Category Archives: Cultures

On Why I’ll Never Stop being a Chatterbox

One night this week while having a few cocktails with some work friends, to say farewell to someone who is moving on to pastures new, I got possibly the best compliment I could ever ask for. One of the girls told me that since meeting and getting to know me, she feels a lot more comfortable with talking about mental health.

It was said in such an unassuming, casual way and I think that’s partly why it meant so much. I’m not one to easily accept compliments at face value (I doubt myself way too much to do the easily) and after all we had enjoyed considerably more 2-4-1 cocktails than had originally been intended. But I knew that this was said genuinely, mainly because it was clear after she saw my reaction that she hadn’t a clue it was going to mean as much to me as it does.

Now I want to stress that this was a work friend I haven’t known for all that long and whose knowledge of my life and experiences is comprised only of what I have posted on this blog since I started it before Christmas, and a few mental health-related conversations here and there at work. Natural, unobtrusive, day-to-day conversations about mental health and mental illness. This is not someone who I have dramatically opened up my heart and soul to and sat sharing experiences with for hours on end.

This is not someone who has come to me with problems that they wanted to talk about, or who is having a hard time with their own mental health, as far as I know. Any discussion that we have had about these issues has been just that, basically just every day chat.

So being a chatterbox can be a good thing – take that teachers of Blyth!

As you’ll know if you follow this blog or have basically ever met me in the last 5 years or so, I think that being open about my own experiences with mental illness is the best gift that I can give back to all of the people who have supported me through them – whether by telling me about their’s, talking to me about mine, or just not running a mile when they’ve realised I am about as far as it gets from this mythical ‘normal’ person people are always banging on about. I am what could be described as ‘aggressively’ open about my experiences and I’m fully aware that I’ve made people feel uncomfortable on occasion with my openness. After all unfortunately, the stiff upper lip is not yet dead .

I know as well as anyone that having the courage to ask that friend who doesn’t quite seem themselves lately if there is anything they want to talk about, then listening while they tell you about the ‘weird’ things happening in their head lately and not running a mile, is important. Spending some time reading up on OCD or anorexia or post-natal depression or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or bulimia or anxiety disorders because you’re worried about someone close to you, so that you can understand what they may be going through and how you can offer them the best support, is crucial.

But what is at the very root of fighting the stigma around mental illness, in my eyes, and what has the power to allow all of these types of support to become more widely available for everyone and even become ingrained in the way that we think about each other and about our health; really is just being willing to chat about it. It’s about not going awkwardly silent if it is inadvertently brought up in a conversation with your workmates. It’s about not ignoring that it may be a factor in whatever it is that you happen to be chatting about, because you don’t want to ‘bring the mood down.’

It would seem that we don’t need to have personal experiences of mental illness and/or to share those experiences with the world, in order to make a contribution to the opening up of discourse around mental health, we just need to allow it to be a topic of everyday, ‘normal’ conversation.

This way we can help to show everyone that it is an everyday, ‘normal’ issue and help to banish the “I’m a freak” belief system that can make mental illnesses even more difficult to deal with.

Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and the Wise Man on the Bus

Picture the clichéd image of a bedraggled man or woman sitting in a chair hunched over a typewriter. They appear to have been in the same position for at least three or four days. Every now and then they stop to violently tear the paper out of the machine, ball it up as small as they possibly can, and toss it into an overflowing waste paper basket. Each time they spit forth a tirade of foul-mouthed self abuse as the rejected sheet descends to join the pile of other useless rubbish in the bin – all there is to show for the three or four hours that they have actually been sitting there.

That’s how I write.

All I can say is that I’m thankful for laptops and word processors, especially for the ability they afford me to repeatedly cut out huge portions of my writing and start over, without single-handedly destroying the Amazon. To put it mildly I’m a ‘drafter’ – the writing process for me, as I’m sure it does for many others, involves copious amounts of cutting, pasting, deleting and re-writing – and occasional swearing (out loud, not on the paper). But usually I get there, I end up with something that I think gets across the point that I am trying to make.

What has made that process so much more difficult this afternoon is that, as I’ve just realised, I actually have no idea what the point is that I’m trying to make; or rather what my stance is on the issue that I’m trying to discuss.

I’ve been trying to write about my views on the public reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings that tragically occurred 11 days ago. Everything surrounding this tragedy is terrifying and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Of course this is always going to be a difficult subject to write about. It is a story of inconceivable tragedy that tugs at the heartstrings, not just the political sensitivities, of many nations. It has come at a time when (speaking for a moment of the UK in particular, as this is all that I have personal experience of) many people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the system of government. I have personally heard people who would never before have dreamt of abstaining from voting in a general election, considering doing just that. Not because they can’t be bothered but because they simply no longer buy that there is any difference between the parties on offer. Many of the people who are considering ‘waiving’ their right to vote don’t see it as that at all, they see it as exercising their right not to do so. In a nutshell (admittedly one inside which the emotional topography of an entire nation is hugely over-simplified and generalised) the population is angry. The “this country is going to the dogs” sentiment abounds and although that idea seems always to have held appeal for the older generations who fondly remember a “better time” that in reality may not have been any better at all; now the younger generations are starting to agree. But how do you fight against an establishment which is so.. well.. established?

In the midst of all this uncertainty is escalating religious tension, and one thing that I am almost sure about (I say almost because I’m less qualified as a politics expert than I am as a zookeeper) is that the aforementioned political parties don’t really mind that tension, not one bit. After all it is not only distracting us from how utterly uninterested they are in the wellbeing and quality of life of anyone below them in the class and power foodchain, but is an ideal basis of useless rhetoric and empty promises with which the various parties can divide the population into comfortable voting categories – then pretend they care who we vote for as they all enjoy remaining in power together, the bestest of buddies living the high life behind closed doors. The escalation of religious tension between Muslims and – it would seem – everyone else, has provided the opportunity for UKIP and Nigel Farage to rise up from the masses (this description requires us to forget for a moment that Farage has basically the same background as the rest of the major players – give or take a few years of make-me-rich banking) and try to convince us that they are the ‘revolution’ that this country so sorely needs. They’re reminiscent of a manufactured pop band and I suspect they’ve been designed by the people in charge to make us think that we do not need to question what’s really going on, we just need to rebel by voting for UKIP in May and everything will change; we’ll all have more money, there will be 0 unemployment for the white man and they’ll find the cure for all cancers, in early June. If UKIP do get into power I imagine it will turn out to be more like the time when Rage Against the Machine stole the christmas number 1 from the X-factor – only if we had found out soon after that the band were in fact managed by Simon Cowell all along, and they’d immediately started covering Leona Lewis songs.

But that’s a subject I could write about all day. What I find so much harder to do is form a solid opinion on the human issues surrounding the tragedy of 12 people murdered in their office as they went about their day and how this can come to happen, in the midst of so much more hatred than I ever want my future children to be surrounded by.

Like everyone else, I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces about this tragedy over the last 11 days but I’ve honestly found myself more confused after reading each one.

In trying to form an opinion I have considered writer Mehdi Hasan’s assertion that Charlie Hebdo has never published cartoons about the holocaust or 9/11 as this would be offensive; and that this destroys the idea that they believe in freedom of speech without limits?

But hang on a minute, while Charlie Hebdo have indeed never published either of the above (thankfully!) but to the best of my knowledge, nor have they ever published jokes about thousands, or millions, of Muslim men, women and children being massacred. Surely their Muhammad cartoons are all about denying extremism that’s based on the belief that people deserve to die for refusing to follow a prophet? Surely that’s their reasoning for ridiculing Muhammad? Not racism, not hatred of Muslims?

But then there is a lot of discussion around whether it as seen as acceptable for other religions, in particular Judaism, to be mocked in the same fashion as we are expecting the followers of Islam to accept. This seems to centre mainly around the reported sacking of Maurice Sinet in 2009 for allegations that he made anti-semitic remarks in his work.

In my view, all religions should be allowed to be mocked and need to be mocked, if we are to ever come to understand that they are flawed human creations, not divine catch-alls for whatever monstrous behaviour we as flawed human beings want to get away with at any one time (which they have served as across all religions for centuries). But of course that has to apply to all of them.

A question that I have seen asked by many, after first being posed by Professor Brian Klug, which has caused a lot of debate, is mentioned in the Mehdi Hasan article and which did really make me think, was this: would someone joining the unity rally held in Paris in reaction to the shootings, holding a placard showing that they support the gunmen and their ’cause’, have made it out of that situation unharmed? I don’t think I can answer that question confidently. So does this prove the hypocrisy of the idea of free speech without consequences?

Then I read another article just today, that has been written in response to the first one, and this too made a lot of sense. In it, among many other good points, the writer argued that none of those defending Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “have or would advocate (government-sanctioned) suppression of Holocaust jokes, however repulsive they might find them,” because they believe in free speech.

But wait, the question posed is not about Government-sanctioned judgement. This still leaves the question of whether all of those attending that rally really would have been able to allow the man with that placard his right to free speech without violent consequence, given how deeply offended they would have been by what he was saying?

Indeed, many of the sickeningly racist comments that I read attached to a video (LINK) of a radical Muslim being attacked by two British men for preaching on an British high street, certainly did not reflect the opinion that voicing their views (no matter what they are) should not put a person in danger.

As I write this I realise that of course, trying to work out what would have happened in Brian Klug’s scenario is all conjecture and nobody can really say what would have happened in that situation. I suppose the point I’m making is just that I am confused about what I think here.

So all I can do is go back to the things that are easy and are facts in my mind – because sometimes it helps to take things back to basics for a minute and look at what we really believe:
1. What happened to those journalists is not OK. It can never, in any way, be justified.
2. Mass persecution of people of any (or no) faith, can also never, in any way, be justified.
3. For as long as we keep allowing our governments and press to guide our opinions of each other, we’re screwed.

That’s it as far as things that I am sure of on this subject goes, that’s all I’ve got and I’m aware that it isn’t very useful at all. In fact it’s probably nothing more than common sense, but the problem is that amidst the bombardment of information that we all receive on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis, maybe our view of common sense has gotten a little lost in the white noise?

An elderly gentleman on my bus the other day, who smelled quite bad and talked loudly to himself for the whole journey – soliciting more than eye-rolls and sniggering then I would have hoped to see in 2015 – at one point said something that I think maybe we all need to stop and remember. He said “we’re not all the same though are we, whether you’re a man or a woman or whatever, we’re all different from each other, every one of us.”