Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Archive for the ‘Social media’ Category

Consequences

Recently I wrote about being reported to the NSPCC and consequently Children’s Services in these two posts: The Letter and The Letter – part 2. If you don’t have time to read them, the short version is that the NSPCC received 2 anonymous reports from someone who was concerned that my and DH’s mental illnesses meant that our children were at risk. Children’s Services investigated and quickly concluded that the reports were groundless. That, I hope, is the end of the matter.

Except that it isn’t, not really. Although I choose to believe that the reports were made due to genuine (albeit misguided) concern rather than malice, knowing that someone has read my blog and my tweets and concluded that I am an unfit mother, DH an unfit father, has been profoundly distressing. For me it has caused heightened anxiety and stress-induced insomnia, DH is struggling with an abrupt plunge into low mood. I hope that in time these will pass, and of course the children are still entirely unaware of the whole situation and its effects, and will hopefully remain that way.

I have always prided myself on being open and honest about my mental health, both here and on Twitter. Stigma is increased by ignorance, and by speaking out I hoped that in a small way I could help reduce that stigma and the alienation that many people with mental illnesses suffer. But to have that honesty turned against me and wielded as a weapon has been a horrifying experience. I’ve never hidden the fact that I find blogging to be an extremely therapeutic way of dealing with my illnesses, both mental and physical. I have also found a wonderful support network on Twitter, where I can be honest and speak of my experiences to those who understand and empathise as well as to those who really have no understanding of what mental illness can be like. In return I’ve been able to offer sympathy, advice and comfort to others who struggle with their mental health. But I’m not sure that I can continue to do so.

Despite our swift and complete exoneration by Children’s Services, this experience has left its mark. I no longer feel safe blogging and tweeting honestly about how I am, how my day is going, how DH is. Even as I write this post I’m wondering whether it will be turned into a stick to beat me with, whether it will prompt yet another report to the NSPCC. I have lost my sense of safety, of refuge, and of course that means that I have lost my online support network. This is no trivial thing; in the past the support I’ve received from individuals online have literally made the difference between life and death. But now that’s gone. I feel watched, I feel harassed and I feel as though my honesty has endangered the happiness and wellbeing of my family.

I don’t know whether these feelings will fade as time passes but I certainly hope so. I will miss the catharsis that blogging can provide and I will miss being able to interact with the mental health community in a meaningful way. It’s been very important to me that I speak out about mental health issues and I hope that I will be able to again, but for now my voice has been silenced.

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Not all men!

Recently there seems to have been a lot more discussion of feminism, sexism and misogyny online than usual. This is partly due to stories in the press; these include the trial of Oscar Pistorius for killing his girlfriend, the rapist Ched Evans reportedly being offered a £3m contract with Sheffield United Football Club before he’s even released from prison and the murder of numerous individuals by Elliot Rodgers after posting hate-filled and misogynistic videos online.

It’s also due to more and more women speaking out about their experiences. The Everyday Sexism Project has shocked a lot of people, featuring as it does the uncomfortable, unpleasant and often harrowing experiences of millions of women and girls across the world. In addition to this, several recent hashtags on Twitter have also been eye-opening for many – I suggest you have a look at #Grabbed and #WhyIDidntReport in particular.

According to the World Health Organisation over a third of women (35% to be exact) worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. A third. In some countries girls are more likely to be raped than they are to attend school; whatever country you live in I can pretty much guarantee that you know at least one woman, probably more, who has suffered rape, sexual assault or physical violence.

When I started university I shared a flat with 4 other women. Of the 5 of us, aged just 18, 2 of us had been raped and 1 had been sexually abused by a family member. And we’re not unusual. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in England and Wales an average of 85,000 women are raped every year while over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted. Of course, these figures are only for those cases where the victim reported the attack; it is widely understood that there are many more cases that go unreported, as this well-known graphic shows:

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In addition to this, 2 women per week in the UK are murdered by their male partner; in the first 4 months of 2014 over 50 women in the UK had been killed by men. That’s one every 2.5 days, roughly. In addition to this there’s the harassment – being groped, having comments made about our appearance, verbal abuse when a man’s advances are declined. It’s not just adult women who experience this either; a survey for Girl Guiding UK found that 70% of girls aged 13 and over report sexual harassment at school or college.

So why am I writing about all of this again? It’s because I’m increasingly seeing the phrase “Not all men!” cropping up in discussions about male violence against women. It seems that many are insulted by the perceived implication that all men are violent, evil, rapists and murderers. It’s those people that I really want to read this post. Because you see, when we’re talking about issues like male violence and I refer to “men” (and obviously I can only speak for myself) I’m not saying that all men are the same. That would be ridiculous. What I’m doing is referring to men as a sociological group, in the same way that I might refer to the middle-class or the white population. And men, as a class, are a threat to women, as a class. What I’m not saying is that any individual man is a threat. With me so far? Good.

When women talk about instances of misogyny, their experiences of rape, sexual assault and harassment, the “not all men” should be implicit. Obviously not all men rape, assault, grope or harrass women – do we really have to say it every single time? Seriously? Because the fact is, although the men who abuse women are the minority, they are the ones under discussion. Not the good guys. And if we have to qualify every single discussion of misogyny and abuse with “Not all men” for fear of offending someone, then the discussion may well stall and be stifled. And it’s a discussion that needs to be had by everyone, whatever their gender.

Some men find it hard not to feel personally insulted when “men as a class” are being discussed. I get that, I really do. I sometimes feel the same when I see discussions among the trans* community about how they’re treated by cis people, or discussions by people of colour about their experiences at the hands of white people. But do you know what? It’s a group of people relating their experiences at the hands of the dominant group as a class. It’s not an attack on me personally. Similarly when we’re discussing misogyny, abuse and male violence against women, it’s not an attack on any of the good guys either. So please stop yelling “Not all men!'” and join in the conversation instead.

Share this?

A friend commented recently on the fact that DH and I have hardly any photos of the children on Facebook, and those that we do share either don’t show their faces or only part of their face so they’re not readily identifiable. This seems quite unusual in this age of social media and my friend was understandably curious.

It’s not just us who are reluctant to share pictures of our children. Some people who refuse to share do so out of fear of paedophiles, concerned that posting an image of their child online will put that child at risk of sexual abuse. Some people have very serious reasons for withholding images of their children – perhaps a violent partner or abuser is looking for them, or a child has been removed from their biological family and is being fostered or adopted

Our reason is far more mundane, however – privacy.

My children aren’t yet old enough to decide whether they want to have photos of themselves floating around the internet. For DH and me to make that decision for them would, we feel, be a breach of their right to privacy. In years to come, when they’re applying to colleges, universities or jobs, it may well be commonplace to do online searches to see what applicants are like (this is already starting to happen) and anything that pops up should be something that the children have consented to being shared. (Not that I imagine any future employer would be interested in baby photos but hopefully you understand what I mean!).

In the earlier days of Facebook we used to post pictures of the children quite often as it was an easy way to share photos with our family and friends (most of whom don’t live locally to us) knowing that only they could see them. But then the site changed, so that if you commented on a photo your friends could see it too. Very quickly a lot of strangers were able to see your image, something that was brought home to us when one of DH’s friends discovered that some of his Facebook photos were being used in an advertising campaign! At that point we removed our shared pictures and videos and haven’t posted any since.

We still send photos to interested friends and family but now it’s by email, and we’ve asked family not to post pictures of them online. I never put photos of the children on my blog and rarely tweet even back-of-the-head shots. I have no objection to others sharing photos and videos of their children online and I do enjoy seeing them. But DH and I would feel uncomfortable putting our own children in the public domain until they are mature enough to make the decision for themselves.

What do you think? Is this something you’ve thought about or is it a non-issue as far as you’re concerned?

Kindness

Some days I despair of humanity. We can seem so intolerant, so self-centred, so oblivious to the struggles of others. Today is not one of those days, however. Today is one of the days where I have been utterly overwhelmed by people’s kindness.

Earlier today my last pair of jeans (well, the last pair that fit anyway) ripped beyond repair. I tweeted my annoyance at this and almost immediately a friend replied offering to buy me a new pair. My sister contacted me from her holiday in Spain to tell me I could borrow from her if I needed to.

Tonight I was in need of a good moan, having discovered that I have 2 days worth of anti-depressants left and no money spare to pay the £7.85 for the prescription (how I miss living in Wales, land of the mountains, valleys and free prescriptions!). DH is in the middle of reapplying for Jobseekers Allowance but the rules have changed and until I find my passport to prove my identity he cannot claim, so in the meantime I have to pay for prescriptions. I can find the money by cutting back on next week’s food shopping – we have food in the freezer and I’ll have some money coming in next Friday, so it’s not as dire as it could be (I’m especially grateful that I’ve already paid for DD’s school meals for the next fortnight!).

So anyway, I had a good old whinge about this on Twitter. And then sat open-mouthed, then tearful, then properly sobbing as no fewer than 14 people contacted me and offered to send me the money for the prescription. I’ve never met a single one of these people, although I chat with most of them fairly regularly. And yet they all reached out, willing to give money to a stranger, trusting that I was genuine and not trying to con them. Of course I declined the offers; there are ways we can manage and I’m a shamefully proud person. I find it very difficult to accept help. But I was so touched that these wonderful people wanted to help.

I’m not ready sure what the point of this post is, apart from to share my wonder and joy at the kindness shown to me today. It really has lifted me up, made life seem a little brighter. But I would like to ask everyone reading this to perform an act of kindness tomorrow. It doesn’t have to involve money, just do something to make someone else’s life easier or brighter. Believe me, it can make a huge difference to someone’s day and it can really restore your faith in humanity.

Friendship – offline vs online

“Friend” is a word with so many nuances. A friend can be someone you meet for coffee occasionally or someone you’ve known for years; someone you chat to about anything except the important things or someone who knows your deepest darkest secrets. I used to have many friends but these days I have only a few, despite having many acquaintances. My mental health problems seem to get in the way. I struggle with meeting new people, I struggle to meet the people I already know. Even worse my illness surreptitiously destroys friendships like a tree that rots from the inside out; I only see the decay as it collapses and dies.

Over the last decade in addition to my amazing husband I have had 4 wonderfully supportive, close friends with whom I could be utterly honest and lean on when I was struggling. Now I have 2. The others abandoned me, telling me that my mental illness was too much for them to cope with. One told me that she was fed up with giving me advice that I didn’t follow and that she felt I wasn’t trying to fight the depression. She had her own problems and in a way she was right – at that time I was fighting as hard as I could but I was still drowning, still wishing for death every day.

That kind of thing must be hard to deal with. I don’t blame them for leaving me but it does make me sad that I am so difficult to be friends with. And it makes me reluctant to be honest about how I really feel. How can I trust anyone? Why be truthful if it just drives people away?

Ironically some of my best support these days comes from virtual strangers online. These people have never met me, they don’t know my real name and in most cases I don’t know theirs. But they are kind, supportive and non-judgmental, and they have held my hand through some dark times. When I was suicidal with PND and the first friend abandoned me it was posters on Mumsnet who supported me, talked with me and helped me see that there were other choices. It’s no exaggeration to say that they saved my life.

These days most of my social interaction is on Twitter, where there is another amazing community of people who are kind and supportive. There are many that I would call friends despite having never met them. I turn to them when I am struggling and don’t want to burden my husband or family; they have never let me down. And I am so grateful for them.

Here’s to you, online friends. You know who you are and you are amazing. You, DH and my 2 trusted friends are the reason that I’m still here and still fighting.

Thank you.

Is this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week a bit of an own goal?

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Each year a different theme is chosen and this year the Mental Health Foundation have chosen physical activity. Their website says that “This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week aims to shift our motivation for physical activity to something we choose to do to increase our wellbeing”.

This makes sense, as it has become conventional thinking in recent years that exercise and other physical activity can increase the production of endorphins in the brain. And of course exercise doesn’t necessarily mean a 5 mile run – as this helpful page from the MHF website explains physical activity can include housework, gardening, going for a walk etc.

Unfortunately this theme for the week doesn’t seem to have been properly thought through. For a start the message being promoted through social media already seems to have shifted from ‘choosing to do physical activity to increase wellbeing’ to ‘exercise will help your mental health problems’. The Twitter hashtag #letsgetphysical is being used to enthuse about the benefits of gym visits rather than gardening. This isn’t the fault of the MHF of course, but it could have been foreseen and it isn’t helped by the MHF’s use of the the quote “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keep the mind in vigor” (Marcus Tullius Cicero) in their leaflet about physical activity.

Another problem with having physical activity as the week’s theme is that there are many people who have both mental illness and physical disabilities. Whilst a lot of these people will be able to undertake some form of physical activity there will be a significant number who can’t. And what of those whose mental illness is severe enough that they struggle to get out of bed, let alone go for a walk? As I understand it the idea that physical activity can help mental health only seems to apply to relatively mild conditions.

In fact, increased physical activity can actually have a detrimental effect on some people with mental illnesses. Those with ‘invisible’ disabilities such as CFS and fibromyalgia may well find that increased physical activity increases their fatigue which could put them at greater risk of depression. Speaking as someone who struggles to walk for more than a few minutes and at times finds it impossible to do any kind of housework, being repeatedly told that I need to increase my levels of activity is unhelpful as it makes me reflect on my increasing loss of mobility and lowers my mood. Those who suffer from eating disorders may also find this advice counter-productive, if not downright dangerous.

Some have already complained that this focus on physical activity as a kind of panacea for mental illness is almost akin to victim-blaming. There are already tweets under the #letsgetphysical hashtag asking why, if exercise is so good for mental health, sufferers wouldn’t get off their backsides and just do it? (Note again the confusion between exercise and physical activity). The implication seems to be that those who aren’t out pounding the pavements in order to beat their mental illness obviously don’t want to get better. This is damaging.

The final problem I want to discuss is that for some people exercise and other physical activity simply isn’t that effective. Some years ago I was enrolled in an ‘exercise prescription’ programme where I was able to use a local gym and go to classes for a pound a time. It was good and I enjoyed it – but it did nothing to help my crippling depression. For me, medication and a great support network are the most effective form of treatment and I know I’m not alone.

I’m not saying that the MHF shouldn’t have chosen this as their theme for Mental Health Awareness Week; it’s obviously quite successful in getting people talking and I’m sure there are many who will be helped by the message. However those who cannot partake in physical activity and those for whom it is a risky or ineffective treatment are being ignored and excluded by the very organisations that are supposed to support them.

Oh and one last thing. The #letsgetphysical hashtag means that I’ve been humming Olivia Newton-John for the last 36 hours. Not cool, MHF. Not cool.

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