about me

An award nomination and a shiny new look blog, oh my!

Hello and welcome to this new shiny home for my ramblings. It's much prettier, right? 

I really wanted something that looks a bit less like it has been cobbled together by an idiot in a few hours, even if that is, ultimately, what it is. Because I listen to a lot of podcasts, and pretty much every one in existence is sponsored by Squarespace, I started to feel like they were sponsoring my brain. It seemed natural (or simply the inevitable effect of subliminal marketing) to give them a try, and it turns out that I really like it as a platform.  It meant I even finally got round to sorting out a proper domain name and everything. Hurrah!

I'm still getting to grips with it so far, so its likely that there will be a few bits and pieces that don't work or problems that need ironing out. Do bear with me, and do let me know if you come across anything that isn't working yet. If you nip over to the About This Blog bit in the menu in the top corner, you can find a contact form or more details about how to give me a shout.

In other news, I was really pleasantly surprised to find out a while ago that I had been shortlisted for a Ockham award. Although I didn't win, I've found it a real honour to be recognised in this way, amongst really important skeptical activism campaigns like Stop The Saatchi Bill. The shortlist is determined by nominations, so its really wonderful to know that many of you thought my little blog worthy. I'm truly lucky that so many people like what I do. The evening of the awards ceremony was good fun too- it was held at the QED conference, and it just felt great to hear the title of my blog read out, the rowdy whooping it got in response, and to see excerpts of it being shown on the big screens. 

So I just wanted to say a big ole' thank you to all of my readers. I know I'm not the most consistent of posters, thanks to the mundane realities of daily life, but hopefully having a lovely new slick website might spur me on to post more regularly. Remember to change your bookmarks and all of that other stuff.

Hxxx

The difference a year makes

“Maybe this Christmas will mean something more
Maybe this year love will appear
Deeper than ever before”
— -Tracey Thorn, Maybe This Christmas

This time last year, I was writing this post, collecting together songs that I felt best summarised why I find Christmas such an emotional time.

Of course, I’ve been listening to that playlist on repeat for weeks this year too, but it sounds different to me this time round. Its transformed from a quietly melancholic collection to one of optimism.

This time last year, I was steadfastly single. I refused to believe in love in the same way I used to do in the past. I had never even said the word to anyone else (except for friends) for years. I was stubbornly resisting the advances of a man who I knew to be very wonderful, on the basis that I would likely just mess it all up anyway and hurt him, given that I was, in my own head, such an awful and cynical heartless monster who would clearly ruin his life.

Luckily, my willpower (helped along by a fair amount of beer) failed me eventually and we went on a date in January. This is probably the best decision I have made, ever. What has followed has been better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve gone from refusing to acknowledge the L-word to telling him many, many times a day that I love him. He puts up with me and my mood swings, is happy to leave me alone when I need social recharge time, and is just really quite marvellous. He makes me laugh despite his cracker joke-level sense of humour, gives great hugs, and most importantly buys me Lego. For the first time in blummin’ yonks, I feel safe, and like I’ve come home.

“So happy new year, this is the one we talked about and
Happy New Year, this is where it all works out
This is where is comes together and everything comes through
Happy ever after all comes true”
— -Simma, Happy New Year

So going into this new year, everything seems different. We’re moving into a new house together, and I really can’t wait. The cat and the hamster have double-barrelled surnames. I have a new job lined up, though it’s in the same centre and will involve moving a mere several metres across the office to a different desk. I still worry that it’ll all come crashing down at some point, but I’m managing to keep those thoughts in check and just enjoy it all for the most part.

Hopefully I’m not sounding too smug here. I just want you all to know about the good things that happen, since I tell you probably far too much about the bad stuff. I’ve had some amazing e-mails in the past from readers who have been through similar experiences to me, and I’d like you to know that things can change and can end up even being miles better than they ever were before.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. I know this time of year can be really hard for some. I send my love and hugs to you. 

Hxxx

The Prometheus Pants Problem

Prometheus. It’s the film that disappointed pretty much everyone. The internet is flooded with in depth critiques of it, many of which refer to the lack of real science, along with the deep metaphysical and philosophical issues with it. All of these posts, however, have missed what I found to be the most problematic feature of the film: Underwear.

And yes, I know it came out two years ago, and it’s a bit weird to be writing a blog post about it now, but I’ve found myself trying to explain the Prometheus Pants Problem (PPP) to a few people, both verbally and on Twitter of late. Its complexity and importance means that 140 characters will just not do, and I think it is important to have a robust reference source to refer people to when explaining all aspects of the PPP.

It is important to note, I think, that in actual fact I vaguely enjoyed Prometheus. When I saw it at the cinema, I hadn’t seen any of the Alien films (I know, I know), but I thought it was worth a shot anyway. I found the running about with lots of alien goo stuff flying about fairly entertaining. The problems came when they kept interrupting the frivolous alien romp bits with Important Thinly Veiled Stuff About God, which made me rather lose patience. And, of course, I ended up pretty fixated on the PPP, which meant that I couldn’t think about anything else in the film. I’m like that- I’ll fixate myself on one tiny thing that happens for a millisecond, and then spend the entire rest of the film thinking and internally ranting about it.

The Need for Pants At All.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. You get in from a hard day’s work. You’re not expecting anyone. You’ve got a whole night of delicious nothingness stretching ahead of you. Its toasty warm in your home. What’s the first thing you do? You take off your uncomfortable outer wear, and let it all hang out, right? I mean, no one is going to see you and you’re in the comfort of your own home, so why the hell not wander around in all of your naked birthday suited glory if you want to?

Perhaps you wear your PJs instead, or a pair of comfy pants. That’s probably because, deep down, you’re sort of somehow worried that someone might see. You might get an unexpected visitor, or the pizza man might be arriving at any point. But imagine for a second that you are the only person alive at that point in time. What’s the point in clothes then? Especially if you can absolutely, categorically be sure that you’re the only one, because you’re the person who creates lifein the first place, and you haven’t yet drank the wormy goo that you need in order to do so yet.

So, in the opening seconds of Prometheus, we’ve got our engineer guy, on a planet in which he hasn’t yet created life (except for, well, all the plant life that is already there, but I think we’re supposed to ignore that). Now, never mind your front room, imagine having an entire planet all to yourself. Would you wear pants? Of course you wouldn’t. Any sane person would be running about joyfully, jiggling here there and everywhere, enjoying the sense of freedom. You’d let every little bit hang and flop about as much as you like, because who is going to be there to judge?

The Need For Pants At All Part 2.

We don’t ever see any Female Engineers at any point in Prometheus. Thanks for that bit of everyday sexism, Ridley. The Baldy One does not seem to require any sort of sexual act to create life: just a shot of tarry goo, and that’s that.

 So on this basis, would they even have genitals at all? And even if they did, why would they be considered a special part that needs to be nestled away from prying eyes, if the reproductive act doesn’t need to take place? 

Disappointing Pant Technology

Let’s play devil’s advocate here for a while and accept that pants are required for some unknown reason. This then leads on to another problematic issue.

These engineer types appear to be pretty smart. After all, they are the purported creators of life itself, right? Yet with all of their super advanced technology and supremely high IQs, the best they can come up with is a couple of bandages wrapped around themselves, nappy-like.

That just doesn’t ring true to me. Even our lowly human selves can come up with better pant technology than that. We have all sorts of colours, fabrics, designs, access holes, fastenings, elastic etc. But no, this superior life form instead decides to wrap some bandages around its crotch. How much of a faff must those things be to get into? They’d be a right clart on to get back out of if you need a wee. Do they need someone else to help them put them on in the morning, holding the bandages while they spin themselves around? How undignified and inconvenient.

 Lack of Pant Technology Evolution

This first engineer scene is Prometheus presumably takes place thousands of years prior to all of the kerfuffle depicted in the rest of the film. And yet, we are supposed to believe that pant technology has remained starkly primitive through all of this time?

The evidence for this is Noomi, who is merrily wandering around, post-surgery, wearing what is clearly another pair of low tech bandage pants, along with a matching bra. What’s happened to underwire technology? Why are people from this time still wearing the same design of crap pants as their creators? Surely, in the intervening millennia, someone would have realised elastic exists.

And that, dear friends, is a brief examination of the Prometheus Pants Problem. I’ve seen it creeping into other films since (most recently Guardians of the Galaxy), and I won’t rest until these important questions are answered, in full.

Other things to note about Prometheus:

  • They appear to use Joseph Joseph kitchen implements. Nice to know that this mid-range kitchenware design brand is still going strong that fair into the future.
  • Wandering around important historic sites that have been sealed off for thousands of years should probably be done in a more respectful way, if you’re wanting to preserve it for proper research. One guy says at some point “We’ve changed the atmosphere in here”. Well, yes, yes you have, though its nowt to do with the inherent evilness of mankind, and everything to do with barging in, blithely breathing your modern germs all over everything. If a door has been shut for thousands of years, I’d imagine that yes, it might get a little musty in there. Opening the door and allowing a bit of fresh air in is likely to change the atmosphere somewhat.
  • The Dead Head that explodes: Apparently the theory behind this is that this head, reawakened after a very long time, can’t cope with how crap, evil and corrupt the world now is so it explodes. Now, I’m no expert in these matters, but I’m pretty sure that exposing a thousand year old corpse to all sorts of new atmospheres might well lead to a build up of some gases, which on electrocution, may well then explode.
  • The most obvious plot hole of them all, which has most probably been covered in great detail elsewhere, still annoys me. Noomi’s oxygen is about to run out, and its all very tense indeed, but then phew, she is okay. However, it appear to magically recharge itself somehow whilst she tends to her errant offspring, as when she needs it again afterwards the oxygen level in there is just fine. Grrr.

Anyway, I’ll shut up for now, though I won’t apologise for bringing this important matter to your attention. And yes, you will now be forever destined to notice intently all pants being worn in any sci-fi movie, and yes, it will probably ruin all enjoyment for you. You’re welcome :D

Hxxxxx


Thank you, Kate

I’ve still not quite been able to come up with an adequate phrase to describe having social anxiety. Sometimes the old clichés are the best, and so I go with the duck- calmly floating above the water, but paddling like mad beneath.

I can be so good at hiding the furious paddling that even my closest friends have doubts that it exists. But if I were to invite you under the water, you’d see constant, frantic movement. You'd experience my physiological reactions going mad for no reason, reacting to the unforeseen horror of merely having a pleasant conversation with someone.  You'd be hit with tidal waves of thoughts, rushing over and over in a jumble. You'd hear that nasty, mean little internal monologue of mine telling you what other people are thinking (although they are probably not), how stupid you look (although you probably don’t), how boring you are (although you’re probably not). Then you'd feel the confusion and shame of cutting all these thoughts up with a knife of rationality. You'd see how that knife then turns on yourself because you just can't keep up with all of the mean thoughts, and you feel so weak for letting them take over you. 

Eventually, this state becomes your norm. It becomes background noise, and the peaks of it get even higher in moments where you feel threatened. Our metaphorical duck spends his days thrashing relentlessly under the water every second of everyday, and the tiniest of waves sends him into free-fall. Of course, Kate, you probably know how this feels already to a degree: it is stage fright that kept you away from touring for so long.

Moments of true calm are few and far between when you reach this point. When they do occur, you start worrying about them- internal silence starts to feel alien. Constant anxiety becomes your default position, and the otherworldliness of calm feels dangerous somehow.

That’s how I was this time last year. Things have now improved somewhat- thanks to the CBT, thanks to those around me, and in no small part thanks to my own stubbornness. I’m now at a point where the peaks are still there, but they’re not quite as insurmountable. My default position is no longer fight or flight, and I'm more able to quell the thought onslaught. True moments of stillness are, however, still relatively rare.

I’m never usually able to lose myself in a moment, as this stupid anxiety makes me constantly self-aware. The other night though, I experienced several blissful hours of basically forgetting that I existed. All thanks to you, Kate.

You’ve always been able to lift me out of terrible moods. One of the joys of living on my own is that I can get home, and crank up your music as loud as I like. I can sing, I can let go, and I can dance about with the cat without anyone laughing at me. I often find that you’re able to lift me out of an approaching mist. You've been the manufacturer of one of my most reliable coping mechanisms.

I saw Before The Dawn the other night. I was scared of going in alone, but within minutes I was chatting away with other people. We couldn't believe our luck. I've honestly never seen so many utterly excited people in one place before.

I know that everyone else has loved it. I've read the reviews, and I've seen the tweets. I expected it to be good, but what I didn't expect was to be completely enraptured- with you, with the story of a woman in the water, of a dawning day, with the detail. I had expected a couple of tears, perhaps a couple of whoops if I was feeling brave. What I hadn't expected was to realise that I was so taken in by it all that I was no longer self aware. I sort of came to, whilst dancing madly away to Cloudbusting, and realised that the waves had stopped for me for 3.5 hours. Here I was, on my own, in a situation that would usually scare me, completely and utterly swept up in the world of your making.

Thank you, Kate. Thank you for that gift.

Hxxx

Lychnobite, by Simma: An album review.

There is a particular pub in Gateshead which I rather like. It’s called The Central Bar and it holds good memories for me. It’s a traditional haunt for my good friends and I on Christmas Eve, it has an excellent range of beers, and does some good nosh too.

And so it was that on one particular Sunday afternoon just before Christmas, three friends and I were in there. We were suitably adorned in tacky, sparkly Christmas attire and were festively tipsy, when a chap started playing his acoustic guitar and singing in the corner of the pub.

Given our rather jolly state at the time, we showed our appreciation of this man’s lovely voice by bellowing along to some of the songs and inventing new interpretive dance routines to others (And thus, the great Gateshead Sit Down dance was born). We were a source of amusement for the singer, who declared that he’d never had anyone invent dances for him before and patiently explained that no magic was at play when we had loudly declared that we wanted him to play Fairytale Of New York then he actually did, prompting us to look drunkenly confused. “Girls, I’m not on the radio you know. I can actually hear you.” It was a really fun afternoon, and we left giggling hysterically and wondering if we could ever show our faces in there again.

The singer in question was Simma, and I’ve since seen him play several times. He fairly recently released his new album, Lychnobite, so I snapped up a copy of it and thought I would review it for you dear people.

On first listen, it’s on the whole a cheery affair, with upbeat tunes perfect for having on in the background while you do something else. Subsequent listens via headphones reveal a more melancholic, complex side to the album.

A particular highlight for me is “Black Dog”, a song about depression which combines a nifty little toe-tapping rhythm with an almost monotonous melody. This makes for an atmospheric juxtaposition, much like the illness itself. Next up is the joyous “Sing”, a marching, uplifting little song that I tend to happily belt out when I have it on at home.

Other songs are more calmly folky, all with a touch of cleverness to the songwriting that I find really pleasing. There is a clever use of vocals throughout the album (see Whisky Highway as an example), something which I find quite pleasingly different, given my previous experience of Simma is limited to him and one guitar in the corner of the Central Bar

“The Drink” is gorgeous, plaintive, and full of feeling. Meanwhile, “Sixteen Tons” is bluesy and pleasingly cynical, managing to blend together a very American sound with tales of Benwell woe. “Happy New Year” is likely to make its way onto my Christmas Songs For The Existentially Wounded list this year, with its mix of optimism and sadness for times gone by.

The other thing that I really like about Simma is how his Geordie accent creeps into the edges of his songs, lending them a little bit of added personality. All in all, this is a lovely, complicated album which is likely to be on heavy rotation in my household, nestled in nicely between Great Lakes by John Smith and Under Mountains by Rachel Sermanni. 

Hxxx

Making it up as I go along

What better way to spend a Sunday than an eight-hour long improvised comedy workshop?

Now, I know that there are a lot of people who would jump for joy at the suggestion. I also know that I am really not one of them. I can be pretty reserved, and of course there is my social anxiety to factor in.

My good friend Shandy suggested it. She had been to similar sessions before, and thought it would be good for me. I trust her judgement, so I signed us up for it before I had a chance to regret it. And what a day it turned out to be.

Social anxiety is an odd creature. Recently, I’ve been learning about the main thing that makes it particularly odd- self-focus. It’s a weird dichotomy- the same diagnosis that ruins your confidence and makes you want to disappear also manages to persuade you that you are the entire centre of everything that exists. It simultaneously makes you completely hate yourself, and become an insufferable narcissist in your own head.

I think I’m really pretty good at challenging myself. I force myself into social situations that I don’t want to be in on a fairly regular basis. More importantly, I force myself to social situations that I really do want to be in but am completely effing terrified of. I’ll say yes to parties in London where I basically know no-one at all. I’ll arrange and go to tweet ups. I go to lots of bake clubs, and I’m out of the house on most evenings of the week, seeing various different friends and going to all sorts of different events. I’ll merrily agree to SITP talks here and there. Yet no matter how much I push myself to do things, and no matter how well these things turn out, the fear remains the same.

I know the theory. I know that anxiety is supposed to lessen the more you are in a situation, and the more you are exposed to that situation. Yet mine.. doesn’t. I know that I have been in a similar situation before, and it was absolutely fine, yet I still end up a gibbering wreck each and every time. It’s the self-focus that does that. With my social anxiety, its not the other people who are scary, it’s myself, and that can be really difficult to get around. Its this aspect that makes it refractory to exposure therapy.

One of the most exhausting parts of it is self-censoring. I constantly dismiss my own thoughts as not being worthy enough of being said out loud. I’m scared of sounding stupid, boring, of being judged, of not being interested enough. Instead of allowing the person I am speaking to make those judgements, I do it myself, and discard things that I want to say before they leave my mouth.

These things do not make me an ideal person to perform improvised comedy. I am the person who will eventually come up with a killer comedic line about six hours after the opportunity to use it has gone, then will proceed to beat myself up about it for days, weeks, sometimes months afterwards. I have never performed any sort of drama or anything like that, and the opportunities for creativity in my adult life have been pretty limited.

Bev Fox, one of the wonderful teachers at the Improvisation Foundation and co-founder of The Suggestibles

Bev Fox, one of the wonderful teachers at the Improvisation Foundation and co-founder of The Suggestibles


So, you’re asking, how did it go?

Pretty well I think. I was completely exhausted and nigh-on broken afterwards, but it felt like one of the most productive things I have done so far to subdue my social anxiety monster.

The group of people attending the workshop were warm, welcoming, and kind. Bev, who was leading it, was marvellous. I didn’t feel pushed into anything at any time, though I spent the entire day not just outside my comfort zone but pretty much in another continent to it.

Luckily, my ultimate goal for the workshop fits in quite nicely with one of the fundamental basics of improv- turning off your self-filtering. I didn’t achieve it fully- I still felt pretty shy and reserved by the end of the workshop- but I did take some big steps towards it. I found myself taking part in the games much more enthusiastically than I had expected, and even managed to be funny on the odd occasion.

One of the most beneficial parts was towards the start. As part of a game, one of the guys asked who was nervous about coming today. As dictated by the game, this then led to a mass vacating of seats, followed by a scramble for another one. There followed “who has ever had stage fright”- again, mass movement.

When I found myself stuck in the middle of the circle, I went with the emotionally deep and existentially important question of “Who gets excited when they are about to eat spaghetti hoops?”

There followed a pretty amazing discussion with everyone in the group about their experiences of stage fright and nervousness. They were all so honest, and although I am constantly told that I’m not the only one, it was still good to see that perfectly well-functioning adults still suffer from the stomach-butterflies and brain-freezes just as much as I do.

There were games involving eye contact, which is something that I can sometimes struggle with. There was a really interesting part where you had to walk around in either a high status or a low status mode. It occurred to me as I was doing it that the way I naturally walk, giggle, play with my hair, hunch down etc was pretty much a text book version of the low status walk, whereas high status mode, striding around and holding eye contact with people, I felt really weird and unnatural.

So much of what we covered fits in with what I am covering in therapy. Even the terminology is the same. There was one task where we walked around the room and had to quickly name all the objects. Then we slowed down, and asked more questions about each object in turn, eventually getting to a point where we explored our feelings as well. It reminded me of mindfulness therapy- it was all about being in the moment, rather than rehearsing what might happen in the future or dwelling on what you said five minutes ago.

So it basically felt like an 8 hour long group CBT, mindfulness, and counselling session with a whole load of humour thrown in for good measure. Honestly, I have seen Paul Merton’s Improv Chums three times now and there were moments in this workshop which were just as funny.

I’m not convinced that I am destined for a comedy career, but I have taken a whole load of positivity from that one day, and I’m really pleased and proud of myself for doing it.

You can find out more about the workshops at www.thesuggestibles.com. Bev and Ian's improv group, The Suggestibles, do regular gigs in Newcastle upon Tyne so keep an eye out for a performance if you are in the area- they're a right good laugh, and a blummin' lovely people too.

Hxxx 

The importance of a fluffy pen

Many years ago, in my pre-reg year, I was pulled into an office by my tutor and told that I needed to sober up. She didn't mean that in an alcohol sense, but instead that I needed to start being more serious, dour, and less quirky. She told me that my personality, as it was, wasn't right to be a professional.

At the time, I believed her. She told me that I would never make a good pharmacist if I carried on the way I was. I was terrified, as all I wanted to do with my life was to be a pharmacist. If I couldn't be a good one, then I would really need to change my personality.

All of this started because I had a Christmas pen. It played tinny music for an alarmingly long time when pressed, and it became a bit of a joke in the dispensary to sneak up behind me when I was working and set it off, making everyone dissolve into giggles. A dispensing assistant, who was wearing a Christmas tie, was also told off, and strongly advised to not wear it again.

But nowadays, I disagree heartily that you have to be serious to be professional. I think a little bit of well-placed silliness and a lot of humour can add to our professionalism.

We need to be approachable to patients. And what makes a person more approachable than a little bit of personality? Nothing, except perhaps a novelty pen. On a couple of occasions, women who have come to see me about the emergency hormonal contraception pill, and who have been very nervous, have ended up giggling at a ridiculously fluffy pink flamingo pen I used to have. It broke the ice, and they could see that I was a person just like them, and I wasn't going to sit there all business-suited and high and mighty at the other side of the table and judge them. They felt a lot more comfortable because of that pen, and I think I was able to help them a lot more as a result.

At the moment, I have a Special Pen in my desk drawer. It is comedically large, pink, and slightly phallic, with some floppy rubber spikes on the end. I like to take it out of my desk drawer and offer it up, straight-faced, when people ask to borrow a pen. 

my special comedy pen, with a banana for scale

my special comedy pen, with a banana for scale

We health care professionals deal with a lot of dark stuff on a daily basis: sickness, death, disability, anger, frustration etc. We need to balance that darkness out with something lighter. Whether its doing something daft in the dispensary to make your staff laugh for a few seconds when times are stressful, or donning a fox mask and writing silly things on the internet, it all counts. 

As long as we put the patient first, we treat others with respect, and we work within our limits, true professionalism doesn't have to mean that we all walk about with serious faces.


Hxxx  

The Ultimate Christmas album for the Existentially Wounded

"It's why, it's why we hang lights so high
and gaze at the glow of silver birches in the snow
Because of the dark, we see the beauty in the spark
We must be alright  if we could make up Christmas night"
-Tracey Thorn, Joy. 


Now, I'll admit that at this time of year, I can get rather annoying.

I love Christmas, I really do. I'm often to be found wearing antlers and tinsel. I put my decorations up at the first opportunity humanely possible, and start on the mince pies in September. This year, I excitedly bought myself a Lego advent calendar, despite the incredulity of the guy behind the counter in the shop. I also have snowman hoodie which yes, I shall wear out in public.

As a child-free, cynical, atheist adult, it might seem like this is a hard time of year to enjoy. And, to be honest, you're probably right. It would be a whole lot easier to throw in the towel and grumble about how commercial it all is, and how I just wish it was over and done with and everything can go back to normal. But I refuse to give into this, and put quite a bit of effort into maintaining my child-like delight at the festive season.

Obviously, its nothing to do with god. And don't get me wrong, I love the presents too (dear parents, if you are reading this, please do take note that I shall never be too old for Lego). But my desperation to enjoy this time of year runs somehow deeper than all that. I don't need to link it to religion, nor do I need to experience it through a child or partner. Christmas reminds me of my own, hard-won personality.

For me, it is about traditions. And these traditions, as they shift and change slightly each year, somehow reinforce my own self to me. Back in what now seems like a lifetime ago, my ex-husband and I took joy in forming new traditions together at this time of year. It was a way of reinforcing ourselves as a couple unit, of forging our own little family ways. Small things, like buying a new special decoration for the tree each year, came to mean a lot to us.

When my marriage broke down on Boxing Day 2010, I had to start again. Everything I had known up until that point fell apart, and my hopes and dreams, which I had been carrying like a shield all my life, shattered in a matter of hours. I had to begin again from scratch, and it was often the smallest of things that seemed to make all the difference to me.

The next year, my new, empty Christmas tree seemed somehow symbolic of how I had to start to collect some traditions of my very own. These traditions would belong to me, and me alone. I started picking up little decorations here and there, and now I have a rather lovely collection of bits and pieces to adorn my home with. And I've done the same with traditions: baking certain things at certain times, (including my beloved Christmas pie), drinking startlingly strong fruit wine in a particular pub on Christmas Eve with my friends, seeing Rare Exports at the cinema, taking part in a gingerbread contest, and many others. Some of us even go so far as to throw ourselves into the freezing North Sea on Boxing Day which not only washes away any vestiges of hangover cobwebs, but also distracts me from the awfully sad memories I would otherwise be thinking about.

Winter is a dark and often terrifying time for many of us. Dark mornings and dark nights make it easy for the sadness and emptiness to creep in. Getting home to a cold, dark, empty, one-bedroomed flat can start to feel like a failure. But then I pop on the tree lights, and I have something to focus on, some little pinpricks of hope that, in the end, the world is full of good people, and I will be able to spend some quality time with those who I love most- my friends and my family. And I will have an excuse to fill my flat with sparkly things, and wear glitter eyeliner.

Christmas is, to me, an acknowledgement that times will be dark and hard ahead, but that I will get through those times, with the help of those around me. It reminds me of how far I've come, and how proud I am of myself. It reminds me of all the good I have found in the world, of all the little bits of help I have gotten from the most unexpected sources, of all the new people I have met and the pride I have in my oldest friendships. If humankind has the presence of mind to plonk a huge celebration in the middle of the darkest season (even if they have done so on the pretence of a god I don't believe in), then that's fine by me, and I shall do my damnedest to make sure I embrace it with gusto.

I love the standard Christmas songs. I'll dance about to a bit of Slade with the best of them. But the saccharine jingle bells of most of the tunes you'll find on Now Thats What I Call The Ultimate Best Ever Christmas Tunes In World... Vol 3 don't seem to quite catch the nuances of the festive season for me. I've only come across a few songs which do, and I have collected them here for your auditory pleasure. I'm keen to know of more, so if you have any you would like to recommend, please do let me know, either in the comments, by email, or by tweeting me (@SparkleWildfire). What I would like to do is create a playlist of genuinely good, beautiful songs that evoke both the joy and the darkness of Christmas.

Joy by Tracey Thorn.
Tracey Thorn's (of Everything But The Girl fame) Christmas album Tinsel and Lights, which she released last year, was a total revelation to me. Its a gorgeous, calming album which hits just the right pitch of melancholy and joy for this time of year. I think this song says it all really.

Snowglobe by Dean Owens.
I saw Dean play at the Tyneside Cinema just before that fateful christmas of 2010. This is a lovely, sad little song about having depression or mental health issues over Christmas time. It serves as a reminder that mental health issues don't instantaneously resolve over the festive period, and that this time of enforced happiness can be extremely hard for many.

December Will Be Magic Again by Kate Bush
You may already know by now that I absolutely adore Kate Bush. Even the title of this song is poignant. This song has the same theme to me as Joy: its about using tradition to cover the darkness of the winter.

Winter by John Smith
This is simply the best, most beautiful song about the baby Jesus that I have ever heard. I first saw John play as support for John Martyn, and I have since seen him live several times and been reduced to tears by him. I absolutely adore his voice. I don't mind that this is a song about the nativity: to me it is a song about a story, and I just love how plaintively he sings that "I was there" line.

A Christmas Fable by The Selecter
I love a bit of ska. I've spent a full day agonising over which song to go for from this single. Then it occurs to me: its a double A-side, so I can legitimately have both. The songs are supposed to symbolise the light and dark sides of christmas, so they're pretty perfect for my playlist. Skank 'Til Christmas is all about letting your hair down when everything else in life has gone to shit (I love the references to the current financial situation), whilst a Christmas Fable is about a rather distressing family breakdown on Christmas day.

River by Madeleine Peyroux & K.D. Lang
A cover of this track also appears on the aforementioned Tinsel and Lights album. Thanks to the ever marvellous Ian Robinson (@eyeswideshut75) for suggesting it.

White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin
Thanks to Steve Haigh for reminding me of this. There's so much truth and humour in this gorgeous little tune, and it really sums up a good old family Christmas.

The Atheist Christmas Carol by Vienna Teng
This is just gorgeous.Thanks to Jackie (@Jackpot73- one of those new people so I am so thankful for having met this year) for

Silent Night/ 7 O'clock News by Simon and Garfunkel
Pretty self explanatory.

Love is All We've Got by Paul Fisher
I have loved Paul's music since the first time I saw him at a folk night when I was still underage drinking. I can remember being completely astounded by the noises that were coming out of this guy on the tiny stage upstairs in the Egypt Cottage pub. Turns out he has made a beautiful, gorgeous, poignant Christmas song this year which I will be listening to over and over.

Candle Song 3 by Mojave 3.

Tar Barrel in Dale by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
Another one suggested by the lovely Jackie. A New Year's song about a Northumberland tradition. This year has been so cruel to so many of my friends and people I know, so I listen to this hoping that the new one brings those who I love some luck.

Hxxx

P.S. Here's my Sparkle Wildfire Top Festive Tip for the year: mulled wine liquid soap might seem like a good idea in the shop, but its really not. You end up smelling like a wino.

So this one's for the friends

"So this one's for the friends
If not so for themselves
And this new life's directing us
Remind us in a town
You made us feel at home
We broke our backs on floors of stone
But I'd rather wake there any day
Than wake up here alone"
-The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly

Today is World Mental Health Day. although this year the focus is on older people, I am in a nazel-gazing, emotional kind of a mood, and have found myself thinking a lot about my friends.

There are two aspects to this. Firstly, I know a lot of people with varying degrees of mental health problems. In fact, I would say that I probably know more people with some sort of mental health problem than those who don't. I find myself thinking of how much I wish I could change how they feel, draw out some of their pain or anxiety or depression for them and lighten their lives a little bit. I think of how wonderful and individual they are, and how amazingly brave and strong they are. The reasons for their problems are as diverse as they are- if there are reasons. I think of how badly they are treated by others, of the stereotypes that are applied to them, and want to shout from the rooftops about how wonderful all of these people are.

The other aspect is how my friends treat me. Its not big, sentimental gestures, nor is it anything to do with the length of time I have known someone. Its the bunch of flowers and bottle of wine that arrived in the post a few days after my marriage broke down. Its lending me an oil-filled radiator when the heating in my flat has broken and fixing my DVD player. Its letting me sit on the sofa in their house in silence because I don't feel like speaking but I don't want to be on my own. Its the rushing round to my flat to remove a spider because I'm too scared to do it myself. Its the constant sarcasm and good-natured banter at work. Its the tweeps who always cheer me up and check how I am when I am in a self-pitying mood, and the patient soothing of my drunken self via WhatsApp at 3am. Its the afternoons of laughter and the knowledge that, if I need to cry hysterically I could, and no one would think any worse of me. Its the quiet, unthinking hug when I am struggling to smile during someone's wedding, or the amazing poem written for my birthday.

These are the sort of things that I have built into my little emotional fortress. There are people out there who can't understand where I derive meaning from in life- I have no god, no children and no husband after all. But all of these little gestures, and all of these wonderful people form the basis of my meaning. Without them, I really don't know where I would be, but I'm pretty sure it would be an awfully dark place. This, for me, is the foundation of my humanism.

I don't tell my friends this kind of thing enough, but I'm so thankful and lucky to have them.

Hxxx

CBT: The first session

So last Friday I began a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions, to help me deal with the social anxiety that I talked about in a previous blog post. 

I don't really expect to learn anything new from the course, to be honest. I'm pretty good at accepting, rationalising and challenging myself to face my fears, but what I'm finding more and more lately is that I reach breaking point more easily. I've always been able to keep the anxiety in check and have always just thought that I am shy, but various things- the bout of psoriasis I had, being single again, stuff happening with my friends etc has meant that I've been much less able to control it of late. So much of my brain is taken up by being anxious that there is little left over for anything else. My organization skills, which were poor at best anyway, are completely shot, and even the most basic problems at work leave me feeling totally overwhelmed. 

My friends are my world, and its hard for me to describe how much I love them and how much I love spending time with them. Since my divorce, when they rallied round and were totally amazing, I have made sure that they are the centre of everything I do. But this thing is getting in the way of that, and its making me miserable as a consequence. 

The best way I can think to describe it is like an energy bar in a computer game, but instead of life force, mine is a social bar. It gradually decreases, then eventually I run out and require recharging. In more stressful situations (like going to parties or meetings where I know no-one, or-horror of all horrors- dating, for example) it runs out a lot quicker than if I am spending time with by best friends. The recharging usually involves lying on my sofa watching old episodes of Dexter and not talking to anyone, although lately I've noticed a much more scary emptiness creeping in, and I can find myself lying on my bed staring at the ceiling with no thoughts or feelings or emotions at all. These hours are terrifying and are something that has never really happened to me before. 

So, having seen my GP, I got referred onto this group CBT course. The irony of being on a group course for social anxiety has not escaped me, and of course I found myself worrying about all aspects of the course. How will I get the time off work? Will I find the place? (this sort of anxiety stems from a fear of looking stupid if I don't know where I'm going) Will I have to make awkward small talk with the other people on the course? Will they think that my reasons for going are stupid? What if I have to speak about my emotions to them? etc etc etc. One of my biggest worries is whether I was bad enough to justify being on the course. The fact that I have spent several days if not weeks worrying about whether I am anxious enough to justify it has also tickled my sense of irony.

Anyway, I managed to find the place, and staggered in red-faced, dry mouthed, sweaty and with my heart beating (irregularly) out of my chest. The other folk in the waiting room looked serene and at home. The course started late due to technical problems, which rather than giving me time to calm down made me even worse.

Once I was in there, I felt somewhat better. The initial session is all about the causes and symptoms of anxiety and how it can manifest in different people, so we didn't really cover any CBT techniques. I was very pleased to hear the trainers talking about the evidence base for CBT, and they explained the pros and cons and process of what we would be doing over the next few weeks. I was starting to feel quite settled. It was nothing I didn't know already, of course, but its always good to know that there are other people suffering from the same thing as you.

Then came the two slides on medication. The slides just covered some really general points which I agreed with, but one of the women there talked about how she didn't want to try any medication as she was so worried about side effects. The trainers said they knew very little about specific medicines, and she should speak to her GP or pharmacist. Well, I tried to keep my mouth shut, I really did, but I couldn't help myself. I thought about just trying to make out like I was someone who knew a bit about medicines, but I could tell that this woman was really worried. She was wanting to try an antidepressant, and thought it could benefit her in the short term, but she was really concerned that they could amplify her anxiety permanently. I wanted to help and reassure her, and before I knew it, I could hear myself saying "I'm a pharmacist..." I explained a bit about how the drugs work, what sort of side effects could happen, and what the sort of terms used to describe how common a side effect is actually mean. She, the other attendees, and the trainers all listened attentively and said how great it was to have it all explained in context rather than to just look at a really long list of scary words on a patient information leaflet.

I left feeling happy that I had shared some of my expertise, but sort of worried about the rest of the course. I fully expect next week to walk in and be asked various different questions about the medicines people are taking. You get used to this happening when you tell people that you're a pharmacist. The problem comes from the fact that now I feel like I need to be "on", and in professional mode, when what I actually sort of want is a place that I can switch off my forcefield and fall apart, so I can put myself back together in a more rational, calmer way.

Hxxx  

Is Gareth Bale worth more than eradicating malaria?

Many moons ago, in what now feels like a different life, I went on a trip to London. The date was October 12th, 2009, and I was armed with a long pole, a dispensing basket I had nicked from work, and a mosquito net.

I had an hour. An hour, to do whatever I wanted, in Central London. Its not particularly unusual to have an hour to kill in the capital, but it just so happened that I would be spending this hour atop the Fourth Plinth in a moonlit Trafalgar Square. I had been lucky enough to have been selected to take part in Anthony Gormley's One & Other artwork. I decided, after much deliberation, to represent the Malaria No More charity. I gave out packs of sweets and leaflets about the cause, wore a dress made of a mosquito net, and even did a little bit of crafting, sewing the words Malaria No More onto a large blue mosquito net. Mostly, I felt utterly terrified, and had horrendous stage fright, more so than I had ever imagined I would have.

Malaria No More, amongst other things, aim to distribute insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs), eventually with a view to eradicate malaria entirely. According to them:

"£10 can transport 150 life-saving nets to a community in rural Ghana; enough to protect 300 people."

 Blimey, that sounds far too good to be true, doesn't it? But luckily, there is good, robust, independent evidence that impregnated mosquito nets really do prevent deaths from malaria:

"About 5.5 lives (95% CI 3.39 to 7.67) can be saved each year for every 1000 children protected with ITNs...ITNs are highly effective in reducing childhood mortality and morbidity from malaria. Widespread access to ITNs is currently being advocated by Roll Back Malaria, but universal deployment will require major financial, technical, and operational inputs.." -Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD000363.

So the idea is that two people can sleep under one net, but because of the insecticide, there is an area outside the nets which is also protected. If there are enough nets in a household, or even a village, then the whole area could be protected, even when people are out and about and not just when they are sleeping under the net. The available evidence seems to back this up-the little extract I have copied above only refers to deaths, but the results are even better when it comes to reducing the incidence of malaria illness- a reduction of 62% in areas of unstable malaria, for example. 

This got me thinking a bit. With the news today that Gareth Bale, a man that I have never heard of, who runs about on a bit of grass after an inflatable round thing is apparently worth a record £85.3 million, I can't help but do some little calculations. Obviously these are all estimates, but it makes for an interesting thought experiment.

  • £10= 150 mosquito nets


 

  • £85,300,000/10=8,530,000 mosquito nets

  • As each of those 8,530,000 nets can protect two people= 17,060,000 people could be protected.

  • 5.5 lives can be saved for every 1000 children protected with ITNs. If we assume all the people protected are children:

    • 17,060,000/1000= 17,060

    • 17.060*5.5=93,830 children could be saved.


The WHO estimates that there were 660 000 malaria deaths in 2010. So that amount of mosquito nets, could, in actual fact, prevent a large chunk of those deaths (we dont know how many adult deaths it could prevent, either) meaning that over a few years, malaria could potentially be eradicated. 

Now, I'm sure this Bale chap is very good and all, but I do wonder whether, in the context of all the World's problems, this sort of amount is appropriate. Personally, I would rather opt for reducing the massive morbidity and mortality caused by a disease that is potentially eradicable given the right resources, but then what do I know?

Before anyone complains, yes I know this is terribly simplistic, and its not as easy as that, and all of that sort of hoohah. I just want to make a bit of a point about how vast sums of money need a context, and in my humble opinion, I don't think it is particularly appropriate or such sums to exchange hands when there are still people dying of hunger or preventable diseases.  I'm sure some men doing footballing makes some people happy and all, but come on. I'm not even convinced that Christian Bale is worth that much, despite that scene of him running around naked, bloodstained, and with chainsaw in hand in American Pyscho.

Hxxx

The difference of a diagnosis

I have Social Anxiety Disorder. Its all official and everything, having just come back from the doctors' surgery, where all of my rehearsed, clear and concise explanations of how I have been feeling lately descended into some soggy, disordered sentences and lots of apologies. 

What, precisely does this mean? It means I feel weird, and I don't quite know what to do with myself. It's interesting, the effect of having a label. I imagine this particular effect is broadly similar for many diagnoses, to lesser and greater degrees. It's a waveform: you just start relaxing into it, and feeling relived by it, then you think 'oh shit, there's something wrong with me!', then it all starts again.

There is a satisfying feeling of loose ends being tied up. It's the explanatory scene at the end of every episode of Poirot, the metaphorical jigsaw pieces being placed. You think of all the things that you've been feeling over the years and you squidge all of your individual experiences into the shape of the words on the leaflet you've been given.

But its weirdly hard to relinquish the long-held belief that actually you're just quite shit at life, that its your own fault and you're just not trying hard enough, to something external like an Actual Real Life Diagnosis. Bits of what I thought were my personality are instantly explained and I can't quite accept that its not just me being defective.

There is also a fear that now I have an excuse, a reason to stop berating myself, I will luxuriate in it. Will I kick back and stop pushing myself as much as I have been, and retreat? Will it take even more effort now to venture out and smile, with a diagnosis weighing me down?

People who know me may be inclined to think that this is bollocks, that I'm just going through a rough patch and will be fine in a bit. I keep telling myself that too, to be honest. I'll shake it off and it'll be fine. but this is an underlying thing that has always been there. Most of the time it lurks, but sometimes it pushes itself into the front row, knocks out the bouncers, and jumps on the stage and dances naked. In other words, its pretty damn distracting, and it takes up a fair amount of my working brain. 

There are a few cruel dichotomies that I am the victim of in life. I love nothing more than lying for hours in the sunshine, yet I have the palest, most prone to burning skin, for example. And this is one too. I love being around people. I love my friends more than anything, and I rely on them for my very existence. But this thing, this bloody diagnosis, means I can end up spending the precious time I have with them fighting with my instincts to run away from them, even though I desperately want to be with them.

You could be the one person who I want to spend the most amount of time with in the world. You could be the person that I am most interested in getting to know, or the person who I most want to impress. I might be really interested in your opinions, and desperately want to know about your life. But what will most likely happen is that I will sit in awkward silence and you will think "she hates me", or "she's not remotely sociable" or "bloody hell, she's really boring". If only you could hear the things running through my head at these times though. In my brain, I am running through all of my most sparkling, wittiest, intelligent observations and quietly discarding every one of them as being too unworthy of your consideration. Yeah, I know I should let you judge that, and I think about it constantly afterwards and how stupid I have been for not saying anything, but in the moment, none of those rational thoughts help. Conversely, you could be someone who I know I will never meet again. You could be a random person on the street who asks me directions, or a train conductor, or a waitress in a restaurant I will never visit again, and I will still have the same reactions.

I can often mask it, but my body lets me down. I can be sat having a nice chat with someone I have been friends with for years, and I am internally in full on fight-or-flight mode. My heart is pounding irregularly, my brain is rushing and I blush extravagantly. If this is how I am with people who I know love me, and who I have known for years, imagine how I am when I meet new people.

Some of you might be thinking 'why in the hell is she writing about this in public?' Some would say that this is the kind of thing that should be kept under wraps, behind closed doors, under the carpet and all that kind of thing. Well, I say bollocks to that. I have written before about how stubborn the stigma of mental health is, and I just don't subscribe to the idea that we still, in this day and age, need to be embarrassed about it. It's actually really hard and scary to write about it all in public, but it makes me feel better and I don't want to hide it away. I have enough faith in you, Dear Reader, that you wont think any less of me for it or judge me too much. 

Hxxx


 

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... oh hang on.

"Girls, come over here. You'll be safe from the evil spirit on this side of the vault. A lady came in today and blessed it- you can see how she left healing flowers as part of the ritual."

This sentence would appear at first glance to be the sort of thing that would send me into an apoplectic rage. There is so much woo encapsulated in that one little sentence: ghosts (which don't exist), sexism (the men were left on the un-blessed side), god (who doesn't exist) healing flowers (medicinal woo) and rituals (spiritual nonsense which makes no difference). 

However, standing in the pitch black, musty cold of one of Edinburgh's vaults, clinging onto my friend Hesther and a complete stranger for dear life, I found myself repeating in my head 'its alright, I'm safe. A lady has been in and blessed it. Nothing bad is going to happen' over and over again in a desperate and unsuccessful bid to stave off hysteria.

This was just over a year ago. Every year, my friends and I take a trip over the border to take in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In amongst the sight-seeing, drinking, burning of the candle at both ends, and stand-up comedy binging, we always tend to do something ghostie-related. Edinburgh is a very charismatically historical and spooky city. The first year, we went to Mary King's Close, then last year was a vaults tour. Each time, I have shown myself up as a pathetic, borderline hysterical scaredy-cat.

In another vault during last year's tour, we were told how a coven of Wiccan witches had tried to use a particular vault as a meeting room (I suspect meeting room isn't the correct terminology, to be honest, but never mind.). They had moved some stones to form a protective circle in the middle of the vault, but found that terrible things happened when they were inside the circle, including the appearance of a terrifying, animalistic evil demon which trapped them in the vault, stalking the corridor murderously so they couldn't get out. The tour guide very dramatically informed us of how no one had set foot inside the circle in her presence, but how she would leave us alone for a while and we could do so if we wished, before swooping out theatrically. Now, you and I know that this was just a room, and a tourist putting a toe into a circle of inert stones is not going to make a non-existent demon turn up.

However, as one chap went to put his foot within the circle, an inhuman sound emanated from the corner of the vault. It could only be described as a guttural shriek, and went something like:

"DONTEVENFUCKINGDAREORIWILLKILLYOUWITHMYBAREHANDS"

Something like that, anyway. I can't quire remember the exact words I used. Here I was, an atheist who believes firmly in science, screeching violent threats at a complete stranger all because he had moved his foot vaguely in the direction of the stone circle. I was, to say the least, utterly terrified, and it was only after a good few vodkas in the bar afterwards that I started to calm down.

But this was before I started to get really interested and involved in skepticism. I've since found myself being a whole lot more rational about many aspects of my life, and applying skeptical principles, critical thinking, and rationality has become a lot more second nature to me. This year's tour, which took in some supposedly more active vaults, as well as a graveyard and mausoleum, home of Edinburgh's most active and evil poltergeist, would be a breeze. After all, I would be able to calmly rationalise all aspects of it and see it for what it really is: pure entertainment. Skeptical pharmacist extraordinaire that I am, I would be serenely smirking at all of my friends and the rest of the tour group as they clung onto one another and shrieked.

Umm, well...

As it happened, I was marginally less hysterical than last time. I would love to say that this was due to my skepticism, but in actual fact is due to the fact that there was a bigger group of people, the tour guide was more comedic than dramatic, and that I had imbibed some gin beforehand.  But I do mean marginally. I was still clinging onto whoever was near me for comfort, (whimpering "don't leave me, please don't leave me"). I used up the last vestiges of my phone's battery for light because I was so terrified of the darkness. In the graveyard, I was telling myself that ghosts were less powerful in the open air, rather than that ghosts do not exist. In the mausoleum, I consoled myself with the fact that the Mackenzie poltergeist would probably like me because I'm an atheist and not a catholic, rather than that it is merely a tall tale made up to appease tourists and that there was a perfectly rational explanation for everything. Barely a rational thought crossed my mind for the whole sodding one and a half hours of the tour.  

It would seem then, based on this n=1 social experiment, that one is perfectly able to be paralyzingly frightened of something that you don't believe in, given the right circumstances. In the dark, having to listen to stories of ghostly hands grabbing at ankles, i can confirm that there is a minority part of my brain that not only takes over the rational, skeptical majority, but beats it into a pulpy submission then stamps on it repeatedly.

Hxxx

P.S. Spirits almost definitely did have something to do with the fact that I randomly fell over just before the tour even started.

 

The Home Office can go back to where it came from, if you ask me.

Immigration is all over the news today. The last few days have seen a very, very uncomfortable atmosphere developing, which has been widely likened to that seen in Nazi Germany. In a bid to curry favour with UKIP voters (for which read either bigots, or just sadly ill-informed people), the Home Office have begun gleefully posting pictures of people of colour being shoved into the back of vans, along with bragging about how many illegal immigrants they have rounded up in that particular day. And then there is that bloody van driving around too.

Now, dear readers, I am going to sort of write something vaguely political. I'm going to do so in my own, incompetent, ranty way, so do forgive me if it ends up having very little to do with anything except for my thought. I've had very little sleep last night, and am grumpy as anything already. There might even be some mild swearing. There will almost definitely be terrible typos. Just stick with me, though, eh? 

Can a white, British girl like me get angry about such things? well, in short yes, and there are many, many similar angry people out there. All it really takes is to have a heart, and some empathy for other humans, to realise that what is going on out there is very, very wrong. Okay, so people might be in the country illegally, and they should have done it by the books ideally. But its easy to see that these people are hardly lying on a bed of solid gold rose petals, being fanned by the poor, downtrodden white folk who have lost their proper job because an unspecified European could do it cheaper. They're probably working crappy jobs for little pay and long hours, and probably living in shitty places. They're dealing with constant shit from ignorant white people.  And they're here because its a better life than what they left behind.

If you were to switch the TV on at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, you will probably find a programme on called A Place In The Sun, or similar. In such programmes, white, middle class, British couples tramp around a foreign country looking for a quaint little 6 bedroomed villa with an olympic sized swimming pool and a simply darling, quaint, local little village just down the road where there are all the amenities *they* need to suit *their* needs, and all for a charming price of £5000. "oh, well its a different way of life", they say. "The pace is so relaxed over here. We don't even mind if it takes 20 mins for Betty down at the Dog and Duck to bring us our steak and kidney puddings- there are plenty of other ex-pats for us to talk to in the meantime" 

Why is this sort of immigration not such a problem? Why do we as a country not think that actually we are in no place to criticise, when we merrily trample the globe and plonk ourselves down wherever we like, safe in the knowledge that we can merely speak up to overcome the language gap?

Immigrants to the UK might use our free healthcare system. They probably use it because they're sick, and given that they are humans, and  I don't like to see anyone feeling under the weather, I'm pretty cool with that. What of our English acquaintances over in Spain? They'll be paying their way, right? They won't be discussing ways to get round recent changes to the country's healthcare systems on Expat forums, oh no of course they wont. You might also be interested in this article in today's The Lancet, which looks at just how much UK Health Tourism there actually is compared to what the papers say. The implications of UK citizens buggering off to Mexico for cheaper plastic surgery, then returning with a nasty infection that needs to be treated by the NHS don't seem to be shouted about in the Daily Mail quite as much as they probably should be.  

Well, but they are at least there legally. It's not like British people would be in a country illegally now, would they? And its not like there would be a massive outcry if the Australian government decided to start doing random checks on anyone wearing a bowler hat just in case they happen to be evil British illegals. 

I was nearly an immigrant once. I was going to move to Canada. I studied for nearly two years and passed the PEBC Evaluating Exam (7 hours and a 72 page syllabus, including questions on High Performance Liquid Chromatography, if you please). I kept going back there for holidays and interviews and the like. I was welcomed warmly wherever I went, and was able to freely explore the cities without fear. I knew that, had I moved over there, I wouldn't have had to spend my life having to justify my place there, or defend the fact that I had a job which could have gone to a Canadian citizen. We British folk have that privilege and it is the very scraping-of-the-barrel-least that we can do to at least acknowledge it.

As for stopping people of colour on the street to see if they are an illegal immigrant... Its somewhat of a revelation to me that in this day and age anyone can look "a bit foreign". Believe it or not, Home Office, but there have been black people in this country for many, many years. Some of them were even born here. And then some of those have gone on to have children too. I know, right? What a revelation that British people aren't all pale. Some of us don't even wear socks and sandals with our cricket whites. People just look like people, and unless they happen to be walking around with their noses stuck into a copy of The Illegal Immigrant's Guide To Avoiding Detection By The UK Home Office, there's really no way to judge.

Are we really that insular an (Anglo-Saxon) nation that we can't see our own double standards? Are we really that unable to see people as people, and look past their colour, nationality, and creed? Yes, we are wired to want to stick with people who are similar to ourselves. But it really doesn't take that much effort to overcome that and look through minor differences and just take each person on an individual basis. I know I have generalised horribly in the words above, but I am doing so to demonstrate a point- that the double standards in this country are really quite horrific. And yes, there are many facets to the whole thing that I haven't considered here, blah blah blah. In the end, all I am trying to say is that I'm very saddened, ashamed and disheartened by this whole nonsense, and that I'm a firm believer that immigration is a beautiful, enriching thing that should benefit everyone. Its not scary, its not negative, and it means that we are a better, more versatile and robust country because of it. 

If you're reading this and thinking 'hmm, well maybe, but there needs to be limits, and UKIP's immigration policies seem to make sense', then this is a plea for you to dig a little deeper into what those policies are, the evidence that they are based on, and who they benefit. 

If you're reading this and thinking 'naive lefty silly girl', then get lost. If, however, you're reading it and thinking 'naive lefty silly YOUNG girl' then by all means go right ahead.

Hxxx

When Z-day comes, Think Pharmacy

A little while ago, it occurred to me that I hadn't watched many zombie films in my life. I therefore made it a bit of a project to watch a whole load of them. I got myself a mentor (my friend Frankie) and together we perfected the art of walking back from the cinema in a zombie fashion whilst giggling hysterically.

 

I've watched good zombie films, bizarre zombie films, Christmas zombie films, thoughtful zombie films, and absolutely terrible zombie films starring Billy Connelly. So I sort of know the ropes when it comes to the genre. On the advice of Nancy, I started listening to the We're Alive podcast, and now extol the virtues of it to any who will listen. Although I dont recommend listening to The Archers right after it, as you find yourself waiting for zombies to jump out and ruin the Ambridge flower festival.

 

So I've just gotten back from World War Z. It was better than expected, and it managed to squeeze more entertainment than I thought may be possible out of a lab in Wales and Peter Capaldi wearing a jumper. Although I may be biased as I do have a bit of  a thing for Peter Capaldi (and Brad Pitt), so I was happy enough as soon as he arrived on screen. All that was missing was Hugh Laurie. And a better ending. And more gore. And less CGI. And less not realising that with a pen and paper and the camera he could easily get the people in the know to tell him which vial to choose. And wouldn't there be an intercom in a WHO lab with infectious diseases in it anyway?!

 

Anyway, I digress. Aside from all the problems with the film that no one else would probably notice, I did note one shining light in all of the z-day carnage. Brad Pitt, like any good citizen should, Thinks Pharmacy. In need of an emergency supply of a salbutamol inhaler, off he goes to the local, friendly community pharmacy.


I don't think this is much of a spoiler, given apparently pretty much the whole film is in the trailer, but after barging into the supermarket pharmacy (probably unlikely: in real life he would have just coughed loudly and shouted "shop!") he is greeted by a friendly professional, white coated  pharmacist who offers him an NMS consultation. Okay, maybe not. He's wearing  hoody and carrying a gun, but, ever the professional, still manages to give some health advice when handing over three inhalers. "Children grow out of asthma" he says, helpfully, which may be true, but I think is unlikely to be the case by the time the  3 inhalers are used up.


He even link sales, passing over some bottles of what I presume to be paracetamol liquid too. How very helpful.


Its nice to see a pharmacist in a film or TV show doing something other than serial killing, murdering, nearly killing orphans with poison when drunk, or merrily doling out vicodin to Dr House without a prescription. Its nice to see a pharmacist resolutely doing what he can to help. It reminds me of all those stories you see in Chemist and Druggist, where there has been horrendous flooding but the pharmacy staff still manage to open up and do their deliveries in a makeshift canoe. The ones who, despite broken shutters or six foot deep snow or pandemic Ebola still turn up to make sure all the collections are done and the order is put away.


The pharmacist in question doesn't do any WWHAM questioning though. I'm not convinced Which? Would have been very happy with him.


Hxxx

Apostasy: a Heathen's perspective

Sometimes, you come across things in life that really open your eyes and you find yourself gazing into a world that you had no idea about. The Apostasy Project is one of those things. 

Being a lower-middle-class-ish white girl with a loving, secure, and easy-going family, I've never really had to think about a lot of the things I am. I can breezily make declarations about my lack of faith and no one would really bat an eyelid, even those that are more religiously inclined. Not everyone has access to this privilege. 

I know I've said this before, but I really can't thank my parents enough for their laid back -some would say lackadaisical- attitudes to my religious upbringing. They purposefully didn't force any religion on me as a child, their conviction being that it was my choice-when I was old enough to make that decision- what to believe in. They gave me the gift of a neutral baseline on which to impose my own beliefs, or lack of them, as I wished.

I went to a Christian school, but all that really meant was sitting through a couple of minutes of prayer in assembly. There were no consequences of not praying- it was just another boring part of assembly to accept and get through before the more interesting bits of the school day started. School plays were religiously themed sometimes, (but also, on one notable occasion, Neighbours themed) but none of this really had any effect on me or the rest of my life decisions and was viewed by most of us kids as vaguely ridiculous and uncool.  I have very little knowledge of any religion, to be honest, because I just don't really need it in my life- I'm a modern day heathen, in the unruly, uncivilised sense of the word, you could say. 

So I've been pretty much oblivious to the sorts of issues that people who have to walk away from a religion can experience. Recently, thanks to The Apostasy Project, I've been reading with interest the accounts of people who have walked away from their religion. It had, to be honest, never really occurred to me that 'coming out' as an atheist is potentially just as traumatic an experience for some as the more traditional version of 'coming out' that people would think of- as being gay. Like some gay people, apostates also risk losing respect, family, friends, and their whole communities simply for stating that they no longer subscribe to the same belief system. What I'm realising too is that these sorts of issues can apply across the board religion-wise too: it's not just those that people assume to be more fundamentalist.

 

Given all of this, it's amazing really that anyone ever does come out about losing their faith. But, when the alternative is living a lie, why should people have to keep their lack of faith secret? The more apostates speak out, the more normalised it becomes, and hopefully a more open, civilised and accepting society follows. Making the decision to question and walk away from a religion which shaped your childhood is an incredibly brave thing to do, and those of us who are lucky enough not to have to do so might not appreciate that.

 

The Apostasy Project has been set up to support people in this position, and its an important role to play. If any of you lovely people can help them out, please do. 

 

Atheists are, by definition, a ragtag, diverse bunch. Some would say that with only a lack of belief to unite us, it's impossible that we could build the sort of religious community one would find in, say, a church. But I don't think that's true, and I think it's important that we build a sort of atheistic extended family in order to be more visible and frankly, just because its much nicer for us all to feel that we belong somewhere. This is my little chunk of solidarity to apostates everywhere, then, for what it's worth.


Hxxx


P.S. Be sure to also read John Sargeant's account of leaving Jehovah's Witnesses, which are beautifully written: Part One and Part Two

Lessons and a legacy

On the 7th November 2007, my life changed forever.

In a very small ceremony in Toronto's Civic Hall, I married the man who completed me. Together, we embarked on a three year journey characterized by security, comfort and love. We had our moments and arguments, but we enjoyed a really good marriage. The overwhelming feeling I remember experiencing in those days is safety. 

People are often surprised when I tell them I'm divorced. In my head, I desperately tell myself this is because I look far too young to have been through this particular mill, or because I'm simply so amazingly wonderful that no-one could possibly imagine anyone wanting to divorce moi. I tell myself these things to stave off the fear that they're astounded that anyone would be daft enough to marry me in the first place. And of course, the next natural question for them to ask is "What happened?!"

I find it hard to know how to pitch my answer. Its pretty much impossible to hit the right tone in an everyday conversation. I have no idea if its even possible to convey-within a few sentences of a polite conversation- what it feels like to have your entire world shattered, being forced to give up all your hopes and dreams and worldview in the process, and yet also how you are utterly amazed at yourself for getting through it all relatively unscathed. At least I can now just give them this link and tell them to get back to me in twenty minutes

I usually find myself sounding far too dismissive of it, as if it was all a bit of a breeze and I barely even noticed it happening. But the other alternative is to sound like I'm still a gibbering wreck because of it, which I'm really not.

It was all very sudden. There was an inclination that something wasn't quite right for a week or so before, but nothing too terrible. On Christmas Eve I was feeling a bit wistful. I told him I was worried, to which he said "Don't be so daft. We'll be together for ever." That's an exact quote, by the way. I feel like its burned into the inside of my skull, and can actually see the words scrawledin sooty black. Two days later, on boxing day, he told me he wanted to divorce. He had decided he wanted children, and there was no longer any place for me, and my lack of desire for children, in his life. This was not negotiable. There was no room for trying, marriage counsellors, pleading, nothing. He'd decided that I just wasn't worth fighting for, and that was that. This may have been the best and worst part of the whole thing. Its utterly crushing to know that you're not worth any effort, but his absolute certainty that this was It meant that I was saved from having to hang on for months on end, telling myself that he might just change his mind. I was saved from limbo, but tipped into hell. 

The embarrassment is possibly the worst bit. Having to acknowledge that you've failed at what you consider to be the most important and central bit of your life- if not your entire life itself- is truly awful. To this day, I'm terrified of meeting anyone who i haven't seen since it happened. I'm going to a wedding soon in which there will be people there who I haven't seen from school, and I'm already preoccupied with how much of an utter failure they will think i am. I don't think I'll ever quite shake this feeling.

I used to honestly believe that he was my world. I used to worry about him getting ill and dying and whether or not I'd survive without him. I always concluded I wouldn't. I used to think that love was the single most important thing that could ever happen to me, and that if I didn't have it with this man then my life meant nothing at all. I thought I was quite pathetic, emotionally, and that I would never be able to cope with half of the things that most people go through as part of their daily lives. Other people could cope with divorces, but not me, I thought. I'm left both terrified that I won't ever feel like that over someone again and terrified that I will. I thought he made up for all my faults and that as part of a couple they would be forgiven, whereas on my own I wasn't worthy of anyone's consideration. 

However, approximately two weeks after that fateful Boxing Day, I had my own flat and I was absolutely loving living on my own. My friends- who I had mildly neglected during my marriage- rallied round and were and still are properly, properly amazing. All of that love that used to be directed at one man is now spread liberally over all of them. I've discovered a fierce loyalty that I didn't know I had. I've gotten myself involved in many things that I would never have dreamed about being brave enough to do during my marriage. these things would seem tiny and inconsequential to anyone else, but to me they are a lifeline.

I totally surprised myself. I didn't sail through it all, by any means, but I surpassed my own expectations of how I would cope with flying colours.  I know now that I have a capacity to cope with things that I would never have discovered if this hadn't happened to me. I have a renewed confidence that, when terrible things happen, I'll survive in my own right. I have faith in my own personality, and know that I don't need another person as a prop. A relationship is an optional extra, not a baseline requirement. My friends come first, above all things. I've learned that support comes from the most unexpected places (@eyeswideshut75, I'm looking at you, amongst others), and that asking for help is not in any way shameful. These are lessons that I'm bloody glad I now know.

I'd love to end on that positive note, I really would. But alas, its not that simple. I'm left with an inherent distrust of anything nice that's said to me. All of my beautiful ideas of love are shattered and I now know that its most definitely not All You Need. I've been unable to say and feel the word ever since in relationships, and have purposefully shied away from a few opportunities because of the terror of letting myself go. I have to fight with the cynicism that raises its ugly head every time a friend announces an engagement, or I go to a wedding. It's not the done thing to laugh bitterly out loud at the vows, I hear. This doesn't mean I'm not genuinely happy for them, I really am. I just hate the fact that my right to feel the excitement and happiness that blissful ignorance brings has been taken away from me.


If you ever visit Toronto Zoo, you'll find a little brick in the pavement just outside the gift shop which commemorates my wedding. It'll be there forever (or at least whilst the Zoo is still there), but the concept of forever has been ruined for me, and I don't think I'll ever get it back. Sometimes I think about how we have let that little brick down. 

Anyway, there you have it. I'm not one for mystery, and prefer to have things out in the open. It's cathartic to tell you all, dear readers, this sort of thing, and I'm pretty sure that if this really was just a blog about skepticism in healthcare you'd be bored shitless by now. So forgive my oversharing, and this muddy little puddle of melancholy in an otherwise bright and beautiful day.

Hxxx

Harry, who had seven hairs on his head.

I've been thinking a lot about my Grandad Harry recently. I'm not entirely sure why- it's not his birthday, or the anniversary of his death or anything in particular. I'm not going to bother trying to shoehorn this post into any recent news events or make any great points about skepticism or science in it. My intentions are purely to tell you about him, because he is a worthy subject.

Harry.

Harry.


At school we had to do an English project on someone who had inspired us.   Of course, it being the early nineties, my English teacher found himself wading through twenty or so biographies of Michael Jackson. But I did mine on my good old Grandad. I wish I still had a copy of that project now.

He was brought up in a Catholic orphanage. I believe his mother died and his father couldn't take care of him and his siblings. I know he had a horrible time there, but the details are sketchy. I know the orphans there were very starved of love and attention. I remember him telling me how, one Christmas, the nuns had told them all how they were getting a very special treat. The boys were each presented with a bit of spice cake, which in their eyes might as well have been manna from heaven. It gave them all a tiny ray of hope, of excitement. When they bit into it, it was full of cobwebs. Those nuns must have been having a right old laugh at that. 


Despite- or perhaps because of- all of this, he vowed that his life-and the life of his family- would be filled with nothing but love and warmth and joy. Where he could so easily have been consumed with anger, he instead became what I consider to be the very pinnacle of what everyone should strive to be. He was a true gentleman. 


He met my Grandma briefly, then again through some mix-up with ration books, and so it began. (i need to check that story actually, i remember it being desperately romantic, but I can't recall the details.) Those two have taught me everything I know about love. Through some hard, poor, and difficult times they were the most loving and romantic couple I have ever encountered. You know when you're in the first flush of a relationship, and you do everything you can think of for someone before the fatigue of familiarity sets in? They seemed to be like that despite being together for many, many years. Their flat was full to the brim of knick-knacks, those little impulse purchases they had bought each other over the years just because they were thinking of each other all the time. 


He was gregarious, and would welcome anyone to his home with a massive smile and a huge hug. Whenever I took boyfriends round to meet him for the first time, he'd welcome them with "hello, bonny lad!" along with a (often to their embarrassment and my amusement) big sloppy kiss. Within about 5 minutes of arriving, he'd be offering you food, tea and whisky, and you'd be totally charmed by him.


He loved whisky, so much so that on his 80th birthday he got 18 full size bottles of it as presents from his friends. I used to go round to see him for a few hours and emerge into the afternoon staggering somewhat from all of the "wee drams" we'd share. Highland Park was his favourite: for his birthday I bought him a bottle of the expensive stuff. The next time I went round he said he had drank it all already, but later on, when he was more sick and I had to retrieve some from the cupboard for him I could see the only-half-empty bottle there, the cheeky devil. 


He had an amazing sense of humour. When he and my Grandma came to stay with me once to look after me when my parents were on holiday they told all their friends they were going to Kingston for the week, neglecting to mention the Park bit which would denote a sleepy suburb of Newcastle rather than Jamaica. He tried his best to be modern: he loved playing on the wii, pottering about on a computer, and listening to his iPod. He had a better mobile phone than me at one point. And he-and my grandma, still- also had modern attitudes. They knew the world was changing around them and they did their best to understand it, not be set in their ways and disapproving if us unruly youngsters. They didn't bat an eyelid when I would traipse in looking all sullen in my goth days, they just gave me a massive hug and told me I looked lovely all the same. 


When he became very ill, there were about four or five occasions when we seriously thought he was going to die. Each time he fought back, but became more and more frail each time. I remember his consultant pretty much saying after the first time that he shouldn't have still been with us, and that he wish he knew his secret. My auntie probably put it best: "he'll do anything he can to stay with her (my grandma)". Perversely, I actually remember the first time this happened as one of the best times I have spent with my family. Waiting in the relatives room, us assembled cousins, aunties, uncles and parents roared with raucous laughter at everything going. We made our own hilarious entertainment using nothing but an old copy of the Evening Chronicle and  some plastic packaging. Some would think that's weird, but I know Grandad would have wanted nothing less. At his wake we holed ourselves up in a room with copious amounts of port and wine, and screamed with laughter as more distant friends and relatives turned their noses in the air and probably thought we were disrespectful.


But he would want us crying tears of laughter rather than sadness.


Now, as you'll probably know by now, I don't believe in an afterlife. But I do believe in a legacy, and if I manage to have a legacy that's even a quarter as powerfully loving as Harry's, I'll know I will have led a good life. 


Hxxx


P.S. The seven hairs thing was a long standing joke. He used to count them and declare that he had seven hairs on the top of his head. No more, no less, always seven.

P.P.S. Its been requested that I mention something else also, something that I actually can't believe I forgot about: The Toilet Of Joy. I have no idea why The Toilet Of Joy came about, but it stems from a family trip to Ilkley for one of Grandad's birthdays. We had a meal in one particular area of a pub which had been roped off for us, and for reasons best known only to the god of wine, the entire family ended up spending much of the night in a toilet cubicle, in hysterics over a hand-dryer. This became known as The Toilet Of Joy. Something very odd, very noisy, and very wonderful happens when my family get together. 

Take all of it, every scrap

There are many things in life that are not black and white. There are many arguments in which I can see where all sides are coming from, and I can understand the root of why people would disagree with me. Yet there is one area which is consistently contentious, and yet my brain can genuinely not comprehend the other side of the debate.

I'm talking about organ donation.

The news yesterday was good: there has been a 50% increase in organ donation since 2008. And yet there is still a long, long way to go.

"Last year, 125 families overruled an individual's intention to donate."- BBC News

I really, really struggle to understand why anyone would object to organ donation. I just cannot get my head round it. And overturning an individual's decision to donate their organs seems particularly bizarre to me. I understand that in the acutely shocking and devastating situation of a death you might not be thinking clearly, but... I really just don't get it. 

Maybe its my atheism. Maybe its the fact that I see death as just that and no more. I don't see it as the start of a new journey into the afterlife, or the first step on my way to meeting my maker. You just die and that's that. So I suppose its easy for me to disassociate myself from the shell that's left. I don't feel creepy about the idea that there could be bits of me in other people: in fact I feel positively proud that I might be able to help in any way.

Religions offer us a legacy. They give us the promise of a new beginning after our death, and so go some way to assuage the fear of nothingness that might follow. But it's a legacy that, in my opinion, is pretty useless. It might be comforting to our loved ones, but in the long term view of things on this planet, that doesn't mean a great deal when there are people whose lives could be made better by a chunk of my flesh being implanted into them when its no longer any use to me.

Not that I think every objection to organ donation is on religious grounds, but I suspect it may be a fairly important part of it for some people. Atheists are often told that we're evil, that we have no morals, and that we are going to hell, but to me it seems that organ donation is clearly the more morally good choice when the alternative is wanting to keep a dead person intact for ceremonial reasons. 

Some people just think its icky: the idea that a bit of you will be in someone else. I had an ex-boyfriend who thought organ donation was wrong "because its just weird" (he's an ex for a number of very definite reasons, and this is quite a prominent one). Well, I think a lot of things are icky, but they still get done because they have to be done. I can think of more pleasant things than having a smear test, for example, but I do it because it is a necessary evil. And, one has to remember a key point: you're dead. Things don't seem so icky or weird to you any more because you no longer exist. 

Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

urely there is no better legacy than giving parts of ourselves to allow other people to go on living healthier, longer lives.  

And so, your homework is to (if you haven't already), think about it, speak to your loved ones about it, and sign up to the Organ Donation Register 

Hxxx