Monthly Archives: February 2014

The best way to get out of poverty

An article came out today revealing that 20,000 more kids live in poverty than previously thought, mostly because Treasury had trouble counting properly. There are probably a whole lot of jokes to be had there, but that’s not where I’m headed.

Children’s Commissioner Dr Russell Wills was given the last word in the Herald article, saying that “For most, work is the best way out of poverty, and we clearly still have a long way to go on that.” I have a problem with that.

It’s true that many people, particularly single people or couples, can find themselves better off when they get off the benefit. It’s especially true for those that have just been between jobs, who already have qualifications, who are getting qualifications. People with some ‘prospects’. People who can get good jobs.

The people who make up the beneficiary slice of the children in poverty pie aren’t usually people with prospects. They’re un- or under-qualified, they’re not able to work certain hours because they have kids (and childcare is stupidly expensive). These are people who, if they find work, will often find only the work that no-one else wants to do. Stuff that’s poorly paid. Cleaning, care work, supermarket or fast-food jobs.

But they’re working! It’s gotta be better than being on the benefit! . . . Maybe. Tonight’s not my night for looking up facts and figures (comment somewhere if you want me to work out the figures for this), but for many families, the costs of working do not stack up well against the costs of being on a benefit. In exchange for losing time with your family and working in soul-destroying jobs, there’s not much more money, if any at all! A solo mum on a Jobseeker benefit gets around $500/week including allowances (WINZ aren’t keen on divulging exactly how much without a long and painful search). Well, she can get $540 before tax on a minimum wage job, and she’s got to pay for childcare out of that.

When staying on a benefit makes more financial sense than going out working at minimum wage, we need to have a serious chat about our minimum wage. I’v heard it said that it’s not supposed to be an amount you can live on, because it’s for teenagers earning pocket money or people that just want a little extra cash. I’ve also heard said that if you don’t want to be paid so little, you should get a better job, with good overtones of condescension and a bit of paternalism. The truth is that there have to be people doing these crappy jobs, and looking down on these people makes you look a tad closed-minded.

So, less than $14 per hour. A family can’t live on that. It’s less than the bloody benefit after all’s said and done. It’s not a route to being lifted out of poverty, at all. The best way to get people out of poverty is not just jobs. It’s jobs that pay a living wage.

Why is depression given no heed?

Depression is a potentially fatal disease. It can, and does, kill. So why do people brush it off as easily as brushing off the bad latte that came with lunch? It’s a bloody big deal, people!

Depression is a big deal, but the word is thrown around so often that no-one takes it seriously. “I’m feeling a bit depressed today, my cat didn’t come home last night” – having a cat missing is distressing, it’s bad, but it’s not clinical depression. “My boyfriend left me, I’m so depressed!” – well, such things can again be distressing, can even trigger depression in some people, but again, unless someone is already predisposed to mental illness, some counselling and support and tincture of time are often all that’s needed. It’s not a terrible way to use the word, but it’s not really accurate. “I broke a nail at netball yesterday. It’s so depressing” . . . you, ma’am, are the problem. That kind of flippant, throwaway line is what delegitimises the real suffering that is the experience of clinical depression.

If the feeling is transient and self-resolving, then it’s not clinical depression. If you feel really shit for a while and then get better, it’s not clinical depression. If it’s sadness and anger because you missed the latest episode of Glee, it’s not bloody clinical depression, and would you please stop using the term?!

We’ve devalued the term so much that anyone who’s never has a brush with depression, whether personal or in someone they know, usually thinks of depression as something minor, something that can be brushed off. Worse, perhaps, are people who had a mild personal experience, eventually resolving on its own or with a wee bit of counselling or a few months of medication. Knowing a little about depression, but coming out the other side easily makes many people instant judges of people who are harder hit. “I had depression and I came out of it ok, changing your eating habits and exercising more will get you better. It worked for me! It’s not hard, why aren’t you trying?” – knowing a little bit doesn’t stop you being part of the problem with minimising the realities of depression.

Maybe we need a new name for depression, one that is clearly defined in people’s minds as serious and potentially deadly. Something which has the impact of names like ‘cancer’. The old name is too ingrained in the fabric of society to really be reclaimed.

Sweeping mental illness under the carpet, attaching stigma to it, minimising its power, all of it contributes to a world where people like me have to fight a whole lot of senseless battles in addition to our personal struggle with our illnesses.

It wasn’t just depression that claimed Charlotte

A celebrity (at least in NZ) by the name of Charlotte Dawson died a few days ago, a victim of depression. Since then, there have been the usual deluge of news stories, and opinion pieces, either as neutral as possible or expressing grief and compassion for her family and remembering her life. It’s the same sort of thing that happens when any public figure dies. Of course, there is also the other sort of thing that always happens when a public figure dies – attacks on their character, or their life, or the way they died. This sort of thing varies – Princess Diana got an almost universal outpouring of love and grief, while Margaret Thatcher’s death was given an ambivalent public treatment at best.

The most prominent cruel and disgusting smear against Charlotte has been an opinion piece in the NZ Herald, by one Deborah Hill Cone. What she has written is shameful, projecting her own insecurities onto a dead woman. It’s worth reading, mostly to grasp the sheer cruelty of what this woman has to say. Charlotte Dawson deserves so much more than this woman’s smear on her character, and  the illness of depression deserves better than the wholesale discounting of its power.

The article starts “I didn’t know you when you were alive, Charlotte, so I hope you don’t think it is presumptuous of me to write about you now you’re not” . . . yes, it is presumptuous, because you are then going on to write all about her internal struggles, or at least the ones you want her to have had. Why do you think it’s ok to try and divine the psychology of a woman you don’t even know? It crosses the line into hubris. To the ancient Greeks this was the ultimate moral failing, and the gods cursed those who displayed it. I don’t think they were wrong about that either. There’s some gods who need to get off their butts and start smiting here.

The next claim is that “It wasn’t just depression that claimed you.” Back the truck up, lady. When did you become an expert in the complex psychology of depression and suicide? In the light of what evidence there is, I would venture a pretty confident guess that depression that ended her life. There are external stresses that make suicide more likely, but not one of them causes suicide. People with no mental illnesses cope with the stresses that she had in a normal and healthy way, so they cannot alone be causes of suicide. External stresses make things more difficult, but depression causes suicide, all on its own. Don’t underestimate the power of mental illness. Just because you can’t imagine dying because you can’t live any more doesn’t mean that it’s not what happens to mentally ill people. Sufferers of mental illnesses deserve better than you dismissing their reality. Shame on you, for speaking about things you have no understanding whatsoever about.

“I think you were also claimed by the fear of getting old. It is hard being 47. At the crisis of middle age, losing your sexual currency, becoming invisible. ” . . . she suffers from suicidal depression and you think the more powerful drive in her death is getting fucking old?! That ‘sexual currency’ is something she’s desperate to hold on to? Lady, stop projecting. You are so vain that you think ageing is something to die over? Yes, ageing is sometimes hard for people, especially women. But it’s NOT something that kills. Maybe she did struggle with age, I couldn’t tell you (perhaps because I didn’t know her? Could it be that I’m not qualified to say what went on in her head?). But it’s not something that claims lives. That would be depression (and other mental illnesses). Suicidal ideation. Acting on suicidal ideation. Dying. Those are the things that kill, damn it, and trying to blame it on ‘sexual currency’ just devalues the reality of her death.

Finding we have lost our sexual currency can come as a blow to our self-esteem, even those of us who haven’t relied on our looks to get attention. So it would have been even harder for you, Charlotte. Dr Burgo says women who can’t bear the shift to a supporting role may ape the behaviours, clothing and attitudes of the young, trying to preserve their sexual appeal. They may opt for plastic surgery.

So, you’re reducing Ms Dawson’s life to her looks. She’s a human being, not a one-dimensional image in a mirror. She was a magazine editor and a TV host, not just a pretty face but a thinking woman, as well as a model. She didn’t rely only on her looks. She had a well-rounded career, and her ‘sexual currency’ was not her sole strength, as you would like to imagine. And what is this about Dr Burgo? Are you wanting to insinuate that Dawson was having plastic surgery and choosing clothes that were only suited for young people? You dinosaur. She made choices about her appearance, and those are her choices, not yours to dissect. You’re not content to devalue her mental illness, you also want to judge the way she used her body? Again, this is just shameful.

“Socially, they become more self-absorbed and insensitive, demanding to remain the centre of attention. Sound familiar?” . . . yes, you’re doing it well.

“”I’m not a brand. I’m a human being,” you said in a tweet not long before you died. The problem was you were a brand, actually.” So, she’s actually not a person? How dare you? We’re up to devaluing her mental illness, judging her appearance, and now writing her off as not a human being. It’s people like you who add to the stresses of living a public life. I hope you’re proud of yourself here, because there are a whole lot of people who are ashamed of you. Writing off a human being as just a brand is so hateful.

“You have to stop caring what other people think of you. That was particularly hard for you, Charlotte. Individuals with low self-esteem tend to be more concerned with what others think of them than what they think of themselves.” So now we’re going from not-a-human to low-self-esteem. And remember, this is from a woman who knows nothing of Charlotte in life, but thinks she knows all her painful secrets in death. It’s bullshit, pure and simple. and not even consistent bullshit.

You felt shunned for being single, being childless, for having a mental illness. The truth is no one really cares. But for you that was even worse.

It is terrifying to think of becoming insignificant, being wiped out, being annihilated. So, ultimately, you chose to preserve Charlotte Dawson, the glamorous brand, aged 47, forever.

“You felt shunned” . . . Sure. Of course, we’re all great at insights into a dead woman’s mind. And “The truth is no one really cares”? How cruel. She has a family that care, a fan base that cares, friends that care. But you want to paint her as getting old alone and hating it so much that she killed herself.

And “you chose to preserve Charlotte Dawson, the glamorous brand, aged 47, forever”??! There are not enough angry punctuation marks on the planet for how ridiculous that is, and how wrong. Charlotte Dawson did not die because she wanted to be forever young. She died because of a goddamned mental illness and you need to stop twisting her death into a vehicle for your own weaknesses projected.

This all boils down to a few key things. First, the cause of death was mental illness. Full stop and no negotiation. There were other things going on in her life which may have contributed, but it was mental illness that took her. Using her death to make sweeping claims about older women without having ever known her is bullshit, and it really makes the author look like she has the issues that she rants on about (should we bring up the garishly dyed hair and terrible lipstick?). Depression needs to be treated as a potentially fatal illness, not an adjunct to the difficulties of growing old.

A tired bunny

I’m sorry I haven’t written for a few days. I’ve just been so tired. Today is the first in a wee while that I haven’t had a two or three hour nap in the afternoon, and I’m in bed at 8:00pm. I’m trying to keep my eyes open but I’m just so sleepy.

I started back at the gym a week ago, and it’s going well. I hope it’s not the source of the tiredness, because I need to keep going to rebuild the muscle I lost while I was really unwell. Wearing a corset also means that I need to keep my core strength so that I’m not completely dependent on the corset to keep my back straight.

It’s a bit worrying, the sleepiness. It’s been a sign of relapse for me. I’m still doing ok, but I wonder and I worry. I feel like if I’m sliding down again, there’s not a lot that can stop me. I’m getting exercise and eating well, and depression doesn’t care about all that. If it comes, it comes. I don’t know if there’s anything that would halt another sink into blackness.

This is a very all-about-me stream-of-consciousness post. I aim to return you to normal transmissions soon

Gentle media bigotry

Sometimes I look at our news opinion pieces and think, why do we let these people vomit their way into print? It’s making us all look bad. My shining example today is a piece by Mike Hosking, a radio DJ who probably has no business opining about anything even vaguely sensitive.

I’ve linked to the original article, but it has been artfully adjusted in a very Soviet Union kind of way. The editors removed an inflammatory comment made by Hosking, saying “This line has been removed so as to avoid future confusion.” Riiiight. This makes NewsTalk ZB, the publisher of the piece, look rather like they’re trying to make this all go away quietly, rather than having to own up to the blatant bigotry that their employee spouted.

The article was about a recent tussle between a primary school and some of its parents over their bible in schools programme, which is blatant proselytising intruding on school time. It’s not learning about religions, it’s not about learning morals and ethics, it’s about accepting Jesus as your personal saviour. A complaint has been made to the Human Rights Commission over it all.

Mr Hosking, mulling over the nature of the complaint (this is lifted from another article, which was not willing to censor the DJ’s bigotry), stated that one of that parents who complained to the HRC was “Muslim, which indicates perhaps a lack of tolerance, tolerance perhaps being one of the virtues her kids might have learned in Christian studies.”

Digest that for a moment. He’s saying that her religion automatically makes her an intolerant person, and that the way to remedy that is by teaching her kids another religion (My religion’s better that yours! Join me in being intolerant to everyone else’s beliefs!). That kind of tar-brush bigotry does not have a place in my multicultural country. Hell, it has no place in any society, because it’s just so backwards.

Do you have to be Muslim in order to not want your child indoctrinated in a religion? Well, no, but if you’re Muslim then not wanting anyone else’s religion shoved down your kid’s throats is intolerant in Mr Hosking’s world. For shame. Will he next tell us that Indians are only good for owning dairies and running restaurants, or does blatant racism seem a step too far? Blatant bigotry of other kinds seems just fine.

Of course, this all turned out to be even more ridiculous in that the Muslim woman is actually a Buddhist man. He couldn’t even gets his facts vaguely straight.

Why do we let people like him publish anything that’s not related to sport or entertainment? It’s a minefield, and they stomp around in lead clown shoes. Maybe not even sport and entertainment are safe.

An off day

Having a single off day and wondering, am I slipping back? The pressures are similar to when I last got really sick. Everything’s been going well though – but that’s not too unlike what happened last time. It’s frightening. I have a life to continue, people to care for, plans to lay and complete. I can’t go getting sick again.

Post this if your parent is X

I see them quite often, images saying things like ‘Post if your dad is hardworking and has helped and supported you no matter what’ or ‘Share this if your mom is your best friend, and your biggest supporter’. They’re kinda sweet really, posted by people who are inordinately proud of their parents.

What about the rest of us? Whose parents aren’t superheroes, who have very human flaws, ones that can’t be papered over with a smile? The reminder of what we lack can be painful.

My mum is pretty awesome, she’s always in my corner. We get along well, and she’s always there for me. She’s cool.

My dad is another matter. He’s a good man, hardworking and caring and lovely. But he’s not a strong man, and he’s in a relationship with a very strong woman (and I don’t mean that in a good way). The result of that is that my father is not here for me. He hasn’t been allowed to be since he married my stepmother. His pliant personality is submerged below her hard and cruel one. He’s not in my corner, not on my side, and very nearly not in my life. I hate that. I want him to have time with his grandkids, to sit with him and chat and catch up on life. That’s taken away from me, partly by my stepmother, but also by his inability to assert himself. It makes me sad.

My father is precious to me. I love him so much. But I can’t have his company. It breaks my heart. He’s not everything I want him to be – not even close.

What would be ‘everything I want him to be’? I’m not demanding. I just want him to be there for me. Is that too much? Maybe it is.

So every time I see one of these images float past, I have a catch in my throat. I want my father to be all that.

Are you washed by the blood?

Wandering around today doing chores, a song fragment decided to rear its head into my consciousness. It’s a song that we used to sing in the church I went to. The bit I remember runs:

Are you washed, by the blood

By the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?

Are your garments spotless, are they white as snow

Are you washed by the blood of the Lamb?

When we used to sing it, I never really thought about the lyrics very much. They were familiar, they had some meaning – after all, Jesus’ blood cleansed us of sin, and that was what it was about, really.

Looking back now, the entire idea seems both disturbing and a bit bizarre. When you wash someone in blood, they are not clean. They may be ritually pure, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re coated in death waiting to attract flies. It’s pretty gross. Get that on a piece of white clothing and you sure as hell ain’t pure – you just have a long date with the bleach.

Purifying things in blood, is a very old idea, and it’s one that has fallen out of currency with most of the world. Christianity itself tried to stamp out the ‘pagan’ cults who still made animal sacrifices, because it was abhorrent to them. Gradually, the entire western world dropped sacrificial practices. Somehow, though, Christianity still clings to the idea of blood sacrifice, idealises it even.

It seems wrong that it’s idealised in the modern world. In an age where people argue over whether it is right to deprive an animal of life to feed human beings, there are people who celebrate that a human being was slaughtered to cleanse them of sin. To people who don’t believe in sin, heaven, hell, or damnation, Jesus’ death looks barbaric and pointless.

I don’t wan spotless garments soaked in symbolic blood. I want to symbolically end my life with the stains of the world that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t want to be pure – I want to live life.

The thrill of the church experience

I recently came across some photos of children in a church, sobbing their hearts out as a band played. In an evangelical/fundamentalist church, this is an ideal. This is the Holy Spirit filling the room, and the children feeling His presence.

It’s easy to get caught up in that atmosphere. You have some that are more prone to feel intense emotions, who are the first to break down, and then it cascades from there. I’ve stood crying while the band played the same chorus of a song over and over again, feeling the presence of God. I’ve stood in a large auditorium feeling that power wash over me.

I don’t do that any more. I don’t believe any of that. But that leaves me with some powerful experiences that I need to account for. If it wasn’t God, what was it?

The music at the start draws you in, a sense of joy that unifies the group. A sermon preached that tugs a few heartstrings. Those who have felt that those tugs begin praying, weeping, going forward for prayer. The hypnotic sound of the band in the background, and portions of the group you have come to identify with breaking down, these contribute to a powerfully seductive environment, one in which even a non-believer can feel this mysterious power. It’s not mysterious though. It’s psychological tricks. They may not be used intentionally, but they are just psychology, not holy.

Sit down and shut up

If you’re in a group (real life, online, wherever) then you are expected to conform to the rules of the group. Cross a boundary, or even just push its limits, and the reaction can be varied, and sometimes quite unexpected. It doesn’t matter who was objectively right or wrong (if there is such a thing in play), what matters is the rules of the group.

The rules of the group can help sweep an individual into a world of things they aren’t comfortable with. If everyone gets pissed every Saturday and you don’t, that is likely to slide. It’s non-participation, and that’s a little easier to forgive. But try saying that maybe it’s not healthy to live a life so soaked in alcohol, and you’re ripe for ejection. It’s part of being in the group, and questioning it marks you out as ‘not like us’.

It makes it hard to stand up to a group of people you know, who are your friends, and say something unpopular. It takes a lot of guts to hear people joking about bashing someone and stand up and say ‘no, that’s not ok’. It’s hard to watch someone make jokes about sexual assault and call them out on it. Maybe, if you’re lucky, they will look at themselves and think ‘no, I don’t want to be that guy’, or maybe the blame for disrupting a sick joke will blow back on you.

It’s hard being the one who stands up and says no, but it says a lot about your character.