Sunday, 25 November 2012

A question of trust

You know the phrase, "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs" - it's similar when it comes to trust. At some point, if we want to benefit from rewarding relationships we have to take the plunge and risk sharing something of ourselves that is personal - we have to trust. This can be an extremely difficult thing to do if you have ever been mentally ill, harder still if you have been hurt or abused.

As with many things we learn whether or not to trust others in our early development as children, and whether or not we learn at all depends on our own view of our own safety. We establish a sense of real safety the first time when we confided in someone over something that is emotionally important to us. As children most of us are told to be honest when we've made a mistake, broken something or done something naughty; it is often our initial foray into trusting another to do so and what happens next begins to shape our future - the response to that confession. Good parenting will acknowledge that you have owned up, bad parenting will not.

Whenever our best efforts go unacknowledged it can cause damage to our mental well-being. If we also then find ourselves punished for being honest, taken advantage of for being considerate, kind or generous or rejected for displaying affection that damage could reach very serious levels. Emotional abuse can be as devastating as physical abuse, much depends on what else we may have in our armoury to help us cope or recover. When we no longer wish to take the risk of trusting others at all we can end up making do with a socially deprived existence which is not the natural or healthy life of any human being. 

As a species we are a social animal, we need to engage with others and share our experiences for us to be happy within ourselves. As individuals though, we can all too easily count up all the bad experiences and not note at all any good ones when we encounter others. We are all equally vulnerable to the same level of risk when it comes to trust, but we must always strive to remember that one relationship that has been abusive doesn't mean that all will be.

It is well worth noting that it is seldom the case that in an emotional dispute or disagreement one side is entirely right and the other entirely to blame. Such instances are very rare and are at the extremes of abuse and the only option in those circumstances is to leave that relationship and go and seek a better one. It sounds simple but, for victims of serious levels of abuse it most certainly isn't. For them trust is a huge issue and it is rare for them ever to be able to recover without intensive levels of help from professionals.

What we can do for ourselves
Most people seek intimacy of some kind from someone else, but we can help ourselves by ensuring that we protect ourselves from danger by sharing who we are bit by bit. Even within families we can never know everything there is to know about each other, as to do so would require us to follow someone around 24/7 and quiz them endlessly about every thought, feeling and reaction they had. It's not something any of us would like. 

What we share by way of experiences with siblings is never the same as what we share with parents, friends, partners, work colleagues, acquaintances or complete strangers. Everyone in our lives starts as a stranger at some point, even as babies we are busy working out who and what these strange people are that go with the label of parent. Just as we learn about our family gradually, so too should we do the same when we encounter new people in our lives.

Problems can arise though when we have been isolated or alone for any length of time for whatever reason as we can either end up too nervous and shy to communicate or the reverse and download everything that's in our heads. I've done both at different periods of my life. The trick is to not only share who we are but take time to learn who the other person is. If you are not interested in what someone else finds important, why would they be interested in what you find important? However, we should never go about prising information out of people or cut to the chase. Instead we can help ourselves by taking smaller steps.

Easy does it
Learning about others is rather like peeling away the layers of an onion, in the process getting closer and closer to the centre. Likewise we should hold back on what we reveal about ourselves until we are absolutely sure about moving on to share the next layer of who we are. At any point we can stop sharing any more if ever we feel nervous. At any point we should also have an escape plan should things become threatening. 

When I was in my late teens I would test new people out by sharing my poetry with others - those that ran a mile I dismissed, while those that stuck around were put on my potential friends list. While there is nothing wrong with sharing an interest you have with others, it was a daunting one to be on the receiving end of as my poetry revealed too much too soon and I swamped people with it. Looking back now I'm surprised anyone stuck around!.

Far better to start with something simpler and less meaningful such as what a person likes to eat, watch on TV or what music they like. In other words something a little more neutral. Later on you can start sharing a particular favourite and when it feels right explain why that's a favourite - there might be a personal memory attached but if so, try sharing a happy memory before any sad ones as that way you will not only be keeping yourself save, but also be coming across as a person who is capable of being happy and therefore not a vulnerable person others can take advantage of.

With the passage of time I have toned down how I approach people, but given my own childhood was fairly intense I still haven't mastered it. These days I rarely share even a single poem, but I do share my more positive experiences first unless I have reason to share troubles e.g. some problem that prevents me getting to work. It takes practise but I feel I've made good progress. Here are a few rules of mine that have helped help me gauge who to trust and who to be wary of.

I never trust anyone who cannot laugh as freely about themselves as they would others. Nor do I trust anyone who is keen to be critical of others or who gossips a lot. People may appear to be considerate but can be devious and manipulative, so I watch their behaviour more than take their words as gospel. Nor do I trust those who continually sit in judgement of others, or who preach as if they are the world's authority on who anyone else is. I also ask myself things like "do they listen and hear everyone else? Are they able to put themselves in someone else's shoes and talk about what that person might be feeling if asked? Do they only talk about themselves and if so why" - it could be because no one has ever listened to them, or it could be because no one else matters to them. "Are they able to forgive and forget genuine mistakes made by others?"

There is no doubt about it, relationships of any kind can be complicated, but the more at ease we are with ourselves the easier it becomes to form worthwhile relationships with others. We may never want to enter into an argument, but sometimes we might need one to clear the air. In a good relationship such things should be possible without it ever seeming like the end of the world as it should hurt both parties to be arguing. Misunderstandings and differences need to be resolved quickly to prevent emotions escalating out of proportion and resentment or bitterness setting in. Likewise being able to be silent without it feeling uncomfortable is only possible if there is a strong bond between two people.

That special one in your life
The strongest bond most of us strive for is a partner. Someone once told me that "your partner is the one whose faults you can accept." It doesn't mean though that their quirky habits won't annoy and irritate you, it merely means that on balance the things you like about them outnumber the things you don't. Nor does it mean you should ever negate yourself, your worth, your friends, interests or family for them to end up as their slave. 

When it comes to the physical intimacy you have with a partner the same step by step process over getting to know them is a wise safeguard and that can be tricky when your hormones are aroused and telling you to just go for it. A hand being held, a caress and a kiss are all elements of foreplay and there is no law that states you have to even go that far in the course of a year. Go at your pace, and if your partner gets annoyed - well maybe they shouldn't be your partner then. Only embark on intercourse when you are both ready.

Sexual intercourse is another form of communication and as such it can be extremely varied. You need to agree about likes and dislikes early on and it is wise to work out during petting sessions how to help each other when one or other of you is not in the mood. Sexual abuse is not something either party should be aiming for or be on the receiving end of and talking about preferences early on should help prevent any misunderstandings. 

It is not a woman's role to just lie there and let a man do with her what he wants, nor is anyone obliged to submit to sex on demand at any point. If you find your partner is not interested in sex, it may be for a myriad of reasons and only having a calm and sensible discussion will help resolve it.

I have met people who claim that they have sex 3-4 times a day, and others who say they have sex once a month with their partners. Don't try to emulate what others do, only do what is right for you. Sex can be as wonderful or as dull as you and your partner wish to make it, but again it never need be the only important aspect of you life.

Finally, whenever any relationship doesn't work out, try to think this... it's clearing the way for a better relationship that will work. By learning what we don't want or like, we also learn what we do. It's worth a certain amount of risk to keep trying albeit with due caution. Above all never get heavily involved with anyone who does not respect or acknowledge you and your worth. Stay safe.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The ethical minefield of diagnosing children

Months ago I saw this article in the New York Times 'Can you call a 9 year old a psychopath?' I was deeply disturbed by it and it's taken me this long to decide how to respond to it. It is an article about a boy named Michael who has been diagnosed as a psychopath. Here's the link:

It is perhaps a good thing that such articles are now in the public domain, particularly given the Time to Change campaign ( What this article really does is highlight how complicated and ethically complex the treatment of the mentally ill is. However it also indicates that people are working very hard toward trying to prevent mental illness in the first place. The methods used though are such that they raise deep rooted concerns precisely because medical teams even at the very highest levels do not always have enough information from sufferers to help them.

This article many find extremely chilling as it doesn't seem to bode well for the future of psychological health care. As we can never separate out genetics and physiology from the effects of the environments in which we exist it will, in my opinion, always be impossible to identify if a person of any age is 'irretrievably' ill with a permanent condition. It can seem that this attitude toward labelling people when they are still children could easily hinder progress rather than help it. Or maybe not...

The issue of early diagnosis is a tricky one. I am vehemently against labelling a anyone as mentally ill (least of all a child) due to the very real  and all too common prospect of them suffering a lifetime of stigma and discrimination; but I also feel that some kind of label is appropriate for mental health specialists to understand that there is a difficulty that needs addressing and solutions for. On the one hand if medical professionals get to the root cause and can cure or aid patients to manage their conditions for themselves that's great; on the other treatments and the attitude of 'they're ill' can so easily serve to cause or escalate the problems.

Encouraging sufferers of all kinds, from all ages and backgrounds to talk and enter into a dialogue with medical practitioners is, as I say, vital to progress with regard to refining treatments and in steering away from prejudice. Without such discussions neither party can hope to improve services to alleviate symptoms, improve the quality of their lives or discover effective cures.

Here though, I have to admit to a wariness when it comes to new American mental health care initiatives as it seems to have been the home of some of the most bizarre experiments and practises of all in mental health care history. More haste, less speed is the maxim that often springs to mind. Not that the USA has had the monopoly on strange practises at all - far from it. I don't for a second doubt the good intent and in some respects here in the UK, progress can be frustratingly slow by comparison due to the perhaps over abundance of caution and/or serious levels of sheer neglect. Sweeping things under the carpet is no better and not very helpful when a sufferer is desperate for relief from their distress.

Identifying psychopaths 

To quote from the article...

"Donald Lynam, a psychologist at Purdue University who has spent two decades studying “fledgling psychopaths,” says that these differences may eventually solidify to produce the unusual mixture of intelligence and coldness that characterizes adult psychopaths. “The question’s not ‘Why do some people do bad things?’ ” Lynam told me by phone. “It’s ‘Why don’t more people do bad things?’ And the answer is because most of us have things that inhibit us. Like, we worry about hurting others, because we feel empathy. Or we worry about other people not liking us. Or we worry about getting caught. When you start to take away those inhibitors, I think that’s when you end up with psychopathy.”

Difficult for the family to find the right professionals and what a journey that must have been. Each experience with each new medical team will have had an impact. If Michael learns to be manipulative from the dynamics of a family environment, think what he will be learning from professional boffins! If the treatment to involve isolating Michael to the extent of depriving him of social contact - hardly what one wants to do to a child and thereby lies the major difficulty. Even when hospitalised the aim should be to reintegrate where at all possible. At what point is that feasible for psychopaths or should it be given there are a significant number of them functioning in society already - notably corporate psychopaths who, it could be argued, are responsible for most of society's problems.

It is extremely difficult to help a child because their minds are still developing as you do so. A child like Michael who is that challenging can and will cause psychological damage to others if left to their own devices. And that's surely the point isn't it? His parents don't have much choice for as responsible parents they have to address that challenging behaviour somehow. In the process they have to go with whoever and whatever is on offer to try to help.

Treatments should only be done with the consent of the patient but severe conditions mean that patients may not be able to make such choices and a child is deemed too young to make such decisions - at least an adult has the right to refuse treatments unless it is life threatening. Parents and guardians of those children it seems are at the mercy of the latest medical opinion, but then isn't that true of physical ailments and treatments too.

What's apparent to me from this article in the New York Times and why I re-read it, is that my own emotional reaction came first with a simple 'no way' just from reading the title. By re-reading it with a more objective head I saw that there are possibilities of hope even though I remain riddled with concerns about the methods deployed. The reality for the family and patients involved almost seems secondary to the boffin's uppermost concern which is to make a study of these children. But how else can things progress? Without such studies, how are they to learn anything to be able to help? The difficulty is, how do we avoid studying any ailment without it seeming that those being studied are little more than lab rats to be experimented on?

Early diagnosis for other conditions

This article touches the broader issue of whether it is right to be labelling children with anything when it comes to mental health. It poses all manner of ethical questions, none of which have simple answers. Just as loneliness, poverty and abuse can cause adults to become ill the same is true of a child who may not be able to articulate what troubles them any better than adult sufferers can. The main difference being that medics will always be able to successfully project their theories on a child's condition far more easily than they they can over an adult and be deemed to be a reliable authority on their welfare and state of mind. Can a child defend themselves against false accusations over their responses on an intellectual level; can they debate psychology, treatment and diagnosis? Answer no. Indeed few adults can either outside or inside the medical profession.

If a child with birthmark on their face can end up with confidence and socialising problems from endless teasing at school, how much more is that true if the name calling is based on their mental health? We have a conflict of desire here for if we want to educate people away from being fearful and prejudiced, openness is called for; but such is the nature of us all that pigeon holing is almost bound to take place and boy do we love to label things to the point that one word is often regarded as sufficient to explain and encapsulate a whole of raft different things. 

I have spent over 10 times longer fighting the stigma of mental illness than I ever spent actually being mentally ill. Friends prior to my becoming ill never accepted that I was well again afterwards and new contacts on hearing that I was once ill have continually dismissed virtually every mood (be they happy or sad), thought and opinion as a symptom of illness if they were not in tune with their wishes and needs. 

Subject anyone to that and they are likely to develop mental health problems. That is precisely why I spent so much time in counselling to learn how to be assertive and to dismiss people who negate others as having unresolved issues of their own. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. That has even applied to some sections of the medical profession who remain all too attached to labels as opposed to engaging with sufferers in order to help them.

Just as a wheelchair user wants to be seen and valued as a person for what they can do as opposed to what they cannot, so too do the mentally ill. Surely a major part of the solution to mental illness is to build upon what is functioning healthily and to use that to combat what isn't.

This is why I believe the Time to Change campaign is so vital. Those of us who have suffered from any form of mental illness can help educate mental health teams toward finding more 'user friendly' methods of treatment. Generalisations and one cure fits all are never going to work for the vast array illnesses be they mental or physical. Health care of any kind must be conducted on a case by case basis at all times if it is ever to be successful. Never must the individual be thought of as anything other than a three dimensional, all living, all breathing person with the basic human right and need to be treated with the utmost respect and consideration.

I found all this an intensely provocative emotional experience. I suspect readers will too, but we cannot hope to make progress in mental health care and in fighting the stigma by avoiding these fundamental issues. I wish I had answers, I really do but it is probably better we find them collectively by teaming up with medical teams who know how to be respectful and will listen properly. They cannot hope to help though, if we hold back on what so deeply concerns us. All I have to offer is that a sense of balance should be uppermost when it comes to new initiatives when it comes to health care. It should always permit a patient their say, their dignity and whenever possible their right of choice. Choices are best made when information is provided, but if the choice is to cause harm to others then I feel it is only right to start to limit the right to choose to things which will not cause such harm.

As for Michael, well personally I think it wrong that a child that young is labelled with any mental illness, but that's not to say there isn't something wrong. Far better I think to focus on the cause and treatment and forget about labels altogether... but then that's my opinion on all mental health labels no matter what age the sufferer is. 

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Bereavement - what to do

I have commented before on how I see bereavement as similar to mental illness due to how it manifests itself. Emotions, when they come, often descend on us unexpectedly; are intense, sometimes to the point of being unmanageable and all that seemed solid, permanent and totally reliable can be brought into question. It can be, and often is an extremely frightening experience. On the one hand, one doesn't want to feel sad as our loved ones who have died wouldn't wish it; on the other it can seem disrespectful and a lie not to be when we missed that loved one so much. It is therefore often confusing and can lead to internal emotional turmoil.

Yet bereavement, like mental illness, has often been a taboo subject. It's as if those who have experienced it don't want to be reminded of their own experiences of loss and those who have yet to encounter it don't want to have to acknowledge the likelihood that they will suffer such a loss too. It can therefore be a very isolating experience to undergo. Even family members can find it difficult to share their individual feelings within the family as experiences can be so very different.

On both occasions when I lost my parents it took years to adjust and to find meaning, value and purpose to my life again. Nothing seemed to matter and nothing could fill the hole left from the loss. To begin with I continued as normal with work and my social life as if nothing had happened; later I buried myself in other people's troubles and in particular how the surviving members of my family were coping. Eventually though the shock of the loss wore off and my own need for an outlet for my feelings escalated. I became irritated with everyone and everything but most of all angry.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for people to be supportive of the bereaved even by simple means. Check they are eating, sleeping and looking after themselves. Help with day to day chores can literally end up being a lifesaver. Taking people out, sharing books, videos, music etc can likewise help even if you are not up to sitting a listening to a person reminisces about their loved one. One of the saddest things I have ever heard was from a lady who said she had stopped visiting her neighbour after that neighbour's daughter had died because the house had become unclean and it was depressing to visit. Such neglect of the bereaved can and has led people to suicide.

Signs to watch out for
Excesses of behaviour and or neglect e.g. if a bereaved person starts to become obsessive over things that never used to bother them or if they care less about their personal appearance. They might start to put on or lose weight rapidly, show less interest in things, or become irritable. In all cases try to encourage that person to talk to someone and make the point that it need not be you thereby given them the widest range of options possible.

From my own experiences I know that it is all too easy to shutdown and not communicate at all, pretend I am fine when I'm not and how easy it can be to have my emotions take over. In all instances I caused myself great harm by not sharing what I was experiencing. Not something that either of my parents would have wished for me.

It is a myth to say that bereavement is similar for everyone, for while there are common factors not everyone will experience all the emotions that are possible. A bereaved person might find themselves getting angry with themselves, the world or even the person who has died for dying and leaving them - or they might not. Such feelings are healthy and normal, but we often need someone there to help guide us through them. Guilt is another emotion that is not uncommon but not necessarily one that everyone experiences.

The reason for this is quite simple - it depends on who we are as individuals and what our relationship was like with the person that died. If you lose a parent you might have got on well with them, or not and your reactions will be accordingly different. If you lose a child, a partner, sibling or friend your response to that loss will be different again. The circumstances of the death are also a major factor in how we are able to manage our emotions and how we react to that loss.

I am not saying here that everyone who experiences a bereavement will become mentally ill, but some do simply because they have no guidance on how to deal with death or support when bereaved. Most people have friends and family (and/or doctors) that are happy to help them work through their loss, but for those who don't I would recommend bereavement counselling of some kind. In common with all forms of counselling, what you share with a counsellor never gets shared with anyone else unless they feel you are a danger to yourself or others. Sometimes those dark secrets and demons that we all have need to be confronted to ensure that they do not trouble us or escalate out of all proportion. Often they become extreme because we don't talk about them, but counselling can help us to avoid suffering unnecessary extremes of distress.

Death is a part of life, but it never needs to permanently cripple the quality of our lives. I, along with billions of people before me, am living proof that we can endure even great loss and go on to embrace life once more. Please don't be afraid to ask your doctor for help if you are bereaved and if you know someone who has suffered a loss, please watch out for them to ensure that they get whatever support they may need to help them to adjust to a new chapter in their lives.

I found I needed a lot of time to pick through all my memories of my parents - it was as if I wanted to firmly fix in my head the very best of all that they were so that I could learn how to be a credit to them by sharing all their best bits with others. The result is happy/sad tears whenever I think of them. I now feel lucky to have known them at all let alone known them so well.

If you are bereaved, please talk to someone and keep talking. If you are on your own and have no family, work colleagues, neighbours or friends you feel you can talk to be brave and talk to your doctor so that they can keep an eye on you and support you through your loss. Remember you are not a burden to anyone, you are justified in feeling sad, confused or lost. It is natural and normal to feel that way. Equally, if you are concerned that you are not feeling anything at all, talk to your doctor as emotions are often confusing and unexpected when we are bereaved.

Finally, please remember that bereavement takes it's own time so never rush or become impatient with it. It is a process of adjustment so you should never feel guilty over what you are feeling. If you live in the UK and need someone to talk to here's a couple of links:

For more links type in ''bereavement counselling'' into your internet search engine (browser) but I would recommend avoiding on line services and forums. Instead, seek help from professionals in person as it can make all the difference.

This article has been written with a particular friend in mind who is suffering from the initial shock of losing a very dear loved one. My thoughts are with them and all who are bereaved.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Know how full your glass is and finding words of meaning

You know the one... is your glass half full or half empty? Assuming life can be seen in this way, and assuming that's the measure of volume it contains, the chances are it's exactly 50% capacity. Depending on which of my myriad of thinking hats is on I may feel it's half empty, half full; could do with emptying or filling; or just be seen as something aesthetically pleasing; I may be fearing it getting knocked over. It highlights our perspective on things.

A Paradox
Why is it that those who hold the belief that life is not serious are so serious themselves in their conviction? To me it highlights a desire to avoid the unpleasant which we cannot always do and in my opinion are foolish to try to avoid - it will catch up with you in the end.

Many months ago now I had just come away from sending messages to concerned friends and relatives in Australia in their anxiety over the floods and fires happening over there when I saw someone quote this on a social networking site.

"Not a shred of evidence exists in favour of the idea that life is serious." Brendan Gill

Some people had to abandon their homes to save their lives. Upon their return, when the floods and fire abated they were going to encounter their former lives being in a state of devastation. (Since this happened more reports of others elsewhere affected by floods came in). In response to the posting I said "Say that to the homeless, the bereaved, the tortured etc and you'll find you'll be regarded as heartless and callous at best. For them the act of just surviving is serious. This sort of thing encourages selfishness and a lack of compassion and consideration for others I think."

The truth is 'not being serious' and not taking everything to heart is where we all ought to try to aim for; not to let life's blows knock us back, but that if the world was really like that 24/7 there would be no understanding or compassion for others in times of unforeseen and unasked for difficulty. What is lacking from this idea is the understanding that we have to be in the right place for it to be possible to overcome adversity.

The same person had previously posted this but then, they like provoking debate. "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The trouble with sentiments and sound bites like this is that out of context they mean little. When we read them we apply our own context which is why I ended up disagreeing with the statement. It would be great if we were all at one with the world so that material goods, and the necessary and tedious mundane chores were like a distant bad dream but it requires three key elements to get there.

1. Receptivity to the idea
If a person has just lost their sight, their limbs, their home or a relative they are not likely to be receptive that losing more is a great idea or that life isn't serious. Timing is key. People do recover and find joy and meaning to their lives again even after such events. Such experiences shift ideals, alters ambition and goals in a person's life. Like a child learning that touching something hot teaches them to be cautious, so these sorts of events teach us to reconfigure things too. The result is usually a re-evaluation of what it is that really is of value, and it's rarely money and frivolity that comes out on top. Health and quality relationships most commonly become the priorities.

2. Giving up old ideals
Change is seldom welcome when it's enforced on us and we are deprived of choice. As humans we are reluctant to give up the familiar which includes ideals. One of the things I find alarming is that these pearls of wisdom advising us not to be serious and to give up everything trivial and material in our lives often come from people who are very comfortably off and awash with belongings and a lifestyle that is seemingly trouble free. Personally I have more respect when they come from the most impoverished when they are in that situation, for then they become inspiring.

The moral here is do some research and check the source of these 'pearls of wisdom' before adopting them as a mantra for how to live your life. A quote in isolation is just that, unconnected to anything.

3. Phenomenal levels of hard work
To adopt a philosophy of letting go of everything in the material world, to not take anything seriously will isolate you because it's not a lifestyle that many can achieve and it doesn't happen overnight. It requires totally abandoning all that has come before. I deeply admire Buddists, Toaist, Christian, Jewish and Hindu faiths among others that can enable people to do this but I know I cannot follow any of them to that degree.

As the joke goes "How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has got to want to change." That want to change comes even after traumatic experiences but it doesn't follow that you have to abandon and negate everything you love and like to adopt a new, more fulfilling way of living your life.

In the argument that ensued following my response to Brendan Gill's quote a little gem emerged from a person who seemed to be regarding me as the devil personified for pointing out that life isn't always a barrel of laughs or can lack it's serious elements. "Laughter isn't something you look for, it's something you allow to happen." and she seemed offended by my complimenting her on it.

Regardless, I found it truly inspiring as a comment that helps people to not feel bad about enjoying life even when others are suffering. We are allowed to still indulge in finding pleasures and it's healthy to want to for it acts as a balance. Who of us wants to spend our lives only dwelling in the negative, in suffering and pain? No one, I hope.

It doesn't mean we should ever forget that life has those dark elements too though. What exactly is (or are) the alternative(s) to serious? I'll let you choose.

In a non-serious world can there be commitment, passions, love? Can there be a lasting bond between partners, parents and children, siblings? Can deep joys exist in nature, art or music? I would not exchange my serious world for anything despite the intense pain of the losses of loved ones. It would most likely never have hurt so much had I not been serious in those relationships. How could there be any morals or ethics or laws to protect us? And what in truth would the world be like without them?

Feeling guilty about demonstrating just how vacuous a sentiment Brendan's words were I related the whole saga to a counsellor who fell about laughing at the arguments I'd put to the followers of it. "What was the matter with them? Did they lose their much prized sense of humour?" was their response.

I however, found I couldn't laugh quite as freely about the whole thing because I was conscious I was stepping on other people's beliefs which I am firmly against, but weighed that up with the fact that such a glib and dismissive way of living can and does cause harm to others. Yes it can been seen as a throw away remark and not an instruction on how to live your life, but we can not guarantee that everyone who comes across it will see it that way.

The Trouble with Beliefs
My opinion is that we should avoid dictating to others what or how they should live their lives, but I do advocate pointing out positive alternatives when things are grim or people are inconsiderate. At the end of the day, people will always believe exactly what they want to to suit their own arguments, morals and way of living. We are all capable of finding things that make sense to us but should always be aware and respect others have a right to see things their own way too. Even democracy when imposed on others turns into tyranny because of that denial of respect of choice and because it too requires a receptive audience who want such changes and who are open to believing in it's merits.

What I find astonishing about all the religions that have evolved to survive thusfar is the common thread of humanity that runs through them. To me it's as if God (or ethically evolution if you don't believe in God) have agreed on a core set of rules for how to live a life in harmony. Admittedly throughout the centuries these core values in moral conduct and ethics have been embellished, altered, corrupted and added to, but the basics have remained the same despite all this.

The differences between them lie in how those core values are related to us and in what to do about people who break the rules. Bickering over which version of God, faith or moral code to believe in I find tedious and a bore. It's the overall message not who the messenger is or how it's imparted that's important to me.

Here's a quote from Swami Vivekamanda which I adore and happen to believe is an unalterable truth because I've come across no human being who wants to be a clone or the same as everyone else; nor of any religion which does not evolve because of endless debate even within the same faith.

"If all were of the same religious opinion, there would be no religion.
No sooner does a religion start than it breaks into pieces.
The process is for religion to go on dividing until each man has his own religion,
until each man has thought out his own thoughts
and carved out for himself his own religion."

Ultimately it is down to choice as to what each of us finds of value. I believe we should never feel duty bound to follow any one's way of thinking.

Finally, finding inspirational words is a way to enrich our own understanding of the world around us as well as ourselves and can help us feel less alone. It is a way of filling up our glass when we feel it is half empty. I hope you all enjoy looking out for them and collecting what means something to you.

Here's a few links that you might like to explore. Beware the ones that come from the greedy and cruel but enjoy the journey toward finding what is of meaning to you. Never forget to be considerate of others.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Are medical services in danger of a breakdown?

Recently I have had personal experience that mental health services that were difficult enough to access before the economic recession are now even harder for more minor conditions to access due to increasing demand. The demand has increased as a result of the people losing jobs, their homes, or indeed being under even more pressure at work as they try to cover the work of two or more people because of those job losses. 

This can only serve to fuel paranoia for the mentally ill further and increase the severity and intensity of episodes. I am deeply concerned that cuts to staffing and resources will lead to zero preventative and recovery care so that the only people who will be gain help will be those who are suicidal or those with long term and severe conditions. If that were to be allowed to continue then severe episodes would escalate in number, cost in time, medication and resources would have an even more profound effect on not just the economy and society as a whole but on everyone (25% of the population) who is affected by mental illness at whatever level.

It was bad enough a few years ago for me when I had to wait over 18 months for psychotherapy after losing my Mum for the type of counselling that I needed when we weren't in a recession, heaven knows what it is like for people now that we are in the middle of one. That therapy not only helped me to adjust to my loss but went much further, it helped me to unravel many long standing knots and get rid of most of my demons. It transformed me from a person who feared the world to one that could see, appreciate, engage in and adore all that was good and healthy in it. Fortunately for me my GP at the time was excellent and he would see me every week if need be while I was waiting for that psychotherapy. Sadly he's retired now, and I have not found finding any in the practice that would do the same - nearly all of them have been dismissive of me.

What can we do while on the waiting list for the services we need? Are medical professionals now thinking that if they ignore people with symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression for long enough that they and their symptoms will conveniently go away? I have had instances of a GP slamming a door on me for asking for help; reception staff laughing at me when I called in a state of desperation trying to get through to another GP who had promised to call me hours earlier but hadn't done so. I appreciate they may have had an emergency and had been called to an even more urgent case, but couldn't the receptionist have told me that instead of laughing?

The struggles of the medical profession

The suicide rate among the medical profession is alarming high. Outside mental health teams few have any in depth knowledge of mental health conditions. This is totally understandable given how long it takes to train anyone in any type of health care. The amount  of knowledge your GP is expected to have and be trained in is vast which is precisely why it does take years of training. However I do vehemently believe that a couple of sessions on active listening skills (the starting point for counsellors in their training) would benefit not only all medical professionals but all their patients too. It could even time and costs in the long run simply by helping the whole service become more efficient in its communication.

In my experience people who suffer mental illness feel isolated, misunderstood or alienated or in some way don't feel happy because they don't feel they fit in with everyone else - they often don't feel able to or welcome to. Some are ill because they don't want to at all. Listening skills are vital at the outset to determine what help anyone needs. Be aware though, that just as that is true of patients of all kinds, so it holds true of medical professionals too.

Disaster Management

At 7.30pm on 18th November 1987 a fire broke out at King's Cross Station in London. All the emergency services rallied and were involved in helping to contain the fire and save lives that they could. Afterwards only Fire and Police personnel were automatically offered counselling services for what they had witnessed and had to deal with. Nothing was similarly on offer for the Ambulance crews involved unless they pushed for it. It may be over two decades ago and you may think that that never happens any more, but I'm afraid it still does although hopefully not as much. It seems to take a long time for people to learn from any disaster situation probably due to the shock and complexity of them. 

Analysis reports following the terrorist bombings of 7th July 2005 found that radio communications were still not what they should have been despite the best efforts to improve things after the King's Cross Fire. We have no hope of identifying ways to improve things before many a disaster as often they simply don't occur to us beforehand. Afterwards though I feel we should be doing better by now to insure lessons learnt are probably implemented.

Among the many people who suffer from mental illness are people who work in highly stressful and distressing roles. What is perhaps most shocking of all is how medical professionals themselves get dismissed and talked down to by their former colleagues when they themselves suffer from mental illness. For example I know of a psychologist who suffers from Bipolar who was told that they were "just having another episode so take the tablets and go away." It transpired that the psychologist had good reason to have an drop in mood due to a life changing event that would be stressful for anyone. They weren't working at the time because of the situation they were in - they had done the responsible thing and stopped work. But when they needed help of the kind they provided when working none was forthcoming in a form that was supportive.

Dangerous assumptions
There is an inherent danger in assuming that people with long standing mental health histories have those conditions as a result of their DNA and genetics; that it is down to their physiology and metabolism alone. That simply cannot be true in my opinion because no one is ever without an environment in which to exist in. As a former counsellor of mine said, people diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar or any other form of mental illness still have the ordinary stresses and strains, and at times traumas of normal living to contend with. Why is it then that so often such situations and circumstances are not taken into account as a possible trigger for an episode of ill health as they would be for anyone without such a label? 

Along with anybody, people with bipolar have relatives that die or have accidents, they move home, get divorced, get made redundant, they have children that get diagnosed with terminal illnesses etc etc. Perhaps in some cases it would be more productive for them to have access to the same counselling services as anyone else for such events instead of automatically being thought of as severely ill and in need of hospitalisation. 

What must never happen is for anyone involved in healthcare to assume that one answer or set of treatments suits all. Every individual on the planet is exactly that - individual. It follows then that every individual will require different levels of support at different times according to their life experiences.

This year I had to resort to emptying all my cupboards to find out of date prescribed medication as I had reached a point of crisis due to stressful events that were happening. In effect I self prescribed and ended up taking more that I had ever done on that particular medication. I was lucky not to have died. I had to resort to such a drastic measure because my GP wouldn't listen to me over what I needed, hadn't bothered to look through my notes as to what had helped me in the past at a time of crisis and didn't keep their promises to get back to me over the course of a week. Nor would they give me access to a mental health team to talk to who have my full history. Instead they kept prescribing me medications that they were used to, none of which helped, all of which made my condition and moods worse. I refuse to be treated as a lab rat - end of. The result of which was a total lack of trust in them for anything to do with my health.

If you find yourself in a similar situation I suggest you complain to the local Primary Care Trust (PCT) to help get your transferred to a better practice. You can also write to the Lancet, your MP and the British Medical Association. 

Courtesy of some contacts of mine I was able to contact the mental health team direct only to find that no one would talk to me unless and until my GP referred me.

I have since heard of several instances of people being driven to suicide attempts while asking for a similar level of help i.e. a preventative level of support. All I needed at the time was someone to advise me, guide me and prescribe what had worked before. I am now looking for a better GP and a different practice and will not stop that search until I have found one. In the meantime though find avoiding my current GP adn the practice infinitely less stressful. Mental Health Charities are far better and knowledgeable it seems. I sincerely hope that the government will fund healthcare at the point of need to increase access to such services to prevent such instances happening to anyone else as if they don't it could easily result in an increase in wholly preventable suicides from both patients and medical professionals alike. 

I strongly feel that anyone in the medical profession should be suspended from work if they are found wanting in their ability to listen and not return to work until they have either been retrained or successfully benefited from counselling services themselves. If they don't they could end up being responsible for the death and suffering of others which rather defeats the purpose of their intentions for entering the profession and jeopardises their own health into the bargain.

The good news for me is that little bit of self-administered prescribed drug intervention gave me the ability to adjust to the events that had thrown me into a state of crisis. Fortunately I was already seeing a counsellor. My counsellor was extremely concerned that without that medication I might not be here today and highlighted I was that extremely lucky that the pills I took have not had any lasting detrimental effects - some medication can lead to all manner of nasty things happening which is precisely why we need doctors to prescribe them. 

In a crisis my brain doesn't produce the right mix of chemicals; just as a diabetic might need insulin, so I need my medication too. Not having access to the tablets I need can only result in my condition deteriorating. Luckily I am already in less need of those particular tablets as the events that triggered the crisis have largely been resolved, so I am back on track working toward coming off all medication as the last psychiatrist I saw over a year ago advised. I won't rush at it because I am waiting for a time when circumstances are favourable to do so, but I will never assume that I might not be in need of them again.    

Time for changes to happen
This is the year that the Time to Change campaign has taken off in mainstream media, where programmes like Channel 4's 'World's Maddest Job Interview' have proved that people with mental health histories can be the best choice for employment instead of the worst. This is the year that the Paralympics have proved beyond all reasonable doubt that is possible to overcome disability, prejudice, disadvantage and adversity of all kinds and make dreams and aspirations come true. It is also the year where cuts in funding are crippling and risking the lives of so many though too, even mental health charities have suffered from them at a time when demand if anything is only set to increase. 

Surely we have reached an age of maturity to make those cuts impossible by now. Surely we can and will do more to improve matters to prevent and reduce suffering. I hope so as I am fully aware that my experiences of the bad side of mental health care services are far from unique. 

I would remind readers of just how many lives have been saved though because of the astonishing positive changes that have occurred in the care of those who have been mentally ill over the last 50 years. When and where it is working it is literally performing miracles everyday. I hope such wonderful work will be built upon instead of being hampered once again to that often times odious commodity known as money. I mean would you like untrained volunteers to take over? I know I wouldn't.

Friday, 7 September 2012

A flicker of hope

Firstly, if you believe in free speech and value you it, please follow and sign this. A girl with mental health problems may well end up dead if you don't. You don't even have to use your usual email address, create a new one. Nor do you have to enter your postcode or telephone number. If you don't want to lose your right to freedom of speech, please sign. If you want persecution and discrimination to stop please sign. Otherwise risk losing them all by being apathetic.

Secondly I am posting a link to the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics currently being held here in the UK. Sadly there isn't an equivalent for people suffering from mental health difficulties or for the Arts which has always been an alternative source of support to help rebuild people's lives. Be warned though this will eat up your internet connection allowance if you are using a mobile dongle as I am. Sadly a lot of TV channels are not showing the Paralympics across the globe. Shame on them as the Paralympians are shining examples to us all of how to overcome some of the worst of circumstances from injuries to illnesses to tyranny. They have made able bodied people who all too easily take their health and good fortune for granted, look pathetic by comparison. Added to which most paralympians are not bitter, but compassionate and understanding toward others.

Perhaps one day everyone will have access to the support services they need so that they too can shine in their own right for what they are good at and have potential to do. Perhaps one day more people will find the courage to join me and speak out for what is ethically right to make that happen. Perhaps one day, every single person who is currently facing adversity in any form will feel safe enough to do so. I hope I live to see that day arrive.

On a more personal note, I too have enjoyed a flicker of hope as I think I have found an employer who will treat me decently and fairly and enable me to help others to reach their goals. Yet to be confirmed, but it goes to show that hanging in there result in better things, happier times and that those opportunities can arrive at any moment - usually when we least expect them. If we give up, as I myself was so tempted to do only a month ago, then such things can never be possible. And if I am wrong and that hope of mine is taken away as so many have been before, no matter - I will simply continue my quest to find a hope that does come to fruition.

This particular post is likely to be deleted as it's more of an update than an article, but I will perhaps leave it up here for a few weeks or perhaps until the end of this year, or perhaps edit later.

Things remain extremely tough for everyone due to the global economic crisis, but please keep going as many before us have overcome adversity and without us fighting that fight too we can never hope eradicate all that is wrong in the world. I remain exhausted, but a bit more hopeful if anxious for all our futures.

My next article is likely to be about the pros and cons of competition. Seems appropriate on all sorts of levels just now. Resting up first though. Thank you for reading and for private messages of support at this unexpected difficult time for me. I am determined to remain a positive person at heart and to do what little I can to help others join me in that too. 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Empowerment through assertiveness

Years ago, three months after leaving a Mental Health hospital for what I hope is the last time, I found myself working for a council. I shan't name the council for their ways may have changed - for the better by now. Most of my working time was spent in the tearoom chatting but I got bored with that so I signed up for a course and told my employer I needed every Wednesday off to travel to London to attend. I was doing menial shift work so I couldn't see how it could be a problem, indeed I thought I was doing them a favour for paying for training for myself thereby making myself more useful to them at my expense and saving them money. They were not pleased but went along with it.

Meanwhile the work itself continued in the same way... chatting in the tearoom. Stimulated by my course I set about finding more things to do round the building until one day I had run out of ideas and spent the entire shift in the tearoom chatting with my colleagues. I'd had enough, so the following day I phoned up and said I wouldn't be in. I said I wasn't ill, and they were not to count my day of working from home as holiday either, but that I would be in the following day and expected to be given loads to do.

The manager I phoned understandably went into a rage, but not with me. When I returned to work my own line manager and the rest of the team didn't like me much and from that point forward I was blamed for every moan and grumble from our department until I left 6 months later. I went on to work in London, much to everyone's surprise because they thought having a mental health history there was no way I could possibly progress and indeed shouldn't. I worked hard and eventually became a manager myself.

Lessons learnt
Since that time I have worked for other councils and all have been hard working and diligent with regard to ensuring that the British tax payer gets their money's worth from each and every worker. I have also come across many other places where a lot of time is lost in idle chatter though too. To me lethargy is a breeding ground for misery and depression. When people are not inactive, negative thoughts, moans, grumbles and criticism take hold until all the whole of life, despite it's wealth of positive opportunities, becomes something to be cynical and sceptical about. Paranoia can set in and ultimately depression does.

This doesn't mean you have to or should work every minute of every day. It merely means that some people need to avoid too much stimulus to be well, while others like myself need lots, but to be well, we each need something to be of interest to us. We each need to actively seek and invest in things we find rewarding and pleasurable and so long as those pleasures and interests harm no one else then there's a chance we can all be happy whatever we choose to do with our lives. Indeed, among some of the most inspiring people I have met have been factory workers who chat all day while working, save their pennies up and then spend it on their kids and amazing holidays.

I do NOT advocate doing the same thing as I did if you are unhappy at work which may surprise you. Imagine if everyone told their employer they were not available for their work because they'd signed up to training course, or because they were bored - the result would be chaos. I consider myself lucky to have got away with it and I am sure I did so because my employer was fearful of the repercussions that would have arisen had they not been seen to be supportive of someone with a mental health history. I was lucky that the manager I spoke to understood mental health issues as his wife was a sufferer too.

It could be argued that I was empowering myself by being assertive of my needs and in some respects it's true, but... assertiveness should never be aggressive and my manner at the time without a doubt was forceful in that I was non-negotiable - therefore I was being aggressively assertive. A few counselling sessions later I discovered why.

Aggression is not assertiveness
In common with many who have been bullied, (I was at school among other places) learning to stand up for oneself does not come easy. It is a long and hard battle to find the confidence and self-belief to simply find one's own thoughts, let alone one's own voice. Once found I fell into the trap of becoming too self-centred, too selfish and defiant of anyone who stood in my way. My stance was that I was never going to allow anyone to bully me again.

What I was not doing was listening to or considering anyone else. Had I done so I might have opted for a different way of communicating my needs i.e. a less confrontational way and still achieved the same result but with the added benefit of making friends, being respected and supported by my colleagues and managers.

People often mistake aggression for assertiveness but the two are entirely different. I now regard anyone who describes themselves as strident, feisty, sassy or determined with a considerable amount of caution as often they behave this way with little or no regard for what other people's needs (not wants) are.

Needs are always more important than wants. They are the basic foundation stones to our well being, the essentials of life. They include (harking back to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - see previous blogpost) warmth, shelter, food and companionship; they include acknowledgement for who we are, what we think, say, do and feel. When we are not in receipt of such we feel hurt and often rejected and negated. The solution is simple... walk away from such people and find others willing and happy to value you.

Conflict of needs
I was recently told that I was selfish by someone who felt that I had the view that my thoughts and feelings were more important than theirs. They are - to me. But only to me. I am the centre of my universe but not theirs. They wanted to be acknowledged more and to have more say and that's fine. However, they seemed to think I was responsible for stopping them when I am not, they are. They have missed entirely that I enjoy their company and find their conversation so stimulating that I want to respond to virtually every utterance they make. I was accused to talking too much and told to shut-up. Not heard from them since so now we are both feeling hurt.

It's taken me over 40 years to find my own voice and to learn how to use it so I'm not about to give that up. With luck they will learn to do the same, I hope not aggressively but assertively which always means bearing in mind other people's needs and what we know of someone's personal history. We can never know everything about another person without being them, but we can strive to try to avoid what we know to be things that upset others until we and they are ready to talk about them and address those issues head on. We can but try and I believe that is better for all than not doing so.

We cannot resolve anything without communication. We cannot overcome difficulties without confronting them and learning what, how or why things went wrong. And we cannot cure ourselves without investing in the support of others be they family, friends, colleagues or professional help. We each need to believe in ourselves so much to let nothing divert us from our goal of well being. But, we can only address hurts when the time is right for us to do so. I hope the time will be right soon for my dear friend of over 10 years as I would like to see an end to his suffering and for him to embrace and enjoy life to the full as indeed I would wish for all.

Empowerment is not competitive
I often come across competitive people. I believe it is one of the sicknesses of world to engage in one-up-manship to quite such an extreme degree. That said it is perfectly normal and healthy to want to be better or the best at something for it gives us an added sense of self worth. From scoring well at test to winning at sport or being successful at work to merit a bonus or promotion - it helps us feel of value to achieve.

All well and good but... it isn't good when competitiveness leads to negating other people's potential. To empower others is to encourage others to reach that potential, not to keep that person down at heel disabling them to achieve their own ambitions and goals in life. Empowerment is all about equipping people to reach their goals, not spoon-feed them by doing things for them, but providing them with the knowledge, skills and tools to do these things for themselves. I have no desire to become a business or world leader, but respect and admire those whose talents lend themselves to such so long as they are also advocates of empowering others to do what they have an aptitude for.

The fear surrounding empowering others seems to stem from a phobia of others ending up being more talented or more successful which is not helpful to your ego and self esteem if you want to be the best at something. Realistically though no two people do anything in the same way, or in the same style so while some may favour another's efforts others will still favour yours. Even creative people get competitive, scathing, sneering and critical to the point of character assassination though my impression is not as much as others. Sports of course is designed to be competitive and is a good outlet to release tension, but no one is on top form all the time so the trick is to be gracious in defeat. The Olympics is upon us here in the UK and I sincerely hope all who win are those who will also help others to succeed thereafter. Surely there is no greater reward in life than to empower another to become happy so long as your own needs and happiness are not sacrificed in the process. People pleasing is not the way to go (covered in a previous blogpost on here).

Examples of bad practice
I'll finish with one final example from years ago of aggression and sadly it is a worrying one. While under CMHT (Community Mental Health Team) care I was asked as a 'service user' if I would like to go on a training course so that I could represent service users on interval panels for professionals in mental health care. I said yes.

On the course a mental health professional loudly and repeatedly 'asserted' his view that service users should not be on such interval panels to judge their skills. Throughout the whole course he kept popping out to check his phone as he was expecting to hear the results of a recent interview which would have been a promotion for him. His stance was very much that anyone who has been mentally ill is not capable of being sentient enough to be able to judge if a person is suitable to deal with anyone who is vulnerable or ill. My experience of working with the mentally ill is that they are never devoid of all powers of reasoning.

I can only hope that the other mental health professionals on that course did what they said they would and reported his appalling attitude to his line manager. I rather hope he didn't get the job. I rather hope he got sacked or that he got copious amounts of counselling to correct his attitude. After all, mental illness does not discriminate and there are many medical professionals who suffer from it as well and business leaders and even some world leaders... as the records of history so record. Fortunately in the UK at least such instances among the mental health professionals seem to be on the decrease... one day I hope there will be none to record.

My final example of non-empowerment comes from some Welfare to Work services who take the stance that if you have been a client with them you can never be considered to be an Employment Adviser. That's like saying you cannot enter the medial profession if you have ever had to see a doctor, or you cannot become a teacher if you have ever been a student. As I posted in my last article... it's not really surprising that mental illness is so rife when such is the attitude of those in power. There are times when I feel the real lunatics are the ones running a global asylum.

Best not to get too angry about it or aggressive. Better by far to assert your views with a degree of empathy for their being so ill as to not even notice the flaws in their arguments and above all... help them see sense by quoting their own nonsense back at them. For you see, some of them don't even listen to themselves. Then I recommend going off and treating yourself to some company you enjoy doing something of mutual interest. That's my coping strategy and it seems to be working quite well... time for a little more practice though as it's still a work in progress.

If you want others to be interested in you, be interested in yourself and them. Always, always, always strive to be kind to all, if you want others to be kind to you.  

Monday, 16 July 2012

Perceptions of an insane world

What follows is but a few thoughts on why I think the majority of the world is insane and why I believe that 25% of the population deemed to have fallen by the wayside as a result is but the tip of the iceberg.

Now we are firmly established in the second decade of the 21st century what (if anything) has the world collectively learnt from history? Have we learnt not to be greedy? Have we learnt not to be uncaring of others? Have we learnt to avoid violent conflict? Have we learnt not to be cruel, not to abuse, torture or bully others? Have we learnt not to criticise others? Have we learnt to be non-judgemental? Have we learnt NOT to give false hope to the disadvantaged? Have we learnt to avoid making assumptions? Have we learnt to use our logical powers for the betterment of the whole of mankind and not for the betterment of simply ourselves? Have we learnt to share? Have we learnt forgiveness? Have we learnt kindness, generosity or compassion on a global scale?

If you feel the answer to all this is 'no' then the burning question has to be, "what will it take for us to do so?" Almost without exception all these values are common to all societies and all religions. Have we learnt to agree on that at least?

It seems not yet. Religion has been the foundation stone to every single society and nation. From those most basic of ethics of being considerate to ALL we encounter further laws which have arisen as our social structures have developed and become (allegedly) increasingly sophisticated.

I am beginning to wonder if the true nature of us all does not prefer violent conflict instead of peace and harmony, paranoia and ignorance instead of wisdom derived from factual information; mistrust instead of trust and cruelty instead of 'humanity'. We seem determined to bicker about everything like it's an addiction of some kind.

Instead of focusing upon what we all have in common to find our way out of this endless cycle of upset and distress we seem to be hell-bent on latching onto the patterns of behaviour which we are most accustomed to and familiar with as if we are afraid to let go of them. Globally we fear that uncharted territory of harmony and peace. Even though the majority of nations are of one accord on this point. We remain insistent upon arguing about which version of the that ethic is related the best or has nailed it on the head. Why not focus on the content instead?

And for all the agnostics (of which I am one) and atheists on the planet I would say this - imagine our world with no ethical values whatsoever; no laws, no sense of right or wrong at all. Like it or not that is what religion has given us and without it those civilising rules we have just about managed to accept and adopt  as a good idea at least would result in total chaos. So if you think things are bad now, I suggest you ponder what life would be like with no ethical values at all. I am not the first to say this by any stretch of the imagination, I am merely adding to the list of people who have said such things throughout all history.

If we continue to ignore all the rules and laws we have all be brought up with, or pick and choose which ones we want to abide by, then we have no structure whatsoever by which any of us can feel safe and secure as was superbly pointed out by Robert Bolt in his play 'A Man for All Seasons'.

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law! 
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? 
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that! 
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Perhaps what is the saddest and most damning indictment of all is among those who have fought for peace, common sense and fairness is that fact that quite a few have ended up killed for such efforts. Not all by any means but quite a few notably ones. It's quite an impressive list of famous names already, here is just a sample.

Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Yitzhak Rabin, Steve Biko, Edith Cavell, Catherine (Kate) Puzey,  Hypatia, Jean Jaures, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Chico Mendes, Rachel Corrie, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Hilda Murrell, Ita Ford.

If you google 'killed peacemakers' you can see even more evidence of this insanity as quite ordinary people end up as victims too. WARNING: Be careful when you read up on some of them stories though as some of them have been written by terrorist and extremist groups who'd brainwash you into believing that theirs is the only peaceful and harmonious route forward while encouraging you to blow the brains out of anyone disagreeing with them! Charming.

And, if that wasn't enough to convince anyone of how insane this world really is, then how about how everyone is still bickering about money at a time when the whole planet is running out of enough resources to sustain all of human life. We have the technology, skills and knowledge to start a colony on the Moon or Mars now, yet we continue to quibble about who is 'worth' more in financial terms. Are we not equal? Do we not all have the capability to contribute to the global community in some way or another? How can the rich enjoy their fineries and fripperies without less paid individuals working to provide them? How can we hope to be made aware of anything without people communicating or made well without people working in health care... etc etc.

No building, no power, no food, no transport and no education would be possible without people preferring to do that as their chosen career instead of being a leader. No art, no sport, no gardens no music the list is endless. And that should be a positive thing. Thank goodness we are not all the same to want the same things or be interested in the same things for if we did societies would quite simply collapse.

One of the most telling things of all is that here in the 21st Century no one can eat or have a roof over their head without money. No other species has been so stupid. Neither can happen without permission to use the land which is always owned by someone. I fear it won't be long before councils will fine you for foraging for picking blackberries that grow in the wild and that every single seed nature ever produces has to be sold under a license. Is that what lies in wait for the future of mankind?

No wonder then that people get depressed and suffer mental illness. The only remarkable thing about it to me is that the numbers are so few... but perhaps that's because not all who are ill are recorded as being ill. I have a hunch that some of the most dangerous examples are leading our precious, beautiful, vibrant, diverse planet down the road of self-destruction.

Here at the beginning of the 21st Century (second decade) we quite plainly have a choice. Never before have we had the means to create or destroy life in so many ways. We can even initiate new life, sustain life, cure all manner of illnesses. In many ways this is the MOST exciting time in the history of the world bursting with all manner of positive and wonderful possibilities. It is a time great potential but... it is a time of great risk. Never before has our future as a species been so precarious. What, I wonder, will we collectively choose to do next?

Friday, 15 June 2012

Finding funnies and understanding them

Over the years a few people have commented that one of the early signals that all it not well with me has been my inability to laugh at anything when stressed, how my humour or I start to laugh at strange things.

When meeting anyone new, I find it helps to find out what their sense of humour is and if they are able to laugh at themselves. I've developed a wariness and mistrust towards those who can't do the latter as they are often the same people who are so quick to ridicule others when getting angry and upset by people laughing at them. My feeling is that if we cannot laugh at ourselves, do we have the right to laugh at others?

I believe that demonstrating that you can laugh at yourself helps people trust you, warm to you and relax with you. It can even earn you respect, although not if you are continually putting yourself down as 'hairbrained, scatty or crazy'. People from the world of theatre told me of a couple of examples of just how powerful humour can be to put people at their ease about disabilities.

An amputee was wheeling himself about on a stage in a rehearsal for a show he was in. He had lost both his legs and was on a low 'truck' that was like a kid's home-made go-cart. All of a sudden he got stuck and said "I'm terribly sorry, I'm stumped." His friends all sniggered, presumably because they knew what his humour was like, but the regular stage crew who'd not met him before just didn't know how to react at all except to leap up on stage to his aid! Then there was a blind sound engineer who was always complaining that he didn't understand why he wasn't allowed to do lighting.

These are powerful examples of how to turn an obvious disability into something that people need not be so tense about. Certainly learning not to take ourselves or the situations we find ourselves in too seriously can greatly help to reduce stress and anxiety and thereby serve as a preventative to mental illness.

I recommend doing so as possible for ourselves and by ourselves but I also advocate caution about sharing that light hearted approach with others. Other people might not be in a place where they can see the funny side to things even over the same or similar things. This might be due to their personal history, personality or simply down to timing. Any professional comedian will tell you that humour is always down to timing and reading the mood of your audience first, it can take years for them to perfect their art so don't expect to have everyone rolling on the floor in fits of giggles yourself straight off, or indeed at any time.

A friend of mine came over to visit me by train one day, but the train got cancelled so a replacement bus service was provided. When he got on the bus he offered the driver a cigarette instead of his ticket saying (while grinning mischievously) "here's a replacement ticket service!" The driver wasn't at all amused, so my friend let it drop and handed him his ticket. Perhaps the driver had just been in an argument with someone, or was annoyed at having to do a driving shift at short notice when he'd had other plans, or perhaps he wasn't a smoker so was offended by being offered a cigarette - who knows? The simple truth was he wasn't in the mood for that type or humour at that precise moment.

A different type of funny
Humour itself varies from person to person and comes in a myriad of forms. Some people prefer situational comedy, others slapstick and others still may prefer word play and/or spontaneous humour. In Britain irony and sarcasm are used quite widely, but in America it is less popular and often not understood at all. There's zany, off the wall and funny peculiar too. The point is that we each have our own preferences about what we think of as being funny and even then our ability to laugh depends on whatever else is going on in our lives at the time. Losing a job is something few find funny and in those types circumstances our ability to laugh at anything at all can get severely diminished. This can help explain the absence of a sense of humour in others who would otherwise find the same things you do, funny.

It can be even more complicated than that though as a good friend who would normally share your humour could be simply thinking about something else. They might be remembering a happy event, working out a maths problem or thinking about how to arrange a business meeting at short notice. Reading people's body language and facial expressions before sharing a joke can help us decide whether or not it is worth saying at that moment. Sometimes it is better to save it until later.

Perhaps the most useful form of humour is also the form that is most likely to be offensive - dark humour. How many TV shows and films can you name where there is a funeral scene which goes wrong? How much humour is about the difference between men and woman or sexist? Richard Pryor, a black Amercian comedian was ground-breaking when he started to use the word 'nigger'. What he was doing was reclaiming the word so that it could no longer be so offensive.

Comedy of this kind works as a release valve for things we would otherwise find uncomfortable to face or accept in real life. When it comes to the mentally ill, people are often surprised when they encounter sufferers laughing about their illness, but it shouldn't be assumed that all sufferers can or will. Some will be deeply offended by humour of that kind simply because of they've been stigmatised all their lives.

I cannot count up how many times finding the funny side of things has saved me from crashing into despair or helped to rescue me from stress and anxiety. It can be a real asset to be able to draw upon humour to help us through our darkest moments.

A couple of months ago I was having a terrible time. Nothing seemed to be going right at all and problems of all kinds seemed to be hitting me from all directions and then one morning walked into my bathroom and noticed water dripping from the ceiling. In that instant it felt like the last straw, but within a couple of days I found myself joking about it by saying "I didn't have a shower in my bathroom before. I do now. Shame I hadn't got it fitted over the bath itself, but at least it didn't cost me anything."

If we want to release the tension, then we should always strive to look for the funny side and to do that we simply need to see things from a different angle. As a reminder to myself to always do so I bought a fridge magnet which says "This would be funny if it was happening to someone else."

Perhaps hardest of all for the mentally ill is to find the humour about the treatments they undergo. It can feel like you are forever a guinea pig to a mental health team and forever under a microscope to be analysed, so I leave you with an example of humour which I hope you will find as funny as I did and hope it will offend no one.