Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Internet is a Funny Old Place

I don't mean funny as in 'ha ha' - although it frequently is, of course. No, in this particular instance I mean funny as in 'head-scratchingly, face-palmingly weird.'

For anyone who's been living in a nuclear bunker for a while, this week saw the launch of the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter, around the same time as the outcry from the Elliot Rodgers shooting incident. This is relevant to me, naturally, because I qualify for membership of the Female Club - sorry, but that's just how I was born. However I'll be honest; it was almost a week before I could bring myself to even go and look at it, because I already had a pretty good idea of the level of trolling that was likely to be occurring there.

I'd already been on another, well-known 'woman-friendly' site (if you could honestly say such a concept exists on the internet anymore) about the same subject, and the vitriol I saw from some individuals - directed at everyone in general and then me personally when I answered a question posed on the thread - was a damning barometer of how certain portions of male society feel about women - those hateful harpies - having the audacity to talk to each other, publicly, about the awful things they'd been through. How dare they hurt the poor, sensitive feelings of alpha males like that! Some were clearly there to derail the conversation and steer it firmly towards their own agenda - "I know this isn't about my needs and issues and I'm actually showing up of my own accord, not because I was asked to or anything - but everybody needs to shut up and listen to ME ME ME!" kind of thing. Others were simply there to be the smartass, making snarky and often downright cruel 'jokes' about the comments from women who'd been through the most awful stuff  - and probably imagining cyber-bros everywhere giving them virtual high-fives for it as they did.

I had a tangle with the latter.

The reason I left comments on this other site instead of the official Twitter site is because my Twitter account has my actual name on it, whereas on the other site I have an alias. And a couple of the comments I left were accounts of things that have happened to me that I'm not ready to just casually scatter over the internet under my own name. (Hell, it's taken me twenty years to even drag up the courage to talk about those things at all.) And I'd noticed that one particular (obviously male) person had been asking the same question, persistently and insistently, with the air of 'I have a right to an answer, because if you women won't answer my question then you're as evil as the men you're calling out.' So, in spite of the fact many people were telling him his question was insensitive and cruel, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was asking sincerely, because he genuinely wanted to know. And I replied to him politely and respectfully, giving my answer. It was a very difficult answer, because it involved talking about things that still hurt and haunt me, to this very day. But I did it anyway, because I thought if I could make him understand the damage done to a woman's psyche in that situation, the answer he was so determined to have might make sense.

That was very naive of me, as it turned out. His response to me baring the wounds of my soul in order to give him the answer he so aggressively demanded from all those nasty, man-hating women? A quote from one Dorothy Dix: "Confession is always weakness. The grave soul keeps its own secrets, and takes its punishment in silence."

He was never looking for an answer to his question - he was looking for another opportunity to be a smart-ass. Line up the target and then - slam-dunk! Another bitch put in her place - aw, gimme some skin, cyber-bro's! And that's what made me angry. I don't care that he dismissed my pain with some rent-a-quote he'd probably found in a Google search somewhere to make him look clever; hell, if he honestly thought that could crush me his knuckles are dragging a lot lower along the floor than most of his primate ilk. No, I care that there are people like him out there, throwing their toys out of the pram like the babies they are, because somewhere on that massive world wide web those pesky women-types are saying mean things about some o' their bro's. And those big, tough, smart alphas can't allow that, 'cause that's not fair! They're special little snowflakes and nobody gets to say mean things about the bro's, not ever!

So, to those particular members of the male society, I have this message:

Grow the f**k up. (And that's not a word I normally use in these blog posts, but I wouldn't have put it here if it didn't feel completely necessary.) You think you're getting a rough deal, having to listen to women telling you all these things and blaming - gasp! - people of your gender for them? Well try living through some of those things - not just once, but practically every day of your life. Yes my dears, we realise you guys get it hard too, sometimes. Men get raped, men get beaten up, men get screwed over by the courts in child custody cases - men even get falsely accused of crimes against women... we know all of that. And you're allowed to get pissed off about that when it happens, no-one's saying you're not. So... in return, how about you stop telling us we're not allowed to get pissed off about what hurts us, eh? For just five minutes of your bloody lives? If you want us to listen to you, it has to work both ways. Stop shutting us down every time we speak up, stop telling us how we feel and what we go through doesn't matter - and especially stop telling us we deserve to go through what we go through because we're scheming, conniving, manipulative women. You gotta give respect to get respect - and if the reason for your obvious grudge against women is that you feel they don't give you the respect you deserve... well, that might just be the reason that's eluded you thus far.

My post this week originally wasn't going to be about this subject at all - but because one of your kind tried to cut me down and shut women up, it is. You can't crush all of us; you can keep on trying 'til your manly little balls turn blue, but you're wasting your time. There's always going to be enough of us who get right back up again. If you seriously think women need to just live with your dickheadery, because 'being a real man' requires you to helplessly give in to urges from a part of your brain that hasn't evolved past slack-jawed ape-man... well, you're really not fit to be running a chimp's tea party, never mind half the world, are you?

And to the rest of the male population out there - the many decent, kind and intelligent men who treat the women of the world right - thank you for being you. We love and respect you, we really do, even if we don't always show it. And... could you maybe help us out a little, please? See, those dunderheads don't listen to us because we're women. We're The Enemy. But they might listen to you. You don't have to start a fight or anything; even just a cold look or loaded silence when they dial up the douche-talk in your presence would be appreciated.

I'm afraid you'll probably get some flak for it - similar crap to what we get, I'd imagine. But we'll be there for you if that happens. We look out for those who are on our team - and that's more than you can say for the Alpha-Bro's.

Thanks. Normal service will be resumed in my next post.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

It's Let's-Be-Nice-About-Mental-Health-for-a-Month Month!

May is Mental Health Awareness Month here in the UK, and this year Mental Health Awareness Week is from 23rd-30th May - or 12th-18th May if you believe other sources. I could be churlish and say it doesn't really matter much, because if you actually have mental health issues you don't generally wait until a disputed week in May to be 'aware' of it anyway, but it's jolly nice of people who've never had to battle with such things to take a week out of their lives to not think of us as merely attention-seeking burdens to society for a change. Just for a week, y'know? Kind of like a holiday.

Oh dear, that didn't go too well, did it? There I was, trying to be all positive about what is, after all, a very good and well-intentioned cause - and then at the end I had to go all grumpy-pants and spoil it. Sorry. Of course I am all for raising awareness of mental health. It's not something that's going to happen naturally, after all; people with no knowledge of it are afraid of it, and that fear translates as avoidance and stigmatization. This makes sufferers afraid of talking openly about it for fear of becoming even more stigmatized and isolated, and so the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling chicken-and-egg conundrum. By making people think about it and ask questions - and, even better, actually provide answers to some of them! - we can all help to make mental health a less scary subject in general. So of course it's a good thing. Bring it on.

My beef about it though, is this: what happens when May is over? Is that when everybody stops being 'aware' of mental health issues and goes back to thinking of it as the realm of maladjusted malingerers and attention-seeking misfits? "Right, we've done our bit - we were all sympathetic and enlightened about the problems those kind of people face for the whole month. But May's over now, right? We can all go back to normal again, yeah?" And unfortunately, 'normal' tends to be a far less sympathetic and enlightened attitude, if my experiences are anything to go by.

Large chunks of society who have never suffered from depression have very little concept of what it actually is. They think it means someone is depressed. They've been depressed at many points in their lives; there was that time their football team dropped off the league tables because they played so badly for a whole season, and then there was that other time when they got dumped by that person they really thought was The One... god yeah, they were really depressed then, for ages. But hey - they got over it. They picked themselves up and got on with their lives. That's how you get over depression!

Um... no. That's how you get over being depressed. Actual Clinical Depression, on the other hand, is something completely different. It's far more complicated than simply being in a period of deep misery - in fact, many people with clinical depression don't appear to be miserable for much of the time at all. They can laugh at jokes and everything, without it meaning that they're either 'cured' or 'just pretending' to have depression. Do you know how much hard work it is, behaving as wretched on the outside as you feel inside, all day every day? Jeez, even people who don't have depression wouldn't have the energy for that! It's just easier to smile when others smile and try to fit in when you're in the company of others, even when your heart is breaking inside. Don't let people see your pain, because it's not polite. Inconsiderate. Anti-social. You feel bad enough about yourself already, without collecting even more reasons to hate the fact you exist. And it still doesn't mean you don't shatter into a million pieces the moment you're alone.

When I had my breakdown at the age of twenty-five, I was diagnosed with two mental health disorders, both of them long-term conditions that you learn to manage and control in order to live a normal life, rather than things you are 'cured' of.  Technically I still 'have' both conditions, although I no longer let them rule my life the way they did before I had therapy for them. But as part of researching them in order to try and understand them - and consequently myself - better, it seems huge parts of society believe these disorders don't even exist. They're not 'real illnesses' at all, apparently - they're just something a bunch of weirdos like me are faking, either because we're pathetic drama queens desperately craving attention or lazy work-dodgers using it as a excuse to never do a proper job in our lives. This is why I next to never tell people I was ever diagnosed with these conditions - and especially not potential employers in job interviews (that's right,  job interviews - how's the 'lazy work-dodger' stereotype looking now, eh?) The idea of openly admitting that part of my history is terrifying to me, because I've come to think of it as shameful. Society thinks it's shameful - and I'm not gonna be the one who stands up and argues with society. Not all on my lonesome, that's for sure.

It's not just my particular conditions that seem to spark this kind of mindset. There are loads of people out there who, apparently, don't believe schizophrenia is real either. Or bipolar disorders. Or obsessive-compulsive disorders. They're all the products of fantasy, made up by 'bad' people to try and explain away their 'weird and unacceptable' behaviour as being 'not their fault,' those manipulative, deluded babies... As if they think we keep having the problems we do because they're just kind of fun to experience, y'know? If the people who think this way were to spend just one day living with some of the worst symptoms of the average mental illness (if you could even define 'average' in that sense) they would see in a heartbeat that it's not something anyone would choose to do - for attention, financial gain or anything else. And no, the disorders I was diagnosed with - and indeed the others I mentioned above - do NOT automatically equate with being violent or 'a potential danger to others' either. In fact, sufferers are way more inclined to hurt themselves before they would even think of laying a finger on anyone else.

But doesn't the fact that I felt a need to clarify that, in itself, say something about the typical attitude to mental health in our society? "It's okay folks - I may have had problems in the past, but honestly, it doesn't mean I'm ever going to try and kill you or anything..." Hollywood and the media doesn't exactly help us out there, of course. Films like 'Sybil' and 'Wonderland' perpetuate the idea that mental health patients are either one-person surrealist art performances or psychotic nutters we should all stay the hell away from, and while many of the murders and acts of violence committed on a daily basis by 'normal' people barely make the headlines, every such act committed by someone with a mental illness like schizophrenia will be national, front-page news (and even when you take that bias into account, it's still a rare occurrence.)

But maybe there's a reason for all of this; a reason that - sort of - makes sense.

The cold, hard truth is that mental illness, like many other illnesses, is an equal-opportunities affliction. No-one is immune to it, regardless of age, lifestyle, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or social class. That's a pretty scary thought. So... what if we could say there are - y'know, certain special qualifications that 'most' people with mental illnesses 'always' seem to have? Retro-fit them with this 'other'-ness that sets them apart from 'the rest' of society? Then all the 'normal' people can breathe a secret sigh of relief and tell themselves "Well, I'll never end up like that because I didn't have a dysfunctional childhood/have never been abused/there's nothing wrong with my brain, thanks very much." (Or of course there's my personal all-time favourite: "I'm a strong person emotionally." Because, as we're all told so often,  everyone who suffers with their mental health is really just a cry-baby wuss who can't handle tough old Real Life, aren't they?)

Now, I'm not denying that all of the above factors can and frequently do cause mental illnesses. Of course they do, and to claim otherwise would be stupid and insensitive. But they're far from being the only Willy Wonka golden tickets required. Even people who've had the most idyllic childhoods and perfectly functional outlook on life can succumb, without warning, to chronic, life-altering mental illnesses. It's a lottery, folks - and even if your number hasn't come up so far, you've still got a ticket just like everyone else, whether you want it or not. I can understand why people would prefer to not think about it like that. There's a kind of comfort in clinging to a list of exceptional circumstances that, as long as you don't fit within them, grants you automatic exemption from a potentially awful contract.

Problem is, that kind of thinking doesn't help anyone in the long run. Making mental illness something that only happens to 'certain types of people' certainly doesn't help those that already have them, because it only makes them feel more shunned by society for their condition and therefore less likely to ask for help - which means they suffer even more for far longer than they need to. And, if you want to be cold and cruel about it, that makes them even more of a 'drain on NHS resources' than they would have been if society was more accepting of their problems in the first place.

But here's the other thing; it also doesn't help all you 'normal' guys out there either. Oh sure, as long as you're fine you can keep reassuring yourselves that mental illness will 'never happen to you' because you're 'not the type.' But then if it ever does - and remember, the truth is you are not immune, any more than you are 'immune' to cancer or heart disease - well, you've gone and made it a lot harder for yourself to deal with now, haven't you? You're going to have to live with with your own prejudices about this illness you 'couldn't' get, as well as the prejudice of everyone around you. You'll probably feel angry with yourself  - you'll certainly feel like you've 'failed' somehow. So you'll be be dealing with those horribly negative feelings and all the others people with mental illness are made to feel every day, by strangers, people in authority and sometimes even friends and families.

So while Mental Health Awareness month is a lovely and noble idea, it's only going to serve any purpose if it makes permanent changes to the way mental health is perceived. This isn't something to focus on every time the calendar hits May, and then on June 1st just stash it all away with the bunting and the banners until the same time next year. It needs to be talked about all year round, as part of everyday conversation. If we are ever to understand it, it needs to become more 'normal', not less.

You wanna become more 'aware' of the truth about mental illness? Ask. Talk to people who've been through it, are going through it. As long as you don't behave like a total dick, they'll tell you. And y'know what? It doesn't even have to be in May.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Born to be A Misfit-Flavoured Writer.

I've heard it said that many writers have felt like the oddball at some point in their life - like they were paddling through the river of life in the opposite direction to everyone else. I am reasonably sure I was born feeling like I didn't quite fit in with the rest of the world. I felt that way throughout childhood, adolescence and  the fun, crazy part of adulthood. And I still feel that way now.

I don't mean in a self-absorbed, hand-wringing 'no-one really understands me!' way. I mean more in the sense of  'Hmmm, I appear to be really rubbish at behaving like other, normal humans' kind of way. It never seemed to spoil my social life - I've had as many friends as other, non-weird people, although I suspect I was probably labelled My Weird Friend by more than a few - and I didn't attract nearly as many bullies as some poor sods with far less potential for ridicule than I possessed. But nonetheless I've always had this feeling of being a kind of imposter in this world; an alien who got accidentally dumped on the wrong planet and has since spent her whole life navigating and minimising the fallout from her cocked-up attempts to blend in with the natives.

It has its advantages, of course. This world will never cease to amaze, horrify, delight, shock, depress, inspire and frustrate me - and the day it does is the day I will know it's because I'm actually dead. It also means I feel no pressure whatsoever to conform to anybody's ideas of how I should look or dress or what I should aspire to; I've got so used to effortlessly failing at all those things for so much of my life already that I dropped out of that competition years ago. And this in itself has the added bonus of making my life far less complicated; I don't have to keep remembering what and who I'm 'supposed' to like and not like according to which particular friend or social group I'm talking to. Even if I just agreed with everyone all the time I'd still cock it up anyway, so I may as well just say what I really think and cock it up honestly.

In terms of what I might laughingly call my 'career prospects,' however.... mmm, yeah, that didn't work out so good. I've had a plethora of jobs over my adult life, and the one that lasted the longest was a rather pitiful four years. I've only been fired from two of them, and that was due to being spectacularly rubbish at those jobs rather than any disciplinary reasons - but even in many of the ones I quit, I'm pretty certain I was a bit of a nightmare employee while I was there. This is because they were office jobs; Dilbert In His Cubicle positions, if you like. The kind of jobs where there was A Method for doing every little thing that job entailed; a Method that had been used for years, by every other person who'd ever done that job, because it was A Method That Worked and was therefore How It Must Be Done At All Times.

Putting a little secret-alien-in-residence like me into any job like that is, inevitably, a conflict waiting to happen. In every one of those types of jobs, I quickly established a reputation for myself as the corporate equivalent of the annoying little kid who constantly asks "But why..?" My colleagues just found it funny that I got so bemused and frustrated by all these Methods and Procedures, while managers' reactions ranged from mild annoyance to suspicious unease, as if they were afraid I was some kind of one-woman revolutionist with a secret agenda to Take Down The Company From Within. I tried to knuckle down and play by the rules - no matter how stupid and archaic I thought some of them were - but even when I did, I still cocked things up for myself.

For example, each time I had my annual Employee Review with my line manager, I'm sure I probably did know, on some basic level, that the correct response to the question "So, have you considered opportunities for advancing your role within this company?" was not to burst out laughing and say "What, seriously?" I'm sure I also knew, if I was honest with myself, that when I was advised to record my progress with the technical tasks of my job in a personal work journal, they probably didn't mean for it to take the form of satirical cartoons and poems. All I can say in my defence was 'it felt like the right thing to do at the time.' Which pretty much proves how utterly unsuitable I was - and probably still am - for office jobs.

Eventually I would reach the inevitable point where I just thought "I can't do this anymore and still retain my sanity." My bosses always seemed genuinely surprised when I handed in my notice, as if it was the last thing they were expecting me to do - but I'm pretty sure they must have breathed huge sighs of relief in private. At least I was finally solving their 'Oh god, what the hell do we do with this one?' conundrum.

Through it all, I always had my writing. In fact, you could argue that my writing - and the kind of mindset that comes in particular with writing fiction - was the one thing I could never entirely separate from my hamster-wheel office job existence, and that was part of my repeated downfall in that field. And now I'm a completely-unemployable-in-the-current-recession mum of a primary-school child, I can finally devote my brain and my heart to my writing without feeling that it's What Makes Me A Misfit Person in this world. Well, okay - maybe it is, ultimately, but at least I'm not giving any middle-managers headaches about it anymore.

But at the same time, I've heard of many, many other writers who've happily held down office jobs while pursuing their writing dreams. They have been able to completely separate the office worker part of themselves from the writer part as effectively as building a partition screen between them, that they can open up and close off as and when it suits them. All of which suggests that being crap at office jobs is clearly not an intrinsic part of the writer make-up - and so the added ingredient must be the misfit part. There must be a subsection of Misfit Writers within the club as a whole, right?

There's hope for them, isn't there? There's a place in this world for Misfit Writers? I mean, I know we can be a bit weird sometimes, and there's always going to be this thing where you'll never feel like you really, truly know us completely - but we're okay people underneath it all, and at least you know if we like you we really do like you, for real ('cause if we didn't, we'd be far more likely to tell you than most other people...)

Maybe there should be some sort of Misfit Writers' Society? Maybe there already is...

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Can We All Be Precious Little Snowflakes?

How do you measure your talent as a writer? And by that, I mean in the sense of 'measuring and coming up with the right amount?' Two things happened in my life this week that made me think about this conundrum.

Thing Number One was a conversation I had with someone I met in my local library and, for various reasons involving backstory too dull to go into here, ended up having quite a discussion with about writers and writing.

When the lady in question found out I was a writer (I was brave for a change and actually called myself that - for real! But then again, she was a stranger so maybe not that brave really...) she proceeded to tell me about her cousin, who she said had also been "trying to be a writer for years." And yeah, she said it like that, complete with the statutory sighs and eye-rolling. "She's got no talent for it whatsoever" she added. "Everyone in the family's been forced to read her stuff at some point, and it really is dreadful. We've all tried to tell her - tactfully of course - that she should give up on the idea of ever getting anything published. But she just won't listen! She keeps on writing all this terrible dross and kidding herself she's got the talent - when anyone can see she just hasn't..."

I asked her if her cousin had actually tried to get anything published yet. "No, fortunately" she said. "Once any of us tell her what she's written is rubbish, she just hides it away somewhere and starts on something new instead. And then we all have to suffer that... for God's sake, how many books is the woman going to write before she gets the message that she just doesn't have any talent?"

I'll be perfectly honest here; that was enough information to make me pick a side - and I wasn't rooting for the lady I was talking to. In fact, I began to feel this elusive cousin was pretty damn awesome. To complete even one novel when you have the support and encouragement of loved ones to spur you on is an achievement in itself. To complete many novels with that same support and encouragement is inspiring. But when every novel you finish gets nothing but derision and negativity from your loved ones.. and your response, every single time, is to just pick yourself up and start on the next one? That's bordering on superhuman.

Obviously I don't know if she really is as talentless as the people around her are apparently telling her she is; without actually reading anything she's written there's no way of knowing. But as long as she keeps on doing it, in spite of the naysayers, she can only get better. Damn, if she ever finds a way to bottle that stick-at-it spirit I'd be first in line to get me some! In fact, I wish I could actually meet her - if only to suggest that maybe she gives her stuff to non-family members to read for a change. (Not saying there's any kind of unconscious agenda at work here or anything, but... well, sometimes the ones closest to you can want 'what's best for you' for the wrong reasons, if you catch my drift...)

And then, on what could be described as the flipside, is Thing Number Two.

Through a series of events - again too backstory-ish to be interesting here - I found myself clicking on a link to a self-published book for sale on Amazon. I'm not about to name and shame it here, but it was a 200-page fantasy novel and, like the majority of books on the Amazon site, there was a chance to "look inside!" So that's what I did...

And I have to confess, it was very badly written. By that I mean it was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, words used in the wrong context and/or the wrong tense, random switches between present and past tense - often within the same sentence - and all sorts of other, glaringly obvious, bloopers. Now, this does not necessarily equate to the writer lacking ability. These are the sort of mistakes even the best writers make - in a draft one of their manuscript. Some of them even linger into the rewrite stage for a while, until some eagle-eyed beta reader or editor points them out. But that's the point. The writers that get success and respect for their work do so because they take pains to root out every single mistake - and enlist the help of others for finding those that elude their own eyes - before they will even think of publishing their work. This author clearly did not do this. This author pretty much went 'write it, upload it, hit Publish, baby!'

This is not an uncommon occurrence in the age of one-click-self-publishing, of course. This author is one of a legion who birth their Draft Ones onto Amazon and the like with nary a care in the world - happens all the time these days... But this one stood out for another reason. Because this particular work - a 200-page fantasy novel from a pretty much unknown self-pubbed author - could be yours for the princely sum of... thirty-five dollars.

Yes, you read that right. Thirty-five dollars.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think even a Stephen King novel has ever had a price like that. And he's - oooh, fairly famous now. So I am utterly intrigued as to the thought process behind the author of this thirty-five-dollar-book deciding "Heck yeah, people will totally pay that for my work." Lordy, there's confidence for you! If only she could siphon just a little bit of that off and send it to that lady in the library's cousin... I can't help feeling it would go some small way to restoring the balance of the writing universe somehow.

So that's the conundrum for me this week; is there a magic formula for determining whether a writer's confidence in their ability is justified or misplaced? How do you apply it if there is? And what makes some give up without ever being bold enough to test those icy waters, while others are happy to jump in without even learning the Rules of the Pool first?