dualism

Spotlight on Mental Health

Next week is mental health awareness week and I’m already anxious. It’s also the first week back of the term and part of me is bracing for the inevitable leap onto the treadmill at full pace, desperately grabbing for the handrails of coffee and the sturdy support of my colleagues. Being a counsellor in a large secondary school is complex and next week puts the spotlight firmly on our area of work, but it’s one that I think is too directional and follows only certain players on the mental health stage.

I’m anticipating the light to fall on anxiety, depression, suicide, as well as debates around diagnosis, medication and looking for warning signs. There might be some promotion of strategies for coping with stress, mindfulness, and lots of other positive psychology techniques. It’s a life-coaches smorgasbord and while I respect there are a lot of good people doing great things to support people to live happy fulfilled lives there are some things that bother me greatly about the intense focus on western concepts of mental health and the mind as well as the emphasis on individual responsibility for managing your own wellness. The effect of the spotlight is to reduce mental health down to brain chemistry, managing emotional states (where some emotions are deemed not healthy) and a checklist of tasks.

So I want to scatter the light, diffract it if you will through some uncomfortable contexts that in my line of work are all too frequent yet avoided in public conversations. It’s a little like poverty – people prefer to see something about the lack of personal management of money or make it about some failure in individual people. There is the pervasive believe everyone can be well off if they just tried hard enough. Mental health is similar.

Some themes I’ve encountered in my 20 years working in schools that I think need to be considered as much as discussions about depression etc:

  • Family violence is traumatic – whether it be physical, verbal, psychological, sexual and it happens!
  • Sexual abuse is traumatic for all people and it happens across cultures and genders
  • Adults rarely think about how the ways they speak to their children and about them impacts on their well-being – we’ve had generations of values that suggest put-downs, harsh language, smacking and basically denigrating children and young people is good for their character. The other end of the spectrum is also unhelpful both are harmful for developing balance
  • Few adults say ‘I’m sorry’ to their children and take responsibility for their actions
  • Bullying happens in families first and in other community settings, not just schools – young queer people of all cultures are often more exposed to this
  • Trauma impacts on the brain – especially a developing brain, but also adult brains (see my blog on the limbic system). Young people can experience post traumatic stress (PTS) just like adults.
  • Young people are resilient but they need adults to listen and BELIEVE THEM when they talk about abuse and support for who they are as people
  • There is an expectation to be happy 24/7 these days – normal responses to grief, loss, stress are being lost to medicalisation – thanks google
  • The future is uncertain rather than bright for many young people – schools are also very stressful places. NCEA requires them to be on their game for 3 years! Good grief people of my generation came out of hibernation for about 3 weeks for exams. That level of sustained pressure is not good for anyone (including teachers).

Finally we need to critique the separation of mind and body and recognise that this is simply one way of viewing people and might not be the most useful in the 21st Century. Bringing in the range of spectrums of perspectives from other cultures could enable new conversations that move beyond the single white spot that is white western health concepts that leave many in the dark, isolated and invisible.

Bi the way

I have been wondering how long it would take me to write this blog. It comes with some mixed feelings and apprehension, although I’m not sure why. So, I feel the need to come out…again…like start again with coming out. At the same time, I feel no need to yet the metaphor is so fun – like hide and go seek ‘in the closet, out, in another, in a bigger one, stuffier one…who will find me’. Maybe I just want a time machine and go back to 1986 and pass myself a note that says ‘do not tell your friend you think you might be a lesbian…DON’T DO IT’. I’ve never struggled with my sexuality, but I felt pressure to pick a side. In a binary system there isn’t a lot of choice. So way back in the heady days of androgyny and shoulder pads…(god…even singlets had them), if you were remotely attracted to the same sex you were gay. I was still into boys, liked them a lot, they liked me, and indeed I didn’t get to ummmm ‘test drive’ this same sex attraction for another 5 years. So…all that boy stuff in between was a phase?

So I want to re-out myself as more than likely bisexual. Although no-one really comes out as bisexual because it just doesn’t seem plausible to a lot of people who insist you must have a preference. Sure I do – sexy is sexy – done. Of course most people have their sexuality assumed by their relationship status. Which is why bisexuality itself doesn’t really ‘exist’ because monogamy insists on one partner at a time – the gender status of that person tends to define your sexuality publically. Except now I’m not even sure about my gender.

I’ve always been miss-gendered. Frankly that doesn’t bother me either. I have kind of handed over my gender status to the observer. If I’m seen as male that’s ok, except when I want to use a public toilet then I do feel grateful to be living in NZ where most people get that women sometimes have short hair and prefer shorts and jandals even in the middle of winter. But I do prefer unisex bathrooms, it just feels like anyone choosing to use them has their shit together.

Being a bisexual – bi-gendered person means I refuse to comply with most if not all usual norms around gender and sexuality however I am perpetually put into boxes, my identity is shaped by my relationships-family status and occupation. Labels serve others needs to make sense of the world, and especially themselves in relation to their own identity. The common normative assumptions form a comfortable zone of acceptance.

For the record ‘Bi’ is not a transitional sexuality, neither does it mean open to anything or anyone, at anytime, its not hypersexuality (sounds very sci-fi – like doing it at light speed). Bi women have a different experience than bi men, because of the implicit and explicit sexualisation of women for the pleasure of men, their bi status tends to be read more as sexual availability. The fear and misunderstanding for bisexual individuals comes from both gay and straight communities. People just can’t ‘figure it out’ and so make all sorts of strange and unusual statements to suggest there is something not quite right. Well – they couldn’t be more wrong. It feels pretty natural to me to be attracted to someone based on more than what they might or might not be packing in their undies.

But if I really could say anything to myself in 1986 it would be to not give myself a label and to trust my body to know and that shoulder pads do not look great when you already have actual shoulders.

Drowning sorrows

About a year ago I wrote a piece about the need for Kiwis to move on from the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude when it comes to water safety. I’m talking adult responsibility here, and I might even add driving, drinking and sex to the list of things we’d rather not talk about or simply assume this thing called ‘common sense’ will offer some guidance and protection. I’m wondering what all these things have in common and what aspects are unique or perhaps not so easy to make sense of. With four possibly five people drowning in just a single 24hr period it’s more than a personal tragedy it’s a question of relationships that go beyond individuals and notions of responsibility.

In terms of a philosophical shift in ‘where the buck stopped’ the move from God to the individual happened a while back (more commonly referred to as the Age of Enlightenment – although there are always shadows) and we’re still trying to figure out what that actually looks like in practice. We’ve made some reasonable steps in terms of recognising what chronological age might limit and we probably over cooked the gender thing at times. But the idea of connection and taking care of others has mutated into a ‘them and us’ separation with ‘them’ also incurring some form of repellent type shield protecting ‘us’ from any sense of care or even interaction. The emerging apathy becoming more a form of collective sociopathy. This is what concerns me and I don’t think we need another advertising campaign, or philanthropist chucking money at it.

What I do think (for what it’s worth) is if people can reconnect with a sense of community and connection regardless of the amount of length of time that community remains together, then ‘care taking’ might take on a more active and interactive form. A group at the beach, a line of traffic, a park, dance party, festival, these are ‘pop-up’ communities. In a way what probably needs to happen is something similar to what has occurred with technology where relationship have adapted and changed. Part of the hang up is about the meaning of ‘individual’ and ‘response-ability’. The idea of caring about others needs a 21st Century reboot, a decent ‘control-alt-delete’ jolt from Western metaphysical defaults – especially the Cartesian split.

Keeping others and ourselves safe from harm is an ethic, one that is sometimes a matter a life and death. Let’s talk about it and say hi to each other as a first step. Be safe out there – I care.

mind over matter

I’m going to muscle in on the fitness business, because it’s ever-bodies business. Since the inception of this peculiar separation of mind and body a vast industry has created such an array of devices to work out that beds have evolved to be at least 10 inches taller. I remember as a kid seeing spring hand grips at home, wall springs from the 1950’s (which doubled as face slammers and hair pinchers), then came the bull-worker – I still don’t get it. The thirst for the next thing or hit was eagerly taken up by a culture sold on a diet of ‘healthy body healthy mind’. Has the pendulum swung too far? While there is a growing ‘brain gym’ world I’m not convinced this bridges an ever growing gap. But I think I have a novel solution if there is a budding entrepreneur out there willing to take a punt.

For those who still want the full gym experience such as treadmills and stationary bikes: When deciding what level to set, speed, intensity why not chose an interactive thinking conversation or challenging idea. Your personal trainer could be there to ask or if you don’t have one a programme pre-set that allows you to watch clips or movies that push the boundaries of concepts. I’m thinking there might need to be some upgrades such as catch nets for those moments where someone stops running while their imagination and wondering expands and forgets they have a conveyer belt under them.

There could even be specialist thinking and conversation gyms. Posters of philosophers, visionaries and paradigm challenging ideas litter the walls. Racks of art magazines and classical music blaring. Imagine, philosophy ‘spin’, cross science fit, creativity wrestling, and yoga – yeah just normal yoga. Spotters might correct your line of questioning or keep conversations well balanced. I can imagine gym gossip going something like:

‘Have you seen Sam’s line of question?’
‘yeah wonder what s/he’s on?’
‘dunno think I spotted a red pill.’

Or:

‘Wow that was some heaving thinking being pushed.’
‘Definitely, but was it natural, reckon there might be some illicit conscious performance enhancing substances involved, I suspect DMT.’

And perhaps:

‘Hey what’s your programme?’
‘Well did some heavy chess yesterday, so just going to hit the art’s today.’
‘Ok, well watch out for those DOM’S – delayed onset of mental soreness.’
‘Nah, all good – will just have a long Bach.’

And I’m pumped out.

Crossing the Tasman in a Kayak – why not making it means more

Scott Donaldson – you can read all about his epic solo kayak trip from Australia to NZ in a number of places. He won’t go down in the history books as the guy who made it because he didn’t quite make land. He nearly got home…he could probably smell the pies, but he was tantilisingly close when nature put on the biggest ‘fend’ in the form of an easterly and a rather persistent one, more than halting his progress but sending him west back toward Australia, immigration would not be happy over there after thinking they’d finally found a way to dispose of their excess kiwi (minus the fruit flies?).

Three months alone in a kayak and to not walk ashore but be unceremoniously plucked from the sea by helicopter might appear to be the epitome of failure but I felt strangely elated. When I think of traditional notions of conquering nature there is a tendency to default to Sir Edmund Hillary who  so eloquently put it after summiting Everest “knocked the bastard off”. As flippant as it sounds really did capture the philosophical ideals of the time around dominating, taming and controlling nature. The ‘enlightenment’ period brought about Cartesian thinking and dualistic separation of the Body and Mind. More significantly the separation of Nature (woman) and Culture (man).

Ok so most people won’t really care to think deeply and fair enough. But if you feel  a bit of dose of deconstruction then dive on in – the water isn’t too rough. Why unpack this further? What’s to be gained? For me, it makes for an interesting re-reading or a way to look at meanings that can be made if we look at what ‘failing to overcome nature’ might hold for a dialogue about being with nature. One of these could be accepting limits, not as some sense of weakness or personal deficit. Nature ‘winning’ might have been viewed in the past as the feminine/female side defeating man, something akin to a fate worse than death with the shame and humiliation that comes with being ’emasculated’. The private/public dualism sits alongside the nature/culture again with significant gendered implications for meaning. Family is the realm of private and the support required for Mr Donaldson to complete his journey was 5years in the planning and training as well as the 3 months at sea. In the past the significant contribution wives, mothers and children had in supporting conquests would have never been considered (that probably goes for all aspects of philosophical, scientific and literary greats – well those who are recognised). Mr Donaldson has his own words about the significance of his family in his blog and while he might not appreciate the importance of bringing them into consideration it is a shift away from separation and silencing of the support family play. He has his own response to questions about the ‘cost’ of his expedition and I like his account of meaningful family time. To be absent for 3 months at sea might seem a long time but there are many other ways parents can be ‘absent’ from their families. His own critique gives a valuable alternative to the well worn path of macho masochism in the mountains.

I’m not sure how Scott Donaldson will be remembered in years to come but I don’t think we need to worry about any mass migrations via kayak any time soon. Lets hope no-one tries a double crossing…not for any safety reasons but because I couldn’t stand a revival of Six Months In a Leaky Boat.

 

 

Waking up to being asleep

I remember when The Matrix hit the big screen in 1999. The ‘splinter in my mind’ embedded deeper infecting my consciousness and grew to a full blown pustule that needed to be squeezed. So I read and read as much as I could on everything that seemed to take me toward alternative ideas about reality. But it was frustrating talking with others who just ‘thought it was cool’ and quickly went out and bought large black boots and coats (guilty as well) with that being the most significant influence on their lives.

That was 15 years ago but The Matrix has grown as an idea to explore systems of social control much like George Orwell did with 1984 and many others – but these are the two that stand out for me. I haven’t tried to remove the splinter – it’s important to stay in a state of irritation and inflammation because without that I think I would potentially fall into accepting the program and falling asleep again.

It’s a bit of a fine line talking about control without someone instantly putting you into the ‘conspiracy theorist’ box and shutting the lid. Perhaps this reflects an awareness at a deeper level that ‘ignorance is bliss.’ I’m not sure but another possibility is the belief that once you start down the rabbit hole it could drive you crazy and would suck the fun out of life. Living outside the Matrix in the movie was far from comfortable, they ate ‘snot’ and lived underground – not the best or most aesthetically enticing representation of freedom. I’d like to suggest it is possible to delve into these areas and still maintain a sense of humour and enjoying life – yes it is possible to live in a contradiction without being a hypocrite, expecting consistency is a brilliant way of keeping people in check. Embracing contradiction is one version of the red pill.

The meaning of ‘control’ and ‘the program’ probably represents the essence of what I am talking about. Others have done this work and you can certainly scan the world wide web for allusions to The Matrix. I’ve referenced David Icke before and he would most likely be one of the more deeper rabbit hole divers – he didn’t just take the red pill I’m sure of it. I’d rather not put my own definition up because the splinter is the key – it is the catalyst that invites questions and a personal journey. It’s not as simple as ‘red or blue’ pill or even ‘awake and asleep.’ The best I could do is to offer some observations and invite anyone who stumbles upon this to keep wondering – I certainly don’t have a sense that I ‘know exactly’ what the Matrix is and would never claim to.

1. Language to me, is a key splinter. Any time something falls into a binary/dualistic paradigm it inevitably closes down the idea it might be neither or both or something else. My favourite example that is popular is ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture.’

2. Perhaps because of our general reliance on putting things in a binary/dualistic relationship there tends to be an over simplification of ideas into facts/opinions or myths. If certain knowledges throw their weight behind an idea it can be moved onto either side. Science does this with great efficiency.

3. Maintaining social division through stereotyping, notions of harm, danger, superiority and self-righteousness is supported by one of the most powerful dualisms ‘right and wrong.’ I think fear is a powerful controller and the use of extreme images and emotive language shuts down processing beyond reactions. This can be done on an individual level, communities, nations, cultures and no doubt if we meet another version of life in the universe, the same would apply – thanks Hollywood for your fine work in this department.

4. Reducing nature the environment and all other living things to either a resource to be used or an obstacle to progress that must be overcome, owned and controlled is shameful yet completely necessary for enabling a constant source of total paralysation and puppet mastery through the use of fear tactics and the manipulation of ‘scarcity and abundance.’

5. Mapped onto this we have a devoted programme based on creating a certainty that without a monetary system civilization would collapse – and ‘go backwards’ or ‘become uncivilized.’ Economics has become ‘naturalised’ and more questions are asked about ‘why mother nature is doing this to us’ than there are to artificial systems of ‘us doing this to ourselves.’

6. Finally we have media saturation of information and images. Why is this important? Because the illusion is more believable when based on an ingrained ‘truth’ that ‘seeing is believing’ and anyone who can control the strings of what is seen with the naked eye has the ability to manipulate at a very deep level.

Not sure if your head is hurting, it could be a splinter or you have been in front of the screen too long. How do you know if you are awake or still dreaming?

…knock knock The Matrix has you.

Press the escape key.