Saturday, October 29, 2016


Image result for SCYLLA and charybdis

Every day of his life he failed to negotiate between the Scylla and Charybdis of his parents. His father beat his mother and his mother beat him. His father was chaotic and brutal, and left his immigrant wife without remorse. His mother left the slums and gentrified herself by a sheer effort of will. Her house was a preserved shell of good taste from fifty years ago. She dieted, seldom cooked, kept the good china on display, and his childhood bedroom was kept spotless and oddly pink, decades after he left it.
Nowhere was the conflict between his parents more difficult than in matters of religion. His father forbade him to go to church, and his mother made him. So he went, and after his mother died the best he could say of this woman who could fell him as he ran with a broom thrown like a javelin, was, with great earnestness, that she led him to the Christian life. 

Church, or not-church, demonstrated to him that punishment was a given, but he could choose his punishment. The rest of his life worked pretty much like that. His many efforts to be useful came across as ingratiating. His attempts at sexual relationships created vehement disapproval, both for being with other men and for existing at all. He remained close to his family, even when he couldn’t live with them, and saw himself as their servant. 

It didn’t help that he had a mild intellectual disability and a stack of anxiety related behaviours that got him into frequent trouble. He blamed his father for his angry outbursts. He saw his anger as something that had been implanted in him, and he could not take any responsibility for it. He lived in a world that almost made sense, at least it would if people didn’t annoy him and if they understood his point of view. He managed it all by humming and muttering and nodding and blinking and wringing his hands, and all these things helped him, even if people seemed to find them off putting when he went on buses and tried to make conversation. 

The death of his father threw him into brief fury. For about a month he slept badly, flew off the handle easily and failed to make amends. But the death of his mother, a year later, precipitated a deeper response. I’m an orphan, he said. He was, at 58. It would be different if I had a mother, he would say. I wouldn’t be an orphan.
Much of his emotional voyaging had taken place in reaction to different types of authority –to his parents, obviously, and to the rules and ideologies steering the ships of the various institutions he had always lived in as an adult. So newly orphaned, he set out to replicate his authority figures as best he could. It was plain to him that he could not look after himself. He needed parents. So in his mind his brother became his father and his sister became his mother. He was explicit about this. He wasn’t unsophisticated about it. He understood it as a conscious attempt to reconstruct his emotional life. He knew they weren’t really his parents and could not do the job that parents should. But they were the best he had. This attempt at conceptual flexibility was costly for him, being as he was a man whose world view you could usually bend steel around. It could only be done by necessity, and only if he was willing to leave some almighty and excoriating gaps in his already troubled inner life. Of course his executive functioning suffered. So he kept busy, staved off depression, and grieved honestly and with dignity. Very occasionally, over time, he would remark that now his parents were gone, he was no longer subject to their influence. He no longer needed to be dutiful. He could think his own thoughts and make his own choices. 

In reference to the motif above, in the Odyssey, Scylla is a rock and Charybdis a whirlpool. Odysseus has to choose how to steer his ship between them. Thus it provides a metaphor for a decision between two unpalatable options. Odysseus maneouvres his ship closer to Scylla, the rock. He chooses to lose a few men rather than the whole ship in the whirlpool Charybdis. 

We sometimes sacrifice a part of ourselves in order to preserve the whole. We often choose Scylla and it is often the only choice that enables our survival. We might sacrifice our ability to have passions and fantasies, to be desperate, to be delighted, to be great, in order to get by day to day, and who can blame us. The terrible passage between the rock and the whirlpool, so legendary they are given names, is real and compelling and for many of us it is all we can do. 

May this man, with all his disadvantages, sail out of the passage, not safe, but more human. May we all sail out, not safe, because safety (at least on its own) impoverishes our souls, but more human.

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.