Less Than Strong

“The loneliest people can be the kindest. The saddest people sometimes smile the brightest. The most damaged people are filled with wisdom. All because they do not wish the pain they’ve endured on another soul.” – Timothy Delvecc

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Hi everyone. I’m not promising that this post will make much sense but I need to write a few things down. Bear with me and perhaps some coherence will emerge….

So it’s been a tough few days.
Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent to me things aren’t quite right. I don’t always realise that I’m not feeling myself or acknowledge that the sinking feeling is back. That sadness seems to have become a default setting again.

I’d love to know whether feeling, well, less than strong causes me to feel more of the world’s pain than I should, or whether being susceptible or sensitive to the world’s cruelty makes me Less Than Strong. A chicken-and-egg situation perhaps?

I watch the news and read. I look and listen and I consume too much social media and sometimes it seems that everywhere I look there is pain. This week alone there are child killers being released from prison. The mentally ill are being stigmatised by the world’s most read newspaper. Children are suffering in Syria (and all over the word) and babies are fighting cancer. Friends of mine are suffering illness, depression, loss. It feels like life gets harder and crueller and it’s overwhelming.

Have you ever looked around at your messy house or another task which seems enormous? Thought about how there is so much work to be done that you may as well just do nothing? Maybe that’s just me. But that’s how I feel at the moment. Literally and metaphorically speaking. I’ll come home and plan to sort the laundry or wash the floors or whatever. Then it all seems too overwhelming so I’ll just sit instead. But I won’t be able to rest or relax and I’ll feel guilty. I feel that way about the world and life.

Like there is so much I could or should be doing to affect change. Help people. But it’s all too much. It hurts to think about it. So I do nothing. I sit and think about friends I should contact or charity work I should do. Then I distract myself with the Internet and more and more sadness seems to find me there. It’s endless, really.

I know that I should stay away from sad stories and not watch the news if it upsets me. My mum said so and I’m trying. But it just doesn’t seem right to walk around in a bubble of ignorance.

I tried strategically thinking happy thoughts and counting my blessings. But that just causes more panic:
“I’m so fortunate! Look at everything that could go wrong! Something bad will happen if I indulge in too much gratitude, surely?”.

What I’m trying to remember is that reality is only in the moment.
This moment. Thoughts pass and I must let them. The very fact that I’m able to rationalise this is a really good sign for me. I’m grateful for being able to write this down and for being capable of thinking this through. I know this is a temporary state of mind. Today I can sit and write whereas yesterday all I wanted to do was lay in bed. I didn’t, but only because my children need me.

The other day, in traffic it occurred to me that we can rush through life quickly when the lights are all green. We can reach our destination so much faster. But once the lights turn red we’re forced to slow down. We can take in surroundings that we’d otherwise rush past. Catching a chain of red lights can be inconvenient at best and can sometimes screw up your entire day. But sometimes being forced to slow down or stop gives us the chance to think and reflect and to collect our thoughts when we’ve got nowhere else to go.

So for now, I’ll wait here until the lights change again. Because change again they will.

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Supermarkets and Stigma

Last night a link to the following product appeared in my Twitter feed.

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One of the UK’s top four supermarkets, Asda, were marketing a Halloween costume consisting of an axe-wielding, blood stained straitjacket under the title “mental patient”.

Someone, somewhere felt that this was appropriate and my mind simply boggles. On the most part, Twitter was a frenzied hive of activity directed at Asda, who eventually (and eight hours after their initial acknowledgement of a complaint) removed the item from sale, apologised and promised a “sizeable” donation to a mental health charity.

Their main error was simply in the name of the costume. This would be a non-issue had they called it a zombie outfit or something like that.

What has concerned me more than anything has been reactions from those who feel this outcry is “political correctness gone mad.”

I’ll share a tweet I received, by way of illustration.
” @Mummykindness @asda there is nothing offensive about this… Why are people hating on asda? Other companies sell the same costumes!”

Other online comments asked:

“Why are people getting so offended at Asda selling this? Don’t other shops sell this too?”

“Wow apparently even Halloween costumes are now over sensitive…”

“So are these people going to ban horror movies now? PC idiots.”

This. This is what I feel the need to address.
These people have completely failed to realise that the greatest barrier to treatment for those suffering from depression is stigma. Suicide accounts for more than 6,000 deaths a year in the UK, three times the amount of those killed in road-traffic accidents. A least ten times this figure attempt suicide and according to charity mentalhealth.org.uk:
“People with a diagnosed mental health condition are at particular risk (of suicide) Around 90% of suicide victims suffer from a psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.”

The costume was not the issue. By any other name it was just another halloween costume. But using such grotesque imagery to depict mental illness perpetuates dangerous stereotypes which, in turn, further ingrains a perception that mental illness is to be feared and ridiculed. This places additional obstacles in the path of those who need to seek help and endangers lives.

To address another online comment:

“While I do agree they could have worded it better, I think this is being taken too far, Freddy Kruger masks etc could upset burns victims, fake arms and legs could upset amputees and knives dripping in blood could upset the families of murder victims. The list is endless!”

I believe this is completely missing the point. This is not simply about “upsetting” those who suffer from mental illness. It’s about stigma and shame and ridicule, not political-correctness-gone-mad. It’s not simply insensitive to suffering, but outright damaging and dangerous.

Depicting a “mental patient” as a blood-thirsty maniac perpetuates an (albeit extreme) ideal that psychiatric treatment is to be avoided at all costs. This is a viewpoint that can literally cost lives.

I’m not suggesting that one fancy-dress costume will push someone over the edge, of course not. But as a society, we need to do everything we can to eradicate the stigma attached to mental health. One in four of us will suffer from a mental illness during our lifetime. In an ideal world, discussing and seeking help for any illness should be equally as straightforward, whether mental or physical in nature.

But looking at the attitudes I’ve seen in the past twenty-four hours, we’ve still got a very long way to go.

For the record, in case you’ve ever wondered, here is what someone who suffers with mental illness looks like…

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If you need help or support with mental illness, please see the following links. You are not alone.
http://www.mind.org.uk/
http://www.rethink.org/
http://www.sane.org.uk/

School of Thought

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“Belonging is not fitting in. In fact, fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are.”
Dr. Brene Brown.

For many of us, finding ourselves back at the primary school gates again, thirty-odd years after our own first days can bring a whole host of memories rushing back, some of which are more welcome than others.

My own school memories are not really the greatest, particularly in high school. Underneath it all, I usually felt I was on the outside looking in. It seemed like there was a secret instruction manual of how to be cool and my copy had got lost in the post. I used to look enviously at the blonde girls with the Naf-Naf bomber jackets and swishy hair which seemed to sway in slow-motion before falling perfectly back in to place. I don’t know what kind of aura I gave off but it certainly wasn’t one of effortless cool. I remember exactly what invisible felt like.

This obviously played a big part in my own anxieties about Monkey starting big school last week. The thought of him feeling left out or excluded from things was enough to induce several weeks of horrible anxiety dreams. I was so busy stressing (completely unnecessarily, as it turns out) that I didn’t really give any thought to my own experiences at the school gates with the other parents until I got there.

Fortunately for me, so far the other parents have been lovely and this morning the school held a coffee morning for the parents to meet one another. I don’t see evidence of cliques forming yet, although it is early days I suppose.

However, my friend Laura* shared this online yesterday:
“This morning I realised I feel like I am 11 again……. all the well-dressed blonde mummies were standing in groups moaning about the school and I was invisible. I can’t decide if I am being over sensitive but where are the normal mummies?”.

Understandably Laura received lots of messages of support and encouragement. She is a mum of three children under five, including a newborn and in my view deserves a gold star from the teacher on a daily basis for making it out of the house.

However, one of the replies really disturbed me, for a number of reasons:
“Mums that have time to look that good spend less time doing things they ought to be with their children. I like to sit at the breakfast table and discuss the day ahead and have a giggle with my children rather than have them sitting in front of the telly whilst I cement my face. Please don’t let them make you feel insecure, they probably wouldn’t be nice people to be around anyway.”

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I try very hard not to judge. It’s a work in progress for me. I try to see different sides of arguments and remember that the opposite of what I know is also true.
But this particular comment has buzzed around my head for almost twenty-four hours now.

It was intended to make Laura feel better and it’s coming from a place of kindness, I hope. But it’s also making huge, sweeping generalisations and judgements, literally saying that women who wear make-up are worse mothers than those who don’t. It’s perpetuating exactly the type of us-and-them mentality which drives wedges between women, wherever and whatever their circumstances.

I’ll share my reply too, for some context.
“I worried about the other mums too before we started last week. I actually made a conscious choice not to let myself feel like that, strange as it might sound. I think that the older I get, the clearer it becomes that anyone who doesn’t like me how I am is unlikely to become a friend that I need in my life. I did enough jumping through those hoops in my own school days. Anyone at the school gates will be lucky to count you as a friend. In the meantime, I also try to remember that the make-up and blonde highlights etc can also be part of someone’s armour. I bet they have their own issues going on too. You’re are doing an incredible job with your three gorgeous babies and your business. The rest will eventually fall in to place.”

Now, I may occasionally go almost a week without washing my hair, but I will always apply at least a smudge of make-up in the morning. It’s like my armour. I’d also argue that it’s for the benefit of all mankind, really, as they’re the ones who have to look at me. It makes me feel better about facing the world and prevents concerned glances from friends and neighbours. (I’m not kidding. Last time I left the house au-naturale my close friend and neighbour genuinely thought I was poorly. I was tempted to go along with it to elicit some homemade soup). But this isn’t the point.

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We have to stop comparing ourselves with others. Whether we’re doing it to make ourselves feel inadequate or to prove to ourselves that we’re better than someone else. Either way, comparison is a dangerous pastime. Good rarely comes from it.

I did a quick online poll to get an idea of how some of my readers are finding things at the school gates. As you’d expect their experiences so far have varied. I’ve heard stories about both children and parents being left out from play dates and parties because the parents aren’t part of the right clique. I’ve been told or parents who couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about playground politics. There are others who are simply too busy to notice or to care. For some, the playground parents are their only source of adult conversation all day.

Interestingly, one reader viewed the image situation differently:
“Some mums are friendly, some keep themselves to themselves and others are in little groups… I am quite sensitive although I may not appear that way. I have highlights and wear make-up so worry about the image I give off. School was a struggle for me growing up and brought back a lot of memories not all good. Had my cries last week!!! Trying to be stronger.”

Everyone’s experiences are valid. They all matter.

Some would say that if you don’t notice a clique, it means you’re in one. Outside of school, my closest group of friends are a circle of seven other mums and we have fourteen children between us. None of them are at the same school as my son.

When we all get together at a children’s party or somewhere, perhaps we do seem cliquey. We don’t get together as often as we’d like and we try to make the most of our time together. But at the same time, each of us would be horrified to think that we’d left someone out, or caused anyone to feel excluded.

The main reason this is so important to me, as I’ve said before, is that I want my children to be the ones looking out for others. To take the new kid under their wing and certainly to never feel left out themselves.

The only way I can think of to teach them this is to lead by example.
I don’t want my children to be the target of any playground cruelty, either deliberate or otherwise. Schools grounds should not a place for popularity contests, for parents or their children. We need to model the kind of behaviour we’d like to see them exhibit, and that means being kind, friendly and welcoming to everyone. Whether they look and dress like you, parent like you or not.

First impressions can be deceptive.
Defence mechanisms like shyness can make somebody seem dismissive or rude. At the same time, I’ve said it before and will undoubtedly say it again, we don’t know what’s going on behind even the most perfectly made up, smiling face. I, for one, turned up at pre-school made-up and smiling each day through some of my darkest days. It’s taught me not to pigeon-hole a woman who seems distant or sulky. She may well have her own struggles going on and be fighting her way through each day and it’s not about me. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt as a result.

It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child and I think it takes different types of people to make a society. As parents we can nurture an environment which embraces children, parents and human beings in general from of all walks of life.

We will miss out on so much if we limit our (and our children’s) friendships based on whether someone fits-in to a preconceived ideal of what we feel a friend should look like. You or your child may or may not meet life-long friends in the school playground. But in any case, you’ll be spending several years there and, as Oscar Wilde said, you can only really be yourself… Everyone else is taken.

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