Experience Is To Be Lived

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


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The Fault Is In Our Stars

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDAL THOUGHTS, SEXUAL ABUSE, CHILD ABUSE, PAEDOPHILIA, COURT PROCEEDINGS

Why is it that some difficulties people experience get them instant sympathy, and others they find themselves blamed for?

If you are unfortunate enough to suffer from mental illness, whatever form that takes, you will probably be aware of the stigma that comes with it. It took me several years, two ended relationships, and ultimately making concrete plans to kill myself on the second anniversary of my mum’s death before I accepted that I needed to get some help, and so many people I’ve spoken to have experienced similar reluctance to seek some kind of treatment.

It took me several years, two ended relationships, and ultimately making concrete plans to kill myself on the second anniversary of my mum’s death before I accepted that I needed to get some help.

Why do we refuse to seek help? If I have an infection which isn’t shifting after letting my body fight it for a few days, the pain wins out and I go to the doctor. If someone’s tooth is hurting when they chew, they take a trip to the dentist and generally accept whatever treatment they’re told is needed. For some reason, though, when it was my emotions which ‘hurt’, I resisted the help which was there waiting for me – even though my usually pretty high pain threshold had given way to pain so extreme that I wanted to escape life itself. It was pain of a very different sort, for sure, but pain nevertheless.

I decided recently, after a bit of consideration, to be very open with my Charityworks cohort, mostly because I knew that if any group of people would be understanding, it would be them. I had been starting to experience symptoms of depression returning, so rather than going out to a club with them over the weekend a few weeks ago, I made my excuses: I need to take more care of my mental health at the moment to avoid my depression taking hold again. Had I had the ‘flu, I wouldn’t have thought twice about stating that as my reason for not joining them, but because it was a reference to my mental health, it felt somehow more vulnerable to admit to my ‘weakness’.

Mental illness is seen by many as just that: a sign of weakness. Society says that if something is wrong with your emotions or your mind, there’s nothing truly wrong with you; you just need to buckle up and get on with life, and stop seeking attention. It’s not a ‘real’ illness with pathogens and bacteria and stuff.

They all look happy and healthy, but it's statisically likely that one of them is suffering from some kind of mental illness.

They all look happy and healthy, but it’s statistically likely that one of them is suffering from some kind of mental illness.

The statistics are scary, though. According to research published by the Mental Health Foundation in 2007, one in four British adults will suffer a mental health problem in any given year – that’s 25%, a quarter – and between 8% and 12% of the British population (of any age) suffers from depression, the most common form of mental illness, in any year. Clearly, this is not a rare thing, and there is very little chance that you do not know a single person suffering from a mental illness, whether it is diagnosed or undiagnosed.

Let’s compare this with cancer, another illness ‘close to my heart’ (in a manner of speaking). It’s a fair comparison, I think, because in the same way that there are many different types of mental illness grouped together within that overarching category, there are hundreds of ways that cancer can present itself. According to the Cancer Research UK website, there were more than 331,000 cancer diagnoses in 2011 in the UK, and that obviously doesn’t include the people already living with (or dying from) cancer at any given time. Of different types of cancers, ‘breast, lung, prostate and bowel cancers together account for over half of all new cancers each year’, which means that, between them, this big four hit approximately 165,500 people afresh in 2011. These figures are far lower than those of mental illness, and yet we hear much more about cancer than we do about mental illness.

Meet the Smith family. They’re having a bad year this year. Aunt Bertha was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Last time they all met up for a family meal, much of the talk was about how Aunt Bertha’s breast cancer treatment is going. Poor Aunt Bertha. What hasn’t been mentioned is Aunt Maude’s ‘episode’. Aunt Maude has bipolar disorder; after struggling for a long time, though, she has just braved the trip to her GP, and has started medication and talking therapy. She’s feeling a bit better now; thanks for asking.

If you get cancer, it’s the natural world ganging up against you; if you get a mental illness, it’s your own mind ganging up on you, and you just need to be more firm with it.

OK, that’s a bit of a sarcastic rant, and cancer is certainly not dinner conversation for everyone, but there is much less stigma attached to it nowadays than there is to mental illness. Why? The common attitude, going back to the point earlier about the latter being seen as a sign of weakness, seems to me to be that cancer is seen as an evil, physical force acting against your body, and there’s no way that you personally could have dissuaded the tumour from growing once the cells decided to mutate, but mental illness is a state of mind, and therefore you could prevent it in the same way that you can stop yourself thinking about sex at a funeral or death at a wedding. If you get cancer, it’s the natural world ganging up against you; if you get a mental illness, it’s your own mind (i.e. yourself) ganging up on you, and you just need to be more firm with it.

It occurred to me, pondering on all of this, that mental illness isn’t the only situation where society commonly views misfortune as being at least in part the fault of the person suffering it, though. Another example is that of sexual abuse and rape. All too often, victims of sexual abuse (usually women, but not always) are seen in some way to be complicit in their own abuse, whether that is because of what they were wearing, where they were walking, what they had been drinking, to whom they had been speaking, or a plethora of other terribly incriminating factors. Part of me is incredulous when I hear comments like these being made, and another part of me is insulted and sickened.

When I was nine years old, my parents’ famous hospitality was called upon. A friend of a friend needed somewhere to stay for a Jewish festival, and we had a spare bedroom in our house, so the man was welcomed as a guest and made to feel at home. He decided to make himself too much at home, and spent an afternoon in my bedroom. As an affectionate and slightly irritating nine year old, I was just glad of the fact that someone was willing to play the board game with which the rest of my family was fed up. I did not understand the significance of the other games he wanted to play, and it wasn’t until a family friend walked in that anyone knew what was happening.

'Probation for assault on nine-year-old' headline on front page of national Jewish newspaper

When you dream as a child of being on the front page of a newspaper, a reason like this isn’t really at the front of your mind.

Fast forward a year or so, and we’re at the court case. Apparently it doesn’t happen with child witnesses any more, but I was called to give evidence by video link in front of the jury, including being cross-examined by the defence barrister. Thankfully, I don’t remember huge amounts of the experience in detail, but I do remember very clearly being lead through a series of questions which resulted in the defence informing the jury that I had just demonstrated that I had pestered the man to come my room to play a board game and therefore it was not his fault. What’s more, I had apparently shown ‘some affection’ for him, which is clearly the same thing as offering consent.

Apparently that was a strong enough defence for the jury, given that he was found not guilty of two counts of indecent assault on a minor. That, despite the fact that he was being treated for known paedophilic tendencies, and was found guilty in the same trial for having dozens of indecent images of young girls on his home PC. It certainly seems like a lot of circumstantial evidence to me, but because a trained barrister was able to ask questions which lead to the nine year old victim affirming that playing a board game in a bedroom was her suggestion, enough blame was foisted on to the victim to allow the perpetrator to walk free, and for that victim to believe still that she was somehow at fault until well into her twenties.

Poor man, led astray to paedophilia by a seductive nine year old.

Poor man, led astray to paedophilia by a seductive nine year old. Let’s just pause to think for a moment about the ostracism that he’ll suffer as a result of the trial. (And yes, that was also an argument used.) The girl’s recurring nightmares are nothing compared to that, and there was clearly no loss of innocence as a result on her part, because she was already a slut. Nine year old slut.

(As it happens, the same man has since completed at least one short prison sentences for another, more recent, instance of having indecent images of young girls on his computer, and my mother once told me that she’d been inundated with phone calls, emails and letters from other parents who said he’d abused their own child but there hadn’t been enough evidence to take it to court. One woman apparently even contacted her from Australia, where the family had relocated to in order to make a fresh start. I don’t know of his current whereabouts, and half hope that the Grim Reaper has paid a visit; the last time I heard, though, he’d been shunned from several synagogues but was still lecturing to undergraduates at Oxford University.)

There is something terribly, terribly wrong with a culture in which anyone other than the instigator of sexual abuse is seen as being in any way responsible. Whatever the circumstances, a person’s body remains theirs and theirs alone, and however they present it to the outside world, this is not changed. If that body is walking down a street alone at night, it is theirs with which to do that, and they are not to blame if they are sexually assaulted. If that body is wearing a revealing or tightfitting outfit, it is theirs with which to do that, and they are not to blame if they are sexually assaulted. If that body has consumed more alcohol than it has a tolerance to, it is theirs with which to do that, and they are not to blame if they are sexually assaulted. It may be unwise to do these things, but from the perspective of ‘protecting oneself from sexual assault’, the protection is only needed because there are other people who feel incorrectly entitled to those bodies. The only person responsible for sexually assaulting someone is the person who does the sexual assaulting; there is no justification for reducing an adult male’s responsibility for sexual assault simply because the body he assaulted belonged to a young girl who had permitted him to enter her bedroom (for whatever purpose). What does that young girl even know about the more nefarious activities that could take place?

The only person responsible for sexually assaulting someone is the person who does the sexual assaulting.

So why does society seem to have this penchant for feeling that some people are responsible for personal suffering over which they have no control? Before I try to answer that, I want to bring one more example forward for consideration.

An individual’s sexuality and their gender identity are two of the most personal things that could possibly be discussed. Non-tangible as they are, almost by definition it is impossible to discuss or measure them in an empirical manner, although there are plenty of scientific, psychological and sociological studies into gender/sexual self-identification and outward presentation. We certainly do not yet seem to understand why some people are attracted to the same gender, other people feel innately that they have been born with the wrong sex, and yet others cannot associate themselves with either pole of the gender binary. All we can do is accept that this is the case and try our very hardest to empathise with these individuals, even though they go against every human urge to categorise and classify the world in which we live.

There are many people, however, who go to great lengths to argue that these identities are actually chosen by the individual. The argument generally goes that humans are assigned their gender based on their sexual organs at birth and are by nature attracted to the opposite sex – generally, but not always, based on a religious foundation of ‘God created you as a woman, and so you are a woman’ and ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’, respectively. Some form of depravity or penchant for attention seeking, though, makes certain people choose to get down and dirty with people of the same sex or claim to be a different gender. If it is chosen, then, they say, these individuals could re-choose if they so wished, and therapy or external pressure might be able to make them do just that.

Does he? Really? So don't smoke.

Does he? Really? So don’t smoke.

It is often these same people who hold negative opinions towards trans or non-heterosexual individuals. Attitudes range from the religious (‘it’s against God’s will’) to the biological (‘it’s unnatural because it doesn’t allow for reproduction’), from the psychological (‘it’s an expression of formative experiences in childhood’) to the sociological (‘it’s just a reflection of the crowd you fell in with’), with a special mention for the downright intolerant (‘it’s disgusting and I don’t like it’). That last one’s my favourite. What seems to be a common trend, though, is the development of these attitudes:

1)      being that way is a choice;

2)      that particular choice is one which the bigot would not make;

3)      that particular choice is wrong, because the bigot would not have made it;

4)      the subject of bigotry should not have made the wrong choice;

5)      the person deserves to be condemned and punished, because they chose to do something wrong.

I’m not going to expend my energies picking apart the fallacies in this argument, because there are just too many ‘is to ought’s and assumptions that subjectivity can be converted into objectivity. I also willingly admit that my use of the words ‘bigot’ and ‘bigotry’ demonstrates a bias on my part. Nevertheless. What I do see is that, with very little adaptation, this same argument seems to be used in the two examples of victim-blaming I looked at earlier (mental illness and sexual abuse).

What we see in victim-blaming is that it is often easier just to deny honest expressions of pain and reflect them back towards the sufferer.

Why is it, then, that these individuals who experience or have experienced so much suffering continue to be blamed for that very suffering? I don’t know if I have a complete answer, because this really bewilders me. All I can think to say is that it comes down to a fear of that which is different or unknown. People who have not personally experienced a particularly challenging scenario, whether that is suffering from mental ill health, having one’s autonomy over one’s own body violated, or experiencing discrimination based on their non-normative sexual or gender identity, cannot truly understand the pain involved. If those people are unable to exercise even a degree of empathy, it is often easier just to deny honest expressions of pain and reflect them back towards the sufferer. I think, perhaps, that this is what we see in victim-blaming.

I look forward to the day when we are so good at recognising people passing unfair judgements that we can call it out when we see it in others and in ourselves. Maybe, one day, we can put a stop to society’s tendency to pour salt on the wounds of those whose stars simply conspired against them.

Afterword:

I am not, in any sense, saying that having a non-heterosexual identity is a form of suffering, nor that it is comparable to sexual abuse or mental illness, because one is not a ‘victim’ of gayness or any other form of non-normativity. The thing of which one is a victim is the discrimination based on this at the hands of the intolerant, and the thing for which they are blamed is the fact that they ‘choose’ to experience that discrimination because they have ‘chosen’ to be the way they are.


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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’.