20 August, 2011

Why I can’t get behind Soften the Fck Up

I wanted to like it.  I really did.  Mike Stuchbery and Ben Pobjie, who I linked to in the previous post about depression and who I respect both as writers and survivors are involved, which gives the initiative some credibility.  But the more I looked at it and the more I thought about it, the angrier it made me.

I felt the same way about RUOK? Day.  While on one level, it’s wonderful that people are getting the message out about depression and mental illness, it’s being done in such a dumbed down, made-for-tv way that I wonder whether it’s simply trivialising something that was previously ignored.  Definatalie wrote an excellent piece on RUOK? Day simply titled, I am not OK.  Don’t ask anyone how they are if you’re not prepared to hear that.

Soften the Fck Up is trying to reach men who bottle up their feelings due to the whole ‘boys don’t cry,” thing, and that’s a worthy objective.  But there’s no point in telling people to open up and get help if you’re not going to quantify that help. 

“Talk about it,” we are told.  Yep, good advice – I have no argument with that.  “To who?” they then ask.  Good question.  That’s the one that we really need an answer to.  “Could be your mates, your family…” Well yes, it could be, but it has to be someone who would understand and if we going with the premise that these blokes are in a dark place because they’re too tough to open up to people, I’d say their family and their mates may have had an influence on that.  This is assuming the bloke has mates he can talk to at all.  Then shit gets weird.  “Could be your neighbour…” yes, could be, “…the postman…”

WTF?  The postman?  Is this for real?  I don’t know where you guys live but my postman has got shit to do.  He doesn’t need to hear all my problems.  The biggest problem in talking about depression is trying to find someone who gets it, because millions don’t.  It’s not the blokey blokes who need to soften the fuck up, it’s the people they might be turning to.  Not everyone can be the listener.

I’ve been that postman before.  Okay, I’ve never been a postman, but I think you get the idea.  I’ve stayed with friends, helping them through dark times until I was sure they would be alright, but that’s one thing.  It’s another to get a call at work, out of the blue, from someone you taught the previous year.  This happened to me.  I had a student with a fairly severe acquired brain injury in one of my basic computer classes.  For the purposes of this story, we will call him Hank because nobody else does.  It was a four-week course, one day per week.

Six months later, when my role had expanded to reception work when I wasn’t teaching, I get a phone call:
“Hello, can I talk to a teacher?”
Hmm, strange request, but okay.
 - I’m a teacher, can I help you?
“I don’t know what to do with my life.  What should I do?”
How do you answer that?  How does anyone answer that, especially when they have work to do?

The calls continued for a while, and sometimes they were very brief.
“Hello, are you a teacher?”
 - Oh hi, Hank.  What’s up?
“I should say yes to education, shouldn’t I?”
 - Um, yes.  Yes you should.
“Okay, bye.”
Now understand that I wasn’t giving Hank the brush-off.  I wanted to help him inasmuch as I could but like the postman, I had shit to do and they weren’t paying me to be a counsellor.  Many times I tried to tell him that I was the wrong person to be asking, but Hank had got it into his head that teachers know everything.
“But you’re a teacher.  You know things.”
 - Hank, I teach computers.  I don’t know anything about this stuff.
Then I got a call when Hank said, as casually as if he were wondering what to have for lunch,
“I’m tired of life.  I don’t want to go on living any more.”
Right, that has to be taken seriously, but what can I do?  I knew that he must have a regular doctor so I gave him the ‘talk to your doctor,’ speech.  That didn’t seem to get anywhere.  Then I remembered that he had a worker who had come with him to class.  For the purpose of the story, we’ll call him Martin.
 - Hank, talk to Martin.  He knows you.  He’ll be able to give you good advice.
“Martin’s out of the picture, he’s in the past.”
I was confident that Hank wasn’t an immediate suicide risk.  He really did sound like he was just weighing up options.  So once I had convinced him he should “say yes to life,” (his words, not mine), I called the disability assistance centre that I knew he had been attending, at least at the time he came to class.  I told them everything that had happened, including that I’d suggested he talk to Martin.  What they explained to me was that Martin had left the organisation and moved on, as professionals (or volunteers, I was never really sure) will do and Hank was a bit cut up about it.  Muggins here, had just gone and told Hank he should talk to Martin.
Foot, meet mouth.

I apologised profusely to them for the faux pas and any knock-on damage it may have caused.  They assured me it wasn’t a bad thing and that it might have helped Hank by making him face up to the change in circumstances. 
But here’s the problem:
Hank had done exactly what STFU are suggesting.  He talked to someone.  He’d just picked someone who couldn’t help him.  And it was someone who had some understanding and empathy for mental conditions.  Imagine if it wasn’t.  Talk to someone?  Yes.  But it can’t just be anyone.  Are STFU going to take responsibility for the consequences if the postman says, “Shut up ya poofter.  Now piss off, I’ve got work to do,”? 

I suppose everyone who is approached by these newly softened former blokey blokes is supposed to utter the usual platitudes – get help, see a doctor, call Lifeline.  I’m going to tell a story here that I chose not to include in the Monsters post because I thought it might be counter-productive but now I feel that I should.

During one of my lowest ever phases, I called Lifeline. 
They didn’t answer. 
I spent somewhere between five and ten minutes listening to it ring until it finally rang out.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that this is a reflection on Lifeline’s resources and not their services.  I fully support Lifeline in every way.  Even so, I cannot in good conscience advise someone to call Lifeline lest they have a similar experience to the one I had.  I can laugh about it now but can you even begin to imagine what that does to someone who is trying to get help?  It took me two years to get around to writing the previous post and I still haven’t yet sought a diagnosis for what happens to me.  I had considered calling Lifeline previously, and when I was finally low enough and desperate enough to call, they didn’t bloody answer. 

Now you can give all the rational reasons why someone shouldn’t take something like that to heart but to a depressed person, you’re wasting your breath.  That doesn’t compute in a depressed person’s mind any more than trying to tell an anorexic that they’re not fat.  What the person involved takes away is that even Lifeline won’t talk to them. 

All that isn’t what has rankled me the most about STFU.  What has really pissed me off is the stereotyping of men; that the problem is down to blokes being blokes and they just need to let their guard down and get in touch with their softer side.  I wrote last time about why I haven’t done anything more than ’blog about it and the reasons are nothing to do with an excess of blokiness.

I’m as soft as they come.  I was a sensitive new age guy long before there was even an acronym for it.  If I were any softer, I’d be liquid.  So what do I do now? 
Get help, talk to your doctor, call Lifeline, blah blah blah…
It’s as if the emotional repression of macho culture has gone so far that you have to be a big tough bloke before you can soften the fuck up and if you were already there, then too bad, we’re looking out for the tough guys here.

I still want to support them.  I think it’s great that people are putting it out there and sharing their stories.  The fact that people are describing experiences that others might relate to is good thing.  It’s at least better than Hugh Jackman waving his stupid bloody coffee cup in my face.  Doing anything is better than doing nothing but doing something useful is better still.  It needs to be backed up with sound advice and empowerment to go through with getting whatever help may be required, not just pulling a switcheroo on the “are you man enough?” line.  That assumes that men are stupid enough to do anything if you just challenge their masculinity. 

This is just my initial reaction.  I honestly hope to be rebutted.  If someone can show me where I’m wrong, I will shout their praises from the rooftops.  I will donate, promote and participate.  I am certainly not trying to shit on people who are making a worthy effort.  But right now, both RUOK? and SFTU strike me like GetUp campaigns: well intentioned, great production values but falling wide of the mark in terms of achieving something useful for sufferers.

I did tweet my concerns the other night:
They were kind enough reply:

I guess I’m in the minority then.  What else is new?
It’s not as if being made to feel excluded leads to depression or alcoholism or drug abuse or other forms of feeling crap, does it?

16 August, 2011

What is a Judeo-Christian?

There were two rallies held in Canberra today for those with nothing more urgent to do on a Tuesday morning.  The lesser of the two was to protest against gay marriage – something that is not on any legislative agenda right now.  I’ve already said just about all I have to say on the topic of gay marriage HERE but a comment that leapt out at me was the assertion by DLP senator John Madigan that Australia was founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic.

There is really so much wrong with this very short statement that the senator must be given credit for efficiency.  To believe such an assertion, you would have to believe at least one of three things:
  1. That Australian Aborigines were the first Judeo-Christians
  2. That it’s Christian to murder and dispossess the native inhabitants of a country and use that country as a dumping ground for society’s outcasts, or
  3. The continent of Australia is Jesus as a land mass, accepting those rejected by the ruling class.  
It bothers me that elected representatives confuse the white settlement of Australia with the white settlement of America.  But my broader question is regarding the entire notion of Judeo-Christian values.

I have never met a Judeo-Christian.  I’ve met Christians.  I’ve met Jews.  I have never met anyone who is both.  You tend to be either one or the other.  Or neither.  But not both.

It seems to be accepted that using the term “Judeo-Christian,” recognises the Jewish heritage of Christianity.  After all, Jews and Christians share half a Holy book so there is some crossover.  But this makes the “Judeo,” prefix redundant.  The Jewish origins are implicit in the word Christian so why bother adding it?

The term “Judeo-Christian,” usually only comes up when some of the more militant elements of the Christian right want to start playing the victim.  Whenever I hear the term, it suggests a couple of things.  I get the impression that they want to avoid simply saying “Christian,” since that might make them seem intolerant of others, so while they want everyone to be Christian, they don’t mind the Jews quite so much as some of the others.   There’s also a patronising undertone.  There’s an implication that Jews are considered Christians who haven’t quite made it yet.  Certain people on the lunatic fringe of the right wing (read: Ann Coulter) have come out and said as much.  It’s an insult to both faiths.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all share a common root.  Islam considers Jesus to be one of the most important Prophets of God – just not quite as important as Mohammad by their reading.  Yet nobody talks about Christo-Muslims.  Nobody talks of Christo-Islamic values.  Typically, Christians do not observe Jewish festivals such as Passover, Yom Kippur or Hanukkah, even though they are just as relevant to the Christian faith as they are to Judaism.  So long as people practise either one or the other, don’t talk to me about Judeo-Christian traditions because I don’t believe there is any such thing.  I’m cool with just about any faith, but I am bothered by misrepresentations of faith and misuse of language.

Good evening. Here is the news:

Tonight, we ask what has driven the youth of a nation to act so violently in the seemingly relentless pursuit of material gain, regardless of the consequences to society.

But first, a word from our sponsors…

14 August, 2011

What Twitter Bio Are You?

Twitter generously gives you 20 extra characters with which to describe yourself to the world but very often, Twitter bios can be broken down into several types. Some of these types include,

The disclaimer
Favoured of journalists, publicists, public servants and anyone who thinks (or would like to think) that their tweets might be misinterpreted as being endorsed by their employer. Insists their tweets are personal but still wants you to know who they work for. 

The false modesty
A favourite of politicians. Attempts to look awfully ordinary and down-to-earth but comes clean in the last line. 

The business operator
Lists fabulous achievements, then asks you to hire them to design your website. 

The in-your-face
Lists all their less-likable qualities. Usually among the more honest Twitter bios. 

The reverse psychology
Not unlike the in-your-face, but pushes it to the next level in faint hope of being contradicted. 

The follower-whore
Doesn’t care who you are, just wants bigger numbers. Follows more than 16,000 people. Offers to follow you like that’s something desirable.

The troll
Exposes their troll nature by proclaiming qualities that would be self evident if they had them. Always spells “you’re” as “your.”

Another troll tactic is to attempt to soften their image with a half-joke: 

The hashtagger
Like a cross between the troll and the follower-whore. In lieu of actually listing interests, fills bio with controversial hashtags.  

The fake verified account
Thinks they’re clever putting a ✓ after their name. Not fooling anyone but themselves. 

The issues tweeter
Uses twitter exclusively to bang on about pet issues and RT similar obsessives. Only engages with others when trolling those of opposing views. 

The geek
Probably is a geek but anyone can be a geek about anything these days. 

The joker
Moderately self-deprecating space-filler. 

Captain Obvious
For want of anything better, chooses to go with the things that apply to everyone.

It’s worth pointing out that the often predictable nature of Twitter bios is not necessarily a reflection on the individuality, wit and general appeal of the tweeter themselves.
Feel free to add your own.

05 August, 2011


Although I have never been diagnosed, I’ve been certain for years that I have some kind of depressive condition.  The reasons I’ve never sought a diagnosis, or “got help” as so many glibly say as if it means anything useful, are several.  Part of the reason is that getting help for depression is a bit like washing your summer clothes; the best time to do it is the best time not to do it.  The best day to do some washing is when it’s warm and sunny, which is when you’d rather be wearing your summer clothes than washing them.  When you’re not wearing your summer gear, it’s not such a good washing day and what do you need it for anyway?  Depression effects different people in different ways.  When I’m in a down phase, I just want to hide and the last thing I want to do is be a burden to anyone or have people fussing over me.  In fact, when I’m on a downer, it actually annoys me when people try to help me in any way.  And when I’m not on a downer, then why would I go to a doctor to say, “I’m feeling good now, but I’ve been depressed in the past,” - especially when there will be people in the waiting room with more immediate, more definable ailments?

The other reason I’ve never sought medical intervention is the old guy-thing of possibly not wanting to know the answer.  I’ve no idea what level my condition is - or if I even have one at all - but I have seen people who I know are on anti-depressants and they are so messed up by the medication that it prompted me to say to my dearest, “Whatever happens, please don’t let them do that to me.”  Having said that, I also know people who say their medication has been the best thing that ever happened to them.  But everyone’s experiences are different. 

Another thing I don’t want to do is look like I’m using depression as an excuse for anything.  While I fully accept that there are hidden diseases like Asperger’s or chronic fatigue syndrome that are every bit as serious as conditions that are obvious, like a stroke or a missing limb, we have to be honest and recognise that some of these conditions are easier to imitate as well.  A few years ago, I taught a course where we had to interview all the enrollees to check that they were eligible and appropriate for the course.  There was one who said right at the beginning, “You might have some trouble with me because I’ve got depression.”  I don’t doubt for a moment that she had the condition and I may be doing her a grave injustice here, but to announce that in your opening statement suggests to me that she might have been using it as a bit of an excuse.  Again, that may be an extremely unfair and unworthy observation, but what I know is that I don’t want to come across like that.  In a way, I’m a closet depressive.  I’m not ashamed or embarrassed.  I just don’t want people making allowances for it.  I don’t want it factored into the way people talk to me or deal with me.  I don’t want people being careful around me. 

So I haven’t been diagnosed, but I know how I feel.  I saw a documentary on depression once that talked about how to possibly identify it.  They suggested that if you think you might have depression then you probably do.  I don’t know if I believe that.  There are some people who read a medical book and catch the index - I sometimes feel that way with psychology.  However, when I hear people who have been diagnosed describe their conditions, depression is the one I can relate to the most, in the same way as I could when I first realised I needed glasses as a teenager.  Equally, I’m wary of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  At high school, I used to joke about being a manic depressive just because it seemed like a cool and artistic thing to be.  The Peanuts character I related to the most was Charlie Brown.  Neil was always my favourite of The Young Ones.  I think it’s an open question as to which of these is cause and which is effect.  For all that, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve begun to think it’s an actual condition, rather than just my personality or what’s going on around me.

While depression is something that must be recognised as a real and serious condition, it should also be recognised that depression can also be a perfectly natural and normal feeling depending on the circumstances. I’ve spent most of the last 25 years or so trying to work out which is which.  I have a friend who was recovering from a very serious operation and a marriage breakup at the same time and asked her doctor to give her something for the depression she was feeling at the time.  He refused.  His reply was, “You’ve had a brain tumour and your husband has just left you. Of course you’re depressed. I would be too.”  He was a smart doctor.  In a similar way, I always felt I had pretty good grounds for my depression in the past.  Whether it was loneliness, isolation, unemployment or a relationship breakup, I thought - and still think - that these were things worth being depressed about.  It wasn’t until a big crash in 2008 that I seriously began to wonder if my depression was some kind of condition rather than a natural and appropriate reaction to the world around me. 

At this time, life was good.  I had a good job which I enjoyed and I had the love of an amazing person.  The absence of these two things - especially the latter - was the most common cause of mood crashes before.  Although I wasn’t unhappy, I could barely lift my head when I didn’t have to.  Even my father began to notice.  This is significant because I usually try to hide how I’m feeling from those closest to me.  Actually, “hide” is the wrong word.  I want to spare them from it - I don’t want to drag them along.  It’s not a universal truth that misery loves company.  For me, it’s a measure of the crash when I don’t even have the energy to spare my parents from what’s happening.  And at that time, I really didn’t know what was happening because this time, there was not a good reason for it.  It actually came as something of a relief when I realised several weeks into it that I must be depressed. It went some way to explaining the lack of energy, the thoughts of death, the anxiety and panic attacks, and the return of a nervous twitch when I’m stressed.

I’m not entirely sure I’ve recovered from that phase.  For a couple of years prior to that, I was relatively content and although wonderful things have happened since, most of the time it feels like the monsters are still just around the corner.

I should explain that expression:
A lot of people describe depression by quoting Churchill’s description of it as the black dog.  I choose not to.  I like black dogs.  My description comes from the song by Something For Kate.  I have no idea if this is what Paul Dempsey was referring to when he wrote this song, but it describes perfectly what a depressive phase feels like to me:
And I don’t want to slide into apathy
And I don’t want to die in captivity
But these monsters follow me around
Hunting me down, try to wipe me out.
Yep.  That’s how it feels.

The final confirming source that leads me to now believe I have some kind of condition is the fact that I have spoken to others who have been diagnosed and they get it.  And they recognise that I get it when they speak about their experiences.  There’s no point in telling someone who is depressed that things are going to be alright.  That doesn’t compute in the place where they are.  Don’t try to cheer them up.  You may get them to crack a smile but it’s not going to last.  Don’t bother complimenting them.  They won’t believe you.  And don’t give us that RUOK-Day nonsense.  If you’re asking because of an awareness campaign, a depressed person will see through that in a second.  But do understand that they’re not rejecting your efforts; it’s just a symptom of the condition.  There have been times when I have said, in all seriousness, “Don’t lie!” when someone has said they missed me or was thinking about me.  It’s a terrible thing to say to someone showing me friendship.  As I’ve come to recognise my condition a bit more, I’ve been able to manage it just a little bit better.

What follows should not in any way be considered advice.  It’s simply a description of my own experiences.

I am incredibly lucky to live with someone who understands and who I don’t have to hide my madness from.  I knew she was the one when, on a visit in 2009, I had a complete emotional meltdown, and she didn’t miss a beat.  Actually, I knew she was the one before that, but this helped confirm it.  Even so, I tell her not to indulge me too much.  I don’t hide things from her because she deserves to know the worst of me.  Beyond that, I can be a good actor.  A lot of people are under the impression that I’m a pretty smiley, happy person.  It wouldn’t help anyone, including me, for them to know what can go on in my head.  Despite the aversion to medication I mentioned earlier, I am in no way against anti-depressants, properly used.  However, treatment for any physical ailment includes exercise.  In a way, I’ve had to practise putting on a front for people who wouldn’t understand.  I don’t know if that has made things better or worse for myself.  While I would love it if more people understood, it wouldn’t help things if I were indulged to the point of not having to try to be... well... I hate to use this word, but... normal.  The fact that I have survived without any diagnosis or treatment might suggest I’m overstating my depression.  I allow for the possibility that I might be.  Truthfully though, I’ve survived because I didn’t know what else to do.

As wonderful and understanding as my dearest is, it’s frustrating for her too.  I really can talk to her about how I’m feeling – which is to say that I have the opportunity to, but even then, sometimes I can’t.  There are times when the thoughts are going through my head so fast that it’s impossible to describe them.  Then there are times when I want to shake those thoughts and talking about them would only keep them in there.  This can sometimes lead her to think that I’m not talking to her, but if I don’t tell her what’s going on in my mind, it’s because I can’t.  Not in the same way that I can’t talk to my parents about it, but in the way that it’s impossible to put it into coherent sentences and if I could, it would only make the monsters stronger.  Sometimes though, it doesn’t even get that far.  Sometimes, I’ll be curled up in a weeping mess, feeling all the sadness of the world and the only honest answer I can give to the question of what’s wrong is, “I don’t know.”

I had been planning to write this piece for a couple of years now.  Like the getting help or the summer laundry, it was all a question of getting the timing just right.  Talking about depression runs the risk of feeding it.  So does talking about happiness in my case.  When I was feeling well, I chose not to write about depression because it might trigger some for me.  When I’ve been in the darkest depths, I wouldn’t do anything so self indulgent.  Today seemed the right day.  I had a mood-swing last night.  I’m a bit better today, but I think it’s going to take a couple more days to dig myself out of it.  Since I’m mostly functional, it seemed like a good time to write.

My only reason in writing this is to try and explain from one person’s point of view, how depression feels.  I don’t speak for anyone else.  I have no advice to offer.  This is usually the part where you’re supposed to post links to places that can help.  Since I’ve never availed myself of such services, I’m in no position to comment, although I’m sure they do wonderful work.  What I can do is recommend a couple of excellent posts by Mike Stuchbery and Ben Pobjie describing their experiences.

Hold it in your head.