Wednesday 27 March 2013

Witch hunts

Here in the so-called cradle of democracy, it seems to be witch-hunt season. It's put-the-boot-in time for anyone who's seen as weak, vulnerable, undeserving or degenerate.

Egged on by the government and the media, anyone with a grievance against some contentious group of people is being given free rein to savage them mercilessly.

So day after day we see vicious articles and speeches about welfare claimants, the disabled, the poor, people with "too many" children, transsexuals, homosexuals, the obese, the jobless, single mothers, immigrants - the list goes on and on.

Those under attack do what they can to defend themselves and put the record straight, but often they are too isolated or intimidated to make any headway against torrents of venom too overwhelming to stop.

Those conducting the witch-hunts never pause to think if what they're saying is unjustifiably cruel or irrational or nasty. They seldom think of the psychological damage they are doing to their victims. They don't care if they ruin people's lives or drive them to suicide. They're convinced of the rightness of their opinions, the soundness of their arguments, and contrary ideas count for nothing.

We're turning into a quasi-fascist society in which the majority view prevails and anyone challenging that view is firmly crushed and discredited. Freedom of speech and self-defence become a privilege of the rich and powerful, who use them to squash those at the bottom of the heap. Compassion and empathy are fading away, pushed aside by malice and spite and hatred.

Who is going to defend the defenceless? Who is going to turn the tide? I see no sign of a return to common decency any time soon.

Saturday 23 March 2013

People pleasing

The constant urge to please other people can become so severe that you completely crush your own self. The only thing that matters is that everyone else likes and admires you.

In her new book, Jacqui Marson describes how one Christmas she ignored a broken arm for ten days to keep other people happy and not let them down.

She says she always wanted to look "lovely", even if inside she was seething with resentment or frustration and bottling up all her real feelings.

She felt ashamed to ask for help or say no. She always did what authority figures asked her to do. She always took on too much. She simply couldn't resist other people's demands.

Gradually she learnt how to stop pleasing people and be herself, even if it meant disagreeing with them and not being what they expected. But it was a hard struggle.

I'm not as bad as that, but there's definitely a part of me that wants to say yes rather than no, that wants to be nice rather than nasty, that shies away from conflict and hostility.

Saying no or being nasty doesn't come naturally to me. I have to consciously decide that's what I need to do and then do it. I always feel a bit uncomfortable and awkward about digging my heels in and taking an opposing view. I'd much rather smile and agree and keep everything friendly.

I've been told often enough that I take too much notice of other people's opinions, but the fact is I want people to think well of me. I don't want them to be secretly despising me. I can't just say, I don't care what they think. Whatever the reason - pride, ego, vanity - I do care and I cross swords reluctantly.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Baby blues

There’s still this big myth that new mothers are ecstatically happy and madly in love with their new baby, that it’s the best time of their life. Nobody wants to talk about the large number of new mums who get severe post natal depression and are at their wits’ end.

Up to 25 per cent of new mothers get PND, and almost 50 per cent of teenage mothers, and it can last several months or even a year. And yet this huge departure from the rose-tinted image of motherhood is constantly swept under the carpet.

A TV programme tonight featured several women who were badly affected by PND. Instead of being overjoyed by the new arrival, they felt no bond with the baby, they felt their body was ruined, they cried all the time, they felt paralysed, they felt inadequate, and when it was really bad they just wanted to die. Some mothers are so distressed they actually kill the child.

Often they’ve never heard of PND and they don’t know what’s going on. They just wonder why they can’t cope and wonder what’s wrong with them.

They feel scared or ashamed of admitting their feelings or asking for help. If they do admit their feelings, they may be shunned by their friends who see them as abnormal.

Whether help is available is very much a postcode lottery. In some areas mothers can get all sorts of help including psychotherapy, anti-depressants and mothers’ groups. In other areas there’s very little help and PND is still seen as nothing more than “baby blues”.

The causes of PND are still not properly understood. Many things have been suggested, from birth-related trauma to marital difficulties, low self-esteem and unwanted pregnancies. Whatever the cause, it can strike right out of the blue, even to women who were perfectly happy and well-adjusted before the baby was born.

So let’s stop pretending new mums are always over the moon. Quite often in private they’re thoroughly miserable and desperate for help.

Friday 15 March 2013


People are fond of saying they're heart-broken, but isn't the word grossly misused? I mean, how often are we really that traumatised, that bereft? If people were truly heartbroken that frequently, they'd be basket cases.

Can we really be heartbroken by a celebrity dying? A cancelled holiday? Not winning the lottery? A shop closing or a tree being cut down? Disappointed maybe, or saddened, or surprised. But brokenhearted? An exaggeration, surely?

We've probably never met the celebrity. All we know about them is what we've seen in the media. We have no actual relationship with them beyond personal appreciation. How can we seriously say we're emotionally shattered because they died?

Shops closing, trees coming down, green fields being built on - disturbing certainly, not what we expected, a blow to our nice little neighbourhood. A tarnish on our perfect vision of life. But hardly something to tear our psyche to bits.

The truest heartbreak is the disruption of close relationships, ones that involve our whole being and our deepest emotions. Relationships so strong that when anything fractures them the repercussions shake us to the core.

That is heartbreak proper. Our most basic hopes and expectations are confounded and we have to pick up the pieces and rebuild. It's not just a passing event that skims the surface of our lives.

There's genuine heartbreak too in the loss of precious possessions, things that express our identity and sense of self. Which is why burglaries can be so distressing, out of all proportion to the physical damage, when something very personal is taken from us.

But using the word too casually trivialises those situations where we're truly heartbroken and in real need of comfort and support. Coming to terms with a chopped-down tree is hardly in that league. Let's not pretend it is.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Just a splash

My taste for alcohol has always been limited. I enjoy a glass of wine, possibly two, but that's more than enough. I've never understood those vast hordes of people who like to drink as much as possible.

I watch them reeling out of pubs and then collapsing or vomiting or shrieking obscenities and I wonder for the umpteenth time what the attraction is. Especially when the next day they'll also have a crushing hangover and be struggling to function normally.

As a twenty something, I fell in with a crowd of heavy drinkers and started to drink as relentlessly as they did. But after several appalling hangovers, when I felt at death's door and ready to top myself just to end the misery, I resolved to be more sensible and limit myself to what my body could cope with rather than beating my liver to a pulp.

Of course heavy drinking is so common that the drinkers seldom see anything wrong with it. They think heavy drinking is completely normal, if anything more normal than a strait-laced, priggish refusal to keep gulping it down. I know what they're thinking - I'm a wimp, a girlie, an abstemious nerd who doesn't know how to let my hair down and have a good time. Well, each to their own, I guess, and all I can say is that their meat is my poison.

Heavy drinkers have no trouble justifying their habit. What could be more natural? They just enjoy drinking to excess. They enjoy being drunk. They need it to drown their sorrows, to escape the agonies of daily life. It loosens their inhibitions, relaxes them. It helps them to socialise. It's sexually liberating. So many good reasons for knocking it back.

I suppose my attitude is that I want to experience life as it is. If life is difficult, then I'll find ways of making it easier. I'm not looking for an escape, a way of blotting out reality so I don't have to deal with it any more. If I'm shy or nervous, I don't want some artificial Dutch courage to feign a confidence I don't have. I'd rather admit to my shyness and overcome it in my own way.

Whenever someone says "Go on, have another. It won't kill you" I just think, "But what's the point?"

Saturday 9 March 2013

Two in a tub

These two homeless women, desperate for somewhere to live, are temporarily housed in this bathtub in a central London park.

It's not ideal accommodation, but it's the best they can find.

It gets a bit cold at night, but they wrap up warm, wear amusing hats, drink lots of wine, and sing to each other to keep their spirits up.

The bath is a little small but they try not to move around too much.

They don't mind a bit of rain, it leaves them feeling clean and fresh.

Alicia, on the left, is telling her boyfriend that she's finally found a home.

Maria, on the right, is about to shave her legs. She's thinking about existentialism.

Alicia is a lecturer in media studies. Maria works in human resources.

The other park users are careful to ignore them and respect their privacy.

Oh dear, my surreal sense of humour seems to be baffling everyone yet again....

Wednesday 6 March 2013

A diet of brutality

I'm a gentle, sensitive soul. I try to treat other people with compassion and courtesy, and I hope they will do the same with me. I recoil at any type of violence, I find it very hard to handle.

So I have a big problem with the daily diet of violence and brutality that's served up by the media. I find the endless reports of wars and repression and bigotry so disturbing, but there's no simple way to deal with them.

There's little or nothing I can do to reduce the violence, since it's other people who are responsible. I'm left feeling helpless and hopeless, just passively looking on at the carnage. There's such a constant deluge of violence that I become slightly numbed to it, only half-aware of the full horror and misery. It becomes almost like watching a film, and I have to keep reminding myself that these are real people and real sufferings, not just something hammed up for the cameras.

I could try to ignore the media altogether, so I'm not exposed to all the violence and the tangled emotions it stirs up in me. But it's important to know what's going on in the world, what's happening to other people. I can't just put my head in the sand as if nobody else exists. In any case, the media is now so ubiquitous, so far-reaching, that it's virtually impossible to get away from it. The latest atrocity is beamed instantly into every departure lounge and every health centre.

I could throw myself into all the public protest - signing petitions, going to rallies, talking to my MP, writing to the papers. If I'm feeling exceptionally troubled by something, I'll do that, but at the end of the day, governments usually go their own sweet way and ignore public opinion if it suits them. And no public protest will have any effect on all the unaccountable terrorists, freedom fighters, religious zealots and assorted militants who are pursuing their own notions of justice and adding to the savagery.

Sometimes I think of that old slogan "Stop the world, I want to get off...."

Pic: a woman injured at a rally in Athens over a 15 year old student murdered by police

Saturday 2 March 2013

No place like home

There's a Welsh word "cynefin" that means (among other things) the place where you feel you belong or feel most connected.

Some people are lucky enough to find such a place, settle down there and be very happy. Others such as myself never find it. We end up in all sorts of places and either dislike them or at best find them acceptable. We never see them as the place we're meant to be, our spiritual home, our psychic echo.

I've only ever lived in London and Belfast, and neither of those are my cynefin. They're very hospitable cities, with many attractions, but they don't have that tug, that irresistibility, that would call to my soul. I've been to many cities around the world, but none of those have the magic quality either.

I started to think, what is it that makes a place your own place, your cynefin?

1) You have to like it physically - its buildings and scenery.
2) You have to like the people and the way they live their lives.
3) You have to like the pace of life.
4) You have to like the general ambience.
5) You have to feel safe and secure.
6) You have to feel at ease, comfortable, welcome.

If any of these things are lacking, you won't feel you belong. You'll feel a sense of detachment and apartness. You'll feel like a visitor, not a resident. You'll feel you're just passing through.

But I think some people don't even realise what they're missing. It never occurs to them there's somewhere that's truly home and not just an accidental halt. They make do with what they've got, as if that's all they can expect. But it isn't. Home should be where the heart is.