Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Some people are aware, even as children, they suffer from anxiety. Others, like me, become aware of it, in adulthood.

As a mental health professional, I'm trained to recognise anxiety, to understand the condition, and help people manage the symptoms associated with it.

I also suffer from anxiety myself, though thankfully it is not as debilitating as it once was, and doesn't stop me enjoying a fulfilling life, these days, at the age of fifty.  Although I haven't had an acute anxiety attack for many decades, my symptoms used to include terrifying experiences like sleep paralysis, where I would frequently wake up, and be unable to move or speak, with a fear that some impending doom was about to befall me, and I was powerless to do anything about it.  It was a miserable time to live through and has left me with a fear that this could return at any time, although statistically, that's highly unlikely.  But still, our deepest, most animalistic fears are embedded from childhood, babyhood perhaps, and logic and reasoning do little to take away anxiety about trauma reoccuring.

A greater understanding of anxiety, how common it is - for most of us suffer with some degree of anxiety from time to time - and where it comes from, and what is actually happening to the body during these frightening episodes, helped me to learn strategies for managing my emotions, when I became aware I was starting to feel anxious.  The more I managed the anxiety, the less afraid I became and the greater my confidence grew, to the degree where I even write about anxiety in blogs and novels, which I publish, fully aware that someone might dislike what I have written and attack me for it.  I guess I've reached a point where my level of self-acceptance is such that my respect for myself, is greater than the respect I might gain or lose from others.

There have been times when the anxiety disappeared almost completely, and this happened whenever I found myself settled, in a secure and permanent relationship.
For me, the early stages of a relationship are not simply exciting, they're also plagued with feelings of uncertainty, as I try to work out if I can really trust this person I'm investing my emotions in, after all, like any other parent, I have my children's happiness and security to consider and prioritise too. Boyfriends who couldn't empathise with my concerns, and had a more easy come, easy go attitude to love, never lasted long with me, and by the time I was forty, I got good at recognising the warning signs and keeping those guys at bay.  But even the secure, long term relationships had a habit of failing over time, and then of course, the feelings of anxiety returned.

Some people are aware, even as children, that they struggle with anxiety.  Others like me, manage to suppress things until they reach adolescence, or in my case, my twenties - it was the night I went into hospital to deliver a stillborn little girl, and suddenly all these feelings of loss and abandonment overwhelmed every cell of my being.  Three months later, I was still suffering, and had developed a fear of going outside the house.  I was encouraged by my GP to go along to counselling, and my education about anxiety, and the slow road to recovery, began there, with medication and literally hundreds of hours of therapy to talk about where my fears were coming from.

These days, I don't need medication, or therapy. I'm remarkably happy, given the dreadful times we're living in.  But it's important we keep talking about the full spectrum of stress and anxiety and depression, because so many of us would benefit from a deeper understanding and more compassion from society.

Recent news that the next Labour Government would abolish the Bedroom Tax, sack ATOS and reinstate EMA for students staying on at school, is greatly welcomed

Several years ago, I was left homeless with two young children.

Fortunately, back then, we had a Labour administration that was committed to helping people fulfil their potential; single mums in particular, were urged to consider retraining, which was fully funded by the Government, and there was no pressure to look for work if you opted for training, as long as you had a child still in the education system.

We managed to find somewhere to rent (housing benefit covered the entire rent in those days, so you were completely protected in that sense, and of course there was no Bedroom Tax, so your family didn't suffer the added stress of living in overcrowded conditions) and as soon as the trauma of the relationship breakdown had passed and I felt strong enough, I embarked on three years of further education to gain my diploma in counselling, which promised me far greater job opportunities and freedom from relying on having a partner to help raise my children.

The whole initiative was about empowering women, and an added benefit was that as a parent, by going to college yourself, you were endorsing education to your children, leading by example.  When your own children reached the age of 16, they were entitled to EMA, at the higher rate of £30 per week, if you were on a low income.  All of these measures helped to lift people out of poverty, giving people every opportunity to fulfil themselves and have a decent quality of life.

Through college, I gained not only knowledge and skills, but equally, self-confidence.  It made me look at the poor life choices I'd made in the past; never again was I going to feel pressured into being with a man who was actually quite a negative role model for my sons to grow up around.

All of these things seem to be hated by the Conservatives, and their attack on welfare has attempted to drag us all back to the bad old days, when women had few choices and children grew up in families which were far from happy.

Although the Coalition Government has slashed services for those with mental health problems, I have been lucky enough to find work using my diploma, though full-time hours in this field are very hard to come by, as the Conservatives appear to see no value in supporting people with emotional problems, even though the World Health Organisation regularly expresses concern at the rapidly rising rate of depression. Studies suggest that by 2030, more people across the world, will suffer from depression, than will be affected by cancer, diabetes, heart disease or malaria.

The recent news that the next Labour government would abolish the Bedroom Tax, sack ATOS and reinstate EMA for students staying on at school, is greatly welcomed and puts some clear water now between Labour and the Tories, as the next General Election looms on the horizon.

In May 2015, voters will have a choice between Labour, who will help individuals from poorer backgrounds fulfil their potential again, and more brutal attacks on the poor, and the services they rely on, from the Conservatives.

Friday, 25 October 2013

After the eloquence and passion of Russell Brand's Newsnight interview on Wednesday, Thursday's Question Time was as dull as dishwater.

Many are saying the BBC's Question Time has become harder and harder to watch, over the last couple of years, as panels are frequently made up of guests from the right of politics and the media, with one token lefty (invariably someone with an arts background), to try and offer a gossamer illusion of impartiality.

Last night the sole voice from the left was writer, Owen Jones, against Tory, Liz Truss, Lib Dem, Tim Farron, (New) Labour's Caroline Flint, and Daily Mail columnist, Peter Hitchens, and it was interesting to see the other panelists take any available opportunity, to nod along in agreement with the young writer, whenever he spoke, as if a modicum of his growing popularity might somehow rub off on them, if they appeared to share some of his values and concerns, superficially, at least.

At one point, things descended into something of a spiteful cat fight between Flint and Truss, the two women either side of David Dimbleby, spitting insults at one another, which amounted to nothing more helpful or intelligent than, "It's all your fault!"... "No, you're to blame for this!"  Was that really the cream of talent available from 650 MPs!!

The last question of the evening was, "As politicians and political commentators, what would you say to those who feel disillusioned with the current political system?"

Tim Farron floundered his way through; the final audience member comment, summing up the mood of the crowd, and the country, with how betrayed she felt by Nick Clegg after the last election and how this has contributed to people's lack of trust in politicians generally.

Hitchen's advised, "Anyone still young enough, should emigrate before it's too late!!"

Owen Jones reminded us our grandmothers and grandfathers fought for all our rights,  they weren't just handed to workers out of kindness and compassion, from those in power, and he urged people to get organised and make their dissenting voices heard, as our ancestors had done in the past.  Don't just accept that these people at the top have the right to abuse their power, he concluded, to rapturous applause.

His voice of reason did little though, to make the programme bearable, because the rants and empty rhetoric from the other guests were just too nauseating to stomach.

After the eloquence and passion of Russell Brand's Newsnight interview on Wednesday, Question Time was as dull as dishwater, and I'm not surprised more and more in the UK, are losing all interest in traditional politics.

We need change, big change, more than ever before, and I believe change will come, not least because Russell Brand is speaking for a whole generation; almost as many people follow @RustyRockets on Twitter, as voted for New Labour in 2010.  Sooner or later, the old will be booted out, to make way for something new.  Owen Jones will inevitably be a part of that movement and debate, but as for Truss, Flint, Farron, Hitchens etc, my guess is, they're so set in their ways, change and adaptation would simply not be possible for them.  Expect a crop of mediocre no holds barred autobiographies, over the coming years, all destined to gather dust on the bargain shelves of supermarkets, each Christmas time!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

JK Rowling has contributed far more to our lives and culture, than government ministers ever could.

JK Rowling, inspirational, beautiful, brimming with integrity.  She's donated millions to charity, pays a fortune in UK taxes, given a whole generation of children a life-long passion for literature, and been a fantastic role model for single mums everywhere!
But had Iain Duncan Smith been the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions back in 1993, when Jo Rowling was a struggling single parent, the Harry Potter series might never have been published.

A comment came to my attention recently, in one of the more notorious daily newspapers, that the Harry Potter author had no business sitting in cafes, writing her books, languishing on state hand-outs, and that she should have been walking the streets, looking for work instead, and certainly this would seem to be the current Conservative position on welfare claimants, a view that has helped to earn them their Nasty Party reputation, once again.  Duncan Smith would perhaps have forced Ms Rowling into a zero-hours contract as an office cleaner  or supermarket check-out assistant, feeling this was more suitable work for single mothers.  Perhaps someone at the Jobcentre might even have advised her to get any silly nonsense about being an author, out of her head, and told her to make sure she logged onto the Universal Job Match site at least once a day, to apply for every job she was physically capable of doing.  By the time she finished all those applications, she wouldn't perhaps have had the energy, or will, to write another chapter, before turning in for the night.

Rachel Reeves, Labour's new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has declared she's going to be even tougher on benefit claimants, than the Tories are, and so presumably she would also have denied Ms Rowling the opportunity to write her masterpieces.
How dare these rich ministers, from their privileged backgrounds, condemn those, who are struggling to make ends meet, and deny them the chance to fulfil themselves, follow their dreams and turn their lives around.  For every JK Rowling, there's probably a hundred other talented unpublished authors claiming benefits, stamped down, their ambition and hope killed dead, as they fill out yet another application form for a part-time receptionist.
JK Rowling has contributed far more to our lives, our culture (and treasury) than any government minister ever could!

At 14, I was told, by the year 2000, society would be humane and tolerant and our lives would focus mainly around our leisure time. So where did it all go wrong?

More and more of us seem to be asking, through our 40s and 50s, Well, is this it then, life?   And, how the hell did I get to be here?

Inspired by others, writing about their feelings and experiences, hopes, fears, disappointments, I’ve been pondering these questions myself, of late...

I recall being about 14, and in the media and in day to day life at school, people were talking about how, by the year 2000, the vast majority of our time would be spent on leisure activities, due to the mechanisation of all the traditional industries.  It was felt that we’d always need teachers, medics, policemen, politicians and journalists, but even these would be only part-time positions, to allow everyone to have a few hours work each week and maintain a high level of employment.  An increasing number of us would work in the arts, enriching our society, and some people would spend their whole lives in education; learning, for its own sake, would be a perfectly acceptable life choice.  Energy would be revolutionised and sourced from clean, renewable means, and society would be much more tolerant, and much more healthy, as stress in people’s lives was replaced by contentment.

The world I live in, in 2013, is not much like that utopian teenage dream.  Those who are lucky enough to have jobs, are often not working sufficient hours to enjoy a decent quality of life, and frequently find themselves scraping through to the end of each month; through abject desperation, many resort to loan sharks and legal pay day lenders. An increasing number find themselves with no alternative but to access charity handouts at community food banks, in the ongoing struggle to feed their children.

Job security no longer exists as it once did. Unemployment is high in our failing economy, and despite the minimum wage, pay and conditions for a great many workers, are poor due to Margaret Thatcher's callous erosion of worker's rights, and Tony Blair's failure to repeal her anti-union legislation.  In the last few years, the introduction of zero hours contracts, and the unpaid workfare scheme, where claimants (including those with fairly severe physical and mental disabilities) are forced to work for their benefits, give people few rights and destroy their dignity, and naturally, are frequently likened to slavery.  And far from tolerance, any of us dependent on housing benefit, or tax credits to help meet our family’s needs, can expect condemnation and demonization from those in the media and politicians... particularly politicians.  
Work itself, sees more and more of us under pressure,  as targets are set and need to be met, and while we have more education about health and wellbeing, the level of stress we’re all under, puts us at increased risk of heart disease, cancer and a whole range of mental health problems, often making family life unbearably difficult, so that more and more of us end up divorced and trying to bring our children up without any support from a partner.  Mental illness is now the biggest single cause of disability in the UK, and psychiatric problems are set to continue rising, with the World Health Organisation predicting that by 2030, more people will suffer from depression, than suffer from cancer, heart disease, diabetes or malaria.

As a nation, we're not more social than we were back in the 70s.  A record number of people are living alone, and loneliness among the elderly has hit a point of national crisis.  Because women are required now, to work full time, well into their 60s, they are no longer available to take care of elderly relatives and yet residential care for the elderly has been plagued with case after case of neglect and abuse - the source of more worry for many families.
Not only have successive governments failed the green energy challenge, but ruthless energy bosses, given a free reign by ministers, have hiked up prices for gas and electricity so obscenely, that middle and low income households are officially being advised to wear extra jumpers around the house, as an alternative to turning the heating up.  

Homelessness is evident in all our towns and cities now, because politicians have refused to build social housing, and private sector rents have soared, just like utility bills, as fat cats exploit those with few options available to them, again, completely unchallenged by their chums in government.

The arts budget has been slashed by the current government, and local councils have been forced to reduce library opening times, or close them altogether, as if free access to books is some sort of luxury, society can no longer afford to provide! 

And then there’s the recent attacks on the migrant population.

My children’s generation will be the first, in the UK, who can expect to be poorer than their parents.  Now, I can see why aristocratic Tories would be slavering at this prospect; for them, it is fait accompli, I am sure.  But how the hell could Labour have allowed this hideous social disaster to have occurred completely unchallenged, and who on earth has the intelligence and the skill to reverse this trend, so that my children, and their children can fulfil their potential and actually realise their dreams, not their nightmares?...

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Sometimes, dare to dream...

I dreamt, last night, that blissful and most cruel of dreams; love and a sense of belonging, much more powerful than any form of lust.

Someone I had admired for such a long time, disclosed their respect and love for me, and I did not question it for a second, for these feelings were entirely reciprocated by myself and had been for some time.  It seemed so genuine, in the deepest part of my being, it felt right and real.

Quickly, we became inseparable, symbiosis, such as I had never before experienced, not just physically in tune, emotionally, intellectually, philosophically, so much so, I should have surely questioned it, but every cell of my being was so much in the moment, there was no space for doubt.  This was the me, that had always existed, and finally someone had not only noticed that person, but actually wanted her.

To wake from this, was sad, for sure; the sense of loss, colossal, even though the connection existed only in my mind.  I wanted to return to my blissful slumber, and stay there for a hundred years.

As you go about your busy daily life, getting from A to B, one eye on the calendar, the other, on the clock, sometimes, stop, and dare to dream...

Friday, 4 October 2013

Enchanting, hilarious, nostalgic and progressive: Review of Robert Newman, Komedia Bath, 25-09-2013

Ok, you know what it's like...  You're going into the tail end of the most mood enhancing heat wave summer you can ever remember, the kids are back at school tomorrow, and already your local supermarket has a designated aisle, just bursting with tinsel and advent calendars.

The very concept of the four months ahead, is enough to bring you right down, so your friend suggests you both need something to look forward to, before the "C" word takes over every television channel, every newspaper and every shopping trip.  There's a bit of a buzz going round on Twitter; apparently Robert Newman is doing an autumn tour, and one of the first performances is in Bath. You live very near to Bath.  "Let's do it!!"  you say.  "Can't wait!!"

Broken Umbrella by emichii
The end of September comes, the sunshine skies and candy floss clouds are a dim and distant memory, as you shuffle to work with your umbrella with a broken spoke and shoes that leak when they get too wet.  A trip to the cash point machine confirms pay day is still two days away, you're getting a print out to check you have enough for the gig ticket you need to buy online tonight.   "Why did I leave it this late?" you curse, under your breath, as you try to balance the broken umbrella on your shoulder, pressing NO when the machine asks you if you want another service.

The following evening, you make your way to the Komedia, in shoes that make a strange squelching sound, because they're still wet from the day before.  Neither you, nor your friend have paid £23 for the included pre-show meal, you just about rustle up four quid for two cups of tea to try and warm your shivering bones, and you realise you've arrived so early, you literally have your choice of seats - literally!!  The only other people here, are eating!!  Since you're the kind of person who always arrives late to everything, this is a strange phenomena, and the critical superego inside your head urges you to take a seat at the back, where you usually end up, but, "NO!"  says your friend, "let's sit right at the front!"  So, somewhat reluctantly, you sit down in the second row, near the centre of the stage. Wow, you can see everything from here, the cup of tea is warming you up and you have plenty of time for a proper catch up about life and love, before the show begins.

I have read all of Robert Newman's novels.  Well no, I have bought all of Robert Newman's novels, but the third one, "The Fountain at the Centre of the World", sits defiantly on the blanket box next to my bed, half read... ignored.. neglected... I know, I know, he's such a good writer, but these days, I'm such bad reader.   I do intend to read in bed, but so often it feels easier, less demanding, to lie there watching yet another episode of Taggart on YouTube.  I've become lazy, I know this.  There's also a part read copy of  J K Rowling's "The Casual Vacancy" (I'm stuck on page 54 of that!!!), again, it sits there sulking, making me feel guilty, and yet there are hundreds of episodes of Taggart, beckoning me, seducing me, each bedtime... come and watch us, come and watch us... you won't have to think too much... and if you fall asleep we really won't mind, we'll even switch the laptop off for you at the end.  Scintillating prose or gruesome deaths and eagerly awaiting the moment when someone declares, "Therrs bin a mrrrdrrr!"   In the end, Taggart always wins.

Brilliant books by my bedside

But back to the Komedia, and after I've subjected my friend to all the gory details of my tiresome, tragic love life (probably due to the Taggart thing!) on walks Robert Newman, to rapturous applause.  This man is much loved and the place is now packed full of people around my age, all telling those sitting next to them how the last time they saw Rob, it was the 90s, and how they miss Jarvis and History Today.

I last saw Rob Newman with David Baddiel, live in 1992, I must have been either just pregnant with my oldest son, or shortly to become pregnant, it was the Coulston Hall in Bristol, and already there were rumours that Newman and Baddiel were falling out of love, as it were.     The first thing you notice about Robert, is how well he's aged, and I'm trying not to call to mind that rather unfortunate 2010 photograph of David Baddiel sitting on a camel.  It was such an unflattering angle!  None of this, with Mr Newman, he's grown into his slim, maturing body with integrity and ease, but then, I always thought he had an old man's mind, in a young man's body.   Baddiel used to say that writing and performing with Newman was frustrating, upsetting at times, because Robert, it is said, struggled with depression, low self esteem, paranoia, seldom valuing his own work, and David Baddiel has said how hurtful it was, to work really hard on something together, only for his comedy partner to immediately dismiss it as rubbish.  All of which left me wondering, who really had the low self esteem here?!!

Robert sounds less cynical now, and chatters away in an upbeat style, at times he seems positively optimistic, at others there's a slight sneer at this heartless, capitalist society we find ourselves living in.  You can feel the audience all sharing a silent appreciative "That's our Robert" sigh. 

The show is less political than solo performances in the past, more philosophical, Robert's humour has always been quite kind, if slightly bleak (where David Baddiel's style was perhaps more caustic) and here is a man who likes people, loves humanity, and wants to play a part in enlightening a few of us, as he meanders his way through life, taking far more dirt tracks than motorways, I would imagine.

Touching on Darwin and Dawkins, Laurel and Hardy, ancient humans, red harvester ants, flatworms, buffalos and matriarchal ape communities, the performance skips along pleasantly and with ease.  New characters, like the scary landlord, and funny little stories about family life enchant us (and it's a great relief that he must be finally over "Rachel") yet perhaps the biggest cheer takes us right back to Mary Whitehouse Experience days, when Robert was greatly respected as an impressionist, and he dons obligatory square framed specs to amuse everyone with a brilliant Ronnie Corbett monologue, which has us all in stitches.  There's also, naturally, a song, though the regular ukulele is now a banjo uke, but you get a warm feeling, like a big snuggly hug, taking you back to your 20s and 30s and a time when drama was so cool, and music was cool, and comedy was cool and even soap operas were cool (I bet most of us in the audience used to watch Brookie!)  Somehow Robert manages to connect with your younger self, while leading you into a future, which he reassures us, is surprisingly bright, considering all the dark things we have to contend with in 2013.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening!  My only regret... that I didn't have enough cash in my account to buy a copy of his new novel, "The Trade Secret", and get it signed, but hey, I won't leave it so long next time, and I won't go the day before pay day!!  It's been another knackering week, the evening is late, my duvet beckons, but perhaps I'll shut the laptop down, "Not tonight, Taggart".  Perhaps, instead, I'll pick up that book by the side of my bed.