Chemsex – film review

Chemsex - A Peccadillo Pictures release Review in the Lancet
There’s a new documentary out, Chemsex, about the cultural phenomenon of sex and drug parties on London’s gay scene. It was previewed at the London Film Festival this autumn, and my review of it appears in this week’s Lancet.

You can find the film’s trailer here. I also saw the play Five Guys Chillin at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, which is a verbatim drama about a chemsex party constructed from many hours of interviews.

In my review I looked closely at the film itself and highlighted the public health aspects of the story – the potential for the spread of STIs through having unprotected sex while intoxicated, sharing needles when injecting, or sharing toys and lube. Also the fact that it is particularly easy to overdose on GBL.

I’ve also been reflecting on the film more globally and what else it brought up for me.

Double standards
First of all, it’s very easy to sensationalise what some might see as niche or small community behaviours, but which are in fact only more specific or extreme examples of activities that many people do on a regular basis. Plenty of heterosexual people, for example, stay up for two or more days taking drugs recreationally and having sex.

I’m also aware that a film like this could potentially encourage homophobia in those already disposed that way – just as the many documentaries about excessive public alcohol use in town centres (and the consequent taking up of A&E time) has the potential to encourage a form of classism. This despite the universality of drinking culture in the UK.

Fear of sexual agency
Secondly, our culture is obsessed with sex, but simultaneously fights to create rules about who is allowed to be having it, and how. People who actively pursue their sexual desires are very often seen as a threat, or ‘addicted’. (See my recent post on sex addiction and the concerning number of activities/behaviours which are erroneously named as symptoms of it.)

The challenge of sober sex
Finally, it’s very clear that sober sex is very difficult to accept when you’ve been used to the chemically enhanced version. A film can’t cover everything, but this is something that needs to be addressed societally, and not just in the gay community. I intend to cover this topic soon.

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Am I A Sex Addict?

Silhouette of person watching stripper in club

Sex Addiction – what it isn’t

A lot of people worry about whether they are sex addicts or not, and you may be reading this because the headline rang a bell for you. You may be doing things, looking at things – or even just thinking things – that you feel you cannot share with anyone else because you’re not sure of their reaction. Such is our society’s shame-based confusion around sexual behaviour that many people fear that they may be somehow abnormal. One of the quickest ways to contain your sense of perceived abnormality is by calling yourself an addict.

The Addiction Industry

‘Sex And Love Addiction’ has become a global concept. The media loves it because it feels on-trend, has an air of danger, and pushes buttons deep in us all. And the idea of attending 12-step meetings as the only way to fix ourselves has become a powerful meme. To be ‘needy’ is to be stigmatised out there in the world, the story goes – but in the safety of a meeting you will find a community where you can express your true self. There is nothing wrong with reaching out to a group of people that share a common issue. But by accepting a label you are also paying a price, and in saying ‘it’s not me, it’s my illness’ there is always a risk of remaining in a state of helplessness that is increasingly hard to come back from.

The Addict as Anti-Hero

It is also tempting to identify with the addict as a kind of maverick or renaissance person. There is a strong subconscious (and cultural) narrative in which the addicted person (whether to drugs or anything else) is a prodigal child who is too creative for this earth, fundamentally different from others, and even a shaman. This kind of identification is an effective way of feeling in control of needs that may be making you feel guilty, whether they are in fact doing harm in your life or not.

20 Things that are not Sex Addiction

Such is the push-pull between obsession and denial that almost any behaviour connected to sex whatsoever can be enlisted in support of the sex addiction model. I’ve seen a concerning number of activities and behaviours named as possible symptoms all over the internet and in other media. Here is a roundup:

(1) Thinking about sex a lot

(2) Having sexual fantasies

(3) Having a lot of partner sex

Societal codes dictate all sorts of highly unrealistic attitudes about numbers of previous partners. Numbers do not make you an addict.

(4) Having group sex

Ditto.

(5) Frequent masturbation

How frequent is frequent? This would be my first question.

(6) Being a particular gender and liking sex a lot

A woman is expected to have very few sex partners before her character is called into question and she may be labelled a ‘nymphomaniac.’ She is liable to be labelled an addict by others before a man is, or encouraged to label herself as one. A man may be more likely to self-diagnose as an addict as this self-label may help with fears of helplessness which are seen as insufficiently masculine.

(7) Infidelity

You entered into a relationship without first reflecting on your or your partner’s needs, and you find you cannot stay within the agreed terms of it (if there even were any). It does not make you an addict. The social primacy of the closed couple may simply not be for you.

(8) Being LGBTQ+

Othering of people who are not heterosexual or cisgender often involves a critique of presumed sexual behaviours. This particularly applies to bisexual people, for being ‘greedy’. Trans people are sometimes accused of something similar.

(9) Being polyamorous or in an open relationship

Non-monogamists are sometimes thought to be sex addicts because there must be only one reason for having more than one partner, and that is to have more sex.

(10) Having a fetish

Having an erotic focus on a particular object, form of dress, or experience is fairly common and does not make you a sex addict.

(11) Cross-dressing

Wearing clothes commonly associated with a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth does not make you a sex addict.

(12) Being into kink/BDSM

Negotiating boundaries and consent before having intimate contact is not addiction, and neither is giving or receiving extreme sensation or enjoying power exchange. People into kink may be labelled addicts because they actually talk about the sex and intimate contact they are about to have before doing it. One of the rules of normative sex is that you do not talk about it, thereby denying all responsibility for your feelings about it.

(13) Using porn

Porn use can become problematic, but one of the main reasons is our abysmal record on sex and relationships education for children and young people. It is shame based rather than pleasure based. Hand in hand with this is the denial that puts the porn industry in the shadows. There is nothing wrong with wanting to watch people having sex. At best, porn can also be educational and an aid to solo or partner sex.

Plus, don’t forget how many people skip work and partner/family time to watch or listen to sport. No one calls them a ‘sport addict’ and packs them off to a meeting (although I suspect there will be a clinic for it somewhere).

(14) Voyeurism

Enjoyment of looking at people being sexual is not sex addiction.

(15) Exhibitionism

Enjoyment of being looked at while being sexual is not sex addiction.

(16) Visiting sex shops and websites

Where else do you obtain sex toys and other sex-related material?

(17) Visiting (or working in) lapdance/strip clubs

Being involved in, or enjoying, sex-based entertainment does not make you an addict.

(18) Attending (or running) swinging/kink/fetish parties

Hosting, or attending, sex or kink-focused gatherings does not make you an addict.

(19) Paying for sex or kink

Paying for sex does not make you an addict.

(20) Receiving money for sex or kink

And neither does receiving money for it.

Lest I labour the point even further, none of these things in themselves are indicators that someone has a problem that needs fixing.

‘But my sexual behaviour is causing me a lot of problems, so I must be an addict. Are you saying my feelings are wrong?’

Your feelings are not wrong. As a therapist I would be failing at my job if I did not acknowledge someone’s own account of their situation. There is an increasing movement towards self-definition, of sexuality and of gender – so why not this too? My issue here is that sexual behaviour is too individualised to be labelled an addiction. In this model, we are very few steps from labelling some sexual behaviours an illness and even a pathology. Overall, too often (as my list above illustrates) this is no more than ill-founded moral judgement. In fact, sexual self-expression can go to all sorts of extremes and still be completely healthy and non-damaging.

When someone does feel out of control, it’s important to look at the reasons that may be underlying this rather than stick a label on them.

If you have stopped taking responsibility for yourself, and are harming others, this may be a warning sign, along with:

  • Regularly missing work or appointments
  • Neglecting those closest to you
  • Behaving non-consensually
  • Draining your or someone else’s finances
  • Putting your or someone else’s health in danger

However, the problem is as much to do with any other aspect of you as it is about sex. It may be to do with numerous other aspects of your life, or past events that you have not fully integrated. [Of course there is a red flag in here – it does not automatically follow that a person who has a lot of sex, or participates in non-normative practices, has been abused.]

If we compulsively return to a behaviour that is not serving us (whether sexual or not), it may be because nothing else in our lives is satisfying us or making us feel held.

Repeatedly doing something that takes pain away, even when the positive feelings are very short lived, may well be a sign of underlying unease. Examining harmful patterns with deep roots that we feel helpless to change is one of the main reasons people come for therapy. It does not make anyone an addict – or otherwise we are all emotion addicts.

Am I saying sex addiction can’t exist at all, ever? No, but I find that the term is being misused to the point where it is unhelpful.

Self-Help

Seeing a therapist can help you gain some clarity about what’s going on for you. You may, for example, have grown up with the message that you were ‘too much’ as a child. That you took up too much of everyone’s space and time, and that everything you do is wrong. It may also have left you with the sense that you are doing ‘too much’ of something – therapy may help clarify whose version of ‘too much’ that is.

Also, there is nothing wrong with questioning an aspect of your sexual life, identity or practice, that is starting to feel intrusive or ‘not you’ any more, and taking it to therapy. Please bear in mind, however, that conversion therapies are increasingly outlawed and no reputable therapist will suggest them.

  • To find out how I work, and what areas I specialise in, go here.
  • You can find more of my published writing, in the Lancet and elsewhere, here.

So you don’t enjoy penis-in-vagina sex? You’re not alone

Shop dummies

Penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex – not everyone loves it

In my personal and professional life I’m hearing an increasing number of people saying that PIV sex is ‘fine but not their main thing’, or that they don’t bother to seek it out, or that they actively dislike it. (This isn’t just about orgasms, but the whole experience of penetration.) For sure, many people absolutely love it – but many, it seems, do not. While you don’t have to be heterosexual to practise it, PIV is a mainstay of heterosexual culture.

In this article I’m exploring the cultural aspects of PIV sex, and offer a number of reasons why some people don’t enjoy it or wish to have it.

A note on terminology

Penis-in-vagina sex is often referred to as ‘penetrative sex’. This is confusing because there are actually a large number of ways one body can penetrate another that do not involve a penis or a vagina. (I will cover these in a future article.) However, where I use the word ‘penetration’ in this post, it refers solely to PIV.

Traditions and beliefs about PIV sex

Here are some ingrained ideas about PIV (and sex in general) that are foisted on us from an early age:

  • It’s ‘the one true way’.
  • PIV is ‘full sex’ – other kinds are merely ‘foreplay’.
  • It’s about being a heterosexual man and woman together.
  • PIV is the only way for two people to be fully intimate and anything else is not sufficient.
  • It’s about couples and being in a couple is something to aspire to.
  • It makes babies so it is special. (To be fair, before science intervened several decades ago, PIV was the primary way to conceive.)
  • ‘Taking’ a woman’s virginity involves putting a penis inside her. No other form of sex counts as loss of virginity. (This is a powerful tradition, as if having a penis inside her creates the woman as an adult, and nothing else can do this.)
  • There must and will be orgasms from penetration alone or something is wrong.
  • Penetration must occur via the genitals or sex didn’t happen.
  • In fact, if there isn’t a penis in the room, it isn’t possible for sex to happen.

Unfortunately, the increased awareness that we are all supposed to have gained via the internet does not seem to have affected the Sex and Relationships Education agenda very much. It still tends to be focused around fear rather than pleasure.

And people often confuse PIV sex not working well with sex as a whole not working well. This causes some people to sideline sex altogether. However, showing people the almost limitless amount of sexual choice available to them beyond PIV can be very challenging. It becomes easier to just hide in the ‘sex isn’t working’ bubble and do nothing about it, rather than really talk about what you want. (See also BISH UK on Why Penis in Vagina Sex can be Meh.)

I have heard BDSM practitioners refer to PIV as ‘just another kink among many’, and this seems far healthier. There can be huge personal cost to going along with what everyone else seems to be doing, in other words trying to be normal. There are as many different body types as there are sexual responses, and that includes inside the body as well as outside. The reality is that some people’s bodies work in some ways and some in others.

There are of course a large number of gendered aspects to this

As I said above, PIV is a cultural mainstay of heterosexual life. There is still pressure on a vagina-owner to ‘submit’ to being penetrated (showing that they like it but not too much and not having opinions about what the sex should be), and that they must be entered only after protracted negotiation (if they give it up too easily they are a slut).  Actually, the majority of people with vaginas don’t orgasm through penetration, but this myth continues to be perpetrated everywhere and it damages everyone, as it encourages false expectations. This creates not only an entitlement culture but a blame culture about who has an orgasm and who doesn’t, and whose fault it was. For more on this, please see my post ‘Some Myths and Half Truths about Orgasm.’ See also this piece on vibrators, which outlines the issues very well.

There is still pressure on someone with a penis to be manly and thrusty and penetrate things because that is what they are obliged to do in order to fulfil some sort of masculinity contract, and this after all is what genitals were designed for. Effectively, penises must chase vaginas for sex, as many as possible, (and possibly impregnate the owner too where possible) and if they don’t, then the very concept of masculinity is in question.

Eight reasons some people don’t like or want penis-in-vagina sex

As you can see, this list ranges from the preferential to the situational to the medical. All have the potential to be pathologised in a culture that values PIV above all else. This list does not pretend to be exhaustive (particularly the health-related content) and I welcome additional suggestions.

(1) You just don’t like it very much.

Or you don’t orgasm from it and prefer sexual activities that are more reliable. Or you prefer other forms of sexual connection anyway.

(2) Sexual orientation

The cultural primacy of PIV sex sidelines and erases non-heterosexual identities. While queer sexuality embraces a multitude of ways of connecting sexually, those who do not do PIV because of their orientation or lifestyle are seen in heterosexual culture as ‘not doing it properly’ and may be quizzed in detail about what it is they actually do.

(3) Varying intimacy tolerance

Intimacy is often stated as something desirable above all else, and if you don’t have ‘enough’ of it, there is something wrong with you. For sure, having your body penetrated by another, (in whatever way), is a very intimate act, both for giver and receiver. But if someone doesn’t want this, it means therefore that they have a problem that needs fixing, medically or therapeutically.

I reject this traditional framing of intimacy because it does not take into account individual experience. For example, one person’s attempt to remove the emotional boundaries between them and another person might be another’s profoundly destabilising intrusion. And in fact many childhood experiences create a bedrock of feeling where physical intimacy is profoundly unsafe, (and this does not need to have come from sexual abuse). People commence their emotional and sexual lives at different levels. It is not an equal playing field. Culturally, individual experience is persistently and ongoingly sacrificed to the benefit of an outdated agenda.

 (4) Performance anxiety

PIV sex demands a certain level of performance from the bodies of both parties. Both sets of genitals have to do certain things to make it happen. Of course there are tools that can help the process – lube, pumps, pills, porn – but there can often be a psychological disconnect between how a person is feeling and what their genitals appear to be experiencing. This is heightened by Sex Olympics Confusion about who has the biggest penis and who is the longest lasting, or who has either the tightest pussy or can take the biggest size, whether of penis or object, or who can ejaculate the most prolifically. Lack of lubrication is also an issue, because everyone’s body and expression of desire is different, and this is not always due to a health/medical issue. ‘Long lasting’ penetrative sex can cause discomfort, but it’s still A Thing that some feel they must aspire to.

In our highly visual culture of competition, it is possible to feel very inadequate. In cases of ‘dysfunction’ (and the whole concept of dysfunction is problematic) the body may be speaking where the mind cannot.

(5) Partner incompatibility 

Genital mismatch, sex drive mismatch, or intimacy tolerance mismatch. Sometimes people put up with these things for years in order to remain in a relationship. Such is the power of couple culture. Some suffer in silence and some end up avoiding sex altogether, simply because it is easier to do this than ask for what you want and negotiate.

(6) Fear/shame

Fear of getting a Sexually Transmitted Infection – HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhoea, etc. Many fear herpes because, while not life threatening and asymptomatic for many, it seems to have more shame attached to it than some other more serious conditions. Also, the shame around having an STI can also make sex a less desirable activity.

Fear of pregnancy or getting someone pregnant. (Also, if you have recently given birth, you may want to be sexual without being penetrated.)

Fear of engulfment inside another person. (Sometimes expressed by the myth of the vagina dentata.)

(7) Pain/discomfort

‘Honeymoon cystitis’ – In the early days of a relationship, PIV sex can put the body into an illness cycle – vigorous penetration can cause cystitis, which is then treated with antibiotics, which then cause thrush, which is treated with messy insertables. This cycle can persist, and needs to be caught and treated to avoid the condition travelling to the kidneys.

Vaginismus – the vaginal muscles clench so that penetration becomes difficult and painful, or impossible. Given the pressures on us all to conform to specific appearances and body types, I am amazed that more people don’t experience this – plus the number of people who have their physical boundaries crossed when they are too young to protest and for whom penetration has deeper and more stressful significance. One of the advised ‘cures’ for vaginismus is dilation with increasingly sized ‘vaginal trainers’, as if the lack of desire for penetration must be fixed at all costs.

Muscle tension – there is often confusion about vaginal musculature. Often there is a rush to do kegels (PC squeezes) because ‘loose’ vaginal muscles are seen as the worst thing in the world. In fact, although the exercises can be helpful, the underlying problem can be excessive muscular contraction rather than ‘looseness’. Biofeedback (which is also used to help urinary incontinence) can help show what is going on in the vagina. Sexological bodywork or intimate massage can help. A person if they are lucky could be sent to a woman’s physio at a hospital. Pelvic tension is an issue for both sexes, but is rarely mentioned by doctors.

Phimosis – the foreskin won’t retract properly and makes sex painful. This is a source of shame and embarrassment and many people even in middle age don’t feel comfortable seeing a doctor about it and continue to put up with painful sex, or none. There is an opposite disorder (paraphimosis) where it becomes stuck in the retracted position.

Pain syndromes such as dyspareunia and vestibulodynia. Also Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS) relating to shame.

Internal conditions such as endometriosis, ovarian cysts, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). Tilted or retroverted uterus, which can make deeper penetration painful. Internal scarring/adhesions (either sex). Prostate issues.

External skin conditions which can make genital touch or friction painful – eczema/psoriasis, lichen planus/sclerosus, and thrush (in fact thrush has traditionally been used as a catch-all diagnosis where something else is the problem) – and/or whose appearance may cause the person to feel self conscious.

You might have read the list of health conditions above and thought to yourself, ‘Why not go to the doctor and get it sorted out?’ Unfortunately, many of these conditions are not so easily fixed. Sometimes a person has to learn to live with them and negotiate their sex life around them.

(8) None of the above – you just don’t like it.

 

Conclusion

Our culture currently privileges one way of being at a cost to the rest. We would save a lot of money public health if we improved sex education around this and people felt able to express their true sexual selves without feeling inadequate.

The more people speak out about this, and promote other ways of being sexual, the happier many people will be.


Alcoholism – do women have a special relationship with wine?

Green glasses on a table

Women and drinking – interview for the Irish Independent

Here’s the full version of an interview I did with the Irish Independent earlier this year about women’s relationship with wine, and whether it has unique characteristics.

Do you think that women’s relationship with wine is partly fuelled by sexism/misogyny in that it’s the ‘acceptable’ face of drinking, because society doesn’t like to see women as hard drinkers or drunk, whereas wine gives the patina of respectability? (Even if you’re drinking three bottles a day.)

It’s always difficult to tease things like this out, because most attempts to single out and pathologise women’s behaviour come from sexism/misogyny! In fact, many women I know drink a lot of beer and cocktails too. However, in pubs in the past there was a tradition of ‘wine for the ladies, beer for the men’ and I think those gendered stereotypes may have stuck around in certain parts of the media.

You used the great phrase ‘White Wine Witches’ in your book Cleaning Up. Can you elaborate a bit more on this and why you think that white wine can drive some women ‘crazy’?

I remember parties, particularly media/corporate ones, where white wine was the main alcoholic drink on offer, and after not very long there was an unusual level of hysteria in the air. Some people I knew would end up in tears relatively early in the evening. However, those events can create tensions in themselves, particularly for those who are nervous around networking – and the drinks were usually free and sometimes never ran out.

There are many theories about this, which may have more or less value. To generalise: It is said that some wines, including Chardonnay, contain more chemicals like sulphites than red wine, and some women seem to react badly to them. It may possibly be something to do with the sugar content, which may also cause some kind of energy spike, which could be especially potent when teamed with alcohol. (Although I should point out that other drinks, such as cider or liqueurs, have far more sugar in them than wine.) Other factors may be that wines have on average become stronger over the years. Also, after work people do tend to knock the drinks back very quickly, and I can well remember doing that. In general, since the recession, the general level of stress in large parts of the population has gone up, so this may well be influencing drinking habits.

Women are drinking more and there’s increasing evidence of a younger demographic being diagnosed with problems like cirrhosis. Do you think this is being dealt with sufficiently by governments – or even being acknowledged by society?

I don’t think governments and society are doing enough about this at all, whether about younger women drinking or anyone else. It’s heartbreaking to see hospital time being taken up by the results of over-drinking, whether in A&E or long-term wards. A huge number of accidents and illnesses are caused by alcohol, and yet governments spend millions on the entirely pointless and unwinnable ‘war on drugs’. Of course, to truly tackle this, quality of life would have to be examined from the ground up, and this might uncover too many things that are unacceptable to those in charge. Life is stressful; for women and minorities even more so. Tackling sexism and bigotry from the ground up would cause major societal change, but the media continues to feed the stereotypes.

In the last hundred years, huge numbers of women have come into the workplace, but the workplace has not fully evolved to accommodate them. Women still battle daily sexism, the glass ceiling, competitive presenteeism, and issues around maternity leave. This can make the workplace incredibly challenging.

It’s also useful to reflect on why there is this gendered examination of peoples’ drinking habits in the first place. A drunk woman is a woman who is potentially less easy to control, which is why there is so much flapping about it. (I’m aware that pregnancy is an obviously complex gendered health issue where alcohol is concerned.) However, while I am a bit suspicious of medical statements that have an element of social control to them, it is also true to say that physiologically, women are seen to be generally more susceptible to the effects of alcohol than men, however unfair this is.

Also, UK society is obsessed with drinking. In society at large, people tend to have a blind spot around alcohol, saying things like ‘I’ve got a right to enjoy myself, haven’t I?’ which on the face of it is quite hard to argue with. But it’s worth unpacking why enjoyment so often tips over into loss of control and thereby loss of responsibility. To resist the pressures of the group and stop drinking is very hard – whether ‘getting your round in’ or just being one of the gang. Stopping drinking can change your life irrevocably. If the drinking culture in your life also focuses round your workplace (or your partner drinks a lot) then giving up is doubly difficult.

It’s a pretty broad question but why do you think women drink and are drinking more increasingly?

If this is the case there are a number of factors. (see my responses above and below). Put simply, women drink because drinking is enjoyable and because they are human.

There’s a part in Caroline Knapp’s book Drinking: A Love Story where she comes to the realisation that maybe it’s not that she was drinking because she was unhappy, but that drink was making her unhappy. What do you think of this – are women who drink excessively inherently unhappy or can it just be a habit that they fall into which then creates its own problems?

There are many, many intersecting factors to this. Even without depression or anxiety, some kind of existing existential discomfort may cause a person to turn to alcohol, because of the way it makes socialising so much easier, and you feel so much freer. (Of course that person may also just really enjoy drinking!) It may take many years to realise that the longer and the more you drink, you are missing out on developing and experiencing certain sides of yourself.

However, regular heavy drinking in itself does bring all kinds of problems, mental, sexual and physical. The effect on your relationships and work also can’t be underestimated. Going to work every day with a hangover is no joke – and hair of the dog (another drink) is the simplest way to remedy that. Someone may have learned to drink in their family home, so a certain way of drinking may have become normalised for them.

There is also a chicken and egg situation here, in which women who like drinking may find themselves drinking more when they are already stressed (or perhaps premenstrual), so the effect may be compounded.

It’s easy to pathologise ‘women who drink’, but I am sometimes surprised that more people don’t drink regularly, particularly given the lamentable state of public mental health services.

There seems to be an increasing emphasis on how fattening alcohol is or how it can ruins your looks as a deterrent to stop drinking. Do you think this is helpful or is it avoiding getting to the route of the problem, whatever that might be?

If someone really wants to drink, none of those suggestions will have any effect at all. See also smoking, and the terrible anti-drug adverts we’ve seen over the years.

Plus, appealing to ‘women’s vanity’ is also sexist and I’m not surprised many women reject this, as this sort of deterrent would not be suggested to men.

In Ireland and possibly Britain, people tend to be at crisis point before seeking professional help when it comes to drinking. But if you’re maybe just concerned about it, would like to drink less or explore why you are drinking so much, but don’t think you’re addicted, is therapy useful here?

I think if someone is wondering why they are drinking more and more, and perhaps negative things are starting to happen to them, then going for therapy could be very useful. It may enable them to uncover aspects of their past, and their personalities, which may throw light on why they are turning more and more to intoxication. Therapy might also help someone look at their family history and figure out if there are issues with drinking or mental illness that they have not looked at in detail before.

Note: if you’re concerned about your drinking and would like to cut down, and don’t feel that AA is for you, you could try Club Soda, the London-based support network that hosts all sorts of community events and online discussions for people concerned about their alcohol intake.

Further reading:

 


Seasonal Affective Disorder – in summer?

Cornish beach in black and white

What is summer depression?

I will start with my own experience. I remember the feeling vividly. It came on at the start of the school holidays when I was about 14. After the elaborate goodbye rituals, the end of term (and every end of summer term after that) felt like falling off a high building, but slowly, into a state of emptiness and loss. This feeling was made all the worse by the fact that when the sun’s out and the temperature goes above a certain level, you are supposed to be out there having fun. It is practically the law. ‘But you’ve got to go outside! It’s sunny!’ 

Gradually the feeling bedded in through university and into my twenties. Summer meant other peoples’ lives, not mine. Staying in sometimes helped, sometimes not. Sometimes seeing blue sky through a window made it even worse, because the barrier between me and the world was tangible, something I could touch.

‘Summer SAD’?? But everyone loves summer, don’t they?

‘April is the cruelest month…’ This endlessly quoted line from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land evokes the sense of alienation brought on by this phase of nature. Green shoots, flowers, colours, warmth, baby animals – all these things symbolise the world turning and everything changing and moving on. In human society, it’s Yay! Beach! Shorts! Convertibles! Drink! Sex! And it is precisely those aspects of the spring and summer seasons that fall on some of us like hailstones. The suicide rate is highest in late spring and into the summer.

Summer also makes itself known to us through sound. Windows open. Music, laughter, glasses clinking, beer cans crushed in hand, barbecues – heard from just across the way, just out of reach. And so the sounds and smells of someone else’s new season hang over you. Fresh cut grass and the sound of lawnmowers. And the light is very exposing. We have an obsession with light – unsurprisingly perhaps in the UK’s northern European climate. But this is not always healthy. There is a sense that once the bright light has been on you, you cannot go back. And social media can make all this feel so much worse. As with other holiday periods, you may feel surround by people telling you that you can choose how you feel about this.

What does summer SAD feel like?

In a way it’s like any kind of depression, but it has a particular flavour. Symptoms could include:

  • A desire to withdraw from the world
  • A strong feeling of alienation from culturally defined and enforced notions of happiness due to the temperature going up and there being more light
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety
  • A sense of exclusion
  • A fear of exposure
  • A sense of being trapped
  • A desire to cover up the body
  • FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out

So what causes it?

I think it’s from the same family of responses brought on by Christmas and other annual festivals. The difference is that summer is more drawn out. (For some more detailed thoughts on why holiday times are so stressful, please go to my blog post here. Although what I’ve written there applies to end of year festivities, I think many issues there apply to summer as well.)

Here I’ve listed some aspects of what may contribute to it:

  • The weather may trigger you into remembering difficult holiday times when you were younger.
  • You may have children and be dreading trying to fill up the long weeks until the autumn term starts.
  • The obligation to look as if you’re having fun, and being singled out and exposed if not.
  • A sense of a vast natural cycle that is leaving you behind. You may be ‘still’ single, ‘still’ unemployed, ‘still’ without a child, or ‘still’ married to the wrong person or living somewhere you have outgrown.
  • As with Christmas and other festival times, you may feel obliged to see relatives or go to places that you dislike. If you are a young person you may have no choice in the matter.
  • Summer can be expensive and you may have fears around money.

The feelings can also be anticipatory. Many people dread summer for reasons which occur at different places on the continuum between practical and emotional.

The fear of being exposed physically

  • You would rather cover up your body because your size or shape attracts attention and this causes you anxiety.
  • You wish to avoid comments in the street/on the beach because of the above.
  • You wish to avoid sexual harassment.
  • There are aspects of your body that others may be more likely to notice and comment on when you are wearing fewer clothes, or doing sporting activities (for example if you have extensive scarring, an ostomy, or are going through gender transition.)
  • You dread fending off the expectation that you will participate in sports.

Summer-related physical health issues

  • Hay fever (many suffer miserably with this for months)
  • Sunburn
  • Rashes (including heat-related, ‘chub rub’ and running/cycling rashes etc)
  • Insect bites (many people have a terrible response to mosquito bites, and there is Blandford Fly, ticks etc)
  • If you cover up in jeans/layers in order to hide your body, excessive sweating can cause problems
  • Sleeping problems due to light and heat, which can contribute to depression
  • Light sensitivity (some people find the bright light makes them physically ill and need to wear sunglasses frequently)

So how did I deal with it?

I was astonishingly lucky. Having spent many years doing self-care (see below) fairly badly, my summer SAD was lifted overnight in 2003 by a kind American hippy I met online. We were members of a support group email list and we chatted quite often. When I explained my feelings to him, he suggested I do a ritual of thanks to the sun for giving me life. I was to write a message to the sun on a piece of paper and throw it in the nearest river and watch it float away on the tide. At the time I was living not far from Westminster Bridge, so the river bit was easy. However, the Iraq war has just begun and there were police everywhere. So he suggested I burn the piece of paper instead.

I did it – and it worked. I woke up the next day and the feelings had gone, never to return.

What was going on there, you might be wondering? I cannot tell you. It seemed to be about personifying my relationship with the sun, and reframing it so that the summer did not feel like enemy territory, or a malign superego, or that something was being taken from me. Also, the previous year had been momentous and life changing in terms of my own survival, and perhaps subconsciously I was ready to let go of my fears.

Strategies for self care

So what to do, short of upping sticks to the antipodes, or very far north, for four months of the year?

  • Choose your clothes and research the best medications well in advance so you feel prepared. Get a good hat and sunglasses.
  • Are there work projects that you can just spend the summer getting on with?
  • Get a good fan or air-con unit for hot days when you don’t want to be outside, so that your home feels like a refuge.
  • If it is not safe for you to be open and honest about how you feel, you are going to need a cover story about why you’re not going swimming, playing ball games or going to the beach. Prepare it carefully. Burn easily? Knee injury? Allergy to XX? Get it straight and stick to it.
  • Suggest activities to family/friends which have an indoor and outdoor aspect, so you can take cover without hiding.
  • Hiding away is not a good long-term strategy overall. Can you share your feelings with some friends and others who are close to you?
  • Don’t feel ashamed to go to the doctor and discuss your options if things feel unmanageable. The same goes for getting therapy.
  • Relish the cloudy days, those grey and green veiled and comforting days when other people are complaining. Even better when there’s a rainstorm!
  • Some people give a lot of significance to solstices and equinoxes and the various festivals that go with them. Even if some of the language and pageantry around neopaganism doesn’t appeal, observing these time markers give a sense of the world turning and impermanence which you may find helpful.
  • Make plans for the autumn and winter so you have something to look forward to.

My second holiday season post also has a number of thoughts on how to prepare for a difficult holiday period.

I hope my article gives you something to work with as the summer approaches.


Alternative sexualities conference – keynote videos

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Pink Therapy conference 2015

Here are the keynote videos from Pink Therapy’s Beyond The Rainbow Conference in March.  The conference was a great success and was very well attended, showing the great interest in – and need for – more teaching about sexual identities that are beyond the mainstream.

If you’re a therapist yourself, you may wish to use these videos for CPD.

(1) Non-monogamies

Author, psychologist and activist Dr Meg John Barker outlines the extensive range of relationship styles and structures beyond monogamy. (Video 26.16.)

(2) The kink paradox

Counsellor/psychotherapist DK Green unpacks the issues for practitioners when working with a client who has both a history of traumatic abuse and an interest in BDSM. (Video 26.35.)

(3) Living and working in the kink communities: professional boundaries and ethics

Pink Therapy founder Dominic Davies examines dual relationships when working in small communities, and how to maintain ethical boundaries. (Video 24.25.) (Needs login due to adult content.)

(4) Asexualities – doing without?

Counsellor, supervisor and trainer Olivier Cormier-Otano talks about his survey of asexuals, their diversity of experience, and their pathologisation in a culture that expects people to be sexual in very specific ways. (Video 20.21.)

(5) The place of kink in psychotherapy and counselling training

Psychotherapist Henry Strick van Linschoten discusses the reasons why kink should be included in psychotherapy and counselling training. (Video 29.44.)

(6) Further sexualities

Psychologist and senior research fellow Christina Richards describes sexualities considered to be less common than others – such as adult babies, furries and puppy play – and considers how clinicians can best support clients who are looking for help. (Video 36.42.) (Needs login due to adult content.)

You can find out more about the conference and other seminars here.


Nine things not to say to someone with a phobia

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This post isn’t ‘Phobias 101.’ It’s about the kinds of well-intentioned (or less so) enquiries that phobia sufferers are sometimes subject to. If you would like to know more, you can find detailed information here and here.

Phobias are very common and often misunderstood

Once upon a time the level of fear evoked by a phobia may have been useful, because it encouraged us to avoid genuinely dangerous things like poisonous snakes. In modern life, some phobias have a certain logic to them, despite statistical reassurance – for example, if you are in sitting in a jet-powered metal box 30,000 feet up in the sky.

They can also be distressing and debilitating

A phobic attack is really unpleasant. The body goes straight into a very primal state of fight or flight.  If you don’t manage to get away from the situation or object fast enough, it can take several hours to calm down.

Sometimes people plan their lives around their phobia, in case they are triggered. Thoughtlessly placed glass lifts and open footbridges can be really unhelpful to those with vertigo or agoraphobia, so routes have to be planned meticulously. Someone who is claustrophobic needs to gamble on whether the rush hour tube train will get stuck in a tunnel and whether it would be easier to spend two hours getting home on the bus. Some people never use underground trains at all and experience long convoluted journeys if they want to go anywhere. Arachnophobes may end up choosing to live higher off the ground so it is less likely that spiders will come in from outside.

They are also hard to explain

Perhaps due to the seemingly mysterious nature of phobias and the extreme responses they evoke in the sufferer, non-phobics (even with the best intentions) often make statements and ask questions that are at best unhelpful and at worst potentially damaging. Given parts of our culture’s obsession with the rational and explainable, the phobic person may be called upon to give an account of their apparent irrationality solely for others’ benefit.

Here is a list of things it’s best not to say to someone with a phobia:

(1) ‘Ha ha, really?! That’s too weird!’

The phobic person is likely to have taken a lot of time wondering about their phobia. Mocking or questioning them is not going to help.

(2) ‘Lol! There’s one right behind you!’

For some people, just seeing a picture of the feared object can cause a reaction. (The internet makes this a lot more challenging.) At worst at comment like this could cause someone to have a panic attack.

(3) ‘That three-year-old over there isn’t scared.’

It’s hard to know where to begin to unpack this. Just don’t go there.

(4) ‘That spider/dog/snake is more scared of you than you are of it.’

As well as being mostly untrue, this brings a jarring personalisation into the encounter, as if there was some sort of mutual exchange going on.

(5) ‘But I saw you do X the other day.’

So – well spotted – you saw them going down into the tube. Perhaps it was 11am and they had spent hours weighing up the mental risks of getting on the train against the importance of their appointment, and calculated that the tube would not be excessively crowded at this time. They may spend their entire journey praying nothing bad happens.

(6) ‘Have you tried CBT/hypnosis/flooding therapy?’

They may have tried all sorts of things. At the same time, it’s also likely that shame around their situation has prevented them from doing so. It’s also best not to keep offering to do therapy on them yourself, however kindly meant, even if you are a trained practitioner.

(7) ‘One day I decided to conquer my fear of cats/mushrooms/lifts. If I did, then so can you. You can choose to change your feelings.’

I have written elsewhere about the idea that you can ‘choose how you feel’.

(8) ‘Can’t you just pull yourself together?’

This one applies to mental health conditions across the spectrum. Please don’t say this to anyone, ever. It’s profoundly invalidating.

(9) ‘I read somewhere that people who live in war zones don’t suffer from phobias, and it’s just people with easy lives in the West who get them.’

Ah, how westerners love to tell each other how easy their lives are. A person who makes such a statement is generally hiding a vulnerability of their own.

 

Actually, this could be a bingo card. If you know of any others like these, please send them over.


Surviving the Festive Season Part Three: When it’s all over

Winter tree in snowSo you got through Christmas and you got through New Year. If you put up decorations, you might even be considering taking them down.

What now?

Once the shiny things are tidied away and ordinary life starts slipping back into place, the turn of the calendar can sometimes bring on a sense of helplessness and confusion.

Here are some ways of thinking and feeling that it’s very easy to fall back into at this time of year, with some suggestions on how to start feeling differently. I’ve raided my archives for links I’ve found interesting or inspiring in the last year. Even if they don’t resonate with you immediately, they may spark off an idea. I’ve also listed some links to organisations that offer support in a crisis.

Update: I’ve also added some thoughts further down in response to global events since I first wrote this piece.

SENSATION SEEKING

Sensation-seeking can be another way of stepping out of our daily self and into a more exciting or intense version of ourselves. It might well have got you through the festive period. It’s a way of switching off what may be an over-developed sense of responsibility. You might be tired of wondering if everyone else is okay. Sometimes we give ourselves a boost with drink or drugs. You can get through a hell of a lot if you’re only half conscious and only half looking out for yourself.

You might grab hold of an exciting new person at this time of year and it’s not unusual to have more sex or more extreme sex (whatever that means for you) because it feels like everything is burning and time is running out. New year has passed, but there is always just one more party. Sometimes we add justifications to this, as if we should not act out our own desires without been seen to explain why: ‘I went through so much last year.’ ‘I’ve put up with an enormous amount in my life and it’s time for me now.’ ‘My life has been going nowhere so I may as well have a good time.’

Calming existential restlessness: The very fact of having pushed your own boundaries (assuming nothing terrible happened in the process) might be enough to remind you that it’s okay to slow down and reflect on everything that’s happened. Is it possible to relish your adventures and forgive yourself for mishaps, emotional or physical? You might find comfort in quiet reflection, in lighting candles, going to the park (try Barnes Wetlands Centre or Hampstead Heath if you’re in the London area) or to the countryside, or spending time with animals, whose desire to play and whose need to be cared for can bring you right into the moment. For a time I used to avoid parks because they reminded me of the time when I only went in then when I was feeling down. Then I started to feel a sense of belonging there – parks are, in their own way, a place of community.

Sometimes thinking laterally about the world through art can restore a sense of balance or wonder, or both. See: If white characters were described like people of colour in literatureThe art of science – when popsicles go viral; or Wham’s Last Christmas played eight times slower. (If you can’t take any more Christmas music, try Bela Lugosi’s Dead stretched out to nine hours.) Also, 16th century cosplay versions of modern superheroes.

ULTRA MOTIVATION

You come back from the break feeling as if you’re going into battle. This year I will fix myself.’ ‘This year I will make sure I never get into a situation like that again.’ Making sure certain things never happen again – (being bullied at work, getting into damaging relationships, making poor business decisions) – while important catalysts for change, can put you into combat position from the start and be incredibly draining.

The January klaxon –  ‘New year new you!‘ – is very often directed at women. If we just keep on trying to make newer and better versions of ourselves, (as if the current ones were by default inadequate), perhaps we will deserve good things happening to us. This is a pretty toxic way of looking at life, but it is put in us from a young age. There will always be more to find fault with, because there is always another January on the horizon. Needless to say, never feeling good enough is a major reason for depression and why people end up coming for therapy.

Reducing hypervigilance: What can you do if you sense yourself becoming preoccupied with slipping into old patterns? Sometimes it helps to look at the huge variety of lives that people live, and have lived. What would they have done? Try: Hedy Lamarr – Hollywood actor and inventorIs Daniel Renaud Camden’s last rockstar?; Women scientists you need to knowLeonard Nimoy speaking Yiddish and talking about his childhood; Meet Chris Paradox, the man who gave up his 70K salary to live under a tree in Battersea.

EXHAUSTION AND GUILT

Coming back after a difficult holiday period can leave you feeling as if you need another holiday (if you even had one in the first place). You want to escape somewhere where you will get your needs met and where no one is making demands of you, or expecting you to be someone you can never be. And now you’re back there is pressure and more pressure. Lists! Fitness and thinness, and a fixation on resolutions which have just become yet more ways to make ourselves feel bad.

Stop running to stand still: Now can be an appropriate time to ruthlessly examine your weekly timetable and prune away all the things you don’t really love doing and can safely do away with. This may extend to friends who are not friends any more, and social circles you have grown away from. Many people do social media ‘culls’ (a cruel word perhaps) at this time of year. Try How should you handle outgrowing a friend? for some thoughts around this.

If there is nothing you can get rid of right now, plan to phase it out. Have half an eye (no more than that though) on next Christmas and how you will bring your own needs into it – bearing in mind that your life may have changed hugely by then anyway. If you are in debt, now is a good time to take action.

Physically clearing out your home can also have a lightening effect. Lateral thinking may, again, help: 30 relatively simple things that will make your home extremely awesome, 34 ingenious ways to de-clutter your entire life. So can changing routines. See: The no shampoo experiment, six months later.

DESPAIR AND CRISIS

All the ‘normal people’ are happily getting on with things and you feel like a wreck. Your sense of failure feels ingrained and real. Any success you’ve previously enjoyed was fake, a blip, a lucky break. And you went back on Facebook and there were all the holiday photos, the loved-up couple shots, and the look-what-I-gots and now you feel even worse. Sometimes all the advice in the world doesn’t really make a dent in things. There are people around you and noise, but the empty space in your head feels overpowering.

If you feel yourself sliding into crisis, it may still feel difficult to ask for help. Perhaps you held back over the holidays, because there were other people with ‘real’ problems needing help. Now everyone’s fitting themselves back into daily life and you’re feeling more and more left behind.

Take action right now: Go to your GP. (If you’re not registered with a GP, find one in your area and sign up. Even just doing that can make you feel more in control.) You can contact the Samaritans if you’re in need of urgent support. The mental health charity Mind has a helpline and a lot of advice about what to do in a mental health crisis, for sufferers and carers. CRUSE Bereavement Care has a helpline for people who are bereaved. The NHS website also has a useful list of mental health helplines.

Share your feelings: Sometimes just the act of asking for help can start to have a healing effect. The right therapist can help you find a path through what you’re experiencing. I took part in a group interview a while back in the Telegraph, with several other therapists:

‘And now it’s all died down, it can feel like ages to go until spring. You may want to reset yourself before the warmer weather gets here, and try and figure out why some situations just keep on pushing your buttons. A good therapist will listen without judging. You may feel hugely liberated on starting therapy – and you might also struggle for a time. If you’re feeling helpless, seeking help can be an essential first step towards feeling you’ve taken control of a situation where you previously felt no change was possible.’

You can find a therapist at Pink Therapy, The Counselling Directory, and the BACP. I’ve also recently put up a list of low-cost therapy services.

ALTERNATIVES TO ACTION

I’m aware that a lot of what I’ve written in this post so far involves taking some kind of action, even if it’s just looking at a website. But (with the important exception of getting help in a crisis) there can be other ways of tackling the sense of existential vertigo that can be so pervasive in the early part of the year. There is always doing nothing at all. (See: How to do nothing; Five reasons we should all learn how to do nothing; How to do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.)

I’m aware that, at worst, such a suggestion can sound like a privileged life hack. [Especially in these political times – see the final section below.] Most of us need to work for a living. Most of us have responsibilities – to someone or something – that shape our lives and prevent us doing exactly what we want to do every minute of the day. But our media can feel like one endless unstoppable call to action, (which will usually involve spending money) and to do nothing whatsoever (whatever that means for you and the way you live) can be a very refreshing, and actually quite radical, antidote to that.

PERSONAL SURVIVAL IN THE SHADOW OF GLOBAL EVENTS

I originally wrote this piece at the beginning of 2015 – so before the UK election of May 2015, the Brexit vote in June 2016, and the US election in November 2016. Also before the what seemed like unusual number of celebrity deaths in 2016 that affected so many people so deeply. Reading it back, I have a sense of something missing, because it feels as if a whole new layer of challenge has entered our lives.

Social media is now filled with calls to action. I have seen many exhortations to man the barricades, turn vegan, engage dialectically with every person you meet whose politics are different from yours, and be prepared to physically defend someone experiencing a hate crime on public transport. There is a hidden message here too, that if you do not do these things, (and are not seen to be encouraging others to do them), you are insufficiently engaged with the world, excessively privileged, or even a bad person.

PUT ON YOUR OXYGEN MASK

Actually, there is a danger of being toxified to the point of inaction by other people’s letting off steam from the comfortable safety of their armchairs. So first of all it may be healthier to put your oxygen mask on first, and keep the greater part of social media (and all media) at a distance while you regroup and re-evaluate. People talk about ‘contact highs’ from both substances and people – I would argue there is a ‘contact low’ from too much reading about others’ fear, as it can just create a sense of helplessness which cam become ingrained.

I’ve written more about this here: When the world has changed forever – self care in a collective crisis

I would like to end on a positive note – I wish you peace, health and happiness for 2017, however you achieve it.


Surviving the Festive Season Part Two: Strategies for getting through it

tg-1-12In part one of this series I looked at all the things that make Christmas and other festival times so stressful. Here in part two I’m offering suggestions on how to make the experience easier to manage.

I’ve been discussing this a lot recently, and several big stressors have emerged: finances, competition with others, and the sense of obligation. Some people prepare for this time of year as if it wasn’t Christmas day coming on 25th December, but a large asteroid. So this piece is my personal take on how you might manage a potentially difficult Christmas.

Further down there are links to various advice and charity sites. (If you’re expecting to have a happy and relaxed time and none of this applies, maybe you know someone who might benefit from something I’ve written here.)

Some of my thoughts here come in the form of questions. They may not have a specific answer, but I hope that reflecting on them will make things feel less overwhelming.

MENTALLY PREPARE

• Can you identify what it is you do and don’t like about this time of year? You might feel more in control if you can identify which aspects you can just about tolerate, and which ones you would avoid/abandon if you could. Are you in a position to act on this?

If you do feel able to act, put your foot down early. One way to think about it is to imagine opening the doors and windows in your life and finally letting a breeze through – ie, saying a great big ‘no’. Practise this.

• If you’re feeling a sense of reluctant obligation, reflect on what you really owe to anyone? Also, do you feel that anyone owes anything to you?

• If your mental state means careful rationing of what you do, honour this if you can by planning in advance. If you find yourself without the energy to do this, can someone else organise things for you?

• Can you arrange something to look forward to after Christmas as a reward? Seeing a person you don’t see often, or a trip somewhere?

• If you know things are going to be difficult, can you ask available friends if they are okay with you texting them during the day if it all gets too much?

• If you cannot drum up any positive feelings at all, can you visualise Christmas as the monstrous birthday party of someone you loathe but must appease? Or perhaps imagine you are in some hideous panto or whodunnit?

SHARE YOUR FEELINGS

• Asking for help, or just sharing how you feel, can seem like a radical and terrifying act. But the chances are you are not alone.

• Can you talk to the others around you about your feelings about this time of year? Do the people closest to you agree with you? You may find that no one else has had the courage to say what they have been feeling all along, and through your words you have potentially rescued them too.

WAYS TO ESCAPE

Travel – Can you leave the country? Flights, especially long haul ones, go up hugely in price over this period, so the cost may well be prohibitive. If a holiday is out of reach, is some kind of physical escape possible? A working holiday, a retreat of some kind, or a house or cat-sit?

Work – Can you hide behind work? Selflessly offer to take others’ shifts? Suddenly take on a big pile of freelance? (If, of course, it’s out there).

Charity work – There are lots of ways to volunteer at Christmas, such as Crisis.  If you’re in London, Londonist has a good list of places where you could offer to help out over the holiday period.

Invented scenarios (ok, lying) – Normally, I would not suggest you engage in dishonesty. However, in this case, if you have to lie to get out of a situation that you absolutely do not want and which may be actively harmful to you, (and you absolutely cannot tell the truth because that would be even more harmful to you), you are in a way being more authentic, so I would not condemn it. Your safety comes first. If you are going to do this, I should remind you that the backstories may take work, as well as getting any collaborators on board, so this is not for the faint hearted.

• Illness – a new one or a flareup of an existing one – or an accident or disaster. (But then you may be fending off offers of help which could take you back to square one. This one is best used when you were going to have to take a long journey.)

• The sudden illness/disaster of someone close to you, who needs your help. Is this ‘wrong’? I return to my points about authenticity and safety.

• Pretending you are away when you are not, and you are in fact staying quietly in your home with the telly. A woman wrote somewhere that if anyone asked her what she was doing for Christmas, she would say, ‘Oh, it’s just going to be the three of us on the sofa,’ neglecting to mention that the other two were in fact her cats.

IF YOU CANNOT GET AWAY

MONEY 

This is the tough bit. Christmas is supposed to be about giving, yes? Perhaps, but not to your own detriment.

• How early can you start preparing? (Some people buy things in the sales for the next Christmas). So a huge January to-do list might make you feel more in control. Can you pay for anything in instalments? (Bearing in mind the increased cost over time and the cost of borrowing in general.)

• Ask people to bring food over instead of providing it all yourself. I’ve noticed that potluck dinners have got a lot more common since the recession. For low-cost recipes, try Jack Monroe, Netmums budget recipes, Gluten Free on a Shoestring. Also, the Gluten free vegan.

• Have a secret santa with strict budget attached. (Depending on the configuration of the people you will be with, you don’t even have to assign a person to give a present to – you could distribute them lucky dip style.)

Here’s a piece from Netmums about benefit dates over Christmas, with lots of advice on budgeting. Money Saving Expert has a Christmas forum where people ask for and give advice. Crafting isn’t for everyone, but (time and everything else allowing) could you make, or cook, something instead? 60 great alternatives to toys has some useful discussion points about presents for children.

• Beware vouchers, sales, and ‘bargains’. Money Saving Expert again has some tips on end of year savings. All sorts of shenanigans goes on with pricing during sale times, and some shops buy things in for sales that they don’t normally sell. Once upon a time I read that this was all illegal, but the goalposts seem to have moved considerably.

• Be proud of what you do make or bring. If there is a financial disparity between you and others, can you talk about it? it’s essential to lay down boundaries early so there are no misunderstandings. This is even more important if you have children. Ditto if you are the one with more money than the rest. If you are in this fortunate position, try to remember the stress people go through when they don’t have enough but are expected to put on a show. If you suggest a restaurant or other activity that costs money, and there is an awkward silence, frozen faces, or ripple of embarrassment, there is your answer. Again, if you are in a fortunate position but don’t want to show off or make others feel awkward, is there anything you could do for anyone in private?

DIFFICULT OR ABUSIVE PEOPLE

• We joke about ‘drunk uncle and racist auntie’ but you may be stuck with them for the day, or the entire week. You could try to imagine bedtime, or going home, as a beautiful forest or beach that you are slowly walking towards. If this sounds too hippy, can you plan something for afterwards that you can look forward to and think about?

• Can you find others in the same boat as you so you feel less alone? When you look online, you might not find someone with your exact problem immediately, but this tends to be the nature of problems. We think our issues are unique and this keeps us isolated.

• There may be people who don’t recognise your gender/sexuality/relationship/lifestyle/work and are either rude to you about it or actively threatening. The Albert Kennedy Trust works to help young (16-25) LGBT people who are homeless or living in a hostile environment. London Friend and Switchboard LGBT (also UK-wide) provide telephone support.

• You may be experiencing, or fearing, domestic violence. Refuge and Women’s Aid charities support women and children experiencing domestic abuse.  ManKind supports male survivors, and Respect supports both men and women, and has a helpline for anyone who is carrying out abuse too. Galop is an LGBT domestic violence charity. You can contact them by phone, email or live chat.

ANNIVERSARIES AND LOSSES

• If you have experienced a major loss this year, or are having the anniversary of one, your first duty is to yourself, and then to anyone vulnerable you care for. There is a lot of advice online about dealing with loss, which can be amplified by experiencing the enforced joyfulness around you. Cancer Research UK has some information on coping with grief. Cruse is the main UK bereavement charity. They offer help by phone, email, or in person.

• Distractions can be good – if this feels right, you could fill your home with a manageable number of hand-picked people, (or arrange a number of visits or meet ups) – but let your feelings guide you, and let others take the strain.

• Can a friend or family member take you in? Would you allow them to?

• The loss may not be a person, but a negative change in circumstances (loss of job, home or relationship), or a beloved animal companion. These can all have powerful fallout that needs a grieving process – again, put yourself first.

FAMILY ESTRANGEMENT

• You may be estranged from family. There is a charity, Standalone, that supports people in this situation. They have a detailed festive survival guide.

• Even if you are totally happy about your choice, this time of year may bring on all sorts of concerned and potentially exposing questioning. While ‘none of your business’ may be the appropriate response, this may only inflame the questioner and cause all eyes to be on you if you are in a group. Saying someone is are ‘away’ may be enough. (Again remembering to craft your story – Australia? But where in Australia?) Total honesty may torpedo the conversation, or it may induce a further flood of questioning.

• One thing I’ve noticed in the last few years is that whenever an online problem page deals with family estrangement, very few people are judgemental (bucking a trend, it must be said), and many will share similar stories. The Guardian has a good range of articles on family estrangement and going no contact. From all my reading, a fair number of people choose to go no contact, and many more wish they had made that decision long ago.

13 things no estranged child needs to hear on Mother’s Day – this is actually very good advice on what not to say to someone who is estranged from any family member, and could equally apply to Christmas or any other festival. [NB: the link is currently broken – the piece is still somewhere out there though.]

INTOXICATION

• Alcohol and drugs (over the counter, prescribed or illegal) give and take at the same time. They may be all you have to get you through a challenging day. I would not necessarily recommend someone sober up for its own sake for a difficult Christmas unless you or those around you would be in immediate danger, or unless you need to remain alert and/or are driving. If you want to make a fresh start in the new year, a charity like Addaction can help.

• Bear in mind you say and do things when intoxicated that you would not when sober. Some of it can never be taken back.

• Some people change personality when intoxicated and become incredibly unpleasant, angry or violent. This doubles during festive periods. If this is you, you need to stop. If this feels too hard, you may want to try cutting down or stopping. I have expressed many reservations about the 12 step/anonymous movement as a whole, but I know it has helped some people. You could try Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or another 12 step meeting. You will find community there and a great variety of human experience.

• If you have given up drinking previously, this is a challenging time and you may wish to refer further back in this article for ways to escape Christmas. If anyone comes at you with ‘Oh, can’t you just have one?’ or rudely interrogates you about why you stopped, keep remembering why you did it.

• If you are presented with the prospect of a Christmas with a relative who has a drink problem that threatens your safety, or the safety of someone else, you are under no obligation to participate. Your duty, again, is to yourself.

SOCIAL MEDIA

• In part one I described the various irritations on social media – other peoples’ photos of festive bounty, and their urge to tell you how blessed they are. Do not feel guilty about muting/unfollowing them for a few days. If it’s a friend who you basically like, you can always just send them a nice message so you don’t feel guilty. These networks are valuable, particularly if you are alone, so a few tweaks will make them bearable until it all blows over.

• You could start a secret group on Facebook, or create a locked Twitter account, so you can share with a few people who feel the same way as you, and let off steam.

SPENDING THE DAY ALONE

• If you’re going to be happily, consensually on your own on December 25th, Christmas day alone can be great. Your time, your choice.

• If you’re reluctantly, non-consensually alone, (and don’t have anywhere to go) it can feel terrible. Perhaps you just want to sleep? That’s okay. Or go on a huge walk. Write. Work. Is there anyone at all you can contact? Ignore the day and do your usual routine and make it a day like any other?

THINGS NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO IS STRUGGLING

• ‘It’s only one day.’

• ‘X is just insecure.’

• ‘What did you get?’

• ‘Where’s Y?’ or ‘Why aren’t you with Z?’

• ‘Can’t you just deal with it?’

• ‘You’ll be fine.’

If you’re still reading, I hope this was helpful.

  • If you’d like to find out more about how I work, and what I specialise in, please go here.
  • If you’d like to read more of my published work, please go here.

Can you really choose how you feel?

Sunrise North London‘It’s Tuesday. I call it ‘Choose-Day’ – because I can CHOOSE how I feel today!’

Never mind that’s it’s actually Friday. I see this kind of attitude lurking around online just a bit more than I’m comfortable with and, given that we are now entering a very challenging time of year for mental health and emotions generally, I thought I’d look a bit harder at it.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I think this is the worst ‘inspirational saying’ I have ever seen. If you know a more florid example of the genre, please send it over. I ought to have a Christmas competition, but you’d have to try very hard to beat that one. I suspect it’ll be me getting the Quality Street, but I remain open.

I am, for the moment, being lighthearted. And I should emphasise that I’m not knocking every just-for-today expression that’s ever been. In crisis, sometimes they’re all you have to cling to.

But – you can choose how you feel? Really? Others clearly subscribe to this view, as evidenced by articles with names like ‘10 Habits of Highly Unhappy People.’ There are quite a few of them around and they’re not difficult to find.

Great! You might think. We all fall into negative thinking and need a bit of a push out of it, don’t we? And actually, these articles often contain reasonable advice and appear on the surface to be well-intentioned. In a nutshell: don’t criticise or gossip, stop comparing yourself with others, don’t ruminate on the past, stop worrying about the future, stop feeling afraid, let go of your anger, look after your body, learn to trust people, stop focusing on the negatives, stop blaming others, express gratitude more, relax, and just be happy.

I can’t argue with any of this. In many ways, these lists are factually, existentially, correct.

But, as someone working in mental health, I experience increasing concern as I read through them.

They imply, or state directly, that feelings about your life and your place in the world are entirely your own choice. In different ways they flag the person’s apparent inner negativity as a reason for their problems, and how they may even be enjoying their misery.

Worst of all, not a single one that I’ve seen contains references to difficulties external to the individual: anything from abuse as a child, to poverty, to physical or mental illness, to violence, to relationship breakdown, to having no work, to experiencing discrimination because of your race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, body type or anything else, and to experiencing a downturn in circumstances because of the recession we have all been experiencing for the last five years. Not a whisper.

I’ve seen too many depressed and anxious people fighting feelings like these, whatever their circumstances. I have, once upon a time, been there myself.

And the trouble with telling someone that they have chosen their feelings, is that if you bothered to look deeper into the individual person, you might actually see the pain and trauma they have suffered. I would then challenge you to tell them they had chosen their sacking, eviction, cancer or rape, because deep down, they wanted it.

Am I being a bit melodramatic here? Human motivations are complex. Sometimes we use problems as a form of defence when life gets too hard. We retreat into illness, or hide in the past, or paralyse ourselves with fear. There will be an old script at work in here, but it is way more complex than mere choice. You cannot moralise or shame negative feelings away.

So what do we have choice over? We can choose how we outwardly react. Perhaps not in the moment, but after some reflection. We can decide what we are going to work on to make a situation different. We can be mindful of our words and actions and their impact on others. We can see if there is any possibility of acceptance of any of our difficulties, just to remove the charge from them. (All that I have just said assumes our mental health is strong enough to do this.)

There is lots we can do, but choosing our feelings, I think, is not one of them.


Low-cost counselling and psychotherapy services in London

London skylineSeeing a therapist in private practice isn’t financially accessible to everyone.

Here’s a list of reduced-fee talking therapy services in the London area. I hope you find it useful.

PLEASE READ THIS FIRST:

 This list is not definitive or exhaustive – it is a work in progress, and I will be adding to it as time goes on. [Most recent changes 17/12/17]

• Being listed here doesn’t necessarily mean I know the service and/or can personally endorse it. It may have been recommended to me, or I may have heard of it a number of times. I am going on what is stated on the organisations’ websites so cannot personally guarantee the content.

• There will be a number of different fee scales and a variety of numbers of sessions offered, from a few to open-ended. The trend is generally towards time-limited work of up to 12 sessions, but some places offer longer. And there will also be a variety of therapy offered. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions.

• The counsellor you see at some of these services may be in the later stages of their training. Please don’t let this put you off. In order to practise, their trainers, if they are from a reputable college, will have spent time reflecting on whether they are ready or not. Psychotherapy students generally work very hard and have to give very detailed accounts of themselves on a regular basis.

• Some therapists in private practice do offer reduced fee places. Pink TherapyThe Counselling Directory, and the BACP’s It’s Good To Talk are all good places to start looking.

GENERAL – Clients accepted from all round London

Awareness Centre (Clapham SW4)

The Blues Project at the Bowlby Centre (Highbury N5 – waiting list currently closed at 11/17, but they say they may have spaces again in 2018 – also worth contacting the main therapy team as there may be some therapists there offering lower cost)

British Psychotherapy Foundation (Scroll down for their list of reduced fee schemes. Longer-term work.)

Centre for Better Health (Hackney E9)

Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy Education (CCPE) (Training organisation in Maida Vale W2. Also runs The Caravan drop-in counselling service at St James’s Church, Piccadilly W1)

Community Counselling (East Ham E6)

Free Psychotherapy Network (Collective of therapists offering free and low-cost therapy, mostly in the London area but also elsewhere)

IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) (A long list of London-wide local counselling services, many of which take self-referrals. Otherwise through your GP.)

Metanoia Institute (Training organisation in Ealing W5)

Mind in Camden – Phoenix Wellbeing Service (Mental health charity in Camden Nw1)

Mind in Haringey (Mental health charity in Haringey N4)

Minster Centre (Training organisation in Queens Park NW6)

Psychosynthesis Trust (Training organisation near London Bridge SE)

Spiral (Holloway N7)

WPF (London Bridge SE1)(Fees not really low, but they have a range of types of therapy.)

BOROUGH SPECIFIC

Help Counselling (Kensington & Chelsea W11 – mainly for residents of K&C but not entirely)

Kentish Town Bereavement Service (Kentish Town NW5 – for residents of Camden, Islington, Westminster and the City of London only)

Mind in Islington (Several sites – short term therapy for Islington residents only. Longer-term work also available.)

Mind in Tower Hamlets and Newham (Tower Hamlets E3 – for residents of Tower Hamlets and Newham only)

Time to Talk (Hammersmith & Fulham; part of Mind – likely for Hammersmith & Fulham residents only)

West London Centre for Counselling (Hammersmith W6 – for residents of Hammersmith and Fulham only)

Wimbledon Guild (Wimbledon SW19 – for residents of Merton only)

BME/INTERCULTURAL

BAATN (Black, African and Asian Therapy Network) (Extensive list of free counselling services for BME clients – UK-wide with a good number in London)

Nafsiyat (Finsbury Park N4 – for residents of Islington, Enfield, Camden and Haringey only)

Waterloo Community Counselling (Waterloo SE1 – for residents of Lambeth and Southwark, and London-wide)

CANCER SUPPORT

Maggie’s (Hammersmith W6 – clients from all round London. Also other centres UK-wide.)

Dimbleby Cancer Care (Based at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals SE1 – patients from South East London and West Kent.)

HIV SUPPORT

Living Well (North Kensington W10 – clients from all round London)

River House (Hammersmith W6 – clients from Hammersmith & Fulham, Ealing, and Kensington & Chelsea only)

Terrence Higgins Trust (Online counselling; Also London and UK-wide in person services)

Metro (HIV prevention and support services in English, Spanish, Romanian, Polish and Portuguese – centres in Greenwich, Vauxhall, Gillingham and Essex)

LGBT

Spectrum Trans Counselling Service (Ladbroke Grove W10 –  free service for people who identify as trans, non-binary or are questioning their gender identity)

ELOP (Walthamstow E17 – clients from all round London)

Metro (Greenwich SE10, Vauxhall SE11, Rochester Kent ME1 – clients from all round London)

London Friend (Kings Cross N1 – clients from all round London)

Albany Trust (Balham SW17 – LGBT+ and anyone with sexual issues/difficulties)

OLDER PEOPLE

Age UK Camden (Camden WC1 – for those registered with a GP in Camden)

WOMEN

Women and health (Camden NW1 – residents of Camden only)

DRUGS & ALCOHOL

REST at Mind in Camden (Camden NW1 – support for people experiencing difficulties due to benzodiazepine dependency)


Bipolar disorder, race and mental health services, ableism and sex, and more…

Blue keyboard‘That orgasm problem’, zoophilia, sex positivity, the meaning of public relationship announcements…

Interesting things online, because they’re recent or because I think they deserve another outing.

PLEASE NOTE: As always, me linking to something doesn’t mean I endorse every word of it, or everything in the publication it came from. There may be obvious content warnings and some may be a bit unsafe for work.

MENTAL HEALTH

I’m a therapist and keep this poster in my waiting room, apparently it’s saved a few lives (9gag)
I’ve put this one up before elsewhere, but it’s so powerful I’m going to link to it again.

”A cry for help’ makes it sound like I’m supposed to take pity on you. But you don’t need my pity. This isn’t pathetic. This is the will to survive.’

Black and dangerous? Patient experiences of mental health services in London (Lacuna)

Long and very thorough investigation of the inequalities in mental health care in the UK, focusing on the black community, with a number of personal stories.

‘There are few mentions of race in the current government’s mental health strategy documents. Instead it has been submerged under the general heading ‘equalities’. Within the black community, there are wide variations of experience and concern including high rates of self-harm among Asian women and high occurrences of African Caribbean men sectioned by the police. Lumping all such variances together under the general heading ‘equalities’ increases the risk of mental health providers ignoring them. It is much cheaper to focus on meeting a general equalities duty, than commission work to investigate and improve services for specific groups. People are marginalised in different ways and each group, whether gender, class or race, needs tailored support.’

10 things you should never say to someone with bipolar disorder (Guardian)
Important list of unwelcome queries. I think every mental illness needs a list like this, and many of the questions could apply to other conditions. Actually, and physical illnesses too. And disabilities. And addictions. And being pregnant. And – it’s worth reflecting on why people feel a need to ask such personal questions of someone they have just met, about aspects of them that they have little or no control over.

‘Oh yeah, I’m a bit like that
I’ve had plenty of people say this to me after finding out that I have bipolar disorder. It’s meant kindly, as a means of finding common ground. Except often it comes across like Russia battering a flag into a bit of the Arctic she doesn’t own.’

RELATIONSHIPS / GENDER AND SEXUAL DIVERSITIES

Women and that ‘orgasm’ problem (Cyndi Darnell)

Great post by Cyndi Darnell that I put on my Facebook page, but I’ll link to it here because it makes such an important point. One day, we will find ways to have a less goal-driven approach to sex.

‘One thing I do know for sure is that when I ask women who don’t have orgasms why they want to, they very, very rarely if ever say it’s because they want pleasure. This may come as a surprise to many of you. Remember, I am in the very privileged position of hearing people’s deepest, most intimate erotic secrets day in and day out. For many women, genuine pleasure is rarely even on their radar. More than anything, their reasons are because they want to feel normal or because they feel they are missing out, or because everyone else is having them (apparently), or their partner expects it of them – all of which are answers motivated by fear and shame rather than pleasure.’

And here we are again, back at my post from the other day, about wanting to be normal.

Don’t be a sex-positive jerk (this ain’t livin)

Expecting everyone to be sexual and all in the same way can be very excluding and unhelpful. Coercive positivity is a theme I will be returning to more than once in this blog.

‘The brand of sex-positivity that continues to insist that sex is a unilateral good (except, of course, for rape), is not viewing the nuance and complexity of human sexuality, something rather surprising considering it comes from a movement that claims to be concerned with the rich array of, well, human sexuality.’ 

Getting laid isn’t the answer to ableism (Everyday Feminism)

Long first-person piece unpacking the infantilisation and presumed asexuality of disabled people.

‘Even sympathetic friends have repeatedly made it clear that how far I go in any relationship depends on the compassion and open-mindedness of the other person, as if my sexuality is grotesque to the point where only bleeding heart saints would dare tolerate it – and I would be forever indebted to them for doing so.’

What it’s like to date a horse (nymag)

Challenging and thought-provoking interview with a self-confessed zoophile about his life-long sexual relationships with horses. Many issues come up here, about consent, and about ownership. Many people actually think about human/human relationships the same way.

Did you date at all?
I did ask a girl to the prom. Now that I look back, I feel so sorry for her. We sat at the table and didn’t dance. I don’t even think we hugged. As much as I later experimented with people, I was always sure I wanted horses. It was never a case of “I’m just giving this a try to see if I would prefer humans.” ‘

Can You Tell That I’m in a Relationship? Attachment and Relationship Visibility on Facebook (Sage Journals)
Academic study looking at the way we portray our relationships online. One outcome is that the more insecure a person feels about their relationship, depending on their attachment style, the more likely they are to advertise the relationship publicly. Anecdotally, I can’t help noticing how quickly some people announce new relationships online, only to have them founder within weeks. In the old days, it used to be called ‘The Curse of Hello.‘ (Scroll down for the explanation, about the apparent jinx on celebrity couples appearing in Hello magazine. (Irish Independent))


Surviving the Festive Season Part One: What makes it so stressful?

tg-1-7This is the first in a series of posts about getting through the holiday period. Christmas is the festival I grew up with, and the one that is the hardest to miss in the UK as it approaches, but I think much of this could apply to any other celebration where people come together over a holiday period who might not normally spend time with each other.

Needless to say, if you totally and unequivocally love these festive times, and find my question above odd or incongruous, these posts may not be for you. But you may know someone who might find them useful.

So, why does the holiday season affect so many of us so badly? And why do we continue to let it?

Positives
There are lots of potentially enjoyable things about festival periods. I am pro end-of-year (or any other time) coming together in front of fires, candles, dancing and wearing sparkly clothing. I love sitting around, not working (if possible), eating piles of food, and going for walks. As long as I can choose exactly where I am and who I am with. (That last point is crucial.)

Negatives
Those are just the nice bits. The holiday season is also, at its worst, part of the Shopping Industrial Complex, with a hearty dollop of pseudo-religiosity, dubious cultural blackmail, and coercive encouragement to spend money. Many people I know start to express dread as autumn turns to winter. Sometimes they only express it privately because such ‘negativity’ may earn them a telling off from some of their friends.

So, in this piece I am trying to unpack what it is about Christmas and other holidays that makes them so challenging. For sure, every one of the challenges has an opposite number which, for balance, I will name here: happiness, excitement, thrilling anticipation, delight at old favourites being brought out, (whether tree decorations, films, or distant relatives you adore). The joy of giving. The joy of receiving. A wonderful religious (or secular) celebration. Snow (real or artificial). Singing. Community. Hearing about the wonderful time everyone else is having and being happy for them because you are happy too. The delight in sharing your own abundance. Feasting. Love. Family. Connection. But this isn’t why you’re reading this.

 

Nine ways the festive season can make us stressed (Really, more like 99.)

The lead-up

• The long, long lead-up that seems to get longer every year. Those first sleigh bells, those first red, green and white themed designs, the incongruous appearance of seasonal food displays among the discount picnic sets. These chirping canaries are almost impossible to avoid, even if you have no internet, TV or radio.
• Consequent expectations: of the world, of others, of yourself.
• The sense that you must hide any negative feelings about it all.

Money

• Holiday spending was never easy for many people. In the last few years, things have become catastrophic. The pressure to spend a lot, be seen to do so, and the accompanying pressure to receive as much as possible, can put intolerable pressure on people. ‘What did you get?’ is a heartsink of a question. Morale can drop further at its frequent follow-up: ‘I got so much stuff! I’m so blessed!’  (See also birthdays).
• If you have children there will be a lot of added pressure. Ditto, and doubled, if there is financial inequality in your family or peer group.

Relationships

• You may not wish to spend time with blood relatives or in laws who you find challenging or actively abusive.
• You may be struggling to deal with your own immediate family for the same reason.
• The pressure to be in a relationship with someone, anyone, to avoid the shame of singlehood, becomes paramount. Normative relationships are particularly pushed at this time of gift-giving.
• If you have children and have split from the person you were parenting with, you may have to do more stressful negotiation than usual about the time you all spend together.
• If you are single, you may feel obliged to perform acts of charity, such as volunteering, to compensate for your purportedly selfish lifestyle.
• You may have few personal relationships and feel increasingly isolated at this time.

Being geographically trapped

• One of the vagaries of living in the UK/London is that there is no public transport on Christmas day. It makes planning a real headache. Taxis are expensive. Railway companies often use holiday periods as a time to fix their networks as well. (I’m aware it’s a public holiday, but many people do work that day.)
• Situations that you can manage for two or three hours may swiftly become overwhelming if they involve staying the night or relying on the kindness/sobriety of others for a lift home.
• The same goes for people having an expectation of visiting you, in numbers or for lengths of time that are challenging.

Emotional triggers

• Memories of people who we have lost, and happier times long gone.
• Doubled if there is an anniversary of a loss around this time, or the loss is within the last year.
• Overwhelming proximity to people we find anything from challenging to actively abusive.
• Highly charged atmospheres.
• Loneliness.
• Feeling obliged to adopt feelings and behaviours that are alien to you.
• Other peoples’ well meaning but sometimes thoughtless exhortations to enjoy yourself.
• The assumption, often well meaning,  that you must be having a good time, and that you ‘must be’ in the company of large numbers of close friends and loving family.
• The pressure to be happy, measured against a seemingly arbitrary scale that it is almost impossible to achieve.
• Comparison with others’ lives and experiences.
• Noise, flashing lights.
• Lack of money / being conspicuously the one with the least.
• You may find the presence of children triggering. This may be because of your own childhood experiences, or you are having difficulty having children of your own.

 Old behaviours and patterns re-emerging

• Pleasing others.
• Denying your own needs.
• Falling back into emotional blackmail.
• Feeling obliged to pretend or put on a false persona.
• A sense of obligation leading to resentment.
• Buying others’ love, with material gifts, food, etc.
• Bullying.
• Anger.
• Depression.
• Excessive use of alcohol, drugs, or food.
• Exacerbation of existing mental health issues.

Religion

• If you are religious, you may be appalled at the hijacking and/or commercialisation of a very significant time in the calendar.
• If you are not, you may feel that religion is being forced upon you.
• You may attend religious events only at this time of year, and may or may not feel like a hypocrite.

Alcohol and other intoxicants

• Intoxication makes everything seem bigger and louder. This can go both ways.
• Intoxication may lead to verbal and physical fights and abuse.
• It may also lead to no-going-back ‘truth-telling’. This may have a cathartic outcome, or create long rifts.
• It may encourage sexual behaviour beyond our normal boundaries, or non-consensual activity.
• Not consuming intoxicants may cause you to be singled out, whatever your reasons.
• (Paradoxically, intoxication can get us through difficult days and for some, may be the only thing that does.)

The internet

• Wanting to stay in contact with your online communities but without witnessing what might at another time be called ‘showing off’, ie the endless performative sharing of others’ bounty, whether involving holidays, gifts given and received, partners, children etc.

If you’re reading this, nodding, and shouting HELP, one thing’s for sure: you’re not alone. I suspect more people experience elements of the above than don’t. People seem to be very good at pressuring ourselves in to doing things we have never truly consented to.

My next post in the series will offer some strategies for making things go easier, faster, or quieter.

  • If you’d like to find out more about how I work, and what I specialise in, please go here.
  • If you’d like to read more of my published work, please go here.

CBT ‘a scam’, the joy of polyamory, parental estrangement, terrible sex ed…

keyboard close-up‘Are you a pervert?’, invisible disability, trans* history and politics, sex work and the modern slavery bill…

A regular roundup of links to things I’ve found interesting, either because they’re very recent, or because I think they deserve another outing.

Please note: me linking to something doesn’t mean I endorse every word in the the article or anything else carried on that particular website. Some of these articles carry an obvious content warning, and some, depending on their subject matter, may be very slightly unsafe for work.

 

MENTAL HEALTH

The Debt – When terrible, abusive parents come crawling back, what do their grown children owe them? (Slate)
Long, excellent article about people debating whether to resume contact with the parents who harmed them.

‘Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.’

Lauren Laverne – It’s Time to Make Emotional Abuse a Crime (Guardian)
I think it’s important to keep saying this, whether individuals or charities. But I’m curious about the way language is used when applied to children. Children are ‘bullied’ at school, but this word is often not used when this occurs in families at home. Similarly, the word ‘abuse’ is rarely used in a school context. Sometimes is not quite joining up for me here.

‘What I remember most about emotional abuse is that it’s like being put in a box. […] So you try to make yourself fit. You curl up, become smaller, quieter, remove the excessive, offensive parts of your personality – you begin to notice lots of these. You eliminate people and interests, change your behaviour. But still the box gets smaller. You think it’s your fault. The terrible, unforgivable too-muchness of you is to blame. You don’t realise that the box is shrinking, or who is making it smaller. You don’t yet understand that you will never, ever be tiny enough to fit…’

Am I obligated to disclose my invisible disability? (xojane)
Invisible illness/disability comes up a lot in conversation, particularly around mental health as well as physical.

‘Frequently, when people who know about my accident ask me if it hurts still, I deflect or spew platitudes and just say, “Oh, you know.” I don’t say that physical discomfort has been a near constant companion.’

Oliver James declared Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to be a ‘scam and a waste of money.’ (Daily Mail)
This started a long discussion online, with most having the view that CBT is very useful for specific things, but less effective where there are deeper problems that need longer work and a fuller therapeutic relationship. There’s a general sense of too much money being funnelled for far too long into this very specific way of working. One size doesn’t fit all. I’m curious that this story has not been carried anywhere else. I’ve put it here as a discussion point, and I’m interested as to whether there will be more on this.

 

RELATIONSHIPS / GENDER AND SEXUAL DIVERSITY

The Joy of Polyamory (Archer)
Long and fulsome article by Anne Hunter. One of the big contrasts I notice between monogamy and polyamory is the issue of terminology. It feels to me as if many people in monogamous situations that are not working for them are caught in structures that they would change if only there were a name for what they are looking for.

‘Many of my relationships don’t have a simple label available to them. For example, I have some beloved intimates with whom I will jump into bed, naked, and talk about absolutely anything. The relationship is way past what most people think of as a friend – there’s no sex, so it’s not a lover; we don’t make life decisions together, so it’s not a partner. There is no term that accurately describes our connection.’ 

‘Are you a pervert?’  (Vice)
This is actually a serious and quite important piece by Martin Robbins outlining the double standards around what are still, in some quarters, known as ‘paraphilias.’

‘The thing is, pretty much every type of sexual desire can cause distress or harm to others, regardless of the kinkiness involved. Why fixate on kink? How can you even determine what is normal or paraphilic in the first place? […] Are the people who are trying to express their sexuality really mentally ill, or is the real sickness in the repressed culture that’s so terrified of them?’

The ‘dispute’ between radical feminism and trans people (New Statesman)
Long and important piece by Juliet Jacques in the New Statesman. It’s also an excellent history, both public and personal.

‘In a world where left-wing politics have often derided LGBT identities as ‘bourgeois’ and then accused us of splitting the movement, it infuriates me that I’ve had to take a break from writing a piece on the Tories’ ‘liberation’ of the NHS to write 8,500 words to debunk a sexological concept that was shown to be untenable before the start of the First World War.’

Yesterday (Nov 20) was also International Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Listen to sex workers – we can explain what decriminalisation would mean (Guardian)
After intense campaigning, an amendment to the modern slavery bill was dropped, which would have brought in the Swedish model of criminalising clients.

‘Mactaggart’s justification for attacking “demand” (clients) is that “prostitution is an extreme form of exploitation”. But exploitation is rife in many industries, including the agricultural, domestic and service industries, particularly at a time of increasing poverty, decreasing wages and insecure employment, and no one suggests that domestic work or fruit-picking should be banned.’ 

Sex education in schools: it’s just bananas (Guardian)
Eye popping Guardian piece about the state of Sex Ed in schools. I’m putting this here because this lamentable situation affects us all, whoever we are. The way we are introduced to sex can reverberate throughout our whole lives.


What’s ‘normal’?

Beach seen through windowI wrote an article in The Lancet Psychiatry, on ‘Wanting To Be Normal’. I chose a subject very close to my heart. It seems to have rung quite a lot of bells with people. See what you think.

I have heard this desire expressed a large number of times, inside and outside my work. As a client in therapy I have also said it myself. The sense of being different from others has a multitude of meanings which are not always obvious.

Language
As a therapist and author, I always try to think before using the word ‘normal’ in any context. ‘Ordinary’ is often better. ‘Regular’ or ‘average’ might do, with care. ‘Unusual’ is usually better than ‘abnormal’. Any suggestion of ‘abnormality’ at worst equates to being diseased, a freak, other, or fodder for essentialists who ‘always knew’ there was something wrong with us, whether or not they can immediately locate a visible minority to park us in. This kind of othering can start in our homes as children. It can move through teenage years and into adulthood. It can seem as if these feelings will never go away.

‘Normality’ in love and at work
There are many unexpected ways the drive to ‘normality’ can emerge in adult life. This piece, ‘Don’t Do What You Love’ is a good example of how it’s very easy to persuade yourself to do the same thing over and over at work, even if it’s not working out for you, because at some point surely you’ll be accepted and everything will be fine. In relationships, despite the sheer volume of material on the internet, it is possible to feel incredibly isolated if we can’t immediately find someone who understands us. Dr Meg John Barker, author of Rewriting the Rules, has written at length about how to stop trying to be normal in sex and relationships, without giving yourself a hard time about it.

Appearing to be ‘normal’ carries a number of privileges. Here’s a satirical view of the kink of ‘normaling’, the sexual cousin of normcore.

Depression
I think ‘wanting to be normal’ is a primary cause of depression, as well as a symptom of it. The picture below, that I took in Cornwall a few years ago, sums up what I’m talking about. The ‘normal people’ are over there outside, having fun in the light, with nature, being ‘natural’. The person who considers themselves ‘abnormal’ sits in the dark, held back by a very specific view of what normal appears to be. I debated whether to put this here because the heavy blackness makes this image quite hard to look at. For me, though, it sums up what I am trying to say, and what I have heard from others.


Welcome to London Central Counselling

Welcome to my new counselling and psychotherapy blog.

If you’ve suddenly found yourself on this page and are wondering what it’s all about, I’m Tania Glyde, author turned counsellor/psychotherapist in private practice in Central London.

There are so many interesting things going on in the world and it all moves so fast. I’m going to share articles I’ve written, thoughts on therapy, and other material that might be useful or interesting. I’ll also be putting up links relating to mental health and gender/sexual diversity. I’ll be focusing partly on articles that have come out in the last week, and partly on older stuff that I think deserves another outing because I found it so helpful. (Needless to say, me linking to something doesn’t mean I endorse or agree with every word of it, but I and my colleagues might have found it a fruitful talking point.)

If you’re brand new to therapy, here’s my guide to having counselling and what to expect. If you’d like to read more, Sense About Sex has a detailed section about getting help. I’ll also be addressing some issues that come up a lot, and making suggestions about how to make the festive season go as well as it can, whether you’re participating or trying to avoid it.

Thanks for reading.