Tag Archives: self harm

Don’t Call Me Crazy 3

TW: Mentions suicide, self harm, anorexia, and voices inside the head. PLEASE DO NOT READ IF IN AN UNSAFE PLACE EMOTIONALLY.

The final episode of Don’t Call Me Crazy throws a spotlight on to males with mental health problems. I think mental illness can be particularly difficult for men given the myriad of social expectations and stereotypes around them. Bullshit like men don’t cry or men bottle things up. These stereotypes also have a negative effect on men as they are so ingrained into our culture. If men are trained not to talk or speak about something bothering them then places like the McGuinness unit may be a last resort after a build up of problems.

Firstly we meet Matty, who was brought to the McGuinness unit after his lecturer found him at college writing suicidal thoughts on the Internet. He has a fear of being killed on his 18th birthday and has plotted out in great detail his own solution to the problem. Chillingly he has worked out the cost of a gun, and intends to use one to kill himself.

In an art therapy group where patients are using pictures taken from magazines to illustrate their problems Matty chooses the emboldened word ‘THOUGHTS’ and a picture of red boxes all close together. He is able to articulate to the art therapist that the word represents his thoughts and the boxes close together represent the voices all shouting at him at once..

I think the visual aids helped him to consolidate initially his own problem. They can come upon him at any time as is shown when he has to leave the room abruptly when the voices begin. Voices from my impression of Matty seem to be really crippling things. Imagine trying to move with a heavy weight on your back. You would probably move slowly and slightly fearfully due to the pain. It seems that this is how it is for Matty. He cannot predict when the voices will strike so has a constant crippling fear gnawing at him and in many ways it becomes easy to understand why faced with this scenario he would want to kill himself.

I am not saying anyone should; nothing of the kind but it is easy to understand why somebody in the grip of depression thoughts of suicide and psychosis would want to. It seems like a temptation, and a way of escaping the problem. But that said also there are healthier ways of achieving this.

After having home leave cancelled Matty begins to open up to Mental Health Nurse Pete about his regret over not talking to somebody before he felt the urge to self harm the previous night.

Mental health is not about perfection straightaway, it is about as Pete says learning lessons for the future. The two then bond over a shared love of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers song ‘It’s My Aeroplane’ and the tattoos of the lead singer Anthony Kiedis.

Such bonding is important as it helps to build up trust and rapport. I share Matty’s love for music and it is definitely one of my techniques for de-stressing too.

Later in the programme we see Matty with occupational therapist Vicky. The group are talking about support and are asked to name five people who support them. Matty is initially unable to think of anyone and writes that down. However by the end of the session there is progress as he has managed to name five people and the voices have not emotionally crippled him this time.

For Dr Andy Rogers, Head of Psychological Therapies at the McGuinness Unit, hearing voices is nothing more dramatic than a common response to stress when the mind races. I think that the lack of sensationalism around mental health has been a real strength of this series. Practitioners such as those in the McGuinness unit deal with situations as they are rather than how they would like them to be. Understanding the story around the voice helps a lot according to Dr Rogers both for the patient and medical professional alike. I think I know that nothing mental health wise ever happens in a vacuum. There is always a trigger and as I said previously it is about walking alongside people while they figure out what that trigger is.

After Matty is restrained he meets with case manager Maureen to discuss his anger. He tells us that he attended anger management. This failed him though and only served to make him more angry. This is not unusual. In my own experience when I feel pissed off I tend to feel anxious first. Anger is a visceral strong emotion and does not appear generally as a first response. Rather the anger is precipitated by other events. Matty actually getting to grips with what he is dealing with is a powerful moment for him and a powerful moment for me as a viewer.

In this episode too, we also meet George, a gifted rugby player who won a prestigious rugby scholarship to a top boarding school. Far from home though he became depressed and began to hear a man’s voice telling him he was worthless and should quit rugby.

As psychiatrist Dr Ihenacho suggests any kind of competitive pressure can cause depression and anxiety . Competing against people who are equally talented as you are can break you as you are always comparing and contrasting your abilities with those of others. He shares time with his father reminiscing about happier times on the rugby field. He speaks tenderly about a card he has received from the boys in his House at boarding school.

For George the McGuinness unit is a safety blanket. He feels safer than he did before and he knows he is with people who understand. His mental health assessment helps him to understand his problems better. Matty too echoes these thoughts. So then, the act of listening is so simple but rarely practised to any great effect. We must listen more, much more and be there for people when they need us most.

George confides in Gill about a wall he punched and how he was given diazepam. Gill is not shocked, nor does she condemn him. What we need to do is to harness such attitudes and to spread them out into the wider world. A better more compassionate humanity is what is really needed here. We need greater empathy too. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. People say I am very understanding and very empathetic and I listen. Yet it saddens me that this should be something so wonderful and remarkable. Why can’t more people do it?

An attraction developed this week too between George and Beth. They have a good laugh but wind each other up as well. A funny moment occurs when Beth throws George’s slippers out the window. To say sorry she makes a pancake. At least she cared even if George didn’t fancy touching the pancake!

For Beth the overriding narrative of this week is one of progress. She is eating more, being weighed and for the first time is allowed to eat on her own. Ultimately, she is speaking more positively than ever before. This is heart warming to see and gives you a kind of happy feeling. However such transformation is not without its problems. A difficulty comes for Beth when the review team makes a decision to stop her Zopiclone and replace it with melatonin. We see her in distress at this development, begging a nurse to reverse the decision with one of the doctors.

In institutional settings, any change in routine can be destabilising. Its significance can also be increased. Beth feels the staff are against her and are letting her down. The reality is she’s sleeping effectively without the medication and no longer requires it. But when decisions are made for you and not by you it can be hard to see that they are in your best interest.

We see this later too, when home leave is cancelled due to Beth self harming close to discharge. For Dr Rogers though, blips are not unusual. Think about it if you have been in an enclosed space for several months, going back to familiar spaces may not feel so familiar at all. It is natural to resort to a way of coping when we are scared often the way of coping we fall back on most, even if it is not the healthiest.

But the best thing is Beth herself realises that self harming may not be the best way of coping as in no longer has the same effect for her and in her words “doesn’t even hurt, [and] was just annoying when it wouldn’t stop bleeding.”

Beth was then happily discharged soon after and according to narration had not self harmed since leaving the McGuinness unit. Matty was discharged into the care of an adult mental health unit after turning 18 and is now back at college.

George made the decision not to return to his boarding school and to study for the same scholarship locally to his family in Essex. For me this is no way a retrograde step. Sometimes we can all feel a huge amount of guilt over our decision-making since it can have an impact on others too.

However we are all built differently, and whilst one decision may suit one person it may not suit another. I am glad wholeheartedly that George did the right thing for him – well not only for him but also for his mental health. People say you only get one body, and there is a plethora of health and safety advice about looking after your back, for example. You only get one mind too, and that needs looking after also.

In closing let me just say a few words on the series and mental health in general. You may be wondering why I decided to dedicate three blogs to this series. Why mental health matters to me so much. As regular readers will know and new readers may not up until 2012 I was in counselling every year of my life for various things. The bulk of it was due to depression around my disability and my stepfather’s abuse. I have devoted enough time to transsexuality elsewhere in the blog’s are not going to discuss it here.

But you see, when I was first sent for counselling all those years ago, I felt crazy. I knew it was something everyone did. It’s not like an after-school club that everyone goes to. I would shoot off in my school uniform to the offices of my local Social Services Department. Nobody ever knew where I was going. But talking helped, talking to a stranger who did not judge who did not think badly of me who would just listen and allow me to talk, not sharing preconceptions even if they had them. Talking and being heard was vitally important.

Latterly I went to college, and things were pretty bleak. I was boarding away from home and just felt really lonely. I was having counselling and had managed one session with my new counsellor, when she said to me;

“I can’t work with you till the fog clears. I want you to go and see the doctor about antidepressants.”

Antidepressants, I thought. What the fuck! I’m only 18! I later told the deputy care manager that I was scared people would think I was a nutter.

But it turned out I wasn’t alone. There was a special set of appointments after the main general medical ones for students with mental health problems. You see, we reflect our own stigma. My attitude of choice towards mental health problems is informed by my own depression. Nutter is a value judgement. Yet instead of being kinder to ourselves it is these value judgements which we are most afraid of. Having a mental health problem is scary and isolating. But it is far easier to go through it with kindred spirits than alone. Mental illness is not having to walk on eggshells. Mental illness is not feeling pissed off we all feel pissed off. But imagine if that’s the only feeling you feel.

That is mental illness. The worst thing you can do it to tell somebody to cheer up or to snap out of it. This may be something you do to ease your conscience, and maybe your way of wishing that the person’s suffering would go away. But the best thing you can do is to listen and hear.

For I tell you people can understand my disability in a heartbeat. They can see my wheelchair. They can see I can’t walk. But depression is less well understood.

Eating disorders and self harm too present their own unique challenges. A friend at uni told me they had an eating disorder. They were shocked by my understanding. Their explanation of it from their world and their perspective made perfect sense. I don’t judge that perspective nor think about it for when somebody is disclosing something it is their voice and theirs alone which is important. My task then is to shut up and listen as counsellors did for me. Empathy is very important.

It saddens me that many do not understand even belittle or make fun of mental health problems. They are not fun and not a joke..

People with mental health problems deserve our respect our love and our care. Even if you can’t directly empathise with a problem, learn about it read and listen.

I’m so proud of all the participants in Don’t Call Me Crazy. I think it has achieved its objective of showing other young viewers they are not alone. Places like the McGuinness unit are a much needed safety blanket of love and support, sometimes tough love but love all the same.

The thing that saddens me though is the act of listening is not rocket science. We can all do it, yet sometimes I think we choose not to. Let us make better choices and not ascribe pariah status to those with mental health problems, especially the young.

Let us open ears, silence preconceptions and opinions and listen. Many of the young people sounded as though the McGuinness unit was the only place they had felt truly listened to. Does that not disturb you? It smacks of a huge deficit in society and it is not a financial one either. It is a deficit of humankind and only humankind can solve it.

Asking for help should never be the wrong choice. It is not a weak choice either. Sometimes it may be the only choice, the best choice and the strongest choice you ever make.

And for others, make the choice to say this:

“Yes okay. I may not understand everything but I am willing to listen. For the person with mental health problems, those may be the best words they ever hear.

The irony of this show for me, and the irony of mental health from the bottom of my heart is that people with mental health problems often make the most sense.

Advertisements

Don’t Call Me Crazy: Part 2

TW: Mentions hallucinations, self harm and anorexia. DO NOT read if in an unsafe place emotionally.

At the start of the second episode of Don’t Call Me Crazy we meet 14-year-old Crystal who has hallucinations and staff are determined to get to the bottom of why. These characters have been with her for a long time. The two most prominent ones are named 7 and 75.7 is a 14-year-old girl, 75 is a dog and there is another character Autumn, a rat who she describes as having really long teeth.

The key thing is that some of these characters are friends to Crystal whilst others are not. 7 is friendly whilst the rat Autumn is not and the reason why she was admitted is because the bad were making her feel suicidal.

The medical team begins to assess rightly by excluding physiological and biological explanations for these hallucinations. Such things, according to the McGuinness Unit’s psychiatrist Dr Ihenacho include deficiencies in liver, kidney and thyroid function.

I must emphasise here that people like Crystal are struggling, not crazy. For her the characters are 100% real, as real as you or I. When blood tests come back clear we know that the cause of Crystal’s hallucinations is psychological.

Art therapy is a tool which seems to help Crystal greatly. Through visualising painful memories it helps to unlock Crystal’s pain. She draws what art therapist Charlotte calls “the good guys” and then the bad guys.

One of them is simply called The Man and has no eyes, purely empty eye sockets denoted by extremely dark shading on the drawing. One way to rationalise people who have caused immense pain in our lives is to dehumanise them, and this seems to work for Crystal. One thing I love about this programme is that it does not seek to pathologise a patient’s symptoms but rather walk alongside them in a journey allowing someone not to feel isolated and alone.

Crystal observes to Charlotte that 7 does not look like 7 as she’s too old. Crystal has drawn her to look more like an adolescent and is not happy with this representation. Chronologically,7 is only four.

This is the age when Crystal was adopted. In the team meeting the tragic circumstances leading up to this adoption were revealed. They involved physical abuse and neglect. Crystal’s was a traumatic upbringing to say the least. We respond to trauma in different ways. Crystal also feels punished by the rats when she eats and so cuts afterwards, although she suggests to camera the rats have done it. Also discussed in the team meeting are the negative characters being a response to angry or jealous feelings.

On a home visit her parents are alarmed by these characters, and her mother confiscates a hair clip which has had the plastic pulled off thus having the desired effect of making it sharper and blunter to enable Crystal to use it to practice self-injurious behaviour.

In the grip of these hallucinations it is not only herself Crystal wants to harm. Also she reports that she has wanted to harm her stepfather Bill.

To me this is an impulse governed by fear. Fear that something good could be taken away and replaced with bad, which is after all a mirror image of her life up to this point.

When  staff take Crystal out for a walk they persuade her that the best solution is one that will keep her Dad safe also.

The fears of families are another thing central to this episode. The biggest fear of Crystal’s parents is that her hallucinations are rooted in schizophrenia or psychosis.

Luckily for them, they were not but merely a coping mechanism to help her process the trauma of a difficult childhood. This is not uncommon. It is far easier to externalise traumas which have happened to you than to own them inside yourself. Indeed as Dr Ihenacho explains, children often indulge in fantasy between the ages of three and four. For me Crystal clearly had a vivid creative streak and was able to bring these traumas to life through art and fiction. Dr Ihenacho seemed confident that as Crystal created these characters she herself would be able to destroy them and was discharged from the unit.

This week was also a life changing episode for Gill. We saw her last week spending a lot of time under 24-hour supervision in the McGuinness Unit’s acute corridor under and unable to mix freely with other patients.

This time, we see her trying to build relationships up with her family. Familial relationships are very important and if these are damaged for whatever reason it can cause damage to an adolescent also. Gill disclosed this week that when she was growing up at a very young age she spent a lot of time caring for younger siblings whilst her mum had cancer. I suspect that she struggled to have a childhood of her own, plus that she probably imploded taking on adult responsibilities at such a young age.

All humans are built differently and we all respond to stress differently too. I think out of all the psychological qualities we need to cope with life, resilience is the hardest one to build up as there are so many things in the world that can knock it down again.

But Gill’s family came to visit this week and brought her an ice lolly. Simple things mean a lot to people with problems and those living away from home in restricted spaces. For it is more difficult to access the outside world and buy your own ice lolly. Her smile was priceless.

Little things mean so much. I think One Direction would agree with me. We then see Gill going into the hospital grounds for walks with her mother which are gradually increased in increments of five minutes, building up to a full 20 by the end of the episode. She is under supervision and with staff as well as her mother. It feels like some sort of rapport is being established and I feel an increasing sense of hope for Gill as the episode progresses.

Gill also goes out to a local shopping centre and is really excited. She said “it’s just nice to go out with normal people.”

Now I often wonder to myself what normal means but I understand Gill’s point in this context. It is nice to be a label free person; to have nobody know you are from a psychiatric unit.

Although she had one slip up during the episode, this is the only time we only saw her in the acute corridor. This is a massive improvement on numerous times. The episode ended with the happy news she was being taken off her section after taking it to panel. The death of a friend kick started better motivation in Gill. Sometimes we all need that. Events that encourage us to simply take stock and reflect.

We also revisit Beth this week. At times in this episode she appears to be complying with the Rainbow Programme more and at other times she appears to regress. But that is the harsh truth of anorexia. There are many ups and downs, with the two extremes often interchangeable.

A lighter moment for Beth happens this week when she composes a poem with other patients, with jokes about being mental and living in a mental home. Now in as much as the programme is trying to break down stigma by reducing insensitive jokes around mental health and misuse of words like crazy and mental, I think that those who have mental health problems are entitled to use them. It is simply a way of coping with society’s lack of understanding of them. The poem was quite cool too.

Dr Ihenacho and the team also have to deal with a very sad development for Beth this week. It is a letter she writes to staff, explaining that she wants to die, but that she is not sure how to do it or get away with it in the McGuinness Unit.

Now of course this is very sad, and gauging faces of the staff when they view it they too are saddened. For the staff to are not detached automatons but people who have feelings also and want to help. It is never nice to see anyone struggle.

People don’t realise just how desperate the mindset of anorexia can become. It takes over literally everything, indeed Beth admits that her eating disorder was a method of controlling her life and that staff were now trying to take back control away from her.

Now, the narration states clearly that Beth wrote that letter to staff. Often suicidal ideations are just that -thoughts but left bottled up and unexpressed they can become dangerous for people who experience them. The letter was sad, and Beth may have ups and downs but I am glad she felt safe enough to write down reflections on paper to enable them to be discussed, and to ensure staff were able to help and support when she was struggling.

We see her beginning to eat more this week, but poignantly we also see that this new found eating comes at a price.

She feels she needs to punish herself for eating and so cuts herself afterwards. This is another feature of anorexia. It is devious. It can fool you into thinking that even the most natural of everyday behaviours are somehow wrong.

We return to the themes of judgement and support in a psychiatric setting. Beth says on the topic of self harm;

“In here everyone’s done it. Nobody judges you in a psychiatric unit. When I do it it’s nice to see the pain coming out in the blood.”

That is what people with mental health problems need in a sense. A judgement free space without worldly condemnation. The problem is even though mental health problems are not widely understood, it does not prevent people from expressing opinions which well, to be diplomatic lack nuance. Such opinions can be damaging and not conducive to well being.

Regarding pain and blood let me explain a little further. We can see physical pain. If we fall over and injure ourselves, we may see a bruise or cut. However it is harder to see the pain that lurks within our souls. So self harm then is a way of seeing your emotional pain manifest itself physically and this is what Beth is talking about. We all deal with pain differently. Beth says on the outside people judge you on the way you look, and that she would find it difficult to go out with her scars – these are the result of her self-injurious behaviour.

Indeed, some have queried whether there is a need for such graphic footage of self harm in the programme. To those against it I say two things. First of all this programme is designed to raise awareness. It cannot do that fully without confronting the most difficult and perhaps visually disturbing aspects of mental health.

Secondly I have my own views about scars. There are also for me signs of battles won as well as battles lost. Soldiers have scars after fighting in war zones sometimes. Are they ashamed? Sometimes learning to live with scars is part of recovery. That includes the internal scars as well as the external ones which are so often a feature of mental health problems.

Finally we see by the end of the programme that Beth is no longer classified in the anorexia nervosa band but in the underweight one. This is a huge accomplishment. We saw her at Christmas unable to go home and having to have Christmas away from her family. Beth’s friend remarks upon how well she’s doing and how much she wants her to get better.

At the end of the episode though we saw Beth denied an appeal to come off her section.

What I learnt most from this episode was again about stigma and the importance of thinking free of value judgements in relation to mental health. Also how important our family and  friends are when it comes to maintaining or indeed not be able to maintain our mental health unit a young age. Many factors can precipitate a mental health breakdown and it is nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of.

Crystal’s characters it seemed to me were manifestations of the good and bad people in her childhood

I look forward to the final episode next week.

Don’t Call Me Crazy: BBC Three (Part 1)

TRIGGER WARNING  Mentions anorexia, mental health, and the misunderstandings around it. Do not read if in an unsafe place emotionally. A link to the first episode ishere, and available for download.

 

 

 

 

 

Let me ask you a question. Out of the two following people who would you feel most sympathy for? A person learning to walk again after an accident and taking 10 steps in 20 minutes, or a girl who managed two sips of a food supplement drink in 20 minutes?

I would bet that there would be some people who would say the former. They would say the first person had an accident, the second one did it to themselves.

This is exactly the kind of attitude and being frank prejudice which “Don’t Call Me Crazy” has been commissioned by BBC Three to address.

We are introduced to 3 of the McGuinness Adolescent Mental Health Unit in Manchester.

We meet Beth who, at the time of filming  has anorexia and self harms. We also meet Gill who is an extreme self harmer, is described as volatile and as we see over the course of the first episode of Don’t Call Me Crazy needs to be restrained by several members of staff at regular intervals.

Lastly we meet Emma, who charts her struggles with OCD in the course of filming.

You can see here too that the staff are walking  a fine line between exercising compassion and understanding the reasons that have brought them to a psychiatric unit, and a desire to maintain the physical health and ultimately help them recover.

In fact the values of the McGuinness unit embody those sadly lacking in society. The patients provide mutual support to one another, as can be seen when they play a game tying each other together with bandages. In this game they have to depend on each other in order that they can move at the right time. We can see that they trust each other and this is heartwarming when you think society has probably rejected them due to their mental health problems.

As Claire one of the senior staff nurses on night duty puts it;

“I often get asked, do you lock them in their bedrooms? No we’re a hospital; we’re nurses. These are just young people going through adolescence which I think is a form of madness at the best of times with a few extra problems on top.”

Educational opportunities and therapy within the unit also provide opportunities for self reflection. To me, the young people at the McGuinness unit seem very clued up about their own mental health, in fact more clued up than the average member of society.

This inside knowledge also means that young people are acutely aware of the stigma surrounding mental health. They talk of how people appropriate their experiences by saying things like “I like things clean, I’ve got OCD!”

However well-meaning such a strategy is misguided. Liking cleanliness is natural. Cleanliness and compulsions mutating into obsessions is not.

For these young people mental illness is debilitating and a hard road. They also talk of the pain they feel at having to justify their mental illness to people which I believe to be and abhorrent thing to have to do. As Emma puts it so eloquently “you wouldn’t ask somebody why they have a cold [and suggest] there’s no reason for them to have it. Nobody should have to do justify their mental illness to anybody. Everyone with a mental illness should be treated with compassion, love and understanding. Yet, I am also acutely aware that the world does not work on the bases of this credo tragically.

Emma contends also that the staff interfering with the belongings in a bedroom will result in something bad happening to her mother. This is how debilitating mental illness can be. It is almost rationalised irrationality.

We then see Beth battling with her body. She could not at the time of filming see that there was something wrong. She resisted intervention even sneaking a Diet Coke into the unit to supplement meals. Saying “just eat!” Is simply not appropriate here. It won’t work and will most likely fall on deaf ears.

Eating disorders are not about food and weight but instead about the feelings food engenders. If your life feels out of control, or going through a period of intense emotional upheaval then food may feel like the only thing you can control. Some people call anorexia ‘the ED voice.’

It’s one of the worst things in the world. It will teach you that everything is always right but the world is in fact wrong. When in the grip of anorexia people believe that not eating will solve problems. Real feelings are endlessly substituted for the word ‘fat’ because real feelings at times feel too painful to face.

When I asked you at the opening of this article which person you felt more sorry for, Beth was the girl I had in mind. The reality of course is that both should be felt sorry for. For it is just as hard for somebody with an eating disorder or recovering to take the first few sips of a meal supplement drink as it is for someone to learn to walk after an accident.

She is matter of fact, showing her lack of food intake as a positive, after remarking that (paraphrasing) a combination of methods are needed to achieve weight loss. This intellectual discourse is a way of distancing from emotional pain.

We should promote greater sensitivity around mental health problems. It pisses me off that in 2013 so many people still don’t get it. That’s why I for one am glad the McGuinness unit opened its doors to television cameras in order to allow fiction and fact to be separated out.

If support and understanding is lacking in mainstream society, it is definitely not lacking in the McGuinness unit. You can see plainly that the place despite the pain is full of love. Patients support each other, transcending the boundaries of their own illnesses to offer unselfish and unconditional support.

You can see this in evidence from the time Gill absconded, through to the collective sadness when somebody leaves. When something happens to one person, it has a domino effect on everybody causing ripples of upset.

There is true community here. It is not the real world but a microcosm of it and when you are segregated from society for your own safety it is all you have. Having lived in communal environments I can appreciate this myself.

What happens there matters. It is keenly felt by all patients. They cannot go anywhere else if they want to get better. There are professionals who care who understand and who want to help.

I don’t think any of the people featured in the first episode or any of the show I am sure are mad or crazy. They are human. If you think otherwise the I put it to you that maybe it is you who needs your head examined.

I’d just like to finish with an anecdote of my own. I was at university I had just been diagnosed with depression, and I was walking home from my GPs surgery in my wheelchair.

I lived opposite a psychiatric hospital. The weather was very cold and there was snow on the ground. I saw three girls walking out of the hospital, probably patients.

“Merry Christmas”, they called. Now it wasn’t even Christmas but I needed a smile so laughed at the absurdity of the situation. They asked me if I was okay and gave me a hug each of them. A long one.

A mental health hug as I like to call it. They are longer than average and seemed warmer and more sincere than the polite social gesture. Fruit loops, my carer muttered. I argued with them when we got back. Those girls did more for me in five minutes after a tough doctor’s appointment that most people do in a lifetime. The irony of mental health problems is that those with them are often the most compassionate in my experience. Maybe we can all learn something from that.


NB I shall be blogging on  the following two episodes also.

Trans Mood Music

Paris Lees was recently interviewed by Stephen Gray for The Pink Paper.I found the interview very galvanising and encouraging to read. In it she talks about launching new trans magazine META, as well as the trans community in general.

But there was one quote in particular, which jumped out at me when I read the piece, as follows.

Tell us, what prompted META magazine?

“There’s a new mood in the trans community and we wanted to capture that, to provide something celebratory and aspirational.”

Then, Paris goes on to say when questioned about her work on Channel 4’s acclaimed series My Transsexual Summer;

You worked on Channel 4′s acclaimed My Transsexual Summer, how do you see the role of trans people in the media developing?

“I think we’re increasingly seeing a younger, louder, less apologetic generation of trans people in the media – and that’s great. There are infinite ways to be trans but we’ve been fed the same tired standard narratives for decades now. The only story that was being told, for about 40 years, was that of the “classic transsexual”, the male-to-female middle-aged misery narrative.

 “Of course, that’s a totally valid experience, which many trans people identify with, but it’s time for some fresh perspectives. Sadly, the media seem more interested in replacing the old standard narratives with new ones: so we get the “pregnant man” trope or the “child transitioner” repeated ad nauseum. These identities are almost always presented as freakish. What we really need now is for happy, healthy successful trans people to stand up and say, Hello world; I’m having a great life – what’s the problem?”


I hope as I begin this piece that I am representative of both the new mood in the trans community, not to mention the “younger, louder, less apologetic” generation of trans people to which Paris alludes. I will come back to this notion of being less apologetic later as I think I will have a lot to say. In this entry however, I want to talk about my childhood in a mismatched outside and inside, the bad mood, also my tentative steps towards transition, the good mood (good in the sense I was doing something about it) and the brilliant mood the present and recent past.

As you will see I have set this entry to music, using a soundtrack I have selected. I advise you to read with headphones or speakers on so you can feel the journey as well as read it. Seat belts on and off we go.

THE BAD MOOD

Creep, Radiohead

On January 17th 1981 a baby was born. They said I was curious to come and see the world. If I had known then what I know now, I would have waited until my due date.

I was born three months prematurely, so it was not exactly an auspicious start to life. I was also born with cerebral palsy which in simple terms renders me unable to walk, but in the present time, I have a real passion and zest for life.

But as soon as I became conscious of the world and my place within it, I knew something was wrong. Yes I played with cars and conformed to the social role of being a boy, but I just did not feel comfortable

Thankfully though I did get some chances to spend time around women at school. Even then though, in an almost millennial landscape, this was frowned upon. I loved my little table of friends at school, but then my tutor Mr G. ruined it for me.

Looking back, I am sure he meant well, and was trying to protect me. But truthfully and honestly you cannot protect somebody from gender dysphoria. The force is too strong, and eventually the truth will out. I just had no inclination to align to my birth sex, nor did I see why I should try.

So why is Radiohead relevant at this point?

Thom Yorke asserts in his poignant, heartfelt, gutwrenching vocal that he’s a creep, he’s a riddle, and he does not belong here. That sums up very neatly how I almost always felt in my pre-transition life. There were even times when I felt that I was trapped inside something that did not belong to me, that is to say, I could not take ownership of myself at this point, nor did I want to.

I just knew, knew, and knew even more that something was not right, and this flamer of knowledge never went out for many years.

The other resonances were the the desire for a perfect body and perfect soul. The perfect body is the simpler one to understand, for me a perfect body simply meant a walking one. A perfect soul on the other hand? How do you swap souls. With the inevitable passage of time, I have learnt that I do not need to, but all that was swirling around me at the time was a sea of confusion and mystery. I listened to Creep ad nauseum. When I listen now it reminds me of how far I have come.


Whilst still stuck in the sea of confusion, this song would have epitomised my feelings.  Founded by the frontman of Slipknot Corey Taylor, Stone Stour were an even darker proposition than Slipknot and their masks.

You see, early in transition, I felt different, and really low and lacking in confidence. Now this song did not come into my life early in my transition but it is frighteningly relevant.

I had better be honest and say that the lyrics I am about to post may be triggering and painful to some, and shocking. I decided to write this entry after someone said to me that people just don’t understand what we go through.

So I feel in writing this I have to, have to be honest. I know some people will be upset by that. But my integrity is important to me.

Of course, a way round that is the classic triumph over adversity trope. This is how I was, this is how I am now, all normally boxed off very nicely into a nice slot for the reader or the viewer.

But everyone has a journey, and it is that in between journey that journalism and the media rarely addresses. The beginning and the end is ok because that warms the cockles of the heart.

But here, I am seeking to tell you, the reader, some of what we go through so you can be better informed, and if you are a trans person reading this, perhaps it will help you.

But initially, taking the song title, “Bother” I did not know why I bothered. I had been in and out of counselling since the age of 16, for emotionally abusive stepfather issues, and for other issues as well. That is what I was really. An issue.

Wish I’d died instead of lived
A zombie hides my face
Shell forgotten with its memories
Diaries left with cryptic entries

Yes there were many times when I wished myself dead, many, and many times when I could see no colour, apart f rom a relentless black. I was sent to the college doctor at 16 with depression for fuck’s sake.

You see, people always rave on about democracy. But there is no such thing as birth gender democracy. There is not.

It does not exist. Which is fine for the cisgendered majority, but for the trans minority. Now you may look at me pejoratively and suspiciously and say, “You’re born how you’re born, live with it!”. 

Why though? That would be my response. Why live with a conflict between soul and body? Why live with crying yourself to sleep? Why live with suppression? Why live with double Jack Daniels at 1pm just to escape when you are at a sporty university and it is not just that you cannot be one of “the lads” because you’re in a wheelchair, as some would have it, but instead it is because you have no inclination, desire, or motivation to be something you are not.

I predict, using the best of my self awareness, that had I not acted on my gender dysphoria when I did, I would not be here now. There were many times when I too wished myself dead.

After all, why live a life that was given to you, rather than one you want to own and nurture? I was living inside a shell with a zombie instead of a human. Every day just seemed like pointless drudgery and tragedy. Why would you want that?

Where even your eyes do not want to be open. Why would you want that?

Another thing I detested was wearing boys clothes. Sorry to the boys, but men’s clothes really do not fit me at all. They are functional rather than fabulous and boring rather than beautiful. There are clothes nearer to the spanglier end of the spectrum, however it just did not sit right.

I think pre-transition, life is very hard and cruel. Mostly, the one piece of stability the cisgendered majority can hang their lives on is their gender. For them, there is no conflict between biology and Sociology. There is a truism here too. Psychologically, people deal with what they can see better.

At school, Mr G could see my wheelchair, but he could not hear the silent screams of gender dysphoria. Interestingly, a point worth making, I had had a lot of respect for him. It is never easy being the new kid, and he helped me to settle in well. But after that, well my respect for him ebbed away.

This trans narrative persisted throughout college and University too, and then came a turning point.

MAN IN THE MIRROR MICHAEL JACKSON

At my darkest time before transition, and at some point during, I knew something had to give. The turning point came when I confessed to C that I felt like a woman. To be honest, it did not exactly seem like a shock to her. So the process of disclosure went from there. It never really felt like changing a man in a mirror. It was more like becoming somebody I liked, recognised and seemed to fit me like a glove.

There’s a fantastic line in the Prologue of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The narrator sings this.

If you think it, want it, dream it then it’s real. You are what you feel”

That you know is highly relevant to transition. It is a slightly childish sentiment. But a useful one. You have to dream to believe transition can happen for you.  That it is not some external thing, or an unreachable star. It is possible for anyone, if it is a path they wish to go down.

Asking a man to change his ways? Not really. More like allowing someone to fly and be themselves.

SKUNK ANANSIE AND SIMPLE PLAN

The first time I heard Twisted was at college, ad nauseum for two days, blaring from someone’s bedroom after she’d split up with her boyfriend. The strength of both songs Twisted for its pounding unapologetic and uncompromising guitar and lyrics, almost screaming. At my worst I thought Skin gets it, she understands me. Each and every day was hurting and in the world there was only black.

By the time it came to Simple Plan I was self harming. Please be careful reading further if you are triggered. As the skin pours blood, I believe the soul does too. The soul needs to bleed and mourn for the biology it suffered, and feeling physical pain is a way of doing that. But it is the same soul that will spur you onwards to a happier path.

 I want to be clear that being trans is not easy. It is fucking hard. You go through pain, grief, and what seems like neverending sadness. Bodily contempt, hatred, loathing. It feels like you have been made to put on a disguise that does not fit, and you yearn for authenticity of the self, ardently, obsessively and with real longing. It is not a fetishistic whim. Transition for me was a vital process. To the person who said people do not understand what we go through, I hope they do now. That was partly my motivation for writing this post, to get that message out there, uncut and uncensored.

BEETHOVEN’S MOONLIGHT  SONATA

Oooh classical!! Yes I am congruent in every way but perhaps the one thing I am a little secretive about is that I can be a classical music junkie sometimes.

Moonlight Sonata is perhaps the musical equivalent of the misery narrative Paris alludes to in her interview. It has been used numerous times on television to convey feelings of suicide, loss, guilt, grief and hopelessness.

I do not think I am being dramatic when I say that I grieved a lot for my womanhood, which I felt entitled to. I grieved mainly that I was not born with it. But then I realised I could do something about that.

GOOD MOOD

The second major turning point was meeting Tina. I am not going to reference every song from here on in, as I do want people to be able to read the entry before Christmas. Meeting Tina was a huge turning point because I had always wondered why my own reflection was somebody I did not know. She was able to put those curiosities into a non-sensationalist, non-freakish context, and walk with me calmly while my head spun at a million miles an hour with oodles of questions.

I also became stuck for a period of time, and enmeshed in childhood narratives of stepfather abuse. But Tina was kind and patient enough to stick with me through this, but also offer me tough love. Though I was shocked at moving out of candyville, I am glad the tough love happened. It made me a fighter and gave me rhino skin. It enabled me to love myself and to honour and follow my heart, plus make my own decisions.

I also made peace with my disability during this time. Granted, there are times when it pisses me off, as my transition would be easier without another variable, but I live with it.

Another thing I do struggle with is love. I hope I meet someone one day as I have a lot of love to give.

It is the one thing I think would complement my own big and vivacious personality. I know there are people who are much worse off than I am and I try not to complain too too much. However, this is an ongoing struggle.

BRILLIANT MOOD

This is I guess the part of the entry I would term as the present. So how is it now compared to the life of pre-transition? Indescribably and infinitely more wonderful, whole, congruent, colourful and more beautiful. The best thing in the world is to know your own reflection and think actually, in spite of everything, she looks good. 

I had a support network, experienced the LGBT scene, and I am now taking some time out to focus on my own stuff. 

What I feel though, what I can smell is a sense of optimism from the trans community. My Transsexual Summer was a watershed moment doubtless.

It was the very antithesis of the misery narratives Paris alluded to. Rather than allowing their stories to be told, each one  of them told their own. Yes, there were highs and lows, but they are a common feature in the life of every member of the human race, are they not?

Yet, nor were they victims. They were survivors. They are all individuals who embrace the challenges life throws at them  and aim for succes and dream big.

But also, they, like me, believe in themselves. No-one should have to  apologise for being trans. That is the bottom line.

Transpeople, like all people, are unique and special in their own way. But I believe people are beginning to become more savvy. They are learning the lessons of other minority groups. Rather than being spoken for, they are speaking for themselves. Loudly and proudly, and I include myself in that via this blog. Rather than being controlled, they are controlling their own narratives. Rather than being history, they are shaping, and reclaiming their own history.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that for a long time, I did not even want a narrative. Now I want to wake a shape our future in any and every way possible.

The turning point came when I was moaning and bitching about something, and Tina asked me what I was going to do about it? From passive to active in one easy question.  There was no religious-esque vision, and no miracle. But that question changed my life. My life. No one else’s. It was my life to win, and to own. 

I stopped caring what others would think, and began to live, and love living.

If any of this has resonated at all, whether the bad mood, the good mood, or the brilliant mood, I am glad. Even if life seems impossible at the moment, it is not. I used to think it was.

If life is good, I am happy and share in your happiness. For me it has been a battle, and one which is not yet over, but I am glad I came on to the field.

Also, do listen to the songs. The Jason Mraz one is particularly inspiring and like my good friend Hippy Clare, makes a virtue of living in the moment.It even has a hippy drum.

Let me leave the last words with a wise man.

“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.”

~Harvey Fierstein~