Staying strong: When sympathy falls flat on its face

FB graphic

FB graphicI’ve noticed a number of people sharing the above sympathetic graphic on Facebook and Twitter. It’s a nice sentiment, but I think it’s completely rubbish.

It reads: Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are not a sign of weakness . they are signs of having tried to remain strong for too long. did you know that 1 in 3 of us go through this at some point in our lives? would you post this on your wall for at least 1 day? Most people wont but its mental health awareness week! Share the support. let those who struggle know there not alone…

This message is a contradiction. It starts by telling us that ‘Depression, anxiety and panic attacks are not a weakness… and halfway through tells us that the people who suffer from them aren’t strong. Ouch.

For a number of years I could not control my anxiety about everyday things. It felt like being trapped inside of another me. The rational me (trapped inside) could see the irrational me (in control of what I did and said) behaving irrationally, but couldn’t do much to stop it. I did and said things while, inside, I knew I was being destructive. I was on autopilot.

At no point did I think I was weak. At no point did I think I was failing to remain strong enough.

My anxiety required medication treatment. It did not require me to become stronger in order to cope with it and deal with it. People are often afraid to accept they might have a mental illness because they view it as a weakness. It’s a terrible stigma that stops many seeking the treatment that might help them.

Having overcome my anxiety problems I do feel like I battled something and have grown, as a person, because of it. Maybe some people would describe that as ‘becoming stronger’, but personally I just think of it as overcoming an obstacle. I had to dig deep to find the ability and willingness to do it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t strong enough, it’s that I wasn’t able.

But don’t be mistaken in thinking that those who haven’t been able to overcome or cope with their illness or their problems haven’t because they’re weak, because there is nothing weak about battling with mental illness day in and day out. There is nothing weak about going toe to toe with the other version of you in your head. There is nothing weak about trying your best to function within society when every part of you is screaming ‘no, no, no!’

Suggesting that those with mental health problems have them because they weren’t able to stay strong isn’t very supportive. It feeds the narrative that mental illness is a weakness. It’s great to be sympathetic to those who have to try and cope with mental illness, but the language used when talking about mental illness can be devastating when it isn’t thought through.

With that in mind, I wanted to share this RSA Short called ‘The Power of Empathy’. In it, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.

Whatever floats your godless boat

paper boats

I am non-religious. I always have been despite the best efforts of a Church of England Primary School, and those two or so years I spent in the company of Spiritualist friends, seduced by their ideas of an afterlife. I’m a happy non-religious, non-worshiping, atheist human being with as much good as bad to my name.

When I turned my back on tempting religious ideas I didn’t find it a struggle and I know that I am fortunate because of this. I know that many people are isolated, excluded and cast out when they doubt religious teachings. For some, identifying as an atheist is a life changing event – sometimes even a life endangering event. I think it’s important not to judge people who approach their atheism in different ways than I do, but sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes other atheists make it difficult.

When Sunday Assembly became a thing, and when it’s popularity soared, it made me feel uncomfortable. For as long as I have been open about my atheism I have been questioned about my ethics and morals and what I live for. The person that I am is the person I became without religion and I am proud of that. I have personally never needed church and, in some ways, find the concept of belonging to a church congregation – being a part of a ‘flock’ – creepy as fuck.

I have read horror story after horror story from friends about the awful things they had to endure growing up in families who heavily relied on the church, and I vowed to myself long ago to never take the good and ignore the bad. The sense of belonging offered by the church must be lovely, and the giving-back-to-the-community aspect is nice and all – but can that good ever erase the terrible? No.

When I encounter people on the streets offering to pray away cancer, aids, crippling disease and more… or trying to entice people to join their congregation and speak in tongues I feel angry and disgusted. There is nothing appealing about organised religion and it’s traditions for me, and that includes church congregations – even parody, feel-good, ‘we all love the universe‘ ones.

I don’t believe in any gods, but I do believe in humanity. Unlike gods, humanity isn’t perfect and has never claimed to be. That’s why I like it. When tragedies occur I am always moved by the selfless acts of people who run towards the danger to help those in need. When there is a natural disaster, a famine or some other global crisis, I am moved by the generosity of those who don’t have much to give. When I do my food shopping I am moved when I see the basket at the front of the store collecting food for the local Food Bank always overflowing onto the floor with donations.

I get the need to belong. I’ve tried belonging to atheist and secular organiations but they never felt enough, or they tried too hard, or didn’t represent atheism in the way that I identified as being non-religious. After spending so long trying to find belonging I realised that to do so I needed to look away from organisations and just live.

I’m an old-fashioned atheist. I’ve never needed my atheism to make friends or to feel a sense of belonging or meaning, even though for a little while I thought the opposite. I am not defined by what I do or do not believe in. I don’t feel a desire or need to congregate with others on a Sunday morning and give thanks or to celebrate life. I celebrate it every day, and I get meaning from the people around me, and music, theatre, art, the cinema, a good book, writing, my job, going for coffee, libraries, museums, my community, learning new skills and many, many more things.

I have never felt the need to clap, dance or sing about these things that are touching and moving and inspire me.  It doesn’t seem satisfying enough, and I have heard people sneer one too many times at the atheists ‘who need church after all’. I don’t.

Yet, some atheists need church, and as mind boggling as that is to me, and as physically uncomfortable as it makes me, I understand that. Whatever floats your boat, right? Leaving religion is difficult. I understand the need for a support network for those who have started to doubt their religious teachings, or those feeling isolated or lost after leaving their religion. I just hope, deep down, that one day that celebration of what we are, and that sense of meaning, belonging and wonder can be found away from religious traditions – secular or not.

paper boats

Criticisms of the ‘No More Page 3’ Campaign

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Following recent articles in The Guardian by Ellie May O’Hagan and The Telegraph by Dr Brooke Magnanti regarding Russell Brand and his support of the No More Page 3 Campaign I though I would re-publish my post on the Page 3 Campaign that I originally wrote for the Heresy Club website before it closed down.

Originally written in September 2012

With 21,000+ signatures at the time of writing this post, the petition asking Dominic Mohan to consider removing Page 3 from The Sun Newspaper has certainly picked up momentum, with people leaving messages like

because boobs aren’t news

and

Because women contribute to society in many ways that do not involve a man’s erection.

and

Because boys are growing up thinking there are two types of women. There’s the mothers, nans, sisters, cousins, daughters etc, and then there are the women who it’s fine to dehumanise and treat as a tradeable commodity.

I’m skeptical. When you sit back and think about this rationally it really isn’t as simple as people are making it out to be. I don’t think women who pose topless are solely to blame for the objectification of women, and I think that telling women they don’t contribute as much to society with their clothes off as they would if they put their clothes on is disgraceful, but that’s just me…

I don’t necessarily believe that the inside cover page of a newspaper is the best place to put a topless photo of a woman, but I don’t think we should be removing such photos from the newspaper because they allegedly corrupt society. I think petitions like this have good intentions but have the potential to deliver negative messages to younger generations – that people wont take you seriously if you take your clothes off, and that your nakedness betrays other women. This can be harmful. We should be encouraging a society where people who feel comfortable in their skin know it’s okay to feel like that, and where other people don’t react as though it’s the most morally outrageous thing they’ve ever seen, and where people don’t objectify women because they express their sexuality in this manner.

I know several people who work/worked in the sex industry who have made an empowered decision to do so. This doesn’t mean that all sex work is peachy – there are problems within such an industry that need to (and are being) tackled, but that equally doesn’t make all sex work a bad thing. This is something I think that many fail to acknowledge when asking a newspaper to

stop showing topless pictures of young women in Britain’s most widely read newspaper, stop conditioning your readers to view women as sex objects.

It’s important to point out that I’m not suggesting nude models are sex workers, I’m using this comparison because just as women often make the empowered decision to become a sex worker, they also make the empowered decision to pose topless or naked.

I think this petition treads on an awkward line where it leans more towards disempowering women more than it liberates them. ’Objectification’ is regularly used as a buzzword for sexual expression that people don’t like, but when you take into account all the points I’ve written about above (and more) you soon come to realise that lots of people don’t have a good definition upon which they base their accusations of ‘objectification’. The assumption is often that if someone is seen in a sexual way, they must be in the midst of objectification but this takes away the empowerment of the decision the person made.

As a friend pointed out when I was bouncing ideas off of her about this topic, if you remove sexuality from the concept of objectification and you examine things like a person working as a clerk in a store ,or a person taking out the garbage, we would see that we objectify people all of the time. This shouldn’t negate their life choices, though. Because of this, there’s good reason to believe that the concept of objectification isn’t really about women’s liberation. Instead, it can be disempowering.

I also think that petitioning for Page 3 to be removed from the paper gives men less credit than they’re due. There may exist a link between porn and misogynistic attitudes in some (something that needs more research) but there are so many other things that create misogynistic or sexist attitudes in people too. Many will paint the picture in their mind of men masturbating over photos of Page 3 model and point out this is the problem, this is the objectification, but actually it really is more complicated than that.

For example, A study by Heather A Rupp and Kim Wallen found that men are more likely than women to first look at a woman’s face before other parts of the body while viewing pornography, and that women focused longer on photographs of men performing sexual acts with women than the males did. Again this is an area that needs more study, and an area of study which is sadly difficult to get funding for, but such studies do demonstrate how the interaction between men and nude models isn’t as solidly perverted, or as objectifying as many would suggest. (source)

Get the tits off of Page 3? I don’t know that it’ll achieve any good. Firstly because most of those signing the petition don’t read The Sun newspaper so The Sun have no good reason to listen to them, but secondly because I don’t think this is the problem those signing the petition are wanting to actually tackle, and thirdly because if you go and read the comments left on the petition it becomes quite apparent that people are not very well informed on the subject they are commenting on. They don’t know about the findings of studies on the links between pornographic material and sexist attitudes (summed up by Stuart Ritchie here). I’m not suggesting Page 3 is brilliant, what I’m suggesting is that people should get a clue before they start acting in the perceived best interests of others.

Review: Eerie Britain I & II

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‘With ancient ruins, handsome countryside and quaint customs, Britain is a pleasant spot. Furthermore, (and, perhaps most importantly,) roast dinners, hearty puddings and steaming pots of tea abound. But lo, the heart-warming features of British life aren’t the only things to be found upon this venerable archipelago, for it seems that around every corner there lurks a ferocious monster legend, a mysterious tale or a terrifying phantom—ready to jump out and scare the pants off you…

Eerie Britain coverThese are the first words you read upon opening the first of two books by MB Forde in the Eerie Britain series, and boy, does this preface set the scene for what’s to come! Imagine the best ghost walk you’ve ever been on (or heard of) and then imagine that the guide isn’t bound by time or distance – able to take you to any year and any place within the British Isles. That is the experience Eerie Britain offers, and I was transfixed from the moment I began.

In Eerie Britain 1 & 2 (available from the Amazon Store), Forde covers tales that will be familiar to anyone who knows their stuff when it comes to hauntings across Britain – from the McKenzie Poltergeist, Ghosts of the London Underground and Gef the talking Mongoose to the South Bridge vaults, Highgate Cemetary, The Skirrid Mountain Inn and more… but even though I was familiar with most of the stories covered there was something captivating about the way in which Forde explores them. Those who aren’t familiar with any of the stories covered will surely find these books a delight.

I read book one in one sitting, excitedly tweeting to my followers about the horrors of the London Underground – a place teeming with ghost stories that has always fascinated me. The book has simply intrigued me even further (and grossed me out a little, but that’s to be expected with plague pits and crypts galore.) At one point I was so engrossed in the stories that something fell over in the room I was sitting in and it scared me silly. This is the sign of a good ghost book.

A book that transports you away from where you sit and throws you into the ghost story. The fact that the stories in this book retell real experiences that people have reported to have had is even more intriguing. Another strength of Forde’s is his inclusion of the more skeptical conclusions and ideas that surround each case, allowing readers to make their own minds up.

I wholeheartedly recommend these books and hope that Forde will release more over time. Whether you believe in ghosts or not it is undeniable that Britain has some of the most fascinating paranormal folklore out there and the Eerie Britain books champion such stories in all their grisly glory.

The Thames Ghost Photo

thames ghost

thames ghost

This photo was taken by professional photographer Jules Annan on New Years Eve, but Annan claims nobody was in the frame and that he didn’t use a long exposure. He also claims paranormal investigators he contacted haven’t been able to find an explanation. Shocking.

I have reason to believe he hasn’t remembered or is not telling the whole truth regarding the photo not being taken with a long exposure. A blue/white streak of light can be seen stretching across the bridge to the right of the photo suggesting a long exposure WAS used, which would mean someone could have walked in shot, stopped in position, and then moved out of shot to create the ghostly effect seen above and below.

thamesghostcloseup

Below is a photograph of myself and Trystan Swale taken on Cradle Hill during the annual sky watch held above the Wiltshire town of Warminster that shows the exact same kind of effect. The photograph, taken by Paul Pearson, was taken with a long exposure – we posed and then got out of shot.

hayley and trystan the ghosts