To change the world, we must BE the change

The world is changed.
I feel it in the water.
I feel it in the earth.
I smell it in the air.
Much that once was is lost;
for none now live who remember it…

The Lord Of The Rings

So…

TRUMP BEATS CLINTON TO TAKE WHITE HOUSE

SOURCE: BBC NEWS WEBSITE, 9/11/16

This happened.

I wish I were more surprised. I didn’t think it would happen, but somehow I’m not shocked beyond comprehension that it did. We are in for a time of great change. That is the only phrase I can come up with right now to describe where we’re headed.

I’m not a fan of Trump. He has proved himself to be a philanderer, a sexual predator, a thin-skinnned narcissist, a compulsive liar, a terrible business man, a racist, a misogynist, a xenophone and a generally nasty piece of work. But, as of January 2017, he’s going to be President of the United States of America.

There’s been a lot of shock on my corner of Facebook. People saying that they don’t live in the world they thought they did, that the world has gone through an immense period of change. That they are beginning to realise how much of an echo chamber they live in. I sympathise, I do. I’ve been there. When the Conservative Party won the 2015 election here. When Brexit won in the Referendum. And now? Now this. President-Elect Donald Trump.

Our echo chamber isn’t going away. The only way that happens, that we break out and start to change things, is if we start speaking out and taking (even a little bit of) action. Even though that’s a scary thing to do.

I’m a teacher. Deep down I believe in education and its power to change the world. I know that there are some people who will not be able to accept the things that they are taught, because their cognitive dissonance is so overwhelming that they will go to massive lengths to avoid having their world view challenged, let alone shattered.

Putting out your view point on the internet, or in the world in general, is a difficult and dangerous thing to do when you come up against people like that. Because they find cognitive dissonance painful and they have no qualms or concerns about lashing out – verbally, emotionally, physically even – to make sure that their pain is averted and those who are opposed to their world view are silenced. At best, it’s exhausting. At worst, with the rise in tactics such as rape threats, doxing and stalking… Well, yeah, it is dangerous.

But the world we are being corralled into is dangerous too.

Dangerous for anyone who isn’t cis-male.
For people of any sexuality other than straight.
For people who are any form of trans*.
For people any religion other than Christianity.
For people of any race other than white.
For anyone who does not identify as a capitalist.
For anyone who questions the role of our armed forces on the world stage.
For anyone who isn’t thin/slim/toned in shape and size.
For anyone who is neuro-atypical.
For anyone who has any sort of disability.
For anyone who is struggling to get an education or find stable paid work.
For anyone who doesn’t meet the current conventional standards of Western beauty.

This world is already dangerous for us. And that’s why we’ve retreated to live in our echo chambers. Perhaps we should call them bunkers. Or vaults. They’re safe. But they’re stifling. And our supplies of jokes and humour won’t hold out forever.

So what can we do?

Well …  there are a lot of things we can do. But it might take a while for them to build up enough combined momentum to effect the change we want to see in the world.
Let’s start making a list. And please …  feel free to add to this in a constructive way.
  • Start blogging. Get your words out. Say what you feel. Keep talking. Get onto Tumblr, get onto WordPress. Words have power. Sara knows it. Emeli knows it. Say what you want to say, and let the words fall out. You’ve got the words to change a nation, and you’re biting your tongue.

 

  • If blogging’s not your thing, how about tweeting? Or just sharing something other than pictures of kittens and your dinner on the internet? Not that they aren’t cute and a nice source of feel good, and I do both from time to time – but maybe mix it up a bit with things that catch your interest and will make people around you think a little wider?

 

  • Start double sourcing what you share. Adopt the journalism standard. Don’t take one person’s or one organisation’s word for anything any more.

 

  • Stop sharing links to the tabloids who thrive on sensationalism and divisive behaviour – both the paper ones (Sun, Star, Express, Mail, etc) and the TV ones (Fox News particularly). If you’re angry with them, and want to call them out, screen shot them. Don’t give them the links, don’t give them the ad revenue.

 

  • Seen a meme that’s bullshit? Seen someone sharing something from a hate group? Is one of your friends list unwittingly promoting an organisation like Britain First? Start debunking them.There are plenty of sites that do the hard work for you. Snopes are one of the best, Hoax-Slayer are worth a look too. Call people out on the things that make you feel twisted up with cringe and sorrow, that you KNOW aren’t the case, that you can see are just manipulative bullshit. We have tried the ‘ignore it and see if it goes away’ approach. I think we can agree that this did not go according to anything even resembling the plan.

 

I’m not saying any of these are perfect. But they make me think and give me significant pause for thought. More welcome. I need to keep learning too.

  • Pick a side and chuck in your effort and, if you have any, your monies. I joined the Labour Party this year, because I have been more impressed with Corbyn than any other politician in the last 20 years, and it was worth my money to keep him up at the podium and on people’s watchlist.There are tonnes of charities, lobby groups, activists, political parties and organisations who are dedicated to changing bits of this world. Some of the less objectionable international ones include:

Our only option left is to be the change we want to see in the world. We were getting somewhere. We were! But we’re backsliding in spectacular fashion as a species and unless we manage to call a halt, we’re going to enter into a modern “dark ages”, where everything which fails to meet with a culturally specified ‘norm’ is hounded, hunted and hung out to die.

So be the change you want to see in your world. I promise to try to be in mine.

I promise to keep trying. Keep blogging. Keep sharing. Keep donating. Keep talking. Keep listening. Keep trying. Keep reading. Keep Changing. I have a long time left to live in this world. I’m not giving up on it yet.

 

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Feminist Friday – Burkini

I’m away on holiday this week but here’s a Feminist Friday piece that’s been brewing for a while on the subject of the Burkini.

So in case you weren’t paying attention… here’s the catchup. Several years ago, an Australian clothing designer named Aheda Zanetti made a swim suit for women who wanted to adhere to Islamic dress codes. An Islamic woman herself, Zanetti has designed several pieces for Muslim girls to wear while taking part in sports, allowing for them to be active and healthy while still adhering to their chosen dress codes.

Burkini M and S

This summer, several towns in south eastern France objected to women wearing Burkinis at the beach and so decided to ban them. And when there was a lady who defied, or did not know about, the ban, armed French police forced her to undress in public.

Telegraph Photo - woman Birkini

For such an horrific mess of an issue, involving feminism, religious freedom, freedom of expression and the right to privacy, that can be summed up in a remarkably short paragraph. But oh what a mess it has left us with. I have so many problems with the entire scenario that I’m not entirely sure where to start picking it apart. So… starting with a personal slant might be the best option.

I don’t like showing my body in public. I find wearing short sleeves and shorts in public disconcerting. I prefer trousers, or long skirts. Or a skirt that’s at least knee or calf length, with tights. If I am wearing short sleeves or sleeveless tops, I tend to wear a cardigan over the top, or a wrap. Or opt for elbow length sleeves instead. I don’t like showing my bosom, I prefer to have it covered up, along with my shoulders and back. I never show my stomach. I feel naked and uncomfortable if I do.

This has nothing to do with body positivity. I have no problems with my body. I think I look great. I’m in proportion, curvy, I have an out-in-out figure with boobs and a bum and a real waist. My husband tells me I have great legs. In the privacy of my own home I have no problem being naked, or wearing just my underwear. I have no problem with my husband looking at me while I do so. But I don’t like being ‘on display’ in public. I don’t have to justify it. It’s a personal choice. My free choice.

And if I choose to cover it up, that is also my choice.

It’s nothing to do with faith. Or religion. Or patriarchy. Or control. The only control in this is mine, and I choose to cover my body up. And what I choose to cover it up WITH is my choice too. I actually find the idea of a Burkini oddly appealing. I would never, EVER, wear a swimsuit to the beach, let alone a bikini. But I love to swim. I love to exercise out of doors. A burkini would protect my skin, along with my privacy and allow me to take part in an activity I like without feeling uncomfortable.

But that wouldn’t be allowed on those beaches in France. Or rather it wasn’t, until the French government overruled the bans, in the first sensible action of the whole situation.

So why do people have a problem with Burkinis?

Several parallels have already been drawn between the Burkini and a nun’s habit, and nuns are allowed to visit the seaside and splash around in their religious clothing:

Nuns at the beach

 

 

So what’s so different about a Burkini?

Is it that it is seen as a purely Islamic piece of clothing? More to the point, a piece of Islamic female clothing?

Here we come closer to an uncomfortable truth.

Islam is frequently presented as a religion which oppresses women. Only, that’s not strictly correct. Certain interpretations of *patriarchy* within Islam have, and in some cases continue, to oppress women. The Taliban. ISIS/Daenesh. The religious governments in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Khazakstan, Indonesia or any of the other Islamic countries which mandate the adherence to their interpretation of sharia law. What have they all got in common? They’re run by men.

People see the Burkini as a representation of oppression of women. But actually the forced removal of that symbol is a far greater oppression. It is an enforced *lack* of choice, which has absolutely nothing to do with religion or secularism, and everything to do with oppression and the suppression of free speech and expression.

I’ve taught Islamic students. Worked with Islamic colleagues. Known and counted practicing Muslims among my friends. The vast majority of them have been women. I have not seen a single sign of oppression among them in the way they practice their faith. Yes, they chose to wear a hijab in some cases. So what? It is something that they CHOOSE rather than something which is forced upon them.

If a woman CHOOSES to cover her head, to cover her body, to conceal her physical form – that is her right.

If a woman is FORCED to conceal herself – for example, under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan where women were mandated by law to wear full Burkas which covered their bodies and faces – then yes, that is a problem. I don’t like Burkas because they conceal the face. Something that is not demanded by the Qu’ran, but is enforced by men, by that particular patriarchal interpretation of sharia law, in order to oppresss rather than honour women. I mean, seriously, look at these:

Burka

There is a big difference between these blue tented monstrosities and the other forms of Islamic dress:

Islamic Dress

This fits the dress code for Islamic women. The body is covered. The cut is loose and concealing. Only the hands, feet and face are visible. The hair is covered. And yet this is not that different from what I would wear to go to work. OK I don’t wear a hijab, but I’ve been known to pin my hair up, to cover it with a scarf if it rains, to wear a hat or a hood in the cold weather, to tie a scarf or wrap around my neck and shoulders.

But people have no problem with the way I dress. Because I’m a white woman who is not Islamic. Even though it’s not that different to the brown women who are Islamic.

The women wearing the Burkinis were making a choice. And suddenly, with the force of violence and law, they were told they had made an ‘incorrect’ choice. Because it made some people uncomfortable, to be reminded that in some places on this planet, women ARE victims of oppression.

The forced removal of the Burkini was not about liberation. It was about concealment, just not of the body. It was an attempt to deny that there are women in the world who are oppressed. An attempt to remove the symbol of oppression and impose a single view of ‘freedom’ (ie exposure) onto that woman. It was not freedom to her, it was humiliation. It was embarrassment, it was abusive. I would feel the same if someone asked me to remove my clothes and expose my body in public, even the parts of it which are not considered by society to be too sexualised for public display. And it has nothing to do with faith, religion or oppression for me. It has to do with choice.

Islam is not, in and of itself, incompatible with feminism. I mean, look at this fine lady:

malala-yousafzi

One of the greatest living feminists, Malala Yousafzi. Is she oppressed just because she chooses to wear Islamic dress? Is she heck, she’s a leading light for feminism, liberty and female education in this world. The patriarchal enforcement of a single interpretation of Islam is what is oppressive, and that must be fought against. That must be challenged. But banning things like Burkinis is not the way to go about it. In fact, it’s a backward step. One we must try to put right.

The French motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité has long been held in high esteem as a code for Freedom.

Perhaps we need to add a little more solidarité féminine to the mix – viva la sisterhood!

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Feminist Friday – 2016 Olympic Coverage

Dear Media,

I really wanted to enjoy watching the 2016 Olympic coverage this year. I adored London 2012. Thanks to my wonderful friend Elspeth, I even had the chance to go to a couple of the events. I bought the DVD ffs. And a large part of that was the fact that the female athletes were so well respected and honoured in the coverage of their competitions.

There were so many fantastic women to cheer for on Team GB: Jessica Ennis, Christine Ohuruogu, Nicola Adams, Lizzie Armistead, Victoria Pendleton, Danielle King, Joanna Roswell, Laura Trott, Charlotte Dujardin, Zara Phillips, Laura Bechtolsheimer, the ENTIRE of the women’s football team, Beth Tweddle, Karina Bryant, Helen Glover, Heather Stanning, Katherine Grainger, Anna Watkins, Katherine Copeland, Sophie Hosking, Saskia Clark, Hannah Mills, Rebecca Adlington, Jade Jones, Laura Robson…

And that’s just the British medal winning women! There were superb athletes, glorious women at the top of their fields from all over the world, competing at the highest level and shining like absolute stars.

Unfortunately, this year, everything seems to have gone to pot.

Let’s start with the fact that two boxers have now been arrested on charges of rape against two maids working in the Olympic village. Urgh. Disgusting.

Next up, people on social media decided to pick on the lovely Helen Skelton over the length of her skirts. She looked fabulous, and glamorous. And do these people know how hot it is in Rio? Seriously, what did they expect? No actually, don’t answer that, it would depress me.

However, I thought “well, at least the female athletes will have earned the respect of the media for this year’s Olympic coverage”.

…Yeah, not so much. It’s been pretty horrific actually, to the point where even The BBC have noticed.

For a start, Dan Hicks, an NBC Olympics commentator, decided to credit Katinka Hosszu’s husband for her gold medal. As the camera panned over him, there were no comments about him being proud, or a lucky man. No indeed – “there’s the man responsible” was the accolade bestowed. Seriously? I mean, seriously?? The woman just put in an Olympic Gold Medal winning performance, but you think her husband is responsible? Head, meet desk.

Next up, bronze medalist Corey Cogdell was described by the Chicago Tribune as “the wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein”. Since when do women get defined by their husbands’ jobs? Where are we, the 1950s?

Urgh. Just … urgh.

And, as we know in this deeply patriarchal world, women are not judged just by their relationships and partners by the Media. They’re judged according to their looks. And Fox News can always be relied upon to bring things back to that basic level. Two male commentators even decided to have a debate about whether athletes should be wearing makeup. After all, as one of them said: “Why not a little blush on the lips and cover those zits? I like to see the person who wins that gold medal go up there and look beautiful.” Because honouring them for their achievements should come second to that, obviously. To be fair, they were equal-opportunist in their idiocy, as they decided to pick on Michael Phelps as well as the female athletes. Obviously 22 Gold Medals just isn’t enough for these guys, Michael, you need to look photo-shopped to death on the podium too.

And it’s not just the makeup that’s been under scrutiny either! The Daily Fail decided to pick on gymnast Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan, claiming that her pink and white leotard “failed to compliment her skin tone”, while The Sun were more interested in Michelle Jenneke’s ‘Abs-olutely fabulous” physique than her medal winning chances, even going so far as to suggest that she “certainly isn’t shy about showing off her body.” No links for those two. My hatred for the Daily Fail and The Sun should be well known to readers here by now.

Finally, just to add soppy icing to a burnt cake, some muppet on twitter decided to try and mansplain cycling to Annemiek van Vleuten. You know, the woman who was on course for victory until an horrific crash left her out of the race and hospital bound, with spectators fearing for her life and health. As if the crash weren’t enough, she was met with this response on twitter after tweeting to let fans know she was ok:

Ladies and gentleman, I don't believe it! It appears a man is barreling over hurdles to give unsolicited advice!!

First rule of bicycling …

She’s competing in the GODDAMN OLYMPICS! I think she’s way past the first rule of bicycling, dipshit!

As a result of all this rubbish, I am suddenly glad that I have not been following this year’s Olympic Coverage. I don’t think my television or sanity would have survived intact.

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The Rosamunde Pilcher Exhibition – Bude Castle

I remember the first time I encountered Rosamunde Pilcher. When I was about 15 I watched a TV Dramatisation of Coming Home. It had an all-star cast, with names as illustrious as Peter O’Toole and Penelope Keith and Joanna Lumley, alongside then-newcomers Keira Knightly and Paul Bettany. I loved the story, the scenery, the world that Pilcher had created.

I read Coming Home as soon as my mother obtained a copy and discovered, to my initial dismay and subsequent delight, that the story was vastly different to the TV portrayal, but infinitely better. There were new characters added to the mix who outshone their counterparts, and Pilcher’s description of the Cornish landscape and the works of art created by her characters were even more shining and brilliant than anything a TV producer could conjour up for the screen. My family had been visiting Devon since I was 11 years old, multiple times a year. I already knew the charms of the south western coastlines of England. For the first time, I began to think that Cornwall might be worth investigating too.

Fast forward a few years to my mid twenties, where I first read The Shell Seekers. I had vague memories of the TV adaptation starring Angela Lansbury and my mother cherished a battered copy of the book, but I had been too young to really pay attention. Whereas Coming Home had a fourteen year old girl as its primary heroine, The Shell Seekers told the story of a 64 year old woman. Not really something I could engage with at the time.

But by the age of 24, I’d completed my degrees in English and was training as a teacher, equipped with the skills and willingness to engage with characters who did not reflect my own position in life. Consequently I fell in love with Penelope Keeling. Her vivacity, generosity and open hearted approach to life sang to me and laid out a life that I longed for. Not one filled with money or prosperity, but with love and friendship and companionship.

Cornwall once more provided the backdrop to a significant portion of the story, with another artist taking centre stage. The descriptions of Cornwall through the eyes of a devoted, talented painter were delicious to read and I could see Pilcher’s world so clearly in my head, it was as if the paintings already existed and had become old friends.

Fast forward another few years, and now I am 32 and have been married to my best friend for one year. We planned a trip away to the South West, as discussed in my previous entry, and first stop on the agenda is the Rosamunde Pilcher Shell Seekers Exhibition at Bude Castle. I am as excited as a small child, not only to be seeing these works of love and homage but to finally be visiting Cornwall, which I feel I know as well as Devon, experienced through hundreds of re-readings of Pilcher’s books through some of the best and worst times of my life.

It’s always fascinating to see how other readers engage with the books that you love. Which parts reach out and touch your heart, which bits sing to your soul. The paintings that touched me most deeply were the ones which were inspired by my favourite sections of the books.

‘I would have understood’ by Lynne Holehouse moved me to tears.

I Would Have Understood

The end of the novel and the discoveries made by Olivia Keeling about her mother’s life and history touched me very deeply. When my own grandmother died, I realised how little I had actually known of her life and how much of her personality, beyond her role as my grandmother, had passed me by and become lost to history. The longing to reach for someone through the written records of their life is a feeling well known to me and I felt that this picture captured that desire beautifully.

Lynne’s work ‘Darling Richard’ carries the same sadness.

Darling Richard

How a man’s existence and life, after death, can be reduced to so little. I was reminded of the sadness I felt reading the end of ‘Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistlestop Café’ by Fanny Flagg, where Evelyn realises how little is left of the friend she had come to cherish, with all of her possessions and memories condensed into a small box. People do not automatically live through the possessions they leave behind, which may be few and may seem insignificant to those who do not understand their relevance. They live on through memories and their places in people’s hearts.

Not all of the works were framed in sadness though.

Clair Roberts’ depiction of ‘Doris’ made me laugh, it was so sparky and filled with life and cheek and absolutely captured the spirit of that character, even down to the little pinky sticking out. And when asked to vote for my favourite, I had to opt for Tim Martindale’s beautiful photograph of the Bude sea pool though. I felt that in one shot, he had captured Pilchers Cornwall in a single sky. A combination of thunderous dramatic cloud, chalky blue flashes of sky, the brilliance of the light all combining with the wildness of the sea and the rocks alongside the domestic safety of the pool. For me this was a stunning summary of Cornwall’s power and beauty, the same no doubt that captured Pilcher’s imagination and drew her back to these places for inspiration time after time in her works.

Tim Martindale – The Sea Pool

Cornwall was a magical place to visit and Bude in particular now occupies a special place in my heart. For a woman who loves the domestic peace and quiet of canals, the happiness of family beaches, the energy of rivers and the wild power of the British coastline, Bude quite literally offered the combination of these features.

Bude

Alongside a backdrop of history, social vibrancy and a sense of pride and satisfaction in its endeavours and strengths, the town was a fantastic place to visit. I will certainly be going back, but I am delighted that I made this trip in particular, to see an exhibit which touched my heart very deeply with its respectful celebration of my favourite author, Rosamunde Pilcher.

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What I Learned From Cult TV – Fox Spirit Books

Absolutely delighted to introduce my essay for the Fox Spirit Books on the theme of What I Learned From Cult TV. For today this is on the front page at www.foxspirit.co.uk but you can also access to permalink here.

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COMING SOON: KATE’S ADVICE BUREAU

A new project will soon by coming to Project Shandy called ‘Kate’s Advice Bureau’, as nicknamed by my friends Rachael and Sammi.

This project came about because, quite simply, I got into a mess.

I lost track of my payments when I lost my job and it took a long time and a lot of courage to get my finances untangled and everything pointing the right way again.

While going through this process, I learned a lot and learned it the hard way. I particularly learned about my legal rights and what I was/wasn’t allowed to say or do regarding my finances, my relationships with creditors, my dealings with credit reference agencies and my ability to be contacted by such organisations.

I didn’t learn any of this in school. The vast majority would have been infinitely more useful than the things we did in PSHE such as hair care, personal hygiene and skin care. It’s time to share some of this through a regular series of short articles, facts, figures, laws and regulations with a big sprinkling of anecdotal and personal experience.

As with all my blogging projects I’m keen to hear from you if you’ve got experiences in these areas that you want to share!

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Are you listening Mr Gove?

So this morning I log in to Twitter to find that Michael Gove has decided that American classic novels like To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice And Men, along with classic plays just like The Crucible, are not good enough for the English Literature GCSE syllabus. He would prefer learners to read British texts instead.

To say that I think this would be moronic is an understatement. Of Mice And Men is a text that I have personally taught and it had a massive impact upon the teenagers who were in my class. I cannot say the same about every text I have taught to that age group. Austen would not have had the same reach. Nor would Charlotte Bronte. Nor would Charles Dickens. And I say that as a great admirer of all three of those writers’ works.

I made a quip to my husband this morning that if we’re going to focus on British writers, we should have Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis on the syllabus. After all they’re both highly successful contemporary writers, who work in a wide variety of media and who have both produced exemplary prose worthy of study.

On a whim I tweeted it. Then this happened…

tweetfromneil

 

For those who can’t see, it says RETWEETED BY NEIL GAIMAN

This is pretty incredible, given that I am a massive fan.

The 47 retweets and 82 likes that followed were also incredible.

It’s not often you find yourself at the centre of a zeitgeist.

This has been a great day, I’ve really enjoyed this whole thing. It’s been great getting tweets from other people with other suggestions too. Other writers that I like and respect like Jasper Fforde, Stephen Fry, Terry Pratchett and Alan Moore. Other successful writers like Grant Morrison, J G Ballard, Douglas Adams and Nick Harkaway were suggested too.

But it doesn’t really matter what I think.

Rather unfortunately, the crux of this matter rests with someone else.

And this matter is very important. We’re defining what literature the vast majority of 14-16 year olds in this country are going to be exposed to in their formative years. We’re deciding that lessons they’re going to be taught, what life lessons they’re going to be exposed to through their reading. What they read during these years will have  a massive impact upon whether or not they read for pleasure as adults or whether they regard reading as distasteful and something to be endured or avoided.

The texts that Gove is considering removing tackle massively important themes. Like Loyalty. Friendship. Love. Honour. Justice. Integrity. Equality. He regards it as a “disappointing statistic” that 90% of learners have read ‘Of Mice And Men’ which touches on the vast majority of these in a simple, direct and elegant way which still speaks to teenagers and young adults across decades and thousands of miles.

Incidentally – those themes I just listed? They are the ones I admire most in the work of Gaiman and Ellis. I adore Spider Jerusalem’s passion for the truth, his pursuit of the facts, his dedication to uncovering every sordid and hidden little political detail in his city. I still read and re-read Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman, which addresses the fundamental nature of Good and Evil in this world along with the notions of destiny, innocence and freewill.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that those writers should be included in the syllabus for study. These are the sorts of themes that our young people should be examining, deconstructing, discussing and ENJOYING. These are the sorts of texts that should be forming part of the gateway to the world of literature, wider reading and cultural awareness. Alongside those wonderful classics by Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller. The advantage that writers like Gaiman, Pratchett and Ellis have though is that they are still alive. They are accessible. Reachable. Still talking. Still writing. Still working.

Michael Gove would rather that we go back to the tired texts that have been picked over, pulled apart and written about for decades. For hundreds of years. By people who carry more authority and more weight than the average fourteen year old will ever muster. Michael Gove would rather than we study texts where academics have already determined the right and wrong answers about the vast majority of the issues. Where people have already decided what opinions are acceptable to hold about those texts.

Michael Gove would like our young people to study texts which reinforce gender stereotypes, highlight the existence of class boundaries and promote the notion that Britain is a world economic and military power. He would like our young people to live in the past, to be shielded from the complex nature of this international world and cocooned within blind and outdated nationalism.

I always believed that Michael Gove was unfit for his post. This decision of his confirmed it.

How can someone who has studied English Literature at Oxford University believe that reinforcing nationalism is more important than exposure to the best examples of literature that the world has to offer? How can someone who is in charge of the education process for the overwhelming majority of this country’s youth allow his personal preferences and tastes in influence his policy decisions? How can someone with this level of influence believe that the past is more relevant that the present we are living in, or the future that our young people are going to build?

This man is not fit to be the Secretary of State for Education.

And it is this man whose opinion dictates what happens next.

Even on a day like today which has been filled with joy and excitement, the feeling which dominates me most at the end of the day is Fear. Fear about what else Michael Gove might come up with next. Recently I’ve been watching the hashtag of #weneeddiversebooks on twitter. Michael Gove would do well to read some of the responses and rethink his blinkered and narrow minded approach to education policy, especially when it comes to literature. But sadly, I don’t think he ever will.

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Welcome to Mental Health Awareness Week

Stress, Depression and Anxiety – Aren’t They All The Same Thing?

I’ve chosen to blog about these three conditions because they are exactly that. Three conditions, not one condition with three names which can be used interchangeably. Whilst awareness about the existence and very real impact of these conditions is increasing, there’s still a tendency to lump them all into one big melting pot and assume that in terms of support, a one-size-fits-all approach will be sufficient.

I’ve suffered bouts of all three of these during my adult life, and looking back now I can see patterns of all of them peppered throughout various experiences in my teens and even childhood. At times I have been misdiagnosed and treated for the wrong thing, which has only served to compound the difficulties.

This blog entry is not intended to provide medical advice or offer a set of tools for diagnosis. I can only blog about my personal experience with these three conditions and use that to highlight the major differences between them. I hope that this will provide a small amount of insight into how they need to be tackled and approached in different ways.

Stress

Stress was the first condition I was diagnosed with, in my early twenties. I was training as a teacher at a school in the north west of England and for the first time in my life, I was struggling with the requirements of a qualification. This was a completely unknown circumstance for me, as a natural academic. GCSEs, A-Levels, my degree and my masters, none of these had posed any problem for me. But when it came to the demands and rigors of this course, I was beginning to fail.

The roots of my own experience with stress were lodged in a physical illness. During the Easter holidays, when I should have been getting some rest, I was laid low with a nasty ear infection. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t move without considerable pain and I was in an awful mess emotionally because I was so tired and sore all the time. By the time I was due to start my final placement I wasn’t fit to go, and ended up missing the first week of school.

This didn’t get me off to a good start with my mentor, head of department or colleagues and was the beginning of a long and uphill struggle to get through the term.

For a long time, I assumed that I just couldn’t throw off the illness. Some of the effects were similar to what I’d endured with the ear infection, but over that term things got far worse. My symptoms included:

  • Being unable to sleep due to obsessive thinking patterns.
  • Extreme lethargy
  • Memory problems, couldn’t retain short term information
  • Lack of interest and motivation in what I was doing
  • Lack of appetite and shrunken stomach
  • Repeated vomiting after eating, sometimes five or six times within a day
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Brittle hair, acne and weak nails
  • Being short tempered
  • Constantly feeling near to tears
  • Inflammation of my Asthma, struggling to breathe

The thing that saved me in terms of my stress condition was being told that I had failed the course. It was an escape and removed many of the problems that had been weighing on me quite so heavily. With the money left over from my bursary, I was able to have some time off to rest that summer before returning to a fresh placement with a clean slate the following January.

Looking back now, I shouldn’t have ignored or brushed off those problems for as long as I did, and neither should the people around me. I should have gone to a doctor and asked for help and support. The placement was three months long, far too long to ignore what I thought were the after affects of an infection.

The most difficult thing to get a handle on was that I was out of control, because my experience of stress was a feeling that I was trying to keep control. I couldn’t see that I was failing and that my difficulties and failing health should have been key indicators that things were wrong. I was so busy convincing myself that I was OK that I didn’t stop to realise that I wasn’t. There’s a difference between reassuring yourself that you’re OK once or twice when you are nervous, but when you are repeating it like a mantra every few minutes in the face of overwhelming evidence that you’re struggling to cope, it’s often a clear sign that you are far from OK. Getting help at this point is not a sign of weakness, it’s a coping tactic. I wish I had known that when I was starting out as a teacher.

Depression

The following summer, things had gotten worse. I went through a very difficult time where my relationships with my boyfriend and friends took a battering. I had nine interviews for teaching positions and still didn’t have a teaching job.

Teaching interviews are grueling compared to the average office based interview, which was all I had experienced previously. Rather than sitting down to a one hour chat and maybe completing an IT test of some kind, my teaching interviews lasted all day. They involved tours of the school, question and answer sessions, a teaching session and full debrief afterwards, interviews with pupils, a formal lunch with the department and a final formal interview with the head teacher, a member of the department and representatives from the board of governors. Each one had to be applied to separately and then prepared for separately. By the end of that experience you’ve been questioned and judged on your teaching ethos, your personality, your subject, your work history, your academic ability and your future hopes.

To go through that nine times and not have a job at the end of it was crucifying. My self esteem had been shattered and there was no part of my life that I felt positive or good about. Relationships with my family were also strained and I had no income or way of paying my rent or buying food.

Sinking into depression was a very gradual thing. I stopped eating first. This was part of an effort to save money initially, cutting down my meals and portion sizes, then skipping meals. Then I started to feel guilty if I ate food because I had no money, and I started to feel as if I wasn’t worth the food. Soon I wasn’t eating at all.

Then I started to have trouble leaving the house. Again I felt worthless, like I didn’t want anyone to see me or look at me, because I believed there would be a negative judgement. Afterall, everyone else in my life had already made these decisions about me, why would strangers be any different? Gradually, one day at a time, my sphere of movement became smaller and smaller. I wasn’t eating, so I didn’t go to the bathroom as much. I wasn’t going out, so why did it matter whether I showered or not? Or whether my clothes were clean? Why did getting out of bed matter? Eventually, I shrank away into a smaller and smaller space, feeling like I was less and less of a person.

By the time I was persuaded to get help, I had lost a third of my body weight. My hair was matter, my skin was in terrible condition, I stank and I was constantly crying. When I started trying to eat again, I would vomit immediately. For days I’d been having dreams and daydreams about committing suicide. One in particular was so vivid and sensory that I don’t know whether I actually attempted it or not and I’m a little scared even now to go back and find out.

I had always been a person who loved life and believed in a bright future. I was an optimist, a believer and a hard worker. It terrifies me that I had reached the point where I didn’t think I was worth existing. Where I didn’t think there was a way out or a light at the end of the tunnel. I just wanted to close the hole over my head and stay in the darkness. More than anything, I was scared that doing anything or taking any action would make things worse.

It took a couple of different types of tablets to even out my mood swings, to enable me to think clearly. Along with bout of therapy to try and unpick some of the damage, and the constant support and love of my boyfriend, who I had hurt very deeply while trapped in my own personal hell. He’s now my husband. I have known since emerging from that awful time that he was the right man to spend my life with. The difference between the stress and depression was the when I was stressed, I honestly thought things were going to be fine and that I was coping. When I was depressed, I believed I had failed at everything and would be better off dead.

Anxiety

About a year ago, I was finally diagnosed with anxiety. My therapist, who I’ve been seeing for the last six months, has suggested that it might be caused by PTSD, but this hasn’t been confirmed by a doctor.

Everyone has moments when they panic. When something shocks them, or they remember something at the last minute and your blood starts pumping and you get that head rush with the metallic taste of adrenaline on the back of your tongue. We all have that. It might be a near miss traffic accident, or seeing a child about to do something dangerous, or even finding a great big hairy spider sat on your pillow before bedtime.

The best way I have to describe my experiences with anxiety is that I felt like that all of the time, as a bare minimum. I didn’t know what it was like to not be worried.

The symptoms were quite similar to stress, but the emotional triggers behind them were very different indeed. Again, I was struggling to sleep. But this time, I wasn’t running through coping mechanisms, I was running through fears. Fears about my job, about my finances, about my friends and my social activities – all of these things would emerge from my brain like thick black ooze, coating all of my thoughts and stopping me from being able to rest. The constant refrain of ‘What if, what if, what if…?’

My adrenaline was through the roof. I would jump at unexpected noises or voices behind me. Flinch from an unexpected touch. My husband describes this as being ‘fight or flight’, the sensation of either wanting to pick a fight with the perceived threat or wanting to run away as fast as you can. You’re tensed and ready for action all the time. Let me tell you something, that is exhausting. My muscled ached, my joints ached, I had chronic headaches and my ears rang so often I thought I had tinnitus.

I felt frightened, all of the time. Combined with an anger and frustration on a conscious level because I didn’t always know what I was frightened of. Social situations, particularly where there was the danger of running into people who disliked me, were almost unbearable because I could barely hold a conversation and spent the whole night spinning around like a top, trying to keep everyone in view. The sound of an unwelcome voice behind me or the unexpected sight of someone that I didn’t want any contact with was enough to make me feel out of control.

People use the phrase panic attack too often for my taste. Being a little scared is not a panic attack. The last time I had a panic attack in public, I lost complete control of myself. After attending a drama-based social event in a room with no windows and only one exit, I began to feel trapped and like there was no air in the room. I started hyperventilating, my muscles tensed up and soon, without having made a conscious decision to, I was sat next to the door, back against the wall, fingers clenched and ready to run away. A few minutes later I was sobbing uncontrollably in a toilet cubicle, door locked, back braced against it to feel even remotely safe. Eventually my fiancé took me home. I could not have told anyone what triggered the attack but I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I wasn’t safe and couldn’t get to a place where I would be safe.

When you live in a state of heightened physical and emotional alert, you begin to have disproportionate responses to minor events. Things like arriving at a workplace to find that your usual parking space is gone, or being asked to move a meeting to the room next door or not having a piece of post turn up when you were expecting it. On a good day I laugh at all of those, if they deserve a reaction at all. A quick tut, shrugged shoulders, a roll of the eyes at best. When I’m in a state of heightened alert though, these events are often more than I can deal with. But I needed that space, I needed that room and I needed that post – why? Because they were part of my plan to be in a safe space where I knew what to expect and how I could cope, and I don’t have any energy spare for a contingency plan, even a minor one.

Anxiety can manifest in the tiniest of ways. I hate walking through a door first into a crowded room when I am with someone. I hate the idea that people are looking at me and comparing me to the person I am with. I had to explain to my very chivalrous husband that holding open the door and saying ‘Ladies first’ was a lovely gesture but it struck terror into my heart every time. He now walks in first and reaches back for my hand, reassuring me that I’m not alone. I also hate making phonecalls. Answering the phone is fine because I know the person wants to talk to me, but actually making calls is a nightmare. I would much rather email, or text. Thankfully my boss understands this and so when I text her, she calls me back. If someone you know has funny little habits like this, don’t ridicule them or call attention to them. For all you know, they are the lynch pins to their method of coping with the demands of life.

I currently take tablets to control this condition because they regulate my brain chemistry to prevent the build up of chemicals that are currently working in overdrive to keep me in that state. I recently had to raise my dose because I found that while I might be able to function, I was beginning to get worried about everything again and was expending a lot of my energy talking myself down from rising panic over very normal situations. Eventually I will be able to find coping mechanisms to handle those things and bring my own body chemistry under control, but I’m prepared for that to take years. So is my doctor. So are my employers. So is my husband. Not one of those people has said ‘so are you better yet?’ in response to me having a good day and for that, I am very lucky woman.

Suggestions for ways you can help

Here are some suggestions that I did find, or would have found, helpful in the grip of each of these conditions, but before you charge headlong into the list thinking that I have the answers, I implore you to pay attention to this first and prime piece of advice – if you know someone who you think is struggling with one of these conditions, talk to them and find out how they are feeling before you take any action at all. Doing the wrong thing can sometimes be as damaging as doing nothing and it is essential that people who are dealing with these things should be in control of their own coping and recovery strategies. Don’t do it for them, do it with them, and listen to what they have to say.

If you know someone who is dealing with Stress:

  • Don’t keep telling them they can cope or that they are strong. It will make them feel that they SHOULD be coping or reinforce their belief that they are coping.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help. Or better still – offer. My housemate and boyfriend took over cooking dinner when I was going through stress, which made sure that I ate at least once a day. Without that support I would have been much worse.
  • Be aware that the question ‘Is everything alright?’ can be overwhelming, because it subconsciously requires them to think about everything at once and they will just shut down with an answer of ‘Everything’s Fine’ or ‘I’m OK’, because that’s too scary to contemplate. Don’t blithely take their word for it when they say they are OK, especially if you have noticed changes in their physical wellbeing.  Instead, ask about specific things (such as “how are you doing with that project for Jack’s department?” or “Have you got that history essay finished yet?”) and this will allow them to focus on that one thing. You might get a more honest answer and an opportunity to help might present itself.

If you know someone who is dealing with Depression:

  • Reassure them that they are worthy of love without qualifiers. A well meaning friend tried to tell me that I would get a good job soon, which inadvertently made me even more suicidal, because I was worried about letting them down by failing.
  • Just do the little things, rather than asking. A cup of tea, a bit of cake, an email or text message to say you’re thinking of them. Asking ‘is there anything I can do’ is well meaning, but it requires a broken person to come up with an answer, and more often than not my response in that situation would be ‘No thankyou’, even though I was starving myself to death with no personal hygiene routine. This was not because I didn’t want help, but because I didn’t feel like anything would help.
  • Do suggest that they go to a doctor and reassure them that they are unwell, not failing at being a member of the human race. Tell them that you know this isn’t who they are and that you know they are struggling. When I had depression I felt as though everyone was blind to what I was going through. Having someone say ‘I know things are difficult for you right now’ was a wonderful thing to hear, because it meant that I wasn’t invisible.

If you know someone who is dealing with Anxiety

  • If you are present when someone is having an anxiety attack, don’t belittle their fears. Telling someone who is frightened that there is nothing to be afraid of makes you part of the threat. Instead tell them that they are safe and you are with them. The issues may look like molehills to you, but they are climbing mountains.
  • Don’t try to pressure them into attending social events, especially large scale ones. Offer alternatives, a one to one coffee, a meet up with a couple of friends or a trip to the movies will be far less intimidating than a party where anyone could show up.
  • Don’t reach out and touch them unexpectedly if they seem upset. It could make the panic worse or even cause them to lash out if they are having an attack. Offer them a physical support, (“Here, take my hand, you’re going to be alright”) but don’t invade their personal space.
  • If someone seems to be overreacting to small things, especially if this is out of character, don’t tell them they are being stupid. Sometimes they know that the way they are reacting is foolish and they may already be frustrated and angry with themselves. It’s much better to acknowledge that someone is upset that imply that they should not be (“You seem pretty upset about this, do you want to talk about it?”)

These conditions are very separate and there are different ways you can offer help and support for each one. As I said, these experiences are all mine and the advice offered is based on those experiences. All three conditions are complex and the effects will vary from person to person. If you believe that you are suffering from any of these conditions, it is essential that you get help and support from a medical professional. If you know someone who is struggling in these ways, encourage them to ask for help. I now use the following mantra when working through these issues.

“If in doubt, see a doctor. If it is nothing, they will tell you it’s nothing. If it is something, they will help you.”

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