Category Archives: Psychology

When healing is your day job.

I saw this meme the other day and I absolutely love it; it resonates with me as someone who has gone through and had to heal from severe clinical depression, the effects of various types of self harm, extreme anxiety, agoraphobia, PTSD, and bipolar swings (all of which were caused by structural/social marginalisation and unusual, externally induced trauma… but that will be explored in another post). Trust me on this: be completely and utterly compassionate towards yourself, and take the time to heal and re-centre, unapologetically 🙂

Anyone who would judge you for doing so, is a fool.

Take your time… be well.

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RELATED: Just saw two people discussing this on Facebook – HEALING FROM TOXIC WHITENESS free online workshop for white people. I’m obviously not white, but toxic whiteness has been one of various causes of mental distress in my life. Art, Activism, community and my indigenous spirituality is how I’m healing from it 🙂

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For those who are alone this season.

Saw this on twitter; a reminder that this season is hard for so many:

christmas

 

And here are some articles for those who do find themselves alone during the holidays. VOLUNTEERING is a suggestion that comes up in many of these kinds of advice articles, and it is a great suggestion in general for those who feel disconnected in some way; even if you are not physically alone.

How do I … spend Christmas alone? Here are 10 ways

Alone for the Holidays? Here are Ten Ways to Lift Your Spirits

How to Cope When You Are Alone at Christmas

Be yourself completely.

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So I mentioned in a previous post that I recently came across and have been watching episodes of The Grapevine, a panel style discussion show bringing together young Black-identified game changers, artists, cultural innovators, and professionals to dissect topics being talked about in culture, mass media.

At one point in the all women episode ‘Love, Sex & Relationships’, host and show creator Ashley Akunna asks: “What is something you would teach your future daughters about dating?”

Uchechi Chinyere (pictured above, wearing a great t-shirt I own) gave the following sage advice:

Be yourself completely. As everybody knows, I’m a Pro-Black Feminist. I had a relationship where I made myself smaller because that was the type of woman that he wanted. Not only did I end up emotionally destroying myself, he married somebody else. But now I am so much happier, being myself. And I’m with somebody that is perfectly okay with who I am. And it’s not that he agrees with everything I do, but he absolutely loves who I am, accepts me completely. And it was because I was completely myself. And I learned how to be myself, and be okay with it, and not be afraid that I’m going to lose out on men because I am who I am. And that’s something I have to make sure I teach my daughters, ‘don’t allow society to tell you that you have to lessen yourself and make yourself smaller in order to attract a man, because that man is not for you’.”

Unlearning indoctrination: a conversation with Mandela’s white Afrikaaner secretary.

“What might it take for you to change your mind? Nothing simple, like what you’re going to have for lunch, but your whole ideology? Maybe even the belief system you’ve carried with you from childhood?”

– RN Life Matters, 16 February 2016.

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Yesterday I listened to RN Life Matters’ interview with Zelda la Grange, author of the book Good Morning Mr Mandela: A Memoir. For 16 years, Zelda faithfully worked for Nelson Mandela – first as a typist in the new Mandela-led government in 1994, then as his private secretary for many years after. Her story is remarkable for many reasons, but one in particular: Zelda, born a white Afrikaaner in apartheid South Africa, was a racist by the age of 13.

In fact, when the referendum was held in 1992 to end apartheid, 21 year old Zelda voted ‘No’. The reason why, she explained on Life Matters, was white privilege:

“I voted no, because this serves my being, I am comfortable living apartheid, I am privileged, so I didn’t want this to end… I am on the receiving end of apartheid, the positive side, so I didn’t want it to end and I voted no in the referendum.”

Zelda was raised in a very conservative (read: racist) household that believed, as most white South Afrikaaners did, in the rightness of apartheid: white supremacy, racial hierarchy, the physical and political separation/control of ethnic groups. She describes how the ideology supporting the regime was reinforced through propaganda via the media, the education system, and white churches. Zelda says:

“We never questioned it, because we were on the receiving end of privilege.”

The system of apartheid involved the complete dehumanisation and brutal treatment of indigenous South Africans. Zelda mentions in her interview just two of the many manifestations of this dehumanisation: the births and deaths of Black Africans were not even officially registered; and the movements of Black Africans were restricted and brutally policed.*

She notes, though, that a weird sort of cognitive dissonance was in play, as so many white children were brought up by loving Black domestic workers; Zelda herself adored her Black caregiver. But, she says, these Black people were acceptable because they were serving white people; those beyond a white household’s Black servants were not acceptable or worthy of fond human regard.

In February 1990, after 27 years of incarceration for being a liberation activist and “terrorist” against apartheid, it was announced that Nelson Mandela would be freed from jail. Zelda recalls being in the family swimming pool when she found out; her father, who regarded Mandela as an evil Communist, came outside and said to her:

“Now we are in trouble… the terrorist [Nelson Mandela] has been released.”

Not knowing who he was, Zelda was unperturbed by the news and continued relaxing in the swimming pool. Her father, fully aware of both the karmic debt accrued by centuries of brutal oppression by whites of Black Africans, and Mandela’s status as a resistance leader, feared the retaliation – and the possibility of Mandela leading it.

Zelda explained the white fear:

“Retaliation, because of centuries of oppression and discrimination, and I think understanding it now that we really feared that if Black people had the opportunity, they would retaliate.”

In 1994, despite having voted against the ending of apartheid in the 1992 referendum, Zelda took a job working as a typist for Nelson Mandela’s secretary, in the newly elected Mandela government. Psychologically it was a tense time for the white oppressors, even as it was a time of hope and liberation for all who worked to end apartheid (and of course, all who were oppressed by it).

At some point during her two years as a typist, Zelda nearly bumped into President Mandela and his security detail in a corridor. The chance meeting was an unexpectedly emotional, life-changing experience for her. Not only did Mandela stop and extend his hand to greet Zelda first, but he spoke to her in Afrikaans – her language. The language of those who had violently oppressed his people for centuries and incarcerated him for nearly three decades.

This excerpt from Zelda’s book describes the meeting:

“One doesn’t really know what to do at that point except cry, which I did. It was all too much. I was sobbing. He then spoke to me, but I didn’t understand him and was completely in shock. I had to say, ‘excuse me Mr President’, for him to repeat what he had just said to me, and after gathering my thoughts, I realised he was addressing me in Afrikaans – my home language. The language of the oppressor.”

The significance of Mandela addressing her in this language was profound; Mandela had said that when you speak to a man in his language, you speak to his heart. It was a great gesture of respect, afforded to a young privileged Afrikaaner woman who had voted to keep apartheid, yet went on to be on the payroll of the new Mandela-led government.

Zelda’s tears were tears of guilt. The realisation hit her instantaneously; the warmth and gentle kindness Mandela radiated deepened the sense of guilt she felt. Zelda could not fathom why he stopped to meet her, a low ranking staffer – and an Afrikaaner one at that. Seeing her emotional distress, Mandela put his hand on her shoulder and attempted to calm her down.

Thus began the unlearning of Zelda’s lifelong indoctrination. 

It is remarkable that the charisma and calming moral leadership of one person was able to trigger in many the undoing of what remains a huge problem for humanity – learned and deliberately taught supremacist thinking. Zelda’s transformation mirrored that which other whites were going through at the time; she recalls witnessing others having the same reaction to Mandela, the same experience of guilt realisation.

Because as Zelda’s father’s reaction to Mandela’s release had demonstrated, the white fear was retaliation – coupled with the desire to maintain privileges, it basically ensured racial hostility against the oppressed population for all eternity. But Mandela subverted their expectations. Zelda told Life Matters:

“It would have been justifiable for him to have resentment, and yet he did exactly the opposite.”

Mandela’s choice of forgiveness, negotiation, and conscious peace made her and many other whites feel grateful, disabled their fear-based defense mechanisms, and enabled them to finally see the horror of what they had inflicted upon Blacks and people of colour.

Some time later, Zelda had the opportunity to see President Mandela speak at an official lunch; in attendance were representatives of the ‘rainbow coalition’ of the new South Africa. Mandela calmly (and almost fondly) shared experiences of his incarceration. Here, Zelda realised the gravity of what had been taken from him – that he had been imprisoned longer than she had been alive, for fighting against injustice.

In the interview, Zelda again describes the “awful” shame that overcame her; but it was mixed with the realisation that Mandela was not interested in white shame, but reconciliation and progress. It has to be said, though, that Zelda’s shame – really the dissolution of the ego that blinds those who benefit from systemic oppression to the evil of it – was (and is) essential to both reconciliation and progress.

On a personal level, guilt and the emotion of shame – which accompanies true empathy with the oppressed – is necessary in order for the unlearning of indoctrination to occur. 

This enables reconciliation on a societal level, too: genuine recognition of wrongdoing against an oppressed population by those who benefited from that oppression occurs when enough individuals in the oppressor group have become aware of and subdued what I call “the collective oppressor ego” (its hallmarks: defensiveness, sense of entitlement, centering of the oppressor’s worldview/history, and resentment of the oppressed group).

On the other “side”, an oppressed group’s refusal to retaliate after being empowered, and a willingness to transform the pain of oppression through forgiveness of former oppressors, is also necessary for reconciliation to occur – and facilitates the unravelling of indoctrination. Mandela understood this – though some liberation activists criticised him for giving up too much in negotiations with the apartheid government, he knew his approach was necessary in order to placate an indoctrinated, fearful and violent white minority… a privileged population who perceived equalilty as a loss.

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*The current wikipedia entry for Apartheid is actually a good introduction – read it here.

You can listen to Zelda la Grange’s full Life Matters interview here.

Sanders, Trump, and the problem with populist ‘anti-elitism’.

Sorry for the delay in posting – have had technical issues since Thursday. This entry continues a theme from my previous post. Anyone interested in the relationship between consciousness, democracy and freedom would be wise to tune into discussions currently being had around threats to both democracy and freedom, posed by the collective consciousness of deviant and/or harmful political movements.

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Last week, Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver published this article titled ‘Trump’s voters aren’t authoritarians, new research says. So what are they?’ on the Washington Post’s political science research blog.

Rahn and Oliver assert that there is “no evidence” that Trump supporters are any more “authoritarian” (at least by common measures) than Ted Cruz or even Marco Rubio supporters; rather, Trump supporters are distinctly populist. They include these useful definitions of authoritarianism and populism:

Authoritarianism, as understood by political psychologists, refers to a set of personality traits that seek order, clarity and stability. Authoritarians have little tolerance for deviance. They’re highly obedient to strong leaders. They scapegoat outsiders and demand conformity to traditional norms.

Populism, on the other hand, is a type of political rhetoric that casts a virtuous “people” against nefarious elites and strident outsiders. Scholars measure populism in a variety of ways, but we focus on three central elements:

  • Belief that a few elites have absconded with the rightful sovereignty of the people;
  • Deep mistrust of any group that claims expertise;
  • Strong nationalist identity

The authors acknowledge, though, that “authoritarians and populists can overlap and share dark tendencies toward nativism, racism and conspiracism”; and that populists tend to “see themselves in opposition to elites of all kinds”. This contrasts with  authoritarians, who “see themselves as aligned with those in charge.”

I appreciate the distinction, but I think populists easily morph into authoritarians when their populist candidate of choice wins power – or in support of their populist candidates of choice, when said candidate is trying to attain power. Over at RedState.com, this piece highlights how the authoritarian impulse is expressing itself quite clearly at Trump rallies – both by the crowds, by security, by Trump himself, and by police.

(Side note: a number of observers have described Trump’s supporters as ‘Authoritarian Populists’ and ‘American Authoritarians’ – see end of this post for links).

But back to Rahn and Oliver’s post. 1044 adult U.S citizens were polled for it; Rahn and Oliver explain how they collated the data informing their assertion here. I was particularly interested in the chart below. It shows how supporters of the candidates compared on four key psychological traits: Authoritarianism; Anti-Elitism; Mistrust of Experts; and American identity.

Note that the supporters of Democrat Hilary Clinton and Republican John Kasich have varying degrees of the same traits: anti-authoritarianism; elitism; reasonable trust of experts; and a sense of American identity.  Furthermore, the differences – and common ground – between Sanders and Trump supporters are significant:

Psych traits of supporters of candidates 2016

As a Bernie fan (I am not a U.S resident, but became familiar with his politics in 2007) I was unsurprised by the psychological traits of his supporters as revealed here. But Sanders supporters and Trump supporters share one important psychological trait, one that supporters of the other candidates do not have: a significant degree of anti-elitism. This is how Rahn and Oliver define it:

Anti-elitism. What separates populists from authoritarians is their alienation from political elites. We measure this with statements like “It doesn’t really matter who you vote for because the rich control both political parties,” “Politics usually boils down to a struggle between the people and the powerful” and “The system is stacked against people like me.”

THE PRO-TRUMP SANDERS SUPPORTERS: FINE LINE BETWEEN ANTI-ELITISM AND MASS DESTRUCTION.

A small percentage of Sanders supporters will be doing something utterly reckless if Sanders does not pick up the nomination: they will vote for Trump. Data journalist Mona Chilabi and journalist Ed Pilkington – from The Guardian – this week published the results of a call-out to Sanders fans, asking whether they will switch allegiance to Trump if Hilary Clinton secures the Democratic Party’s nomination.

[Side note: This kind of switching, it should be noted, is not without precedent – for example, I vividly recall a subset of Hilary fans – including PUMA and racist Democrats in rural areas – who swore they would vote Republican after Barack Obama won the nomination in 2008.]

Chilabi and Pilkington’s surveys uncovered 500 pro-Trump Sanders supporters (out of 700 who responded). The reasons for their planned vote switch varied; as the Guardian article says, the 500 offered “a variety of passionately held views on their shared commitment for protecting workers and against new wars, on their zeal for an alternative to the establishment, and on their desire to support anyone but Hillary Clinton.” [emphasis mine]

I bolded the text “zeal for an alternative to the establishment,” as it correlates with the data published by the Washington Post above – data that confirms Sanders and Trump attract voters who are staunchly anti-elitist.  So it makes sense that anti-elitist Sanders supporters would elect Trump as their “fuck the establishment” second choice. Chilabi and Pilkington report that controlled surveys by polling companies have also identified this “small but not insignificant” percentage of the Sanders crowd.

This quote from one male Sanders supporter was striking to me: “Trump is an obnoxious vulgar blowhard who says foolish things. However, unlike Clinton – but like Sanders – at least he is an outsider who understands that the government and the economy are broken.” The article also highlights the shared motivations of Sanders and Trump fans: a belief that their favourite candidates understand their concerns; opposition to free trade; and negative feelings towards Hilary Clinton.

In terms of ethnicity, both Trump and Sanders supporters are overwhelmingly white and lower income; non-white voters from either party are more likely to vote for one of the rival candidates than Trump or Sanders. Those who responded to The Guardian’s callout were also from lower income groups. The main demographic differences between Trump and Sanders fans seem to relate to age (Trump’s tend to be older, Sanders’ younger); and location (Trump’s more likely to be rural, Sanders’ urban).

So what does this all mean? It means that there is a percentage of the population who are understandably frustrated with the political class and the status quo – so much so that they will vote for ANY candidate who is seemingly not a part of it. Unfortunately, as is always the case, these anti-elitists are useful to extremists on both the far left and, more pertinent to this U.S. election cycle, the far right.

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FURTHER READING

Whilst I appreciate Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver’s distinction between Authoritarianism and Populism above, a number of political scientists and political reporters have been describing Trump’s most troubling supporters as ‘Authoritarian Populists’ or ‘American  Authoritarians’. Here are a couple of articles discussing this:

Donald Trump 2016: The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter

American authoritarianism: the political science theory that explains Trump rally violence

This is an excellent article in Democracy Journal that links Trump supporters to what Seymour Martin Lipset called “working class authoritarianism” (definitions discussed):

Who Are Trump’s Supporters?

This article in Pacific Standard is a primer on the authoritarian personality and what it responds to:

Donald Trump’s Appeal to the Authoritarian Personality

This article discusses the current rise of authoritarian populism across the western world:

It’s not just Trump. Authoritarian populism is rising across the West. Here’s why

Conservatives who view authoritarianism positively and resent it being linked to Trump (whom they hate) or who believe left-wing authoritarianism to be equally toxic, may appreciate this piece in The American Conservative:

Are Trump Supporters Authoritarians?

And this was Nick Gillespie’s (Reason.com) write up on Rahn and Oliver’s article – it is flawed, but an interesting take:

Donald Trump Supporters Are Less Authoritarian Than Ted Cruz Voters

My Guide to Meditation.

This is a quick post for everyone who struggles with strong emotions.

I used to be one of those people. I still feel things deeply, and I am slightly bipolar – it is mild, gives me intuitive and creative blessings, is not severe enough to require medication. Nonetheless, I do contend with my natural pendulum swing of emotional highs and lows.

There isn’t one magic solution that will “fix” people like us. A disciplined, holistic approach to ones mind, body, and spiritual health is necessary in order to keep us all in a good place – fit enough to make the most of our lives and be happy, functional people contributing to the world.

However, over the years I have found one practice that has helped me profoundly to balance during times of emotional turmoil: MEDITATION.

Intuition during hard times has led me to try and practice many forms of meditation over the years: Eckhart Tolle’s presence method of detaching from ‘the Thinker’ and ‘the pain body’; mindfulness meditation; numerous guided meditations, and Transcendental Meditation (TM).

All the methods I have tried are aiming for the same thing: to enable the practitioner to get beyond both their thoughts and their emotions – which are intertwined – and become the Overseer of everything that is going on both inside and outside of them. 

Many people have a permanent and regular meditation routine that they follow, but I find that I use meditation regularly only during periods of instability and emotional turmoil. This is mainly because I am able to stay in ‘Overseer’ mode for long periods these days.

Tolle talks about practicing presence all day, everyday, and I actually find I do this – primarily because my family – whom I am in regular contact with – present constant challenges to my emotional state. In his books, Tolle talks about how simply staying ‘conscious’ with ‘unconscious’ relatives is the ultimate way to become a Master of presence. I think this is absolutely true.

Tolle also says having to transmute intense suffering can lead to the ultimate ‘awakening’ in the person who is forced by circumstance to transcend their suffering… and the only way to do so, again, is presence – going beyond thinking and emotional reactions, stepping into a higher consciousness. Transmuting suffering into consciousness is the ultimate alchemy. I have multiple experiences with this scenario, too.

So, I highly recommend giving meditation a go. And if you can, check out Eckhart Tolle’s books – I listen to his audiobooks regularly. If you’re on a tight budget (as I am!), see if you can order them in at your local library. There are numerous free meditation podcasts on iTunes – I love the ‘Meditation Oasis’ podcast. And you may be able to find affordable, accessible meditation classes at community centres in your area.

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On a comedic note, below is a link to a 2 minute soothing guided mediation: for those of us who strive for “nirvana”, but adore the F word 🙂

Next post in 9 days. Have a great week.

I will live the life of my dreams… in *this* body.

[sorry this post is a few days late – I’ve been having issues with my wordpress admin page]

 

This post is about living, loving, and joyfully navigating the world in a body that may be culturally stigmatised, socially marginalised, and structurally discriminated against. I experience the pleasure, the privilege of insights, and sometimes the pain of inhabiting one of those bodies.

Because when your body is the target of discrimination, it is a challenge to not internalise some of the nonsense that is directed at you by others. Even when you are a strong individual who powers yourself from within – which I am (most of the time). I re-listened to a podcast earlier this week, that reminded me of the importance of body acceptance work – for people whose experiences moving through the world are coloured by other people’s prejudices against their “different” bodies.

The podcast was Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour, Episode 2. In it, Girls star Aidy Bryant shares what it is like to be an actress happily living in an overweight body. Ethiopian writer Hannah Giorgis discusses the politics, style and magical bonding that connects Black women who embrace their (often stigmatised) natural afro locks. Young musician Mindie Lind, who has no legs and rides around on a skateboard, explains how being a “crip” is a daily creative process (a brilliant description), and talks about being the object of sexual desire.

Episode 2 also features writer, TV presenter and activist Janet Mock, answering questions about her experiences of being a transgender woman of colour; plus filmmaker/writer Rachel Fleit, who has alopecia, sharing truly beautiful insights from her journey of “coming out” as a bald woman. Rachel says the way she handles people’s weird reactions to her baldness, completely depends upon what she calls her “spiritual fitness” on that day – something that really resonated with me, in general.

In fact, aspects of the experiences of all of these women resonated with me: Aidy’s carefree joy in her body and positive professional experiences within it, despite the rampant discrimination people often warn her about; Hannah’s bonding with her Black girl friends over hair and politics; Mindie’s sense of both power and vulnerability regarding her sexual life, and the creative adaptability that being a “crip” necessitates; and Janet’s simple desire for reciprocal love – a loving, public, respectful and equal partnership.

To me, the experiences shared in the episode highlight how people who inhabit bodies that are socially marginalised, often need to develop – through persistent, loving, self-acceptance work – a confidence in themselves and their being that can withstand and transcend the dumb shit they will encounter in the world. The late poet and disability rights activist Laura Hershey wrote: “Remember, you weren’t the one who made you ashamed, but you are the one who can make you proud […] you get proud by practicing”. For me, this simply means to continuously embrace and love your body.

I am practicing doing that again. In my previous post I wrote about how I am in the process of gaining my physical strength back after recovering from PTSD – integrating a new health and exercise routine into my daily life. At the age of 31, I am closer than I have ever been to realising a permanent, unconditional love for my body, that transcends all the harmful false beliefs I have allowed to exist within me in the past – all of which were internalised from negative experiences in the world, related to the way my body has been accepted (or rather, not accepted) by others.

These experiences started from the age of three. This is the age I was when I first experienced racism. A Japanese girl (funnily enough) at my pre-school told me at length and in great detail (quite alarming, given her age) why my Melanesian body – skin, hair, facial features – were ugly and not as lovely as people whose features were Asian or white. I was the kind of completely open-hearted child who believed everything the world told me at that age, so naturally, in that moment, I internalised it.

But it actually didn’t scar me too much, as I grew into a sensitive but confident child, with many a limerence-afflicted boy admirer and a healthy amount of affirmation from the people in my life. Nonetheless, the “bug” of that incident of racism was still embedded in my psyche, reinforced by the pro-white biased culture I was immersed in, and triggered whenever experiences of racism occurred. And when I say triggered, I am not talking about merely remembering the first experience – I am talking about feeling, in the moment, as inferior and uncomfortable in my body as vulnerable 3 year old me did in that pre-school playground.

I cannot pinpoint an exact moment when I started to “de-colonise” my mind, and completely purged it of the white/light supremacism that permeates much of the world. But I do know it had everything to do with connecting with other Black people who already had unburdened themselves of the bullshit. Since racism begins as body-based discrimination, the unburdening process naturally involves a positive reclamation of the body – specifically, of all the traits that white/light supremacism deems unacceptable. Going natural with my afro-curly hair in my mid 20s was not only an aesthetic choice; it was a political act. A freeing, personal expression of both my antiracism and my feminism.

Becoming sick at the age of 13 presented another psychological challenge to overcome – more layers of body dysmorphia, discomfort with my physical form. I was a naturally athletic and sporty child, so losing the ease I always felt in my body was a shock to my system. And, just as my unconscious discomfort with my Melanesian features owed completely to the experience of being immersed in cultural white/light supremacism, my discomfort with the effects of illness (which in my awkward teens included scoliosis, scars and reduced muscle tone) owed largely to the unkindness of other people – and societal attitudes about “different” bodies.

Unburdening myself of that particular form of internalised -ism, happened strangely and miraculously when I became a paraplegic, at the age of 21. Given my medical history (the illness I battled in my early teens affected my spinal cord), becoming disabled was the one thing I was most afraid of. Ironically, though, I became healthier in the aftermath of that particular trauma. For the duration of the year after that life-changing event, I worked out every day, my skin glowed, my appetite improved and I felt extremely present (and, yes, fly as fuck) in my body… until I started full-time work in an office and no longer had time for it. Different story.

So here I am now, 10 years later, recovering from another extended period of trauma. Not only can challenging times in our lives seriously harm our physical and emotional health – they can also seriously damage the relationship we have with our bodies. For me, I think these last six years have really been marked by a desire to take care of and embrace mine… but an inability to do so consistently and effectively. The PTSD symptoms totally depleted me of the energy, stability, and clarity I require in order to be able to take care of myself as a disabled woman.

2016 for me is about giving myself that energy, stability, and clarity. I have designed my new health/body routine to ensure I am maximising the amount of vitality, gratitude and joy I feel within it. Because it is this amazingly resilient form – this Melanesian, disabled, female body – I will live my long, long life and dreams in. And it is by really, truly loving and caring for it – embracing everything the unconscious world around me signals in subtle and overt ways is unacceptable, every day – that I will be strong enough to make those dreams come true.

Just watch me 🙂

The practice of being well.

“For it to get better, you need to get better.”

This is a post about healing; and the previous six years of my life.

Yesterday I had a 5 hour lunch with two friends – married to each other – who have lived for over a decade with the painful, heavy reality of severe injustice and mental illness: the invention of the husband’s mental health issues by an incorrectly diagnosed bout of cerebral malaria; a serious head-trauma inducing car accident; and the subsequent fuckery of a pseudo-scientific, inhumane and dignity-stripping psychiatric system – one that long ago incorrectly appraised my friend’s neurological diversity as a danger to society and to his beloved wife.

They have experienced first hand how being deemed by the authorities as ‘crazy’ in a dangerous way, can in practice render ones human rights null and void. He has endured years of dignity-stripping observation and treament from supposed professionals – forced sectioning in psychiatric facilities, forced medication and injections, forced electric shock treatment. She has endured the continuous heartache of fighting on his behalf for his rights and his dignity, whilst also having to live with the sometimes trying – never dangerous, but trying – neurological results of this in his personality and behaviour.

Over the years through my friendship with this brilliant scientist and kindhearted man, I have had a glimpse of these neurological results, which are as distressing to his own analytical mind as they are to his equally intelligent but soulful and present wife. Through no fault of their own, this is their lot in life. And the other day, we really, really talked  – joyfully – about living with circumstances we cannot change, and finding light and hope daily in the midst of such circumstances.

I have some insight into living that kind of life, for various reasons. My friend, she said to me that I’ve experienced an unusual amount of big loss in my life – certainly for someone my chronological age. Most of this loss I am unable to talk about or articulate; but I still feel the pain of those losses. Often I am unable to connect the pain I feel with the actual losses, though. Because of this, I have had these moments in life where I’ve had to get real with myself about me not coping so well with the stuff I cannot change; then seek new methods to alleviate the distress I have tried my best to hide from people.

Last year was a big year in terms of admitting to myself I was not coping so well, and seeking professional help for that. I’ve always been slightly bipolar, and I go through phases of having to withdraw into myself to rejuvenate, followed by a return to “normality” (until the next time). I have learned to live with these cycles and now recognise the profound gifts that come with the pendulum swing – intuitive insights, healing, bursts of creative inspiration and intense joy just being solitary and listening to… well, the universe.

Beyond that natural disposition, in the past I have dealt with various manifestations of psychological distress that followed intense losses in my life – depression, self-starvation, self-harm, suicide ideation. These behaviours and thought patterns I thankfully transcended by the age of 21. But in the last six years, I have been dealing with a different set of symptoms that I frankly was in serious denial about:

extreme anxiety, particularly in social settings; extreme dread and amorphous fear; feeling phobic of particular places; panic attacks following being “triggered” by what I thought were random things – music, the sound of a stranger’s voice, particular words (god, I wish I was joking about that).

I had to take unfathomably heartbreaking but necessary steps to remove myself from a toxic situation that I thought was merely contributing to my mental distress, and the distress of another. I thought that this would give me the psychological space I needed to at least have a chance to heal, and live life. The problem is that I didn’t actually pursue healing – at least, not in the right places. I was merely suppressing parts of myself I actually needed in order to fully live and fulfil my purpose (which was oddly the one thing I continuously gained clarity about throughout. I have a magenta folder on my desk now – my own personal life manual – full of insights about this).

I also thought I was weak – which could not be further from the truth. My self talk got pretty dark and I interpreted these bizarre developments – which were actually symptoms of something – as me just not being on top of things; unfortunately, the symptoms themselves caused me to not be on top of things. For six years – despite some typically lucky success – I have had to constantly cancel projects and plans because of these symptoms. This was demoralising. In conjunction with the usual dysfunctional problems within my family and my ever-present worry for them, I felt completely bound up and trapped in my life.

All of this was of course the universe trying to get me to STOP, and heal; but I am a slow learner. So slow in fact that despite living with all that shit and inner chaos for six years, it took me until May 2015 to acknowledge to myself that “the shit”, as it were, might actually be symptoms of something – although I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what it might be. I hadn’t made the necessary connections yet.

It was a fantastic psychologist who did that for me. She very generously treated me in her home, as her office was not wheelchair accessible. When she officially diagnosed  “the shit”, it was as much of a shock as it was a relief. PTSD. Post traumatic stress disorder. I could not believe it, but I could not deny it made sense. I had no references for the experience that had caused the trauma so it never occurred to me that I could actually be seriously traumatised. In that office, it dawned on me.

Miraculous things started to happen after just getting the diagnosis, and shining light on the thing within my psyche that I had not been willing to look at – until that day. In the days and weeks that followed I experienced a massive unblocking of energy and regaining of physical strength; I “looked” different and people noticed – are still noticing. In my sessions with the psychologist we worked through the pain memories causing the distress.

But I did most of that on my own. My psychologist proposed, in addition to what she called for me cognitive behavioural “scripting” (I am a writer, after all) and extremely effective “mental filmmaking”/visualisation (I am a dreamer, after all), EMDR treatment. It kind of strips the pain from the memories. I agreed to it; but I found that in the two week period before we started EMDR, my mind processed the problematic emotions on its own. Now I had the memories, but stripped of the associated painful emotions. This particular “pain body”, as Eckhart Tolle would say, had gone.

I cannot put into words the relief I felt. And I felt it immediately, not just in my mind but in my body. Weird ailments that had developed in it lessened or completely disappeared. And it was a good news year physically, too – my first scan since 2006 revealed the syrinx that caused my disability has reduced in size, without any treatment in that period; and the rest of my spine is clear. At the end of the year I reconnected with a physiotherapy service to work on my strength in particular areas of my body that had weakened since the PTSD symptoms developed; and with stress related lethargy now gone, I can focus on working out my body and mind again.

Most importantly, I know that I have to. I have learned this lesson before, but I keep fucking forgetting… this time, though, I have got it. I have to work on all aspects of my health – staying in tune with what is happening in my mind and body, and my heart; continuously practicing the methods I have been taught over the years to keep my mind and body clear, and my heart open. Without it, I cannot do the work I came here to do. I have to practice being well, everyday. 

For people like me, this is our only choice – there is no other way. It is a state of surrender, living this way… a state of presence. I feel very strongly I am going to live a very, very long life; mastering this practice will be essential to that. Some days are easier than others; the key thing to remember is that you have to take each one as it comes. Just keep practicing. Over time, you get better. And because you get better, *it*  – life – gets better.

I know it will.

“Dating in a wheelchair: Your problem, not mine”

WWW.PHOTOGRAPHYBYALEXANDER.COM

ANNE THOMAS.  WWW.PHOTOGRAPHYBYALEXANDER.COM

I almost never read articles about dating as I don’t find them particular helpful, interesting or applicable to my own life. So many articles on dating discuss trends in online dating I have zero interest in, or discuss the “science” of game – offering grotesque or just plain dodgy advice on how to up your chances of landing a mate or securing a shag (and these aren’t just articles targeting men). No relationship I have ever embarked upon has ever started with “game”, or even effort, so those discussions repel me. The cynicism of it all… repels me.

But THIS article is actually pretty damn amazing.

Now 57, Anne Thomas was 18 when she became paralysed from the chest down – in the midst of an era of eugenics and widespread human rights abuses of disabled people. In this deeply honest piece, she discusses her experience of navigating her sexual and romantic life – and life in general – in the face of a fairly fucked up world that discouraged (and in many ways, continues to discourage) her from acknowledging or satiating a fundamental part of her humanity – the need for intimacy.

Dating in a wheelchair: Your problem, not mine

This article is an educational read for non-disabled people who want to enlighten themselves about diverse experiences.

Though Anne’s life is radically different from mine, I relate to many aspects of her experience – having to overcome ingrained fear of physical difference, coming to terms with your body, allowing others to know that body, dealing with stupid and rude questions about being disabled (sometimes from members of the medical profession), coming up against physical barriers, finding love but then experiencing social barriers (like unsupportive friends, family), unwanted attention from creeps/people who want to treat you badly… it goes on, and on.

I know of people who are transgender and gay who can relate to these experiences too. It is the experience of having a body and/or sexual orientation that is severely stigmatised by society, and trying to find the courage to live fully and openly in spite of it. In describing specific events in her own life, Anne touched on so many universal elements of that experience of stigma, and I just have to tip my hat to her for this refreshingly frank article.

Seriously. I relate to this passage so hard – about the tension of being physically vulnerable, exposed, completely engaged, but wanting to protect your emotions too:

“The man invited me for a drink. The only way out of the building for me was a metal wheelchair lift. I cringed as it clanged and banged on the way down. I felt like the Goddess of Thunder (not in a good way). Side by side, we made it to the sidewalk. It was hard for me to push the chair because of the cross slope for rain run off, but I didn’t want to ask for help and appear weak or needy. We talked until two in the morning and he never asked me anything about my disability. He didn’t see it, and it felt as if I’d known him forever. And yet years of rejection stopped me from showing him how much I liked him.”

“Climbing the secret staircase.”

I recently watched Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 TED talk called ‘Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence‘ – have a look:

In it, he talks about how seeking transcendence is a part of being human:

“Most people long to overcome pettiness, and become part of something larger. And this explains the extraordinary resonance of this simple metaphor, conjured up nearly 400 years ago: no man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

And it reminded me of these words I wrote on the “My Philosophy” page of this blog in 2010:

“There are many who are already transcending the old divisions of the past and shackles of tradition, forging new identities based not on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or political factions, but, instead, rooted in a higher awareness and understanding of themselves as unique and powerful individuals that are part of a greater interconnected whole.”

The words on that page remain true for me. I wrote about the necessity of moving “past tribal dependency towards individualised awareness”. But this does not mean that I think one has to renounce all “tribal” loyalties. And if what Haidt contends in the video above is correct, for most people this is actually impossible to do. Even individualists “circle” around a sacred value, a sacred cause… liberty.

In contrast to the pure individualism I was into in my mid 20s, today, I nourish my roots to place and my kin/group in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. I am concerned about the conservation of our traditional lands and healthy development. But I also know that the safety and well-being of my kin is deeply and inextricably connected with the well-being of us as individuals, the well-being and survival of all of humanity, and the health of the ecosystems that sustain us. This – these linked concerns – are the highest priority. And they are linked to my love and concern for the country in which I was raised and am grateful to live, Australia.

So here is my broad contention: we face multiple global threats as a species. Given this, it is the people pursuing a form of self-transcendence that allows them to perceive beyond loyalties to tribes (subcultures, cultures, nations, religions, ideologies, “people like them”) who will lead the way to safety. This is because their self-transcendence will enable them to fully comprehend that our survival depends upon a global consciousness, the ability to see how our localised realities and concerns do connect to one shared human destiny.

They will lead the way – and are leading the way – by being able to speak to and mobilise their tribes, their groups, to safeguard humanity’s common destiny, and in turn the destiny of their group. They will lead (the individuals in) their groups to progress towards more holistic, healthier ways of living and working together. And they will mobilise (the individuals in) their groups to connect with, cooperate with, and care for others who are doing the same. I have discussed such leaders in the past. In posts to come, I will discuss more.

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