What *not to do* when starting University as a disabled student Tuesday, Aug 15 2017 

A student starting university is faced with overloading quantities of information about what they must and should do in order to “get the most out of the student experience”. There is a pile of administrative stuff to start; from getting your student card, enrolling on your degree programme, registering with the doctors, choosing modules, learning all the lingo, attending all the introductory lectures and events, aaaaand getting to know your way around the campus (seriously that map will be your BFF for about a month). Then there is all the new and exciting living stuff, like; getting your room keys, fighting over your own fridge shelf and kitchen cupboard, buying your own crockery, cutlery and cooking equipment, not to mention towels and toilet paper, changing your postal address, avoiding the TV license people, learning how to use the washing machine / tumble drier / oven, doing your own shopping, and getting to know your hall-mates. Then there is the heady and seductive combination of seemingly limitless money and access to pubs, bars, and clubs every day of the week. Not to mention the overwhelming sensation of any or all of the following emotions; abandonment, freedom, loneliness, responsibility, excitement, shyness, and the ever-present danger that no-one will be around to help you if you find a spider in your bedroom. This is a lot for anyone to take in, so screw “getting the most” out of the experience and welcome to “surviving your first weeks of fresher’s year”!!

Whilst this is all hugely exciting and terrifying in somewhat equal measure it is nice to know that everyone muddles through somehow, and that tens of thousands of students make this transition every single year across the country. What most of those tens of thousands don’t deal with, however, is adjusting to university life as a disabled student. And I can tell you that I made a spectacular mess of that!! So what follows is my list of what not to do as a disabled first year student, which might give you some idea of how to do a better job of starting your degree than I did.

 

DON’T

1) be in total denial about your health:
some chronic illnesses take a long time to diagnose, and after four or more years of bad health I was finally given a partial diagnosis in the months before I started university. The prognosis was less than encouraging and, though I didn’t realise it at the time, I was in complete denial for a very long time. I simply did not accept that my condition would have any impact on my studies or my career. I would not let it ruin my life, especially when going to university was all I had wanted since I could remember. I didn’t spend one minute considering what I might have to sacrifice or adjust in order to survive living by myself. I only just had the foresight to apply for “disabled” accommodation because my mum was helping me choose halls. I did not register as a disabled student or seek any pastoral help, because I refused to think of myself in that way. My First Term experience will explain why this was a bad, bad idea.

There was pain. So, so much pain. I’d never had to walk so much in my life. There was the daily walks to lectures, to the shops, to the student events, to friends halls. All the while carrying books, laptops, groceries. The library was up a flight of stairs and then another flight inside the building, then you had to walk miles inside to find the books, then carry them back out again. Back to back lectures would be in different buildings on opposite sides of campus, so while everyone else rushed off from one to the other and pounded up the stairs to get there on time, I had to meander my way and then wait for the lifts in both buildings. So I was frequently late. After only a week everything hurt all the time and I spent most of my alone time crying and throwing down all the over the counter medication I could, but it wasn’t enough. So I started drinking. I would start the day with alcohol, drink mixed spirits with my cola during class, spent as much time as possible at the pub – even studied there most days, and drank last thing at night so I could sleep. Alcohol was the only thing that stopped the pain, it was the only way I could think of to keep functioning.

In Week 9 of the first term I caught a flu virus that was going around campus. Three days later the Halls Supervisor broke down my door to find me unconscious, having vomited, urinated, and defecated in my bed because the flu had wiped out my alcohol-filled immune system and drained my body so that I couldn’t even crawl to the bathroom. My phone had died and I couldn’t reach the charger. I couldn’t feed myself and had been hallucinating before I had passed out. It took an overnight stay in the hospital and an embarrassing trip on an ambulance gurney through the halls in front of everyone I knew, before I realised that I needed help. The doctors asked me why I had been drinking so much and I broke down telling them that there was so much pain and I just couldn’t face waking up every day to the relentless agony of it. They raised their eyebrows and said: “you know you can take pills for pain, right?” I was sent away with strict instructions not to drink, and a cocktail of pain meds instead.

The experience also resulted in a trip to pastoral care, where they registered me as a disabled student. They put me on to Disabled Students Allowance which meant I was given a dictaphone so that my friend could record a lecture if I wasn’t there, or so I wouldn’t have to write or carry a laptop to class. I was given an allowance to buy books, and given a printer, so I wouldn’t have to use the library to access what I needed. I was told me that I was under no compulsion to attend all my classes unlike the other students, and that my Disability Advisor would communicate all my requirements with departmental staff so I needn’t feel embarrassed. By the end of my degree I attended less than 60% of my classes.

 

2) fail to look into your accommodation
The requirements for my “disabled access” accommodation were the following: the closest halls to the teaching buildings, en-suite bathroom with bath and shower, laundrette in the building, ground floor room. Which sounds extremely suitable for the needs of a student with mobility complaints. But; whilst my room was ground floor it was also the furthest from the front door, and meant walking back on oneself the full length of the building in the opposite direction of where I needed to go to get to class in order to get out. When it came to spoon-saving, it was actually easier for me to climb out of my bedroom window than it was to walk all that distance. The window was also a better option most of the time because all the doors in the building, including my bedroom door, were fire-safety doors, which meant they were heavy as hell and on most days I wasn’t strong enough to pull mine open and get out of the room. It wasn’t until second term that I got an engineering student friend around to dismantle the mechanism above the door so that I could actually use it. As for the laundrette in the building – which was supposed to save me from carrying my laundry to another building – it was on the other side of the building, past the main door. On the second floor. There was no lift. With stairs my greatest and most hated of enemies when it came to pain, washing my clothes became a daunting and anxiety-ridden experience. Oh, and for the luxury of an en-suite and having the closest building to central campus, I had to pay the highest rent on campus. In other words, in order to be granted “accessible” living I had to pay over £120 a week for my room. There was no subsidy for disabled students.

 

3) be unaware of the full extent of your symptoms
This is a silly one, but after my first few nights I woke up every day with sore, black feet and had no idea why. I thought it must be from all the walking I was suddenly having to do. It wasn’t until a friend stayed over about Week 8 that they asked me why I’d been kicking the wall all night. Turns out I had Fidgety Leg Syndrome, and had been kicking the wall every single night in my sleep. I never knew this because at home I slept in a double bed in the middle of the room. We ended up having to drag the bed away from the wall and cramping up the space in my room so that I didn’t do myself any more damage. A trip to the doctors soon told me I had several fractures across the cuneiforms of both feet.
4) refuse to tell your close friends about your difficulties
Pretending that you can do everything, going clubbing every other night, spending the nights on friends floors, joining all the societies so that your weeks calendar is absolutely packed, is a sure fire way to get yourself burned out. They are all things that I did because I was embarrassed to say, “I can’t do that” or “I need to rest today”. I didn’t know what my condition was, I had never heard of it and learning about it was something I was not going to do because that would mean confronting the rest of my life. So how could I tell anyone else what I didn’t understand myself? I hadn’t learnt how to pace myself or how to manage my lifestyle effectively, and I didn’t want to be left out. As it turns out, my best friend from uni is still my best friend nearly ten years later – and telling him about my health was the best thing I ever did because his support has been instrumental in me feeling normal and living my life.

*

So, yeah, my First Year experience wasn’t great and the following two years also had their challenges. Living further from campus and having to walk and ride buses made my attendance levels even worse. I lived with my partner instead of uni friends because I couldn’t let anyone else see me – or worse “care” for me for the rest of my degree. But I will tell you now that you will get precisely nowhere if you don’t disclose your disability to your university. There is so much support for you out there, and if they don’t do what you need complain about it until you are blue in the face. I’m doing my Doctorate at a different university now, and they tell me that they are required to go above and beyond in order to accommodate disabled students needs: if 1 disabled student out of a lecture group of 100 needs the room to change, then the room will be changed.

Making new friends is scary and daunting, especially if you aren’t as gregarious as I am, but when you do make them – talk to them. They’re scared and have their own problems too – so share! If you are new to your condition, I can’t tell you to get over your denial – it is a normal part of coming to terms with your health – but think about taking a gap year before uni to get to grips with yourself before you take up the challenge of living on your own. Remember: you might be living on your own, but you are never alone. Talk. To family, to friends, to pastoral staff, to a doctor, to Nightline, to anyone. And whatever you do DON’T do what I did – and struggle through a wasted opportunity because you are too proud.

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Why I have never felt discriminated against for being female or disabled. Tuesday, Feb 21 2017 

I love learning. I listen to a lot of TED talks, podcasts, radio lectures, and read a variety of articles from academic journals and websites. They span a whole range of subject matter from CRISPR to space archaeology. Amongst this vast array of topics I have noticed something. I have found that social and civic lectures commonly consist of passionate diatribes concerning diverse forms of discrimination. Discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, disability, and – less occasionally – income or class. Whilst I am absolutely sure that such inequalities do exist, and that it is fundamentally important that these matters are campaigned for in order to improve both policy and prejudice, I sometimes feel that the experience of discrimination should somehow be universal. In other words, some speakers and writers are so passionate and persistent in their speeches that I have begun to feel abnormal for not feeling that I have experienced discrimination despite the fact that I am a women and disabled!


Talks by both powerful and passionate women lay down mountains of evidence for gender discrimination, from every-day cat-calling to corporate glass ceilings. There is even a spattering now of male voices speaking up for women’s rights and female equality. The perseverance of these campaigners is admirable indeed, and I hope that one day their voices will no longer be needed when the sources of their suffering are stopped. There is just one thing, I have never experienced them, or if I have I certainly didn’t notice. Now the more condescending amongst you may throw your hands up and exasperate that it is precisely my failure to notice my lifelong oppression that provides evidence for male privilege. But I find such attitudes infuriating, as if I am not perceptive or intelligent enough to comprehend my own life experiences.

Now don’t get me wrong, it is not as if I have swanned through life with no unpleasant encounters with men. I was bullied by boys at school. I was sexually assaulted as both a teenager and a university student. And I endured more than two years of emotional abuse under the ego of a manipulative narcissist. But I don’t put these acts down to their gender – I put it down to who they are as people. Girls were just as spiteful, if not more, at both school and university, and grown women have scoffed at my assault and abuse and laid the blame at my feet. These are the facts of the world, they are life experiences, but they are not evidence of my disenfranchisement as a woman. I have never been overlooked for a job in favour of a man, I have never been paid less because I am a woman, and I while I have suffered from severe self-loathing: I have never felt ashamed by the “male-gaze”.

Maybe men don’t have the right to cat-call, or leer, at women who simply want to get from A to B without hassle. But I, for one, have known women to be far more predatory than men when it comes to gossiping about men’s looks and prowess. For example, a recent article I read seethed at the presentation of women in the popular Marvel and DC action hero series. Why are women clad in skin-tight leather with heaving cleavages? But do women not drool over Chris Hemsworth’s shining muscles or Downey Junior’s roguish good-looks? Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad wears cheek-hugging briefs for the entire film – shock! But Jared Leto is repeatedly topless throughout. I certainly don’t think the semi-naked shots of world-famous rugby players spattered over the internet are taken in order to encourage men into the sport… My point is not that women are not socially sexualised, objectified, and overlooked, they clearly are. But there is certainly more balance on this account than female spokespeople would have us believe (except for perhaps Hanna Rosin). Whatever your views on female oppression. My point is only that I cannot claim to have experienced it in my lifetime.

 

Disability discrimination is perhaps a less provocative topic. But my point remains the same. The benefits system in the UK is flawed to some extent, and there are bound to be errors in assessing peoples’ entitlements. This problem is compounded by the grossly exaggerated media coverage on benefit fraud. While I cannot account for other people – I applied for benefits because of my disability when I graduated university, and have had no problem with them over the past four years. I have never been denied work because of my health. If anything the majority of people I know have bent over backwards to accommodate me. When I considered a teacher-training placement but turned it down for a (less physically challenging) Masters, the school in question offered me my own office, my own classroom, and even suggested installing a specialist lift for me. This is not discrimination, this is kindness in action. I have been able to take long-distance degree programs, and been allocated specialist funds throughout my eight years in higher education – I have at all times been enabled by the institutions and government that people so despise for their unfairness.

In truth, the problems I have faced come from every-day people both on the street and in social circles. I have been taunted and blocked in when parking in disabled bays (despite having a blue badge) because my disabilities are unseen. I have been reported for benefit fraud because I began exercising at my consultant’s recommendation. I have been mocked and bullied by strangers and acquaintances for using disabled toilets and receiving benefits. This kind of discrimination stems from ignorance and inexperience. I have never had my health or benefits questioned by people who have witnessed the realities of my limitations and my symptoms. When these encounters do happen however I don’t consider myself a victim of circumstance, or a target for some kind of disability-phobic hatred. I don’t feel discriminated against because of my disability. I only feel that I am the recipient of other peoples’ ignorance. It is not my disability that is causing the abuse, it is only their ignorance. It is their problem, not mine.

 
To me, the very definition of discrimination is being considered less than equal because of a factor you cannot control. You cannot help your gender, your disability, or the factors of your upbringing. It is not my fault that I am female or disabled. But at the same time, despite what campaigners and advocates may insist, I personally have never felt discriminated against because of these factors. I don’t feel that my sexuality, or my disability has ever been a reason for my being either overlooked or targeted. My friend today said that perhaps this is because I don’t see myself as disadvantaged, or the victim of circumstance. I own my femininity and my disability. I never label, compartmentalise, or identify myself by one particular factor. I do not belong to a community of women, or a community of chronically ill people, any more that I belong to the postal workers union, or the Spice Girls fan club. I am not female and proud. I am not disabled and proud. I am ME and proud. Maybe it is my attitude, maybe I don’t feel the barbs of discrimination because I don’t overly identify myself with certain groups. Or maybe I don’t believe the world is out to get me, but instead that I am out to get the world.

 

 

Legal Matters Tuesday, Dec 20 2016 

As some of you will know I have recently received a solicitor’s letter from Florence and Kenneth Wood, authors of Homer’s Secret Iliad and Homer’s Secret Odyssey. They were aggrieved that as a newly graduated student in posting two conference papers on-line on: bham.academia.edu/SafariGrey and the AMPAL 2013 conference proceedings website that I had failed to attach my complete list of research references to the documents, which should have contained references to their works.

As requested, in order to settle this grievance I have removed the papers from both websites, as well as deleting them from my blog where they were also available. I have further signed a Deed of Undertaking promising not to make another such mistake in future, and also agreed to pay the Woods’ £1800 in costs. However, the authors have also requested that I make my Statement of Apology publicly available on my website and blog. As such I am doing so by attaching it to this post.

For more information, and if anyone feel’s compelled to help me in this situation please visit here.

 

I’m not anti-feminist… but* Thursday, Oct 13 2016 

What I am about to say will rile a lot of people. Definitely a lot of women. Judging by the audience of the workshop I attended last Friday – I will potentially, statistically irk 5/6ths of womankind.

But as usual, I’m not going to let that stop me.

Whilst a workshop on Literary Theory in Classics may not sound like the most thrilling event (and if I am honest, it wasn’t what I expected either) my little two hour discussion group at University did have the power to infuriate me. Enough to have me seething for most of the weekend. It was just another one of those events that shouldn’t have been anything about gender – but of course, with an audience of women, just had to devolve into feminism.

Let me set the scene. An open invitation was sent to myself and fellow PhD students for a workshop on Literary Theories in the Classics, and I dutifully attended, though I am dubious of Literary Theory as a concept. I thought it would at least provide two hours of stimulating academic discourse. Admittedly, I was prepared to disagree with some of what was said given my disregard for the topic of conversation. But that is what Higher Education is about, right? Anyway, the attendees of this event were set some reading to prepare for the workshop – one of which was a (very) short story by Vladimir Nabokov (of Lolita fame) entitled: The Return of Chorb. A brief synopsis (lifted from wikipedia) is as follows (bear with me):

“The Kellers’ are a bourgeois couple living in a smaller German town whose daughter has married the Russian emigre writer Chorb. The distrust between Chorb and his father-in-law is deepened when Chorb and his bride escape from the formality of their wedding to spend their first night at a local seedy hotel. On the honeymoon, the bride accidentally touches a live electric wire near Nice and dies. Chorb now returns to recreate her image by visiting the sites they had been to together and to tell her parents. Arriving in the evening he only finds the maid at the Keller’s home who have gone to the opera to see Parsifal. Chorb does not want to break the news to her and tells her that his bride is ill and he will be back in the morning. He returns to the hotel to spend the night in the same room he had been with his wife. Unable to stay in the room alone, he pays a prostitute to stay with him. When the Kellers’ get home, they are too alarmed to wait for the morning and leave for the hotel. There, during the night, Chorb’s grief is amplified by the presence of the prostitute, he screams, and the terrified woman is about to leave: at this moment the Kellers’ arrive.”

We were then invited to discuss our interpretation of this text.

Now, if I may be forgiven, I read the text as a primarily a commentary on grief. Obviously. Chorb returns to all the places visited by himself and his (deceased) wife, so that he can better imprint her upon his memory. He doesn’t say her name because it’s just too damned painful. He runs away from telling the parents about her death because to do so is to admit to, and confront, her death. He fills the empty bed with a prostitute because to be alone would amplify his loss. The subsequent presence of a woman in the bed, who was not his wife, only serves to remind him of said tragedy. This all seemed quite clear to me (I’m not, of course, claiming that this is the only reading of the text).

Yet, when opened up to the remainder of the table – this was a text that was manifestly, and deliberately anti-women. By not naming his wife, Chorb (or the narrator) is purposefully stripping her of her personality because she is a woman. By describing her in snatches of memory, Chorb (or the narrator) is undermining the comprehensiveness of her character because she is a woman. By replacing her with a prostitute he is objectively sexualising her because she is a woman. You get the idea. In short, Nabokov is a misogynist. Whether consciously or unconsciously (though probably the former), he demeans and denudes the female character (just like he treats Lolita by the way) throughout the story. The character Chorb cannot be AT ALL sympathetic in his grief because he neither names, nor comprehensively describes his wife. As usual, because it was written by a man, the text is all about Him. It is therefore also entirely about female oppression. Because, essentially, any piece of literature written by a man is oppressive of women. This, in sum, was the perspective of the other, highly educated. students in the room.

I was stunned.

Especially considering the fact that the poets and writers of history have largely been perceived as romantics, effeminates, or sympathetic and loving people who see beauty and wonder in the world… Nope. They’re all stone cold woman-hating oppressive bastards. And THAT is how we should read their literature. In short, during a workshop which attempted to stress that all texts should be approached without bias, it seemed to be advocated that women should approach literature with an automatic expectation to be victimised and disregarded. Women it seems, (should) seek to be offended. Women yearn to take umbrage at the most straightforward of texts. Unless, of course, that text was written by a woman.

I can’t stress clearly enough how boggled I am by this. It seems to demean and discredit all literature to jump to assumptions about a text because of the gender of the author. What literature does is allow us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Whether that person is male, female, rich, poor, American, Indian, Victorian, Roman… We get to experience something which, as autonomous beings, we are otherwise unable to experience. I thought that was the majesty of literature. That is what The Return of Chorb does. It lets you experience 20th century, pre-War, Russian, grief. It doesn’t matter that both protagonist and author are male. What matters is the experience; is what is expressed in the writing.

The inevitable conclusion which I have extrapolated from this display of hypercritical and querulous feminism is that only women can possibly write about women. Because anything men produce will automatically be a reflection of their male privilege. It couldn’t possibly be true that, as women, we could actually learn something from absorbing male perspectives of womankind, or indeed vice versa. But perhaps this conclusion is right. I have certainly read plenty of stories by women which portray men as either perfectly chivalrous, empathetic and romantic ideals, or lustful, dangerous and abusive Lotharios, neither of which truly conveys real personalities. Clearly women can’t write about men accurately either. Could this possibly be due to the fact that we can never experience holistically the life of another and instead only ever see people in fragmentary ways??? Perhaps we should just appreciate literature for what it is instead of seeking offense where there is none. Of course there will be horrendously sexist or uneducated texts – ON BOTH SIDES. Of course more of these will have male rather than female authors because the simple quantity of male authors throughout history. But this doesn’t mean that we should go into texts, or indeed anything in life, expecting to be offended. Yet that seems to be the only side of feminism I have ever come across – and that is what the workshop epitomized for me.

I guess I just cant get over the irony that for a mindset that fights for female strength, so many women constantly and consciously act vulnerably. If you expect to be victimised – that is all you will see. Accusing the greatest writers who have ever lived of misogyny fails, I think, to appreciate what it is to be human.

 

 

*This blog post has been moved from womeninecstasy.wordpress where it was posted in 2016

Crucible* Thursday, Oct 13 2016 

It is as easy to list the events that occurred in my life during 2015, as it is impossible to truly explain what the year has meant for me.

A handful of days following a very merry new year my partner left me for a younger woman he’d been sleeping with for several months without my knowledge. I suffered. Recovered. I spent meaningful and exciting time with friends. I lost 3 stone. I fought hard and passionately for a stronger body and was swiftly rewarded. I quit smoking. Delivered conference papers in Scotland, London, and Birmingham. Got a tattoo. I met my beautiful new baby niece. Gave blood. Finished a year of therapy. I completed my Masters, writing a thesis in barely 2 months. I met a man unlike any I’d known before, who ‘slipped into my pocket with my car keys’, surprising me with his genuineness and gentility. A man who is my mirror inasmuch as we share deep similarities, and yet he is my true opposite in the best of ways. I finally began my PhD. Invented a convoluted and exciting plot for my novels during moving and exhilarating encounters with the muses. Redecorated my bedroom. I reignited my passion for motorbikes and summer adventures. Adopted a rabbit. I met, and lost, new and interesting people. I bought rugby and gig tickets for the first time. I lived what can honestly be described as a relatively normal year for me, within the broader tapestry of my life. Yet, in all these things, during these twelve long months, I changed. Something shifted in me, something intangible and inexplicable happened to me. Something so intensely profound that it has caused me to pause and reappraise almost everything I know. Something I so want to share with you, but I fear that I lack the words. I can only describe it alchemically, only explain in symbolically, I can only call it a ‘crucible’, a ‘Renaissance of life’. But the words cannot fully convey the majesty.

Whilst what I am about to describe to you is deeply personal, I feel compelled to share it simply because I believe that the reading of my transformative experience will give some of you hope, others insight, and still others comfort. Whilst I as yet do not understand why this has happened to me, or how many amongst you have shared this experience before, I do know in my heart that this is the most profound thing that will ever happen to me. And I hope that it may happen to you too. Especially those of you who have experienced traumatic, troubling, or tempestuous times. I feel that my enlightenment is proof that decades of depression and the deepest of darkness can, and will, lift from you when you least expect it to. I do not accept that I am the only person to have experienced this liberty, and I want you to know of it’s joy and it’s transcendency so that even in your deepest despair you can hope for a greater tomorrow.

Some of you may have already discovered the key to quitting bad habits. Smoking, drinking, weight gain, OCD’s. The key is very simple, and infinitely difficult. They key is to choose no. To choose not to let that habit be part of your life any more. A powerful, candid, declaration to the self is in my opinion the only real way to stop once and for all. But when you make this decision, and mean it to your very core, it does more than stop your craving for a cigarette, or a dependency on the numbing riposte of alcohol. It rewires your brain. It makes the very idea of something you once relied so heavily upon, abhorrent to you. Once you have decided no. Once you have relinquished the power something has over you, it releases you. For those of you who understand the power of ‘no’, I would like you to imagine the ramifications of what happens when you say ‘no’ to a lifetime mentality. When you turn your back on instinctive Stygian reactions to the hardships life throws your way. When you say ‘no’ to automatic victimization. When the very fundamentals of the only mental cortex you have ever known are drastically rewired, the fallout is monumental.

For me, this happened when I was delivered from an emotionally abusive, tumultuous, and unnecessarily dramatic three year relationship with a man I thought I would be with for ever, but while he never loved me, could not stand the thought of not owning me. Though friends and strangers tried to point out the horror I was putting myself through, just like an addiction to nicotine, I could not see the damage I was allowing myself to suffer. In hindsight, even had I wanted to break free, he would never have allowed it – considering that after leaving me the first time, he repeatedly broke into my house and tracked my phone to check on where I was. Even had I said ‘no’, even had I broken free of my feelings for him, I would never have been free from his feelings for me. Feelings which he would have pursued, relentlessly. Yet I cannot hate him, for the greatest gift this man ever gave me was walking away from me. The best thing that ever happened to us was for him to fall in love with someone else. If I could thank him for that, I would. Most sincerely. On it’s own, this emancipation was not enough of a paradigm shift to rewire my brain, but it was the start. It happened while I was in therapy, something I began after a psychiatric break. Something I never believed had the power to fix me, or cure me of my past. Surely no amount of talking can change your history, no matter how qualified the therapist. I am who I am because of my past, I thought, and that will never change.

I was right, of course, no amount of talking can transport you into your past and alter events. No one has the power to reach back and revise the course of your life, to stop people hurting you, to save you from your self. But what even a small amount of talking can do, is redesign how you let your past affect you now. It is not about understanding why something happened, or seeing it from someone else’s viewpoint, or processing something you have suppressed – as if the cure for psychological trauma is sunlight. It is about saying ‘no’. It is about looking at yourself, about ‘knowing thyself’, and not doing so with an automatic arrogance of rightness which stems from our deepest sense of self-protection, but with humility and culpability. Many of us who do practice our own psychoanalysis, or compulsively self-reflect do so from the perspective of unconscious self-defence, even when we are prone to guilt or self-victimisation. By this I mean that in my experience many people who struggle with depression, self-loathing, or chronic guilt are by nature extremely aware of their psyche and their history – and how the two have interacted throughout their life.  Yet while they may blame themselves for their experiences or mental state, a part of them also blames others. The mindset; ‘he sexually assaulted me because I was too weak’ or ‘because I asked for it’ while self-negating, also simultaneously blames another for the actual experience. It was ultimately his act which caused the damage, regardless of whether you blame yourself or not. ‘My parents wanted too much of me and I was too ashamed to say I couldn’t cope’, ‘people ignore me because I am not worthy of love’. These feelings blame both the self, and yet focus on the other. For many people with difficult lives, even if they ultimately blame themselves, other people are blamed as well. However much they may hate themselves, their situation is to some extent someone else’s fault. This subconscious admission compounds feelings of victimisation, of physical, emotional, moral, spiritual, and psychological weakness. Now, I believed that the point of psychotherapy was to analyse these feelings, to draw out their historical origins, and to process them in order to somehow let them go. But this is not what therapy did for me.

Though it was never verbally admitted or consciously explored, therapy encouraged me not to seek blame, or culpability, not to process my experiences, or somehow engage with them. It led me to look at myself from the outside. To see myself objectively for the first time, to let go of instinctual self-preservation and reflect honestly on how I felt about my life, my interactions and experiences with others, and ultimately to confront the elusive veil of self-interest which is weaved of the lies we tell ourselves every day. This veil of self-preservation, for many who wrestle with negative mental health, forms the patterns of our cerebral reactions. Our history hard-wires our brains to react in certain ways, with guilt for example, or shame, or weakness, causing a cycle of negative mental hygiene which in turn promotes more negative experiences. Not because the experiences themselves are inherently harmful – but because our perception of them is damaged. Each time something unexpected occurs, its ramifications are blown out of proportion by a brain hard-wired to expect disaster – even when the unexpected is manageable, or fixable the brain chooses to magnify the problems and spiral into victimisation.

This is a habit.

We choose to experience our lives negatively. Yes, this happens because a lot of negativity in the past forged this response. I am in no way denying the magnitude of torment some people truly endure. But perceiving future experiences as threats is a choice. In the same way that certain circumstances led you to smoke, and to rely on smoking, other circumstances led you to respond to unsettling experiences with guilt, shame, and vulnerability. By the same token, in the same way that you can deny your addictions and habits with a resounding ‘no’, I discovered that you can do the same for our unhealthy perceptions. On its own I don’t imagine that this is news to many people. Maybe this is the point of talking therapy and CBT. Maybe the true ability to do this is not something that can be taught or explained. But I have to tell you that it is real, it can happen to you, no matter what you have suffered, you can choose ‘no’ if you can embrace a humble self-awareness and burn away the veil of self-preservation which leads your mind to lie to you.

I want to tell you how this has changed me. I want to try and explain how going through this crucible, this surrendering of ego, even an ego you didn’t think you had, can create a new life for you. What I have to say is an amalgam of all cliches concerning enlightenment, it truly is as if a cloud has been lifted from your soul. As if you never really understood how the world works. It lets you see, and feel, people around you – people you have known all your life – for the first time. It lets you love yourself and others. It is not about forgiving – because there is no longer any blame. It is not about forgetting – because there is no longer any guilt to forget. There is only the truest sense of you. While I do not claim there will be no more hardship or struggles, I know absolutely that they will never be as destructive as they were before. Because you are stronger. People may already call you strong, or brave, for surviving the experiences of your past, but this is a different strength entirely. This is a strength born of humility and understanding, not a hardy resilience to suffering. This is a strength which truly liberates.

Let me explain some of the things I have learnt about this strength in the past two months. I recently experienced a major career-based shock which ordinarily would have led to a spiral of self-doubt and depression which would have had me crying, distressed for weeks, possibly self-harming, and contemplating suicide. But this time? I didn’t even cry. This time, I said ‘no’ to my typical cerebral response. I denied its presence entirely. The result of this? I was present and clear-minded enough to seek advice and resolution, and in doing so I received some of the sincerest and most moving compliments I have ever heard. In the crowd of life events this is now a typical thing for me, so much so that I didn’t even see the web of silver linings that was forming all around me until I caught myself smiling in the face of my chronic illness. When I was set back physically, for the first time I didn’t focus on the present pain, but waited impatiently for the trough to be over. For the past thirteen years I have hit my physical limitations with melancholy, hopelessness, and impotence. Now, I take it in my stride.

The last realisation I would like to share with you concerns my love for my family and friends. I was raised to believe strongly in compassion, self-sacrifice, and love. In my life I held to these bedrocks to the detriment of my mental and emotional health. I fell into an emotionally abusive relationship because I gave too much of myself to others. I resented those I loved because my love for them felt forced, not optional, but a symptom of my guilt. I drained compassion for myself and poured it into others. Giving so much of myself that there was no love left for me. I not only hated myself, but could not accept love from others. So while the end result, niceness to others, was positive, the means – emotional and mental self-harm – were extremely damaging. Now I am stronger, psychologically more resilient,yet  it has not made me colder or more self-interested. Instead it has given me a well of compassion, filled with a genuineness that astounds me, for the first time since I can remember I feel tear-wrenching, stomach churning love for my siblings and nieces. Instead of accepting them as mere collateral from birth, I see them as individual, strong, and loving people. People I want to get to know, people I genuinely love.

I never used to think it was possible to have the energy to love others with such richness, without balancing the deficit within myself. Now I find double the passion and more, for others, for my life, and for my future. Emerging from my crucible is not just the end of 12 years of depression, it is not just the lifting of a cloud, or a gift of insight. It is a purification of the soul, a new life, and the strongest foundation of a new beginning.

*This blog post has been moved from womeninecstasy.wordpress where it was published in 2016

Epiphany* Thursday, Oct 13 2016 

The past days (since the Academia Is Failing Its Young post) have involved a lot of tears, emails, phone-calls, and soul-searching for me. You see, I have wanted a Doctorate since I was about ten years old, and that was the one and only plan I ever stuck to throughout my life. I always felt like I knew where I was going, and that I had the advantage over those poor indecisive fools who did not even know if they wanted to go to University, let alone what subject to do or what career to follow…

But the problem is I stuck to that plan relentlessly in spite of all obstacles. Which was either brave, or foolhardy. It is hard to tell which when you are in the middle of it, and friends and family being naturally a little sycophantic does not help to clarify matters either. It also does not help when you are not really informed or aware of the realities of life, regardless of the reason (see U-naive-rsity). But I was not diagnosed with fibromyalgia until I was in my first year of university. During the first year or more I was pretty much in massive denial, or at least not realising the full impact of my conditions, when it came to not considering my future options. I just pathologically stuck to what I wanted to do as it retained a sense of normality I felt was lost to me when I found out my life would never be normal.

I failed to see what impact the FM would have on my plan of ‘just studying for a doctorate’ but the truth was I barely attended my lectures, could not go in frequently enough to see my supervisor, and most of all – my pride led me to take on additional stresses (like producing a play) so I could prove to myself that I was the same as everyone else and could do all the normal things other people do. Languages were the major struggle for me because, while I enjoyed them in general, I could not attend every single class consecutively. And once you miss one, you struggle with the rest as you miss a key concept (like what the past tense is). In sum, language-class attendance is essential to high-performance and failure to attend = low performance, and low performance drags your entire degree grade down. So I thought it best to avoid them altogether, for the sake of the higher grade at the end. Made sense at the time. Still blindly thinking I would be able to do a PhD and ignoring the language requirement as it reminded me of how limited I really was in my skills, and desperately trying to compensate for them elsewhere – by home study etc.

Ultimately, I did not come out with a first, and my dissertation was fractions short of a first. My supervisor admitted that it was largely errors in verbal presentation which could have been avoided had she seen more of the work – but I did not go in enough / overworked myself in subconscious response to my feelings of inadequacy. I still did not change my plans or take stock.  But plunged straight into the Masters as ‘a Doctorate is the one and only plan’ and my illness does not affect my brain so why should it affect me studying? Still blindly ignoring the fact that I just was not qualified enough, and that being able-bodied in whatever small way does play its part in my education. Even if it just the added time and stress given over to proving my conditions, or seeking help, or the absolutely soul-destroying despair of having no money because you are waiting on benefit claims (which took up the first three months of my MA).

It has taken the turmoil instigated by that one small request on the Classics List.Serve group, and the many responses both extremely kind and more off-putting to make me reconsider. My first reaction (‘I still want a Doctorate’) was to apply for a long distance part time course to give me as much time and flexibility as possible. But part of me, deep down, was still uneasy though I did not know why. Then I had another email which, whether right or wrong in its opinion, brought it all home to me…

Why?

Why are you still pursuing this unrealistic goal, as if nothing has changed, as if you are qualified?

And perhaps more importantly… Are you even enjoying it any more?

I love learning. I have always loved learning. I have a ravenous interest in so many subject areas. But, no-one is making me stress and suffer, and cry, and feel useless, or like I have made a mistake, or that dread feeling of despair that I have no future  because the original plan is no longer viable. Only I am making myself feel that way by relentlessly pursuing something that I just don’t enjoy any more. All the inquisitiveness and the joy has been sucked out of my studies this year. I have begun to despise the work, (not the knowledge) but the endless writing of essays I have no interest in, or the petty corrections (humankind not mankind!). Then I realised it is all entirely self-induced. It is all my choice.

And, I choose not to do the PhD any more. At least, not any time soon. I cannot afford it – I live on benefits with no disposable income. I am not qualified enough, and possibly never will be because I despise language learning. There is no funding for over-enthusiastic under-performers. There is nothing to stop me reading, nothing to stop me writing, nothing to stop my theories and my summaries, nothing to stop me telling or teaching others. Nothing to stop me learning. But why should that ‘learning’ come at such ridiculous cost, under such ridiculous stress, with such little support? For a piece of paper?

I suffer enough. Every day. I fight to get up the stairs, I fight to stay well, I fight to live the dregs of a normal life. Why should I also have to fight tooth and claw to prove myself to people who will never accept and support me? Why choose to struggle so hard and pay so much for the incredibly critical recognition of others? It is like Newton and Hooke all over again. I do not need shining acclaim and public acceptance to produce knowledge of worth, or to follow what I am inquisitive about. I can do that myself, in my own way and in my own time – and ultimately on my own terms. I know the decision is a right one because I no longer dread 2014. I feel excited, and I am eager to end this daft course to start again and once more be doing something that I love.

So, this September (or December) will see the end of an era. No longer a Classicist, no longer a student. But the birth and manifestation of the one talent that I know I possess – the writer.

 

 

*This blog post has been imported from womeninecstasy.wordpress where it was posted in 2013

U-naive-rsity* Thursday, Oct 13 2016 

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this week about the word ‘naive’ and what it really means. Of course, most people see it as synonymous with innocence and associate it mostly with childhood or youth. I disagree, and I think it is best understood as antonymous with the word ‘informed’. That is, people tend to think naively when they are not informed of the reality. When I say reality, I mean the actual, brutish, crippling truths of life which are so counter-intuitive to everything you hope and learn in your youth. It is no small wonder why people get more bitter as they get older. This is because they become more and more informed about the way the world really works, and they realise that everything they wanted or believed is gradually taken away from them and crushed.

As I may have said before, when I was at school I was always made to believe that being clever was useful to you. It gave you purpose. I put up with years of psychologically damaging intensive bullying for being clever (I was pulled out of school for trauma) because I thought it would benefit me over them in the long run. I pushed myself to excel in all subjects so I could go to the top university for the top people – and when I say top, I meant – the most intelligent. After all, universities are places of learning, so it makes sense that the best will be full of the brightest. Doesn’t it? NAIVE.

Along these lines I also assumed that I could become a Dr in a field because I was such a consistently high achiever. Being clever became part of my identity and it was all I had that was mine alone and would never leave me. When I was diagnosed with FM and HMS (see blog below) and was told I couldn’t have children, or do sports etc. it became even more intrinsic to my identity. I am clever, this is who I am. Without it I really do have nothing, I can’t even push papers around a desk because I am sick. In this way, any poor mark was like being shot in the chest – a C? But I’m clever! which of course makes university very traumatic for high-achievers when for some absolutely inane reason a First (or A) is 70% or higher, and a 2:1 (or B) is 60 – 70%. Why have 30% which is all but unattainable? I  have never heard of anyone scoring in the 90s. So why not shift the bars higher? Unless it is deliberately to shock and traumatise young naive people. As I also said before, believing you will gradually improve is also NAIVE. The truth is that success in your modules will depend almost entirely upon whether or not, or to what extent, the tutor is an arse.

When I spoke to my tutors at college (one of them being an old-school Cambridge graduate) and said I wanted a PhD in Classics. Not one person said to me, no chance – you haven’t had a private education/learnt Latin, Greek, German, French and Italian before you were 16. If they had, I might have either done the languages at College, or chosen another degree like psychiatry or English, and turned to teaching. Instead they let me go blindly off and apply for Cambridge. Only to find out that a) I come from Norfolk so chances of getting in were the least (their intake from Norfolk is lower than any other county so not being a scientist my chances were zilch) b) after an hour shock-test establishing I was incompetent at languages entirely and c) I applied to the most misogynistic college which you could only possibly know if you were ‘in’ on the clique. So, thinking I could do classics at Cambridge based on the simple fact of my fierce intelligence = NAIVE.

But I still did Classics. Foolishly. No one told me I couldn’t teach it without Latin until it was too late for me to learn it. And no-one told me an MA or PHD is entirely pointless and impossible unless you’re a linguist. So, it was incredibly naive of me, again, to think that brilliance, or 4 degrees was going to be enough to let me pursue my life goal. It was naive of me not to have given it all up sooner. Changed course when I hadn’t invested so much money. But we saw this all in the post below. My other point is that no-one told you there is no money either. You have the impression that being clever and high-achieving would be enough to finance the courses. Well it isn’t. Being uneducated in the finesse of politics because you’re only a child or teenager meant that you were not aware of fees increasing, and you certainly weren’t aware that the subject you love is rock-bottom of the government’s agenda. Thinking that all knowledge is good knowledge, and learning worthwhile in its own right regardless of discipline… NAIVE.

Finally, it is naive to think that being crippled doesn’t prevent you being equally valued, or that people will accommodate for you to give you the same chances as everyone else. The reality is, whoever you are, no one really cares about your problems. No one can fix them, and that every problem in the world is too big for anyone to change. From reforming education to reflect the needs of University (or vica versa) to employing a benefit system that doesn’t make the cripples feel suicidal. We are NOT equal, and we should be taught this at school. Being born in Norfolk undermines your chances at university, being state educated undermines your chances in further education and employment, being ill makes you about as useful as a well, most other things are more useful than you. We are not born into this world fully aware of how everything operates and yet we are expected to make life-decisions with no honesty from those more experienced than us. And having hope that you can make a difference, set an example, break the mould, be the change you seek in the world, ultimately… NAIVE.

*This blog post has been imported from womeninecstasy.wordpress where it was posted in 2012