Thoughts about thinking

On being illogical
Once I got in trouble at school. I was pulled aside by a fearsome teacher who bellowed at me “YOUR PROBLEM IS THAT YOU CAN’T THINK PROPERLY!” I was sixteen at the time. I still don’t know what she meant.
Actually, this teacher was constantly telling me off for the illogical way I thought. (She once told me that sometimes I “bordered on lunacy”.) This is because grammar schools like logical thinkers, not scatty maladaptive daydreamers.
Anyway, a while ago it struck me that maybe I don’t think properly.
I’d just finished writing an opinion at the time. Looking at what I’d written, it hit me that this was apparently something I thought – but I didn’t
know I thought it, until I wrote it down.
I am very suggestible; I can convince myself of anything. Sometimes arguments about abstract topics don’t feel real to me, so I pick the side that seems least bad. Later on, I see a contradiction of the position I chose and realise that I should think that instead. I am at best thinking about things that involve real situations and people, rather than solving abstract logical problems.
I wrote in my notebook:

“Maybe I don’t really think – I just seem to absorb ideas and sensations and arrange my impressions somehow. (But then, isn’t that just another way of thinking? It is just not the trad. academic way, where you have very verbal and linear thought processes.)”

In Philosophy lessons, I always preferred discussing moral questions to solving logical ones. Ethical questions are so complex and many-sided that it was more fun to explore them, through narrative, questions and discussion, than to ‘solve’ them.
Perhaps this is because I was raised Christian. When Christians answer ethical questions they work from a firm moral foundation, which gives them confidence to approach the question from all angles and admit it if they don’t know the answer. But then, that’s not at all exclusive to Christianity.
Perhaps it’s because I seem to understand ethical problems best through narrative, not logic.

Unbalanced brains
When I had my ADHD assessment I tested highly on verbal comprehension, reading accuracy, spelling, and working memory. That made sense because I know I can write, analyse books, comprehend complex texts, and play around with words.
In contrast to that, I scored much lower on remembering sequences, and on processing speed.
The clinical psychologist told me I have a processing delay. That explained why I sometimes see something happen and take a minute to understand what I saw. It also explained why I was branded “slow” in school, despite simultaneously being labelled “gifted”.

A superior way of thinking?
Society prioritises a certain kind of thought. Logical, linear thought, rationality, and set opinions are valued over intuition, making connections, vision, sensing, receptivity, pattern recognition, faith, and observation.
The qualities I listed second are often seen as being fuzzy, imprecise, inferior ways to think. But I’d contest that qualities like intuition and sensing can be extremely precise and useful skills.
Take music: a good conductor should have a painfully acute ear, and must be able to sense the ebbing and flowing energy in a performance and pick out any mistakes immediately. They must observe every aspect of a performance. Most musicians can hear music in their head, and have a strong sense of beauty.
Learning the science of music requires logic, yes, but music requires all your abilities. Pattern recognition and sensing are vital to music, and other disciplines too. We undervalue those skills greatly.

Intellectualism
Let’s talk about the way Western society worships ‘cleverness’: which is basically seen as the ability to do maths and science, memorise a lot of information, problem-solve, and win arguments. In some circles, every issue must be up for debate (however sensitive), and being emotionally invested in a position is simply weird.
This attitude is based in a very white, Western, masculine conception of thought, which is itself rooted in structural oppression and prejudice. It was held for centuries that women are more intuitive, emotional, prone to hysteria and incapable of logic, whilst men were naturally more rational. (Those views are still being aired.) White supremacists also hold that other races are intellectually inferior and incapable of rational thought.
In this paradigm, white male = capable of rational thought, which makes you fully human (“I think, therefore I am.”) Anyone perceived to exist outside this bubble of rational thought must be less human. Rational thought has long been a trump card, held over the heads of people who are assumed to be inferior.

I am not saying that rational thought is Bad in itself; it can be used for great purposes, by people of any background. But I am saying that there is no superior thinking style, and that logic and rationality are perhaps overrated. Your way of thinking does not make you more or less human than anybody else. There is no inferior way to think!
Intuition, pattern recognition, sensing and emotion have long been seen as inferior to logic. How much of our prejudice against non-linear, intuitive thought is based on a bigoted view of thought?
That leads me on to my last point: that it’s ableist to worship logic.
I was 19 before I found out that some neurodivergent people find it hard to think in a linear, logical way. Before that I’d assumed being a good person and being rational were somehow the same thing, but neurodiversity advocates like Mel Baggs changed my perspective.
Much of Baggs’s writing is about hir thinking style, which is non-verbal and based on sensing and pattern recognition. Like many other Autistic people, sie is also preoccupied with ethics.
Being unable to think logically in the conventional way does not make someone wilfully ignorant, nor does logical ability necessarily make you a better person; you can build a logical argument to justify the most evil actions. Let’s not forget Aristotle and Plato argued logically for slavery, and 19th-century scientific racists thought their own arguments were highly rational. Thinking style has nothing to do with character or views.
However, different thinking styles have everything to do with people’s brains being wired differently, which makes for an interesting and diverse world.
So let’s not dislike ourselves for “not thinking properly”. Enjoy the way you think. It’s the only way you will ever know, and the world would be poorer without it.

After Me Comes The Ableism: how to write really badly about mentally ill women

I had high hopes for Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes The Flood. Unluckily my hopes have been dashed, after finding yet another weird portrayal of a mentally ill woman in its pages. I’ve read a string of books in the past year where the same awful stereotypes crop up. At this stage, let’s just say that if some scientist were to invent a radar for Problematic Portrayals, I’d buy the hell out of it.
After Me Comes The Flood looked promising. It’s the story of a man called John Cole who leaves London one day; his car breaks down, he pulls over near a house in the woods. Unexpectedly, the community of misfits in the house hear John’s name, and greet him as an old friend. The premise had everything I like in stories – liminal space, mistaken identity, a timeless rural setting, mystery.
Turns out (spoilers, here) that the Mysterious Band of Misfits are all ex-residents of a private mental hospital. That I wouldn’t have minded, as a premise, but… Alex and Claire. Oh, Alex and Claire. These two characters made me grit my teeth, sigh, and seriously consider throwing the book across the 171 bus.
Alex and Claire are described in the blurb as “siblings full of child-like wonder and delusion”. That alone should have set alarm bells ringing. These mentally ill, mentally disabled adult characters are romanticised in a positively Victorian way. They are constantly described as, and compared to, innocent infants.
Alex, experiencing psychotic delusions, is made out to be a suffering martyr too good for this world; he was expelled from the mental hospital because he secretly stopped taking his pills, which “muted each of his senses”. He also encouraged other patients to stop, which hurt them. (But really, Medication is Bad for people like Alex, because it Makes You Less Sensitive and Romantic. Do you see?)
Meanwhile, Claire is oddly sexualised and at the same time made out to have the intelligence and mannerisms of a child, despite being an adult woman. Claire’s condition is not stated, but she is heavily coded as mentally ill and autistic. Claire, I will stress, is written in a very sexualised way which emphasises her physical beauty but reminds the reader constantly that she is an innocent, a child. The disturbing implications of this I don’t need to spell out; draw your own conclusions.
This reaches a climax when Claire, late in the book, sneaks into our hero John’s room at night (“he smelt sweet alcohol on her breath… something a child would drink in furtive nips when parents were away”). Claire then attempts to flirt, mimicking her friend Eve “in a parody as unconvincing as a schoolgirl in her mother’s shoes”; finally she takes her dressing-gown off and stands “facing him, naked and afraid”. (“He’d have liked to say ‘What are you doing?’ but knew she wouldn’t have been able to answer”.)
Ick. A painful scene ensues; the upshot is that John, being a Good Guy, doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead, she ends up sleeping in his bed. They curl up together in quite a chummy way, and he tells her the story of Wulf and Eadwacer (a moment which is actually well done; if Sarah Perry wrote a book bringing Anglo-Saxon poetry to life, I’d read it). End of scene.
What, as mentally ill disabled women, can we take from this? That we’re not real adults; that we don’t have a real sexuality, we are merely copying other women’s attempts to flirt; that it is up to men to be kind and not take advantage of our frail child-like selves? Well, that’s my takeaway. How comforting! – to find yet another book in which the sexuality of people like you isn’t real, and their agency is ignored! Hurrah!
A friend read over this piece for me and commented that Claire is implied to be good and pure because she is incapable of real sexuality; she’s ‘parodying’ the techniques of Eve, who John is in love with. (Note the name; he finds Eve tempting, d’you get it?)
So what does that say about women who are sexual? That only ‘normal’ women are sexual, that women’s sexuality is somehow corrupt, that a mentally ill disabled adult is technically an infant? There are so many implications to this scene that it’s hard to cover the dreadfulness of it in a short essay.
The other woman in the book who’s presented as mentally ill – Hester – is a manipulative harridan. She’s self-conscious of her “ugliness” and afraid of getting old. She turns out to have been taking advantage of poor, innocent Alex by encouraging his delusions, because she doesn’t want to be alone. So, there’s that. It doesn’t leave much for a mentally ill, disabled reader who doesn’t really want to read about either of these characters.
It’s not the first time this scenario has cropped up, either. In Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I also disliked, the hero meets a girl in a mental institution who is strikingly similar to Claire:

“She invited me into her room and closed the curtains. I said it would help to draw her in natural light, but then she unbuttoned her blouse and took off her bra and we sat in silence for a while… I drew her half naked in the half-light of her room. And I drew her scars.”

My initial reaction is plain old bafflement; I know many mentally ill and disabled women, and I’ve never heard of anything like this happening. Ever. If straight men think that vulnerable women are likely to strip their clothes off as soon as they’re alone in a room with them, they’re probably flattering themselves. Whatever sexist hell-dimension these two books are set in, it’s not this one.
Mentally ill and disabled women are at a far higher risk of getting raped and sexually assaulted, especially in institutions and by police and other ‘professionals’. Scenarios like this play into society’s sexualisation and infantilisation of mentally ill, disabled women: the idea that we never understand what we’re getting into, that we don’t understand risks or stranger danger. Many of us are well aware of that, thanks.
And those women who, for whatever reason, aren’t aware of risk? Well, of course they don’t deserve to be raped! And nor do they deserve to be portrayed in this horrible, patronising way which objectifies their bodies and simultaneously implies that they are sexless, pure, innocent children in the bodies of adults. This is what it looks like when ableism and misogyny converge.
Returning to the real world, almost all the mentally ill, disabled women of my acquaintance have stories about ableist ignorance, medical neglect, and abusive relationships. I also know a developmentally disabled woman who is highly vulnerable, and her carers have had to fight hard to make sure she is safeguarded. These women’s trauma and the danger they face is absolutely valid and real, and it’s really quite insulting to romanticise it like this.
Stories are not reality, no, much of literature is escapist in some way. But literature doesn’t exist in an apolitical vacuum; you can’t handwave this portrayal away by saying it’s all a dream. People’s hatred of mentally ill, disabled women is not a dream.
What we’re really looking at is a male fantasy (which is even worse when you remember it’s a female author perpetuating it in After Me Comes the Flood). The fantasy goes like this: a beautiful, vulnerable woman throws herself at you and strips naked. But you’re a good guy, so you understand that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. You don’t take advantage of her; you sit with her and try to Ease Her Pain.
This is queasy-making for so many reasons; it’s not realistic, it’s not fair, it’s creepy, it filters women’s pain through the male gaze. It ignores the sexuality and agency of the woman; the scene becomes about the heroic man’s feelings. It’s also insulting to mentally ill, disabled women who’ve been targeted precisely because of their vulnerable body and mental state.
I really don’t understand what Sarah Perry was trying to do in that scene. Perhaps she was trying to establish (again) that Claire is Innocent and Pure, despite trying to mimic sexuality like a Big Bad Real Woman; or that John is a Good Man for taking care of her. I don’t know, and honestly I don’t really want to know. What I do know is that I keep coming across these awful portrayals of disabled women, and I want it to stop. We deserve so much more than this apolitical, insular, ignorant rubbish.

Piles of paper and island mentality: an austerity story

I finished my final university exams last week, which gives me time to write this blog again. I also started a new course of medication recently, and wanted to share a story about it.
I went to the doctor’s, the day after the election. That day as I walked through Brockley I had the distinct, uncomfortable sense of being on an island.
Physically, of course, I’m always on an island. And in the UK, the siege-like island mentality is pervasive. But the gap between rich and poor people, middle-class and working class, and the other prejudices at work in our society – well, it’s impossible to ignore that gap any more. It’s hard to imagine a developed country where rich and poor are more isolated from each other.
My flatmate and I stayed up all night on May 7th, watching as the Tories swept the board and the map of England gradually turned blue.
I saw Birmingham, where I grew up: a small oasis of scarlet in the midst of a solid expanse of blue. I remembered the chasm between the area where I grew up, with its run-down terraces and ’60s tower blocks, and the smug mansions in the suburbs.
Then there was London, my beloved adopted city, showing up as a small splash of red (‘communist island’ I heard it called) in the middle of the solidly Tory Home Counties.
To me it had been solidly proved that nobody – in the surrounding counties of either of my cities – particularly cared about the suicides of people who had been told they were fit to work or had their benefits cut, the rapidly growing number of food banks, the rent crisis, the closed-down libraries, the overloaded health services – or, indeed, any of the problems affecting people who live in poor areas and don’t have much money.
We are in a social crisis, which the Tory government has fuelled and encouraged. But it seems plenty of people are doing well enough to afford not to notice.
How much can you shrink the island mentality?
You can keep shrinking it, down and down, till it’s just you in your living room.
Earlier that day I’d written “Once upon a time there was a smug couple, spiteful and narrow-minded, envious of their neighbours and afraid of the outside world, and their house was an island; they were isolated by their fear of the world and their greed.
I left the doctor’s with a small story, one that could be added to the great web of austerity stories people have been sharing.
So: this time I get a kind sensible female doctor.
She says I seem to be coping well; well, you learn how to cope with chronic lifelong anxiety, somehow. Medicine helps, and so do books. Then I explain that I’ve had a problem with the referral.
I say, “I’ve been trying to push the referral through all year. I have phoned the IAPT service and emailed them -” and also asked the doctor about it repeatedly; his response was to ask me to phone the IAPT service myself. I’d phoned them again, several times, and got no response. The doctor looks concerned and says she will ring them. “They’re very disorganised, I’m afraid. They need a lot of nudging.”
Because she is not in a hurry, I press her on this point. It turns out exactly as I suspected.
She says, “Unfortunately most of our referrals don’t go through.” Oh, why not? “Well, they’re very short of time and they have long waiting lists. Almost all the referrals have to go to people who are severely psychotic or suicidal.” Otherwise, the referral goes on a pile of pieces of paper in an office already avalanched with dead trees.
And what of all those people? People who are struggling, but not struggling enough. People who are suicidal, but not suicidal enough. People who are ill, but not ill enough. Medical abuse of extremely sick people is an awful thing, and so is systematic neglect.
It’s not enough.
Yes, it varies by area – some services have more funding than others. Nor should it be blamed on staff, who don’t control the system they work in. But NHS mental health services have been cumulatively overstretched for years, and the system is formulated so that mental health is shuffled down on the list of priorities. It has to be that way, said someone I brought it up with; if you come into A&E with a bleeding hand they’ll put you in front of someone with no injuries. But at least in A&E, everyone gets treated in the end.
Austerity is destructive. It was designed by politicians with no compassion for the mentally ill or disabled. (The story is still fresh in my mind of the disabled ex-soldier who was found dead in his flat, near a pile of CVs.) 1 in 3 people in Britain will suffer from a mental illness at some point, so why should help be so limited?
The doctor writes a prescription. We talk about possible solutions. She says if I have the means I should look for solutions outside the NHS. I say, “It’s not looking good at the moment, is it?”
No, she says gravely, it’s not looking good at all.

“Most depression is just sadness”: why the faking rhetoric hurts

Hi amigos. I haven’t written in a while because of the mounting pressure of exams, dissertation and essays. Also, I’ve been lying low because this is an especially bad time to be mentally ill in Britain.
With a General Election coming up, there’s a slew of news about how benefits cuts continue to hit disabled and mentally ill people, and in the next couple of months we’ll be used as a pawn in endless political debates, whether it’s by people who hate us, or politicians who just want to score points off the opposition.
On top of that, after the tragedy in the Alps we’ve seen even more stigmatising of people with depressionShe Who Must Not Be Named wrote in a tweet: “To be diagnosed as depressed is the holy grail of illnesses for many. The ultimate passport to self obsession. Get a grip people.”
In another tweet, she flippantly wrote: “Most depression is just genuine sadness at a social situation. Like being caught in torrential rain with a bag from Primark”.
Usually I’d shy away from quoting Katie Hopkins, but in this case I think she’s crudely expressing a view that, unfortunately many people share (including leftist Guardian columnists). It’s easy to write Hopkins off as an attention-seeking troll without realising that she sometimes represents the views of many; you forget that people come up to her in the street and thank her. “You’re saying what we’re all thinking”, they say.
She Who Must Not Be Named is not at all exceptional. Like Jeremy Clarkson, she’s an extremely privileged person who portrays herself as a sort of Everywoman. She mostly panders to sections of the British white conservative middle class, and delights in expressing their unspoken dislike of people of colour, Muslims, Jewish people, LGBTQ people, and the mentally ill and disabled. Hopkins’ audience know not to openly express their views because of this goddamn politically correct society and the risk and discomfort of being labelled bigoted, so they applaud her for ‘bravely’ speaking out.
People who hold these views are not at all unusual, nor is it just a select group of white well-off people who think these things. Like every society, British culture has its deeply unpleasant side; insular, belligerent, suspicious, selfish. It’s fed by our island mentality, and informs modern-day conservative views. And I fear that at the moment we’re only seeing more of that way of thinking.
In a lot of ways, living in an ableist society is like living in a heavily polluted town. You’re not the one causing the pollution, but you swallow the toxins every day in the air you breathe. It’s easy to internalise ableism, and it’s probably even easier if you actually have a mental illness or disability. For a lot of people take the struggles of other people more easily than their own. It’s easy to care desperately for others, but to be hard on yourself and end up thinking “Maybe I’m faking. I’m probably exaggerating. My problems aren’t that bad.”
We’re taught to hate ourselves for not fitting in with society’s expectations. Then we end up underestimating the problems we suffer from.
For me, learning about ableism was like acquiring a pollution sensor. Suddenly you can see just how foul your environment is, and are astonished. Then you realise how much of the stuff you must have swallowed without realising it.
The ‘faking mental illness’ rhetoric that Hopkins spouts is particularly dangerous, because it’s a form of gatekeeping. Many mentally ill people absorb from an early age that you can only be genuinely mentally ill if you’re extremely sick, in a hospital, or on the edge of killing yourself. That stops us from getting help at literally any stage.
And we’re told these things by people who love us, too. I’ve written before that as a 12-year old, I sat down with my father one night and said “I think I’m depressed.”
“No you’re not,” he replied. “12-year olds can’t be depressed.” He then told me about how he had to section a friend who had bipolar disorder. “My friend was really ill,” he told me. “You’re not mentally ill at all.” And obviously, he said this with the best intentions – to calm me down, to stop me from thinking that I might be sick.
So, the faking rhetoric is hurtful. Even joking about it is hurtful; for all you know, the person you’re joking around with might be secretly struggling, and might decide that you’re not safe to confide in.
For a lot of people, it’s a huge step to say to a parent, teacher, or friend, “I think I might be depressed”, or “I think I might be mentally ill”. If someone comes to you with a problem like that, listen to them. Let them speak. Let the words get out. Don’t turn them away before they’ve even had a chance to tell you the whole story.

Neurotypical Sandra: a mentally ill perspective on an inspirational life

(with thanks to M.S.)

I first got to know Sandra in 2010, when she was working through her final year of A-levels. She had bravely chosen to write about The Bell Jar for her English Literature coursework; despite being generally a very happy person, she found the book “relatable and well written”. However, she was overheard commenting to a classmate, “Esther Greenwood sounds quite troubled. Maybe she should try yoga”. To ease the struggle of being neurotypical, and thus perhaps less aware of the joy, pain and complexity of the world around her, Sandra has attended meditation class twice a week since the age of sixteen.
In a world full of pain and sorrow, it’s a mystery how Sandra manages to stay so happy. Despite being neurotypical, she says “My life is really worth a lot. I feel like I can give a lot to  the world.” Yes you can, Sandra! Yes you can!
Sandra is a beautiful, cheerful individual, and I’m really writing this because I want to salute her smile. Sandra’s smile can lighten the darkest of days; like her, it is a ray of sunlight in a dark world.
We may never truly know what Sandra has been through – bad days, occasional low moods, sometimes feeling like life is a bit pointless. We can only try to relate to her struggle, but this inspirational young woman continues to smile through the roughest of times. Her parents’ divorce when she was seven has affected her deeply – “it was a rough time” she says – but somehow, she has managed to soldier on.
After completing her A-levels with a very acceptable three As, she moved to London to study English at Kings College. Sandra says she finds London “confusing, but that is normal”. She finds the tube “a bit scary”. As for her university course, she’s sometimes got “a bit stressed” at the amount of work she has to do, and put off her work to watch Bob’s Burgers instead. Even in this most difficult and unrelatable of lives, there’s room for laughter.
As a neurotypical, you would think she’d find it hard to read about the characters in her English Lit texts (most of whom have depression, anxiety or other disorders). It’s especially brave that she’s chosen to specialise in Virgina Woolf, who is well known for her severe depression. Sandra’s take on it is, “At the end of the day, we’re all human. I sometimes feel down as well, so I can really relate to Virginia.”
Amazingly, she has spent almost no time at the doctor’s office in the last three years, apart from the time when she thought she had swine flu but it was a false alarm. We can only imagine what it must be like to not be well known to the receptionist, and to be greeted by the doctor with something other than “Oh no, not you again.” As for medication, she sometimes smokes marijuana with friends, a popular ‘home medication’ amongst neurotypicals – but who are we to judge?
Sandra really loves watching Disney films, especially Frozen, Brave and Wreck-It Ralph! She feels like they are an island of calm in a frantic world. It is a mystery why some neurotypical people love watching children’s films – perhaps they feel that the films reflect their unique worldview. They feel inspired to continue by the struggle of the characters against impossible odds. Sometimes, Sandra tells me, she sings Let It Go to herself when she’s having a bad day. It’s a beautiful metaphor for a girl with a unique brain.
We can only applaud Sandra’s bravery in managing to not develop anxiety, and to navigate an increasingly confusing world without having developed any mental illnesses whatsoever.

Abusive feminists are not my ‘sisters’

There are three things I wish I’d known when I became a feminist.
Firstly, it doesn’t matter how you dress. (Wear what you want! Fashion should be a pleasure, not a chore.)
Secondly, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit*. (Flavia Dzodan.)
And third, a surprising number of well-known feminists – media-friendly, intelligent women – are abusive. They are prejudiced against vulnerable people, particularly trans women and sex workers. And by having a blind spot the size of Australia, mainstream feminist discourse manages to paint these feminists as victims of uppity minorities.
The power dynamic is positively dystopian.
Recently, an open letter appeared in the Observer, complaining of “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic””.
The letter is bollocks, for reasons that have been beautifully expressed elsewhere** and can be summed up thus:

– Feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite lies that she was no-platformed by a university for her views on sex work, Muslim women and trans issues.
– Prominent academics and journalists, including several feminists, then use a national paper to collectively complain about being silenced: JeSuisSmurthwaite.
– Media storm ensues, with a huge backlash from trans people and sex workers.
– Ultimately, many of the signatories will profit from this mess, mostly by writing paid thinkpieces on free speech. They will then use their platform to continue accusing marginalised women of being ‘trolls’ and ‘bullies’.
– At least three of the signatories crying victimhood are white, cis feminists who have previously, unapologetically expressed virulently transphobic, whorephobic views.***
– These feminists are abusive.

For several years, I thought that talking about abuse by women (including the power dynamics between feminist communities) would be letting the side down. To discuss it would be to invite sexism, to perpetuate negative stereotypes of women and feminists as bitchy harpies. Of course, this reflects my position as a white, cis woman: this discomfort with seeing any woman in a bad light. I reasoned that although abuse by women was awful, it wasn’t a structural problem; that women hating each other must be ultimately down to patriarchy, and internalised misogyny. If it weren’t for that, we would all get along, as Feminist God intended us to.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied.
2013 brought more answers. After reading through the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen****, I researched. I read about slave owners’ wives. I read about violence committed by white women against women of colour, particularly black women. I researched modern-day violence against disabled women, which is often committed by female carers, and violence against trans women and non-binary people.
The ‘sisterhood’ narrative ignores structural violence, power structures and everyday labour relations between women. It ignores the propensity of some people with a little bit of power to kick down, hard.

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#HowOCDWorks: Typical Anxious Woman

“My wife’s got O.C.D and keeps asking me to help clean the house.
Her loss though – I refuse to do it until she asks me perfectly.”
Internet proverb (Sickipedia)

Let’s start with compulsions.
So imagine there’s a woman called Rose, who’s putting clothes into her washing machine. Halfway through, she gets worried: what if the cat manages to get into the washing machine before she closes it?
It is possible. Rose’s cat is not very bright.
Rose checks the washing machine. She checks it again, just to make sure. She goes back to getting clothes out the basket. But as soon as she looks away from the machine, she starts to worry the cat might jump in and hide in it while she’s not looking.
So she looks at the washing machine, puts her hand under the clothes; no cat. She knows it’s stupid, but somehow, she still thinks the cat might be in there. Her brain is telling her that her senses are wrong.
Rose is 30 years old. She takes all the clothes out and dumps them on the floor. She is still finding it hard to believe there is no cat in her empty washing machine.
This is me trying to illustrate what it’s like living with my form of OCD. You check and check, but your brain is still telling you “This isn’t right.”
A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that people feel driven to perform as a result of anxiety, caused by their obsessions. For me, compulsions are often caused by a general anxious feeling; a sense that something is wrong, but if you check it might be OK.
Eventually, you reach a point where your thinking mind and your brain’s entrenched faulty mechanisms are battling each other. It’s like having a very concerned, persistent demon following you.
You: I’ve locked the door.
Demon: But is it locked? Check it.
You: I just locked it.
Demon: But is it actually locked?
So you go back. You check it. Just in case.

So, onto the joke I started with:
People find OCD compulsions funny. Why is that?
Here’s my take: in many people’s minds, OCD means compulsive tidying, cleaning, checking and worrying. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that this stereotype overlaps with ‘humorously’ sexist views of women. Google OCD jokes and you will see what I mean. Many of the traits we associate with OCD are also stereotypically feminine traits, which both men and women are mocked for displaying.
Why is the “cleaning the house” joke funny? Would it be as funny if it was about a man? Is it still funny to read about a woman who had to leave her family because of her compulsive cleaning*?
We’re starting to understand that people with extreme compulsions need help; but at the same time many women and girls with OCD are discouraged from getting help at all.
Why? Because they’re told in so many words that they’re “just an anxious woman”.
If they’re a mother, they are told it is natural to worry. If they’re a teenage girl, they’re told it’s school stress or hormones.
Society often associates OCD with checking up on people, being anxious, clean and tidy, overprotective of children and afraid of the outside world. People joke about tidy women being “so OCD”; or “my mother is so OCD, she’s always nagging.”
OCD is associated often with gender stereotypes like the female neat freak: the fussy, repressed, controlling woman, often a housewife, who’s “completely OCD” and would definitely check for cats in the washing machine. Bree from Desperate Housewives springs to mind:
Bree Van De Kamp is not impressed by your feeble attempt at humour.

Yeah, women like this exist. Maybe some of them have mental illnesses, others are simply tidy and fussy. But we’ll never get anywhere if we assume every woman is the same.
We need to accept that our stereotypes of people with OCD can intersect with stereotypes, often negative stereotypes, about women and girls.
The fact that real-life OCD is not always like the stereotype means that people of all genders might not even realise they have a mental illness. And conversely, many women and girls with OCD are still socialised to not realise their compulsive checking, worrying or other behaviours might be signs of a mental illness.
What we need to do is reevaluate our collective view of OCD, and look at how that view intersects with society’s view of women and girls. Because the picture is not pretty.
I am a 22-year old Woman Who Checks. I accept that I am an Anxious Woman, owing to a mental illness. But if I hadn’t been constantly told that worrying was normal and that I was just a sensitive anxious girl, I would have got help much sooner.

*The story is one of many cited in Jeff Schwartz’s Brain Lock. Highly recommend it.

Addendum

Misdiagnosis in general
NAMI:
“OCD is often misdiagnosed, and it is often underdiagnosed. Many people have dual disorders of OCD and schizophrenia, or OCD and bipolar disorder, but the OCD part of their illness is not diagnosed or treated. In children, parents (and teachers and doctors) often are aware of some anxiety or depression but not of the underlying OCD.”

Misdiagnosis in women for OCD
BJGP: “A hidden problem: consequences of the misdiagnosis of perinatal obsessive-compulsive disorder”.
”Detection and help-seeking for all perinatal problems is low relative to the prevalence and this is particularly true of anxiety,4 although little evidence exists regarding OCD. In perinatal OCD, the shame of disclosing difficulties is often compounded by fears of being misunderstood by professionals and being judged a potentially harmful parent. Parents themselves may not make sense of their experiences as OCD, particularly if they have no previous history. This may be particularly true of those experiencing thoughts of deliberate harm who often fear they are ‘going mad’.”
More on OCD in parents – “It may be particularly difficult for mums first to recognise their experiences as OCD and second to seek help due to the shame and secrecy associated with the illness, especially at a time when they themselves and those around them expect them to feel happy. As there is often a lack of awareness of OCD during pregnancy and postnatally, people are rarely asked about these experiences by professionals. Despite recent breakthroughs in awareness, understanding and treatment of OCD, many GPs and mental health professionals may still not recognise the symptoms of OCD or even know how to correctly treat the disorder.”
Myths about OCD: includes the myth that OCD is a “women’s disease” which shows how feminised the OCD stereotype is. This is despite the fact that OCD affects people of all social groups and genders at the same rate.

… and for other illnesses
Essay on trauma, mental illness and misdiagnosis: “Pollett writes that individuals who have experienced violence, like others dealing with mental health problems, face mental health treatments that are primarily based on the biomedical model (focused on biological and genetic factors of mental health instead of social determinants such as poverty, housing, stigma and past experiences of violence). Women who require mental health services often receive inappropriate diagnoses and treatment or are denied services because their behaviour is misunderstood or stigmatized.”

In addition, the book Preventing Misdiagnosis of Women: A Guide to Physical Disorders that Have Psychiatric Symptoms, by Elizabeth A. Klonoff has an interesting discussion on theories about gender-specific stress being a contributing factor to anxiety disorders. (p. xxii)

Stereotyping
“Ho
w can I be just like Bree Hodge?”: (Answer: “develop an unhealthily extreme case of OCD”)
OCD jokes: Sickipedia
Woman explains her OCD:When I first went to my doctor and she gave me the diagnosis, I disregarded it: ‘I’m not washing my hands or constantly rearranging the spoons, so it can’t be OCD’.”

#HowOCDworks: Talking about OCD

Last Christmas I bought a graphic novel called The Nao of Brown. Huge, absorbing and intimate, it was the story of a young London woman of colour living with OCD. For the first time, I could see my own illness – flashes of intrusive thoughts, irrational fears, obsessions and compulsive habits – visualised in front of my eyes.
I thought about recommending the book to my family, but decided against it. One, the more you bang on about a book, the less people want to read it; two, did I really want them knowing what OCD was like?

Skip to now. I walk into the kitchen at home, and find my dad reading the book. I do a double take. Although he knows I have OCD, we’ve never spoken about it very much.
We discussed the book. Then this happened:
Him: “So is this what it’s like, having OCD?”
Me: [hesitates] “Yes, it is. But…”
Then we talked about it.
Nao of Brown is not a perfect book – it forces OCD into a cinematic narrative, along with other problems. But still! He had been given an insight, we’d had a conversation about it. I was amazed that a single book could do that.

The thing is, OCD is hard to talk about.
The problem with speaking about it in any way is that it is a very misunderstood illness, one that plays on our worst fears. For many people, it’s hard to speak about any of their OCD obsessions, fears or worries at all.
We’re developing the tools to talk about depression, self harm and eating disorders, and I’m forever thankful for it. But there’s work to be done.
It’s not always enough to hope a book ends up in the right hands; being able to talk about OCD gives you power. So does having your mental illness respected and validated.
These are some usual responses to disclosing that you have OCD:

  • “What’s OCD?”
  • “OCD? But you’re not neat”
  • “Oh, I saw a documentary about that!” [goes on to explain how OCD works]
  • “But OCD’s a SEVERE mental illness. People are COMMITTED because of OCD. You don’t have OCD. You’re just anxious. You’re an anxious person. You should try improving your diet.”
  • “Are you sure you have OCD?”
  • “So what’s it like having OCD?”
  • “I have OCD too! I’ve got these weird habits like only eating red smarties!”

I don’t blame anyone for saying things like this. It’s hard to know anything about OCD when it’s so misunderstood and there is so little information about it. It’s a vicious cycle: OCD is hard to talk about: we have very little cultural precedent for discussing OCD openly, which makes it harder to talk about. So we don’t talk about it.
But we can change that.
For people with OCD, it should be possible to verbalise the fact that you have OCD without necessarily having to:

  • explain your entire experience of living with a painful mental illness
  • talk about your actual intrusive thoughts and obsessions to a near-stranger, as though you’re speaking to a therapist
  • clarify that you’re not making it up
  • have your honesty and self-knowledge questioned
  • have your illness trivialised and compared to other people’s silly habits
  • having your life experience taken as being universal for everyone who has OCD

So for people who don’t have OCD, here are some ways you can help:

  • Don’t ask people with OCD to explain their lives to you, if they don’t want to!
    Everyone’s experiences are different. Mentally ill people are not robots who can explain their mental illness to you on command.
    You need permission, trust, and respect to have conversations like this.
    I am happy to talk about OCD if you have my permission and trust, and I know there is enough respect between us for you to take it seriously!
    Similarly, if you don’t know the person well don’t ask what kind of intrusive thoughts they have. This is an upsetting subject for the person with OCD, and it takes a lot of trust to discuss it.
  • Don’t assume people with OCD are all neat.
    Some of us are neat. Some of us are messy. Some of us have OCD rituals like cleaning, others just have intrusive thoughts. Some of us are shy, others are extroverted. Many of us have other mental illnesses, or mental or physical disabilities. Some of us have mild OCD, for other people it is so severe they have to be hospitalised.
    In short, just accept what the person is like. Accept their experiences are real. Don’t use their personal habits to question their OCD.
  • You are not an expert because you read one article or watched one documentary!
    Most documentaries and articles about OCD pick the most sensational cases. If you don’t have OCD, you are much better off assuming you don’t know much from the jump. And don’t hand out diet and lifestyle advice when it’s not asked for.
  • Don’t explain to people who have OCD what OCD is like.
    We know, dude.
  • Don’t assume the experiences of one person with OCD are universal.
    People have done this with me, which is why I try to clarify that my life experiences are not the norm. Nor am I an expert: I’m just a young white cartoonist, in South London.
    There is no such thing as a typical life experience, or a normal manifestation of OCD. Be open to the fact that people’s experiences are different.
  • Do not ask people if they’re “sure” they have OCD!
    If someone has diagnosed themselves, they are probably already questioning and feeling a huge amount of self doubt. If you’re not a doctor and don’t know much about OCD, there’s no reason for you to add to that load.
    If someone is officially diagnosed by a doctor, they’re probably already worried that no one takes their OCD seriously.
    If the person who has disclosed OCD to you is a friend or colleague, offer your support. If they’re not close, accept their word. It is OK to say you don’t understand and OK to ask questions, so long as you ask permission first.
  • Don’t trivialise. Don’t crack a joke.
    Disclosing a mental illness isn’t usually much fun: it takes trust. People disclosing will probably be nervous. It’s generally not the right time to try and lighten the mood, especially if you don’t know the person too well yet.
    Be sensitive to the tone and subject of the conversation.
    Yeah, some people cope with difficult situations with humour, and people with OCD might do that too. But there’s a time and a place for everything. The person disclosing will probably be a lot more nervous than you!

That goes for other mental illnesses, as well!

Turing: Why Benedict Cumberbatch should stop talking about disability

(or at least read up on it. See disclaimer.)

Just before I went to see The Imitation Game, I read that Alan Turing had been retroactively diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m very wary about any Hollywood films featuring people with any disability at all, especially people who are on the Autistic spectrum. But I was willing to be convinced, and excited to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s big performance. I watched it not as a tragedy, or the story of a gay man in a homophobic world, but as the story of Alan Turing: brilliant, Autistic, gay, human.
And the film made me so happy.
I felt it was a beautiful tribute. Cumberbatch’s acting is versatile enough to capture Turing’s complex character; he gives us the sense of a brilliant mind working away beneath the facade. His performance is the focus of the film – I think it’s fantastic, possibly Oscar-worthy. And: at no point did I ever, ever doubt that he was playing an Autistic character. Actually, I forgot that he was acting at all.
But after all that, I was upset a few days later to see how Benedict Cumberbatch actually feels when he’s asked if his characters are Autistic. Rather than being delighted that so many fans identify many of his characters as being on the spectrum, (Sherlock, Turing, and even the pilot Martin Crieff in Cabin Pressure) Cumberbatch seems annoyed:

“People talk about me doing that quite a lot and that being a good thing for people who are on the spectrum, which is great. But… I’m very wary of that, because I’ve met people with those conditions. It’s a real struggle all the time. Then these people pop up in my work and they’re sort of brilliant, and they on some levels almost offer false hope for the people who are going through the reality of it.”

First off, what I don’t understand is how BC can honestly think that there is “no hope” for any Autistic people – an enormous range of people, of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Autistic people are human. There is hope for every human being, no matter how “disabled” they appear to be, or how much help they require; and assuming someone automatically has less hope because of their neurology is enormously patronising.
There’s also the assumption that Autistic people can’t be “sort of brilliant”. Not only is it nonsensical, it invalidates that Turing was retroactively diagnosed in real life, and that many other intellectually brilliant people have been diagnosed as Autistic. And who knows how many more Autistic people – brilliant or not – have been institutionalised, ignored, or even killed, just because people can’t communicate with them or it is “too much work” to look after them? It’s truly heartbreaking.
And knowing how important positive representation is, it seems so irresponsible of Cumberbatch to write off and patronise a section of his fanbase. It contributes to a culture of ignorance and bigotry, whether he’s aware of that or not.

Secondly, it’s incredible that he can hold such narrow-minded views and yet play characters on the Autistic spectrum – Sherlock, Turing – so beautifully.
Tumblr is (or was) full of posts by Autistic fans who praise his acting for its precise physicality: every tic and finger stim appears completely natural. Sherlock and Turing would be easy to present as stereotypes, but his characterisation makes them into people. His characters’ movements echo their personalities: in Sherlock his graceful leaps, spins, and almost acrobatic movements showed a character who was always ten steps ahead of everyone else. In The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch’s facial expressions, his posture, his terse delivery, the way he delivers flashes of emotion and shows his character concentrating hard on being liked by others, builds up an image of an Autistic human being at work in the real world.
It’s doubly surprising because usually, creators’ prejudices inevitably show up somewhere in their work. It’s probably a stretch to say unpleasant creators make unpleasant work (Roald Dahl was anti-Semitic and classist, but I still enjoyed Matilda as a kid), and actors are collaborative by nature, mostly speaking words that aren’t their own. But it seems bizarre that someone who holds such ableist views can provide such sensitive, nuanced portrayals of Autistic people.
Mostly, I’m disappointed. So much more could be made of this situation. Instead Cumberbatch has left people upset, saddened, and wondering whether to watch his next film. Not impressive.

(Disclaimer: I have never been diagnosed as Autistic. I consider Autistic people my disability siblings, and wanted to do them justice in this post. There is so much ableist writing about Autism in the media that I wanted to contribute positively in some way.)

Anxiety & Me, part 6: About Mr Milligan

[this is the last in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Read part one here]

I was brought up worshipping comedians.

I knew that Tony Hancock, Paul Merton, Spike Milligan and a lot of the others were mentally ill, and always somehow assumed it made them funnier – that it fed the black humour that made them special. I assumed their illness gave them insight into a kind of dark wisdom that other people didn’t have.

But then I saw a picture of Spike Milligan in a depressive episode. He looked destroyed. A sad, broken old man. And I realised something then: wherever his art came from, it didn’t come from bipolar.

“I cannot stand being awake,” Spike wrote about his illness. “The pain is too much … Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning – I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going – so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is ‘good evening’ and then I go quiet.”

What on earth can you learn from something so awful?

Some would say that there are a handful of qualities you can develop, if you live with mental illness. Compassion. Empathy. Gratitude. Experience. Mindfulness.
Well, yes. But these are all things you could learn anywhere, in any circumstances. None are linked directly with mental illness, or indeed, with any negative life experience. They are all qualities that we, thinking people that we are, develop ourselves as we grow – and it’s possible to develop them even without a mental illness.

In contrast, creating art usually requires a lot of very practical skills and attributes. Like concentration, energy, stamina, and a basic belief that what you’re doing is worth the time you put in.

All these qualities are contingent on being able to sit down and work.
Which is difficult, if you’re not at your best.

If you can do it at the moment, good. If not, don’t blame yourself. Most importantly, when you can create, it doesn’t matter what your brain is like – it’s what you do with it that counts.

There is no direct correlation between being “a little bit mentally ill” and being an artist. It’s absurd – like saying that you need to have imbetigo to be a traffic policeman, or that you can only be an accountant if your dog got run over. Again: having depression or anxiety is an illness, not some kind of creative superpower.
Yes, we can use mental illness – because that’s what we would do anyway, using every scrap of experience to build something new and beautiful. Yes, we can and probably should talk about it in our work, opening up a space for those who feel scarred by it.

But let’s destroy the assumption that someone must become more interesting and creative as soon as their brain starts to riot. Forget the idea that all artists are somehow damaged, that troubled artists should feel fired up by their experiences instead of thinking “well, that was a bit shit”. Dismiss the supposition that we must all be productive all day, every day, or else we are failing. Mental illness is a fact of life; and there is a deeply personal connection for every artist between work and life experience, which defies attempts to be universalised into a feel-good message about how illness makes us braver and more creative.
It is our own talents, experiences, voices and strength that make us into artists. Not our weaknesses.