Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector


Let It Go?

It’s funny how some distance can make everything seem small…

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog post. My ‘blog post ideas’ Word document has been accumulating ideas, but time has not been on my side. At the same time, though, it’s been difficult to write in the interim period, because I feel like I’m both barely the person I was two months ago and even more the person I was two months ago – and now really myself. I’ll try to explain.

When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Yesterday, I turned 23. When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. On my 18th birthday, I was taking my French A Level oral exam (which I failed!). My mother was in remission and waiting a couple of years for an all clear, and was completely healthy with it. My boyfriend of a year and a half and I were going strong, and despite some ups and downs were looking forward to spending our gap year together. My RSI was bad, but not as bad as it had been and the medication was keeping it mostly under control, so I could function normally without too much pain. I was relatively comfortable with my religiosity and my faith, a few gripes notwithstanding. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Today I am 23. I am fortunate enough to have finished university with a first class degree, to have a good job which I secured within a few months of finishing university, and to have my RSI relatively under control without the aid of medication. To that extent, things are probably as I would have hoped to see them through the lens of five years ago. Other than that, though, I doubt much of my life today is how I’d have expected it to turn out.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

My mother’s been gone two and a half years now, and I still miss her as much every day as I did on that first morning that the sun rose without her. Yesterday, she would have turned 57 – we’d have a collective age of 80 now! – but instead she’s in Bushey cemetery and I’m still putting the pieces of my life back together, rather inexpertly. The boyfriend and I broke up nearly three years ago, after just about making it through our gap year and then being on and off in our first year of university. My low moods, which were always a difficulty between us, have now crystallised into clinical depression, and his jokes that I was almost as interested in the women around me as I was in him are no longer jokes, because I proudly came out as bisexual a year ago. And my religion? Well, that’s been a constant seesaw ever since the very first week of my gap year, and the last two months have been no exception.

I had never been all that bothered about the role of women in Orthodox Judaism while I was growing up (as I explored in a post a few months ago), and I was happy to be religious in a normative way – or, at least, to been seen to be like that outwardly. Then I got to Israel for my gap year. A couple of days after arriving was a Friday, so it was my first Sabbath spent in the country, and we decided that the only thing we could even contemplate doing was to go to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for the Friday night services. That’s what we did. To pray with a few thousand other Jews at the holiest site in Judaism should have been inspiring, incredible. I was even lucky enough to get a spot right up against the Wall, at the furthest left of the women’s section (so right up against the barrier between the men’s and women’s sections). Despite that, though, and despite the fact there were probably enough men there to have maybe 200, maybe 300 minyanim (the requirement of ten men for certain parts of the liturgy), I was nevertheless unable to hear any of the men who were leading the prayer, and so I was left praying the service to myself. I found that pretty upsetting – surrounded by thousands with the same intentions as me and yet still very much alone, just because I was a woman and couldn’t position myself near a man leading the prayers for me. The following day, we went to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where there was a communal seuda shlishit (‘third meal’, the meal between the afternoon and evening services on the Sabbath), and I sat between the other two guys I was with; a few minutes into the meal, though, the rabbi bustled over and told me that I needed either to leave or to sit by myself at a table in the corner – facing the wall! – because women weren’t allowed to share the same table as men. The three of us promptly walked out.

Those experiences really shook my commitment to my faith, although not to my practice. However much I questioned the point of being religious, I always found that I couldn’t just drop the practice side of Judaism. I’m not sure whether that was because it was too habitual, a personal comfort, or an image that I felt I needed to maintain. Many people I’ve spoken to recently about similar issues (more on that later) have emphasised that the nature of Judaism is that you can keep up the practices without necessarily having the faith supporting them while you wait to see if the faith comes back, but I’m not sure if I’m convinced, because what is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

What is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

However much my faith seesawed, I do know that in the months running up and following my mother’s death, my faith was complete. By that point, my personal theology of prayer had developed such that I couldn’t accept petitionary prayer as a valid activity, so I rarely prayed earnestly for her to get better once we knew the cancer was terminal and wasn’t going anywhere; my prayer tended to focus on her being as pain-free and comfortable as possible, and right at the end all I was praying for over and over again was for her to go peacefully. Well, that prayer seemed to be answered, because rather than spending her final moments in extreme suffering from the various factors combined against her, she just took one last breath and was gone. I believed that the fact that she died on the seventh day of Channukah and was buried on the eighth day was religiously significant: the story of Channukah is about the oil burning for longer than anyone expected (like she outlasted her diagnosis); and the eighth of anything is the mystical beyond the holiness of the seventh, so she died on a numerically holy day and was buried and send to her eternal rest on a numerically extra-worldly day. I got enormous comfort from saying the mourners’ prayer three times a day (though whether that was a religious comfort or comfort from being able to say publicly, ‘I’m mourning and it’s OK for me to be doing so’, I’m not sure). It all really meant something to me back then.

I’m not sure where to go with my story now, to be honest. There’s a year and a half or so of internal struggle that I could talk about, but that probably all makes more sense in the light of recent events, and my sexuality in particular.

I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction [between my religious beliefs and commitments and my sexuality].

When I first came out, more than a few people asked me how I reconciled that side of my life with my religious beliefs and commitments, and I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction. A few very encouraging things I’d read and been told about Orthodoxy and its potential openness to non-heterosexuality in the weeks and months before I finally decided to come clean had convinced me that I could be who I was and still be who I’d always been. Once I found myself out of the heterosexual privilege position, though, I started to see things that I’d never noticed before. For example, the laws of modesty (tzniut) require you to be fully clothed in front of people of the opposite sex – let’s not get into gender/sex here, because it gets even more messy – but the jury seems to be out on what an homosexual or bisexual individual should be doing. Is a women’s only swimming pool really the right place for a lesbian or bisexual woman from a modesty perspective? Over time, then, cracks began to appear in my convictions…

The same-sex marriage debate is a whole other thing, and that’s really the core of this post, I think, or at least the catalyst. I’ve already written in a previous post about my views about same-sex marriage; rather, I wrote about my views as they were two months ago. Watching the concept being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. My faith in God was already questionable, and I will explain that further in a blog post soon to come, but when I saw the way that discussions of non-heterosexual rights were simply descending into thinly veiled homophobia and biphobia (in the sense of a complete lack of understanding rather than actual hatred), my eyes snapped open.

Watching [same-sex marirage] being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’.

Being bisexual is great. Twice as many possibilities. Twice as many pieces of attractive eyecandy. A complete lack of concern for gender identity in potential romantic interests. It’s more than that for me, though. Discovering myself and coming out has made me so much more at peace with myself, and I can know that even as other things confuse me, at least one thing now makes much more sense. It gives me peace, self-confidence, self-assurance, and happiness. By the end of these discussions, though, I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’, because my skin is not thick enough to deal with people lumping my attraction to women with other ‘immoral’ sexual activities – physical urges which are not wrong in themselves but which should be suppressed for the sake of religion. And that made me realise that, frankly, if it was going to come down to a choice between expressing my true sexuality, a piece of self-knowledge which has made me so much more at ease with myself, and following my religion, which I can’t remember ever making me feel genuinely happy in and of itself, there is no contest.

Sometime's it's OK to let it go.

Sometime’s it’s OK to let it go.

The song Let It Go from the Disney film Frozen has become a bit of a phenomenon; I’m tempted even to call it an anthem. The sentiments the lyrics express can be used in an almost limitless range of situations, because what it champions is the idea that it is possible to break free from the restrictive bonds you’ve formerly been held back by, and that when that happens, you can reinvent yourself to be the person you’ve always wanted or needed to be – or felt that you already were. Breaking away from controlling parents or an abusive childhood (as is the case in the film). Slowly making your way out of the personal shackles of a mental illness. Getting out of an unhealthy relationship. Accepting your sexuality and coming out. Or maybe leaving behind a religious tradition that suffused every aspect of life while you were growing up but is no longer the positive inspiration it could be?

I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be.

I have a long journey ahead of me, and I don’t know where it will lead me. Maybe back to Judaism and Jewish faith. Maybe to another religion. Maybe away from religion entirely. Whatever happens, though, I’m going to try to bear the ideas behind Let It Go in mind. Ultimately, I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be, and if that means that perhaps Judaism is not conducive to that for me, it is OK to ‘let it go’.

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What’s In A Name?

It surprises many people I encounter for the first time, but I am actually relatively new to the ‘soapbox’ sector.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been opinionated (as my family will, I’m sure, readily attest to), but it was generally petty childish strops over whether it was my turn or my brother’s to do the washing up. No, developing opinions about things which actually affect people’s lives in a significant way is a fairly recent thing for me (and I’ve certainly got a long way to go yet in terms of putting forward watertight arguments, which is why I’m going to stick for the most part just to talking about my own experiences on this blog).

What all of this means, though, is that terms like ‘lived experience’, ‘self-identify’, ‘survivor’, ‘liberation’, ‘privilege’ and so on are all phrases that I used to turn my nose up at as psychologists’ politically correct namby-pamby. Even now, certain terms I feel more comfortable with than others. I’m not entirely sure what my turning point was, but I guess that dating a pseudo-Communist for a few years, going to a pretty liberally-minded university (which is funny, given that it’s a Jesuit place!), and being ‘BFFs’ (her word, not mine) with the biggest soapbox-er of them all will all have an effect. Anyway, the long and short of it is that I basically had to learn a whole new vocabulary, and I’m still having to expand it as I go along.

I had to learn a whole new vocabulary, and I’m still having to expand it as I go along.

Something that was probably a fairly large turning point in my involvement with liberation issues was being told at one point during my first year of university by the aforementioned BFF that I was a bigot. The context was a conversation about gender self-identification, and I had just expressed the view that if a person is assigned a gender at birth, based upon their genitalia, they are wrong to question/challenge that, unless they were born a hermaphrodite (in which case the doctors had a 50/50 chance and could have guessed wrongly). Had the ‘bigot’ criticism come from anyone other than her, I would probably have got offended, got annoyed, and then brushed it off, thinking ‘how could I, of all people, be called a bigot? I’m really open-minded!’ Given the circumstances, though, it planted a little seed in my mind, and after a couple of years of meeting people at university and in general life, I came to realise gradually how important self-identification (not just in terms of gender, but also disability, sexuality, ethnicity and so on) really is. No one has the right to look at a person and judge based on what they think they can see in front of them how that person feels about themselves. People looking at me see no disability – which is hardly surprising, given that it’s an invisible disability – and if I had left it to what they see, I’d never had completed a university degree. Even more, I’ve had instances in the past where people have deemed my RSI as ‘not a proper disability’ – presumably because they can’t see a physical aid or physical abnormality – and my reaction has been to ask them whether they would like to live with it for a day and then come back to me to repeat what they’ve said. That’s obviously different to the discrimination suffered by the trans* community, but it helped me to empathise much more with the notion of ‘self-identification’. Happily, I don’t think I would be likely to be called a bigot anymore, at least not for something like that!

My relationship with the term ‘survivor’ is an interesting one. I only actually discovered about two years ago that there is a trend among people who have experienced sexual abuse or violence to refer to themselves as ‘survivors’ rather than ‘victims’, and it’s not one that I’ve ever fully comfortably adopted. On the rare occasions that I would speak about my own childhood experiences, I would call myself a ‘victim’ of sexual abuse, and not feel uncomfortable with that at all; now, I tend to use the terms interchangeably when referring to my own experiences, but I make a point of using ‘survivor’ if I’m talking about others with similar experiences. From a purely personal point of view, I feel like ‘survivor’ makes what I went through sound more dramatic than it was, because it doesn’t even compare with what some women survive. The issue there is that I wouldn’t say that other 9 year old girls molested by a family guest and then blamed for that abuse by the legal system experienced something negligible, but I guess there’s still a bit of a wall in my mind behind which I’ve pushed quite a lot of that entire episode; perhaps if I confront the experiences further, maybe even stop blaming myself for what happened (thanks a bundle, rape culture!), my opinion on the ‘victim’ vs. ‘survivor’ debate will change as well.

Speakers Corner, Hyde Park, London – the ultimate destination for soapbox-ers everwhere!

I really like ‘lived experience’, because I feel that it gives a really powerful tool for being able to refer to genuine and insightful accounts of any form of discrimination, minority status or general feeling of difference. One of the modules I was forced into studying at university was on hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation and understanding, and it never made any sense to me at all. (Sorry Ahmad. I wasn’t the best of students in that class…) Something that I hadn’t realised would stick with me, though, was the idea (I think from Gamader, or ‘Gadamerde’, as I called him) that one cannot detach one’s experiences from the way in which one interprets anything, because they will always play a part consciously or subconsciously, however hard one tries to be detached and impartial. Having recognised that personal experiences will colour personal judgement, the fact that they then do is not such an issue, because the person has been upfront about holding such views/biases. That seems to rub along quite nicely with the emphasis placed on lived experience, because one of the major challenges put to the idea of lived experience (or people who ‘rant’ from that perspective) is that we allow our perceptions of discrimination or marginalisation to ‘taint’ our views or make us ‘bitter’. Well, as long as we’re upfront about where we’ve been and what we’ve seen, perhaps what we can bring to the table is an account which, yes, may be biased, but will show you things you may never have thought about. I have never lived in absolute or even full relative poverty, or as a person of colour, so I could never interpret the world through the same lenses as someone with a lived experience of either of those things, but through listening to their opinions and accepting those as containing valid bias, I can come to empathise.

Only through living can I experience, only through my experience can I share, and only through my sharing can people understand.

This last one brings me quite nicely round to the name of my blog. Choosing a blog name is an important decision, because it sets the tone of the whole thing and needs to be engaging enough to make it jump out on a web search. The real challenge is that I have a tendency to come up with dreadful dreadful puns that make people tempted to lock me in a cupboard with only an MP3 player loaded with Blink 182 and Britney Spears, so I wanted to avoid that. The thing that seemed most important to me was to make sure that it was obviously about lived experience, because that’s what I feel is the selling point of this blog. When I did a preliminary search on Google for blogs about lived experience, I found someone who’d done a post criticising the term, because ‘all experience is by definition lived’, and that got me thinking. I suppose that, yes, all experience is lived, but the point is that there is a person living those experiences and then speaking about them. It’s only through the fact that people live those experiences that society can hopefully arrive at a time when people are no longer living those experiences. The speaking about them is the key part, which is what my blog aims to do. On a more personal note, the name ‘Experience Is To Be Lived’ is intended to be a constant reminder to myself that, however dark things get as a result of my depression, experience is to be lived. For now, however bad things may sometimes seem, I need to try to keep my head up, because, I hope, one day they will be better. Only through living can I experience, only through my experience can I share, and only through my sharing can people understand.

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A Series of Fortunate Events

A few days ago, someone I admire very much posted an article about her experiences as a student with hearing loss. When I started to explore the website it appeared on, it came as a little bit of a surprise to me to realise that of the six categories of minority or liberation group covered by the website, I could self-identify into five. I’d already noticed that my diversity monitoring forms are usually slightly more ‘interesting’ than most people’s, but this was something pretty stark staring me in the face!

Liberate Yourself homepage, dedicated to the lived experiences of liberation students.

That evening, I was having a conversation with another friend I have huge admiration for, and I was speaking to her about this apparent ‘collection’ of minority identities I seem to have. Having reflected a little more on it, I’d come to the conclusion that I have at least six such identities (or even seven in situations where being under 25 can be a disadvantage), but when she went on to guess them, she missed two and picked up on one or two more of which I hadn’t really thought.

Still ruminating on this, the following morning I headed off to a learning day for Charityworks, the charity management graduate scheme I am on. The afternoon, it turned out, was a workshop on equality and diversity in the workplace, given by Jordana Ramalho, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at St Mungo’s (a charity well-known for its commitment to diversity). Timely! Not only did those two-and-a-half hours really open my eyes to issues I’d never fully contemplated before, but they also gave me another personal awakening. Divided at one point into six groups, we were given a number of different minority/liberation group to reflect upon, discussing the forms of discrimination such people could experience in the workplace and how, as managers, we could tackle such situations. When I heard the six categories, sure enough – I have some extent of lived experience in each.

All of this got me thinking and reflecting on how I might be able to put my experiences to use in breaking some of the silence surrounding certain forms of discrimination in wider society, opening channels of dialogue regarding topics that people might regard as taboo. I ‘ummm’ed and ‘ahhh’ed a little over creating this blog, wondering if some of what I have to say on certain topics might be too personal or unsuitable for broadcasting publicly on this wonderful Internetland, but I concluded that the more people speak about such things, the less taboo they will seem.

You will eventually find on this blog, then, very personal reflections on a range of topics, covering what it is to be a young, bisexual, practising Jewish woman with an invisible physical disability and clinical depression, who is a child survivor of sexual abuse and who lost her mother before the age of 21, but also thoughts on the many ways in which I experience privilege. The hope is to be able to relate all of this to how minority status is approached in wider society. Please note that there could be a possibility of triggers throughout what I may write, but I tend to write in a pretty lighthearted style, so I’ll want to avoid the heavy triggering material as much as possible anyway!

Happy reading! 😛