At Your Own Expense

Two people I know have recently had presentations accepted for conferences – which is fantastic for them, as the exposure may well improve their chances of getting work they actually enjoy, engage with, and are empowered by, rather than a daily drag that “pays the bills” (almost.)

Problem is, said conferences are asking “registration fees” of well over £100.

Doesn’t sound like much to the middle-classes, and the academics attending on expense accounts – but, when you’re unemployed, or in a minimum wage job (the situations of these two individuals), it’s a small fortune – and an almost impossible ask. Especially with two weeks’ notice.

The positivists out there “remind” us of the expenses involved in putting on a conference, the fact that “conferences are typically attended by academics, who can claim the costs back on expenses”, and generally make us feel that we shouldn’t be so stingy, and shouldn’t drag everyone down by kicking up about the fees – they “remind” us that it’s “a fantastic opportunity.” They “remind” us of the “exposure” we’ll get – because every landlord and utility company accepts “exposure credits” as a valid form of payment. Your weekly grocery shop? That’ll be 20 exposure credits, please.  As if.

The positivists want to keep the world the way it always has been – with the middle-classes trotting along to things, nodding and smiling while others of their ilk pontificate about things that are other peoples’ lives – people who can’t afford to get to that conference, stand on that stage, and make their voice heard.  People who are “no-platformed” not because their views are objectionable, but simply because they are poor. People who will never have a weekly column in a paper read by thousands. People who will never have  the social capital of Twitter followers or Facebook fans in the upper limits of those sites. People whose posts will never make LinkedIn’s Pulse.

We should get angry. We should kick out, we should rant and demand that things change.

Because, if you’ve prepared a presentation that has been accepted, you have already contributed to the conference. You have already played your part. You shouldn’t be asked to contribute again in a fashion – financially – that is not a viable option for you.  Imagine a conference where no papers were presented, no one gave any talks; nothing happened, because no one who had produced any work was able to afford the conference fees.

It’d  be a pretty rubbish conference, wouldn’t it? Just a bunch of disinterested academics taking advantage of a couple of away days, and most likely bitching about the buffet.

For as long as we continue to charge impossible registration fees for conferences on the assumption that “everyone’ll be on expenses, anyway”, we continue to shut out people who have lived the scenario that is providing the theme of the conference. And, for as long as we continue to do that, we continue to be misinformed about things we claim to believe are important issues – after all, if they are not, why are we having a conference on them? And, for as long as we continue to be misinformed, nothing will change, because, as far as we are aware, in our cosy little ivory towers, nothing  needs to change. And, for as long as nothing changes, the very people we claim to want to help will continue to suffer – in silence.

Failearn (Learning by Failing.)

Caroline Cotto, LinkedIn, “Failing Forward.”

You don’t fail because you are a failure; you fail, typically, because you’re either trying to succeed in the wrong arena (my 5’10”, built like a rugby forward self trying to succeed as a jockey or a ballerina, if you can imagine such a folly – it’s okay, I never actually TRIED to be either of those things, though I’m a moderately competent hacker of big, bad-tempered equines…), or you didn’t learn from your failures.

If you didn’t learn, it’s probably because you’re not negative enough – you’ve bought into the “just move past it, think positively!” hype, and so, rather than looking at your failures analytically, developing and testing hypotheses as to why they might have happened, you happy-happy-joy-joy’d your way through life, grinning inanely and singing “I’ll get there in the end.”

By far the most common reason for failure is that you’re trying to succeed in the wrong arena. Now, that sounds sage, and vaguely self-help guru-y, but is actually a pointless piece of information if you have to claim government welfare support while you’re looking for employment, because you don’t have savings, a supportive family, or a spouse who is earning. In the UK at least, the government don’t like the idea that the people who need welfare support should also have the same right to find a job that works for them, and that is a good fit – they don’t get that, if a job fits, and you fit the culture, you’ll probably stay there, rather than ending up being one of the “revolving door clients” that get moaned about.

So; how to be “positively negative” when faced with a bureaucracy that doesn’t allow for “finding your niche”, personal empowerment, or any of the things that career coaches and the happy-happy-joy-joy brigade will tell you you “should be” doing?

Start with the cliched-but-good “mind maps”: once you’ve identified roles, sectors, etc that would be a good fit for you, and cultures you would be a good fit for, think “outside the box” (see, negative types can use jargon for our purposes, too) – start with the things, companies, skills, roles you feel genuine passion for or about, and move on through stages of separation, until you get the “likely to appear in reasonable enough quantity and frequency to keep bureaucrats happy, but vaguely related to my passion.”  Keep this mind map to hand.  Apply for jobs – a mix of the “outer edge”, vaguely-related roles, those in the middle of the web of relationship, and your core passions.  Try and weight it a little more to the “common jobs, vaguely related” – this fools the bureaucrats into missing the fact that you’re also applying for jobs that, in their view, you’re “not qualified for.”

For example: Your core passion might be to be a writer and motivational speaker.  The “closely related, but not exactly it” jobs would be things like fundraising roles for third-sector organisations, which will include telling people about the organisation with the aim of motivating them to give money, and writing grant proposals.  The more distantly related jobs will be things like customer service – where your communication will, hopefully, motivate people to purchase the company’s products, and social media marketing, where, again, you have the motivational communication element, but in written form.  The “non-core-passion” jobs are stepping stone roles; aim to stay there between 12-24months (a couple of years – it goes quicker than you think) and engage with the job, and the team, while you’re there. Offer to run “side projects” on your own time, that are related to the core business; you can then put these on your CV, and talk about them at interviews for jobs that are closer to what you actually want.

Positivity would send you further down the same dead-end track you’re already on.

Positive negativity, on the other hand, will divert you onto the road that leads to your preferred destination. It might take longer than expected, you might encounter tailbacks and roadworks, you might need to take a couple of comfort breaks – but you’ll get there eventually. As the opera singer Beverly Sills observed, there is no shortcut to anywhere worth going.

Oh, and my song of the moment? MeatLoaf’s “Blind as a Bat”, because of the line “for reaching out to help me across the bridges that I burned”; it acknowledges that we screw up, often in quite spectacular fashion, but promises redemption, help, and support from others – if we take it when it’s offered. You have to grasp someone’s hand when they reach out for you, after all.


Books and Progress

I’m currently researching around Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, for a non-fiction book I’m hoping to write, inspired by (apparent) similarities, and the seeds of an idea, which occurred to me whilst reading Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice, about a woman (Alice) with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Now, I’m aware that schizophrenics see a lot of links and connections that “aren’t there”, so the book may not pan out as I’m expecting. It may not happen at all, because research may prove that the “links” I thought I’d seen are incidental, and therefore my “idea” falls before it’s even really taken root.

But that’s okay. We don’t have to complete a project that doesn’t turn out how we thought it would. It’s not “bad” that I thought I saw a link that, maybe, turns out not to be there. The success is that I held on to the idea, and my belief in it, long enough to manage systematic research, to cope with reading what others had written about people like me, that I managed to take other people’s ideas and findings, and explore them to the point where I came up with my own words, my own answers – and my own questions.

One of the things you learn when you live with a mental illness is that questions, even unanswered ones – perhaps especially unanswered ones – are okay. It’s not a sign of failure or stupidity to “not know”, even if, in these days of the internet, everyone expects you to have an instant response, an instant “fact” (supporting sources not required) that “proves” you’re “intelligent.”

Intelligence isn’t having an instant answer.

Intelligence is living with what happens to you, and learning something from it – even if that “something” is “I feel really rough when I drink pink lemonade after I’ve taken my tablets – there’s obviously some kind of interaction going on there that I should probably try and avoid.” Or “I get angry if I have to deal with difficult situations on an empty stomach. Therefore, I should probably try and set things up so that I can just get up and get breakfast, without stopping to deal with anything else, even if that means other people feel put out for a while.”  Learning doesn’t have to be deep to be worthwhile.

Anyway, I mentioned books.

One of the books I purchased for research is “Living and Working With Schizophrenia”, (Seeman, Littmann, et al, OU Press).  This book was published in 1982, and therefore a lot of the clinical stuff is now outdated – but the rest is the perfect balance between “social functionality is achievable in most cases”, and “there are certain ‘normal’ dreams and ambitions – a university education, or married life – that may have to be surrendered.”.

I know many people, with various mental health conditions, who have had to give up a university place because they couldn’t cope.  I was fortunate; I have a high level of awareness, and knew, on completing my A-Levels (the final two years of High School, for US readers – I’m in the UK) that I wouldn’t be able to manage the social demands of university, and would end up feeling very isolated. I’m fine when I’m working alone, but feeling isolated (which can happen even when I’m surrounded by people) is a danger zone for me.  So, I didn’t go.

Everyone hated me for “disappointing” them, for “letting everyone down.” Teachers and parents never stopped banging on about “what a waste of (my) intelligence” it was, that I wasn’t going to end up thousands of pounds in debt, and probably having a breakdown. I’ve been turned down for jobs I’d have loved to have done, and that I had the core skills for, because “we only hire graduates.” I’ve had the sneering “couldn’t hack uni, then?” comments from interviewers for menial jobs I had no option but to apply for.

I am married, but I wonder, a lot of the time, if my marriage is only successful because my wife is also neurodiverse (she has Asperger’s Syndrome, which has several parallels with schizophrenia, interestingly enough, particularly in the social implications sphere), and a woman with remarkably few expectations of what “a husband” should do, and be like.  We muddle along, we make do, we have our ups and downs, sometimes we hurt and frighten one another, we make up, we cry, we talk, we laugh.  I can, for the most part, manage my marriage, something for which I will always be  grateful. For reasons beyond neurodiversity, we can’t have children – and, as we’ve both discussed, on several occasions, it’s probably for the best that the decision as to whether to or not was taken out of our hands. I don’t think either of us could manage tiny, dependent humans. Not even working together.

Living and Working With Schizophrenia, although published over three decades ago, and four years before I was even born, has, in contrast to many more contemporary tracts on schizophrenia, made me feel normal, for the first time in  a long time. It has acknowledged that I, and others like me, has limitations, but also that those limitations are the least of my life.  It struck me, as I was reading Living and Working With Schizophrenia, that treatments may have improved, but attitudes have, in fact, regressed.

What is “normal”? Well, for a start, “normal” is different for everyone.

For Morgana, my wife, it’s being seen as a capable, intelligent woman, rather than a child who has to be “minded”. It’s being accepted as female even when she’s wearing more “boyish” clothes (she’s tall and skinny, so, even though she wears her hair long, the misgendering can happen, which, understandably, upsets her.)

For me, it’s being listened to and engaged with. It’s not being afraid of the world “outside.” (I mean this literally – there are days I don’t even make it into my back yard, because I live in a terrace, and the neighbours either side frighten me.) It’s not having to think “but what about -” every time I see an opportunity that interests me. It’s about having the same right to pursue careers that I can engage with, that motivate and empower me, as people without problems and limitations, and not just be fobbed off with a menial, low-wage job that is “good enough, considering.” (No one ever says what they’re considering, but it’s clear – “considering you’re crazy. Considering you can’t be trusted around decent people. Considering you won’t understand how employment works. Considering you don’t present well at interview. Considering you don’t have a degree. Considering you can’t drive. Considering they’ll assume you’re a junkie.” In respect of the last, the only drugs I’ve ever taken, other than those prescribed by a doctor, are caffeine and alcohol. In moderate quantities. The same as any “normal” person.)

That’s my definition of “normal”, and a book from 1982 sees no problem with my achieving that, as a schizophrenic person, a person with schizophrenia.


Words – and How “Wrong” Can Be a Catalyst

Today, the social media world is up in arms against Stephen Fry, with all the “right-thinking, liberal people” decrying his comment that “survivors of sexual abuse need to stop feeling self-pity, and grow up.”

And….I’m on the outside, afraid of speaking up, It’s a place I often find myself. It’s why I’ve disabled  comments on this post – because I can’t deal, yet, with the kind of anger and hatred that happens every time someone uses the “wrong” words, the “wrong” approach, every time they “do thinking wrong.”

I’m wondering, has anyone actually read “Nineteen Eighty-Four”? Or do they think George Orwell was making diary entries?

Fascism begins with “You can’t say that. This is how we speak. This is the language we use. This is how we think.” It ends – always – with death, despair, destruction.

But, the thing is, we need to allow people to “do thinking wrong”, to use the “wrong” words, publically, to have the “wrong” opinions, the “wrong” attitude – because, when we react to someone “getting it wrong”, their “wrongness” has been the catalyst for a discussion, and discussions are catalysts for change, and change is a catalyst for hope.

To focus, for now, on Stephen Fry and his comments about survivors of sexual abuse: Yes, he perhaps should have thought a little more about the language he used, the way he phrased his thoughts – but his thoughts aren’t wholly wrong.

When bad things happen to you – mental health issues, poverty, sexual abuse, abuse of any kind – you DO have to “grow up”.

Not in the sense of “stop being so silly”, but in the sense of becoming a mentally and emotionally stable, competent adult. Abuse, particularly, often strands people emotionally at the age at which the abuse started, or was at its worst.

No one wants to be an emotional child, surely? Surely, we want to have the emotionally functionality, the pleasures and enjoyments, of our peers? Surely, we don’t want to live caught up in a child’s fear and confusion – a frightened, sobbing, hiding twenty, thirty, forty, fifty year old?

We can’t demand that people “get it right” all the time. We can’t “no platform” people with whom we disagree. Disagreeable language, opinions, and attitudes need to be brought into the light, examined critically, and discussed rationally – with passion, yes, with the white-hot, furious heat of deep-held belief, yes – but, above all, rationally.  When we start jumping on the bandwagon of “isn’t this person awful for saying X?”, when we enter the echo chambers of people who will only ever agree with us, we lose something. We lose the negative, getting-it-wrong-and-offending-people that enables us to move forward into the positive space of discussion, understanding, and healing.

A book is not necessarily bad because a single page or chapter is. A person is not to be hated because they express an opinion that you hate.

When we limit what people can say, how they can say it, where they can say it, what they can think – then we rob the negativity of potentially damaging opinions of the positivity and creativity of healthy debate and discussion. We trap ourselves in the ultimate, barren negativity of remaining cocooned under our comfort blankie, in our bright-painted, fluffy-toy-stocked echo chamber of people who never disagree with us or challenge us.

And, without challenge, without debate, without people shouting, loudly, about things we find “problematic”, and insisting that we answer, rather than just shout “Privilege! Patriarchy! Misogyny!” at them, we slowly begin to die.

And when we die, they win.


Silence: The Quickest Way to Drain the Charge

If people cannot speak about their affliction they will be destroyed by it, or swallowed up by apathy… (Dorothee Soelle, Suffering)

“If people cannot speak about their affliction they will be destroyed by it…”

We are a social, verbally communicative species – the latter shown in the way we say that those who, for whatever reason, are non-verbal “can’t communicate effectively” – even though they often can – talking about experiences, feelings, and ideas is how we process and assess them. It’s how we seek empathy, understanding, validation, and, most importantly, help.

But, all too often these days, the attitude is “you shouldn’t talk about feeling down, or things going wrong – it just depresses everyone else.”

On the contrary, I find peoples’ joys and successes far more depressing when I’m struggling – but I would never presume to tell them to “stop talking about it”.

There are times I keep things to myself, because I’m dealing with them, and don’t want others to be anxious over my situation, but I often do talk about struggles – firstly, because other people may have suggestions for how to end the struggles that I, caught up in the maelstrom, hadn’t thought of, and secondly because it says to others who are struggling “you’re okay – you’re not alone out here.”  Especially on social media, where everyone seeks to present the “edited highlights” of their life, to convince friends and strangers that everything is, as writer Marian Keyes says., LATT (Lovely All The Time), the dissenters, the disaffected, the hurting and humiliated, need to speak out, need to be heard – the pleasantness of others’ lives is often founded on stones drenched in our blood, or the blood of others very like us.

If you’re always positive, you become what’s known in marketing terms as “bullish” – at risk of holding on to positions, and making trades, that are unwise, and that, if you were in a more balanced frame of mind, you would have abandoned or avoided.

Positivity is what leads to risks being taken – which isn’t, in and of itself, bad; we need to take risks in order to grow and to progress – but they need to be the right risks, at the right time. And negativity is usually best for identifying those.

Returning, briefly, to that initial quote from Dorothee Soelle Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, I find myself wondering what it is that makes people want to shut down “negativity”, and thus drain away the charge of it. I’ve thought about it, and read around it, and come to the conclusion, with the help of Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan’s book What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, that it’s fear, a fear which arises from our habit of conflating “bad” and “failure” with “wrong”.  No one likes to be punished for being wrong, and, in certain circumstances, we are punished for it. But a failure doesn’t mean you were wrong; after all, in any game, someone has to win, or succeed, and someone has to lose, or fail. The person or team who loses didn’t do anything “wrong” – they just came up against opponents doing the same thing they did, but a little better. When it comes to people “feeling bad”, this conflation leads us, unconsciously, to believe that that person is “a failure”, that they have “done something wrong” – and our inner children shy away, remembering how the whole class could end up getting a detention because of the misbehaviour – the wrong actions, the failure to conform – of one person.  We don’t want to be associated with bad people, with failures. We don’t want to get life wrong.

And so we shut people down, shut them up, and fail in our duty to properly adult, to fully manage the full range of human emotions.

Negative Charge

The day before Good Friday, Thursday, March 24th 2016, I closed the door on the business my wife and I had been running for the last time.

We’d failed. We hadn’t been able to make it work.

Since then,  I’ve “not been doing anything” – or, as I see it, I’ve been doing everything – everything that  needs to be done to restore my equilibrium, my sense of self, so that, whatever I choose to do next at the very least won’t fail because I’m still in the same mindset I was when I left a business I loved, and had done everything in my power to avoid losing.

I have a set of cards by Eckhart Tolle, with “inspirational quotes” on each. The card I pulled just now, at random, reads

“Whenever you notice that some form of negativity has arisen within you, look on it not as a failure, but as a helpful signal that is telling you ‘wake up. Get out of your mind. Be present.’ ”

It often takes a “failure” of some kind to wake us up to what we were doing wrong – it takes the negative charge of the emotional exhaustion that comes in the wake of a loss, any kind of loss, to reveal the core emotions, energy, and strength that will lead us, eventually, to success. That’s why it’s so important to take that time – however long you need – after a loss, of whatever scale, to just be, to let the wheels of your mind spin, recover your self – the strengths, energy, and emotions that will bring you success, and to identify the sphere in which you will succeed.