Thursday, 29 January 2015

Answering Emily

Me during my first year at university

She attended university in the year I was born. She raged against conformity, felt hurt, threw down words which the World deserved to hear. She was making a point before I could even hold a pen, and it is through people like her that  the rhythm was set for people to use the ink, express themselves. The world, my mind, now often appears to pulse under a typeface or keyboard – yet it was this Emily who spun the words like yarn to make the garments without which we would be defenceless. Ultimately, It is due to people like Emily Pykett and her blog that provide the hope that writing can, and does, make a difference.

I wonder  how she has broken through the glass box she mentions, surrounding her undergraduate self. But perhaps ‘broken’ is the wrong expression. For Emily’s words echo with a sense that has not ‘broken’ and does not ‘break’ – it beats on. Perhaps she put her hands against the glass not to crack, but to clear the condensation from the surface, and see herself, in the mirror, as she may do today. I hope she is proud.

Most days the mirror I see through is still shrouded in a kind of  clutter, but writing helps it to clear – it makes me realise that if glass surrounds me, it can assume the form of mirror or window and suggest possibility, clarity. This is what Emily Pykett’s blog has brought back to me. She is an inspiration.

I wonder if she ever knew  another Emily, back then. I wonder if she had to face the fear of the under-discussion of mental health alone. She fought to make the situation better  for an Emily of her future, and I hope she feels that. Emily is not alone. The continued writing and discussion of mental health awareness shows that the benefits, the inclusiveness, can extend to so many. So yes, Emily is not alone. Anyone, of any identity, from any background, should feel that they can express themselves, express their minds. I hope this gives people hope. I follow in her footsteps. I am Emily and I am not alone.

I am attempting to launch a campaign concerned with increasing the awareness of mental health issues but also changing the language involved within – increasing acceptability and interactivity. I will keep you updated.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

In Response to: ‘Should the Holocaust be laid to rest?’

This is an article in response to Holocaust Memorial week and two television programmes concerning The Holocaust – the recently-screened documentary, ‘Night Will Fall’ and  Sunday morning’s discussion programme ‘The Big Questions’.

The phrasing of the interrogative itself – ‘Should the Holocaust be laid to rest?’ -  on this morning’s ‘The Big Questions’  stung like an insult. The idea of ‘laying something to rest’ implies the pacification of feeling, even forgetting, which I believe the exact opposite of the attitude we should take when addressing the Holocaust.

There has been much recent media debate in terms of memorialisation – for example in terms of the poppies exhibition at the Tower of London regarding the soldiers tragically killed in World War One.  The argument here seems largely in terms of representation – it is right to turn lives lost into a ‘visitor attraction’ or spectacle? Yet what I witnessed last night on television was not spectacle but raw reality – the screening of a previously unseen documentary based on eyewitness footage of the Nazi work and concentration camps. ‘Night Will Fall’ is a documentary compiled in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum, based on the original camera-work of World War Two soldiers and Sidney Bernstein, who had been commissioned in 1945 to create a ‘historical record’ of what was witnessed during the liberation of the camps. The film was originally titled ‘German Concentration Camps Factual Survey’, to be overseen by Alfred Hitchcock. Yet, hauntingly in itself, this was a documentary originally ‘laid to rest’ so to speak as deemed, in the words of one survivor  feared to ‘be a political inconvenience’ at a time of attempted European conciliation post-war.

It is through the work of the Imperial War Museum and the screening of the documentary on Channel Four , that we have been offered insight into the turbulence of the truth. The paradox of the orchards outside Bergen-Belsen shown shortly before the fields of countless corpses inside. In the words of the narrator of the documentary, piles of female bodies like ‘marble statues’ , piles of human hair and hacked-off jawbones from which even the teeth were removed. This is a human tragedy which cannot be laid to rest as the victims were not themselves given the dignity of ‘being laid to rest’. The footage shows American and British soldiers  attempting to bury bodies through mechanical means in mass graves – bodies which had been wiped of identity, decency, dignity.

As image after appalling image emerged, I felt increasingly numb. The continuous  view of corpses seemed almost unreal, bodies bent beyond recognition, mere skin over bones.  These were people treated inhumanely. To forget them would  be inhuman.

My numbness and shock slid to anger on watching ‘The Big Questions’ this morning. Under the question ‘should the Holocaust be laid to Rest’ – there were a number of panellists concerned that other examples of genocide or other groups involved in the holocaust do not get the same recognition; a strange experience almost in terms of the argument of comparative suffering. All human suffering by the means of genocide is appalling. Then surely the question should not be ‘should the holocaust be laid to rest’ but ‘how can we remember it?.’ Rather than limiting discussion of The Holocaust in terms of labels of ethnicity or religion – the holocaust should be seen in its awful reality, as the result of intolerance, injustice and oppression.

In turn, to simply ask the question ‘should The Holocaust be laid to rest?’ is to fail to take action. In regards to ‘How should the holocaust be remembered?’ is to take action – just as the Imperial War Museum have done in allowing this documentary to be produced. This morning, in ‘The Big Questions’, a human rights campaigner pointed out that homosexuals were also victims of the holocaust, disabled people were also victims of the holocaust.  When these themselves are potentially underdiscussed issues, people still persecuted,  how can the holocaust ‘be laid to rest?'

The victims of The Holocaust were varied individuals, they led colourful lives, they were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, lovers. Yet the tragic commonality of their experience was that they were deprived of their human rights, their humanity, due to unjust intolerance. These people were deprived of their freedoms, deprived of their ability to act. That is why the Holocaust cannot be ‘laid to rest’ – because we ourselves have a responsibility to act for all those who could not. We can act to eradicate intolerance in its many forms, for the holocaust incorporated intolerance in many forms – an intolerance of (but not limited to) the Jewish race, of homosexuals, of travelling people, of the disabled – groups and communities targeted by an ideology lacking humanity. This is not about pinpointing a single race, or a set of statistics. I believe that ‘Night Will Fall’ is a film about the fight of what it is to be human, as etched on the faces of the inspirational survivors interviewed – and to be human is not to ignore it. To be human is to take steps to eradicate the intolerance which did not give a chance to others.

That is why the holocaust cannot be ‘laid to rest.’ To rest is to fail to react to injustice and intolerance.  And that is why in attempting to increase our engagement in  campaigns which call for greater tolerance, in whatever way we can – whether human rights activism, religious activism, mental health activism  - we can allow this commutation to expand, far beyond the screen, and into society. You have  the choice of  whether  to watch ‘Night Will Fall’  or not – but the victims of the holocaust were stripped of choice. Over the years, different people made different choices in regard to how the documentary material of the concentration camps was dealt with – The Americans clipped the footage for a much shorter propaganda film under the direction of Billy Wilder, some chose not to show it all. But it is important that for those of us that can choose to act, we can make a difference – whether it is working for rights on a community, national or international level, we can make the choice towards eradicating the evil of intolerance.

I am attempting to end the discrimination against the mentally ill in my community - . What will you do?

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Although weight can be shifted, so can the shame

It has been difficult not to notice the increased media attention recently – in regards to weight. The subject of obesity appears a particular favourite – with accompanying television programmes such as ‘Katie Hopkins: My Fat Story’ and ‘Outweighing the Enemy’ .  These shows attempt to project weight as a terror to ‘tackle.’ And why not?  In light of statistics that In the UK, 67% of men and 57% of women are either overweight or obese, according to the Lancet Medical Journal, it could appear that the media is feeding from what is certainly a social concern. It is a concern so apparently acute this includes being bombarded with images of various states of undress; women  weeping in their underwear in front of a camera, Katie Hopkins exhibiting her swollen stomach, and so on. However, this undress is leaving something unaddressed, I believe. In portraying weight as something to be ‘tackled’, like a terror to triumph over, this is ultimately leaving the psychological foundation unaddressed. Cultivating shame in regards to weight refuses to feed the mind with what it really needs.

Too often weight is presented as a spectacle. Too often this is presented as ‘acceptable’.

I am writing this as someone who has faced issues with eating. It is a subject personal to me after all, weight is a personal thing – and throwing it as something to be ‘tackled’ almost seems to advocate a fight with the self. Take Katie Hopkins for example. In her recent documentary ‘My Fat Story’, Hopkins gained an unhealthy amount of weight in a very short time ( up to half her weight in 4 months) – in order to demonstrate that it indeed can be lost again. Indeed, we already know that weight can be gained and lost and having a media figure advocating it with lines such as ‘I hate all you fat people’ and  the calls of 'you chubsters’ are not necessarily encouraging. Considering her comments about weight in general, it appears (though this be my own opinion) that Hopkins was not particularly compassionate despite her determination to diminish human bodies. An area increasingly appearing unaddressed, (rather than undressed) is the psychological issues underlying eating behaviour. It seems almost convenient that the television can make only the external the issue.  Admittedly, in the programme there was reference to a psychologist who discussed the potential factors behind Hopkin’s competitive, even cruel attitude towards weight – but then again, the notion of competition still continued.

What I saw was saddening – both in terms of Hopkins and the emotions she was apparently evading. Here was a woman going against her own apparent principles (her views on healthy eating and exercise) in a course not of illumination, but humiliation.  Still her comments continued ‘I hate you fat people’, stirring again and again the factor at the very centre of the issue - shame. Indeed, many peoples eating behaviour is determined by shame, with what are regarded as ‘abnormalities’ in eating behaviour being especially the case. The reason many people overeat involves features of shame – such as turning to food as comfort from insecurity, having poor self-esteem and continuing to eat, feeling afraid to exercise out of embarrassment, television programmes and articles circulating this continued shame towards bodies and their ‘management’ like it is a competitive task is not constructive. And it is just not the case for obesity. This culture of competitive conditioning  of bodies harbours an unhealthiness towards food, if anything. It advocates that food is not something to be appreciated and enjoyed, but controlled and counted. Such patterns of control and calculation underlie many unhealthy relationships with food, especially in regards to eating disorders.

It is an especially disturbing consideration in accordance to young people who are especially vulnerable to the masquerade the media can provide. According to Schools and Students Health Education Unit, about 40 percent of 10 and 11-year-old girls in the U.K. want to lose weight. That number rises to 54 percent for 12 and 13-year-old girls and to 63 percent among 14 and 15-year-olds. These are ages at which children are also especially sensitive to their own changing bodies ,and the bodies of those around them – and ‘shame’ is one of those emotions we should not want to see becoming associated with natural growth and development. Food has its own particular power to evoke a fondness, especially when reflecting upon childhood favourites – I used to love the slow ceremonial eating of my grandma’s chocolate cake on a Thursday afternoon in primary school. And food can evoke a love which can continue – without the label ‘fat’.

Yes, Televising the issues of weight and weight management may be a way some people see of ‘getting it out in the open’, but I feel that the real issue still lies under wraps. What many people are doing as they unpeel the fickle foil from the chocolate bar, as they wait for the sudden punctured pop from the bag of crisps – is waiting for some kind of comfort, some kind of confirmation. A person’s relationship with food is governed so significantly by the mind -  and yet  the mind appears something the television seems to shy away from. Katie Hopkins' continued name-calling, Christian Jessen’s  ‘Weighing Up the Enemy’ leave only a bad taste, adding to food as a fear factor, something to be afraid of.

Furthermore, for the majority of people with weight issues, unlike Hopkins and the contestants on ‘Weighing up the Enemy’ or similar programmes where losing weight comes with a financial incentive – many face financial worries, may struggle to afford gym memberships or even the time to embrace regimes which are advocated as ‘accessible’.  Hopkins claimed "My project was to prove that all the excuses for being fat are nonsense — and it is proving that" – and this is exactly where the falsehood lies. Hopkins perhaps showed emotional vulnerability as she teared-up in her programme and talked of the negative emotions she felt by being overweight, but neither did she confront the emotional issues as to why people eat what they do, when they do. It is easy to advocate a conceptual regime of ‘eat less and move more’ but what if those comparative terms of ‘less’ and ‘more’ seem only bewildering to a mind which is too depressed to fully comprehend, set in a body it fears and despises?

The word ‘regime’ itself I hate – it emphasizes a lack of accessibility in it’s very self. What is accessible is actually embracing food and its emotional connections. If a person is unhappy with their weight, it is highly likely that they are not fully enjoying their experience of eating – feelings often thickened with guilt and displeasure.  Many people have become trapped in cycles of consuming for comfort, unsure of any way out. In turn, this is why I believe the current media focus upon advocating ‘shame’ in regards to weight and food is only worsening the problem. Instead, by advocating healthier alternatives and by showing food as something which can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, this offers a much more constructive approach . Why not now? I can see no harm in opening minds in this way, but in continuing to shame and shock people into ‘controlling’ their weight (simply the succession of verbs shows how negative it is), the underlying issues of anxiety and insecurity will only continue to swell. That is why  I am determined, even in the days where the depression is difficult, to post a picture or recipe which makes me smile – we should be spreading ideas about eating and showing that a healthy lifestyle can be accessible and is evident when the individual is content in themselves, rather than saturating the screens with shame. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Because to feel alien is not to feel alone

Even when I feel what I write cannot make sense and everything is an attempt to uphold something, anything.

The days of alienation  can feel the most disconcerting. Yesterday , I made myself go to the supermarket with my Mum to try and feel part of a functioning world, or so I told myself. Only, the world seemed to function around me. People seemed to shuttle past, almost mechanical, wearing expressions like clothes and clothes like expression. Nothing quite seemed to fit together. A persons smile across the aisle seemed appalling, and rather than ‘domestic’, trolleys of shopping seemed suspended like open confessions of the fabrication of living. It is only in retrospect I guess I can describe this sensation as ‘alienation’ – a sort of eerie detachment from surroundings, as if the mind is weaving a narrative  to which you are a witness rather than part of. It is in this article I want to discuss feelings of ‘alienation’, how they exist, and how ultimately, in recognising they exist, it can be affirmed that such sensations can be overcome. I wrote a poem on it:

They shifted in an odd, recited silence
Like limbs in a séance.
I thought that this was perhaps hospital
Attempting to liberate itself,
The lighting mocked the middling sun
Melting walls, the rows of shelves
Invited each figure like a child
To indulge in that impulse for excess.
I guess, their recovery
Or success, lay in a series of attempted steps
Across the pre-marked paths
Each keeping each just to themselves
Looking out through layers of glass.

A new system where you ‘help yourself’
Propelling conscious choice along
For judgement through an open cask
They parade the  flesh and bone along.
Why do I stand and see the patients
With a  patience I have felt before
Like watching trains pull of stations
Going places other people will call home.
For here the words adorn the greasy
Surfaces of the communal toy
The idea of food to not be fearing
Pre-packaged living they say can be enjoyed
The empty life of chests of freezers
The presumed freshness of the crust
Of ice which bites against the fingers
And smiles of mirrors, silts to dust.

Where am I
The race proceeding
The limbs bleed by, those ones to watch
That disguise
The premise they are leaving
For the rest who think the doors are locked.

This is about alienation. It is a perspective refreshingly addressed in Matt Haig’s new book ‘The Humans’ – taking the perspective of an ‘alien’. It is only in reading further that this ‘alien’ may be closer to home than first thought – the mind and what it makes us.

The concept of ‘alien’ does still appear to apply to depression, and, this is what Haig’s book, amongst other things, attempts to explore; the humorous quality accentuating the ridiculous nature in which mental health can be wrongly misjudged.  In that, I mean Haig is highlighting how mental health is an issue often treated with alienation, when it is those who are suffering who often feel alienated themselves. This is what we need to recognise, after all, people providing their accounts and interpretations of alienation has also been historic:

“He was so terrible that he was no longer terrible, only dehumanized.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is The Night

After all, ‘alien’  a term appropriated to an object being compared to humanity, and identified as holding potential similarities to humanity, but yet not human. Depression could be described as acting as director to these definitions in a sense, taking its time to twist the limbs of the individual through what feel like a pantomime of human actions. It becomes part of manufacturing a vision of dislocation – other bodies seeming eerily distant.

It is a sensation difficult to describe, but to feel non-human, or even ‘alien’ is by definition, not a ‘feeling’ at all. It is that which falls outside of human definition, deemed destructive as there is no immediate area for categorisation. This is still an issue I believe still permeates and prevents progress in the discussion of mental health. Although it is fantastic that more resources are available for people to discuss mental health conditions, what the resources often fall short on is the discussion of mentality itself. We seem to live in a society in which we are fed with ideals of what it sit to be ‘human’. The doctor’s waiting room affirms this just as does the supermarket aisle. For there are the magazines, sheath upon sheath, with their bright colours and enhanced images of what are anticipated to be ‘human interests’ and ‘human enjoyment’. They may well recognise the ‘conditions’ from which humans may suffer – physical and mental – ‘depression’, ‘bi-polar disorder’, for example. In this way, the media is talking more openly about mental health problems and can be constructive.  But an uncovered, unleafed area, still lies in the mind itself, that the mind itself can be disconcerting, that it can act and feel inhuman. Felling inhuman, alien, can be one of the hardest things to talk about – as language is a  human construct, leaving the poor tongue with hardly anything over which to begin.

So why then can I write about feeling alien? How  do people talk about feeling alienated? Because although the mind may make us feel ‘other’, that there is the potential to talk about it, that people often raise it as a symptom of their unhappiness – proves that  it is not felt constantly. It abates, and those who have felt alienation, can feel something else, because they recognise it was not a sensation experienced, rather than themselves.  Almost ironically, beautiful irony, to write about alienation is to write from being alive. And this brings me back to the beginning of my article – concerning the novel ‘The Humans’ and its focus upon alienation- highlighting that the experience of alienation can be used to add to an interpretation of the world itself.  Alienation discussed is thus not alienation alone; and that questions definition itself. That is the point –discussion of the mind pushes boundaries, just as the mind pushes the boundaries of the person. It is discussion which needs to happen  - discussion which can help break barriers for the better.

BUT - That there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.”

― David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Monday, 5 January 2015

Why I try to write (or 'Happy' New Year)

I try to write
But perhaps I have perfected the art
Of losing the plot
Far too often.
An indulgent paradox
Shifts through my fingers
They look like insects here
Yet the wrists rotten.
I take the first hand
In the other
And curl the fingers to fists
Slowly knotting the flesh
Is this expression?
If I hold it above my chest
Does it mean something?
When I push it against my temple
It fits like a glove

Ah, you lover
The clichés run
And these hands uncover
They scrabble with dust
They want to hold
But they only touch.

Perhaps I should try and write why I write. Poetry is perhaps something different we distinguish it, it is a little like speech, there is something raw about it, to me.  My writing may appear to take the form of poetry, but I never really can see it as poetry in itself; it would be like it was assuming a lie, a form it was not. Like so much around me – family being just one example. Ah, they try to fit to that six-letter word like lining their limbs with a suit jacket. They want to formally witness the occasion of their own betrayal.

Yet the betrayer holds the pen so to speak. If the pen is mightier the sword, then perhaps fingers on keys can be as awful as artillery fire. Noise thunders around me however, and my digits on the keys are a mere patter. It is like my limbs falling out of sync down a flight of stairs. Every time I write it feels like some grave necessary injury.

Did the ‘great writers’ feel such an injury? Injuries do not always involve pain, but typically involve trauma –  to the flesh, or the mind, or both. Did Fitzgerald feel his tissues twinge as he unthreaded the phrases which became ‘The Great Gatsby’. But then again, Fitzgerald could be seen as a ‘creator’  - he inhaled that flavoured air of the 1920’s and created a  delicious fiction of it, something stunning itself. I could be considered, if anything, as a captor. The first time I read The Great Gatsby my skin tingled in anticipation of  touch. The anticipation of touch and the creation of it as a sensation could be considered as perhaps more powerful than replicating touch itself. The  anticipation of touch heightens the awareness of the moment, the surroundings, the mind relaying over a series of uncertainties. It is an expression difficult to express and thus perhaps requires allusion to the moment which first made it for me – within ‘The great Gatsby’ itself, a scene I often visit in memory:

They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.

Here the narrator Nick first introduces us to the figures of Daisy and Jordan – later to become major characters, but in this stage only in chapter 3, and here retaining  an almost tantalizing sense of mystery, there is something haunting in the fantasy o their description such as ‘flying around the house’ and the  ghostly ‘whip and snap’ of the curtains and the ‘groan of the picture’, yet there is some indeterminate point in this domestic imagery which makes it appear alluring, almost normalised. I too, reading for the first time, hungered for those sensations where the strange became circumstantial. I wanted to be part of projecting these hot, unhealthy, heady, magical emotions I had never properly felt before and yet The Great Gatsby captured so cleanly.  Cleanly seems only like the appropriate adjective. For even when Gatsby’s car crashes into the unsuspecting Myrtle, he tragedy I always pictured was the single bold streak of blood across the yellow bumper, an injury inflicted still with an artistic precision. Ultimately, for me, The Great Gatsby stoked many haunting images – the green light lingering at the end of a dock, Gatsby; open arms, his descent down the staircase, the billowing motion of his body in the water both in his mind and at the end as he drowns for a love he potentially half-wondered whether outside the head at all…

The power of good writing, good reading, is that it keeps us questioning, it keeps us alive. So much I feel like part of me has died, and has been replaced by something emptied, slowly silting, beginning enveloping my eyelids. I want to scrape it away, like casting off a sediment. Perhaps this was a sensation with some kind of similarity to which Fitzgerald felt, as after all, he wrote with an extent of ferocity – as seen in the variety of forms in which he searched, as I still feel I search – letters, poems, pieces of non-fiction. In his correspondence, he sent a friend an example of a poem which struck me particularly:

I seek assertive day again;
But old monotony is there—
Long, long avenues of rain.

The repetition of that tremulous vowel in ‘long, long’ is haunting in itself, seemingly of the hours experienced in which the human body feels useless and nature continues in  her cruel cycles. It is perhaps against this then, that words – the speech of people, their writing, is a form of resistance, a form of resolve. And resolve can link to resolution. After all, consider all that is put in motion by the written form – the dissemination of ideas, petitions, arguments, declarations of peace, war, love, hate, unity, disunity. The written word in this way is certainly a force for change, an awareness it ignored in the heady days of youthful idyll and abstract hope. Perhaps now I can revisit writing, whether my own or that of much-loved, much-agonised over authors – Fitzgerald, Plath, Nabokov for example – in order to immerse too myself in that charged, heady, naïve sense of deliciousness – that which perhaps comes with first authorship also.

The naivety and deliciousness seem an almost necessary combination in the process. It the case that I keep consuming and keep consuming – sometimes reading without taking in meaning, like eating and eating to absorb no satiation from it. It can be a frustrating process, leaving the mind gorged and dripping with itself, yet internally empty.

But writing preserves, even when the mind begins to flicker. Whereas the function of the mind is often depicted on relying on metaphors of light – like how Gatsby follows the green light – writing itself can be creation of darkness in itself, even in writing this, the black type on the white page summarises it for me. Writing entertains the paradox that it can illuminate even when it is a product of  darkness. And that is my hope for 2015.