Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

When Elton John opined that ‘Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’, he wasn’t wrong let me tell you. Sorry is one of those words that is very definite and emotive. We use it in so many multiple situations and yet there is rarely ambiguity inculcated in its meaning.

Here, I do not intend to address the perfunctory sorry which results from somebody being unable to hear what you are saying and making polite if frantic gestures towards their ear. Neither am I talking about the performative sorry that is sometimes said when a child has promised not to eat any more sweets or biscuits, and they are caught red-handed by a parent sporting a chocolate sculpture on their face.

Lastly I’m not talking about a political apology like the one Nick Clegg was forced into after making a U-turn on scrapping tuition fees. The parody video was hilarious but given that many students voted for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats on this basis, the parody video may have been funny, but the resulting fallout was no laughing matter. The Liberal Democrats paid the price for this with a huge reduction in seats at the last General Election.

But there is another kind of sorry which is altogether more serious. The kind of sorry whereupon you really hurt somebody, and a genuine sincere apology has to come from the bottom of the annals of your heart and soul. It is that kind of sorry which is the business of this post today.

It is very personal to me as a writer, and I suspect very personal to the people who will end up reading it. It is rare for me to write such a directly targeted piece, but in this instance I deem it absolutely necessary. I will set out what happened, why the sorry is necessary, and ways forward which enable I and the people concerned to have a better relationship personally and professionally in the future.

I had always known I was trans, even if I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it when I was growing up. As the song ‘Who Will Love Me as I Am?’ from the musical Side Show has it “always knew that I was different; often fled into a dream.” This is true and the song itself is very special to me, for it articulates deftly and superbly how I feel about my life.

I was born different anyway. I was born with cerebral palsy three months early. So difference was not an alien concept. I transitioned at 25 with the full support of the hostel where I was living at the time, John Darling Mall and the staff there, many of whom I now count as personal friends, and why wouldn’t you after you’ve gone through such a seminal profound experience together? I was also supported throughout by an experienced counsellor who specialised in gender issues, and she had also been a Special Educational Needs teacher prior to becoming a counsellor.

It is fair to say that I bloomed and blossomed for the first five years of my transition. I began writing professionally, I dressed as I wished and found a home for myself at the local gay club. I continued my passion for theatre and show tunes and general fluff and camp whimsy.

For those who don’t know I did come out as gay at 18, but it just didn’t work. I did try my absolute best to make it work. Looking back, it was kind of like going halfway along the yellow brick road, but never quite making it to Finian’s Rainbow.

So in becoming trans, I realised what I really was. I have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, with the onset period for this being mid to late childhood.

Through my writing, I attracted the attention of many prominent trans activists, and it is they who this apology post is predominantly aimed at. Writing from a particular viewpoint seems to constitute activism, and the more you write, the more people get to know you, the more people are interested in watching what you have to say but perhaps most crucially to this post the more people expect of you. You’re expected to have an opinion on certain issues. You’re expected to know your way around them and to give comment upon the said issue at a moment’s notice.

As well as the serious stuff, I threw myself into the LGBT party scene, meeting many interesting and colourful people who were and still are beautiful inside and out.

So my writing career was flourishing. I was encouraged and almost indirectly mentored by some very kind people. There was an initiative built around better representation of trans people in the media, entitled All About Trans, run by a company called On Road Media.

I was asked if I would like to participate in what was known as an interaction with other trans friends, between us and the BBC. Although I can’t quite trace back the exact timing, this is when my trans journey began to turn sour and fall apart, all I have to say because of my own actions which were foolish and stupid and I take full responsibility for them.

Suffice to say I bottled out of the interaction with the BBC, which could have been useful to me, given that I was already writing and desperately wanted to pursue a career in journalism, both written and broadcast.

But my Jungian shadow side was coming out to play and nagging thoughts of low self-esteem, lack of confidence and lack of self-belief crept into my mind. Along with these, thought of body hatred and ugliness crept into my mind.

Why would the BBC be interested in you? What have you got to offer? What can you bring to the dialogue?” Also, I was worried I didn’t look as good as the others.

Over time I isolated myself. I began to feel really inferior in comparison to my other trans friends.

At some point I began dialogue with radical feminists. They want to see an end to gender and an end to gender expression. Through a radical feminist prism, there would be no need to transition because everybody could live freely and dress how they wanted.

On some levels, this is a utopian and laudable aspiration. However, its implementation and ultimate realisation as a framework built around society feels more tricky for me.

I will come on to explain why later.

But at the time I found radical feminism, I was at a low ebb in my life. Nobody forced me into anything and nobody forced me to look further into it. I did so freely and of my own volition.

In a sense for me it allowed an escape route from the things I have always found tricky about being trans. Radical feminists were supportive and empathic to me around disability issues for example, and issues around appearance, and my perceived

inferiority. In some ways this isn’t only perceived it is something I still feel quite strongly. Radical feminists too spoke truth to power about doing womanhood differently, free of the need to placate and comply with male expectations.

All this seemed very inspiring to me and I did learn a lot from my time alongside the radical feminist movement.

The main desire of radical feminism is to smash patriarchy – that is to say male dominance and male power structures within society which preclude women from full participation and power in society. Again, this was attractive given I’d been abused emotionally by a man who was powerful physically as he was mentally. I found him intimidating in terms of his height and demeanour.

Whereas many people are comfortable with trans people in society, radical feminists see trans people and the need to transition as a genuine obstacle to ending gender. Some say openly that trans women are really men and vice versa. Moreover, some say that trans women are really gay men and vice versa. But this rhetoric is a sideshow compared to my own issues with trans stuff, which I feel I must lay bare in order that my apology will be sincere and from the heart.

Radical feminists will say that transition and trans people all about dressing up and it is all about focus on the clothes they wear.

Whilst I can attest wholeheartedly there is more to transition, than clothes, make up and other superficial things, the focus on appearance is something I have always struggled with.

When I first started blogging, and when the trans community first got to know me through Facebook, one of the things I noticed compared to non-trans friends was the abundance of selfies trans people posted. I am not blaming them for doing this. That would not be constructive or consistent with the aims of this post. However, the endless stream of compliments based on appearance or fashion choices was often hard to read for me and envy crept in. Envy morphed into jealousy, and jealousy morphed into a real melancholy stubborn sadness that just would not go away. It took up residence in the heartbreak hotel one might say.

Relevant to this in a more overarching sense is my disability. For most people being trans is a monism, it is the main oppression they have to deal with. But for me trans is a dualism alongside my disability.

When seen in the context of this dualism it is not hard to understand why being trans and disabled is difficult. I will try to set it out though as best I can for my own benefit and for yours.

Trans focuses in the physical sense on giving you the body of your dreams, for the male to female trans woman, gaining breasts and a vagina and losing a penis. Being a trans man on the other hand means losing breasts, gaining a deeper voice and gaining a penis perhaps.

But in my case, and in the case of physical disability more broadly, whilst trans focuses upon bodily perfection and looking fantastic, physical disability brings to the fore the imperfect, the damaged and the difficult. This is a very difficult conundrum to live with as a trans person and for the avoidance of doubt I don’t use the word conundrum as a light touch.

So much of trans is imbued with the politics of passing, that is to say looking as much like the everyday woman as possible and avoiding people knowing you are trans. Some people who can pass very well manage to live in stealth which is conducive to this objective. But being a person with a physical disability is not. Due to the need for me, and others to have personal care to various degrees, privacy is non-existant.

Of course there is so much more to being trans than the physical transition and I accept that to some these previous paragraphs may look a little crude both in form and delivery.

My aim in their inclusion though is not to rehearse physical transition procedures. It is something a little deeper. I want us all to think a little deeper now.

Think about it. Trans and disability. It’s a real paradox. And to be honest, you would never sit trans and disability next to each other intentionally in the pub.

The focus on the perfect versus the imperfect. The focus on beauty. The focus on thinness and losing weight. These all present real mental challenges, which are sometimes painful to me at a trans person. Let us take the example of somebody raising money for surgery. They can raise that money and reach their goal, and come to the end of it with self-satisfaction. While I know that no amount of money and no amount of Go Fund Me will take away my cerebral palsy.

And there is too much stupid focus on silly tropes which have no basis in theory or reality. Something like “trans girls are prettier than cis girls” for example may act as a comfort blanket and shield for some but may hurt others who feel they will never reach that standard of perfection. So, there are issues around language and how that impacts upon others. It also gives succour to the idea that trans people are misogynistic. Why provide that ammunition? It is I have to say something of an own goal.

Knowing that my canvas is already damaged and a surgeon will never be able to work on it is a huge source of grief for me. The reason why you would never sit trans and disability down together in the pub intentionally is because there are far more limitations imposed upon the disabled trans person than the average trans person. I know if I was able-bodied and normal in society’s eyes I would have had surgery by now it would have been done and dusted and a part of my life which would have been my history. I also envy trans people who have experienced and those who will go on to experience this reality. Now, it’s a fair comment to say that not every trans person has surgery. This is true. Nobody holds a gun to people’s heads and forces them to have it.

However, I always wanted it. Two buzzwords which often float around these days are choice and agency. To be told you can’t have something is a very different beast from actively considering something and deciding you don’t want to pursue it. When I could see other trans peers actively reaching their goals I was happy for them, but also I had a splash of sadness too.

So in short I decided to leave the trans world behind because the ardent focus on visuals and visual perfection versus the dualism of a deformed and damaged body which could never match up to trans beauty standards was too much to bear. I thought that the best way to cure this would be to aim for a gender free world where would everybody looked like didn’t matter and whatever anyone’s disabilities or abilities were was a mere irrelevance.

But transition rests not only on physicality and biology. There is also a social transition to be made, and that also frustrated me that there was not much discussion of this within the trans community. The visual aesthetic seemed to reign supreme. For more thoughts on being disabled and trans I commend this piece from Medium to you, by Jordan Gwendolyn-Davies. It articulates many of the frustrations I feel on a daily basis.

But social transition is where I come unstuck on the radical feminist trajectory. Whilst radical feminists offer a world where we are free of gender and speak consistently about how wonderful it would be, we are not yet there in present reality.

Therefore, there are still different social expectations placed upon men and women. After being transitioned for so many years (it will be 10 this year, if this temporary blot on the landscape is discounted) it was very hard to adjust to being a man again. I felt like my world had changed from shocking pink to magnolia in 360°. Society is not a gender free entity.

I said that when I entered into the world of radical feminism I was at a low ebb. Trust me that ebb got lower. I don’t blame anybody for this, no individual radical feminists no individual branch of theory, merely circumstance. Social media which had once provided pleasure, now provided only torment and sadness. Instead of using it constructively, I used it to lash out and be nasty to trans people in ways that I’m not proud of, which fell far short of the standards of behaviour I set for myself and others. In a broader sense, I ended up on Mirtazapine, which is a very strong antidepressant drug.

In terms of physical side effects, the main one was weight gain. I’m still not happy about this but there is not a lot I can do. But over time Mirtazapine became beneficial and the fog and misery of depression began to clear. I knew what had brought me to this point of needing a strong antidepressant, and what would pull me back from it. Before I transitioned I was very depressed really depressed. After I transitioned, I wasn’t always mentally stable and I still had frustrations, but I could cope better with daily life and even enjoy it. I am convinced that the catalyst for this was transition. So I knew what I needed to do to pull myself out of the mire. In late summer after not complying with my trans-medical regime of daily hormones, and an injection every 10 weeks, I returned to my GP and asked him to reinstate the medication onto my prescription list. I do take other disability -related medication which is irrelevant to this discussion.

Since then my mood is improved I have improved. I’m 10 times happier finding new people in life to engage with, forging some positive artistic and creative relationships. I have rediscovered my musical and writing sensibilities and feel at peace with myself. I am now happy to say also that my body is a Mirtazapine and antidepressant free zone for the first time in 10 years. I weaned off them gradually under supervision from my GP, following the pattern he set and I am feeling no ill effects. My GP suggests that I have done well to do so.

I would be a liar if I said that nobody has ever de-transitioned. However I’m telling the absolute honest truth, hand on my heart when I say it just didn’t work for me at all. It pushed me right back to square one. In fact it pushed me right back to the time when I was first told at college I needed to take antidepressants by a very empathic counsellor. I’m not saying it undid all the progress along the way for I have always been there. I have always been present throughout in the moment.My indomitable flame and spirit may have faded during that time but they were always there, and I am forced now in a healthier place to re-examine my conscience and my actions during that time.

Depression may provide a rationale for out of character behaviour, however a rationale is not the same as a get out of jail free card.

In ending this post, there are people I would like to apologise to. They include but are not limited to:

Paris Lees – You were one of the first people to see potential in my writing. You were so pleased when I got the article published in the New Statesman just after Lucy Meadows’ tragic death. We last spoke on Skype when you offered me the chance to collaborate with you and Roz Kaveney on a blog version of the innovative and intuitive META magazine. From then onwards I isolated myself and cut people off. I’m sorry for that and would like to work with you again in the future to do whatever needs to be done. Roz, I would like to apologise to you also for discrediting you on Twitter it was disgusting behaviour for which I’m deeply ashamed.

Sarah Lennox – You also believed in my writing and supported it unconditionally. For that I am forever grateful. Along with Paris you planted a seed which let’s face it died for a bit but I hope it can be brought back to life. In a similar vein via you perhaps, I would also like to apologise to Alana and Natalie at On Road Media for letting them down regarding the interaction and not supporting subsequent endeavours.

Natacha Kennedy, Sophia Botha and Sabine – This apology is for the Twitter abuse you suffered at my hands. I apologise for that, I realise it must have caused deep trauma and hurt after you extending the hand of friendship to me. I am sorry I betrayed that trust and hope we can move forward in a spirit of reconciliation if not immediate regained trust.

Sophia Banks – similar Twitter abuse really. I’m sorry for it and will never do such things again, the same goes for CN Lester, and every other trans person I have let down with my actions

This is not an exhaustive list, and if you’re not on it it doesn’t mean I don’t care about the hurt I’ve caused you. This apology extends to you too.

Why I wrote as I did about the difficulties around me being trans and disabled is not to provide a critique of or raise the temperature in the trans community. It is what I should have done in the first place; used my writing gifts to articulate my feelings instead of running away as I did lashing out at people non-constructively and causing a great deal of hurt, anger and upset to people I care about.

A friend feels that I was trying to rid myself of one oppression, given that I can’t in her words un-disable myself. But the strategy was flawed. I just ended up more hurt and more lost than ever before. The absolute truth of the matter is that to me I couldn’t un-trans myself either.

There is much unhelpful language from trans people as there is invective directed towards trans people. Telling women that they are witches and should be burned is no more helpful than telling trans women they are really men.

One of the main reasons de-transition didn’t work for me either centres around socialisation. Much of radical feminist theory is predicated on the idea that males and females experience a different form of socialisation due to the way they are treated respectively.

Now there is no doubt in my mind that women and girls are exposed to a disproportionate amount of sexism and misogyny throughout the life course. This is regrettable disgusting and every effort must be made by Government and other agencies to reduce the grip of sexism and misogyny upon society. Socialisation and the theory thereof suggests that whilst girls are taught to be caring and nurturing, men are taught to be tough physical and competitive. However I think that there is far more variance in socialisation experience than is shown by exploring these two variables in isolation

For example, an only child as I am experiences the world very differently to somebody with a number of siblings for example. Whether a child’s parents are divorced and who they spend most of their time with also affects socialisation. Finally, variables like disability, which may affect physicality also mediate within socialisation. My contention is here there is no one single socialisation as a monolithic boy or a monolithic girl, but instead a plurality of socialisation possibilities for both sexes or neither. This is why radical feminism doesn’t work for me. It limits itself to the binary and the black-and-white at a time when the shades of grey looking increasingly interesting and relevant to contemporary society and Sociology.

Finally, Elton John was right. Sorry is the hardest word. But it is a word worth saying. It is worth saying in order to prove our integrity, sincerity and honesty to the people we care about. Those reading this can be in no doubt that these words come from my heart and are written with the utmost integrity honesty and sincerity in mind.

So What Is A ‘Mental Health Patient’ Costume Exactly?

mental patient costume

The chances are that if you have ever been to your GP surgery and been diagnosed with a chest infection it was a very mundane affair. Of course, as with anything medical there is always the risk of complicating factors and underlying issues being discovered. However, in most cases your GP will listen to your chest and if they find an infection, taking into account your clinical presentation you will be sent on your way with some bacteria killing broad-spectrum antibiotics.

For the patient presenting with mental health problems though, the journey is a harder one. Unlike those with physical problems, patients with mental health problems present with fewer definable symptoms which are suggestive of certain diagnoses.

There are no rashes, no physical pain and no real visual or sensory clues.

What an effective diagnosis of a mental health problem relies upon is a positive professional relationship between doctor and patient, consisting of a willingness to listen, and from the patient perspective, a feeling that their concerns have been heard and understood, they can trust the medical professional, and lastly that they feel empathy has been extended towards them.

Even medical professionals though are not beyond reproach and are not above learning more. Clinical training for the best of doctors should not end when they leave medical school. They should have an appetite to learn something new every day, to be scholars and make a difference to people. In the real world outside of the tutorial or the lecture hall, or even a clinical rotation it is arguably patients themselves who make the best teachers.

Too often in mental health though interactions between doctors and patients fall short of this ideal. My main objective in liaising with clinicians about my own mental health has always been to be heard and understood. But I am lucky. I am articulate, and I can converse well. Mental health patients are often hampered by archaic anachronisms embedded within the clinical system. Here’s a paradox for you. Those working with anorexic patients will always tell them that their disorder is not about food and weight and this is true. Yet simultaneously patients get caught in the imbroglio of the Body Mass Index. After being told that eating disorders are not about food and weight, with the aforementioned acting as a cipher for other issues, people are told that they have to be under a certain weight in order to receive treatment in the first instance. This seems to be counter intuitive at best and dangerous at worst, encouraging a dangerous game of eating disorder Russian roulette. It makes people feel that they’re not sick enough,and furthermore that they are wasting people’s time.

Of course none of this is true, but that is of little comfort to someone in the iron -like grip of an eating disorder. The greatest injustice of all is that this is perpetuated by the very system which people rely on to help them and that is wrong. Without getting past the gatekeepers, treatment from specialists in mental health conditions is just not an option let alone a pipe dream. This too can leave people feeling that they are a fraud.

What I hope I’ve demonstrated so far is that seeking help for a physical health problem is far less daunting than seeking help for its mental counterpart. Outside of the clinical setting, there are also the attitudes of your family, your friends and the wider public to consider. One of the most heart breaking realisations I have come to is that people are far more sympathetic to physical health problems than they are to mental health problems. With a physical problem, say a broken leg people receive sympathy and empathy because it is tangible; people can see it, touch it and relate to it perhaps.

When it comes to mental health problems, people’s first reaction is often to lean out instead of leaning in. Instead of showing sympathy or empathy, they are often nowhere to be seen. There is much stigma surrounding mental health. It is that stigma upon which the remainder of my argument focuses.

Halloween can be a challenging time for people with mental health problems. When I was a child we made pumpkin soup and made funny faces out of the pumpkin skin. But now it seems Halloween has taken on a much more sinister, visceral disguise.

I looked on Twitter the other night and happened upon a retweet from Dr Rory Conn a Specialist Paediatric Registrar in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Great Ormond Street hospital in London, and a Lord Darzi Fellow.

Dr Conn was drawing attention to this vile poster pictured at the top of this piece. The article from the Bournemouth Daily Echo can be found here and a Storify, containing Twitter’s reaction (credit:SectionedUK) can be found here.

Let us take a closer look firstly at the language and tenor of that poster. Even a layperson who is not a linguistic specialist would know that this disgusting advertisement is going to end in tears for Greene King as a responsible company and provider of leisure facilities.

The Broadway ‘Mental Asylum’ promises free shots for participants. The kind of fancy dress they are looking for is for people to dress as ‘deranged doctors and nurses’ and ‘mental patient’ (sic).

According to the Science Museum the last asylums closed in the 1970’s and 80’s. This harks back then to a time when mental health was less understood, and where people with mental health problems were treated as lepers, people to be feared and hidden from society. What is abundantly clear from the actual poster itself is that some of these attitudes still have some currency today and that is highly poignant. Moreover, it is demoralising for those with mental health problems, as well as those who work in the field of mental health either clinically, or in other capacities. It becomes almost an evangelistic obsession; to break down taboos and stigma so that people do not have to suffer in society.

But promotions like the Halloween event The Broadway pub attempted to run are counter-intuitive and reinforce the very stereotypes which clinicians, campaigners and others try to break down. First of all, doctors are not deranged and the word belongs to a bygone lexicon. I don’t doubt the fact that there are clinicians and other people in mental health whose own experiences have driven them to enter the profession. Unlike The Broadway clinicians and counsellors are there to make a difference.

Secondly, where these mental patient costumes you speak of? Do people wear a big flashing neon sign on their head saying mental patient? If so, please send me evidence for it is news to me.

As one tweeter Katie Hodgie enquired, should she come dressed as herself because she has mental health problems? She didn’t realise that she was scary enough for Halloween. I joked frostily that they should offer free shots to all people in ordinary clothes.

That is the crux of the argument upon which this case rests. Aside from prehistoric retrogressive mythmaking by shameful retailers, there is no stereotypical mental patient. Mental illness transcends barriers of sex and sexuality, race, age and disability to name just a few social categories.

A mental health patient could be anyone. It could be me, your best friend, your parent or sibling. It could be your bank manager, your GP, or the person at the checkout when you went to do your shopping. There are no visible signs of mental health problems so therefore anybody you meet today or tomorrow could have one. It is disgusting to cash in on people suffering, verging on the ghoulish and vulgar.

Are The Broadway genuinely so naive as to assume that nobody with a mental health problem visits their establishment? Are they really that stupid?

The fact that the night was withdrawn is a testament to the power of social media, and everybody who took part in the campaign as recorded in the Storify should feel justly proud. The Broadway however, were most unspooktacular in thinking that this cheap gimmick balanced on the backs of those who suffer as a result of mental health problems who have to endure such stigma was in any way a good idea.

The manager of The Broadway, Jay Cutler, quoted in the Bournemouth Daily Echo’s article seemed like a man who had just stepped off a rather scary ghost train, and I quote:

As of 8am this morning all the posters were taken down, we are sorry if these posters upset anybody, it was just a Halloween theme that all of the staff came up with.

The posters have been up for a week, this is the first we’ve heard of any problems and we acted straight away. We took all of them down and will now come up with a new theme.”

Oh the hubble, bubble toil and trouble they must have gone to taking those posters down at 8: 00 a.m. I can’t help but smile a little really. But the response worries me. As somebody who suffered with mental health problems for a substantive part of my life, the response does not elicit feelings of hope from me. The apology seems perfunctory rather than heartfelt. It’s not a matter of simply upsetting people. Furthermore, such a characterisation only serves to trivialise the matter, and implicitly suggest that Dr Conn et al were making something out of nothing.

Secondly I find it troubling that had been up for a week prior to any complaints. What signal does this send about the attitude of society towards mental health? A society high on cognitive dissonance, jet propelled by the rise of the individual; essentially that as long as one is okay in their own skin they do not need to worry about anybody else. Also Cutler claims that this was the first time that been aware of any problems. The theme was problematic from the outset and any good customer facing business should be able to deduce that at the very least. Why did no light bulb come on in Cutler’s own head when the theme was agreed to between himself and his staff? Notably though approval was not sought from Greene King, the brewery who operate the business. I suspect strongly that if they had been aware the theme would never have made it on to the poster.

But even they don’t get away scot free from admonishment. Whilst I’m aware that diversity is an important and noble cause, and one I actively encourage and support both as a woman with a disability, and a trans woman I feel it is irrelevant here. This does not fall under the banner of diversity but insensitivity. Those with mental health problems are not some diverse separate group with their own needs which need addressed. That is not to say that those with mental health problems do not have needs, rather than those needs should be addressed within mainstream society rather than categorised as something separate and other. This only adds to the stereotype of those with mental health problems as something freakish and beyond everyday understanding.

Staff should not be coming up with themes without approval centrally. Marketing specialists know the kind of ideas to sanction and ideas which are best left in the waste paper bin.

I also  blame the retailers, because if retailers did not produce and market these items themes like this would be impossible to conceive. To think that retailers are cashing in implicitly in people’s suffering beggar’s belief in a modern society.

Now, the UK’s parliament can be and ought to be an adversarial bear pit at times. But one of the most edifying and non-adversarial House of Commons debates I can remember is one where MPs met to discuss mental health. There were many distinguished contributions, with some MPs disclosing mental health problems for the first time. Now, if the UK Parliament can be grown up about it, and if the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn can appoint a Shadow Minister for Mental Health in Luciana Berger MP, who by the way is already making a sterling mark in the brief then why can’t the rest of society follow suit?

We can feel somewhat naïvely I think that huge progress has been made in the field of mental health. Every time we see a new documentary, a new symposium or a new initiative, such as the new campaign launched by Care Minister Alistair Burt MP and the charity Time to Change, we often lull ourselves into a false sense of security. We think that this means people get it. But the truth is these initiatives are preaching to the choir. We get it, because we’ve always got it. But there is still a sizeable chunk of the population which to put it quite bluntly does not. It is these people such initiatives need to cut through to. If mental health was truly understood, then BBC Three would never need to devote a whole slate of programs to mental health,  and people would not be waiting for huge pieces of time for treatment as highlighted by Liam Fox MP on the Victoria Derbyshire programme this week. Most germane to this essay though, is that reducing mental health patients to a mere caricature, something to be laughed at mocked and traduced would never have entered The Broadway’s theme no brain storming.

As Dr Conn makes plain in his remarks to the Echo such callous ambivalence to mental health problems has direct and tangible consequences. In the worst-case scenarios it leads to suicide, resulting from mistakes and errors sometimes by mental health professionals, but more often the problems begin with society. All people with mental health problems want is a friend, someone to talk not to be solution focused but just to listen and understand. Most often what people with mental health problems want is to be not just understood but to be truly heard. There is a remarkable difference between listening, active listening and truly hearing. I sat and listened to a friend for three hours once. I supported that friend, and I would do it again for anybody. I don’t want to hear endless accounts of people jumping in front of trains or off bridges. That is not because I am dissonant to them. Congruently I’m a highly sensitive and emotional person. But, it is because I want to stop people getting to that stage. I want people to be encouraged by peers to seek appropriate help and to augment their help with love empathy and understanding.

One thing I do know is that we must do better. But the stakes are too high to frame that as some lofty abstract ambition. We must do better, and friends we must do better now. Right now this minute. I wrote a blog in 2013 excoriating the supermarkets for cashing in with mental health problems, after hearing a discussion led by LBC presenter Cristo Foufas on the subject of mental patient costumes. I am furious and embarrassed to find myself in the same position a couple of years later. It proves that nothing has changed. We need to stop preaching to the choir and cut through to those who don’t understand because the stakes are too high and the need is too urgent. Let’s get to work. I have spent enough time with Rogers and Jung to know the benefits of therapeutic support under core counselling conditions. But just because after 16 years I’m antidepressant free doesn’t mean I stop caring. I don’t walk by on the other side. I am also not foolish enough to think that the scrappage of one idea in one pub in Britain means mental health stigma is over. What is saddening and maddening is that there are probably thousands of promotions which are predicated on similar tired boring disgusting tropes. To those who don’t get it, to those who don’t understand I say examine your conscience and walk a mile in the shoes of those with mental health problems. I don’t check my privilege here, I use my way with words to help people who feel voiceless and disempowered in the struggle with mental health problems. This blog is for you. I hope it shows that at least one person cares. When I had mental health problems I needed somebody to care too. I know what it is like to be on the phone to the Samaritans in the small hours. I know what it is like to be bullied at school and emotionally abused by someone who should take care of you. What I also know is that mental health patients are not a costume. So this and every Halloween I implore you to treat them as people, not as your spooktacular theme. You want your zinger marketing idea. I bet you wouldn’t want the mental health problem it mocks now would you idiots? Do better and do better now. We are not your marketing devices; we are human beings. Give us dignity and do better. I hope I never have to write such a blog again. Such blogs fall into the category of stating the bloody obvious. From a writer’s perspective they are the kind of blogs you never want to write, because they remind you that ghoulish voyeurism is still a persistent force in society and as we head towards Halloween I find that depressing, icy and chilling. Think and reflect. What is most chilling is that if Dr Rory Conn’s friend had not photographed the poster the event would have gone ahead and checked and free of scrutiny from Greene King. If that does not stir you from cognitive dissonance nothing will. It really is time to change.

Oh and the costume? You’re wearing it already.


Ed Miliband: What went wrong?

Two headline stories emerge from the General Election of 2015. The Conservatives won a majority, and the Labour Party lost and lost badly. It was one of the most exciting election nights of my lifetime, opening with a dramatic exit poll not even predicted by most psephologists, forecasting that the Conservatives would emerge as the largest party and probable victors. The Scottish National Party was on course to win almost every seat in Scotland.

For the Liberal Democrats though the news was bleak. In the same exit poll they were forecast to win just nine seats. The morning after resulted in the resignations of Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, former leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats respectively.

Somewhat inevitably, the psychodrama, backstabbing and soul-searching has begun in the Labour Party. It is painful to watch, as I was a child of Thatcher, but a teen and young adult of Blair. Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream was more than just a catchy pop song to me, it was a sincerely held truth and Tony Blair, together with John Prescott and his pledge card represented that truth. They had a vision for Britain, and demonstrated to the people of Britain how that vision would improve their lives. Crucially though they gained the trust of the British people, resulting in three election victories under Blair.

But oh, how the worm turns in British politics! Labour are now in that torturous position the Conservatives found themselves in in 1997. A toxic elixir of irrelevance hinterland and wilderness. When you have powerful contributions to make, but the electorate has all but tuned out of your message.

In the ensuing paragraphs, I will set out why I think Labour was so severely punished north of the border, what was wrong with the campaign and, and how I think such mistakes could be avoided in the future.


Another aspect of the election campaign the psephologists failed to anticipate was the extent of the rise of an ebullient SNP. They have claimed the majority of the seats in Scotland (an exact total of 57) with only the remaining two seats being held by Labour and the Conservatives. Historically Scotland has always been a Labour heartland, with the Conservatives in particular making very little electoral impact there.

However a resurgent SNP led by Nicola Sturgeon who fought an excellent election campaign has cut into Labour’s dominance like a knife through butter

Many commentators have opined fulsomely on why Ed Miliband’s refusal to do a deal with the SNP was absolutely the right decision to make. Strategically, I think it almost sealed his electoral fate.

Nicola Sturgeon often spoke during the TV debates of an anti-Tory majority. Amongst the voting public of Scotland this already exists. Knowing what we know now about the Labour Party’s precarious position in the polls from the beginning of the election campaign onwards, it would have been almost impossible for Ed Miliband to form a government without the SNP’s assistance. Note here that I make no judgement about the desirability of this as an outcome. What I am saying is based on the electoral arithmetic.

Now you would have thought that the goal of any Opposition leader would be to kick the incumbent Prime Minister out of Downing Street and get back into government. Yet Ed Miliband’s refusal was based on an anachronistic point about something the SNP had failed to do in the 70s, as Nicola Sturgeon laughingly pointed out when Ed Miliband himself was 7.

He intimated he would rather lose the election then do a deal with the SNP. I believe it is this callous stubbornness, and noncommittal attitude which lost him the election. As I said earlier there is an anti-Tory majority in Scotland. Therefore I believe he was punished severely by the Scots for refusing to do this deal.

Other factors come into play too. Jim Murphy feels like an elephant in the room. I do not want to cast aspersions on his ability. He is a solid guy and was always a good performer at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons.

I have always felt though, that he is hamstrung by his invisibility in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

Like Jim, Kezia Dugdale is an able performer. However you don’t go to the theatre to see the understudy, you go to see the leading woman or man. Imagine if David Cameron never turned up to Prime Minister’s Questions! I just feel he is unable to be a truly effective leader when he is unable to take the fight to the SNP and be present in the Scottish Parliament. At the moment he does a star turn as the Invisible Man rather than at First Minister’s Questions and I think that needs to change quickly

I believe also Labour ceded much ground to the SNP because they occupy the political ground that the Labour Party have long since vacated. It was their vocal and continuous opposition to austerity which won them a smorgasbord of seats in Scotland but as a socialist party Labour ought to have been leading the charge on this, but they were nowhere to be seen. The SNP give the Scottish people something to believe in, an ideology translating into real social change.

Labour in Scotland seems to be a black hole of nothing.

Therefore Nicola Sturgeon deserves huge praise for the dignified and purposeful campaign she and her party fought. Across the five-year term of this Parliament I believe they will be a force to be reckoned with and I look forward to following their progress.


Since their bruising election defeat the Labour Party has gone into full on hydra mode, with former titans from Labour’s winning years savaging their current approach. If David Cameron was pumped up, Ed Miliband was depressed and melancholy. Given that people sometimes connect with politics on an emotional level, the vision offered by Miliband’s Labour was far too pessimistic and lacklustre, describing many problems but offering few solutions. Returning to my opening paragraphs, I voted Labour in 1997 because I believed Tony Blair offered a cohesive well thought out vision of how he would make Britain better. The job of any Opposition is to look like a Government in waiting. I thought that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party went a little way to achieving this, promising to scrap the divisive and much maligned Bedroom Tax for example. Plus I thought the idea of cutting tuition fees, in a way remedying Nick Clegg’s broken promise was a noble one.  These two policies were good ones in isolation. However although they would have worked on a micro level, the campaign was sorely lacking in big macro messages and a cohesive narrative.

The Labour Party was complacent and coasting; they relied too much on predicted dissatisfaction  with the Conservatives to bring out their core vote – part of the roundly unsuccessful 35% strategy which was the dominant force behind their campaign.

As to other key messages, there was something of a vacuum. Guided masterfully by Lynton Crosby the Conservatives employed the K. I. S. S strategy (keep it simple stupid.) Their campaign revolved around the endless repetition of two key messages, the first being “a long-term economic plan which is working” and the second warning people not to trust Ed Miliband with the economy, and stoking English anxiety over a possible Coalition made up of labour and the SNP.

Given that any strategy from Labour seemed to be missing in action, this gave the Conservatives even more space in the air war to relentlessly and mercilessly push their strategy, etching it forever into the consciousness of the voting public. The message was uncomplicated and one which the electorate as a whole bought into.

The absence of any strategy instead gave us a campaign of guff. Guff comprised of pointless slogans and dubious souvenir tat from the gift shop, hell yes even T-shirts.

I also thought there was failures in Labour’s ground war operation. This seemed to privilege quantity over quality. That is to say the idea of having lots of activists in constituencies would automatically translate into votes. It is not sheer numbers that matter. It is more a question of whether the activists understand the key messages they have to put out to voters if there are any. What ensures votes is not endless emails asking for donations. If voters do not believe or trust you then no amount of money will solve that problem.

There was a lot of negativity around the Tories during this election campaign generated by Labour. But there was no counterbalance around why I should vote for Labour as a credible, positive and visionary alternative. They just sounded bitter the whole way through, not like a government in waiting, and not like a fresh smelling new car when you get into it for the first time. I suspect the party as it stands is riven with public division, having been riven with division in private for a long time, not only stabbing brothers in the back now, but stabbing each other from the front. Looking at them now they are little better than a sixth form debating society.

Unfortunately the Labour Party has not learnt anything. As people like David Miliband and Alan Milburn come forward to offer the honest truth about why Labour lost it is not being constructive. It is sticking its fingers in its ears refusing to listen. I would say I would rather listen to winners than losers and if Labour wants to win again it ought to follow my example.

For these are not just observations offered by John and Jim at the Dog and Duck, these observations are offered by the architects of Labour’s victories. Please listen or stay consigned to the wilderness.

Another problem for Labour and perhaps the most crucial one is that it got excited and euphoric over the wrong things, the Russell Brand debacle being a prime example.

“He’s telling everyone to vote Labour” cried a buoyant social media. I just thought so what? Such naive bonhomie muddies the boundary between perception and reality. I can tell you that red is a better colour than blue, but my telling you this offers no certainty that you will agree with me. And so it is with Russell Brand. Labour supporters confused the possibility that people might vote Labour with the actuality that Brand’s exhortation would translate into votes at the ballot box. Russell Brand telling people to vote Labour is a political stunt and should not be elevated to anything more.

The conclusion is similar with social media hashtags like #CameronMustGo. Will the keyboard warriors ALL go to the polls and vote? Not likely.

In addition, Russell Brand is a Marmite figure, either you love him or you hate him.

It incensed me personally that Labour would seek the services of a man with a dubious record on violence against women for the sake of a few votes. It showed me in glorious technicolour how desperate and kaleidoscopically monochrome Ed Miliband’s Labour had become. It seemed so moribund.

Lastly I must address the “Ed Stone.” I have never seen a more pompous and supercilious stunt in my life. It was dreamt up according to Andrew Pierce in the Mail on Sunday by Torsten Henricsen-Bell, an aide who liked the idea of the pledge card I mentioned at the outset of this piece, and David Axelrod. Why not just have another pledge card?

A pledge card would be far less costly and would stop the Labour Party looking out of touch in a time of austerity surely? As Iain Dale noted dryly on LBC, “this is the equivalent of measuring the curtains.”

I guess the curtains have gone back now?

It is not lofty philosophical grandiosity that wins elections. Elections are won and lost on policy and trust from the electorate. Labour should stop taking chunks out of each other, squabbling over who won elections and who knows more and who should be listened to. As a lifetime Labour voter I say this. It looks cheap and unedifying and does nothing for the public you are elected to represent.

As I told somebody the other day the real question is not when Ken Livingstone won an election but why Labour lost. Labour has become too obsessed with talking to itself and creating its own virtual self-congratulatory echo chamber, the cognitive dissonance around the headstone being a prime example. I know the loss feels raw and painful but turning on each other is not the answer. As Speaker Bercow would say the public doesn’t like it.

There is much thought to be had and much soul-searching to be done. My advice is to stop the squabbling now and to let the civilised talking and listening process which has to take place begin in earnest.

News on the #LBBill second draft

Originally posted on LB Bill:

It is now four long months since the 12 Days of the #LBBill Christmas; we know we’ve been silent in that time here (there has been some discussion on twitter and facebook), but we thought blog readers were long overdue an update. Perhaps the most significant development has been the publication of the government consultation Green Paper: No voice unheard, no right ignored. Norman Lamb paid tribute to the #JusticeforLB team when he launched it (that includes you if you’re reading this and supporting the LBBill) and you can see our response here. So, what has happened for the LBBill in 2015 so far?

1) Feedback

We have spent time pouring over the feedback that you’ve all provided so far. You can see most of the feedback here, and there has been some sent by email. This has been absolutely critical to the process, we are…

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The Dichotomies of Labour



I am a traditional Labour supporter. I believe in fairness and equal opportunities for all. Just last night when interviewed by a market research company carrying out polling, I gave Labour maximum ratings as the party I am most likely to vote for in the General Election.

However I have become furious at comments made by Rachel Reeves in the Guardian.

The interview begins in fairly recognisable Labour territory, a pledge to reduce reliance on food banks. Now, food banks do fantastic work, that is indisputable, but one cannot turn their face away from the fact that it is the Coalition’s unrelenting ideological pursuit of austerity which necessitated their creation.

But, ensuring that people have enough to live on to purchase their own food restores their dignity and allows them to participate fully in society.

It was not the proposal to reduce the use of food banks that provoked my anger however.

Politicians of all colours have been at pains to suggest they support hard-working people. On the face of it this is a good thing, if you contribute to the country then you should be rewarded for your efforts.

However this drive to support the hard-working has had an unintended consequence, hostility towards the unemployed and those who cannot work. What this debate lacks in abundance is nuance and the ability to drill down into the many reasons why people cannot work.

In further comments, Rachel Reeves appears to pander to that hostility. In suggesting that Labour does not want to be seen as the party of the welfare state, she says;

“We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen and we’re not the party to represent those who are out of work. Labour are a party of working people, formed by working people.

However, in attempting to diffuse criticism that Labour is soft on the unemployed, you are saying that you do not care about vast swathes of the electorate. I find the assertion that Labour does not represent me insulting. Labour should be out to win not haemorrhage votes


It is little more than a betrayal of the strong socialist credo upon which Labour is founded to disassociate itself from the welfare state. Labour should be proud of the fact that it created a framework which helps the sick, and the vulnerable and most needy in our society.

More worryingly, it communicates to a huge proportion of the electorate the message that this politics business is not for them¸ that you just don’t understand how politics works, you proletarian oiks!

I felt small when I read Rachel Reeves’ comments. It reminded me of the visceral pain William Beech, the young hero of Michelle Magorian’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom feels when he is sent to the “baby” class as he is unable to read.

Having a disability does not preclude you from voting. Nor does it make you any less politically savvy than anyone else. I think that disabled people as a social group are much disenfranchised with their treatment at the hands of the Conservative led coalition and would gladly use their vote to help form a Labour led Government on May 7th.  The comments of Rachel Reeves do feel like a betrayal

I voted Labour in 1997 because I saw politicians like Tony Blair as understanding of my situation. I saw John Prescott produce his pledge card on television, and felt he was a conviction politician who believed every word on that card – therefore I believed him too.

Things Can Only Get Better became more than a catchy campaign anthem (which should definitely be on Ed Miliband’s campaign playlist by the way). It became a state of mind for the British electorate, in economic conditions not altogether dissimilar to those we are currently experiencing. It offered real hope.

But today’s Labour seems hamstrung by two things, an ideological fight with the Conservatives, and a paralysis over economic stewardship. But I would invite Labour to think introspectively about who they are fighting the election for, or against. Are they fighting against the Tories, or for the voters?

When I first saw Rachel Reeves comments I thought they were crass and spiteful. Such commentary does not emerge from socialism, it emerges from a desire to be seen as ideologically tough on an issue which is costly to the Exchequer.

However, if you boast that you will be tough on welfare, then, although many benefit claimants are in work, you are also adding to the stigma that people such as those with mental health problems or disabilities face.

If I have noticed one thing living under the brutal austerity of the Coalition, it is a politics riven with a hectoring, bullying tone towards the unemployed. I know politicians might say that they are not talking about me, they are talking about people who can work who don’t. But do you know why I am not reassured by this placation? The public does not differentiate between different types of benefit claimants, nor their individual narratives, because endless games of divide and conquer do not afford such opportunities. Egged on by the Coalition, and now it seems by the Opposition, on the issue of welfare the electorate is enticed into a game of dog whistle Heroes (those who work) and Villains (those who don’t). But it is not that simple.

For behind the grandeur of social theory, there are human beings who will live out the costs of politicians’ ideological boasts. I find a delicious irony in an interview that on one level, wants to reduce food bank use that on another level simultaneously vilifies the unemployed without even a flicker of awareness. That is why I think the morals of making such pronouncements at best questionable

I will end with a reminder and a warning. It is not for politicians to dictate who votes for them, creating a false dichotomy between desirable and undesirable voters, or put another way, good and bad ones. The electorate can however, choose to vote for you, or consign you to the Opposition benches. Labour would do well to remember this today.












































DrinkAware? Some victim awareness too please!


In wider society, there is nothing inherently wrong with promoting the responsible consumption of alcohol. In a worst-case scenario alcohol becomes an addiction requiring medical treatment. However, there is much wrong with the latest campaign poster from DrinkAware, and the messages it promotes are harmful to girls and women, and a get out of jail free card for perpetrators.

The image depicted is that of a hospital corridor, with two arrows pointing in opposite directions towards the Maternity Ward and the Sexual Health Clinic respectively. Written across the poster is the caption;

“Being drunk just once age 13. Twice as likely to have unprotected sex.”

This poster explicitly blames young girls regarding the possibility of getting drunk and pregnant through unprotected sex. However, sex is not a singular act. It is a plural one. This poster erases completely the responsibility and role of men in a drunk 13-year-old becoming pregnant. It is their responsibility not to engage in sex with a girl or woman who is drunk and in the scenario outlined on the poster it would also be an illegal act. Also, it does not provide a source for its claim that girls are twice as likely to have unprotected sex

But we live in a victim blaming culture, and this poster places the sole blame on teenage girls. It does not say anything at all about the role of men and boys in taking advantage of intoxicated girls, nor does it address their responsibility to be in control of their actions.

The finger wagging, paternalistic tone struck by this poster is extremely disappointing, and it does nothing to encourage girls who may have been raped while under the influence of alcohol to come forward to authorities if they want to and speak about their experiences.

This poster is pure blackmail. In terms of its subtext, it says “just once age 13 is enough and it is all your fault you silly girl!”

Boys and men are equally responsible during sex yet this poster renders them conveniently invisible. They would be responsible in the event of pregnancy too, yet this poster renders them invisible. Where are the posters telling men and boys that being drunk just once aged 13 could get a girl pregnant and instructing them to keep it in their pants? Exactly! Nowhere!

In wider society, we love to shame and condemn women and girls as that poster does, yet we turn a blind eye, or even reward boys and men for bad behaviour.

There is something else wrong with this poster is. We have two arrows pointing in opposite directions, firstly towards the Maternity Ward and secondly towards the Sexual Health Clinic.

This gives the impression that there are only two outcomes with respect to unprotected sex. The complete erasure of boys from the campaign may cause you to believe that it is women alone who are responsible for these outcomes, when in fact men bear the responsibility to.

Turning first to the maternity ward the poster completely neglects to mention the option of abortion, an option which any responsible clinician would discuss with a girl faced with this scenario, and any responsible campaign should make girls aware of this possibility too.  To frame pregnancy as a consequence over which a girl has no control is disrespectful and damaging to women, and irresponsible on the part of DrinkAware.

With regard to sexual health, sex as I said previously is a plural act. Men also have responsibility for their sexual health, and as such would be responsible for any woman getting an STI.

Overall though, this campaign makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. It gives the impression that women are totally responsible for unwanted sexual advances (ergo rape) and for the consequences. It blames them totally for drinking alcohol at a young age, despite the fact that a man may be buying it for them and taking advantage of the situation, yet there are no equivalent campaigns warning men of the dangers of having sex while drunk, and telling them to keep it in their pants.

This campaign leaves women isolated and at sea. It plays on the politics of fear and shaming women. Yet sadly, this campaign represents a missed opportunity. It could have been used to educate women and girls about the support that is out there for rape victims who have been raped while under the influence of alcohol. It could also have been used to educate them about the help and support that is out there in the event of unwanted teenage pregnancy.

As it stands this campaign poster is damaging. It blames the victim for a traumatic ordeal, and renders invisible every male perpetrator. As such it is serving no other purpose than to be a servant of patriarchy and I would advocate for its immediate removal. I would also ask DrinkAware to be more careful planning future campaigns with how it uses language to avoid belittling, victimising and shaming rape victims.

NB: Jane England has started a petition to try to get the poster banned. She has petitioned the Media and Public Affairs manager at DrinkAware, Kelly O’Sullivan. PLEASE SIGN.