’t to say that I haven’t followed the light of inner knowledge, because I have.  I managed to get a degree, train as a teacher, leave a bad relationship and become a better partner as a result of that, learn as a parent and choose a career path that suits me and my needs.  But there’s still a hell of a lot of worry about what people think of me.  I ask my husband:  ‘Do YOU think this is OK?  Was that BAD?  Should I have said that?  Do you think I upset him/her?’  I sometimes spend bloody hours after a conversation analysing what I said or didn’t say, and worry that the person will think less of me or not want to see me again, regardless of how much or how little of a role they actually play in my life.  I also spent years of life hyper focused on my appearance, which was always, always about how others perceived me because I honestly do not care how I look to myself in the mirror.  I really don’t.    I was always looking at myself through the lens of imaginary other people.

When we have this external locus of evaluation, we become performers for the benefit of others.  We have performative sex instead of loving fun together with our partners.  When we light candles so our partners won’t see the wobbly bits, who are we in this except bodies to be looked at?  A person with an internal locus of evaluation would ask:  ‘How does this feel?  What do I want to do right now in this moment?’  Not, ‘What do I look like?’

And when it comes to food and eating, this has to be the biggest personal one for me.  If we’re counting calories, following a plan, using a food log, tracking fat, macros or carbs, doing the 5/2, intermittent fasting or any other form of rule based eating, what has happened to our inner knowledge?  Our awareness of who we even are?  We were born with an instinct to eat until we were satisfied and then stop and rest and then eat again until satisfied.  As children, we chose an apple sometimes and a piece of cake at other times.  I used to give my kids a plate that they called a picnic, with bits of sandwich, cubes of cheese, little chocolate buttons, a few crisps, some raisins, some slices of apple and a few iced gems.  Sometimes they didn’t even touch the chocolate buttons!  They were using their internal locuses of evaluation – before being whipped into obedience by external expectations about their bodies, their choices and their autonomy.

Our gendered behaviours and expectations are also external.  I didn’t care about being slim, toned and sexy when I was charging around the park like a feral chimpanzee aged 10.  I was fit, strong, happy and full of energy, free of all that expectation.  That all came later and I forgot my identity in a confusing whirlwind of trying to be whatever a girl was supposed to be back in the 80s.  I recall that having a ‘good body’ was a part of that but heaven forbid actually enjoying said body because we weren’t supposed to be a ‘slag’ and I don’t think much of that has changed, sadly, for our teenage girls today.

I just want to be free of all of it now.  I want to be able to look inside and ask myself: ‘What do I want to eat?  How much of it do I want?’  I want to go out without any makeup and not give a crap what anyone else thinks of my face.  It’s a 51 year old face: sometimes its tired and sometimes its pale, and nobody suggests that my husband hide his eye bags or spend time making himself more agreeable for others to look at and I’m damned if I’m going to suggest that to myself.  I have no issue with people wearing makeup, high heels, glamorous styles, nail varnish and fake eyelashes.  I have no issue with people having botox, face lifts, breast implants, tummy tucks or acrylic nails.  Your body, your choice.  Do it if it makes you happy and makes you feel good.  Do it for yourself.  Do it because it makes your heart smile.  Don’t do it for anybody else or for some societal expectations about how a person ‘should look’.

So, where is your locus of evaluation?  Most people are going to consult others and care somewhat about their opinions.  None of us live in a vacuum.  We do need to consider our loved ones and perhaps our colleagues.  Using deodorant and refraining from unlawful behaviour are pretty useful external expectations that help us all.  But for most of us there is a vast amount of material going on in our minds that we really could shed.  In the words of Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls:  ‘Lose your mind and come to your senses’. 

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Sergeant Shame’s Christmas Letter

12th December, 2021

Dear Sergeant Shame,

I am writing with regard to your role in my life about food, exercise, weight control and body image.  This will take a while to read, so sit down, make a coffee, shed your mind of prejudice and try to focus.  If you are not interested in learning through reading, it doesn’t matter.  Over the next few weeks, you will realise that your role has changed, because I will keep reminding you until you learn.

First, I would like to thank you for all of your incredibly hard work.  You have kept me safe in so many ways.  Because of the little guilt trips you put me on regularly, I am a good daughter, I remember to send cards and messages to people I care about, I am a good mum and a reliable worker.  I have positive relationships in my life and everybody I know would describe me as a person with a good heart, even if they don’t personally like me.  For this I am grateful to you.  You’ve done a good job of keeping me safe, secure and firmly rooted in social connection within this society.  I know how to behave.  I can hold a knife and fork.  I even know which soup spoon to use, because I’ve observed others and you have reminded me to follow the lead of those in the know.  I’m not sure about cheek kissing and general etiquette among the more refined in society, but you have tried to help me to fit in, so thank you.

You have accepted a lesser role in many areas of my life and I hope you feel more relaxed because of that.  For example, you stopped making me feel ashamed about not believing the Bible and not being a fundamentalist Christian pretty much straight away once I pushed back and informed you that this wasn’t your place.  You did put a fear of Hell into me at a young age and you haven’t quite stopped doing that but you’re almost there.  I will be getting back to you on that at some point, but for now, it’s not important enough to worry about.  It’s not your fault; you were only going on what you heard at church and at home.  I know you were trying to keep me safe. 

What is of crucial importance now is your role in my life about food, exercise, weight control and body image, which you started to take over when I was 13.  I went on holiday to Eastbourne and a lad there fancied me.  The excitement of being desired for the first time made my stomach go funny and I could barely eat all week, so I inadvertently lost weight and got visibly thinner.  On my return from that holiday, everybody and I mean everybody (!) praised me lavishly for my slimness.  ‘Wow!  You look amazing!’ people said.  ‘You are the slim one in the family!’ said my Auntie.  And there you were, Serge, taking it all in.  You witnessed how loved I felt, how accepted I was and how this slimness was a cherished status and a prize to be attained.

I didn’t know any better.  I was thirteen and my Mum gave me ‘The Greatest Guide to Calories’ to help me continue my weight loss journey.  She had struggled with weight cycling all of her life, too, and she was ruled by her own Sergeant Shame, a relentless witch who had her believing all sorts of tripe.  But neither she nor I knew any better.  Before I knew it, I was eating a ridiculously small number of calories every day and became very slim indeed.  I was driven by you.  ‘You must get a flat stomach’.  ‘Imagine how much people will love you if you are tiny’.  ‘Don’t even think about cake’.  ‘Eat even less and you will get even smaller’. 

I became a shadow of my former self.  I struggled to walk upstairs at school.  My legs were weak.  I thought about food all day.  I fantasized about big, sugary, fatty snacks.  And, at weekends, I began to binge them, which kicked you into overdrive.  ‘No!’ you screamed.  ‘You are pathetic!  You are so weak!’  As I slowly but surely began to gain the weight back, you shamed me relentlessly.  I didn’t know that the voice was yours, Serge.  I thought it was my own.  ‘I am disgusting’, I said to myself.  ‘I hate my legs.  I hate my thighs.  I hate my stomach.  I am a shameful thing’.  I thought of nothing else. 

I know you were trying to help me.  Up until that weight loss, I had felt a nothing girl.  Nothing special.  I knew my mum loved me.  I wasn’t entirely sure that my dad did – after all, he spent quite a bit of my childhood smacking me very hard – hard enough to leave bruises on my skin and in my mind.  I thought he probably did love me in some unusual way, but it didn’t feel like love.  I was clever at school but in the assemblies that was not worth a bean.  Women couldn’t speak, or preach, or do anything other than wear a head covering and learn in silence.  I wanted to be a teacher one day and I worked hard at school, but the lure of being slim and staying that way became more important, because it was the only thing that seemed to give me the status and attention that I needed.  I know why you took over in the way you did.  I get it. 

Since then, you’ve stayed in charge with food and body matters.  Through my life, as I escaped the religion and fought off the false guilt, as I got my first class honours degree and became a teacher, as I studied for a masters and took on different work responsibilities, as I made relationship choices that affirmed my developing self, as I learned and grew and thrived, you stayed on guard in this aspect of my life: restless, dominant and hypervigilant.

Because of you, I have swung between food control and food freedom but never escaped your drills and sayings.  I have heard them every waking minute of every day.  When I have obeyed you for years on end through tracking and exercising and limiting and fencing in, you have whispered in my ear: ‘you are OK now but don’t get complacent’.  ‘You are acceptable like this but careful with that cake’.  ‘You’ve eaten too much.  You’d best go for a long run tomorrow’.  ‘Oh, you can’t run?  You can go to the gym then or bloody well eat less’.  Once again, I heard that voice as my own. 

When I had years of freedom with food, which I did in my teens and again in my forties, I generally gained weight and your whispers became a shout, reminding me that I didn’t look as good, that my legs were too big and my stomach stuck out and I had cellulite and chubby arms and my boobs were embarrassing.  So it wasn’t really freedom because there you were, with your loudspeaker turned up, marching along the fence line, hopping over it and in my face, yelling, in my way, blocking me.   Serge, you have ruined my experience of food and my body.  You have taken away the pleasure that food and my body should have given me.  You made me want to hide, and shrink, and turn off the light, and cover my stomach, and apologise for my womanliness. 

When Covid struck, I returned to obedience.  It seemed inevitable.  I lost weight, trained for marathons, once again received lavish praise for my strong, toned, slim appearance, and achieved the shiny status of a smaller body.  How tragic is it that, as women, we are praised for taking up less space?  Amid fear, anxiety, panic, shouting news stories, the Coronavirus Daily Update, doom and gloom, the decimation of the NHS and the shock of racist uprising, I returned to the comfort and safety of your rules.  I gave in to the lure of tracking and counting and working out and shrinking.  But I had read the books, listened to the podcasts, learned the possibility of freedom and lost the complete faith that I once had in you.  The compliance was an inconvenience and a chore.  I wanted out. I reluctantly complied for the duration of the pandemic and then I started my counselling course.  I learned about the mind and applied the psychology that I learned.  I realised what was happening here.  Your cover was blown and I cannot unlearn what I learned. 

Serge, it’s over now.  Your time is up.  I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Imagine that the rest of this letter is being shouted through your very own megaphone.  I am not angry at you.  But you’ve done your job and you need to hear this.

Sergeant Shame, there is no room for you in my decisions about food or the way that I see my body.  There is no morality in food.  It is just food.  There is no superiority when it comes to doughnuts and lettuce.  If I ate doughnuts all day I would be sick.  If I ate lettuce all day I would starve.  I need them both.  A varied and satisfying diet is what I need.  It’s what we all need.  A diet that is boring results in rebellion.  Rebellion leads to shame.  And you are no longer welcome.   

I have obeyed you for long long long enough.  I obeyed you at 13 and I obeyed you at 51.  When I disobeyed you I suffered the whiplash of your disapproval.  But I am no longer living my life according to your strictures.  Remember something.  I am your superior.  I am YOUR boss.  You are not mine. 

And as your boss, Serge, your higher ranking officer, I’m here to give you a few facts about food, body image and weight.  Ready?

  1.  Eating food that is tasty is better for digestion, enjoyment and satiety.  For example, putting butter (in my case vegan) on my vegetables, makes them easier to digest.
  2. Eating a wide range of food that I enjoy is healthy. 
  3. Shame about my body makes my brain hurt and it’s bad for my health.
  4. Societal fatphobia is a curse that should be kicked to the furthest depths of all darkness.
  5. Weight gain is not a moral failing.
  6. I have the right to be fat and stay fat.  And so does everybody else.
  7. I don’t owe society a slim body.  I’m not here to be admired.
  8. If I have to count every calorie and log every bit of exercise that I do in order to maintain a slim figure, then I am not meant to be this slim.
  9. Even if weight gain is bad for the health – even if that is true – even if (which is dubious) – so is a life of obsession, shame and guilt around food and body.
  10. I don’t owe anybody my health, anyway.  Health isn’t a moral obligation, so go deal with that.

Finally, Serge, I am here to tell you that I’m going to finish my counsellor training, and become an eating disorder therapist, inspired by the likes of Jennifer Rollin, Christy Harrison, Laura Thomas, Megan Jayne Crabbe, Lindo Bacon and Virgie Tovar.  I am going to educate myself about how societal fatphobia is rooted in racism, sexism and immense privilege.  I will learn about how eating disorders affect those affected by food scarcity, how race can play a part in body shame and how my own privileges impact my work with others. 

In order to do this work, I will take back my territory, the territory that I never occupied but is mine by the rights conferred upon me by my humanity, and I will take personal responsibility to tread each step of my ongoing relationship with food and my body.  There will be no rules.  Rules have no place in this territory.  There will be only love.  Each choice will be made with respect for myself and love for my inner child – who needs to be taken care of and has been taken care of in every way except for this one.  Each choice will be made according to the context that I am in.  Sometimes I will eat too little and sometimes I will eat too much.  Sometimes I will eat emotionally and sometimes I will eat out of boredom.  But you are not welcome in any of it, because I am going to be learning.  Like a little child at 51, I will be learning and will stagger and fall and pick myself up and remind you to back off and keep going, every day, without you and your stun gun and your whip.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your reign is over.  This happened on 7th December 2021, a day where I found myself metaphorically standing in bright sunlight in an open field with an exciting journey ahead and realised that this is my land to claim and it always has been.  I just didn’t know it.  You are demoted.  You may take a rest from all the whip brandishing, which must be exhausting anyway, and return to your vital function of presenting me with guilt about sending cards, cleaning the bathrooms and calling my mum. 

Thanks again, Sergeant Shame.  Without you, I wouldn’t be here.  But without you in my food choices, where you have no place, I am finally, fully, gratefully and gloriously here. 

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My self, your self, our selves.

The fragmented beauty of the inner world.

The part of the mind that Freud described as ‘the ego’ can be described as ‘I’ – the part of the personality that we think of as ‘ourselves’ and that needs to arbitrate between our drives, passions and desires and the internalised constraints of the society within which we live and work. We all know the struggle of wanting to do something, like punching some work colleague smack in the mouth, and suppressing it, only to stick a middle finger up at an impatient driver. The id and the superego are easy enough to define: one wants sugar all day and the other wants us to be disciplined and well-behaved. For those in committed partnerships, one imagines random strangers getting naked and the other reminds us to behave like a civilised adult.

Photo by Merlin Lightpainting on Pexels.com

However, it’s the ‘I’ that I’m concerned with. What is the ‘self’? Some say it’s a construct, always changing, thought up by the imagination – a construct that exists within the particular cultural and social context of each individual. The ‘self’ might be ‘kind’ or ‘generous’, ‘passionate’ or ‘brave’. The ‘self’ might simply be described as a character that we have assigned to ourselves and thus ‘self-esteem’ relates to how that perception is created. Therefore it can change with focused work in this area of linguistic description.

I don’t think the ‘self’ is exactly this simple a construct. I think it’s the part of our brain that experiences the world, and interprets each and every experience that confronts it, in a way that works for the individual. When, for example, I stand in front of a crowd and am asked to speak, my ‘self’ is the fragile hologram shaped by a combination of abject fear and the requirement to present myself as confident, articulate and knowledgeable. My ‘self’, therefore, is the receptor of a bombardment of emotional, sensory and intellectual stimulation, required in each given moment to interpret these and respond in a way that doesn’t shatter me in a hundred different ways. As people, we are exposed to dangers, both real and perceived, on a minute by minute basis, and our ‘selves’ have to negotiate these in a delicate balance of inner and outer worlds.

Our ‘selves’ therefore are amazing, intricate marvels of evolutionary development. But how do most of us face each moment and its infinity of stimuli? There are a gazillion answers to this but I suspect that lots of us use a variety of defensive techniques. Humour is one of them. Intellectualisation is another. How many of us show our ‘selves’? How many of us even know our ‘selves’?

I believe that we are drawn to those who feel intensely. It’s surely why we love animals. They do not hide behind humour or intellect but demand love and attention. Anyone who sees the bliss in a dog greeting its owner, the complete abandonment of joy and adoration, smiles in recognition of its purity. When we see a scared cat, revealing its fear in a cowering posture, seeking to make itself as small as possible, we feel a sense of love for the helpless creature. Children and babies captivate us with their emotional transparency. When they’re sad, their lips shoot out and when they’re happy they jump and hug themselves. I’m not sure what to say about people who don’t feel these reactions, other than that I pity them because anyone who doesn’t like animals or children has really just lost at life already!

At times of emotional need in my life I have attracted people who want to defend me. Open and obvious vulnerability brings attention as does passion, excitement, happiness and enthusiasm. It’s fine to be a closed book – if we want to live a lonely life. If we want to be loved, then we need to let at least one person in. Which leads me to connection.

What connects people? Is it inane conversation about the weather, how many kids they’ve got or what their job is? Although these chats can be sociable, enjoyable and engaging, they are precursors to true connection, which only occurs with the sharing of emotion. Not just the re-telling of emotion, but the experience of it. Tears in the eyes, whether of laughter or grief, bring an opportunity for that spark of magic. The re-hashing of emotion isn’t the same; it doesn’t work in words alone. It’s the experience. Being present in the face of genuine emotion is a privilege and a gift. If somebody lets us into their world, they show us who they are on the inside. They show us their ‘selves’. And only in that revelation, can we truly connect.

It is these connections that make us healthy. Knowing that at least one person knows us and has experienced the revealing of our emotions and has our backs makes us live longer. I don’t mind having friends on the fringe, but I want to know people deeply, too. At least a handful is enough for me. Some people need less.

Even outside of my closest friendships, I love to discover what people experience. I remember and treasure heartfelt observations from others. At Newark Toad Rescue, a high-end operation which involves buckets, nets, torches and high-vis jackets, I chat with a woman who obviously loves the warty little creatures as much as I do, for ‘their intrinsic value’ as she put it. This revelation of her inner world and perception, combined with the tenderness with which she places toads into her red bucket, makes me feel connected to her. A child told me recently that his mum makes him happy and I felt warm and fuzzy. Another child started to cry when it was time for us to leave, and his untamed emotion made us all adore him.

Who we all are on the inside is an amazing kaleidoscope of perceptions, memories, images, connections and experiential truth. We all have this treasure trove of worth within. It’s not connected with what we do in my opinion. People do terrible things because the ‘self’ has experienced and interpreted something badly, in a way that doesn’t reflect the society within which they operate. It doesn’t make them fundamentally less worthy. Like the toad, each individual has intrinsic worth.

Psychoanalytic theory believes that anxiety, depression and a host of other mental conditions occur because of an imbalance in the parts of the personality. Superego has a lot to answer for with its internalised shame. The healing of the ego, or ‘I’, is the only way to heal the whole person. It is possible through the formation of a ‘bond of trust’ with another person, who may be a therapist, and the development of health promoting behaviours in daily life. The type of therapy doesn’t matter. It’s the ‘bond of trust’ that creates the healing.

Therapy provides an opportunity for two ‘selves’ to connect in a way that probably doesn’t often occur in daily life, because of time constraints, embarrassment, self-absorption and distraction. As a therapist, I hope I can bring my deepest self, my ‘I’ into the therapy room and meet other ‘I’s, and connect with their experiences, perceptions and emotional lives. The privilege of doing this work is something that fills me with anticipation because it’s real in a way that most of us rarely encounter.

And outside of the therapy room, I want to focus on the fact that it’s this ‘bond of trust’ that promotes healing, no matter what the approach or the technique. I want to focus on that because, in the final analysis, what heals us every time is love. Not the self-seeking, pleasure-grabbing, exoticised type of love that is portrayed in our shallow media, but the sharing, compassionate, powerful acceptance of one another’s deepest selves.

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First blog post

This is the post excerpt.

I started this blog in my late 40s having gone through an enormous amount of change in the past few years, including a transforming head of hair, hence the name of the blog.  The silver hair seems fitting as it’s bright and shiny and I have come to embrace the older me and the prospects of a different future to the one I had planned.  So many of us come to this age (46 for me) and the family leave, the long-term relationship or marriage may end or at the very least undergo some dramatic changes, the body begins to undergo a pretty dramatic upheaval and we start to look to the second half of life.  I’ve read a bunch of stuff on perimenopause and will share some of it here, along with every day comments on life and the things I’ve found and done that make the anxieties and sadnesses easier to deal with.  I love life and relish so much of it: smiles, hugs, my loving fiance and a long run on a sunny day, but it comes with loss and trauma, too, and at midlife it seems to hit so hard, with ageing parents on one end and emerging adults at the other.  We’re in the middle in every way, batting off all their troubles and trying to support everyone.  We’re often the main caregiver in the home, the one trying to hold it all together, sometimes with some pretty big mental health issues of our own.  So this is a blog about challenge and change, about beauty and hope, about the reality of mess and fragmentation and downright ridiculousness at times.  About how, at the end of it all, chocolate, wine, panic attacks and some almighty emotional family dramas, the only thing that matters is love, for ourselves and others, and it’ll probably be ok.

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Redemption

In these monochrome days I breathe my way to a still lakeside

where all living creatures retreat into sandy banks and underground spaces.

Out there, my spirit has sung with sounds of orca,

the curling fingers and wise navy eyes of my three newborns,

a halo of shining hair as my three year old ran towards me and

pinpricks of warm energy rooted me to the freshly cut grass.

I have communed with others so completely that I could not

tell you where I ended and they began. As a speck among

craggy mountaintops and volcanic wastelands, and even here,

in the silence, so far within that each atom is a universe,

I hear the rhythmic harmony of the stars.

Daughter

Flung together into the ocean,

some found safety,

some disappeared from sight

and some stayed alongside her

as she clung, disrobed and

white-knuckled, to debris.

The future shrank to terror, of

salt-eyed thrashing through

mountainous waves and needle-sharp rain.

Darkness tore her to unearthly spheres,

ravening lions, bulls of Bashan,

starless, infinite stretching of night.

Hands beneath, above, around, she

gasped at raw morning air and

saw the faint, tangerine-tinged horizon.

Real

Every second there’s a death of self,

a death of the people we were

a second ago

and a line of ghost selves stretch out

behind as we surge forward,

or ahead as we fall back.

When we stop and breathe

in the present,

all the shades, of our children,

parents, teachers and friends

are forever gone,

were never there,

and nor were we.

Good Friday

Where we end and where the

emptiness begins is unknowable. 

The Kingdom of Hell is within us.

Is us.

Panic rises from the darkness.  We have

lost ourselves.  We, the melancholy,

the bittersweet, who feel each moment

as a loss. 

From inside our skins we observe

laughter and joy bubbling up in others

but we are too heavy to move towards them.   

Our babies smile and our hearts are

broken by the sweetness of them.

 

Slipping away

You clung to life

like a hunted seal on a rock,

but now your grey-blue eyes are as

faraway as Nan’s were. 

Slack faced.

So tired. 

The rock has become the danger. 

War is rife.  Soldiers swarm into your

home.   Strangers lurk in the street and the

people on the TV are seeping through

but you lost your words and just

on the other side, through the veil,

where your sad eyes linger, is

safety and rest.

May the road rise to meet you,

long-lived child.

May you find peace. 

May you, like your mother before you,

find your way home.

Neurotypical privilege

(and don’t eye roll at me)

The fact that many people would eye roll at this title is because of neurotypical privilege. Just the same as a running friend eye rolls at the term ‘white privilege’ because he has it. We were out running when he stated that he’s going to scream the next time anybody mentions white privilege, because he grew up poor and got stopped by the old bill as much as any black person, on account of his youth, gender and style of dress and speech. But when I pointed out that it would have been worse for a black boy from the same council estate, he refused to acknowledge this.

I know that I have white privilege. I know this because I’ve never worried about people assuming that I don’t speak English, I’ve never been asked where my family oiginate from and I jog around Newark on my own without any worries about racist abuse. The odd bit of sexist abuse, yes, but never based on my skin colour. I educated myself about racism in the UK after BLM, which is sad, because I’d not done so before, but at least I’ve done it now, although there’s always more to do. But recently I have worked with several autistic young people and have come to a realisation that neurotypicality is also a privilege.

Our world revolves around neurotypicals. Our ways of handling conflict, dealing with business, forming relationships, making friends, attending social occasions and sitting exams at school is all based on neurotypicality. Over the past few months I have tutored four young people, all autistic, in their homes, and got to know their families. I have seen how they suffer. Here is the gist of some scenarios that occur in our mainstream schools.

A neurodivergent child feels deeply uncomfortable with eye contact, physical touch and excessive noise. In a loud room with multiple conversations and sounds, the noises blur together into a confusing stream of input. This is common with autistic children, and the teachers have all been informed of this and it is on the child’s EHCP (education, and health care plan). Teachers are paid to read these documents and to adapt teaching strategies for each and every child in the classroom. Of course it’s impossible to deliver 30 different lessons, but neither is that necessary. It’s about delivering the content whilst adapting to individual children and their needs.

‘Look at me!’ demands the teacher. The child looks at the teacher’s right shoulder, which is the closest he can manage without feeling unbearably stressed. ‘You aren’t listening properly!’ says the teacher. ‘Look at me when I’m talking’. The child puts his head on the table, overwhelmed, and is then banished from the classroom.

On another occasion this child is eating his lunchtime meal when another child leans across and spits in it. The child shoves away the food and stops eating. The other child pushes him and shouts, ‘Miss, ***** isn’t eating his lunch’. The child is scolded and reminded to eat up. By this time he can’t even explain that his dinner has spit in it, and he is covering his ears and starting to groan. The child is cajoled further into eating and crawls under the table where he sits, rocking and groaning. Other adults come and drag him from under the table and carry him off to a room to calm down. By this time he is screaming and a video is sent to the child’s mother to show how badly behaved he is.

The child ends up having no school because school is too distressing and the staff state that they can no longer meet his needs. Special school? Possibly – if he can travel fifty miles a day when there is one adult in this family with one car and three other children who go to two different schools. Oh – and he hates travel. The child ends up out of school on a waiting list for home tuition through an agency or the local authority, with no friends, no extra-curricular enrichment, no Duke of Edinburgh, or sport, or music lessons, or cultural capital, nothing but the four walls and a walk outdoors if the parent is not too depressed to face another day of not being able to work, or support the family, or function in a world that seems to hate her and her autistic child.

Special school places are few and far between. Autistic children don’t enjoy sitting in mini buses with loud music and chatter. By the time they get there after a half hour journey, they are already on high alert and triggered. Mainstream schools don’t cater to them very well and label them as naughty, challenging or weird.

Even the so-called ‘high functioning’ children struggle. Many neurodivergent young people simply don’t understand the way that neurotypical people function in the world. If you think about it, we are the odd ones. We skirt around issues, we avoid saying what we mean, we lie all the time, and we make up nonsensical rules about gender, like a false binary, which is frankly weird. Of course I am aware that many neurotypical people reject the gender binary, but it remains that more neurodivergent people experience gender dysphoria.

A neurodivergent young person I recently worked with talked about this openly when I opened the conversation by asking what their pronouns were and was told ‘they and them. I’m non-binary and thanks for asking’. This young person is studying gender and is more confused by the false binary than by the allegedly complex queer theory that, to them, is actually obvious. The queer theory stance is that sex is biological and nothing more. The fact of the matter is that even biological sex is not as simple as binary opposites. There isn’t even a binary opposition in the biology of our bodies! There are six really common biological sexes. XX is female. XY is male. There is also single X, XXY, XYY and XXXY. It’s easy enough to research further, but the point is that nothing is EVER as simple as we neurotypicals like to make it out to be.

As for gender, queer theory posits that it is a performance rather than anything to do with our bodies. Gender is how we live, how we present ourselves and how we feel on the inside. The word ‘gender’ became used instead of ‘sex’ because of the naughtiness of the word ‘sex’, but it originally refers to the idea of ‘type’ or ‘class’ and is much broader semantically than biological makeup. We neurotypicals love to classify things and ‘gender’ offers a classification for people so that we can conveniently box them up, label them and I suppose control our understanding of the world so that it’s neat and tidy.

The problem for neurodivergent people is that many don’t like neat and simple rules that actually don’t make sense. They can see that every person with a female body is a completely unique person with likes, dislikes, sexual preferences, style of dress and personal range of interests. They can see that every person with any body in fact is equally unique. It has been said by the autistic comedian Hannah Gadsby that neurotypicals are motivated by what is important and that includes gender. Autistic people, however, are motivated by what is interesting, and that really does not include gender. But neurotypical folks often get their knickers in a massive twist over the fact that a person with a male body is wearing a dress. HEAVEN FORBID. They then want to know is this a boy or a girl? What the hell is a non binary? What is this nonsense? What is the label? I can’t say ‘they’ and ‘them’; it is not grammatically correct.

Here, I would love to reference the fact that grammar was a concept invented after the linguistically anarchic times of Middle English and Shakespeare by people who wanted to impose order on the world. We call them prescriptivists. They were mostly rich, white, neurotypical men.

OK. So neurotypical privilege means that we understand the world as we see it. We know how to conform to the norms. We are mostly cisgender and do not question the gender that we were assigned at birth. We broadly fit the category that we were assigned and the way that the world has been prescribed for us and we adapt ourselves around the bits that don’t quite fit, because we can.

We also use face work in language, which many neurodivergent people find difficult. Face work refers to the multitude of politeness strategies which we adopt to make each other feel comfortable and to maintain our ‘face’ or our sense of dignity and respect. For example, when somebody says, ‘it’s cold in here’ we will offer to close a window or turn up the heating. We understand that they were not simply informing us of their discomfort. When we are asked, ‘what do you think of this dress?’ instead of replying, ‘it’s hideous’, we say ‘it’s a beautiful colour isn’t it?’ and other indirect avoidances, hedges and skirting of issues. We don’t talk politics, death or religion unless we know each other well because these topics impinge on others’ sense of personal face when there is inevitable disagreement.

The autistic young person I recently spoke with did not understand face work. A friend had been crying and complaining because she had done badly in exams, and they helpfully pointed out that she needed to do more work. Their friend was more distraught by this and accused them of being insensitive. They were totally confused, feeling that their helpful advice had been ignored. The concept of simply listening, offering a cup of tea and making sympathetic noises was insane to them. When I pointed out that the friend probably just wanted them to listen, they put their face in their hands and said, ‘It’s all so exhausting!’

The neurotypical world is exhausting to autistic people. Our language is complicated and nonsensical. I can understand why but I also understand, implicitly, why we use it. We perform a delicate dance every day of mitigating rudeness, avoiding bluntness, making others feel positive, using praise and politeness, and adopting idiomatic small talk mechanisms for the sake of oiling our social trajectory. The neurodivergent person has to learn this, because it is not implicit. At the end of a social gathering where every interaction has to be considered from a point of view that is not their own, they are knackered. Their heads hurt. From us.

I wish that autistic people could have an easier experience of life on this planet and I wish that we could all adapt so that our interactions flow more easily for everybody concerned. I am sorry that I am writing about neurodivergence when I am neurotypical and I have probably got a lot wrong. But I am trying to hammer out what I understand and how unfair it is. Just because we are the majority, we should give space, empathy and respect to everybody. And use the right bloody pronouns!

All hail the yoga nidra

I hate ‘doing nothing’ too!

After signing up to a free trial of Gaia, a platform for a host of wellbeing films and series, most of which I discovered are pseudo-scientific crap, I found that it offers a multitude of yoga and meditation sessions with a range of teachers and styles, and set about going through them all.

I love meditating and have done the Calm app, Headspace and freebies on Youtube. Guided meditation is lovely stuff and I wholeheartedly recommend it to find that bit of space, to lower the stress levels, to get a breather in the middle of a hectic day or after a period of high anxiety. However, when I did my first yoga nidra, I felt like I’d discovered Nirvana – the spiritual kind, not the band.

For yoga nidra you lie down comfortably on your back, covered with a cosy blanket and some warm socks, arms by your side, palms facing upwards, and are guided through a complete relaxation of the body. The focus is on the chakras and you are told to focus on each of them in turn, relaxing the whole body and breathing deeply.

I believe in the relaxing power of a deep breath. Science backs that one up. But chakras? People who talk about chakras have usually been regarded by me with deep suspicion. What the hell is a chakra? My suspicion may well come from a deeply Christian background but I think it’s more to do with the spiritual nature of the idea. All the talk about chi and energy flowing into the body from some mysterious source of light and love gets me huffing and eye rolling.

The first time I did a yoga nidra, though, I found myself suspended in space with no sense of the weight of my feelings, my thoughts or even my physical body. I experienced myself as filled with pure light that shone from the stars on each of my chakras. ‘I am light’ I thought, and the knowledge of this filled me with joy so profound that it brought me to tears. What was that about?

The whole experience of this practice continues to bring me a sense of deep peace and healing such that I haven’t known since the time that some beautiful Christian people laid their hands on me and prayed for me when I was really sad. They weren’t strange controlling Christians – just loving people who wanted me to feel better, and I did.

Every time I practice, I feel this weightlessness, and a sense that I am made of light. Even the thought of it makes me smile, and the more I practice the more I can summon up the feeling. When I’m anxious, I recall that I’m made of light. I delivered a two hour training session today and had been anxious about it for weeks, but for half an hour before the presentation, I breathed slowly, focused on these points on the body, and reminded myself that I’m light and free. It’s as though the me of me, the deepest core of my identity, is a being of purity and goodness, and this is a great thing to feel, given that I’ve spent most of my life feeling the opposite! It also reduces the pressure of pleasing others and worrying about what people think of me.

I don’t believe in an eternal soul and I don’t believe in chakras or anything else that isn’t supported by proper science. But I know that there is plenty of evidence for spiritual, meditative practices changing the brain and transforming the neural pathways so that we come out of the limbic system and into the calmer states that bring a sense of calm and peace.

Gaia costs £9 a month and it’s worth it for the yoga alone. I do the strength stuff as well but it’s this meditation that’s been a game changer. If you, like me, have to reduce anxiety for medical reasons or just because anxiety is horrible and unpleasant, this is definitely a strategy worth a go.

Social Anxiety

The doorbell rings and my panic rises because it might be a friendly neighbour who wants to talk to me or doesn’t want to talk to me and I might talk too much or too little and they’ll think I’m annoying, rude or both but I can stand in front of three hundred teenagers and talk to them about self harm, gender identity and love.

I am reminded that somebody should do a toast at a party and that somebody could and probably should be me and I think I am about to fall over because of the sudden buckling of my knees and the terror of getting the words wrong or looking stupid but I am about to deliver training to a county wide team about strategies that I have used to teach GCSE English to low ability classes.

Somebody I know a little has invited me to celebrate their birthday at a local pub and I really want to be sociable but I worry about what to do if nobody speaks to me or they do speak to me and I can’t hear them over the music or if everybody else there knows the person really well and they think I’m pathetic because I turned up looking so hopeful in this new town full of people who don’t know me but I can dance like a maniac at a party or do a random handstand in a park.

I stroke a person’s cute dog and the dog starts licking my ear and wagging its whole body and I’m so happy but then the person starts chatting and I worry because I don’t know when to stop the chat and how to say goodbye or end the conversation without looking weird but I can rock up to a therapy training course and talk about anything and everything with a class that I just met.

Coming up to any social occasion where there are people who are posher than me, which isn’t difficult if you saw where I come from opposite a high rise block of flats in a council maisonette with a corridor outside that people urinated in and a washing line that people stole underwear from, I spend days worrying about whether to kiss one cheek or both cheeks, how long to hug them for, whether to hug them at all and what to do if our mouths accidentally collide, but I can talk to a homeless alcoholic and offer him a job helping me to move house and I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t.

There’s a new neighbour and I know I’m supposed to be friendly and welcoming so I see him and say ‘hello I’m Ruth lovely to meet you’ but the words stick in my throat and I don’t think he’s seen me so I quickly open the door and scurry in like a terrified cat but I write about almost everything in my life on my personal blog and I don’t care whether or not anybody likes it.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

A very secular problem

Most of us have a mental health problem of some sort or another and most likely won’t fit any particular label. It’s more likely that we all exist on a spectrum between perfect, unabated joy and unbearable mental anguish, oscillating between two points on that spectrum much as we lose and gain a certain amount of weight over the course of the average year. Our mental state, when poor, is often an amalgamation of conditions: depression, anxiety, OCD, disordered eating, PTSD, bipolar, BPD or countless mixtures of each. What are the labels for anyway? Mostly diagnostics to ascertain how to treat the condition as cheaply as possible on the NHS. Or perhaps that’s overly cynical and the diagnostics are genuinely helpful and informative. They can certainly be useful in helping others and ourselves to understand and show compassion.

In amongst my particular mental makeup and the challenges that present themselves as I face the world every day is the result of my religious upbringing and it was brought to my attention during my counselling training when I ticked every NHS question for diagnosis of PTSD except for the triggering event (because religion isn’t officially a triggering event). There is now some growing evidence that religious trauma is a real issue for many and symptomatically it’s the same as PTSD: nightmares, severe anxiety, replaying of terrifying scenarios, flashbacks, feeling of imminent doom and certain situations that are triggering. I generally don’t have these symptoms badly but I have, and do, experience them all. Most of the time I jog along OK. But sometimes a comment about Hell or a preacher in town shouting about the last days can put me into a state of fear for days such that I can’t sleep or think about much else.

Anybody raised in a fundamentalist church will know how it goes. The second coming, the antichrist, the tortures, beheadings, burning fiery flames and everlasting torment. Of course there were wonderful parts of it, too. There was divine love, a God of mercy and forgiveness and an eternity in Heaven for the saved. The resurrection was a particularly pleasant story that sent happy shivers down my spine. But I focused on the negative as a child. I’d wake up in the night and feel the flames of hell because I knew, deep down, that I did not believe. When it all hinged on my belief I felt fragile and disconnected. I’d get a floating feeling of flying away from the edge of the world, into space, where I’d whirl around into outer darkness and nobody would be able to reach me. I know now that this is dissociation. It happened a lot in the middle of the night.

For years I tried to resolve these fears by seeking to acknowledge and understand a more liberal Christianity. I realize that the brethren presented the bible in a narrow and simplistic way that is not representative of Christianity on the whole. I’ve been to churches that do not preach hellfire the way that they did. Many Christians don’t believe in it at all or any kind of afterlife. Many say that the Bible doesn’t even teach it. It’s hard to unlearn and rewire the brain, however, and I wonder if even going to theological school would completely undo the interpretation of scripture that I was taught.

Now I am beginning to see that everything in the bible is human. The God of the Bible can be merciful, forgiving and expansively, endlessly loving. The God of the Bible can also be jealous, exacting, cruel and breathtakingly unfair. I could cite countless examples of both. I mean – sending bears to eat some young people who laughed at a prophet is pretty horrific. Striking down a couple with immediate death because they told a lie is fairly despotic I’d say. As for whether the biblical God actually condemns millions of souls to eternal torment because they failed to trust in the sacrificial and atoning blood of Christ, specifically, is questionable, but if the brethren got that right, it’s unspeakably horrific!

All of these attributes, both good and evil, are human. The Bible was written by people. I really feel that this is the point. If we are to gather anything from the Bible, or any other holy book for that matter, we have to understand that it was written by people, which sounds obvious, but in a fundamentalist faith the holy book is a magical, divinely inspired revelation for all mankind for all eternity. It is imbued with an unquestioned stamp of authority and then the fundamentalist must find a way to make it a cohesive whole. This requires mental gymnastics of the sort that made my mind boggle even as a 5 year old. ‘Did God create evil?’ ‘Does God love Satan?’ ‘Why did the grannies have to drown in the flood?’ I was seeing contradictions as wide as a barn door before even tackling the great questions of predestination, free will, pre-millennialism and the question of what happens to those who couldn’t accept Jesus (babies, people with learning difficulties and those who never heard of him).

No. The Bible is human in all the glory and diversity of human thinking and emotion. There is love, beauty, transcendence, radical forgiveness and stunning wisdom. There is eroticism, intelligence, logic and redemptive hope. There’s also vengeance, hatred, jealousy and rage. There’s hunger for power and longing for control. This is humanity. We’ll never be in a perfect world. Never have been. We’ve got war in Europe again after all we should have learned from the last ones. There will always be people like Putin who become megalomaniacs and somehow others have to limit the damage caused by them. We humans fuck things up. That’s why the Bible doesn’t make sense and is so far from being cohesive. Because people don’t.

I once wanted to rip the Bible up and throw it out of the window, or burn it to shreds, or stamp on it. It incensed me so much with its capacity to strike fear into my soul that I wanted to destroy it utterly. But I never did that. Somehow that Bible had woven itself into the fabric of my being and I loved it despite the damage that it caused. Some might call this a toxic relationship. It was certainly dysfunctional. But I could no more stamp it out of existence that I could harm or disappear my family or any other human (except potentially Putin). We are all glorious in our imperfections and that includes the Bible, which has all of the characteristics of any other expression of humanity. It’s the perfect representation of what it is to be human in this world. Light and dark, yin and yang, good and evil: call it what you will, it’s all of us and in all of us and thus it stays on my bookshelf while I continue to work on my mental health!

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