Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Suicidal Feelings – Still a Taboo Subject?

If you’re feeling suicidal right now, this is a good guide for avoiding acting on  those feelings. Above all please talk to a friend or family member, or call a crisis line in your area – here’s a list.

In an attempt to reduce the shocking suicide statistics, we’re encouraged to talk about suicide, especially during Mental Health Week. There are 24-hour suicide lines and guidelines for reporting of suicide, especially the sudden deaths of the uber famous like Robin Williams. There are support groups for survivors – those who lose loved ones to suicide.

But suicidal feelings? Not so much. They are buried in the mush of the word ‘depression’, which is so vague it refers to any kind of low mood. Suicide is caused by depression, apparently, and therefore depression is Bad, and so is mental illness. At least these assumptions signal the community struggling to acknowledge that mental suffering can be as tortuous as physical suffering. But how can we expect the public to have the first understanding of mental illness when the sector itself is in crisis, by lack of funding on the one hand and the clash of competing paradigms on the other?

There may be support groups of survivors but there are no bricks-and-mortar self-help groups (that I’m aware of) for those afflicted with suicidal thoughts (if anyone knows of one, please let me know and I’ll mention it. There is an online forum for people who feel suicidal, Suicide Forum). There are plenty of other self-help groups, of course, for the kind of problems that can lead to suicidal thoughts. As soon as you voice a suicidal thought in such a group, a protocol comes into play. This is a good thing – it is evidenced based and its one aim is to stop the person in question suiciding, to keep them safe during the crisis. Suicidal feelings can result in death so must always be taken seriously. But it speaks to the problem of suicide – that it’s difficult for the person afflicted with the thoughts to speak about them. Once you do, the direction of the discussion must change immediately, if not come to a halt. There’s still a taboo.

Part of the problem is that suicidal feelings can actually mean many different things and arise for many different reasons. Lumping them all together could be as harmful as not dealing with their disparate causes.  I’d suggest the following categories of suicidal thoughts arising from mental suffering (I’m not an expert – feel free to offer opposing opinions or some additional categories).

Also, these categories are fluid – some may suffer from a combination of these things.

Fleeting thoughts that everyone has. The only problem with these thoughts is that the person who has them might decide they were abnormal. I guess the internet makes that fear obsolete. 

Fleeting thoughts of self-harm during a low period are pretty normal as far as I can tell.

OCD thoughts. The sufferer here doesn’t actually have the desire to commit suicide at all but  afflicted with persistent, disturbing thoughts and images of self-harm – a form of pure OCD known as suicidal OCD. The sufferer is not in danger of committing suicide, but needs treatment for the OCD.

Suicidal thoughts during periods of an acute mental illness. This would include particular kinds of depression, including bipolar, that push sufferers into extremely desperate states. It might also include a psychotic episode for someone with schizophrenia. Such people might actually realise they are a danger to themselves and ring up a suicide line or admit themselves to hospital. That is, they may know that as a life choice suicide is not what they want – but they fear the illness will take over and make a terrible decision. Anyone suffering from an untreated mental illness could be at risk simply because their mental suffering is severe and they  don’t know how to reduce it.

Suicidal thoughts provoked by unbearable grief. This can afflict all genders but males are particularly vulnerable because society teaches males to cover up and repress their feelings when they experience loss, for example the loss of the family farm or the breakup of a relationship. Some may find the feelings of grief unbearable or fear that the feelings will never change.

What these people desperately need is help to process their feelings. Often these feelings may be accompanied by unhelpful, unrealistic ideas about gender expectations, so these people may also need help in being compassionate with themselves and letting go of outdated ideas. The latest DSM has been criticised for pathologising grief, but this is perhaps because the idea of a drug for grief is so counterproductive. Perhaps it’s not that the grief itself is pathological, but that sufferers of pathological grief don’t have the tools they need to process and get through it. Help with doing that – if the therapist is willing to ‘suffer with’ the patient – can only be a good thing.

The suicidal thoughts of someone with mental illness when they have insight. These thoughts are based on the overall quality of life, and the reality of continuing mental suffering. These thoughts could be equally applicable to someone with chronic physical illness or disability, and also their carers.

In particular this reason may merge with the previous one because any kind of illness or disability involves an element of ongoing grief as to the limitations that the illness places on the sufferer (even if some of those limitations are caused by social attitudes). So feelings of quality of life must be dealt with separately from the grief-work that is part of having a chronic condition or caring for someone who has.

What this shows is that there is not just one remedy for suicidal thoughts and impulses. However, if someone feels acutely suicidal then there are urgent things that need to be done regardless of the causes. The appropriate treatment comes later.

And grief can sometimes turn into a form of depression if untreated. That is separate from the biological forms of depression such as bipolar.

In the next entry I'll discuss these last two categories in more detail.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Is ‘Chick’ Chic or Retrograde?

In the Swinging Sixties, that magic era of Carnaby Street, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, free love and the Pill, horny young chaps in stovepipes and mop tops flitted around getting it on with as many cool chicks as they could manage to lure back to their groovy pads. Things got so bad that the chicks went out and created Second Wave Feminism.
Of course, everything’s changed now, right? In some twenty-something inner city circles the chick is now the female equivalent of the hipster. She’s easygoing yet focused, joining her brothers in her preference for flannelette shirts featuring obscure band names, fixed-gear bicycles and Pabst beer. She’s got tats, is constantly instagramming and probably spends most of her work day in a coffee roastery, hunched over her laptop.

A distinct yet overlapping demographic – savvy professional women heading micro and small businesses – have embraced ‘chick’ as a marketing tool. The internet is littered with SEO chicks, PR and marketing chicks, legal chicks (as opposed to legal eagles I guess) – even a chicken chick.

And now that older women are claiming their goddess-given right to flaunt their booty at any age, they’re refusing to relinquish the word once the first flush of youth fades. If a chick is hip, contemporary and down-to-earth, who says you can’t be a chick at fifty? At sixty? Why stop there?

Yet whole groups of people would rather guzzle toilet paper than use the word. My seventeen-year-old nephew, when quizzed, mumbled that if one of his male friends used it he sounded – this is my translation of what he actually said – fake, pretentious and trying too hard. My forty-something sister, an English coordinator at a secondary girls’ school, simply shook her head and shuddered when I mentioned the word.

Perhaps this is because the nasty version of chick is always lurking around the interwebs, like the class bully who crashes your birthday party, hits on your boyfriend then trashes your house. The ‘hot chick’ is a woman’s body with the humanity sucked out like air from a balloon. She’s the bad girl in the madonna/whore dynamic of patriarchy, the pin-up girl of retrosexism, a twenty-first century version of the compliant, vacantly smiling sixties chick – just add porn and stir.

You can be repurposed into a ‘hot chick’ online whether or not your pose was deliberately sexy. Type ‘hot chicks’ into Google and you’ll get everything from everyday situations that have been lovingly pornified, eg ‘hot chicks picking up dog shit’ and ‘hot chicks in nerd panties’ to mainstream porn. There are even ‘hot chicks’ next to fixie bikes, which is truly depressing.

The gender politics of ‘chick’ echo in the continuing feminist rage against the term ‘chick lit’ for the way it denigrates women’s literary contribution. The idea of Wuthering Heights being labelled chick lit is horrifying, and there were howls of derision across the internet when Sylvia Plath’s acidic novel The Bell Jar got a disastrous ‘chick lit’ makeover for the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. ‘Chick flick’ is just as suspect, according to Gloria Steinem.

If ‘chick’ somehow survived the feminist revolution, ‘bird’ is one of its casualties. It’s now redolent of sad late middle-aged men with comb-overs who never got the memo that the era of sideburns and sleazy feel-ups at the photocopier was over for good, or the acres of female flesh that romped through Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.

Other terms for women derived from the animal world hang on for dear life despite themselves. In 2012 Grahame Morris was forced to apologise to Leigh Sales for calling her a cow after she interviewed him on radio.

What about ‘bitch’? How did this word not only get through to the keeper, but manage to widen its remit? Used to be a bitch was spiteful and overly competitive; now thanks to rap culture you can be someone’s bitch even if you’re mild as a lamb, or just hanging around trying to look cool, as in (’cos you know, I’m so up with these things) ‘Yo! wassup bitches?’ A male friend once congratulated me on being his ‘publicity bitch’ at an event where he was selling his books. He was just trying to express how great I was but I felt deflated.

Even ‘girl’ has the power to offend in some contexts, particularly when male sports commentators use it to describe female athletes who would slaughter them in seconds in any competition. In March 2014, the BBC edited out the word girl in some footage where the male reporter said he couldn’t believe he’d been beaten at judo by a nineteen-year-old girl – who happened to be a Commonwealth Games judo champion.

Maybe words like chick are the same as the derogatory terms for any oppressed group – the group itself can use the word, but woe betide anyone else who does?

Or perhaps our nearest and dearest can fondly call us bitch, cow, girl or even Hornytits to their hearts’ content, yet the random in the street who yells it out at us cops a torrent of abuse.

But I can’t help thinking – why does the word woman sound so odd, so exotic, even sexualised? Is a woman still a mysterious, ethereal being who is unpredictable and perhaps a tiny bit evil?

And is ‘chick’ a sexist term, or should we embrace its changing uses – what do you think?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Digitally Dumb? Why I Refuse to Buy a Smart Phone

Okay I’ll get it out of the way. I don’t have  a smart phone. There I’ve said it. My penance is the embarrassment I feel admitting it, and that’s plenty.
Lacking a smart phone is not just a minor social fail, like being a teetotaller, not having a partner, or not being able to drive (hey at least I can drive). It is a failure far more drastic, marking you as fundamentally irrelevant to modern culture.

If you don’t have a car, you’re saving the environment. If you’re a renter, you can drop everything and hike through Mongolia for a  few years without worrying whether the tenants are trashing your place. If you don’t have a smart phone you’re just pathetic – unless you’re over seventy and then you’re excused.

A dumb mobile phone is outdated while totally lacking vintage charm. While smaller than a smart phone, it manages to be the telecommunications equivalent of those big clunky computer monitors. Even checking it is embarrassing because you can only be checking two things: text messages and the time. Better not to take it out at all.

Nor does it work as a badge of honour that marks me as a struggling garret-dwelling artistic type. Many homeless people have smart phones, and good on them, as without a stable base it’s their only way of being plugged in.

I like to think not having a smart phone is a form of rebellion. But no-one cares about my tragic mid-life refusal to conform. No-one cares about anything. They are too busy looking at those tiny screens. While they all seem terribly serious and absorbed, everyone knows that everyone else is playing Temple Run, checking out potential sexual partners on Tinder or Grindr, or scrolling their friends’ selfies on SnapChat.

There’s been plenty of hand wringing about how the once-collective public space has been parcelled into thousands of tiny little mind spaces – why can’t iPhones be we-Phones? Being in a crowd feels weird these days, as if everything’s a bit virtual because the people around you are in parallel worlds unknown to you. They’re all off on their own unique trajectory (too often unfortunately into the path of oncoming traffic if the stats can be trusted).

You notice this lack much more when you don’t have your own personal brain extension to retreat to. You notice and you miss the collective ‘we’ even though that might be the most fragile of webs, like three people waiting for a train at a lonely suburban station.  You feel the mental absence of those around you and you want to draw them back into the vaguest of curiosities about who you are.

That public loss is why, when bus or train drivers introduce themselves over their microphones and make corny jokes, everyone seems to enjoy it. One driver did this on the Gardenvale line going into the city on an overcast Sunday afternoon. As soon as his friendly ocker tones ruptured the dull anonymity of the carriage it felt like being on a country train going to some mystery location. ‘We’re expecting to reach our destination,’ he told us, ‘when the train reaches Flinders Street. Have a lovely trip.’ He was never going to get a gig on Saturday Night Live, but he made the whole carriage grin. For a few short minutes we were as one.

Smart phones don’t always successfully keep their owners plugged in. I’ve made the mistake of assuming that my smart phone owning friends would be reading their emails twenty-four hours a day. I’ve cancelled things at the last minute only to receive desperate calls that have put decades-long friendships at risk (‘I’ve just spent half an hour riding here from Collingwood – where the hell are you?’)

Then again I benefit from the giant well of knowledge that is other people’s smart phones. Walking through North Melbourne one day and hopelessly lost, I asked a labourer at a building site for directions, and he got out his iPhone. You don’t really need your own when there are others’ to fall back on.

I already spend too long in front of computer screens as a freelance writer and editor. I’m not exactly deprived of Jack Russell crosses obligingly teaching babies how to crawl, or elephants shedding tears when freed from decades in chains. I even have a PVR where I can store and watch as much television trash as I want. I don’t need yet another screen.

It’s just so uncool not to have a smart phone. But contrarian that I am, the more uncool it is the more stubbornly I’ll hold out against the cultural pressure, like someone who only gets away with not vaccinating their kids because most other parents do. One day, they’ll probably be a legal requirement. Till then, I’ll remain a digital dag.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Giving in to the Madness of Christmas

I didn’t want to wish anyone on Twitter Happy Christmas (or happy holidays) this year. I had to force myself.

It’ s not that I don’t want them to be cheery. It’s just not how I’m feeling, politically speaking any way.

Christmas is always a strange time for the sanest of us, let alone those with an anxiety disorder or other condition.

As my doppelganger FCM I’ve had a Twitter account for a few months now. It consists mainly of links to articles about the terrible things going on in the world, with some interesting literary snippets thrown in.

In the lead-up to Christmas this year I felt such a strong need to stop the political hectoring, the calling out of bad behaviour, the keeping up to date with it all. Such an overwhelming desire to withdraw and to give in to the madness of Christmas.

Yet the world didn’t stop being messy and tragic. New tragedies kept happening. Some were human made, others less obviously so.

The unpredictably bizarre injustices of the Abbott government have had an effect on so many Australians this year. No-one likes Tony Abbott much, not even Liberal voters, and these days his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, is just as reviled.

On 22 December, just days before Christmas, Abbott announced that Scott Morrison, who as immigration minister removed the obligation that Australia follow the refugee convention, and set off a scale of death, torture and misery in the gulags  detention camps that put Australia to shame, will now be our Minister for Social Services.

To paranoid lefties like me this seemed a cruel joke, both in its substance and its timing.

Tragedy continued internationally. In Missouri yet another black teenager was shot by police. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, and at least 24 killed, following massive flooding in Malaysia. A plane carrying 162 passengers from Indonesia to Singapore went missing mid-flight, and the wreckage has since been found with all passengers presumed dead. The international community has continued to ignore the plight of the more than 1 million refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.

Yet the need to withdraw from the fray, at least partially, has continued. My Christmas depression this year was partly just a response to the hullabaloo of Christmas itself, which seems to be a little more disconnected from reality, a little more surreal, every year.

There is such a yawning gulf between the hectoring cheerfulness of the relentless carols and the mad spending of the crowds on the one hand and my own state of mind on the other that it produces an odd lurch into alienation.

But like birthday depression, I suspect much of what passes for Christmas depression is unacknowledged grief, which is rampant in our society. In A Life at Work, Thomas Moore talks about the difference between the human soul and the human spirit. The soul seeks the past, the familiar, and is rooted in the earth. The spirit seeks out the new, the unknown, creativity and challenge.

Christmas is a time in which the soul demands to be heard above the din. At Christmas, even more so than at birthdays in my experience, the soul longs for the certainties of the past. Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself driving past my old place, which I moved out of in May, several times. I realised that it was the first Christmas I’d spent away from the place for ten years, and my first Christmas at my current flat. My soul was yearning for that connection with past Christmases.

But perhaps notions of unacknowledged grief are just scratching the surface when it comes to the kinds of funk people experience on holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. I’m reading Horse Boy, an inspiring book about how an autistic boy was healed of many of his worst behaviours by a combination of horse riding and a series of gruelling healing rituals by Mongolian shamans.

This book has made me wonder whether my understanding of spirituality and its repression in the West has been incredibly shallow. The spirituality of the Mongolian shamans seems to allow them to harness powerful forces for healing that put our Western alternative healers to shame. The scale of what we have lost in modern life suddenly seems so much larger, and is perhaps the reason for all the mental illness we are experiencing.

Yet there’s no need to ditch the scientific method that has created such leaps and bounds. If science had an open enough mind to explore what was going on when the shamans healed Rowan Isaacson, whole new areas of study could be established.

They might include an expansion of human psychology. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs was an important milestone but perhaps it should also include the need to connect with the forces of the Earth and to balance them within ourselves. No wonder even the sanest of us goes a bit mad at Christmas. (In fact there have been studies of shamanism in relation to Western notions of mental illness. However, my sense is that interest in shamanism is still considered flaky within the mainstream psychiatric community.)

But as usual I’m getting ahead of myself. My challenge for Christmas this year was just to let go. Not try to change my rellies, or escape the boring bits, or get angry because our family never – I repeat never – gets around to eating lunch before 3 pm by which time my blood sugar is lower than Scott Morrison’s ethical standards. What else was there to do but play that daggy Christmas carols CD, break open the Christmas crackers, put on the tissue-paper hat that never fits properly and read out the dumb joke? I just let the whole circus roll.

Okay, so there was one conflict towards the end of the night but it arose from another family member’s angst, not mine. I’m not wearing it!

Happy new year to everyone out there in blog land.