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Firewalk with me: Science, Religion, and some very, very hot coals

Firewalking is, to be honest, great fun. I did it last year and I shall again be strutting over burning embers in a few week's time, to raise money for The Stroke Association, for which I would be very, very grateful if you were to throw your spare pennies in my direction.

I remember from last time that we were told in the pre-firewalk training that you needed the following three things to be able to firewalk successfully:

1. Fire connection- you have to know that it is a real-life fire, not a trick, and that it is going to be really, very hot. We were encouraged to go and hold our hands above the coals so that we knew that it was hot before walking. Apparently, if you tell yourself it's not hot, it just doesn't work.

2. A belief in a theory. You need to have some faith that it works, and that you're not going to end up as barbecue fodder. 

3. Intention to walk. You need to stand at the start of the walk, and know and want to walk across the fire. Supposedly there have been studies done where they blindfolded experienced firewalkers and they were unable to do it unless they knew when they were stepping onto the fire.

"They believe that the power of Saint Constantine—the religious power—allows them to do it and that that is a miracle," Source: National Geographic

Some people believe they're able to firewalk because of their aura and golden light coming from their heart chakras and that sort of thing. The evidence for this appears to be a couple of photos which I'd imagine could easily be explained by the fact that a) you're moving and b) you're walking on fire, usually in the dark so its pretty likely that there's going to be a bit of a glow on photos. 

Other people believe that it's God who allows them to firewalk, and indeed firewalking is an integral part of some religious rituals and is generally considered to be a very spiritual experience.

You'll hopefully know me well enough by now to know that I'm unlikely to go in for this as an explanation. Indeed I'd suspect that if there was a God in control of such matters there'd be even more likelihood of me getting toasted feet, and he's probably see to it that I got hit by lightning or something at the same time, just for good measure, to prove a point and to punish me for all my years of non-belief. Is there any evidence that this option is the truth? In short, no. 

So that leaves us with physics then. Now, it's been many years since I actually did any physics, and admittedly my physics teacher spent more time attempting to give electric shocks to a boy called Alistair than anything else, but I know enough to be pretty damn confident that out of all the options, this is the one that makes sense. It's all about conductivity- because coal and wood are pretty feeble conductors of heat, and because you're walking, there isn't enough time for the heat to transfer to your feet to cause any burning. The evidence for this? Well, lots. Sticking your hand in an oven is an oft-quoted example, and few people declare that to be a spiritual experience overseen by a God, do they? 

Here's the thing: does any of this actually matter? According to the guy who did our training last time, apparently not, as long as you believe that something will get you across safely, it doesn't really matter. If only such attitudes were employed in other aspects of life, one can't help but wonder how many lives would have been saved/made better. 

So does believing in science make firewalking a less impressive experience? Surely if you take out the belief in a protective spiritual presence it would lose its appeal, right? In truth, this couldn't be more wrong. It feels magical, and every bit as much like you are conquering the impossible as it must do for spiritual types. The fact that its caused by the physical characteristics of different types of matter doesn't make it any less transcendent, scary, or beautiful. 

Of course, having said all this it'll be just my luck that I'll end up in a burns unit after my next one. I hereby give you permission to laugh heartily if this is the case. 

I'll just leave this here again, just in case you want to lighten your wallets....
http://www.justgiving.com/Firewalk-WithMe 

Hxxx

An Atheist's Mixtape

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby is undoubtedly one of my favourite books. I have a very dog-eared copy which I have read many, many times, to the point where each time I re-read it I'm often surprised to find a line which I had assumed was actually my own thought, its so ingrained into my being. Yes, I'm the kind of person who cries at live and recorded music, and I'm one of the "people of a certain disposition (who) are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at twenty-six" (except for I had the same fear at much younger ages as well). Of course I've always wanted to be in a relationship with a musician so I can be mentioned in sleeve notes, and I have no idea what came first- the music or the misery, but I know that my love of music is probably responsible for my (now rather repressed) tendency to be hopelessly romantic.

So, when there was a bit of a conversation about atheist songs on Twitter this morning, it seemed the obvious thing to do to attempt a Barry-From-Championship-Vinyl-Style Desert-island, All-time Top five list of Songs for Atheists.

Of course I've failed miserably at this task: I've had so many suggestions that I can't bring myself to agonize over which should be cut, and in what order they should appear in. So instead, I give you a compilation, a mixtape of all your atheist suggestions.

"To me, making a tape is like writing a letter- there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again... You've got ti kick off with a corker, to hold the attention... and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs, and... oh there are loads of rules."

So stick these songs onto on your generic fruit-based MP3 player device, press shuffle, and enjoy.  If  you've made any of the suggestions, do  with your reasons so I can add them in, and I'll obviously be happy to add anything else you lovely folk care to suggest too.

God's Song by John Martyn: It may be controversial, but I'm going for the John Martyn version, mainly because I love pretty much everything that he has done. He is indeed one of the artists who have made me cry seeing them live. I think his tone and voice are particularly suited to this song.
 

Don't Fear The Reaper: Any version really, I tend to lean towards the one by Caesars, just because.
 

This Must Be The Place by Talking Heads: I'm not entirely sure why, as its not particularly atheist-based, but it sprung into my head and I have found myself listening to it a lot. I guess I just think its about being grounded in this life, by love rather than any vague notion of an imaginary god. I could, of course, be completely wrong, but its probably a bit safer than trying to shoehorn Psycho Killer in somewhere instead, as that would really annoy the Christians ;) I guess I should throw Heaven in there somewhere too.
 

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Churchhouse Blues by The Dodge Brothers: because why not throw in a bit of skiffle? And whilst I hate to see gin wasted, it would seem that burning church houses down with it could be seen as a worthy cause for many atheists.

God by John Lennon: as recommended by @deep_anchor

What If No-one's Watching? by Ani DiFranco: as recommended by Alom Shaha. It makes an appearance in his book and all, don't you know :)

I Don't Believe In You by Talk Talk: as suggested by @spiderkemp

Gone to Stay by Freakwater: as recommended by @kzelnio

Glory Hallelujah by Frank Turner: as recommended by @MarkRTurner and @jackpot73

Everything Alive Will Die Someday by George Hrab: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Intervention by Arcade Fire: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Blasphemous Rumours by Depeche Mode: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Eternal Life by Jeff Buckley: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Allow me to intervene again at this point to also put in Hallelujah, the Jeff Buckley version. And no, not just because I was-and probably am still- utterly in love with him, but that line:"And it's not a cry that you hear at night/ It's not somebody whose seen the light/ It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah'... The way Jeff sings it has a devastating note of bitterness which...resonates. And yes, it is also about rude things which God would no doubt not approve of.

Wake Up by Arcade Fire: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest. by his own admission it may not be strictly atheist, but if I'm allowing myself This Must Be The Place, I'm allowing Joe his amazing songs also :)

No God, Only Religion by Spiritualized: as recommended by @astrotomato. Oh, and by the way, the pharmacy nerd in me loves Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. That album packaging was just fantastic.

On and On by Tom McRrae: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Imagine by John Lennon: as recommended by @helgestad, @kasilas and @deep_anchor. It's true, it needs to be in the list. But I can't help but hear our old friend Barry from Championship Vinyl scathingly declaring that it's simply too obvious. 

Thank God I'm An Atheist by Al Baker: as recommended by @jackpot73

I Will Follow You Into The Dark by Death Cab for Cutie: as recommended by @jackpot73

Enjoy Yourself by The Specials (or any other version you fancy): It occurs to me that this could be the quintessential atheist/humanist anthem.

Epitaph by King Crimson: as recommended by @rupagulab

I Could Build You a Tower by Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly. People who know me well will know that I think GCWCF (is) are one of the most consistently perfect bands (person) around nowadays. I therefore nominate this song, which isn't entirely about atheism but does address the age old problem of evil, fundamentalism etc. It's also very beautiful, as is the whole of the album Searching For The Hows And Whys, which I think is as close to an entirely perfect album as I have found. 

Dear God by XTC: as recommended by @PublicSerpentOz and @j2blather

God is a Spider by The Cherry Poppin Daddies: Not strictly an atheist song I guess, but one expressing a painful dissatisfaction with a god. Also: great band name for this sort of a list. And everyone needs more ska-swing-big band-punk in their lives.  

A Rational Response by Greydon Square: as recommended by Alom Shaha. Some welcome rap for our list. I must admit that despite a flirt with hip hop in my younger years I've never heard of Greydon Square, but a quick glance at his Wikipedia page suggests he's pretty interesting. And apparently he's also known as The Black Carl Sagan, so who could argue with that?

Had To Thank Someone For You by Nev Clay. Nev is a local folk singer who I first discovered when I was a teenager, and love his witty, beautiful music with a passion. I've just stumbled across this gorgeous little ditty and knew it was just perfect for this list- "but last night i knelt and prayed like a little kid again - i had to thank someone for you. and i don't know or care if anything was listening. i had to thank someone for you."

Atheist's Lament by Aidan Moffat  as recommended by @Jon Mendel. He's right, I'm not entirely sure how this has been left off the list for this long!

And clearly, no self-respecting atheist song list would be complete without a bit of Tim Minchin. As recommended by @obsolesence we're going with Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins and, of course The Pope Song.

So there we have it so far. Clearly, this is the sort of thing that I will lie awake at 3am thinking about ("OMG I need to put <insert obscure song> in, why didn't I think of that already, its so obvious. but not too obvious, obviously")

A tale of an excellent healthcare system

It seems that everywhere you turn these days there's another horror story about the NHS. In the wake of the Mid-Staffordshire report, press, patients and staff are reeling from what seems like a never- ending list of systematic failures. Some of us in the UK are no doubt left questioning the value of the NHS, wondering whether our taxes are being spent on nurses who are more about painting their nails and chatting than looking after patients and doctors who merrily stand by as scores of patients die while they discuss what they watched on TV last night. 

As with all things, the juicier media stories come out of negative experiences. There are major failings in the NHS for sure, and my goodness we need to address them. But we need to also realise that there are a huge amount of strengths associated with our healthcare system also. Alas, our current health secretary seems hellbent on destroying the good bits once and for all. Unless we start paying attention to the good, positive stories... Well, as the cliche goes, you don't know what you've got til it's gone.

So here is a little story of my recent experience with the NHS.

As you will no doubt know by now, given my incessant whinging on the subject, I currently have guttate psoriasis. You'll probably also know that it's completely freaked me out, and caused a bit of a flare up of anxiety. 

I registered with my local doctors, which I had been meaning to do for ages. I rang at 8am and had a registration appointment by 9:30am that day. The healthcare assistant i saw was warm, friendly, and very empathetic. By 10:15 I was seen by a doctor who was equally friendly, had a good proper look at my rash, and who explored my feelings about it and helped me rationalise my anxiety about it. By 10:30 I was out the door, prescription in hand, and feeling much better. 

Fast forward a few weeks and my rash is still getting worse. I pop back to the doctors and again am seen by a doctor who takes a lot of time and effort to find out how the rash is affecting me in myself. She made me feel totally justified in my feelings and went out of her way to arrange an urgent dermatology referral for me. I had a throat swab for residual strep with the same healthcare assistant who looked after me initially and she was brilliant, chatting with me about how often her mum had to scrub the bath when her sister had eczema as a child. We had a bit of a giggle, and that was exactly what I needed. I get the feeling that had I needed a good cry, she would have been equally happy to spend time listening. 

Some might say this is just them doing their job. Maybe it is, but I think in my case they've done their job brilliantly. I've felt like I've seen people whose primary aim is to help patients like me, and who genuinely care about my emotions and quality of life.

It's little stories like this that have kept the NHS going for all these years. They're also the kind of stories that are so easily forgotten. I know from experience that a little bit of positive feedback from someone you've made a difference to can really make your week, so if you've had a similarly positive experience, no matter how small, I urge you to share it. 

Hxxx

Lets have some honesty, shall we?

Stigmas. They're stubborn things aren't they? 

I've seen a few folk tweeting this article: Hooked on Happy Pills? in The Independent this week about the sort of language used to describe medication for mental illness, and this has started me thinking a bit about one of the seemingly most stubborn stigmas: mental health. When you've worked as a community pharmacist for a while, you sort of start to see the sort of numbers of people who are taking mental health drugs, and you start not really thinking twice about them, so its interesting to see how pervasive the stigmatisation of mental health issues even in this day and age. 

Now I'm a pretty normal person, to be honest. I'm not particularly exciting in any way shape or form, I have a stable, loving family background, and a truly wonderful circle of friends. I'm not rich, nor am I completely destitute. I work a 9-5, five days a week job which I rather enjoy. I function pretty well in daily life, to be honest, despite living up to my nickname of Simple Dog. I've been subjected to few major traumas in life, and whilst I've been certainly affected by my divorce, even that went pretty smoothly to be honest.

So what am I doing writing about mental health then, eh? Well, like pretty much everyone else in the world, I'm affected by it. And I'm tired of this stigma, and I think its becoming time to just start talking. I know that my contribution to the party is going to be very, very tiny, but I'm also naive enough to think that very, very tiny bits all add up to a change. Lately, I've just started being honest about myself with other people. It started imperceptively, but seems to have grown to the point where I'm merrily discussing my anxiety issues with colleagues that I would never have dreamed talking to about such things with.

I'm generally of a pretty anxious constitution, and I think I always have been. When I was much younger, maybe 12-13-ish I started having panic attacks which led to a period of bulimia, which had nothing to do with my weight but was to do with a fear of vomiting in public. It seemed logical at the time (and to be entirely honest, I still think its a bit logical now). Anyway, I overcame all that, and am left with a sort of residual anxiety which raises its head now and then, but most of the time is fairly easily kept in check. In recent months its resurfaced a fair bit, and its not being helped by my increasingly monstrous appearance of late as my guttate psoriasis continues. What helps? telling people about it. If I'm getting palpitations, I'll tell people that I'm getting them, and that in itself makes me feel a bit better. If I wake up early in the morning filled with vague, formless fears, I'll tweet about it, and there's an instant bit of relief, and usually someone there to say something practical or funny about it.

I'm surrounded by people who also have mental health issues of varying degrees, from some of my nearest, dearly loved and oldest friends to momentary acquaintances. There are people I have never met, but who have been some of the greatest pillars of support to me in less than 140 characters. There are people who I hope I've helped a bit, and some I wish I could help more. And guess what, everyone else is surrounded too. The more open I've been, the more open people have been with me, and I think this is a privilege and a right that everyone should have. There's been some  who haven't handled these things as sensitively as they could have done, but I figure the more I bleat on about things, the more normalised it becomes.

At our Skeptics In The Pub talk the other night, there was one lone voice in the crowd that believed and spoke up for homeopathy. I'm reminded of him when writing this because he was getting a pretty thorough grilling from myself and other folk who were there, and was being asked about his particular experience with homeopaths and he had little hesitation in talking openly about his depression, and how he felt it was helped by having a homeopath with whom he felt he could talk to. His bravery is quite staggering really, given he was in a room full of people who disagreed heartily with him, and yet he still told us all.

I know this has been said already in bigger and better ways, but this is my tiny contribution. I guess what I'm trying to say is lets be rational about this whole thing, accept that these issues are everywhere and everyone has them to some degree or another, and just be honest about it. The more matter of fact we are, every day, even in the tiniest of ways, the more difference we can make to everyone. I sort of feel like its the people like myself, the "normal, functioning" folk who can maybe make the most amount of difference here. I'm guessing people with milder mental health issues may be more able to mask it, and more reluctant to be open about it lest something terrible happens. But they key thing here is that we have to be open, so that the something-terrible-that-might-happen-if-we-do-let-on doesn't exist anymore.

Hope this makes sense,

Hxxx

Skin deep: a lesson on empathy

For the past few weeks, I have been suffering from guttate psoriasis. My poor dear friends and twitter followers will be very aware of this by now, as it has led to much wailing and complaining. 

Guttate psoriasis appears a few weeks after a strep throat infection in most cases, as it did with me. It appeared pretty suddenly on my face and chest, then got worse and worse until I basically now resemble a small pox victim with Ebola in the midst of turning into a zombie, with some added bubonic plague thrown in.

The treatment? Well it tends to go away of its own accord after a few week or months. It's not helped by stress, so it's good to chill out. Usually treatment with topical steroids, emollients, and reassurance are all that's required. 

A few weeks ago I would have read that sentence with ease, accepting that reassurance and time would be enough for a patient. Slap on a bit of cream, and away you go.

A small section of my thigh at the moment. Imagine this rash, all over. And this is at its best, &nbsp;after vigorous application of topical steroids. I feel like a mutant monster :S

A small section of my thigh at the moment. Imagine this rash, all over. And this is at its best,  after vigorous application of topical steroids. I feel like a mutant monster :S

You learn in university and in various courses that dermatological conditions can have a huge impact on a patient's life. You learn about all the creams an emollients, and how we should advise they're used. You know in the back of your mind that its probably horrible for the sufferer but you don't really give it a second thought. I know I've even been felt vague consternation at having to dispense and check huge, bulky prescriptions for various and many unguents, with my main thought being "how am I going to fit this damn prescription on that shelf?!"

Well, what a lesson in empathy these past few weeks have been. Nothing could have prepared me for the impact a rash would have on my life. Aside from the panic about what it was, the constant feeling that everyone was looking at me and feeling disgusted is utterly wearing. And of course you know deep down that they're not looking at you, but it makes no difference at all. I know I need to be calm about the whole situation because stress makes it worse, and that makes me even more stressed because I'm not destressed enough. I feel like all I want to do is hide in a darkened room, so I don't have to inflict my grotesque features on anyone else. 

And my goodness, the treatment. I get in the bath, which is already suffused with an oily emollient bath additive. I then apply some gunk, and wash it off with the oily water. I then get out the bath (which is made more interesting due to the added element of slippery danger) and proceed to apply more oily gunk, in various combinations of layers, then have to wait for it to dry sufficiently to be able to put on my most high-necked, low hemmed, least transparent clothing I can find. I haven't felt clean for weeks. You know on holiday, that awful sticky feeling you get from the sun lotion? That, all the time. In February.

All I've been able to think about is my rash. I'm struggling with conversations because my head is consumed only by thoughts of what bits of skin are visible and to whom. It's crossed my mind that converting to Islam might be an idea because then I could feasibly wear a burkha. Honestly, I have thought this. I've been turned into a hysterical drama queen all because of some spots.

In short, I have a whole newfound empathy for anyone who suffers from a skin condition. I can just about imagine the sort of impacts a longer term condition might have on your life. I can see how desperation can creep in, and how you could be tempted to try anything. 

It's no co-incidence that so many quacks target people with skin conditions, nor that so many preparations are so expensive. 

Hxxx

P.S. I'd very much like to thank everyone who has been supportive. You're all total darlings. 

Thoughts on a child-free life

In my initial post, I said that I would mainly be blogging about skepticism in healthcare. Well, it turns out that I'm actually more able to churn out random nonsense about other -occasionally rather deep- aspects of my life more easily. And, as i'm getting more involved in skepticism as a whole, it's amazing to me how it's touching all the other aspects of my life as well, reinforcing vaguely held ideas and making me much more able to express my views to other people.

The other night I was at a bit of a 'do at a friend's house, and I had a conversation with one of my friends who I think is absolutely brilliant but I don't see that often in which I found myself employing some skeptical skills unexpectedly. The conversation was about the thorny issue of children.

So, here we go. I don't want children. Here is the standard conversation that I am used to pretty much every time these words leave my mouth:

Other Person:  "Oh.... OH?! REALLY?"
Me: "yes, really"
Other Person: "what, ever?"
Me: "no, never. At least I can't see myself ever having a space or need in my life for them in the future"
Other Person: "But you don't know what you're missing!"
Me: "yes, yes I do, thank you very much."
Other Person: "but it's different when it's your own"
Me:  "I'd rather not take the chance that it isn't"
Other Person: "oh, I knew someone (or alternatively, I used to be) just like you. And they (I) went on to have 20 kids and they (I) love them to bits."
Me: "umm, right. Well I don't think that's going to happen here"

And so it goes on, time after time, as if one day, during one of these generic conversations, I'm going to go "actually, do you know what, you're RIGHT!, I'm off to procreate RIGHT NOW"

I actually believe that the idea that you'll have children is very similar to religion, in that it sadly often doesn't even occur to people that there is an alternative option. It's just accepted as routine that you'll grow up, you may get married, and you'll have kids. I doubt many people ever think to challenge this notion, and as a result I think a lot of people don't address their own concerns about becoming parents before they do, and I'm sure this is a source of great angst and sadness in the world today.

I'm often confronted with a momentary look of blatant hatred when I confess that I don't want kids to people, before they get the chance to rearrange their face.  I sometimes get the feeling this may be a "hey, damn, I wish I'd thought of that!" reaction. Sometimes I see people over-enthusiastically posting on Facebook about how marvellous their kids are and I really can't tell who they are trying to convince.

My friend has found herself having to think about whether or not she wants children, because other people are constantly forcing her to think about it. Because she's been with her boyfriend for a prescribed amount of time, the "when are you getting married, when are you having kids" conversation is being thrown at her regularly. We talked for a while and it seems she's inclined to think she doesn't want them, but its such a social norm that she almost can't believe that this could be an option for her.

As you'll know from my previous post about atheism, I agree very much with Alom Shaha's notion that atheism needs to be more visible as an option to stop a lot of misery. I think similarly about not wanting children. I'm told I'm selfish for not wanting them, that I'm abnormal, that I'm somehow doing my gender and humanity a disservice. And I am selfish, but is it not more selfish to have a child because its simply what you do, then potentially spend a lifetime suppressing low-level regret and resentment? I could start on about overpopulation, blah blah blah but that's usually just too much effort for these types of conversation.

It strikes me that, like a lot of things in life, most people take this decision on face value instead of examining it with skeptical principles. And, after questioning yourself and your deeply held beliefs and societal norms, you still want to go ahead, then fine, I sincerely wish you all the best. It seems to me that a healthy dose of skepticism- in all aspects of life- is always worthwhile.

Like atheism, I've confronted my lack of desire for children, and I accept and embrace it, even in the face of some moments of fairly serious pressure to the contrary. I have no need or space for a child in my life, and I can make my own purpose and legacy without having to create and drag a new life into the equation. I'm comfortable with my decision, I just wish that everyone else was as comfortable with it as I am. Comfortable enough that the sort of conversations above- that I and many other child-free people (by which I mainly mean women) have to go through all the time- don't have to happen anymore. Comfortable enough that its an accepted life decision and not seen as an eccentric quirk.

I could rant on for days about this subject, and I may well revisit it in future posts. I hope that's not too boring for you.

Hxxx