I'mNotAWriterBut…

I am a 51 year old working mum of five – not all at home thank goodness. Im a member of the Women for Independence National Executive. This Blog is growing and changing as my hopes and aspirations change. I actually DO expect to change the world but I accept that might not even make sense sometimes. I hope you enjoy the read.

Archive for the category “Inspiration”

#International Women’s Day

 

Today on International Women’s day I had a conversation with the children about what makes a woman awesome. We talked about Marie Curie, we talked about mother Theresa, Malala Yousafzai. We discussed famous women, rich woman and women who have made great strides in their chosen field and achieved great things. But its important to remember that for every famous and startling woman there are millions of women making their own great strides every single day.

Heads up to those women living with poor health and long term conditions who every day look after themselves and others. We are with you sisters.

Heads up to those women wondering where their next meal is coming from or how they can make their money stretch enough to afford the books from the School book fair. We are with you sisters.

Heads up to those women surviving domestic violence a day at a time. We are with you sisters.

Heads up to those women fighting for their children with Additional support needs to be educated in way that ensures that they reach their potential. We are with you sisters.

Heads up to those women who are caring for parents, husbands, friends, neighbours who cannot manage without them. We are with you sisters.

Heads ups to those women who are struggling with pregnancy, birth or being a new mum. We are with you sisters.

Heads up to those women fighting addiction, starting each day with hope that this will be another day in recovery. whether or not it is. We are with you sisters.

Heads up to those women who because of disability, race, gender, or just because they are women face inequality and discrimination every day. We are with you sisters.

Heads up to those women who take a breath, put their lippy on and face a world they would rather hide from every single day of their lives. We are with you sisters.

And finally, heads up to those women who feel silenced, hidden, ignored, forgotten, helpless and without power. Those women for whom International Women’s Day is a complete irrelevance, for whom the idea that they might have agency or power or peace is so far out of their reach that they cannot even imagine it. We are so with you sisters. We see you and we have not forgotten you.

International Women’s Day is a day to speak up for women all over the world. Women who are achieving great things, Scaling great heights, succeeding in a world which is often designed to make that success more difficult.

But for me it is in the ordinary, the everyday, the hidden, the mundane that awesomeness can so often be found. So celebrate International Women’s Day and the great achievements of women past and present – but be proud of the achievements you make every single day of your life. A life lived is a success and you – WE – are awesome.

Love

#IWD2019

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Hope and Optimism

together

I haven’t blogged for ages. Partly because my life has been stupid busy – work, studies, family life, Women for Independence, hobbies and a million other things – but also partly because I’m struggling with many of the feelings that I’m sure others are struggling with. Everything is making me cross. I’ve been involved in quite a bit of anti-poverty work this summer, a consultation on what happens to people when they are in crisis or suicidal and looking for help, Brexit and Brexit and… more…bloody Brexit. And across all those things what I have consistently found missing in our wider society, is empathy and kindness.

 

Last week I was utterly appalled at the video that circulated of the young Syrian refugee being attacked by a taller boy in Huddersfield. It broke my heart, not only that a boy who fled a terrible situation in his home country should be so cruelly treated in a place where he should be able to expect to be safe, but because the boy who treated him so badly was just 16. What are we doing to our children in Britain today, that they grow up with such hate in their hearts and such aggression? As the story unfolded it was suggested that the boy’s social media profile was full of links to Britain First posts and Tommy Robinson’s evil mutterings. We are seeing this more and more, I wrote at the time of the EU referendum about the dangers of legitimising the voices of hate and I fear more and more that I was right. It scares me and it leaves me feeling impotent and bleak.

 

All this came to mind as yesterday, I was heading off to an event where I had been asked to read something I had written about movement. This was a civic event organised by Dr Clare Daly who heads up Birchwood Highland’s Highland Migrant and Refugee Advocacy Project.  I was surprised to be asked to write a poem. I play with poetry and words but I write poetry like I sing – for my own pleasure and no one else’s as my long suffering husband can confirm. I certainly never really thought of myself as a “migrant” despite moving from Rochdale to Caithness in 1997. But Clare explained that the event was looking at movement  – the movement of people from one place to another, and that experiences of movement whoever we are and wherever we are moving from,  are stories of shared experiences and are powerful and moving stories of people and their resilience.

 

So I went along yesterday, clutching my wee green book to read my poems – Northwards and Yellow Submarine.  The event was fantastic and inspiring. We heard from Philomena de Lima who is the Director of the Centre for Remote and Rural studies, a writer and a woman who’s work I have been aware of for over twenty years and never met. I felt like I was meeting a celebrity (I wittered a bit to be honest – she looked a bit startled!).  Philomena set the tone of the evening by talking about what connects us, rather than what separates us. She pointed out that history is not the past – we carry it with us whoever we are. People bring with them their own history, the history of their families, their countries, their people here to where our own history is all around us, where the history of the clearances still resonates and shapes us. We are all of us migrants but that is not what defines us – it is not the sum of our experiences. Migrants and citizens alike have shared experiences, shared concerns, shared identities as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, employees, patients, friends and we share the rhythms of everyday life.  We share the values of friendship, care and community.

 

The rest of the event celebrated exactly that – our shared values and our shared hopes and sense of community. There was the wonderful Heartstone – a project from Dingwall –   who shared their story with us through words and dance. The Wee Choir from Forres who sang a several songs including a song by Karine Polwart that I loved. Its words of welcome ringing out around the Council chambers.  We heard from myself and Kirsty Glass who wrote a moving poem which was also read out in Gaelic, about the clearances and we heard a remarkable musical collaboration between Sarah Fanet and her guitar and Belal on the Syrian Oud. I think though that the person who really caught the spirit of what we were trying to convey and what we are all hoping for was the lady from The Scottish Highlands and Islands and Moray Chinese Association – Monica Lee Macpherson. She shared with us some of her story about coming to Scotland from Hong Kong and then spoke so genuinely, without notes and from the heart, about how we need to be kind to each other and care for each other, looking beyond our differences to what we have in common. She reminded us that race, colour mean nothing because it is humanity which joins us together. She invited us all to join them in their café and she touched me with her message of hope and joy. Something I have found missing in civic conversations recently.

 

Philomena spoke at the start about the need to find shared spaces to connect with each other and a new narrative of social cohesion, because building a society which is better for the excluded, is better for us all. That was what was happening last night. We were building a society which focuses on what we have in common, on what we share and what we can share with others. It has made me feel hopeful and optimistic and I’m delighted about that.

Breast may be best but are we doing OUR best for mums?

This was originally published a few years ago so state might be a bit out of date.

am a mother. I have five children ages 27,26, 21, 8 and 6, I am totally committed to doing the best for my children and I want for all children in society, what I want  for my own – a happy, healthy, nurturing home.  There were lots of differences in having my first baby in 1989 and my last baby in 2009, most of them positive. The antenatal care was better, the facilities were better. Labouring in your own room and not on a labour ward is of course, wonderful. The midwives were fabulous and, despite being both old (I had my last two babies at 43 and 45) and fat, I was supported and not judged the whole way through my pregnancies.

The biggest difference I found as a new mum in the 2007 was the amount of pressure that is placed on new mums. One of the areas where this is most apparent is the issue of feeding and weaning. Feeding our babies seems to have become a stick with which to beat new mums. A stick which, when wielded by inflexible and unsympathetic professionals and volunteers, actually disempowers women and diminishes their confidence and affects that new, and most important bonding relationship, between a mother and her new baby.

Unfortunately this begins with Breast feeding. Now, before many of you get your keyboards out and start telling me about the benefits of Breast feeding – I know them.  I have breast fed 4 out of my 5 children – child number 4 completely refusing to breast feed despite my  experience and persistent efforts! I am wholly committed to promoting breast feeding. I am a trained breast feeding peer supporter and I believe, absolutely, in the benefits of breast feeding for both mother and baby. Articles on the health of people in Scotland do not make happy reading. Heart disease, alcoholism and obesity – cancer and long term health conditions like diabetes, are big problems and so it is important that we try to ensure that babies born in Scotland have the best start, and that means encouraging  breast feeding. What I take issue with is the manner in which Breast feeding is promoted.  The messages seem to be “You must breast feed, you must absolutely breast feed, you must exclusively breast feed, any woman can breast feed it is not true that some cant, you are risking your children’s future health, intellect and achievements if you don’t breast feed and you will be failing to do the best for your child”

If you want to bottle feed your baby, you can feel completely ignored in the antenatal feeding discussions.  At my NHS ante natal classes there was no demonstration of how to make a bottle up, no discussion of the different milks, of what will happen in hospital and of how to sterilise or ensure the cleanliness of the feeding equipment. Now, I – writing this and you – reading this – may very well know how to do all these things but if you are a 17 year old, just out of care, on your own with no experience of babies – how do you know?  You probably don’t even go to antenatal classes, you probably think breast feeding is “yukky” (a commonly used word to describe breast feeding amongst young adults) If you don’t read very well, if English isn’t your first language, if you aren’t very confident then how would you find these things out.  If you are cocky and defensive as many single young mothers are – who would you ask?  The needs of bottle feeding mums are ignored in this frenzy to promote breast feeding to the exclusion of everything else. In 2009 the Medical Research Council said that bottle feeding mums felt “… guilt; worry about the impact on their baby and what healthcare professionals might say; uncertainty about how to proceed; a sense of failure; and anger as a result of feeling under pressure to breastfeed.” (MRC/42/09,14th July) They found evidence to show that mothers were not receiving the advice they need to make decisions about quantity, or frequency of feeds and that this neglect of bottle feeding mums can put the health of the baby at risk.

Mixed feeding is actively discouraged.  In 2009 I was given a locally produced leaflet with the message that “just one feed” is sufficient to undo all the benefits that you have bestowed on your child from breast feeding.  Just one feed can increase the risk of diabetes, under achievement, asthma and eczema. Just one feed, apparently is enough to mean that your wee one will likely never want your breast again.  And this isn’t just confined to bottles – give your new baby a dummy and they are likely to develop nipple confusion.  I have looked at this in some detail and can find no scientific evidence that such a thing exists.  I have gone as far as emailing an old school friend of mine – now a consultant obstetrician and paediatrician in a large teaching hospital and he was unable to give me directions to any research. Many women occasionally swap from one to the other with little effect either on their milk supply or on the baby’s ability to suck. In fact my last baby was bottle fed completely for the first 36 hours and then I put her to the breast and I never gave her a bottle again. Where you have a healthy, full term baby there is no evidence to suggest that a baby will not be able to return to the breast after one or two bottles. Neither is a soother a problem either – and in fact there is research to suggest that a dummy can help to reduce risk of sudden infant death.  The effect of leaflets like “just one feed”  can be to increase the feelings of guilt, fear and failure in new mums.

I have also found that many women who breast feed, also feel these feelings of guilt and failure.  A mother I knew who was a successful breast feeding mum, a confident, professional woman, described still waking up in the night worrying about the fact that she gave her baby formula out of a cup when in hospital. This was despite the fact that the professionals advised this was what both she and her baby needed at the time.  Exhausted after the birth, a hungry and crying baby and a lack of her own milk, and she gave him a  formula feed – he slept, she slept and she was in a much better position to breast feed the following day. And yet this smart and confident woman still felt guilt and pain over “just one feed”

Women who have given up breast feeding are often made to feel like they haven’t tried hard enough. A new mum with a baby who was struggling with feeding mentioned to her health visitor that she was thinking of moving to formula feed to be asked “What??? You are GIVING UP? You know it is best for baby don’t you?  You need to try harder”  I have heard stories about a woman sharing a video of her child  pouring formula milk samples she had been sent in error – down the toilet….  Down the TOILET!!!! A woman who is also a peer supporter, but lives here from another country said in disgust “Only in such a rich country could people treat food with such disdain”.

Another woman I spoke to described her anxiety over timing her baby’s feeds; I suggested that she could give her baby a feed two hours after the last one if she wanted rather than waiting for the routine times she had planned and she asked me “Can I? Would that be alright?” I had to point out to her that he was HER baby and she could organise his feeds whichever way suited her and him. She was so relieved that she almost cried. Another woman was so anxious about her breast fed baby “getting enough” that she fed all the information about his feeds into her computer spending ages trying to figure out how much he was getting.  Time she could have spent just being with her baby and getting to know him. She was under pressure, anxious and desperately trying to understand why she was finding it so hard.

I have heard health professionals say in a horrified voice – “They use ground up tuna fish eye sockets for calcium in formula milk” and seen a whole room of women curl their lip in horror.  This is just mad.  Formula milk may not be breast milk, but it isn’t arsenic in a bottle.  I have heard women suggest that other women who bottle feed their babies are less “mothering” than mothers who breastfeed and seen a room of women sneer and denigrate others who use formula milk as though they – breast feeding mothers – are somehow better or superior.

If these messages were successful in increasing breast feeding across the board, across all different groups of women then it might – just might – have some justification in filling many women with a sense of having failed as a mother before they have actually started . They are however, not successful. Over the last ten years in Scotland the rates of breast feeding have remained static – there have been slight increases of a percentage point here and there, but no significant increase.  Importantly whilst there has been an increase of a whole 6% in ten years, of breast feeding across  the most deprived areas of Scotland  –  in Scotland’s poorest communities there are still  only around 20% of babies exclusively breast fed at 6-8 weeks.  Even when you add in mixed feeding the figure is still only 22.3%.  The government set a target to increase the proportion of new born children exclusively breastfed at 6-8 weeks in Scotland, from 26.2% in 2006/07 to 32.7% in 2010/11 (an increase of 25%). We are failing to achieve this. In 2010/11 the figure was 26.5%.

When we get to weaning the inflexibility of the advice continues. The official advice is that weaning should not take place until the baby is 6 months old.  This advice is lifted straight from the World Health Organisation Guidelines. I want to make it clear that I am not talking about other countries here but Scotland. There are countries where formula milk is not high quality and where hygiene is not of a high standard and this makes using formula milk dangerous. I am not talking about countries with low birth weight babies or without clean places to prepare weaning food.  I’m talking about Scotland.  These guidelines are WORLD guidelines they  offer guidance to countries where infant mortality is high and birth weight low. The average birth weight in Scotland is good at just under 8lbs. Telling mums that breast milk is the best food for children up to 6 months – come what may –  takes no account of your child and their own needs.  I know women whose babies cried and cried and they slogged it out until 6 months – exhausted, wondering where their happy child went, in order not to give give their wee one solid food before six months. Other women had babies who were not the slightest bit interested in food until they were past 6 months. They are all different – they are BABIES not computers.  There was recent research to show that weaning at 4 months can be beneficial and yet the official advice is absolutely NOT to wean your baby before 6 months old.

If you have a health visitor with common sense then you maybe told on the quiet, that starting at four months old is ok. But many mothers report being told absolutely, under no circumstances are they to even think about weaning before 6 months.  When I was first a mum in 1989 and 1990 I was often told by professionals, “You know your baby, what do you think?” I was able to discuss whether my baby was hungry enough for weaning or not… I was advised – not ordered, supported not scared into doing what I was told and my children were all weaned at different ages because they were all ready for weaning at different ages.  I was given credit for being a mother, a good one. In many places in Scotland today that doesn’t seem to happen.

So what are we doing?  What on earth happened to freedom and support? What happened to the nurturing and help, that older women would give to younger women on the birth of their babies?   Surely, as women, we have campaigned to have choices, as feminists in the 21st century, we believe in choice for women and the right to live happy, fulfilled lives. How then can we justify pressurising women over this so that they feel the emotions I have mentioned?  We have women who are finding they lack confidence in mothering, that they have no power to make choices which are right for them and their babies for fear of either being labelled a failure, or of damning their children to a life of ill health and intellectual failure because of “just one feed”. We have a system which does not allow for the needs of individual babies and mums to be taken into account in a positive and empowering way.  We have otherwise well-adjusted women so disempowered by the advice, that they feel that they have no control over the  frequency, type and duration of infant feeding  and we also have socially disadvantaged women, completely unreached by the message that breast is cheap, can be easy and is often fun to do – with the right support. Strikes me  it is the whole approach to promoting breast feeding which is failing – not the mums who use bottles, dummies or wean at 4 months. If we want to make a real difference to breast feeding rates and the health of its population, then we need to empower women to make informed decisions without the use of a big stick – all women –  including those in the poorest areas of our country and if we can do this, then we might just start to change these depressing statistics and improve the health of Scotland in years to come.

Sue Lyons

References.

http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.d8287

http://www.isdscotland.org/Health-Topics/Child-Health/Publications/2011-10-25/2011-10-25-Breastfeeding-Report.pdf?3725832701

http://www.mrc.ac.uk/Newspublications/News/MRC006208

http://fsid.org.uk/page.aspx?pid=416

The Power of Good People

Waking up is daunting just now. I planned to stop taking my phone to bed with me at night this year. I even bought a cheap radio alarm clock – remember those? And yet my phone is the first thing I reach for – not to see what my friends are up to, not to see who’s in a relationship, out of a relationship or who has liked my recent pictures on Facebook but to check what the hell Trump and May are up to now.

I haven’t blogged for a wee while, I went to see Paul Kavanagh – Wee Ginger Dug  speak in Inverness before Christmas. He was great –  witty, funny and insightful.  He said that there is no such thing as writers block – just “Can’t be arsed”. I went home and managed to write something. I am finding just now that it isn’t so much “writers block” as that I am overwhelmed by the tidal wave of appalling, depressing, disappointing, head shaking things that are happening. It’s not so much that I can’t be arsed, as I have no idea where to start because there is so much awful stuff happening that I am a bit overwhelmed. In addition, if I start writing I’m not sure that I will be able to stop and I have a life, a job, a family, hobbies, studies, obligations to meet. I feel like I would need to be writing full time to even stand a chance of covering all the things that I feel anger, sadness, horror, indignation or incredulity at – the list goes on and on. Dragging me down so that I find myself shouting at the television once again. I am finding it harder and harder not to say “I told you so” when I hear people who voted No to Independence and who voted to leave Europe speak about how they didn’t think that meant Scotland would be side-lined so much; they didn’t think that the UK would leave the single market; they thought there would be more money for the NHS. I have never been one to cast blame around but even I have been struggling with this. And I turn to my laptop to write and I don’t even know where to start.

My daughter is seven. She is a darling – a sweet child who loves her cuddlies, having her straight hair curly and wearing her favourite party dress and her sparkly shoes but she is also developing a no nonsense personality with a rod of steel running through her. She is beginning to find the wittiest comebacks and the sharpest putdowns to the teasing that her big brothers (27, 26 and 21) subject her to as their only sister and the youngest child. Trying to get the ball off her big brother who at 6’2 was holding it high up out of her reach, she realised that a punch to the belly would be effective in retrieving it for her and she was right. Off she went with her prize to play with the dog. I look at her sometimes, especially when I see things like the video of Tasmina Ahmed Sheik reading out the insulting and offensive responses to her appearance on Question Time, and I wonder what my girl will have to deal with growing up today. It makes me worried and fearful and bloody disappointed.

Last week – in the midst of the seemingly endless stories about Trump and his executive orders she brought home some work from school, which she completed last term. Amongst the maths work and the pictures, was a sentence she had drawn in bubbly coloured in writing and cut out of paper in a wavy sort of way. It read

“Bad things can happen but good people can help”

Looking at this, I asked her, “Where did you get this from?” and she said “Out of my head” shrugged and went off to play.

I looked at it for a long time. I put it up behind the sofa – propped up where I can see it and I kept looking at it. I put it in my handbag and I took it out and looked at it for a wee while.  I think I had forgotten. Then over the weekend, several things happened.

Firstly, it was our annual Burns Party. We do this every year in our house. It’s a great night, usually with around the 70 people mark; there is music and speeches and toasts and singing and haggis, neeps and tatties. There are burns songs – all the ones you would imagine, there are Scottish songs, there is ALWAYS Zombie, and an a capella version of Bohemian Rhapsody that is legendary, a Lancashire dialect poem in my sadly disappearing accent, and a Rattling Bog. It goes on until the not so wee small hours and then breakfast is offered to all those that stay around or return to tidy up. We have been doing it for 11 years. The people who come to our party are from all walks of life.  They come from all backgrounds and are all ages from children to grandparents. We have friends from Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland, from Spain, Poland and over the years from many other places. They share our food, our haggis, neeps and tatties and they sing their own favourite songs or play their own instruments or even play our old piano.

It’s always good craic, but this year I was struck by how much love I felt in the house. People who meet up once every 12 months and have been doing so for five, ten years greeting each other with a hug, chatting like they saw them last week and new friends being scooped up and encouraged to join in. My burly husband introducing everyone to a Lyons Hug – sometimes to their slight surprise – the warmth, the smiles and the good humour of everyone. Not a cross word, in fact we have never had a cross word in all the years we have been doing this. I thought about my daughter’s picture and I smiled. I think I had forgotten how much people love and care for each other, I think I had forgotten that I know such good people.

Secondly, Trump carried out his #MuslimBan. I woke on Sunday Morning – without a hangover – to find that during the night a Glasgow Vet who had been a victim of this appalling policy had her costs met by a crowd funder set up by my wonderful sisters at Women for Independence. I have been involved with Women for Indy from the very start and was a member of their executive until last November. I think I had forgotten how much positivity and good we do. I think I had forgotten that we actually make a difference to individuals like Hamaseh Tayari; to policies like those on women’s justice; to the established media like the BBC by challenging the male dominated political commentary. I think I had forgotten that I know such good people.

Yesterday I met with a group of women with lived experience of mental illness that I have been supporting over the last year or so. Several of the members are experiencing difficulties, emotional trauma, ill health, practical barriers to do with benefits and services and yet there they were, supporting each other even through their own pain. I think I had forgotten how strong and supportive these women are – how much of a difference their support makes to all of them. I think I had forgotten that I know such good people.

Finally, last night all over Scotland, all over the UK, all over the world people put on their coats, wrote slogans on placards and stepped outside to protest at Trumps ban and our government’s reaction (or lack of) to it. The protest in Inverness started to ping onto my Facebook page about 4pm and I couldn’t go along because I run a Rainbows group on Mondays at 6, but there in the pictures from Inverness, from Glasgow and Edinburgh, from elsewhere were faces I know, faces I care about – people I am proud to call friends. I think I had forgotten that people are willing to take action when something angers and horrifies them. I think I had forgotten that I know such good people.

And that’s a lesson for me. In amongst all this shit, in amongst the head shaking that I do, the voices of hate that we see everywhere, the ridiculous behaviour of our elected and unelected politicians, the breath holding that many of us are doing over Brexit and a possibly second indy ref, there are people who are prepared to stand up and say this is not on. People who are saying “you are wrong” and who are standing up for others and for what is right.

It is what we all need to do. Many of you may be feeling as overwhelmed as I do. We need to stand up and be counted. We need to remember that we are not alone in this – that, together with others, our voice is loud enough to drown out the voices of hate and division. We need to remember that across political parties, across the Indy debate – yessers, no’s or don’t knows, those for in, or even out of Europe, there ARE people  who are standing up and saying that this is not how we do things in Scotland. They are saying that this is not how we think about people in Scotland and that this is not what we want here in Scotland. That is how we will win a stronger, better future and it is how we will take people with us. It is how we will change people’s minds. This is how we will be those good people my wee girl wrote about.

I say in my blog introduction that I want to change the world – I think I had forgotten that. My wee girl, the people at my party, my Women for Indy Sisters, the women at the support group, the protesters have reminded me that “Bad things can happen but good people can help”. I’m going to make damn sure that I keep that at the front of my mind and speak up, speak out and speak loudly to ensure that my voice is added to all the other good people who are helping. I may not change things by myself but I don’t have to because together, we surely will.

More Butterflies….

 

 

Did you see them?  The Serenity Butterflies?  Did you pick one up and read it and smile, having read the piece in this blog or seen the article in the local paper? They were there only fleetingly – as butterflies always are. The local council accusing us of “fly posting” removed them sharpish which was somewhat disappointing.

Perhaps you saw them in one of the shops or cafés that cheerfully welcomed them to sit on their tables or near their check outs for their customers to pick up and read. Maybe you didn’t know what they were about and had to “Google” to see the reason for the unseasonal visitors.  I hope you found information about Serenity meetings. I also hope they created space for you to think about the subject of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and mental illness more generally.

I’m off to the Serenity Group right now. They probably don’t really need me to be honest, but I like to go. I find a power, a peace and a warmth there. On a chilly Monday morning when I have had too little sleep and have too many deadlines, I need them. They remind me why this job is so important and why I love it. They set me up for the week with the power of their positivity and the care that they show each other.

At any one time, one in four people experience a mental illness. Look around you. I can see 10 people that I don’t know from my seat here in a coffee shop in Inverness – some of them will have experienced mental health problems themselves, some of them will know someone with a mental illness, in fact all of them will likely find their lives touched by mental health issues at some point. And yet the stigma surrounding mental illness continues.

People with mental illness find themselves more likely to be lonely, homeless, in prison. Many people don’t talk to others about their mental illness, I have heard some of the members at Serenity say that the only place that they can talk about their diagnosis of BPD is within that group. The only place – imagine that. Something as momentous as being diagnosed with a serious and enduring illness and you can’t talk about it in your everyday life, with people who know you well. Imagine not daring to breath a word at work for fear that you would be treated differently or even lose your job. Imagine worrying that your partner would leave you or that your children would be taken into “care”. Imagine all those things and being unable to share them with anyone.

This is why groups like Serenity, like HUG (Action for Mental Health) and other mental health charities are so important. They give people a place where they can just “be” in a world where headlines scream out the worst stories of people with mental illness that they can find. Often patronised, ignored and misunderstood, Serenity offers a place where BPD does not prevent them from taking part, where they can be open, where they can speak to each other and be understood, respected and cared for. Groups like this are a safe place, a source of comfort, they are empowering, they are supportive and most of all, they are not stigmatising.

See the butterflies? They were put there to represent the changes that people with BPD can see in their lives through , through understanding, through treatment and through the support that comes from sharing experiences with others who have the same diagnosis. They can also be a message for those of us without BPD, without a diagnosis of a mental illness. A message that we can leave outdated ideas of mental illness behind us, we can learn more, care more and challenge stigma wherever we find it. We can educate ourselves and with education we can challenge the fear that fuels stigma wherever we see it. By doing this we can help to change attitudes towards mental illness and work on a transformation to a better fairer society for everyone.

Butterflies for BPD

cocoon

On Monday 3rd October if you keep your eyes peeled then you might spot a few unseasonable visitors around Inverness Centre. Butterflies. In October. They are not live butterflies but symbolic butterflies. This is one of the first events in Inverness for SMHAFF. That’s the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. The Festival aims to celebrate the artistic achievements of people with experience of mental health issues, exploring the relationship between creativity and the mind, and promoting positive mental health and wellbeing. The theme for this year’s festival is Time. Many groups are going to be involved across the Highlands in exhibiting work, sharing performance pieces and written work and the Butterflies are part of this.

The Butterflies are the brainchild of Viv Gunn and Carlie Borthwick. Two women who set up and organise “Serenity” a drop in for women with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) at Merkinch Community Centre. The group meets between 10.30 and 1.30 every Monday and is supported by a local collective advocacy organisation – HUG (Action for Mental Health). The group is primarily a support group but also works hard to improve services, treatment and experiences of people with BPD. All too often people with a diagnosis of BPD are stigmatised by their diagnosis. After all – how much do you know about BPD? Do you know about the physical pain that people feel? Do you know about the affect BPD can have on personal relationships? Of the fear and anxiety that may mean just walking down the street is “brutal”. Mostly people who hear me talk about working with people with Borderline Personality Disorder have never heard of it. Those that do express their sympathy, they shake their heads and say what a hard job that must be. What I want people to do is to congratulate me, to say “how wonderful” or “aren’t you lucky”. Watching these women overcome daily, sometimes hourly difficulties, watching them work together to support each other, watching them speak out about injustices, speak out about their experiences of the statutory services and influencing change is energising and positive. And yet they are often dismissed as “crazy”, “awkward”, “non-compliant”. Look beyond the label and you might be surprised. I was.

And the butterflies? The transformation of the butterfly over time is symbolic of the transformation people with BPD can achieve with understanding, support and proper care. Carlie Borthwick explains “I’m hoping that butterfly bombing the town will encourage people to educate themselves on BPD. Butterflies can represent time and change, both a huge part of my diagnosis. I’ve come a long way since before I had a diagnosis and now have a reason for some of my behaviours. It is similar to the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly – it’s symbolic of our recovery”

So, if you see a Butterfly on Monday pick it up. Think about what it means. Pass it on to someone who might benefit from the support that groups like Serenity offer but most of all – educate yourself. After all, that’s what art is about, opening yourself to new ideas and new experiences. If, by doing that we can change the experience of stigma that affects people with any mental illness, but specifically BPD, then we are transforming society – a bit like the transformation of the butterfly, really.

Inspiration

Today is International Women’s Day and I have been thinking about women that have inspired me or women that I have respected.
There are many women of course. You can’t be involved in politics in Scotland just now without being aware of a number of politically savvy, impressive women. From Nicola Sturgeon as she stands up to the world as First Minister, to women in my own local networks that amaze me with their knowledge, with the way that they overcome their own fears and self doubt to speak up about the issues that they are passionate about. Working with Carers too, has brought me into contact with some amazing women, women who have to fight for everything they get for the people they love most in the world, often to their own breaking point. And that’s before I even touch upon my amazing mother and those women close to me.

And yet just now, there is only one woman on my mind and the reason she is on my mind is that I recently found out that she had passed away. She was my friend. I say that even though I hadn’t spoken to her for several years. She was always my friend and she will forever be my friend and would have continued to be so even had it been another ten years before I spoke to her again.

She came to my acquaintance with the least positive recommendation of anyone I ever met. I was being transferred from my job in a Jobcentre to an old style Unemployment Benefit Office in around 1993. Moving to manage a benefit section and with no experience of Benefit Processing, eyebrows were raised at my posting. “Who is your deputy?”  was the first question anyone asked and when I answered, the response was “Oh My God” or that sucked in sound that mechanics make when there is something wrong with your car. Fierce, uncompromising and a reputation for not suffering even the slightest of fools gladly, or in fact in any way at all – gladly or otherwise. She commanded respect for her knowledge of “widows running start”, “married woman’s reduced rate” and other jargon filled examples of advanced benefit processing. She was, I was told, a benefit expert, a harsh taskmaster and a critical, unforgiving supervisor and deputy and I should really watch my back.

Was I quaking in my shoes? Bloody right I was. I couldn’t “comp” a claim, I didn’t understand RITYs or the finer points of disallowances and tax and I wasn’t even sure that I even wanted the bloody job.

And yet in her I found a kindred spirit. Despite her brusque manner – she didn’t just call a spade a spade – she called a spade a fucking shovel – she had the kindest heart and she was a fabulous teacher. At our first meeting we eyed each other with caution, but we shared a sense of humour and under her watchful eye and by taking her advice on what I needed to know and how to learn it, I became an expert myself – knowledge which has helped me to understand the finer points of welfare reform and challenge many of the assertions that have been trotted out over the last few years. With my support she became better at managing people and getting the best out of them. She raged about “having to pussy foot around people’s finer fucking feelings” on many occasions but she learned to change the behaviour of people on our team through coaching and feedback and she grew and flourished. We complimented each other, worked well together. She had a fabulous sense of humour and when people would snidely question just exactly “who” was managing our section cos SHE seemed to have a lot to say – she bought me a mug which said “No – I’M the boss”. This made us laugh at their  lack of understanding of the way in which we worked so well together. I did a better job because of her and she did a better job because of me.

But jobs are one thing and of course don’t really last for ever. Mostly in my life, I move on and wave goodbye – often with a tear or two – but without any long lasting relationships continuing from my work. She was different.

At the point I met her she had just recently terminated a much wanted pregnancy after her amnio had given a diagnosis of Downs Syndrome. This was a difficult decision for her as it would be for anyone, and she struggled with her grief over the decision. How much harder it hurt then, when a few years later she received a letter telling her that she may have contracted Hepatitis C from an infected blood transfusion during the procedure. This did in fact turn out to be the case, and a new struggle started for her.

Life became a series of obstacles to overcome, the hepatitis C, the medication and its side effects, the effect on her own mental health and the stresses and strains of family life. I had moved to live in Scotland and long distant conversations became the norm. As my own life fell apart she was a source of support for me too. Living 500 miles away my marriage ended and despite her own challenges, she always found time to be on the end of the phone. Years later I thanked her for that and she laughed and said “Just repaying the favour chuck” reminding me of the time she phoned me late late late, in a terrible state, standing by the side of a reservoir, unclear about what to do next and I talked her through her feelings to the point she was able to go home. We later laughed about the reaction of her Lancashire based Doctor when, after promising I would phone her GP for her as she didn’t feel able, he returned my phone call and found it answered by “Wick Jobcentre”. “Where???” He asked bewildered, but he took my concerns seriously and further investigation showed she had a terrible reaction to her medication causing a serious depression.

She helped me practically too. With an ex husband who thought that maintenance was something optional that I had a bloody cheek to ask him for, I frequently struggled my way from one end of my family credit to the other.  She bought new trainers for my growing too fast boys and she never once tutted or told me to pull myself together.

I never laughed so much as I laughed with her. I never cried so much as I cried with her. It would be a long time before I found a friend that I would love like I loved her and yet, time and tide wait for no man and, although she tripped the 400 odd miles to come see us in Inverness and stayed with us for a few days with her lovely daughter and grand-daughter, our contact grew less and the times between our phone calls lengthened and it became several years since I last spoke to her.

My friend inspired me with her resilience, she inspired me with her relentless sense of humour, she inspired me with her love for her family and the ferocious way  that she defended them. She inspired me with the way she spoke her mind, the way she fought to be treated with interferon and then, when it kicked off a terrible depression, the way she fought that to get some control back into her life. She inspired me with her determination to overcome the things that life threw at her, she inspired me by the way she faced this bloody disease she had been saddled with, and the stigma that came with having a disease that was associated with drug addicts and promiscuity. She faced it full on, stuck two fingers up at it and got on with it to the absolute best of her ability.

She was a force to be reckoned with – someone I would affectionately describe as a “bugger” and even though I haven’t spoken to her in a long time, the news of her passing fills me with a sadness that bites, a sadness that I will never hear her dulcet Lancashire tones on the end of the phone ever again, a sadness that is deeper because of our lack of contact. On her last visit, nearly nine years ago now, I introduced her to my new man, now my husband. She shook his hand and in a very posh voice said “Hello John, it’s very nice to meet you.” Then as he walked off she turned to me and in a low voice and a broad northern accent said “By ‘eck – E’s a bit of alright int e”. She made me laugh then and she still does.

Inspiring women aren’t always in the public eye, aren’t always celebrities or politicians, industry leaders, writers or  artists. They are often, like my friend, inspiring by the way they deal with life and its ability to knock us off our feet again and again. I’ll miss my friend and I’ll try hard not to make the mistake of letting friendships and contact lapse with anyone else ever again – another thing she has taught me even in her absence. It is in the every day that true inspiration is often found and I am proud that she was my friend and thankful that I knew her.

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