I have been on the verge of joining my friends in making non-specific 6-character disclosures. My heart goes out to them and it makes me sad that people I am close to have never told me they have experienced sexual assault. My own experience is something I carry guiltily, like a lot of people, because I let it happen and I didn’t tell anyone.
However, let us be cautious. Boys and young men are constantly teased and nagged about their physical selves: they get the message from adults and from girls that they are smelly and that they are always eating. They get the message from some of the discussion that takes place during campaigns such as #metoo that their thoughts, feelings and behaviours are inherently abusive. This is damaging to self-esteem and it can create a hesitation in entering into relationships. People make mistakes when they relate to other people and a lot of these mistakes are a result of the society in which they grew up. We have to forgive each other and help each other to find ways of making and nurturing relationships. We don’t have to forgive sexual assault. Sexual assault is a separate discussion. But if by association we write people off for other behaviour that we find offensive or embarrassing then we perpetuate the problem. We perpetuate a gender divide with surges of disclosure that somehow implicate all men.
Men have used the hashtag #metoo in the last week or so to make their own disclosures and to make the point that women also harass men or behave in ways that are offensive or embarrassing. Girls and women put boys and men in a difficult position when they flirt or invite sexual contact. Teachers of both sexes suffer from this. It is terrifying to find yourself suddenly alone with a pupil who comes too close or says things that shouldn’t be said between teacher and pupil. It is terrifying to have a pupil make these advances in front of other people. Rumours ruin careers, confidence and relationships. I’ve behaved like that towards a teacher. I’ve been the teacher on the receiving end. Fortunately, in both cases, we found a way through which did not cause damage and enabled us to learn rather than become victims of our own behaviour.
The emergent sexuality of girls can lead to sexual advances to boys who are entirely unprepared to handle them. The boys might think, perhaps this is OK, perhaps it is expected, perhaps it is normal to touch girlfriends in this way. And there is smutty talk around them, about who is physically attractive and who is keen to do the touching. Who do you fancy? How far have you got? This talk happens amongst children despite the work done in schools surrounding appropriate behaviour. It is a result partly of the objectification of women in film; children aren’t generally taught about the Bechdel test. It is a result of hearing adults talk about each other in this way. Of adverts which sexualise everything from underwear to chocolate and soft drinks to cancer charities. We need to educate gently, not attack with a confusing and sudden outburst of fury.
I have a husband, sons, a brother, nephews, brothers-in-law and male friends who would never talk about women in a derogatory way and always treat women with respect. They must not be victims of the force of our relief at finally speaking out about horrible experiences. They are as disgusted as the women around them. Tread carefully, because you tread on their confidence, their self-esteem and their mental health.
I’m looking forward to my sessions at Llangwm Literary Festival on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th August. Two for adults and one for children. Have a look through the very diverse programme…
It’s easy to nurture the students who have a flair for your subject. When I taught Drama I loved the children who were in school plays. Now I teach Creative Writing and I get excited about students who produce publishable work. There’s a mutual respect, a mutual fan club.
The students whose work is unimpressive, who produce sub-mediocre work, are harder to get excited about. Sometimes a teacher gets frustrated with slow or static progress; when you’re good at something it seems easy.
The trainers at NoFitState Circus have spent two years being patient with my slow, sometimes static, sometimes backwards progress. I have cried in the loo more than once. I have sworn a lot. I have refused to do turnarounds. My take-off is infamous for being wrong in ever-changing ways. I took months to get upside-down and over a year to do it consistently. But they kept going and they kept trying different things and repeating the same things.
Last week, I flew off-lunge for the first time. No belt, no lines, on my own. And last night, I went to catch from a simple pass. The trainers’ patience has paid off and things are starting to happen. They are steadily helping me persuade my body to go to catch from upside-down. I am indebted to them all and I have a renewed commitment to students whose progress is slow or static or sometimes backwards. Last night I thought about a student I had a couple of years ago who turned to me when she crossed the stage at graduation and smiled and waved; it had been a tough few years but her determination and my support had got her through and she had a degree. I will never be a circus performer and some of my students will never have their work published but I will keep flying because I love it and they will keep writing because writing is a type of flying.
The other community members at circus, most of whom do things on trapezes and hoops and ropes that are beyond my wildest dreams, have cheered me on all the way. They make me laugh and hug me and tease me and say, ‘You’ve got this’ when I’m standing on the platform and it suddenly seems impossible. We share something unique and precious and we treasure it.
NoFitState is a special place and the people who work there make dreams come true.
I have had the following reply from BBC Complaints regarding my letter about the outrageous handling of mental health story lines in series 31 of ‘Casualty’.
Thank you for contacting us regarding BBC One’s ‘Casualty’.
I understand you feel our portrayal of mental health illness has been negative.
While we appreciate the strength of your concerns, in order to make our complaints process more efficient the timeframe for making complaints about programmes is within 30 working days of the transmission or event on BBC channels or services.
Due to the volume, range and complexity of complaints we receive, it’s important for effective complaints handling that the BBC has a simple, clear and easily accessible complaints procedure to ensure that our limited resources are used wisely. The BBC Complaints process is outlined in full at the following link:
Your feedback is important to us and your concerns have been placed on an overnight report, which is made available to senior management and the ‘Casualty’ production team. This report can be used to inform future broadcasting and policy decisions, so please be assured that your complaint has been sent to the right people.
Thanks again for getting in touch.
I’m glad to hear that my letter will be ‘made available’ to the production team though I am not optimistic that they will read and digest it. In fact they might well choose to bury it in the hope that it is forgotten, because it is so deeply embarrassing for a programme that publicly prides itself on its handling of mental illness stories.
There is also an issue to be addressed here about iPlayer. It is becoming increasingly common for viewers not to watch TV when it is first broadcast but to watch when it suits them. This means that the 30 day time limit for complaints is outdated.
I am considering where to go from here and would welcome suggestions.
How fantastic to hear Professor Vanessa Toulmin talking about the power of Circus on radio 4 this morning. The mental and physical strength Circus gives you and the pride you have in each other’s achievements is unique. Circus needs no spoken language and is a wonderful medium for communication and collaboration between people who might see themselves as having little in common. Imagine getting together a group of people from different political, social, cultural or religious viewpoints, from different sides of a war … combatting prejudice in a space with mutual support at its centre.
The interview is the last item in the programme linked above.
I rarely watch ‘Casualty’ and I imagine I have missed many diverse and powerful storylines. However, the two episodes I have recently watched have been notable for their irresponsibly negative handling of mental illness.
In series 31 episode 2, a pregnant woman is so distressed by the noises in her head that she wants a premature delivery. She and her husband are aware that she is showing symptoms of schizophrenia and are doing everything they can to keep this to themselves so that she will not have to go to a psychiatric hospital.
In series 31 episode 8, a young man is suffering from paranoia. His girlfriend wants him to have treatment and is ready to leave him because she finds it so hard to cope with the stress.
These stories are similar in structure and resolution. For both couples there is (in the words of one script) ‘a happy ending’. The cause for celebration is that the patients have serious medical conditions. The woman in episode 2 has ‘superior canal dehiscence syndrome’ and will need surgery on her skull. The young man in episode 8 has ‘systemic lupus erythematosus’ which can lead to organ damage. These diagnoses are apparently massively preferable to a psychiatric diagnosis, so much so that the patients, their loved ones and the hospital staff can relax in the knowledge.
The underlying premise of these stories is clear: a psychiatric diagnosis is shameful and devastating.
It’s good news!
He’s not weird, he just has an incurable disease!
I quote here some of the key lines from the scripts.
Doctor to nurse: ‘Speaking of happy endings, I’m pretty sure that the root cause of Steve’s symptoms is physical, not psychological.’
Nurse to girlfriend: ‘Do you believe in happy endings?’
… and the doctor informs the patient and his girlfriend (who is not going to leave him now because he does not have a mental illness) that he has ‘Systemic Lupus Erythematosus’…
Doctor to girlfriend: ‘His immune system is attacking itself…’
Girlfriend: ‘It’s actually a condition?’
Doctor: ‘Yes, a condition. A very rare one but a condition nonetheless.’
Patient: ‘and is there a cure?’
Doctor: ‘No … there are no guarantees.’
Patient: ‘I never thought I’d be happy to hear I have a disease.’
Girlfriend (smiles as if she has been given a present): ‘I’m sorry we’re smiling but it’s nice to know.’
Doctor: ‘It’s incredibly rare. But it means psych can stand down.’
Patient: ‘Am I going to the psychiatric hospital?’
Husband: ‘No, you’re not.’
Patient: ‘So it’s not schizophrenia?’
Doctor: ‘Well we’ll need to keep you monitored. But a couple of operations and you should be fine.’
Husband: ‘Thank you.’
Doctor: ‘Well we like to get to the bottom of things.’
The diagnoses given have different implications in individual cases, just as psychiatric diagnoses do. But the basis of these stories is that there is a strong general preference for a disease you can see on a scan or on your skin. Even if this means you need surgery on your skull.
By being so unambiguously pessimistic about the possibility of mental illness, these episodes reinforce outdated stereotypes. Many viewers will not see anything odd in these scenes; if you have not been inundated with complaints then the size of the problem is clear. The fear and disgust associated with mental health problems which have no physical excuse is entrenched. And perhaps many viewers with mental health problems found that their self-esteem and confidence dropped as a direct result of these scenes.
The BBC has done some good work, for example here and here, on changing attitudes to mental health problems. I don’t know how these stories made it onto the screen.
A Bunch of Clowns.
There are Ghost Ships off every coast and in the middle of the sea. Whole crews vanishing with no trace – though always a dinner someone was about to eat, an elaborately laid table. (Do they really lay the table like that every day or only when they’re going to disappear? Look, everything was so normal. Dinner as usual. And then –)
When Circus people vanish, they leave the stage set. Ghost Big Tops are fully rigged with hoops and tight-ropes and lights. These people were all ready for the show but they couldn’t stay; this time the urge to run away with it was too strong and wouldn’t wait. The costume rail is crowded. It’s hard to tell what’s missing. There are starry leotards and stripy suits, shape-shifting hats and silly trousers. These people will be hard to spot because they have a costume for every event, including the need to be without one. They have jeans, dresses, robes, headscarves, flip-flops and bicycle helmets. They have t-shirts with faded logos and cartoons, the sort of t-shirt you can find anywhere on the planet. But if you look carefully, long enough for the look to become a stare, you can spot them. They can’t help it: they’ll dye every hair on their head murky brown or sleek black but within hours there’ll be a tuft of purple growing through. They’ll scrub at the glitter until their skin is rough but there’s always a scattering left in the dip between neck and shoulder or around the tiny hole in nose or lip. (There’s a glint in their tummy buttons, too, where other people have fluff).
The runaways may have left behind their ghostly tent but they have definitely run away with and not from the Circus. Nellie the elephant is on record as having done the latter but even she was in two minds about it – leading the big parade can’t have been easy to give up, hence the trundling. Circus people cannot trundle for long. They carry the Circus inside them, ready to explode in a starburst of sequins, coloured silks and twirling batons. They come together again in centripetal motion, jumping on each other’s backs and shoulders and hands and feet and spinning each other in spirals. And, by the time they land softly on their paws, there will be a big top rigged and lit, with crowded costume rails and wheels of fire and glow-in-the-dark juggling balls.
World Mental Health Day is a good day to look back on last week, which was Women in Sport Week (these designated days and weeks come thick and fast).
Physical activity cannot be overestimated as a method of sustaining or repairing mental health. (There are many people who need to find a balance because their condition involves too much exercise, but they nonetheless need some). I don’t think I am alone in finding that my posture changes and I move differently according to my mood. There are times when moving even a little bit seems beyond me: at its extreme, this can mean not wanting to get out of bed or off the floor. Try this: start where you are by clenching and releasing your fists then stretching your arms a bit. Point your toes and release them a few times. Then roll your legs over to one side and your shoulders towards the other. These little exercises are powerful. You might find that if you repeat this cycle a few times you can get up onto your knees and your feet. Then you can get your phone and ring someone. Or you can get out of the door and walk for a minute or two. You will have broken the petrificus totalus spell.
When you are well enough, you can join in with a shared exercise program or a sport. This takes courage because it involves meeting new people and exposing your physical, mental and emotional vulnerability. I don’t need to go on about flying trapeze and how I’ve cried and shaken but pushed through until I’m laughing and feeling invincible. If you know me or you’ve read my blog you’ll have had enough of trapeze talk. What I will say again, however, is how special CCYC is. This is a place where hundreds of women of all ages take part in sport and exercise. It is a dynamic, exhilarating place that empowers people to live their lives to the full. It’s good to see the Welsh Assembly and Westminster discussing women’s sports facilities. But it’s somewhat perverse that in the very week that awareness was being raised, CCYC was hit by the threat of closure. When something works, and works as powerfully as this, it would be absurd to let it go.
Today is designated by whoever decides these things (perhaps there is a committee with a shared Google Doc that schedules, for example, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, World Smile Day and Bipolar Awareness Day) World Mental Health Day.
Most people are too busy to get involved; if we all stopped what we were doing to mark these designated days we’d never get anything done. However, most of us could find 10 minutes or an hour. You could look for events in your area or online where you can get information, raise money for mental health charities and network. Or you could do something positive for your own mental health or that of someone you know.
If you have depression, bipolar or schizophrenia, you could blog about it or post some information on social media to educate people and reduce stigma. If you have some lesser-known condition this could be even more important.
If you know someone with a mental health condition or someone who seems to be struggling at the moment, you could contact them and see how they are today.
You can make a promise to yourself to be more accepting of people’s differences and to engage with people whose behaviour might seem strange to you. This could lead to a richer friendship group: it is somewhat limiting only to socialise with people who behave like you do and think about the same things as you.
Today would be a good day to make a contingency plan for times when you get low or life is difficult. No one is immune to that, however perky or tough you think you are. You could list people to contact and places to go. You could write down this motto: ‘Don’t make a bad situation worse’. That means not drinking alcohol, taking unprescribed drugs or hurting yourself physically. It means staying in or going to a safe place, ideally not being on your own. Encourage other people to think through or write down their own plan.
If you work in mental health and you are stressed by a lack of time and resources that mean you can’t do your job as you would like, or you find yourself fire-fighting when you would rather have a steady, considered approach to your work, or you have compassion fatigue, be honest with colleagues and managers. Be positive about asking for change in working practices or continuing professional development. Take time to look after your own mental health. Wave if you are drowning – professionally or personally.
And all of us can remind ourselves: what would you say to a friend in your situation? Treat yourself as you would treat your friends and family.
Imagine a place where men and women, boys and girls of all ages and abilities meet together to exercise and socialise. Where you are accepted for who you are and yet you find yourself doing things you would never have thought you could do. Where you can bounce, run, roll, swing, climb, fly and laugh. Where the support people give you makes you stronger physically, mentally and emotionally. A place that transforms lives.
In Cardiff, we don’t have to imagine such a place because we have one. Walking into CCYC last night, I passed people coming together for (amongst other activities) swimming, netball, gym and fencing, and people relaxing in the cafe. It warms my heart every time, getting there. And it always strikes me that so many girls and women are participating. At the end of the corridor is my second home, Nofitstate Circus. My gross motor skills have never amounted to much and I was left out of sports teams at school. In gym lessons I felt exposed and embarrassed at my lack of grace and strength. In recent years osteoarthritis has set in, but Circus helps me keep on top of it. Thanks to the trainers and community members at Nofitstate, I can swing on a flying trapeze. I can even turn up-side-down and hang by my knees and fling myself off in the direction of the cradle: this has taken me a year and a half when it takes many people an hour and a half, but it feels all the more wonderful for the journey. Managing manic depression has been easier thanks to the physical strength I have built up and the warmth of the people I fly with. When you fly, you forget everything else.
Places where people collaborate and cooperate are at the heart of a healthy, happy city.