Going No Contact – when you’ve estranged from family during the festive season

For many people, the idea of voluntarily cutting off contact from a family member is unimaginable – especially during the holidays.

In this way of thinking, blood ties are immutable and sacred, so making such a decision at this time of year feels doubly taboo. No matter how toxic the home environment, there is pressure to remain in it because ‘it’s family’.

I once wrote a proposal for a non-fiction book about people who estrange from their parents. It was going to have interviews, case histories, advice and self help. I pitched it to several agents – and received bemusement and confusion in response. One sent me a very strongly worded letter telling me that, as a parent herself, she was horrified and could not think why anyone would want to read such a book. (She actually rang me up the next morning to apologise – the subject had clearly affected her very deeply.)

I experienced similar elsewhere. Another agent said that it might help the book if I spent some time with ‘the perfect family’. Apparently, if only the misguided folks I wanted to write about could see that no family is perfect, everything would miraculously be okay again. I had a very strong sense of othering – that this topic really should not be aired publicly and was best quietly put away.

An increasing reality for many

In fact, as I have noted before on this blog, you only have to read the comments below a problem page about going no contact from family to know that there are a number of people who actively want to do this or – especially heartbreaking from older commenters – wish they had but felt it was too late.

While writing this, I felt an increasing sense of taboo, and a strong temptation not to continue. Generally when I feel this, I know something needs to be spoken aloud.

I also found this post getting longer and longer, so now’s the time to make a cup of tea.

Standalone charity survey of estranged adults

The charity Standalone, set up several years ago to offer support to adults who are estranged from their families, in 2015 published a report Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood. Carried out in collaboration with the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge, Hidden Voices is a survey of the estrangement experiences of just over 800 people. Three things stand out from the results:

  1. Emotional abuse, clashes of personality and mismatched expectations were particularly common reasons for going no contact.
  2. Most of those who were estranged from a parent felt strongly that they could never have a functional relationship again.
  3. 90 percent of respondents found the Christmas period ‘challenging’.

Standalone have published their own very thorough festive survival guide which is available here. For more on how to stand back and figure out Christmas the way you want it, try Rewriting the rules of the festive season.

You’ve gone no contact – what now?

What if it’s your first holiday period since the estrangement started? The particular pressures during this time (I’ve written more about this here) mean that you may need to do some extra self care.

Deciding to go no contact is never taken lightly, and may only happen after years of putting up with, but the decision itself can be made in an instant. And now it’s the holidays, and unless you live without an internet connection at all, you will be in some way exposed to advertising that encourages you to connect with people at all cost, especially ‘loved ones’ which generally, in media-speak, means blood family.

The social nature of holiday periods means that unless you spend time in communities who are sensitive to this, you may well have to give an account of yourself. There are a number of issues to reflect on:

Who to tell? Are you prepared for when someone offers you the usual invitation to join them for the festivities, or expects you to offer yours? Are you prepared for the response, and sides being taken?

How to tell them? Are you telling people in person, or by some other means which allows for more distance? (Bearing in mind your own safety when doing so.) Are you taking people aside individually, or contacting them as a group?

How will you deal with questions from others about where/how you are spending the holidays? If a friend has taken you in for the holidays, you may find their relatives (if they have a more traditional mindset) genuinely curious as to why you are there: ‘Why aren’t you with your own family?’ Do you have a story prepared which, while not factually true, may be enough to get you through the day? Do you feel safe enough testify and tell your truth, no matter what the response? I’ve written more here about strategies for getting through this time.

If you are alone, have you got a plan for the day itself? Solo Christmas day can be wonderful if that is what you want. If you’re not sure about that, see who you can round up to share the day with you. Or make plans for the day before and the day after. It’s amazing how many people you will find in a similar situation.

The period after going no contact can be heady, as if a cork has popped, but there can also be a hangover, an exhaustion that may lead to self-questioning and wondering if you did the right thing.

There are a number of stories you might be telling yourself:

‘Should I have waited a bit longer? This time of year is supposed to be about love and closeness, isn’t it?’

Such is the frog-in-a-pot nature of harmful family relationships, it’s far easier to put up with another year of difficult interactions than rock the boat. Perhaps you are wavering about things you have said, and wondering if it would be better if you just shut up and let everything go back to normal for a while. There are many ways to defer a decision like this, all of which can be made to sound entirely legitimate. Maybe you’ve been wondering whether it would be better to apologise to everyone and wait until:

  • After the summer / new year
  • After term starts / ends
  • After you’ve lost weight / given up smoking / had surgery
  • After you’ve moved house
  • After you’ve been in the new job for a while / left the old one
  • After you’ve paid off your debts
  • After the kids (if you have them) are older
  • You’re single / you’re in a stable relationship

A million time markers – like Christmas – can be enlisted in the cause of preventing us being true to ourselves.

‘But family’s family. Am I a terrible person?’

We are socially conditioned to put up with behaviours from blood relations that we would rarely tolerate in friends, colleagues, or partners.

You may be telling yourself that whatever happened wasn’t really that bad, and maybe you should just step back into line and apologise to everyone and let things go back to how they were. In all the cultural fog around this, it is easy to forget to give yourself permission not to live under conditions where you are not treated as an equal.

You may have spoken your intentions out loud, or written an email or letter. You might have ghosted (disappeared without warning), which some find to be an immature and selfish way to behave. ‘Can’t you just talk about it?’ they say. Which is, on the surface, a fair question. But if ‘just talking about it’ actually fixed these sorts of situations, they would not happen in the first place. There is a world of communication beyond talking. And all too often equal communication was never part of the relationship’s culture in the first place. With blood family, the problems are far older and run far deeper.

A large proportion of people who answered the Standalone survey were women who were estranged from mothers. These two posts offer validating thoughts on this: 13 Things No Estranged Child needs to hear on Mother’s Day / Navigating “No-Contact”: When Estrangement from Your Mother is the Healthiest Choice

‘What about the children?’

This is a good question. If you have young children and are estranging from your own parent/s, it’s important to ask yourself about the impact this will have on them, particularly during the holidays. What are you going to tell them? Do they need to be kept away from their grandparents for their own safety? In the future your child may wish to exercise a choice over whether they see that person. Obvious abuse aside, do you want to deprive them of a grandparent? And you may find yourself doing a balancing act – the more you paint the person as a monster, the more curious your children may become. And obvious family secrets can put heat into a situation which can be carried down through generations.

‘Shouldn’t I have been able to sort this out when I was a teenager?’

It might be helpful to think about this in terms of the Attachment Escalator. I find this analogy incredibly useful. (See more on the Relationship Escalator, and the Sex Escalator on this blog.) It’s a really effective way to critique the supposed gold standard of sex and relationships that causes people to put such pressure on themselves – and each other – in the name of socially sanctioned relating.

So we are put on this attachment escalator when we are born and it becomes our default forward movement with those closest to us. For some, this works out fine. But for others this escalator is poorly constructed and frequently malfunctions. Instead of making changes, or even abandoning it, we instead find ourselves staying on it, blaming ourselves for what just keeps on not working, even if we find the situation intolerable, because it is easier to just let ourselves be carried forwards. The longer we stay on it, the more habituated we become to being undermined, bullied, manipulated or threatened (as, of course, can anyone who is the perpetrator of those things). Eventually this will impact your other relationships and ultimately your enjoyment of life.

But not everyone, for a million reasons, finds themselves able to separate from family when young. It can take years, and sometimes years of therapy, to make the necessary connections, and feel ready to do so. So please don’t blame yourself for not having fixed everything before.

If you’re a young person or student: Standalone has a student section. Queen Mary University of London has a useful support guide hereAlbert Kennedy Trust works with homeless LGBT+ youth in the UK. Your Holiday Mom offers online support to LGBT+ youth during the holidays.

‘I’m getting away from a narcissist, so it’s okay isn’t it?’

There is an increasing number of sites devoted to narcissists, or ‘narcs’. Lots of people have apparently become experts at clinical diagnosis and are eager to provide checklists of things to watch out for. I am also wondering about all the personal experiences that get dumped into this category, and about the nature of all the people who are labelled narcissistic.

As a therapist I feel torn here. On one hand, ‘narcissist’ has become a buzzword, a catch-all for anyone who seems to be a bit selfish and self-obsessed. There is a lot of quite objectifying advice on how to spot them, and I wonder how many people suffering from depression or anxiety or another mental illness may have been labelled this way after a difficult interaction.

On the other hand, certain patterns start to emerge in accounts of others’ behaviour, especially lack of empathy and apparently conscience-free cruelty. The Reddit Raised by Narcissists has many powerful stories, as does the Mumsnet Stately Homes thread, and a number of problem page articles at the Guardian.

So I would say that you could see the person you have estranged from as a narcissist if it helps you validate your experience. My concern comes when people feel a need to diagnose the person who was abusive to them. Turning detective can sometimes be a way to rationalise someone’s treatment of you. What if you discover they were abused? Does this make their abuse of you less significant? Sometimes it can help, but sometimes you may gaslight yourself to the point of retreating into self-blame and inaction.

Finding your family of choice

I have noticed an increase in people talking about their Chosen Family, whatever their identity and even if their relationship with blood family is okay. (I have written more about creating Chosen Family here.) Queer communities in particular have a strong tradition of creating safe groups when society and/or family have failed. Many people eventually find themselves creating a parallel existence away from family of origin, even if they eventually remain in touch. Now may be your chance to surround yourself with people who want the best for you.

Seeing a therapist may be helpful. Choose carefully – this subject can stir up even an experienced practitioner (this story contains an example), so it’s important you feel able to ask the right questions at the start.

If this is your first holiday season having gone no contact, I applaud your courage and wish you the best at what may be a challenging time.

If you would like to talk further about what’s going on for you, please contact me here.

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Chosen Family – 10 pitfalls to be aware of when creating one of your own

Autumn leaves arranged on a windowsillAn increasing number of people refer to their  ‘Chosen Family’. These are the close people we’ve gathered around us who we are not related to by blood or by law.

While anyone might create such a group while having a perfectly OK relationship with their Family of Origin, Chosen Family is often about putting distance between yourself and your Family of Origin as the only way to stay sane or safe. For this reason, it is often used in a queer context. 

Whether you are escaping violence, prejudice, sexual abuse, bullying or neglect, you may put a lot of time and energy into gathering specific people around you.

Essentially, Chosen Family is a group of people who you believe will treat you as an equal, who you might rely on in a crisis, and who you hope will stay close to you, even when one of you has a major life change.

This applies on a societal level as well as a personal one – if you are queer, gender non-conforming, kinky or non-monogamous, for example, mainstream society likely sees your relationships as less valid than those enjoyed by the majority. So it makes sense to band together and create something that works for you.

Created over years

I’m aware that my talking about ‘creating a family’ might imply that this is something done quite rapidly, like picking sports teams at school. ‘I’ll take this one and that one… oh and they look nice, but not that one…’ To be clear, we make these choices over years, during which time the desire to bond and create connection with others may override the quieter messages we may be getting that something is not quite working.

Added to this is the fact that we may replicate behaviours that were modelled to us from a very young age. We may, in our eagerness to create the perfect safe zone, forget that it takes two people to form a friendship, and more than two to form a group. We may forget that consent and boundaries here need to be negotiated, as much as in any sexual scenario, and assume unspoken agreements.

Below is a range of issues you may come across when navigating chosen family:

(1) Letting shiny new people in much too quickly

As a young person you may have been told you had to ‘take what you’re given and be grateful’. So it can feel very exciting, even intoxicating, to realise that you have choices – particularly if this realisation has come to you later in life. 

At the same time, it can also feel quite isolating and frightening to reflect on your own situation when ‘everyone’ around you appears to have so much support from blood relatives, partners and an array of incredible people they seem to have known for years. (Social media really doesn’t help here.) 

So when you meet a new person and things seem to click, the temptation can be to grab them and not let go. ‘This person is fun and we have lots in common and we’ve talked so much already – this must mean we’re destined to be really close!’ And there may be a sense of relief that counteracts the feelings of isolation, and you may stop monitoring the situation because at last you’re home safe.

But having some things in common does not mean everything will match up. NRE  (New Relationship Energy) is a phrase usually used to describe the intense feelings at the start of a romantic relationship, but it also serves to describe feelings at the start of any new association. It’s okay to enjoy this feeling – but it’s also good to wait until it dies down and re-evaluate whether this exciting new friend is right for you as a long-term close person. And it’s worth reflecting before jumping in and sharing your deepest darkest self.

(2) Ignoring warning signs

I have long found it to be the case that when you look back after any kind of breakup, you realise you actually saw the seeds of it very early on. It was likely a tiny thing the person said or did, which you ignored because it seemed too minor to be worth saying anything about. And who wants to look mean-spirited or critical with the shiny new person?

It’s those little moments when the Lovely New (or not so new) Friend suddenly looks at you and says something that is – apparently – totally out of character. Or sends a message that makes you go ‘WTF?!’ Something a little bit tactless, jarring or controlling that is out of your comfort zone but you don’t have a rudder to navigate it – and you don’t want to scare them away by questioning them on it. It’s that that feeling where your stomach drops into your shoes and you can’t quite believe what you just heard – so you discount it. 

Don’t ignore these little messages. They are tiny tells and they are important. For an exploration of the more extreme aspects of this, read Gavin de Becker’s excellent The Gift Of Fear.

(3) Getting sucked into other people’s stuff

When other people are friendly to you and invite you into their group, you may quickly lose a sense of yourself, particularly if you were excluded or othered as a child. If you aren’t used to it, it can feel amazing to be included in a ready made group whose members appear to be welcoming you and inviting you to things. Be aware of your feelings around this. You may feel excess gratitude for this inclusion that may eclipse other more realistic – and accurate – feelings.

Reflect on who is really in control in this new group – the person/couple at the centre may not have your best interests at heart once the fun dies down. Are you there to prop up their glory? Are they really trying to recruit you to go to their workshops or parties? Are there lifestyle issues, like drugs or alcohol, where you are not on the same page? Are you being increasingly weighed down by a lot of gossip and expected to take sides?

You might want to ask yourself why you want to come in at the edges of someone else’s group rather than starting with yourself and people you yourself have chosen.

(4) Trying so hard to be acceptable that you hide the real you

If your Family of Origin message was that you are unacceptable in some way, you may attempt to hide aspects of yourself from new people, in case they find you similarly unacceptable. The trouble is, the Real You is going to leak out somewhere. If you sense that your outrageous true self is disapproved of in your chosen group, wonder about it. What exactly is it that you are needing to conceal from your chosen people? Are you actually avoiding the fact that, while they may be lovely, they may just not quite be the right people for you?  

(5) Doing the opposite of whatever people did at home

Remember – your Family of Origin is the first group you know. This may be hard to hear, but it will inevitably influence how you respond to your role in the groups you create or join as you go through life. 

This feels unfair, but until we have sufficiently understood our own dynamics and patterns, we may continue to replicate the harmful structures we are trying to get away from. Simply doing the opposite of whatever a parent did is reactive and may cause harm. If, for example, you vow never to shout at anyone the way you were shouted at, you may go too far the other way and become a quiet doormat who never gets their needs met.

(6) Sacrificing yourself for the sake of the friendship or group

Something’s not working but you’re not going to say anything in case the whole thing falls apart. It’s cold when the fire goes out and you know how that feels. It’s horrible and you’ll do anything not to feel that again. Similarly, when you feel that if you don’t do it, it won’t get done – such as organising meetups, for example. If you couldn’t rely on your childhood family for the reinforcement and validation you needed, you may understandably find yourself seeking this in others, and this is where problems can arise.

One good way to check the temperature of things is to stop initiating. If you are always the one who suggests meeting up, just stop doing it and see how long it takes for others to realise. It can provide a harsh but fruitful lesson. It doesn’t mean the friendship is over – but it means you likely need to state your needs and decide how much more to invest in this person or group. 

(7) Your priorities clashing with the priorities of others

This is where you need to decide how aligned you need to be with your chosen family. About having or not having kids. And about politics. Being of a different political persuasion can be exhausting, no matter how much you feel you can put these things to the side. Endlessly explaining things, or being hooked into debate, is not sustainable.

You may find that some people prioritise romantic partners over friendships, putting you further down a hierarchy than you realised you were. (You may not have realised you were in one.) You may also be sad when you have a child and so few of your Chosen Family are still around a year later. 

(8) Feeling as if you matter less than others

This is hard because there may be so many echoes from childhood here – some of them are your mind playing tricks on you, and some are real. 

Example: when your Friend X mentions their other Friend Y a lot, who perhaps lives abroad and you have never met, and keeps on going on about how amazing this person is. Months or years pass, and you are finally introduced to Friend Y.  You greet them with enthusiasm – ‘I’ve heard so much about you!’ – and they look a bit embarrassed and say ‘Oh, um, what did you say your name was? Oh, I don’t think they’ve ever mentioned you.’ This hurts, but is worth knowing.

And sometimes people really love you but cannot prioritise you for a huge and complex number of reasons.

(9)  Guilting yourself into not acting on your feelings

You may have found yourself staying in friendships that are not working any more out of fear. One sure way of telling this is if you find yourself wondering what on earth your life would be like if this person wasn’t in it. If it seems unimaginable, it’s worth wondering why you have come to rely on this person (or group) for so much, even when they are making you unhappy.

You may have been told as a child that you were not allowed to have feelings, or you were ‘mean’ or even ‘selfish’ when you said you didn’t like someone or didn’t want to do something. Perhaps you were told you were inherently defective or just ‘bad’. As a result, you may have found yourself letting others take advantage of you because you just don’t think you have the right to refuse, and you must continually atone for your ‘badness’ by letting people push you around. Needless to say, you are doing all the work here, and this is not healthy.

If it’s not working – it’s not working.

You cannot make something work if it isn’t. You can try, but at some point you will need to find a way to go your separate ways. The relief you feel when this association is broken will be tremendous and tangible.

(10) Not being able to discuss the difficulties in a friendship – or end it

So much public advice is about romantic relationships: getting together and breaking up. We are not encouraged to have much emotional literacy about that, and with friendships even less. Are you able to sit one of your Chosen Family down and explain how things are not working out between you? Do you fear their anger? (Perhaps like that of a parent?) Can you find a way to hold a course with them, or is it time to move on? 

Dealing with ending friendships is a whole post in itself. And while not everyone is into Relationship Anarchy, disrupting the presumed hierarchies among friends, romantic partners, (and bio family too), by treating them all with more equality is something many could benefit from.

 

If any of what you have read feels familiar and challenging and you would like to talk about it in therapy, please contact me here.

Further reading:


Gender and Sexuality CPD trainings coming up in January 2017 – Cambridge and Edinburgh

Need some CPD?  Would you like to to update your skills and knowledge?

In 2017, as part of London Sex and Relationships Therapy, I am offering trainings on Gender and Sexuality in the therapy room, and other related subjects.

In January I will be in Cambridge and Edinburgh, facilitating:

Gender and Sexual Diversity in the Therapy Room

Drawing on the book Sexuality and gender for mental health professionals: A practical guide (Richards & Barker, 2013), this training provides a basic outline of good practice when working with issues of gender and sexuality. Attendees will be encouraged to reflect upon their own ideas and assumptions about gender and sexuality, and those implicit in their therapeutic approaches. We will consider various ways of understanding sexuality and gender, and their implications for therapy across client groups. Specifically we will focus on the issues which can be faced by those who fit into normative genders, sexualities and relationship structures, as well as for those who are positioned outside the norm.

If you would like to attend, please follow the links below for bookings:

Relate Cambridge – Saturday 14th January 2017 (10-4pm)

Information about this training and about Relate

Relationships Scotland – Saturday 28th January 2017 (10-4pm)

Information about this training and about Relationships Scotland

If you would like further training

If you are looking for training on this subject or something related, please contact me and either I or one of my colleagues will come back to you.


Am I kinky? And is this a problem?

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-10-07-38Due to media stereotyping, unhelpful labelling with words like ‘paraphilia’ and ‘perversion’, and the assumption of mental illness or pathology – if you identify as kinky (or feel you may be) you sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with you.

You may have felt unable to share your feelings with anyone else. And you may also have avoided going to therapy, even for something entirely unrelated to your identity or lifestyle, because you fear either being treated as ‘sick’, or having to spend many hours justifying yourself.

For a start, kinky does not equal bad or weird

For some people, being drawn to BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) dates from their oldest waking thought or memory. Others discover it later in life. We live in a time when what you might call identity essentialism (‘If you weren’t born this way it’s fake’) is being questioned. Identities and orientations can evolve over time:

  • For example, from a young age you might have found yourself wishing to be restrained, or were aroused by certain scenes on television or in books, or took a specific dominant or submissive role during play with others. You may have put these thoughts and feelings away for years.
  • Or perhaps, as you grew up, you never felt right doing what everyone else seemed to be doing sexually, but weren’t sure how to articulate it, and just carried on doing things that didn’t really do much for you. Or stepped away from intimacy altogether. 
  • Or later in life you felt exciting changes coming on and, like Alice down the rabbit hole, you tumbled into a whole new world that you never wanted to come back from.

Secondly, it’s far more common than you think

And, even more importantly, studies (see the links at the end of the article) suggest that the kink identity correlates with a number of positive attributes.

A spectrum rather than a binary

I find it preferable to open up the definition rather than narrow it. Do you find greater release in giving or receiving extreme sensation? Do you experience something deeper when you give yourself over to another person, or take power over them? Do these experiences make you feel more fully you?

There are an almost infinite number of ways to express your kink

You do not have to join a particular community, or love leather or rubber, or spend your evenings in underground play spaces. For some it may be about handcuffs and a blindfold, for others total enclosure, for others extreme sensation. For others it could have nothing to do with physical sensations and everything to do with psychology. It could be about taking control, or giving up control, with no pain or restraint at all. 

For one person, it may be spending thousands on rubber clothing and dungeon furniture. For another, a simple phrase sent in a text message and a 24/7 household setup that others would have to guess at. It might involve going out to events, like clubs or munches, with others who share the same interests. For some people, no act, however apparently extreme, counts as kinky unless there is an exchange of power. 

It could be mild and playful, or it could be extreme and unusual, or combinations of all the above.

Does it have to be ‘all about sex’?

For some kink is inextricably linked with genital sex. Other people very clearly separate the two, and others are fluid in their approach. So however you feel, however you see yourself, there is no ‘one true way’.

Our society has a very poor record on acceptance of sexual diversity and many remain closeted just to feel safe

Perhaps you feel shame when reflecting on your fantasies or activities, and have never told anyone about them. You may also be struggling because:

  • What you like may have a more extreme taboo edge or safety element to it.
  • You may fear that you might hurt someone non-consensually.
  • You are happy for it to remain in fantasy, but want to be sure you are okay.
  • You have been paying for kink services and are wondering if this is okay.
  • You fear you are doing it too much, or thinking about it too much, and need reassurance that you are sane and not an ‘addict’.

If any of this troubles you, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist

Psychotherapy can help you look at the emotions underlying your current situation, and help you with any difficult feelings you may be experiencing.

It’s worth choosing carefully, however. There has been a tendency in traditional therapeutic schools of thought that any activity that is not 100% heterosexual, monogamous or vanilla (ie non-kinky) must stem from a pathology, or possible early-years damage. I have gone further into the problems with this viewpoint in a piece for Lancet Psychiatry: BDSM, Psychotherapy’s Grey Area.

I never discount the idea that this could for some people be the case, that a response to a past difficulty has evolved into a kink or fetish. And people do sometimes eroticise past experiences. But past experience may have meaning here or it may not. Be very wary if someone wishes to turn detective and start ‘uprooting’ your kink or trying to convert you.

You are not sick – you may just need to be heard. Rest assured you are not alone.

Where to find a kink friendly therapist

Further reading and research

On the subject of orientation and identity, there is an interesting discussion around this post by Clarisse Thorn: BDSM As A Sexual Orientation, and Complications of the Orientation Model

These two studies may also be of interest:


Sex work and the transactional nature of human relationships

Sonnenschirm_rot_redNew essay in Lancet Psychiatry

My latest piece is called Sex work – society’s transactional blind spot.

In the article I explore the transactional nature of human relationships and how we are encouraged to bargain with others, from a very young age, for social and emotional survival. I have focused on sex work because it is a significant cultural issue that polarises opinion and inspires much clichéd and harmful representation in art and media.

Sex workers also report poor experiences in therapy and within the mental health system as a whole.

The opinions and experience of those who actually do it are often ignored or marginalised

Even if you cannot imagine doing sex work yourself, or think you don’t know anyone who does it, it’s worth reflecting on it as an issue of labour rights, self-determination and consent.

Political support for change

Just after the piece was published, the UK Home Affairs Select Committee declared in a report that there was a very strong case for decriminalisation. Amnesty International reached a similar conclusion in 2015 which has now become policy. This move has also been supported by the Lancet.

If you are affected by any of the issues here and would like to explore them further in therapy, please get in touch.

[The image above is by Usien and can be found at commons.wikimedia.org]


When the world has changed forever – self care in a collective crisis

Stages_of_GriefNever the same again

So you’ve woken up and everything’s different. What you thought was true is not true any more. There are many others who feel the same as you – and no one has a clue what to do about it.

Since the results of the UK referendum nearly two weeks ago, a lot of people have reported experiencing distress and confusion on a scale bigger and grander than they have felt before. Some mention 9/11 as having a similar effect, but for many nothing has been even remotely similar.

‘Hold on, this wasn’t a terrorist attack. It was a vote. A VOTE!’

The referendum occurred in the shadow of the murder of MP Jo Cox and the mass murder of young queer people of colour in Orlando, Florida. And the repercussions of the vote started immediately. Within hours of the result, people perceived as ‘foreign’ were being told to ‘go home’, and sometimes physically attacked. People are fearing a return of fascism.

(It’s fair to say that social conservatism, or out and out bigotry, rarely confines itself to one group. So where you see racism or xenophobia, you will eventually find sexism, homophobia, transphobia and many other forms of discrimination.)

Markets are wavering. Employers and investors are changing their behaviour. Funds are being withdrawn or frozen. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to continue living where they may have lived for years or even decades. And people are wondering what on earth this country has got itself into.

This post is inspired by the current situation, but it could apply equally to any overwhelming piece of news or large scale change of circumstances that is shared by many. This post does not address one particular group of people, as the situation is complex (for example: many Remain voters are upset, but so are many Leave voters who wished they had made another choice), but looks at what you might be feeling and how to manage it.

Hanging on to hope

I’ve noticed a lot of hope being expressed in the form of detailed and well-argued constitutional arguments against what has happened and how the decision can be reversed. Some call this denial, a form of post-bereavement bargaining. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes these are interpreted as a simple linear process, but of course it is far more complex than that. The cartoon above has done the rounds a number of times online. (When I find who did it, I will attribute it.) Grief lurches from rage to fear to blankness and back again, sometimes in the space of a day – or an hour.

I am simultaneously reminded of Camus’s La Peste, (and I hope I have remembered this correctly), where the stressed population of the plague-ridden town of Oran actually feel relief when they see symptoms appear on the victim’s bodies, because it at least means they are fighting the disease.

Many people feel drained, exhausted and panicky

Many versions of democracy have been invoked as reasons to re-vote, or not re-vote. There is a sense of enormous unease. There is also no sign of the uncertainty being put right anytime soon. It is suspected that some, in a drive for power, will eventually capitalise on this waiting game.

The ongoing decline of the collective mental health 

This is a very frightening time for many people, many of whom were already affected by austerity. Current government policy has affected collective wellbeing to the extent that the UN has commented on it. Many people live in a state of barely changing anxiety over housing, health, benefits, and job security, let alone mental health services themselves which are in a state of crisis.

(If you are in London, here is a list of low or no-cost therapy services.)

When you are chronically stressed, you don’t recover well from shocks. If you are already running on empty and ‘just coping’, one more insult to your wellbeing and it could all go over. Small setbacks become large ones, and large ones become disasters. Because your resources are so depleted, you are unlikely to have recovered from one difficulty before the next one hits, so most of the time you are effectively recovering from two things at once, then three, then more.

So how can you feel more in control?

Human beings are incredibly resourceful. This means that you are too.

(1) Turn off the news

You have the right not to look at the news. It is unlikely to help your wellbeing in this moment. News can be addictive. Switching it off is often suggested as an immediate mood lifter if you are depressed.

(2) Reshape your social media

This is harder than turning off the TV or radio because your friends are very likely on there and you may want to reach out to them. But do you have a friend who is posting a lot of angry stuff, even if you agree with it? Do you need to see this? It’s okay to unfollow them for a while.

You may have a friend who is delighted by whatever has happened or is minimising it. If they are gloating and it causes you distress, it may be time to reconsider the friendship, or at least remove them for a while. Feel free to lighten the load. One thing about crisis times is that they can force your hand in terms of what, or who, you can tolerate. Never feel guilty about this.

(3) Don’t feel obliged to debate with anyone

Do you actually want to have debates with the people closest to you? So much of what is called ‘debate’ is really no such thing and advances nothing but the person with the loudest voice.

I am hearing about families being split over what’s happened. Your gentle blackout doesn’t have to be a violent rejection, but you are not under any obligation to argue with anyone. But while you can remove people from social media, you cannot escape a family dinner table so easily. A polite refusal to discuss things  may be enough. If things reach a point where you are actively unsafe, you are within your rights to leave or take evasive action. Parts of my seasonal survival guide may be helpful here.

(4) Look for the helpers

The American children’s TV presenter Mister Rogers was known for quoting his mother on how to deal with something frightening in the news: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ Someone will be looking out for others, trying to clear up the mess, and finding ways to make life better again.

(5) Action now

In times of distress – I am talking about personal issues, drama, a frightening communication, crisis – one way of feeling more in control is to do something, anything that gets you better informed and helps you feel in control and that you can make choices.

This is all very well, but this is a time of total uncertainty. There is no information because the situation is in a state of flux. Many are offering answers, but few understand and fewer believe them. So what action can you take? You could attend meetings, marches, or join a political party. If public engagement does not suit you, you could read as much as you can to feel more in control, or talk to as many people as possible about what has happened to find out what they are doing.

(6) Be mindful of your own safety

You may be inspired to go out and intervene in racist or xenophobic incidents, or rescue others from aggressors. Always be mindful of your own safety. Don’t let yourself be goaded to heroics by those with greater resources than you – particularly if they are doing it from the safety of a Facebook page.

If someone has suggested that you or your friend ‘go home’ – if you are up to physical intervention, or even just socratic dialogue (where you pretend to be ignorant in order to bring out someone else’s ignorance), you still need to know your own limitations. You may be outnumbered without realising.

The current political situation has empowered a sense of entitlement to question another’s right to exist, and that is experienced as a deep and powerful weapon. Record and report what you see if you can do so safely. Gather supporters – but remember the instructions about oxygen masks on a plane. Put yours on first.

(7) Reach out

One of the greatest things about social media is that when we are in trouble, the oddest range of people reach out to us, from close friends to people who live thousands of miles away and who we may never meet in person. Tell friends how you feel. ‘Can we go for a picnic, for tea, the pub, or my house, or your house?’ Ask a group at once so you can all feel held, and so that one person won’t feel pressured or obliged when they themselves may be out of energy.

If you live with several people, or meet up with a group regularly, think about how you could bring the group closer together. Can you meet once a week to share your feelings, perhaps before breakfast or in the evening? This is a way of bringing people together. Some people cannot bear the idea of small group sharing, but it can be highly beneficial. Can you find a venue once a week, or at someone’s home? Many people have vulnerabilities that they find hard to share in a casual way.

However, reflect on whether your concern is more about you than the the other person. You may have a friend who you perceive to be in more danger of public abuse than you. Be mindful that not everyone wants to focus on this. Not everyone wants to be receive your fear and sometimes these approaches can be more about you than the person you are approaching, however much you care about them.

(8) Reach out to those who are less able to

Someone who is feeling distressed and whose mental health may have got worse at the current time, or someone whose disability or health situation prevents them from going out, may need your support. Can you give them some time just to listen to them? And without him offering to fix them, unless you have resources that would  genuinely help.

If someone has become incapacitated through distress, can you help them out by bringing food around, or doing some some cleaning?

(9) Try to make sense of fear – your own and other people’s

Fear underpins many toxic decisions and behaviours. Fear can be hard to spot because it is so quickly replaced by something else. Fear is a bit like syphilis: it mimics, very convincingly, other states of mind and behaviours – rage, bullying, scorn, contempt, condescension, and physical aggression –and hides behind them.

You might want to talk to people with different view to yours. It may help you understand their choices better and they yours.

If you have kids, now may be the time to try and explain why people turn against each other for no apparent logical reason.

(10) Be mindful of self-harm

You might be drinking more, doing more drugs, smoking more, overeating, spending money. These all have short term benefits, and are a perfectly rational response to stress – but they may cause damage in the long term. In a time of trouble, remember that it’s best to be at your most alert, and to conserve resources where possible.

(11) Accept your own anger

If you consider yourself to be a liberal, or were schooled in not over-expressing yourself publicly, you may be surprised by the helpless, murderous rage you experience about the behaviour of politicians and media/business leaders, and the impact it is having on your life. It is okay to feel this. You may well find that many others feel the same.

(12) Remember what you have

Is there a unit of time in which you can consider yourself to be okay? In which you have a roof over your head, food tonight, work, or someone to talk to at least? Is it a month, a week, a day, an hour? Can you at least exist minute by minute if nothing greater feels possible?

Now is the time to look at what you do have, (even if you have no spare money, you may have social capital), and what you have through your communities. If there are situations (or people) in your life who make you unhappy and you have any power over removing yourself from them, now may be the time to start looking at this. If you don’t feel sufficiently connected to other people, and you would feel safer and more held if you were, now is the time to take steps to change that.

I hope this piece is helpful in some way. If I’ve missed anything important, please tell me. If you are struggling with any of the issues I’ve discussed here and would like to talk further, you can contact me here.

[Re the image above: when I find out who originally created this cartoon, I will attribute them.]


Infidelity – deception is even more exciting than sex

beach 3Cheating – why do people do it?

Actually, perhaps the word ‘cheating’ sounds a little bit old fashioned, so let me put it another way: Why do people go behind the back of a negotiated relationship? Even if the relationship involves multiple partners and freedom to explore sexually?

And why do people do this even when the secret sex isn’t that good – and even when there may be no sex going on at all?

As a relationship therapist, I reflect often about what makes people seek something beyond the current boundary of their romantic partnership(s).

A popular subject for study

There are many theories about nonconsensual non-monogamy. This 2010 paper, Infidelity – When, Where Why? is a thorough roundup of a number of studies on the subject, covering everything from improving the gene pool; poaching a ‘better’ partner; unhappiness in the current pairing, whether due to insufficient sex, care or support; attachment style; boredom; dissatisfaction; and entitlement. There are also a large number of self-help books that attempt to address the issue.

This piece covers one aspect that has been on my mind for a while.

I suspect that, for many people, the urge to secrecy is even stronger than the sexual drive

This may not sound very logical on the surface. We are all supposed to be obsessed with sex, worrying about it all the time, chewing over about who is ‘getting’ more than we are. We spend loads of money on our appearances and fall easily into what I call ‘sex toy capitalism’, the endlessly evolving supply of slightly variant and increasingly expensive tools, of somewhat varying efficacy, which are sold as ways to enhance sexual pleasure. (This mirrors the encyclopaedic numbers of barely distinguishable (or pointlessly athletic) positions used to fluff out magazine articles, eg ‘The Wheelbarrow.’)

Sex is supposed to be the most important thing ever. Only money has more significance in terms of taking our attention and symbolising our social success to others.

So who would care about secrecy?

Ok, think about all the times you have been lied to. Well, there will have been so many of them that you won’t be able to. And then think about all the times you have lied to someone else. Much of the time people claim to hate the idea of lying, (and children are frequently warned against it) but when someone comes along and states the truth to you very brutally, you may well wish the untruths had continued.

So most of us have a shifting wall of defence available to us at the drop of a hat, when social needs arise. How many times have you told a person you were fine when you were not? Secrecy, of which this relatively innocuous exchange is an aspect, protects us from others and protects others from our real selves.

The excitement of a double life

It is very easy to fall into ways of living that do not feel fulfilling or exciting. We can easily forget the importance of excitement and fulfilment when we only have one life to live and we have been told over and over that we must live it in a certain way – through getting a job and a mortgage, and being married to one person, and having children. We may have had very good reasons for doing these things, and they can be very fulfilling in themselves. But perhaps we gradually stop testing ourselves, stretching our capabilities, until we have no idea what we are capable of. In that light, secret sex is a very quick way to reassert a lost, and intoxicating, sense of risk. And our suddenly dull-seeming partner, still stuck in their pyjamas, is unaware of our adventures, and momentarily we become more alive.

Secrecy is power

Secrecy is also control. Doing a thing that another person doesn’t know you’re doing gives you space. It gives you a chance at another identity, even for a few brief hours. It gives you space where you are less known and fewer assumptions can be made about you.

Secrecy is a form of individuation

If we are in any way unsure about who we are, no amount of sex will give us a solid sense of ourselves as individuals. If we find the presence of others encroaching despite our urge to bond with another; if being very close to another person risks us being truly known by them, we may seek to find outlets where we feel we can breathe, away from the main figure in our lives. Lies are like oxygen when the space you occupy with another person is overwhelming.

Response to a parent?

I could take this further and say it is an intrusive parent that we escape from when we do something secretively behind a partner’s back. An intimate partner can become an all-seeing eye – our instinctive response is to rebel.

Secrecy – not all bad

A person may have good reasons to have secret sex – perhaps they are caring for a partner who is incapacitated. They are not going to abandon them, but would like a sexual outlet.

I float this idea as a way of interpreting something I see very often. It is, of course, open to discussion. If anything in this post is relevant to what’s going on in your life and you would like to explore it, please contact me.


Trying to fix your relationship ? Change does not have to equal loss

Flames

As a therapist working with couples, one of the most persistent issues I see is fear of change.

However challenging things have become for both partners, and however untenable the relationship in its current form, people have an incredibly strong urge to cling to what they know, because the alternative terrifies them.

The will to hold on sometimes feels even stronger than the will to actually fix the relationship and make both partners happy.

I’m repeatedly astounded by people’s drive to remain connected in the way they always have, as if any form of adaptation will destroy everything that came before and erase all the happy memories.

People will stay together even when there is ongoing anxiety, constant sparking off each other, endless transferences and overreactions, and frequently calling the other out over tones of voice, events from the past and other points of conflict, and when sex has been adversely affected or become non-existent.

In other words, constant stress. And yet when I suggest a gentle reframe, and paint a picture of what the relationship might look like if they pushed the structure around a bit, there is panic. Because for so many of us, change automatically equals loss. Even just the thought of adapting to new conditions can put someone into a grief process.

Pre-mourning

You could call this sadness ‘pre-mourning.’ And I well know myself that it’s very hard to accept that change might actually make things better – enabling both parties to preserve the connection and eventually re-create happiness.

Fear of failure

It’s the same mindset that calls the ending of a relationship a ‘failure’. By this standard, all relationships that end have by definition automatically failed. (I wonder what kind of ending would not count as a failure – both partners actually dying?)

I have written before about the cultural primacy of a very particular kind of coupling, and the idea that to be a fully actualised person you must have been publicly chosen by another, and this must be seen to be the case in your family and community. To tell others that your coupling is in fact not working the way the world expects it to is a source of shame. You feel that you will be pitied or laughed at, and are left wondering if people said ‘How long do you give this one then?’ when you first got together.

There are more options than you think

The normative view of relationships that they are both binary and linear. If they are not one thing they must be another, and that they must follow a certain direction and ascent or they are not valid, or just weird. If you are in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, for example, you will find little public support for alternative ways of being together, except what creates lurid headlines: ‘We tried swinging and have never looked back!’

In fact, there are many ways that a relationship can be reframed or rebuilt, but these options are rarely spoken about as viable options. Like so much in society, if you aren’t doing it in a very specific way, there is something wrong, something lesser, about your choices. Needless to say, this is rubbish, but can be very hard to get past without support, whether therapeutic or from your community.

Some ways to reframe a relationship that is struggling

In the early days of relationship conflict, you may well have worked on behaviour and communication skills. Here I am talking about further down the line.

(1) Decide to live apart, if you cohabit. (Needless to say, the more financially you are tied together, the more this will affect your decision-making. But the decision to live together in the first place should not be undertaken lightly, and ideally never for purely financial reasons. If you have children, the issues are multiplied.)

(2) See each other less often but perhaps for longer each time, or varying contact.

(3) See each other less often full stop.

(4) Figure out the sex, if it was part of your relationship previously. (If it’s gone, can it be rekindled? Do you want/need it to be? You need to be realistic about the consequences when you both assert your needs around it.)

(5) Have some time apart with a timescale on it. (This one scares people a lot as there is a lot of conventional wisdom that says ‘break=ending’. Sometimes it does – but you can only find out by trying.)

(6) Open up the relationship up to other people. (This one scares people even more, often with good reason, and it should not be undertaken without a lot of negotiation and research. There has to be mutual consent.)

Love – or helpless attachment?

The tie that binds here is a thread of what is called love, but may be more akin to helpless attachment. I cannot say for sure what is love or what is not, but if the pain and fear are outweighing the good times, you may be closer to the other.

What if it’s really broken?

It hurts when it’s broken. So the feeling of acceptance is often welcome. I am divided over whether true acceptance can really be worked on, or whether you can only invite it in, to appear when you are ready.

If you’re experiencing difficulties in a relationship and would like to explore things with a therapist, you can contact me here.


Are you stuck on the Sex Escalator?

tg-1-27Today I’m talking about the repetitive sexual conveyer belt that we can find ourselves on if we pay too much attention to cultural influences and not enough to our own needs.

I’m calling it the Sex Escalator because you can sit on it and it will take you somewhere that feels vaguely elevated over and over again – and you need not think about it, ever.

Remember the ‘Relationship Escalator’?

You may well have heard of the ‘relationship escalator’, an idea that originated in non-monogamy research circles and promoted in excellent article about polyamory that I have linked to before. It’s about how relationships are culturally encouraged to follow a tried and tested formula – essentially meeting, dating, becoming a (preferably heterosexual) couple, becoming exclusive and monogamous, moving in together, getting married, buying property and having children.

This model suits many people for many reasons – but it also has a purpose, namely to uphold social cohesion and provide a foundation for a very specific way of having a family. It does not deserve to be rejected outright, but it does deserve examination because many people fall into it before realising it is not what they want or need at all. And this is when relationships can become damaging.

As with relationships, so with sex

Discussing this with friends and colleagues (and working in communities where we talk about these issues a lot), even highly creative sexual adventurers will admit to having sat on the escalator at some point in life. The process goes something like this:

  1. Kissing
  2. Manual stimulation
  3. Oral sex 
  4. Penetration (preferably PIV)
  5. Peak genital orgasm
  6. The End (someone falls asleep)

People base entire marriages around this paradigm. Any deviations from this become treats, exceptions or outliers, or simply never thought of.

And of course, parts of this sequence may be missing altogether because they were never there in the first place.

This is not to judge anyone or criticise this as a way of having a good time together. Over time you may have discovered the most efficient way to orgasm with one person – and after all it’s pleasure and connection you’re after. You may be frequently tired and you may be busy and you may have family to take care of.

The problems start when you’re increasingly unhappy – but you’re not doing anything about it.

Communication as taboo

The problems start when communication ends. For many people, unaccustomed to stating even the simplest needs, useful communication will stop as soon as mutual liking is discovered. For many people this may even come as a relief. In the UK we have a popular trope of two people getting drunk together on a date, waking up in a relationship, and then being delighted that it need never be mentioned again, perhaps for several years.

As with emotions, so with sex.

A package deal of conditioned behaviours and expectations

On the Sex Escalator:

  • Anything else doesn’t really count as sex, or is weird.
  • It’s vital to have a goal, and that goal is ‘full sex’ because the rest is just ‘foreplay’.
  • If you miss out the genital penetration, the sex is incomplete and has failed.
  • If the escalator doesn’t arouse you that much, you should keep quiet about it so as not to create disruption.
  • If the escalator doesn’t arouse you that much, you may need to seek outside help, because the problem is your fault.
  • If the escalator doesn’t arouse your partner that much, you should tell them to seek help, because the problem is their fault.
  • Obviously the penis owner will have an orgasm, because they definitely enjoy penetration. (Go here for a longer discussion on why a number of people actually aren’t into penis-in-vagina sex. Go here for a rather more brutal takedown of this sexual trope from a feminist perspective.)
  • The vagina owner really ought to have an orgasm because otherwise they must be dysfunctional and the penis owner won’t like them any more due to their imperfect functioning. 
  • You dare not discuss any of this with your partner in case they are offended or think you are about to criticise them.
  • Deviating from this pattern in any way is terribly adventurous and needs masses of preparation and expense.

I would like to think that the generations that have grown up with the internet will have found a better way, but looking at what young people seem to be learning, I am not so sure. And although this feels like a strictly heterosexual/cis model, any pairing of genders and sexualities could technically enact this. 

I also have a suspicion that this conveniently boxed scenario keeps people more heterosexually confined than they would ideally wish to be.

If the Sex Escalator isn’t working for you

If you keep on ending up having sex like this, and you’re not enjoying it, or you feel that there’s something missing – ask yourself some questions. If you have a partner, ask each other some questions.

  • Am I or my partner truly consenting to any of this?
  • Have we actually ever discussed it?
  • Do either of us really want it?

And if you’ve said to yourself and/or each other: ‘Well, this is okay enough, and if we don’t do these things it doesn’t feel like we’ve actually had sex – ‘

STOP!

If you want something different, here are some things to remind yourself about:

  • Sex does not need either a goal or a destination.

  • Genital sensation does not need to have primacy.

  • Specific activities do not have to have primacy over others.

  • There are no rules about which parts of the body should be included or left out.

  • Orgasms are nice but they are not obligatory.

  • Communicating your needs is vital. 

  • Focusing on breathing can add a whole layer of experience.
  • There is a whole world of sensation waiting for you in many areas of your body that you may not have considered.

  • Have you talked about your fantasies? Have you even thought about them?

What if you went right back to the start and asked yourself – or asked each other – what do I/we really want?

Am I overstating this? Judging by the responses I encounter when someone (or two people in a relationship) realises there is another world of sexual connection out there I am, if anything, understating it.

In a future post I’ll go into more detail about ways to expand your sexual experience.

If you’re concerned about anything I’ve raised in this post and would like to explore this aspect of your life in more detail, you can contact me here.


Bisexual life – hiding in plain sight?

2000px-Bi_flag.svg

Pink Therapy conference 2016

Last Saturday I spent the day with colleagues at Pink Therapy‘s annual conference for therapists. This year’s theme was Beyond Gay and Straight

‘There are gay bars and straight bars, but where are the bi bars?’

Someone made this point during the plenary session. Erasure is something bi people experience on a regular basis. I’ve been told more than once that the word ‘bisexual’ is a bit of an audience killer and best left off publicity materials. This is sadly unsurprising.

Bisexuality and mental health

Dr Meg John Barker reminded us that not enough studies have been done specifically around bisexuality, but what there is – sometimes the B element has to be squeezed out of the side of a larger piece of research – is unequivocal. A bisexual person is likely have worse mental health than someone who is either gay or straight. An aside from another discussion, a good proportion of people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (who are, incidentally, mostly likely to be women) also identify as bisexual. (For more research and information, see BiUK.)

Prejudice from all sides

Bisexual people experience discrimination from both straight and gay communities. Bi people are seen as fence sitters, greedy, manipulative, unstable, sex-obsessed, and indecisive, perpetually on the way from one place to another but never getting there. Women only ‘do it’ to tease or please men. It is seen as marginally more acceptable to be a bi woman than a bi man, however – bi men are either ‘gay, straight or lying.’ A bi person must experience an exactly balanced 50/50 attraction to men and women (never mind other genders), or they are fakes and must be straight. Sometimes therapists (and partners) offer to convert them, or tell them that their issues will be resolved when they ‘pick a side’.

Charles Neal, author of The Marrying Kind, talked about the lives of gay and bi men married to women, the ‘mixed-orientation marriage,’ and the misery experienced by people stifling their identities in order to remain in a socially acceptable unit. ‘Experience before identity’ was his message – but even nowadays, if you don’t identify sufficiently with one tribe over another, you may feel left out in the cold. (See also How To Support Your Bisexual Husband, Wife, Partner)

Born this way?

Current activism tends to promote sexual and gender identities as self-defined, but it wasn’t so long ago that you had to be ‘born this way’ in certain queer scenes, (and adopt one of a specific set of appearances) or you were seen as a ‘tourist’. You were ‘bi-try’ (for bi or bi-curious women entering lesbian environments) or a ‘stray’ (for bi or bi-curious men entering gay ones). And, on arriving at an event, there was that look from the door person that said ‘Your hair goes past your shoulders – are you here to write an article about us?’

Binary versus fluidity

These attitudes remind us how the desire for a binary universe is so pervasive. If you are not one thing you must be another, because of course there are only two things to be. The idea that a person’s desires may shift and evolve over time seems entirely absent. To be fair, if you have fought for years for your singular identity, you may well feel threatened by any kind of flexibility around this, but this feels increasingly out of step with younger people, for whom fluidity of identity feels as if it’s becoming the norm.

It all sounds very like the dismissive way some old-school kinksters speak of switches, ie people who are comfortable occupying both sub/bottom and dom/top roles, or have a different role depending on the gender of their play partner. And, for that matter, people who cannot accept non-binary gender identities. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a high proportion of bisexuality in trans communities. DK Green spoke in detail about both topics. Validation from partners is essential: ‘Does your partner see you as you see yourself?’ (Trans Media Watch has a good resources page.)

Caution around labels

A therapist simply being affirmative may in fact be damaging when a client holds multiple identities, and this can apply particularly if they are intersex. And in a flurry of anti-religionism (for sure understandable given the damage that religion has done to people with minority identities), you may trample over the fact that a queer person is religious and gains comfort from it.

Multiple intersections – multiplied difficulties

Ronete Cohen spoke about the intersection of bisexuality and race, where a bisexual person of colour can be marginalised and objectified in a number of communities simultaneously. Microaggressions are multiplied, and there is far less social support and consequently worse mental health outcomes. She gave the example of a bi person of colour asking for help dealing with stress, and being told to go to yoga. There are a number of reasons why this was inappropriate – western yoga is generally white, middle class, often expensive, promotes a particular body type, and contains potential inherent cultural appropriation.

Elsewhere during the day, someone gave another example of a therapist trying, unsuccessfully, to take mindfulness into communities of colour, having not thought through the missionary implications of this. A therapist may have training around gender, sexual and relationship diversities, but they may not have any cultural competence training around race. (See Bis of Colour for more information and support.)

Queering relationships

From the other sessions I attended:

Niki D talked about biphobia in relationships, and the difficulties of being a bisexual person in a relationship with someone who is monosexual.

Meg John Barker, using their excellent zine ‘What Does A Queer Relationship Look Like?‘ talked about queer relationships, and the fact that a high proportion of bisexuals are also non-monogamous. (The ‘Normativity Castle’ is especially pertinent here.)

Amanda Middleton presented on queer identities and offered a breakdown of Queer Theory. She outlined the slippery and paradoxical implications of queer – (for example, if a queer person experiences microaggressions, it can mean they are doing queerness well) – and the fact that identity will inevitably change over space and time.

It’s an exciting time for Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversities therapy

Thanks to Dominic Davies and the Pink Therapy team once more for a great day and an excellent learning and networking opportunity. There’s a lot of work to do – especially around training – but this community is growing.

For videos of the main talks, go here.

Contact

If any of the issues in this post are affecting you and you would like to talk further to someone, you can contact me here.


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, but those practitioners don’t do genital touch. 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? The incredibly long-running ‘Stately homes’ thread on Mumsnet, for survivors of dysfunctional families, is a good place to start. 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 London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard (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. Broken Rainbow 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.

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 Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or another 12 step meeting. You will find community there and a great variety of human experience. There are a few events in the AA calendar over Christmas Day (London and midlands) and new year itself. There may well be others.

• 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.