Intuition

Your heart is alive; I know this

by the way you change your grandson

gently enough to nurture him and firm

enough to keep him from rolling off your knee.

I know this by the way you speak of your special needs child

who could go into residential care but you do it all

yourself, because you love the bones of him.

I know this because you are ferocious when this

government, yet again, lets your boy down.

You, on the other hand, you who call her ‘scum’,

who turn away as her child stims loudly in a supermarket,

who call yourselves poor as you cash in your Air BNB profits

from the spare cottage on your estate. You who

complain about immigrants and scroungers,

who want everything to stay the same, the way

it’s always been, how it used to be, how it suits you,

you are the walking dead with already rotten hearts.

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.

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!

The good enough parent

Perfectionism and modern day parenting

As a special needs teacher, I work with families every day, going into their homes and helping young people with learning difficulties or social and emotional health problems to make progress academically. This role often involves listening to stressed out parents. As a teacher in school, I also spent time making calls home or holding meetings for chats with parents. As a friend to others with children, I see people trying to raise children in a world that is more complex already than the one in which I raised mine. It’s a minefield of social media, online bullying, distance learning, and increasingly pressuring expectations for them to go to university and get a degree.

When my parents raised my siblings and me, I do not think for one second that they often stopped to wonder if they were doing it right. In conversations now, mum might reflect whether she made mistakes, but this is 30 years later! At the time, they seemed pretty certain that what they were doing was correct. I don’t remember receiving apologies from either of them, or hearing them ruminating over a perceived failure!

And yet nowadays, I hear so many comments like: ‘I just feel as though I’m letting them down all the time’. ‘I don’t feel as though I’m good enough as a mum’. ‘I feel so guilty’. ‘I have terrible mum guilt’. ‘I worry all the time that they will become unwell’. ‘I worry that I’m going to mess them up’. ‘What if they never forgive me for mistakes that I make?’ ‘I feel awful because I didn’t (insert some type of caretaking gesture that might have been pleasant but definitely wasn’t necessary)’.

I remember feeling guilty when I had to leave Will with a childminder whom he did not like. He used to complain bitterly about going once a week for two hours at a time. A wise friend told me to stop feeling guilty because I wasn’t neglecting him, the childminder was a lovely kind person, and Will was miserable only because he wanted mummy and actually being with somebody else for a couple of hours was not doing him any harm at all. He has subsequently grown up without any longstanding resentment about this trauma!

In other respects, I did let my kids down. I had poor mental health, for a start, for years, and didn’t know it. I knew that there was something wrong with me, because I’d fly into a rage about minor things after being as patient as the proverbial saint for weeks on end, and I was an awful mum at times, saying and doing things in an explosive temper that I then grovelled about afterwards. I thought it was just a case of learning to control myself and become a better person. I felt shame about it. And yet, now, my children love me and accept me despite these failures. We have an open dialogue about it, and they can see and respect that I have grown loads as a person and have worked on my mental health.

And yet, I hear younger parents than me striving continually to be perfect. They worry about losing their patience, missing a symptom of illness for a couple of days or failing to check everything in the child’s school bag one morning. They feel shame and guilt over really minor things. They feel responsible for everything that the child experiences every day. They want to wrap the child in cotton wool and ensure that their lives are always happy and always positive.

This collective obsession with perfectionism is driving people insane! Our younger generation have worse mental health than ever. The wrapping them up in cotton wool isn’t achieving anything. When parents are anxious and worried, the kids then become anxious and worried about the parents’ anxiety and worry. It becomes a vicious cycle of doom, with kids not opening up to parents for fear of triggering an anxiety and guilt response.

I have had to learn the hard way that my anxiety and perfectionism isn’t my kids’ problem. When they have suffered with health problems both physical and mental, I have had to learn to deal separately with my emotional reaction. The worst things a parent can say are: ‘I am so worried about you’, and ‘I can’t stand it when you are suffering’. By saying those things, we make their suffering about us. One of my children took the time to tell me so and I am forever grateful for that honesty. I am grateful because, faced with my own anxiety, guilt and shame, and unable to share it with her, I sought therapy and grew as a result of that.

If I were able to talk to my younger self as a parent, I would tell her that she doesn’t have to be perfect. She just has to show up every day and do her best. Many her kids experience is out of her control. They will go to school and get treated unfairly by a teacher, bullied by some hideous friend, excluded from a party, put in detention for forgetting their pencil, dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend and suffer with physical of mental illnesses that we cannot protect them from or prevent. From a parent, they need consistency and self-care. We have to take care of ourselves so that they can see how it’s done. They need us to be mentally robust and to have strategies for peace and calm internally and externally. They also need us to be able to get it wrong and to then take accountability for that and, when needed, to apologise and to learn from it.

There is a term coined by a child psychologist, Bowlby I believe, that the ‘good enough’ parent really is good enough. Perfectionism and unrealistic expectation has no place in family life. We muddle through and mess it up, and then get up and try again. And again. The most important thing to do is to love: both the kids and ourselves! I am close to my adult kids now, despite being a hopeless twat a lot of the time, because I loved them, I tried my best with what I had at the time, and if that’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me!

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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