There is something that I have been noticing for a while now, in every part of my life.
Over the last three years, our capacity to honour working arrangements, connections, friendships, and even simple responses has often become severely impaired. Of course, I include myself in this.
So how have we come to this normalisation of burnout? Behaving as if those around us are disposable, and it is simply too much effort to put ourselves in others’ shoes and understand the consequences of our actions, because we are just too zoned out.
We were already overloaded
Looking back to long before the pandemic, many of us were already at the limits of our capacity to endure stress. This might be due to a minority or global majority identity, past trauma, juggling survival (perhaps with disabilities, housing issues, chronic health issues, and/or chronic financial stress), and the sheer exhaustion of living in a society that is, increasingly, trying to kill us. Then there was and is climate change and the rise of fascism.
Even if we had ‘enough’ resources for the day or week or month, or even the year, and were in good health, the spectre of that changing was ever present.
When you’re already on the edge, small setbacks feel like big ones, and big ones feel like catastrophes. If you haven’t had time to recover from one thing, and another one happens, you are dealing with more than one layer of response, and these layers can quickly pile up. This over time is likely to reduce your capacity for empathy and your energy to receive others’ bids for attention or help, let alone your capacity to respond to them.
The impact of sudden change
We have all had different responses to the pandemic. But one thing is true, that we all had to adapt to Covid-19 very quickly. Over time, we realised our resources were shrinking : social, personal, and financial. While time seemed to stretch, and some felt persistently hopeful that we were almost out of the woods (we aren’t, still), many people found themselves with less energy. Many people stepped away from relating because it just took too much personal resource.
Remember the frenetic activity of those suddenly finding themselves at home all days? Creating mockups of famous paintings using saucepans and pet cats, learning Italian, and baking sourdough. Those whose labour keeps society propped up were neglected, while being expected to keep turning up for work, or they would lose everything.
The pandemic itself
If you have Long Covid, (or greatly fear getting it for all sorts of valid reasons) you will have been navigating that on top of the huge society wide denial by many governments that the pandemic is still happening. A very redundant form of individualism has been normalised and encouraged, as if to check whether others are okay – family wide, community wide, or country wide – is seen as laughable. An infantile notion of ‘freedom’ has been invoked, freedom from ‘lockdown’ which sounds carceral and something to be rebelled against, instead of a way to keep us all safe.
People as a whole have been encouraged since the start not to take the pandemic seriously. So many aren’t wearing masks now, or acknowledging the decreased capacities, and increased access needs, of a significant minority of people. I am sad to see this even in queer/left community.I wrote more about this here.
This is a trauma response
Before you think I am condemning all humans, it is very clear that this negligent apathy is also a trauma response. Many people have been struggling to connect the way they did before. They may have felt abandoned by close people, friends, partners, and the social system they exist in. They may have experienced multple bereavements, both due to Covid-19, waiting lists, or inadequate medical care due to a deliberately depleted NHS. They may have hated working from home, or been laid off work, or lost their business. They may have been evicted by a rogue landlord.
Life has changed, and this is the new normal, but many people still feel that we can get ‘back to normal’ with no consequence. I find this somewhat delusional – but I am well aware sometimes our delusions and denials are all we have in order to remain upright.
Traumatic dissociation is a major driver of what I am talking about in this post. Dissociation is a very valid survival response and most of us fall into it at some time or another. It may for example be masking a flight response, or a freeze, or any other response to overwhelm.
And what is hard to talk about here is that trauma can make us self-absorbed, selfish and worse. Trauma isn’t pretty. The fight response often isn’t, and the fawn safety response (tend and befriend, caretaking, or appeasing) tries to be pretty, but often can only be sustained on the surface. I’ve even noticed a hierarchy of trauma responses – basically fawn is the most acceptable, and fight the least – which deserves unpacking in another post.
How do we reframe our existence, heal, and reconnect?
I wish I had an immediate answer to this.
I admit that I have been shocked to the core by the behaviours and attitudes of people that I thought I knew. And I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve been baffled at being ignored, over and over, when attempting to maintain a collaboration. Again, I know I’m not alone. Endless one-sided initiation feels like a mug’s game, and trust seems in short supply now.
One thing this society does is divide and rule. The more we fight each other, the more we remain divided. I also know that it is not that simple, and in many cases of discrimination there definitely aren’t two equal sides.
I hear people in certain circles criticising individualism and insist on community all the way, especially in terms of transforming society from the extractive to the supportive. Which is fine, but many of us have not been trained in how to be in community, and we have no experience of how to do it at all, let alone well. And when we do try, very often abusers (emotional, financial, or sexual) find their way into positions of power. It happens over and over again.
There is a lot of work to do here, and a lot of healing and reconfiguring. And we have to start somewhere. As in therapy, sometimes all we can do to begin is make the unconscious concious, by naming what is going on and keep it from falling below the surface again.
You wouldn’t think that cooking was a challenging topic, especially at this time of year! *sardonic laughter*
As you read this, you might be recovering from holiday cooking. If this is a huge pleasure for you, (and someone else did the clearing up), I’m glad. But I know this is not the case for everyone.
Actually, the more I’ve reflected on our personal relationship to food and cooking, the more I feel an edge of shame and stigma – and a sense of authoritarianism – around the subject. I have known people who would be horrified by the idea of eating, and offering, anything but fresh ingredients cooked from scratch. If you are one of them, you may find something to think about here.
There’s a gigantic post to be written about food, who has enough of it, who doesn’t, food quality, economic power, the carbon cost of moving it around, labour (everything from who harvests and processes food to who prepares it and who consumes it), and what is called privilege but is also known as relative (or actual) structural advantage. This is not that post.
Here I’m looking at the personal experience of getting and preparing food, and why many more people than you think find it a giant chore and actively stressful on an ongoing basis.
Anything on this list may be further impacted by holiday periods (like right now), when eating/hospitality rituals are at their most significant.
This list is not exhaustive or exclusive
This post was greatly helped by a long discussion thread which ran to over 100 posts and was clearly bringing a lot up for people.
Please note: None of these headings are exclusive – what I have written in some of them of course can apply to others. It’s a rough and ready roundup and for sure I will have missed something.
Not everyone loves to cook
There, I said it.
Not everyone is able to cook
… for themselves or others, for all sorts of reasons.
(TL;DR: Shame features a lot here.)
(1) General food shaming and snobbery
The media is full of images of perfect looking food and recipes. Not all are super posh and expensive and presented by thin white people, and many writers go out of their way to present cheap and easy recipes. But it can seem like we’re never doing enough to make this somewhat mythical-looking proper healthy food. Many of us are too busy or too tired, whether from work or from life, or too skint to think about it.
If this topic is making you uncomfortable – (think of all those politicians saying that they could make Christmas dinner out of three chickpeas and an apple, and why didn’t all these feckless people on low incomes just learn to cook properly?) – it’s worth wondering why. Many people regularly order takeaway or eat microwave or freezer meals or eat food from tins, for many of the reasons you will read in the list below. Yes, you can critique the nutrition in some of it, and the relative expense of takeaways, for sure.
But this is far from being a lazy option, because remember the systemically abusive productivity ethic that sits behind the word lazy.
(2) You never learned to cook and you’re ashamed about it
There are many possible reasons you never learned to cook much. Only a tiny proportion of people never learned because their family was well off enough to employ a full time chef. It’s more likely that your caregiver/s weren’t into it or had no time for it. Perhaps they were out working and/or socialising all the time and you had to make do with what was in the cupboard. Or there was no money for fresh foods that needed to be prepared. If your family was hungry and skint it is unlikely that they were making elaborate things that take ages. Quick, tasty and filling are the most important factors, via takeaway or microwave.
If your childhood was like this you may have mixed feelings about it. If there was trauma attached to it (see below), the kitchen may just seem like a no-go area.
(3) Preparing and sharing food was a fundamental expectation from your earliest days
You may have grown up in a family/culture where cooking for others was an axiomatic part of existence. It is what you did, and to not do this would have been a source of great shame. Being a poor host would be unthinkable. If you were assigned female at birth (see below), you may have been drafted in to help your mother and other relatives prepare large meals. You learned a lot and quickly because there was no choice. Of course that didn’t mean you automatically enjoyed it, and if this is the case, your lack of enthusiasm may cause you to feel as if you are betraying your roots and culture. You may then force yourself to perform ‘Good host and amazing cook’ when you are not feeling it.
Your childhood may have left you with great cooking skills, and the capacity to please others with them – but if food was used as a substitute for love in your family, and not acknowledged as such, control and emotional blackmail may have been in the frame.
(4) Lack of money
It is getting harder and harder to survive in this country if you are on a low income or benefits. We have been at ‘heating or eating’ for a long time now. And heating bills are going up and up. Making sure you have enough for both you and your children or dependants is becoming a normal aspect of daily life for an increasing number of people. Having to be creative, not about flavours or colours or sheer fun, but about whatever you can find that will keep you going for a few hours, is not a joyous experience. If you are struggling to feed yourself or others, you are eventually liable to be traumatised (see below), also from chronic shame, which no one should ever underestimate. You may enjoy dumpster diving, but equally you may not be able to do it or have the energy or time for it.
You might be visiting food banks, unless shame has prevented you and you are waiting for true rock bottom before you go there. Often we think we are waiting for rock bottom when in fact we are already there.
(5) Gender essentialism
If you were assigned female at birth it is more likely, the world over, that you will be expected to cook for others as a matter of course. And to put others’ needs before yours. I don’t need to put an essay here about the implications of this for human relations everywhere, and the assumptions that ride on it. You may have grown up in a family where everyone sat around doing their thing while your mother cooked meals for everyone. Snacks and cups of tea may have mystically appeared by your side at random times and this was Just The Order of Things. If this was modelled to you when you were young, whatever gender you are, if may be harder to shake off than you think. ‘Bad homemaker!’ ‘Bad woman!’ ‘Bad human!’
Tradition can create self-induced pressures: ‘My mother always did it this way!’ You may find yourself experiencing resentment, whether you act on it or not.
(6) Cooking for family
I’ve heard plenty of folks say they loved cooking until they had to cook for their children, however much they love them, and as the years passed their love for preparing food eventually just evaporated. Bring on the freezer meals! Sometimes the mainstream media gets on a high horse about this, even today.
If being a really good cook was part of your identity before having family, you may need some time to adjust.
(7) Eating disorders
You may have had, or currently have, an eating disorder. So preparing food is going to affect you in a number of possible ways. You may have been keeping this a secret from most or all of the people you know. You can just about deal with putting something together for yourself (if you live alone), but when others are around it’s a whole different matter. Even thinking about food may bring a lot of difficult feelings that you would rather keep away from others.
(8) Allergies and intolerances
There is increasing awareness of food allergies and intolerances, which themselves may be increasing. They may cause minor/temporary but life impacting discomfort; cause illness and periods of incapacity; or be actively life threatening. There are many risks in not preparing your own food. If you can get hold of foods that are safe you should be okay to cook. But you will likely need to cook from scratch if you have, for example, a nut allergy or if you are coeliac. (See also having the spare time and money to obtain these foods). If you have Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, you may become increasingly vigilant about new reactions to foods.
Other autoimmune conditions may make cooking complex, so someone might use meal replacement shakes so they know exactly what they are consuming.
(9) Weight shaming
If you live in a larger body, you may have experienced fat shaming from childhood, (and certainly as a adult), as everyone around you pathologised you. Every bite you eat may bring feelings of trauma and stigma. Plus, experiencing other peoples’ judgemental hypervigilance in the guise of caring, as well as medical gaslighting, will also cause harm.
Also, if you wish to lose weight whatever your size, cooking for others may become incredibly stressful. You may feel shame at what your body looks like and what you perceive it to look like; shame at having succumbed to diet culture or having dieted unsuccessfully; and feeling as if you have let everyone down by wanting to lose weight, particularly if you have friends in larger bodies than you. It’s a minefield of shame, whose layers are numerous. None of this will make cooking enjoyable.
(10) Disabilities, physical and mental
Cooking from scratch may be physically tiring for you, or impossible to carry out without help. You may have ME/CFS or Long Covid and have experienced gaslighting around those conditions, and therefore not tell anyone about them. Preparing food may exhaust you for many reasons, but you may not have your access needs fully met. Medication, including pain meds, may also make cooking into a challenging and even unsafe task.
Pre-chopped and peeled foods are a godsend to many. There is a lot of ableism around critiques of these accessible forms of food, and this includes ready made meals.
Depression and anxiety can make cooking much harder too. Take care when suggesting that someone ‘Just batch cook!’ – it may not go down well.
(11) Childhood or past trauma
As you can see above, childhood trauma around food may leave its mark on you – screaming fights in the kitchen, or meals thrown across the room, particularly at Christmas and other holiday times, perhaps fuelled by alcohol or drugs. Caregiver/s may have forgotten to feed you, or have simply ignored you, and you had to find what you could find in the cupboard. Kitchens themselves, and the sounds they make, may become a trigger. As holiday times are seen as ‘family time’, therefore group eating time, if you have experienced abuse in your family you may experience difficult feelings.
(12) Current trauma
If you are recovering from more recent traumatic experiences or grief, you may be in a dissociated state and find it very hard to coordinate in the kitchen. Food may taste different, or have no taste, and everything may feel pointless. You may have lost your appetite, or may be eating whatever comfort foods are easiest to find. These may not be the healthiest but will need minimum preparation. You may be forgetting to eat at all.
And decision making can be a huge struggle for some people at the best of times, even over the simplest things.
(13) Executive dysfunction
This may be defined as struggling with time management and planning; following detailed instructions; adapting to new input; trying not to lose things, and general difficulty with self organisation. It can impact someone due to ADHD, trauma, or brain injury, etc. This may affect someone’s capacity to list and choose food, follow instructions and focus on what needs to be done in what order. For many people this may be a lifelong struggle. Cooking here needs to be the most efficient journey from A-Z with the minimum in between.
I am using a broad definition here, encompassing both differences you are born with and acquired ones.
If you are, for example, autistic you may (and everyone is different) have a range of foods that you simply cannot eat. You may have safe foods that may seem repetitive or bland to others, but you know you need to have a supply of them. Eating outside those foods may cause distress. You may experience sensory processing issues when shopping for food because supermarkets can be exhausting. (24 hour ones may be a blessing here, with peaceful 4am expeditions possible.) The lights, the noises, the random people, are all stressors.
Tastes and smells when cooking may make it enormously challenging. Plus there is the mess of cleaning up afterwards, the issue of food waste, and stress over who does the labour if there is more than one of you.
There is also the performance aspect of cooking for others that may cause huge anxiety. Being looked at while making something and possibly having your labour judged and commented on, may feel like just too much. Similarly experiencing the pressure to be creative, the pressure to make something pretty, or the dread of cooking on a group rota in a shared home.
You may become hyperfocused and forget to eat for hours and hours at a time. If you have issues with interoception, you may not know when you are hungry, or mistake it for another sensation in the body. (Or you may take all sensations to be hunger and eat more than you need.)
Sometimes, if the resources are there, people get meals delivered because it is absolutely an access issue. Having entire grocery shopping delivered however may not work if the company won’t deliver inside your home.
(15) You just hate cooking!
If none of the above apply to you, you are totally allowed to hate cooking for no reason other than you would rather do just about anything else!
As you will hear in neurodivergent and other circles: fed is better than not fed.
If there is someone in your life who might benefit from reading this list, please forward it to them.
I wish you the best possible festive break, if you are having one.
This is neither a festive post nor a beautifully crafted one. You have been warned.
If anyone feels personally judged or attacked by this post, I would encourage you to sit with it. Remember this is a systemic, collective issue and it can be changed.
1. The pandemic is still going.
The pandemic is not over. Not even close. In the UK and worldwide people are still dying every day. Over two million people in the UK (let alone the world) have Long Covid. This means symptoms that continue beyond 12 weeks, and in some cases over 2.5 years. (You can end up with Long Covid from a very mild infection, not just from a transmission in the early days pre-vaccinations. ). These symptoms may be such that a person’s capacity to go about their daily life is impaired. They may have to give up work. Do you understand what it means when a person is no longer able to earn a living in this society?
2. Perhaps you have a trust fund?
Let’s cut to the chase. I may have missed something. It may be that the majority of people in the world, the UK especially, are privately wealthy and do not care if they, or someone close to them, can’t work again. I can’t help thinking that this doesn’t add up, but hey.
3. ‘But it’s just like a cold or a bit of flu, no?‘
Superficially perhaps. It enters the body via respiratory channels, but can affect many organs, which is why you have people experiencing chronic fatigue (remember how people with ME/CFS were gaslighted for so long?), heart rate changes, breathlessness, anxiety, cognitive deficits – do I need to say more? And a person in prevous good health could experience this, not just ‘Oh did they have existing conditions oh well there you are then nothing to do with me I am healthy.’ (Vaccinations have helped enormously, but they don’t keep it away completely.)
4. The great leveller?
The pandemic taught non-disabled people what it was like for those confined to their homes or only able to travel with difficulty and extensive planning. All those who could – (what have been called middle class workers) – took their work online. Events – (and there are a potentially lot of those in a therapist’s life like mine, for example) – went online. And it was great! You lost some of the networking capacity for sure, but it made a more equal playing field. Neurodivergent people, disabled and chronically ill people, people struggling with their mental health, those on lower incomes who can’t always get childcare, etc – lots of those people could now attend trainings and meetings. And it kept everyone safer from the virus by removing travel from the equation.
5. Not all benefited from this ‘levelling up’, however.
Anyone doing labour that cannot be done on screen had to keep on going to work in person. That’s a lot of people cleaning, delivering, processing food, working on transport, working in retail, building and of course healthcare. All of them keeping our society going. Without those workers we would have no society. Instead of treating those workers with respect (eg free masks, priority vaccinations etc), our administration played games with the entire population.
6. Please remember the lies you were fed.
As well as being regularly and deliberately confused about what was happening via the media, with ‘bubbles’, endlessly shifting ‘tiers’ and u-turns (remember Christmas 2020), we were left with an idea that Covid-19 was some kind of naughty enemy of the British Empire that could be dealt with by using infantile language about ‘moonshots’, and maybe a really embarrassing gun battle on the Thames (sounds familiar?) with people dressed as doctors hurling custard pies at people in racist-looking virus costumes.
We didn’t quite get to ‘freedom fries’ but the F word was used, as if the doughty brits were really going to stick it to a virus. And the people in charge who pushed it out were merrily attending parties and going on holiday all along, while ordinary people died in their hundreds of thousands. People were being literally suffocated to death by misinformation, a disproportionate number of them People of Colour.
7 ‘Then why isn’t everyone masking up wherever possible?‘
We have been told it’s over when it’s not. Even though it’s winter now and wouldn’t it be great not to catch all the other seasonal viruses? Every time I go on public transport in London I am one of the very few people wearing a mask. The other week, on a very crowded delayed Overground train, I was lucky enough to get a seat and therefore have a close up view of someone’s workplace pass clipped to their belt. An actual doctor working at an actual hospital – in a soupy rush hour crowd – not wearing a mask. And yes, I hear stories of hospitals and clinics not enforcing masks and staff not wearing them. (Not all, thankfully.)
8 ‘Hold on, not everyone is able to wear a mask!’
Yes. Some people have a sensory or trauma response, or a respiratory one, which means that mask wearing is acutely stressful for them and just not possible. So all the more reason for everyone else to wear one to boost everyone’s protection and allow those who can’t to live a reasonable life.
And yes masks can be pretty grim if you’re wearing one all day. (Think about the doctors and nurses with dented bruised faces.) I see why many people would be willing to take the risk – I really do see this. And yes I can see why that doctor on the overground wasn’t wearing one, as maybe he had been wearing one all day. But even so – how can we do better?
9 ‘But not everyone can afford masks, esp N95 ones!’
Yes, I agree. imagine if the government gave out masks instead of wasting millions – billions – on mysterious deals that benefit only the very few. Masks for all sounds a lot more worth it, doesn’t it? This would never happen because it might start showing people how they have been corralled into a ‘me first’ space, even while having what they have stolen from them in broad daylight.
10. ‘So why are so many events going back to in-person only, then?’
Good question! It’s like everyone’s forgotten what ‘access’ means. It is directly ableist, with all the knowledge and resources we have now, not to make your seminar/conference event a hybrid one. [As with this entire post, someone will remind me of exceptions to this. There are always exceptions.]
Unfortunately plenty of ableism goes on even in online-only events. This especially confounds me when I see it in the therapist/practitioner world. I have online access needs myself and I admit that I have become a bit of a professional annoyance to some events organisers.
11 ‘Lighten up, will you, lefty killjoy!’
No, I won’t. But I don’t want anyone to stop going to gigs, pubs, theatres, parties and on holiday either! They are a fundamental part of life for many people. But if we all did a little bit to make these things more accessible for everyone, life would be better, no?
PSA: Until we as a society learn to look after each other better, we will remain in thrall to toxic values that are dragging us all down. Do I really need to name these values? Toryism, neoliberalism, Thatcherism and of course another F word. Of course, many brown and black and trans and queer and working class – and of course disabled – folks have been shouting about this for literally ever.
It’s not that we shouldn’t look after ourselves too, but if we remember that our actions have consequences, and if we pull up everyone behind us, then we all benefit. I’m not sure why that’s so hard to understand. We have all been encouraged to sink into an intoxicating swamp of individualised wellness. Keep working on yourself as the problem, so that you don’t see the structural issues which of course no one person can change alone and will just make you feel worse.
Best order another scented candle. But none of that will get us out of this.
12. Lefty Queers, why aren’t you talking about this?
This is part of the reason for this post. I am feeling increasingly heartbroken when attending queer events where no one is masked (or seeing pictures/videos of them online), despite this community having a higher than average number of disabled and vulnerable people in it, and a lower than average income. This is a community that often speaks of little else but ‘community’, but here seems to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. Are you content to collude in exclusion?
(Despite my words above, I am also cynical about some usage of ‘community’ as a carry-all badge of goodness and sincerity. It often involves ingroups and outgroups which are not always acknowledged. However, this is not the post for unpacking my thoughts on this because, trust me, we would be here all week.)
I’ll say again, if anyone feels personally judged or attacked by this post, I would encourage you to sit with it. Remember this is a systemic, collective issue and it can be changed.
14. OK I’m done
I’m tired from writing this. I will try to put some links in later on. I hope this post is at least a thought-starter for someone.
If you are still looking away in order to maintain an ‘us and them’ paradigm in terms of health and disability, please remember that however positive-thinking you are, however immune you feel to the issues here, you can still be taken from ‘us’ to ‘them’ in a heartbeat.
Globally, nationally, community-wise, and personally, it has been extremely challenging. While for me this time has also been transformative, grief has also been ever-present, particularly in the last six months. So last week I was very glad to participate in a grief-tending workshop, of which more further down the page. But first, the year.
It’s all very exciting and I’m delighted by the increasing support and attention that this project is getting.
Another good thing: after they Found Something on a scan, I spent a month wondering if my breast cancer had come back. It turned out to be the shadow of a mole. Oh the relief.
Sad and challenging things
This was a year of losses. Three people died, all of whom I had a different kind of connection with and all of whom were, in different ways and degrees and at different times, significant presences in my life:
• Sue (who I had known for about four years, was part of various communities I am in, and was a powerful presence in them).
• Ruby (who I had known since the mid 90s, who I met at a bar when I was first exploring the scene, and who took me to my first Pride in 96 or 97).
• Tobias (who I had known since 2010, whose events started up just as I was coming out of a two year physical and mental health hole since having a stroke in 2008, and via whom I met a whole new community of people who remain friends today.)
All of you, Rest In Power.
And then there was the loss of, and damage to, some significant connections due to miscommunication and conflict. This is what happens when we are carrying more trauma than we know how to deal with. ‘Community’ feels like a fragile thing at times, particularly in the shadow of a pandemic, and self care comes in many different forms. Covid times have amplified all of our experiences in this. My work as a therapist reminds me of this daily.
What I have described above is just part of what happened this year, but by the end of it I was feeling washed up and unformed, like a plastic bag on a beach.
Then, a week or so ago, I was scrolling on Facebook when I saw a link to a workshop which really resonated with me and I thought, it’s time.
Embracing Grief was hosted by Tony and Sarah Pletts of Love & Loss, and Bilal Nasim. (Disclosure: I have known Tony and Sarah for a number of years. I know them as highly experienced in holding spaces of all kinds and don’t hesitate to recommend their work.)
I had been swinging from dissociation to sadness to anger and back, with a strong need to feel both supported myself, but also to support others. This is where group work, at its best, can be so effective. Our three guides facilitated and held us, a group of 10 participants, all with very different stories to tell about why we were there.
They took us into it gently in stages, so by the time we got to taking turns to share, (and there was a very open invitation on how you might wish to do this, or not), I felt able both to open up about my own experiences and to listen and support others as they shared theirs.
By the end I was lying on the sofa by my Christmas tree, wrapped in a blanket.
In the days after the workshop, I felt less broken and somehow more solid. But also with the permission to lean into whatever I was feeling. The losses I experienced this year still hurt, but through this experience I felt more able to integrate them.
Thank you Tony, Sarah and Bilal for helping me anchor myself as winter comes.
Truthfully I don’t know how – or even whether – to celebrate World Menopause Day. What I do know is that if you are reading this, you may be seeking some clarity about your situation, whether for you or someone close to you.
Things are gradually changing for the better. Awareness-raising is increasing and more people are shouting about menopause, particularly those who are generally excluded from the mainstream narrative, for example: people who are LGBTQIA+, Black, neurodivergent, or who experience surgical or premature menopause.
‘Why did nobody tell me?’
But there is so much more to do and, while society learns to adapt to the needs of this enormous population group, a lot of people are still floundering. Particularly those without the resources to have their voices heard via the media. But whoever you are, and whatever resources you have access to, you may still be wondering why no one ever said a word to you about peri/menopause.
Perimenopause is a Thing
I mean, you probably knew that – but if you’re in your 30s you need to be knowing about it now. If you’re in your mid-late 30s to early 40s and are experiencing changes in your mood or body, or exacerbations to existing conditions you may have, this may be peri and you need to know about it. You are not ‘too young’, no matter what anyone tells you. Looking back, mine started at 39 and possibly earlier.
Menopause is a Hormonal Transition
A hormonal transition means change. A change in outlook. A change in desire. A change in what you can tolerate. It may mean a shift in how you view your sexuality and your gender. I’ve spoken about this in a talk called ‘Menopause – Agent of Queerness?’
Menopause is Compounding and Multifactorial
Whatever is already going on for you, whether connected to your identity or to your life experience, menopause is going to interact with it. If you are already affected by past or present trauma, mental and physical ill health, disability, financial concerns, domestic abuse, lack of resources, minority or minoritised identity, menopause will exacerbate it. (Eventually, it may help things too, but there is a lot to get through first.)
And the way menopause is promoted, and treated, in society mirrors systemic bias, whether ageism, racism, ableism, misogyny, or transphobia.
As above, I could say the same about the whiteness of much menopause information and resources. People of colour’s experiences are barely being heard about or acknowledged. It’s not good enough.
‘I need help – but what kind of help?’
In some corners of social media there is a certain pressure to be super positive about menopause. If you are seeking cheerleading, there are plenty of practitioners and they are easy to find.
But I’m thinking you came onto a therapist’s website because you need somewhere to talk about what’s going on for you on a number of levels. To name aloud what’s happening to you inside and outside.
There may be anger, fear and shame. You may not feel able to talk about the things that are going on in your mind and body. Your working life and relationships may be in turmoil. You may be wondering who you ever were and realising that, looking back, it all felt like a costume. Parts of you may be opening up, and other parts may be shutting down.
You may be non-binary or trans or queer and have very few places to explore how menopause intersects with your life. You may be cis and straight but feel totally alienated by the mainstream menopause narrative.
Whatever you need to bring, I can offer you a place to talk about it.
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.
Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement was published in 2018. (I’ve linked to Amazon because of the Kindle edition – there is a hardback but there still seems to be no paperback available in UK.) It’s well worth a read.
Update on 1/12/20: I wrote this piece long before the Covid-19 pandemic happened. It has changed the rules of how we live. During the holiday season it is creating increased pressure, but it can also be a protective factor in how we choose whether to spend time with people. Due to the many social changes and confusing public messages, some may become estranged against their will, and others may find it harder to get away.
Update on 23/12/22: Despite endless and ongoing misinformation about it, the pandemic is still here. On top of this, other pressures – chiefly rising fascism and climate change – feel more and more present and urgent. This will affect your decision making processes, whatever you do.
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:
Emotional abuse, clashes of personality and mismatched expectations were particularly common reasons for going no contact.
Most of those who were estranged from a parent felt strongly that they could never have a functional relationship again.
90 percent of respondents found the Christmas period ‘challenging’.
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 got fit / 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.
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.
‘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. There are a number of problem page articles at the Guardian(search for parental or family estrangement) – the articles here tend to have a lot of comments, mostly supportive.
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, 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 mehere.
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!’
(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.
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 Rogerswas 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 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
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.]
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.
I’m writing this as we semi-emerge from Covid-19 lockdown in UK. The sun is bringing happiness and excitement for many people. It is also highlighting the ambivalence that others feel about exiting lockdown, particularly given that Covid is likely to be here for a while, and that many do not feel fully safe, vaccines or not.
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. It’s Hollywood tropes like 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. The obsession with light is perhaps unsurprising in the UK’s northern European climate. But this is not always healthy. Light is very exposing. 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
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 push you into remembering difficult times and traumatic experiences you had when you were younger.
You may be trans or gender non-conforming and may dread the exposure that summer brings.
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. If you had holidays when you were young, perhaps they were stressful and you could not escape. If you didn’t have them, another summer reminds you of what you didn’t have.
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 are transitioning, or have tattoos, extensive scarring, or an ostomy.)
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)
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 had 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. The message 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 and saying nothing may feel safer, but may not be a good long-term strategy overall. Can you share your feelings with some friends and others who are close to you? You may find they feel the same.
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 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.
If you don’t feel you can share what’s going on with people close to you, a therapist can help.
So you got through Christmas and you got through New Year. If you put up decorations, you might even be considering taking them down.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
‘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.
Seeing a therapist in private practice isn’t financially accessible to everyone.
Here’s a list of reduced-fee talking therapy services in the London area. I hope you find it useful.
PLEASE READ THIS FIRST:
• This list is not definitive or exhaustive – it is a work in progress, and I will be adding to it as time goes on. [Most recent changes 17/12/17]
• Being listed here doesn’t necessarily mean I know the service and/or can personally endorse it. It may have been recommended to me, or I may have heard of it a number of times. I am going on what is stated on the organisations’ websites so cannot personally guarantee the content.
• There will be a number of different fee scales and a variety of numbers of sessions offered, from a few to open-ended. The trend is generally towards time-limited work of up to 12 sessions, but some places offer longer. And there will also be a variety of therapy offered. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions.
• The counsellor you see at some of these services may be in the later stages of their training. Please don’t let this put you off. In order to practise, their trainers, if they are from a reputable college, will have spent time reflecting on whether they are ready or not. Psychotherapy students generally work very hard and have to give very detailed accounts of themselves on a regular basis.
The Blues Project at the Bowlby Centre (Highbury N5 – waiting list currently closed at 11/17, but they say they may have spaces again in 2018 – also worth contacting the main therapy team as there may be some therapists there offering lower cost)
I have heard this desire expressed a large number of times, inside and outside my work. As a client in therapy I have also said it myself. The sense of being different from others has a multitude of meanings which are not always obvious.
As a therapist and author, I always try to think before using the word ‘normal’ in any context. ‘Ordinary’ is often better. ‘Regular’ or ‘average’ might do, with care. ‘Unusual’ is usually better than ‘abnormal’. Any suggestion of ‘abnormality’ at worst equates to being diseased, a freak, other, or fodder for essentialists who ‘always knew’ there was something wrong with us, whether or not they can immediately locate a visible minority to park us in. This kind of othering can start in our homes as children. It can move through teenage years and into adulthood. It can seem as if these feelings will never go away.
‘Normality’ in love and at work
There are many unexpected ways the drive to ‘normality’ can emerge in adult life. This piece, ‘Don’t Do What You Love’ is a good example of how it’s very easy to persuade yourself to do the same thing over and over at work, even if it’s not working out for you, because at some point surely you’ll be accepted and everything will be fine. In relationships, despite the sheer volume of material on the internet, it is possible to feel incredibly isolated if we can’t immediately find someone who understands us. Dr Meg John Barker, author of Rewriting the Rules, has written at length about how to stop trying to be normal in sex and relationships, without giving yourself a hard time about it.
I think ‘wanting to be normal’ is a primary cause of depression, as well as a symptom of it. The picture below, that I took in Cornwall a few years ago, sums up what I’m talking about. The ‘normal people’ are over there outside, having fun in the light, with nature, being ‘natural’. The person who considers themselves ‘abnormal’ sits in the dark, held back by a very specific view of what normal appears to be. I debated whether to put this here because the heavy blackness makes this image quite hard to look at. For me, though, it sums up what I am trying to say, and what I have heard from others.