Austerity

The Tools To Resuce Myself (aboatwithnoengine)

This was written for a series on The Politics of Mental Health being run by the brilliant Transformation section of Open Democracy.

My hair is falling out. Of course, the rogue hair on my chest is still there. Of course it is. But the hair on my head is falling out.

I find myself busy considering the potential impact of the hair loss on my identity. This is a sign that I am ok. I feel like I have an identity. The hair loss feels viscerally bad on many levels: the physical sensation of it dislodging from my scalp with such ease, with no fight, the political assault on my body as my form is altered in a way that is out of my control, because of pills prescribed to me when I was barely conscious. – Maybe it’s ironic, considering my passionate belief that women should be allowed to choose what they do with the hair on their bodies, my belief in its significance.

These are the thoughts that travel through my mind and out of my follicles.

It’s a sign that I am ok because a few months ago, when I wasn’t ok, I was trapped inside the badness of this feeling. There was no space for social analysis, or any sort of healthy interaction with the world. I would just sit, tugging my hair out of my head repeatedly, waiting for it to stop coming out, or I would fantasize compulsively about shaving it off and starting again. I would make up stories about all the bad things I had done to deserve this punishment.

I had lost my sense of self, the peace that comes with knowing who you are. I relied on external cues from friends, lovers, and doctors to navigate the world and I became them. I became my feelings, my moods. I became pleasure and pain. I lost all touch with my agency, even if from the outside it looked like I was doing whatever I wanted. I believed my thoughts were facts.

People became a stand-in for my core. Their love sustained me and I engulfed them. It’s hard to come to terms with even now, but what was happening to me was too big for us to handle or survive, let alone fix. I needed people who didn’t love me too, and the systems they have built.

With regard to hair loss, I was unable to step back and come to terms with it as a side effect of medication that may or may not have helped me to survive falling into a catatonic depression 16 months earlier, after which – following a series of manic and psychotic episodes – I was diagnosed with what they call bipolar disorder. It just hurt, like everything else.

It has taken a long time to relearn how to deal with emotions, to interact, to empathise, to reason, to consolidate the shit show inside my head with the jungle outside of it. The process is not over. I feel how I imagine it would feel to come out of a coma, or how Bradley Cooper with the long hair felt when he took that pill in Limitless: clumsy, overwhelmed, full of promise.

That has been one of the most frustrating things about recovering from a period of insanity. The punishing slowness of it. At one point showering was all I could hope for in a day. Indeed it was a triumph. I crawled to the bathroom once. (I have a degree you know).

But somehow, it was the speed itself that played a big part in the recovery. Eventually I realised that I couldn’t move faster than I was ready to. When I accepted that, it was actually almost relieving. I moved onto a shower, a meal, a walk – on a good day, maybe a session of texting and one Guardian article!

It took me a long time to accept the slowness because I was not used to moving at a pace dictated to me. I had to realise that I was dictating the pace.

Once I was able to listen to my body, it was incredibly comforting because its rhythm belonged to me, it was coming from within me, separate from the desperate push and pull of the rest of my life. The slowness wasn’t something to fight against, it was the fight.

There is no doubt that it was society that saved my life when it felt as though there was nothing inside me, when I was hollow, when my perception of reality was undoubtedly warped. Well, more warped than the average anyway, A mix of medication, mindfulness, therapy, technology and unconditional love got me to this point. But it was this feeling, this slow, steady pulse, from the inside out, that signalled the move from survival to recovery.

I say “recovery” as if I’ve “recovered”. As if I’m certain my bathroom-crawling days are over. But I don’t know that recovery is quite the right word. It’s too neat for something so very messy. What I mean by “recovery” is really the process that began when I stopped waiting to recover. When I realised it’s possible to transform trauma, rather than waiting for it to leave.

Waiting for an imagined future is no more healthy than mourning an imagined past. I had to work in the present, from the inside out. I had to stop the cycle of frantically grabbing for branches that couldn’t support my weight, feeling the assault every time one snapped, feeling the pain of that encounter reverberate through me, shattering my core even more; becoming that pain. I learned to sit still and listen.

That’s not as zen as it sounds, by the way. The process isn’t zen and neither is the desired outcome. When you sit still, everything that’s been troubling you is still there. Pain starts peeking from behind the curtains, an anger problem or two stuffed in the bedside table. But the fact you’ve turned around to face it means you’ve already won.

Just like today, when I got frustrated while I was writing this article, and threw my notebook across the room and cried. That was me winning. I promise. How awesome, to be crying for a normal reason, like stress and frustration. How great to know exactly what the problem is, and live it fully but not in fear that it will take over.

I find it hard to use the language of ‘transformation’ to describe the way I am learning to live with depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis… or the way I am learning not to have to live with them. My moment of transformation was when realised I was me all along. Does that make sense?

There have been a lot of ‘realisations’ in this article. Almost all of them can be traced back to the whispered words of someone who loves me, or a conversation I’ve had in a white-walled NHS building.

Humans cause the biggest transformations within each other, and within society. My recovery has been built, block-by-block, upon the support of people who love me, sometimes at the expense of their own health.

It was a person who held my hand in A&E as my life fell apart. It was a person who woke me up, made me packed lunches and escorted me to work, who gave me mouth to mouth until they couldn’t breathe anymore. It is a person who has given birth to me so many times.

Their role in my transformation is still too big for me to comprehend.

There is a unique sort of hope in the kindness of a stranger. Somehow, despite my catatonic state, despite barely recognising the people I loved, I remember feeling that a society with a system that cares the way the NHS does, is somewhere I could learn to live. That’s not to say my experience with the NHS was plain sailing. Most of the time it felt like we were on a ship in a raging storm, pulling ropes and seeing what would happen, sliding across the deck on our arses. But there was a ship, and there was a crew, and we were trying.

In moments where I felt I couldn’t live in a world as utterly fucked up as ours is, it was the humanity that I found in the kindness of strangers that was able to penetrate that fog that everybody else had become a part of, and keep that glimmer of self-awareness alive, that slowly became my identity again.

Suddenly my previous activism against this Government’s brutal agenda of cuts to services like the ones that delivered these strangers to me made even more sense. Since December 2012, when I was diagnosed in hospital, to now, the NHS has been a constant and unconditional support and somewhere between the system, the strangers and the loves of my life, I started ticking again. And this time I have the tools to rescue myself. I hope I’m a stranger to someone someday.

Where Are The Suffragettes

I wrote this in 2011, before Sisters Uncut had formed and made all my dreams come true. For Liberal Conspiracy.

Funny how some numbers get preferential treatment. Tucked away on the business pages of newspapers this week was a big one: the number of unemployed women in the UK is now the highest since 1988. This is business alright. This should be EVERYONE’S business, and ought to inspire shame, outrage, and a serious fight.

Last weekend at the UK Feminista Summer School people from across the country discussed the ways in which women, particularly single mothers and black and minority ethnic women, will be forced to the edge of survival by the spending cuts.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations like the Fawcett Society, the statistics couldn’t be clearer – or more devastating. So what do we do about it?

Feminist activists are spoilt for choice in terms of where to direct their action. The battle-lines of feminism today are less defined, and in some ways trickier to navigate, than those that kept our great-grandmothers in the kitchen and our grandmothers out of university.

We are the frontline of feminism every day: when we politely but firmly tell our colleagues not to substitute our name with “gorgeous;” when we remove the scales from our bathrooms, wear what we want to and encourage others to do the same; when we take pride and feel supported in childcare whether we have a vagina or not.

But where is the feminist frontline of the anti-cuts movement?

The cuts are an opportunity to talk about feminism in concrete terms, in terms that don’t for a second entertain the done-to-death conservative mythology of bra-burning and man-hating. This is about women deciding between feeding their kids and buying petrol so they can get to work. This is about women trying to manage financially unmanageable households when their partners lose their jobs.

We realise now, as we fight for basic childcare that allowed our mothers the choice to build lives outside of the home, and for the legal aid and safe houses that have lifted abused women from danger, how lucky we are to be able to debate nuances of modern feminism.

It is now up to us to remind people that the public sector workers we mention when we talk about job losses are mostly women. That the charities losing, in some cases, 100% of their funding, provide services that literally save women’s lives.

UK Uncut
The first half of this year has seen some action, including a group of women blocking George Osborne from delivering his budget and a feminist bank “bail-in”. Watching mothers, fathers, women and men who would usually be doing their Saturday shopping file into a branch of Natwest to sing songs, read books, and share snacks was a moment of hope. The presence of children did not merely make for an irresistible photo opportunity and decrease the likelihood of arrest. It signified that this is a fight for our future, not a fringe issue.

No union, well-meaning NGO or politician will fight this for us. George Osborne didn’t even seem particularly perturbed by the fact that he broke the law in failing to carry out a gender impact assessment of the spending budget. The government isn’t running scared – as it should be – because, frankly, we haven’t given it any reason to.

There are no holdout hippies standing naked in front of Parliament. There are no furious mothers breastfeeding their children in the middle of Oxford Street. There are no "carried-away" separatists hurling bricks through the windows of patriarchal (read: all) institutions. There are no misguided rioters to publically condemn but privately thank for finally, FINALLY, putting this issue squarely on the front pages of every newspaper in the country. There are no suffragettes.

UK Feminista
The ideas and energy at the UK Feminista weekend allowed us to feel fired up rather than helpless in the face of impending social crisis. Fear of arrest was voiced frequently and understandably. As Fortnum and Masons defendants, we can attest to the fact that we need to be vigilant of political policing and the treatment of women in police stations as they are refused tampons and targeted for verbal abuse by female and male officers alike. We must look after each other, but we must not be stopped.

When we are told to shut up and be thankful we are not in Libya, we will say we refuse to let our daughters fight for rights we took for granted. When we are told we are naïve, we will say we are not fighting for privilege, but for common-sense human entitlements.

When we are told that our issue is not an important one, we will ask how society can be expected to survive when those who create, nurture, and sustain it are forgotten. And when all is said, we’ll let our action do the talking.

Women, Austerity & UK Uncut

I wrote in the Guardian about direct action group, UK Uncut’s ‘bail-ins’. If you cut our childcare, your banks will be full of babies.

I am in the process of organising a UK Uncut action, set for this weekend, against the unnecessary austerity cuts that will push women’s rights back a generation. I stand with women who have been betrayed by our government.

Women will bear the brunt of these cuts. As the Fawcett Society points out, they make up 65% of the public sector workforce and will therefore be hit hardest by job cuts. They disproportionately rely on public services such as the NHS, for reasons such as pregnancy and longer life expectancy. They will also be expected to bridge the gap where childcare and services for the elderly are removed, directly affecting their right to work. The repercussions of these cuts can be seen already, with recent figures showing that the number of women aged 25-49 on jobseeker’s allowance is now at its highest since records began in 1997. Women of colour are the worst affected. It is time to take to the streets.

This Saturday, I will help transform a high street bank into a creche. This will be just one of scores of UK Uncut actions hitting RBS branches across the country, days after the bailed-out bank announced the size of this year’s bonus pot. UK Uncut have called for a second day of “bail-ins” – creative protests in which bank branches are occupied and transformed into a service threatened by cuts. Expect to see libraries, aerobics classes and laundry services for the elderly set up inside the banks that contributed to this crisis.

The first time I participated in a UK Uncut action, I was blown away by the enthusiasm of people walking past. It felt fresh and, dare I say it, hopeful. I spoke to one woman who explained what the welfare state meant to her and the role it played in supporting her single mother in the 1950s. I watched as she joined the protesters, enthused by their creativity and enraged that Cameron’s “big society” is clearly a viciously unjust one. His is not a necessity, it is a political choice, and it got me thinking.

The UK Uncut model empowered me to create an action that was particularly important to me, with the help of the like-minded people I got in touch with. But how do you tell the tale of the countless women whose lives will be damaged by these cuts? We settled on childcare as a theme, following the outrageous closure of 250 Sure Start centres and cuts to child benefit, tax credits and the health in pregnancy grant. These are services that give women the confidence and independence to seek worlds beyond child bearing and motherhood.

This government would rather slash the already threadbare state protection for vulnerable women than tame the reckless machismo of our “too big to fail” banks. This is not a tragedy for women alone. It will affect all of us, except for that tiny ruling elite who are fuelled by greed and ego. This Saturday, people opposed to and hit by the cuts, from women to the disabled, public service workers and those on housing benefit will be taking the fight to the banks. Join us.