Monday, October 10, 2016


Image result for young trans women

A young friend recently talked about her experience of self harm. She commented that she had stopped doing it some time ago, but that her depression and anxiety were no better. Other friends weighed in and agreed. They had found other things to do, like exercise, but felt their depression, anxiety and sense of unstable identity remained. What to do once you've stopped cutting and burning?

I want to say some things to my friend, and if I sound too knowledgeable or confident or technical I apologize. It's just that I talk like this. Some of what I am saying is plainly obvious, but I think it is worth saying it as an expression of support. I don't have the experience of self harm. It wasn't around when I was young. Granted, I have known women my age who have done it, and I once had a flatmate who cut her breasts and vulva and was duly hospitalized, but it wasn't in the zeitgeist. I may have been miserable and lost at times, but it never occurred to me to hurt myself. 

The first thing to say to my friend is that the reason her depression and anxiety didn't get better after she stopped cutting herself was that cutting was not the problem. It was a worthy attempt to solve the problem. The problem was the depression and anxiety (Did I mention that what I am saying is plainly obvious?!) I am not suggesting it's a good thing to harm yourself, as it has its own problems. It can become kind of addictive and lead to more risky self harm and outright deformity. I have known a young woman do very serious damage by using oven cleaner on her legs, for example. It's like Homer Simpson says of alcohol - it's both the problem and the solution. When self harm is seen as the problem, however, you miss the point. Perhaps professionals should say - that's great that you have found such a meaningful and adaptive method of handling intolerable difficulties. Now let's look at dealing with those.

One of the issues about self harm is that it tends to be associated with young people, and especially young women. In which case, society hasn't a fucking clue what to do with you anyway. Welcome to a world in which it must be really hard to establish some sort of stable and significant identity among the wreckage of terminal stage capitalism. I am truly sorry it has come to this.

Self harm is also associated with Borderline Personality Disorder, that grisly appellation hurled by the frustrated clinician at the fleeing patient.* I have written before about BPD in three blog entries with the titles "The Borderline Society and is Discontents'. In these entries I claim that BPD is an adaptive response to a society that denies true moral and spiritual development to individuals, and decouples us from nature. For now, let me just say that if you hurt yourself repeatedly you may well at some time 'attract' (love that term!) a diagnosis of BPD or its traits. And yeah, if you hurt yourself a lot you probably do struggle with intolerable feelings, deep sensitivity, and an unstable or at least fluid identity.

Self harm is indeed the problem and the solution. You may find it useful for lots of reasons. It might stop you feeling stuff if you feel too much. It might make you feel if you feel nothing at all. It might distract you. It might focus you. It might serve for beauty or pleasure. It might express congruence, in that it is an outward showing of your inner self. It might point up lack of congruence, reminding you of the secret of your inner chaos or agony. You can hide it, display it, turn it into art. What's not to like? But whatever the reasoning, self harm changes your brain. It injects you with cortisol, adrenalin, oxytocin, lactic acid, endorphins and anandamide. Really, what's not to like? And it's free!

So when you stop self harming, it may be because you realize its problems outweigh the benefits,  or you have moved on to other ways of replicating the chemical hits mentioned above, or you just find it no longer does it for you. You then look for place holders or activities that do the same chemical brain thing. Substance use is an obvious one and of course has its own problems. Exercise was mentioned in the conversation among my young friends, as was being tattooed. Being pierced can also be a substitute. There are slightly more oblique versions - brief and risky sexual encounters, sexual fetishes, extreme sports, all take one 'out of oneself'. At the other end of the spectrum, I think some of the older women I have met use reading as a way of gaining a total distraction or vanishing for a time, and light reading is sometimes even called an 'escape'. There are two aspects to all the activities mentioned here - pain or its promise, and distraction or leaving the quotidian self behind. The third aspect of self harm is aesthetic, and art of all sorts has its place here.

I want to be a bit non judgmental about all of the activities mentioned above and the reasons behind them, and about self harm itself. Let's look at all of these things as ways of managing intolerable internal experiences. A talented and courageous alpinist uses mountaineering as a way of managing depression, panic, and a pervading sense of not being good enough. She achieves remarkable things and is one of our most foremost climbers. When she doesn't summit, her depression absolutely crushes her. She then uses all her skills of self talk and self love to stay alive. This is hard going. I don't know how she does it. But it is her life, it makes her able to live on the heights. I must not romanticize this - I can't claim to understand it, but I can support it.

In the end, for my young friends who suffer depression and anxiety and instability of identity, I would urge nothing but moderation. Study and learn about your difficulties, but temper that with love. Rejoice in your sensitivity, and seek those who understand it, and also acknowledge that life is just plain hard for everyone and we need to somehow rub along. Harden the fuck up when you have to, and spend a day in bed when you can. Seek nature. Seek friends. Seek solitude. Be beautiful, but never perfect.

The photo above is of a trans woman called Macy Rodman and has nothing to do with self harm.  I didn't want the stock images of miserable girls or blood stained arms. I think Macy is gorgeous, and gender fluidity provides us with another way of thinking about identity and diversity and caring. That's all.

* This is a quote, but I can't source it. Wish I'd said it first!

Saturday, October 1, 2016


I have written before about becoming a member of the precariat, that new class of people who lack the full security and rights of those with 'proper' jobs. Many of us are job-insecure. We work part time, or temp, or seasonally. We may have near zero hour contracts and are expected to be on call all the time. We stick jobs together. We work for cash. We exist the the mauve or grey economies, selling from catalogues or at markets, or just plain hustling. My daughter and her partner live like this - all their work is insecure, they pay taxes, yet they have fewer civil rights in the country where they live. They cannot vote, having lived away from New Zealand for too long but having no voting rights in the country where they have lived and worked for five years. In classical Athens, there were citizens and denizens. Many of us are now denizens.

For some time I lived almost off grid, working for cash only and learning the fun things about life among the denizens.I found I could use my skills in the grey economy and I learned fast. Later, I attempted to get onto welfare. I have written about this before, in my post Obligation Failure, about the welfare system.

Being established on welfare was a big relief, but my situation threw up its own peculiarities. I was deemed by my case manager to be unemployable. This would put stress on her. She would struggle to account for how an educated, skilled middle aged woman with no criminal record could remain unemployed. She pointed out to me that she would fail to meet her Key Performance Indicators and therefore I had to get a medical certificate. But I'm not sick, I said. But I want to work, I said. Nevertheless, off I went to the doctor and paid $45 to be put onto a sickness benefit. I stayed on this for over a year as my situation remained complex and unresolved, visiting my GP every three months and explaining that I was not really sick but this was what the system required of me. My next case manager was sympathetic, and unusually flexible. And I applied for jobs here and there, just for a lark, and to show I was still, at bottom, respectable.

Eventually, and to my surprise, I actually got a job. I did this by myself and by completely legitimate means. It has shit pay and shittier hours and is not quite full time, and it is in a low status industry, but it is mine and I got it and I am now almost a citizen again. I will not reveal what it is in order to protect those who took the risk and took me on. I do not want to jinx it and I value the reputation of my employer too much. Naturally I am very grateful to them. I have tried to add value to the place by organizing and unionizing the workers, and I aim to educate myself where I can. It's a start.

Being in the workforce has immense value for me. I feel useful and purposeful. I am doing good. I have structure and sometimes people to talk to. We are perhaps the last vestiges of the genuine working class. We are mostly single mothers with old cars, high rent, and difficult relationships. We are endlessly tired. We care about our work and we do not expect much from it. Ours is not a living wage. We wouldn't expect it to be. We are simply selling our labour.

There was a time when being a wage slave was considered to be a bad thing. People wanted to derive meaning from what they did. In those heady days there was talk of paying parents, and of a citizen's wage, and of being freed up by technology to pursue higher things which would be then valued accordingly by society. Income and work were becoming slightly decoupled.

If there ever was a battle between labour and capital, capital won decisively in the 1980's. Now, there are large numbers of us, including many of the young and bright, who want to be wage slaves. A steady wage might consign us to near impoverishment, but at least we know what next week will bring. More of the same. No worse. When I was deemed to be unemployable, and applying for 'unskilled'* jobs on low wages, I was begging to be someone's wage slave. Now I am, under the circumstances, I am genuinely pleased. Image result for wage slave

*There is no such thing.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


It was 0550 and the fire of my night shift was collapsing softly into embers. In a fit of (I might add) uncharacteristic narcissism I looked up my name on LinkedIn. I found a much more illustrious namesake who worked for Barclays bank. Guess what she did? And I quote verbatim, including the capital letters:

'Responsible for being the independent Voice of Customer proactively influencing the customer agenda at Exco level to drive performance against key customer targets'

She also was:

'continually embedding a TCF culture' (TCF, for the non cognoscenti, is Treating Customers Fairly).


'producing a 40% year on year reduction through eliminating root causes.'

Naturally she was far prettier than me. She could have eliminate my root cause any time. And boy could she pack in some verbs. No actual meaning, mind, but lots of verbs. 

Made me want to kick in a few windows.
Image result for barclays bank

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Image result for old man countryside
He walks now by feeling the ground with his feet, and he can't see the soup down the front of his shirt. Yet he can tell the change in the weather by the plumage of a bird, and the change of the seasons by the colour of the hills.

He can't hear his wife telling him dinner is ready, and the TV has to be disturbingly loud. Yet he stirs when the spur winged plovers call overhead.

 He sits in the sun on his stool outside the tiny retirement 'village' house and complains that it's cold, and people are unfriendly. He remembers his childhood in the country, where his father built him and his brothers a hut and they played, fought, experimented and grew together. It was an idyll. Even at the time, it was.

The memories are desperately acute. The smell of the grass and the long golden light of evenings in the hills are like a calling. If pressed, he would agree that if he went back to his childhood home it would be different now from how it was, that this is just longing and loneliness, but that is not how it feels when his head is on his chest and the past flows gently in under his eyelids.

It is not just depression and the beginnings of dementia, although it is also those things. And it is not just remembering. There is a deep imperative here, to spread his whole life out before him in these moments he has left, to raise up and widen his gaze to take in everything that matters, now, to become the sky and the fields and the mountains where his spirit is beginning to roam. It's not 'living in the past', it's preparing, pausing, taking stock. In Egyptian religion, the scales of Ma'at weigh the soul against a feather. Only if it is lighter does the soul go paradise. This man is weighing his soul.
Image result for scales of ma'at

Saturday, August 6, 2016


This stand alone (and on its side because of my lack of tech know how) splash of colour in the post earthquake landscape of Christchurch's CBD is the Les Mills gym. The picturesque rubble in front of it is what remains of the Calendar Girls strip club/Corporate Affairs brothel. Both of these buildings sprang up quite soon after the earthquake, big weird stark boxes, their interiors obscured, both of them temples to the body. I thought at the time how post EQ our carnal selves took precedent - how strip clubs and fast food outlets rose faster than homes, and how schools were closed and social services struggled. When the two new Burger Kings opened up - well - at least the Whopper has a home even if people don't.

Sweet dualisms. Life is not so simple, I have since discovered. About three years ago I would have considered it like this - brothels bad, social services good. Things of the body bad, things of the mind good. The social order is easier to think about when I can order myself in this way. Now, not so much.

For a time I worked hard not to privilege one experience over another. I learned to slice time so thinly I could feel the present moment as just this present moment. There! It's gone. A flash of the fish in the fast and complex river of time. If I am cold I am cold. If I am warm I am warm. Pleasant sensations are not to be privileged any more than unpleasant ones. Sensations are just that. Don't judge them or extend them or contract them or manipulate them in any way. Once I started with this, each moment became richer, and more interesting. My aim, however, was to do away with the moments altogether and enter a timeless state. I wanted to use the sensations of the body to transcend the body.

I don't know if I just gave it all up or went on to something different, but after that my practices became much more embodied and experimental, and that distinction between mind/good and body/bad just collapsed of its own accord. I have a strong monist streak in me now. Either you get more and more refined matter, or more and more coarse energy, but it's the same stuff. It doesn't go away, it is inside and outside us, it's as accessible as it is mysterious, and all its varied forms are fascinating. It's a mess, is what it is. And I suspect we can't escape it, contingent beings that we are.

This affects how we are in the world. It sounds twee to say that the best wisdom is found in the prison or the whorehouse, but it seems to be true. Living is hard. The more living you do, the harder. You get bigger inside and there is more of you to fill, so you start to care about shit, and you feel it more, and you care about more shit, and then that makes you bigger again and in the end you care about all of the shit. You don't transcend anything, you just take it into yourself. Let me tell you, whatever it is, it doesn't exactly make you happy. But you wouldn't go back, either.