Wednesday, 27 August 2014

I'm leaving home!

Well, it's official. I got into Manchester to study physics, with a year in Europe like the cherry on top (France, here I come!). By mid-September, I'll be driving hundreds of miles up north to the great cold city while my friends are still down south packing for university. I'm filled with pride that I did well enough to get in and excited to start my new life in a new city, and I'm scared too that I'll find myself rejected by the people who don't already know me.

And although just a week ago I was walking out of the house and vowing that I couldn't wait to get of that fucking house in London, as moving day inches closer towards me I find myself wanting to hold on to life in the south. There's nothing wrong with the north...it's just not home. Not yet.

Yesterday, I woke up on a grey rainy day and dragged myself to the nearest shopping centre to get kitted out for Manchester; when it comes to big things, I'm ridiculously organised. Unfortunately, when it comes to my desk and especially my mind, I'm a slovenly mess - but that's a sob story and internet complaint for another day.

I bought my first two pairs of skinny jeans at the ripe old age of 18 and discovered that I'd been wearing my clothes too big all along. I bought cookware and crockery and tea towels so that I didn't have to leave my parents too depleted of stuff. I bought more warm clothes for the nippy winters. I bought a lava lamp to light my desk. I bought kilograms and kilograms of pen and paper and Blu-Tak to take notes and decorate my room with random stuff.

Yes, I am a rabid consumerist (at least when it comes to preparing to go away). Please rag on me for that at another time, when I'm not feeling so down in the dumps.

Anyway, my mum and I lugged all that home in the rain and started packing it up in the spare room. I meticulously organised my stationery into little piles and boxes, writing all over it, and packed up my Brian Cox books and my French stuff.

And as I knelt down in the incandescent light looking at my neatly organised stacks of stuff, the thought hit me: I'm leaving London.

I've known that I was going to leave London for...well, years now, ever since I started fighting with my parents and quickly cottoned on to the fact that I needed my own space. But it only really started to seem real yesterday, as I closed up the first cardboard box with my stationery in it.

I'm leaving. If all goes well, I'll be leaving forever. Perhaps in 3 years I'll be in a different country. I'm leaving my family and my friends behind for a new life.

And as I leave - though I don't want to admit it to my parents - I can't help but feel sad. I'm going away to start life somewhere else and cutting the ties I used to hold.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Books Hold Memories

My classics corner
There are two things I like about second-hand books: the price and the atmosphere. Living in London, where a decent science paperback can set me back anywhere between £8.99 and £10.99 and hardbacks break the £20 barrier, being able to get books cheaply is important to me and my insatiable desire for more stuff to read.

...Maybe the problem is that I've got too many books.

That's probably it.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The atmosphere, however, is what makes me love coming in bookshops - any sort of bookshop. In a normal bookshop, the kind where all the books are fresh and bright and new, I love just getting lost looking at the new releases or the promoted books, or going further back into the winding bookshelves to search for their classics and foreign literature sections. I love picking up books and looking at the blurb, or catching a whiff of some of that new book smell as I quickly flip through them to see whether I like the writing style. I love sitting on the floor to arrange the books I want, and I love carrying armfuls and armfuls of them to the brightly-lit counter to bankrupt myself.

In second-hand bookshops - particularly the independent ones which I really like visiting - the atmosphere is very different. Far from the brightly-lit shelves of a Foyles or even a Waterstone's, battered old books are crammed up against each other in the most bizarre ways. I maneouvre myself into tiny spaces with books strewn everywhere just to find one I might like. And when I take a book out to look at it, I find the most touching things.

Lucien Leuwen by Stendhal
I once walked into a lovely little second-hand bookshop not expecting to find anything particularly good (I then walked out carrying 4 books and having to be dragged away lest I buy any more, so I was wrong about that one). In a lot of second-hand books, you tend to find people writing their name on the inside - John bought this book in 1970 and so on.

What's rarer, and a lot more touching, is to see actual dedications. I remember that in that bookshop I picked up a hardcover title that, to be honest, I wasn't entirely interested in. I couldn't read what the spine said, so I opened the book to find the title and what it was actually about.

When it fell open right at the beginning, so did my mouth. For someone had written a dedication to a loved one back in the 40s. That in itself is not unusual, true - and I don't see it as that unusual. But I found it very touching, very emotional: someone loved and cared for this book - and the person they bought it for - very, very much. It was sad to see it wind up in a bookshop, far from its original owners.

Books are loved and cared for and studied by people from the past, people who have perhaps passed on - but who nonetheless had their own hopes and dreams and personalities. Their books are a link to them, a link I am privileged to have.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Why Heteronormativity is Sucky

So a lot of straight people don't understand why heteronormativity is a bad thing. And my head feels like a mess right now so bear with me if this isn't particularly well-structured.

First of all, what is heteronormativity? I use it to mean the idea that heterosexuality is, effectively, the "default setting" for humans, and that by extension MOGAI people are special and different. On the surface, you can see why this would be adopted: somewhere between 95-98% of the population are heterosexual, which is an overwhelming majority.

Secondly, why am I moaning about this in the first place? Well, because I think it's harmful. And why do I think it's harmful?

Let's start with the definition I just gave: in heteronormativity, heterosexuality is the default, the norm. Boring. You are presumed to be straight. Now, if heterosexuality is the norm, being anything else must be different and weird - and because you're presumed to be straight, you have to make a public declaration of your not-straightness. That is, you have to come out.

For those who've never had to come out, coming out is not a one-time event where you get really anxious, screw up all the courage you can muster, gather up all your friends and family and blurt it out to acceptance and relief. Because of the presumption of heterosexuality, coming out is a continuous thing and it sometimes feels almost like an obligation; I don't like people assuming I'm straight, because I'm not and I really don't like living a lie, but at the same time I know that a lot of people are still homophobic and biphobic and I'm never sure whether people will react favourably or beat me off with a stick. It's actually pretty exhausting to do.

The presumption of heterosexuality also hurts MOGAI people in other ways: we're expected to prove that we're "really" who we say we are, otherwise we're just straight people faking it for attention. Now, faking it makes sense if you take the viewpoint that being straight is boring (due to being the default), but if you take the viewpoint that MOGAI people are oppressed and discriminated against not only does the "straight people faking it for attention" idea start falling apart, you actually find a lot of MOGAI people pretending to be straight (staying in the closet) to avoid coming under fire for being the "wrong" orientation - which still happens around the world today. Not only is being told that we're faking it really stupid and hypocritical - I shouldn't have to present proof that I'm actually bisexual while people believe you without question if you say that you're straight - but it's upsetting, too, especially if it comes from people you trust. I once witnessed a discussion between two straight people I trusted about how bisexual girls who hadn't slept with girls were just straight girls who wanted attention. I felt utterly betrayed and also very helpless, because I knew that if I told them the truth they'd dismiss me as just another attention-seeker. My only crime was not fitting their model of what a bisexual should look like. Being very mentally fragile at the time, I had an anxiety attack, crawled into a corner and shook, and avoided the two of them for a couple of weeks after that.

So in brief, that's why heteronormativity sucks: it means MOGAI people have to constantly tell other people about our sexual orientations or live a lie, and it means that we have to "prove" it (particularly to straight people).

Who upholds heteronormativity? Most straight people and some MOGAI people too. It's an idea. You don't have to be one specific identity to hold it. However, because it's an idea it can also be rejected - and I find that the best way to reject heteronormativity is not to assume things. Recognise that being MOGAI is not an aberration or a deviation from the heterosexual norm, because if you're born with it, it's normal. Try to use gender-neutral language, particularly when referring to people's spouses and such; if they get offended, they get offended. Better than heteronormativity anyway. And for the love of whatever deity you believe in, don't assume that MOGAI people have to "prove" their sexuality. It's untrue, annoying and harmful.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Half the Earth Stolen

Words to do with suicide
...or what happens after that person you love killed themselves. (Obvious trigger warning for suicide is obvious.)

So on tumblr there used to be this post (I can't find it now) that went something like "If, when I committed suicide I could see how it would affect other people and choose whether or not to go through with it, I'd be dead already".

If you could see how your suicide affected other people, it would spook you out of trying for a long time. Tumblr isn't always great with mental health help.

I have attempted suicide more times than I care to share and witnessed the suicide attempts of people close to me, so I've been on both sides of the discussion and I think I have a fair idea of what I'm talking about.

Pills with insults written on them
A lot of suicidal people think that if we killed ourselves, our loved ones would be better off. It happens a lot when you're depressed: your self-negativity clouds everything and your low mood isolates you, so you don't feel loved and it can be hard to see and accept the love of others. And you feel like the inconvenience of having you around outweighs whatever affection people may feel for you. "Positivity" that consists of tired platitudes and people telling you to just pull yourself together because you're being annoying doesn't help either.

When you feel suicidal, the belief that everyone would be better off without you makes it that much easier to end everything. But what actually happens to those left behind?

Initially you might get shock and disbelief: how could they be gone? How can someone be present and alive and just there one day and then the next day they're gone, never to come back, and then maybe a week later you're sitting there at the funeral service?

It's not something easy to understand. It feels like half the earth has been stolen from under your feet. Only half, because somehow you're still standing and you don't know why.

And then you get the realisation that they are dead. Forever. That nothing can bring them back, that even if you tried to join them in your grief they'd still stay stubbornly un-alive and unmoving beneath the ground. And it leaves a big hole in your life, as clich├ęd as that is to say, because that person you love will never come back. You will never be able to smile with them, or hug them, or comfort them through another hard time, ever again - and if you get to reach out and touch them, it's only to touch a cold, unresponsive corpse. Perhaps it is easier for people who believe in an afterlife if you think that you will one day be reunited with your loved ones. But I believe that after death there is absolutely nothing, just decomposing in the ground and waiting for the eventual heat death of the universe, which isn't particularly comforting.

Often you get very angry - and yes, you get angry at the person who has died, which is an unfair burden on someone who was in enough pain to take their own life, but grief is a shitty burden of its own and clogs up your mind so that thinking logically is nearly impossible. Some of you might be angry at the person for being so selfish, but it's more common to be angry with them for not letting you know - not a phone call, not an email, not a scrap of emotion let past their lips that might have helped prepare you, so you have to get that phone call from the hospital or a relative or a friend or even go hunting up the information yourself. Sometimes you get angry seeing another person's grief, seeing someone cry so hard they can hardly breathe. It's also very common to be angry at yourself: if only you'd spotted the warning signs, if only you'd been more proactive, if only you'd stayed another couple of days and not let them out of your sight the person you loved wouldn't be dead. And it's your fault.

Anger runs into guilt. Even professionals find it difficult to predict who's going to go through with a suicide and who isn't, but that won't stop your guilt. You obsessively run over each tiny little detail of the days leading up to the suicide, looking for the signs that you see as blazing and clear in hindsight but that just looked like so much white noise to you. You beat yourself up about it, that you should have been there to help and it was your fault and if you hadn't been so shit maybe they'd still be alive. And 6 months later the realisation hits you again, that they're gone forever, that they're never coming back, and you start shaking in a corner of the bed.

This is what happens after you kill yourself. Not happiness. Not relief. Just shock, grief, anger and guilt. So if your reason for suicide is that you think people will be better off without you, I hope talking about my experiences has changed your mind.

But I cannot stop you from committing suicide just by saying "look, people will be worse off if you die!" (although that can be a factor in why people choose to stay alive).

In fact, I cannot stop you at all. Only you can do that.

What I can say is that if you try and make the decision to end your life whilst actively suicidal, your decision will very likely be biased. You probably won't be taking account of all the things you should be taking account of. Sometimes it is better to wait and see where things lead, to wait until you have experienced things more before you decide that you're tired of life, to wait and see whether medication or talking treatments (which help you to identify thought patterns) do any good. Death will come anyway, so it's not like there's any big rush.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

But who would love someone with scars?

This post discusses self-harm. You have been warned.

I spend a disturbing amount of time in the company of people slightly younger than me (I'm 18). Not much younger, of course - 15, 16. Old enough to be articulate and form ideas about the world, but not old enough to see as much of it as I have.

I really need to get off Tumblr.

Anyway, if you remember being 15 or 16, you probably remember being very confused, insecure and angsty. (If you don't, you're either lying to yourself or you lived in a happier time and now I'm jealous of you because I spent my early- and mid-teens being suicidally depressed.) Some of you probably remember showing your angst to others in some pretty horrible ways.

I'll now make an obligatory digression so I can say something very important: if you are considering self-harm, I have been there. I have looked at my body and thought "how utterly disgusting, I'm such a poser, I need more scars". I have looked at my body and wanted to punish it. I have thought that carving scars into my skin would make me feel better.

But it doesn't work. When you take that blade to your skin and you try to draw blood, you don't feel better. You feel dead inside. But your body releases endorphins as a response to the pain, so you learn to associate cutting yourself with the weak rush you get. And the next time you feel that bad, your body tells you that cutting will fix that feeling (even though it won't). So you cut again and you get that weak rush and you reinforce the conditioning that cutting is a good thing. But you'll build up a tolerance to that endorphin rush, so you'll have to cut deeper and do more damage. And the cycle will continue to get ever more destructive. People will start asking awkward questions and sooner or later they'll stop believing that it was the cat or that you fell down the stairs. You will get embarrassed. You will hate yourself more. You will cut yourself even more. And should you try to quit, you will find it difficult. You will relapse. A lot. You will have to resist the urge to cut a lot in the beginning, and while the urge fades it doesn't totally go away. You will have to break old thought patterns and create new ones, which isn't exactly easy. And you will always have those scars to remind you of what you did.

So don't start. It will only cause you more pain in the end.

If you are thinking about starting to self-harm, or you already self-harm, there are plenty of alternatives to doing so. Some will work for you, some won't, and you might even decide not to try some if you think that they'll exacerbate previously existing issues. It can help to have a list of things to do close by to help increase the psychological availability of the distractions and alternatives.

Self-harm distractions and alternatives
Even more distractions and alternatives to self-harm
Self-harm prevention
146 things to do besides self-harm
66 things to do that aren't self-harm
A couple of self-harm alternatives
Some coping and distraction techniques
Myths, facts and coping techniques
Coping with self-harming urges
Big list of self-harm alternatives

(hell, even reading all those lists might distract you for a bit)

Back to the point. Let's say that you cut, or you have cut, and either way you've ended up with scars on your body that you absolutely hate. It is possible to make scars less visible using a variety of methods, but results vary and they tend to work better on newer scars than old ones.

wikiHow article on multiple ways to reduce scar visibility
Yahoo answers on making a scar fade
NHS Choices article about scarring
/r/SkincareAddiction: I need help fading self harm scars

When you have lots of scars, people tend to ask awkward questions. Sometimes they skip the awkward questions and go straight to insulting you, because apparently that's the best thing to do to someone who's struggled with self-harm in the past. I tend to insult back, but not everyone is as disgustingly misanthropic as I am. And when you are mentally ill, people tend to treat you as lesser. You are considered weak for a million and one reasons. Sometimes you are told you have brought it upon yourself, or that you deserved it. You are told to pull yourself together, which has never been good advice to give to a mentally ill person and never will be. You are told that nobody wants to be friends with someone too negative; when dark thoughts are eating you alive, this can be interpreted as "if I don't lie and pretend to be happy, my friends will leave me". Other people think that you're going to become violent. Often parents aren't particularly supportive, perhaps because they feel that having a mentally ill child is failure on their part. And because you might fear the reaction, it's easy to hold back and not tell school or uni that anything's wrong (not that they're always good at helping). Because of this culture of demonising mental illness, and because self-harm scars are a very obvious marker of mental illness, it can be difficult to imagine that anyone would love or even extend kindness to someone with scars.

I am not here to tell you that one day, when you grow up, everything will be okay. Sadly, that is a bare-faced lie; most of the examples of ableism I have given are from adults. What I will say is as you get older, more bad stuff happens to you and the people you love, and it forces you to stop being so ignorant. The people who say that they "don't believe in that depression crap" and that mental illness is an excuse for people to be weak find themselves crying in counselling and self-harming or using drugs. People learn their lessons in the harshest ways possible, and it makes it difficult to judge others too harshly.

As you grow older, you also tend to move about a lot more - from your little bubble of home and school to university and work, maybe to a different city, maybe to a different country. At least I find that's what happens to me, but moving around a lot is in my family and so I consider staying in the same area all your life to be very unusual. Another thing that happens is that you get at least one device with access to the internet. This is absolutely brilliant, because social networks like twitter and tumblr allow you to "meet" people from all over the world, as long as you can understand each other. On the internet, people tend to meet based on interests rather than on geographical location - which helps you find other people with common interests, rather than having to nod politely as you realise with a sinking feeling that you and that other person you were just introduced to have absolutely nothing in common. These weak ties can be quite beneficial, as they'll give you some measure of support; some of them even develop into stronger ties like friendships and relationships. If you're careful about boundaries and making sure people are who they say they are, you can develop some very close friendships and relationships. (It's how I met my partner.) So either way, the older you get, the more you tend to move away from the same little circles and the more you tend to meet new people. For people like me, who often find that they don't have that much in common with the people they grew up with (I don't have that much in common with that many people because I'm introverted, academically-minded and abrasive), this can be a godsend. If you have a knack for it, learning another language will also help you to communicate with others (and I think it's fun).

So what am I trying to say? That things may seem shit now, and your brain may keep telling you that they will stay shit - but that this doesn't have to be the case. People grow up and shit happens and you move away, and perhaps one day there will be someone who understands.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Accessibility in social justice spaces

This article is going to be boring, for which I apologise in advance; not everything I write can be interesting and engaging. Indeed, nothing I've written so far actually is. However, as my mother drilled into my head from a very young age and continues to drill into my head today, not everything important is going to grab your attention.

So, you're into social justice. You're radical and progressive and all about breaking down systems of oppression. You see the injustice in everything and rail against it with all the righteous fury you can muster. So far, so good, right? I'm not going to pretend that changing the world is simple or easy or produces instant results. I guess a good analogy is water running over a rock: you might think that the rock's just going to stay there, immutable and unmoveable, whether you pour the water over it for one month or one year or even ten years. But perhaps in eleven years' time you can start to see the rock wearing down, and in twelve years' time a tiny crack in the rock forms, and by the time that it hits fifty years since the water first started pouring over the rock the crack's got so big that the rock just shatters.

Anyway, digression over. Can anyone actually get to see what you're doing and what you're discussing? In other words, is your work accessible to others?

Accessibility is one of those things that doesn't get thought about as much as it should do (and I include myself in the group of people who don't think about accessibility enough), because it's one of those truly invisible things: for example, most sighted people don't use screen readers. So we're used to being able to read text on images like infographics and memes. However, a screen reader cannot "read" an image - it can only read the alt text or an image description. And if you happen to be using a screen reader and someone hasn't put any descriptions...well, that's a bit shit.

"But why do I need to bother making my stuff accessible?" you might ask. "That's just derailing! I mean, I can understand my point well enough!"

Look, with regards to accessibility a lot of people fuck up. I know I have. Multiple times. And I'm guessing other people have too, because it's invisible. When you can access something, you tend to take it for granted and so thinking about not being able to access that something, and how you would work around that, is easily forgotten. But that doesn't make it right.

Particularly in academic spheres, the kinds of people who tend to be having these discussions are relatively privileged: wealthy, well-educated, and probably white, cis and straight and with no disabilities or conditions. The kinds of people who need accessibility are usually much less privileged - maybe they're poorer or didn't have access to as much education for whatever reason, or they're disabled, or don't speak the language you communicate in as a first language. So claiming to have a discussion about how to be socially just and then excluding more marginalised people isn't the greatest idea in the world. Outside of academia it happens less often, but there's still quite a lot of inaccessibility going on.

I have many privileges. I am sighted and in most cases I can process sound and text very well. I have no learning difficulties. I am reasonably wealthy and overly educated. I have decent access to education. I am able-bodied. So I am probably the worst person in the world to be talking about accessibility - or perhaps just one of the worst people, after the dreaded white cishet male who oppresses everyone within a 1,000-mile radius. And so I ask politely for people to leave their own suggestions for accessibility in the comments. Till then, here are a couple of things I can think of:
  • Educate yourself! I find that a good resource is fuckyeahaccessibility.tumblr.com. Although the last update was 2 years ago, the archives are very useful.
  • Recognise that the social justice sphere uses a lot of highly specific terminology that newcomers may be unfamiliar with and that may present a barrier to communication. Define unfamiliar words in an easily accessible glossary.
  • Recognise that social justice mindsets themselves require some getting used to for a lot of people, so don't yell and snap at a newcomer for not knowing everything immediately. Point them in the direction of a link or two.
  • No autoplay. Please, no autoplay. It's fine to have a music player, but it shouldn't be turned on by default; some people get triggered by sudden noises. Even for perfectly abled people it's more a matter of courtesy than anything else - sorry, but if I want to hear your music I'll turn it on myself.