Friday, 9 March 2018

Becoming More Acquainted With My Mental Health

Black and white photo of a silhouette of a man in a tunnel

We've recently had some pretty bad news in my family, and because of it, over the past few weeks, I've learned more about myself and my anxiety.

I've had some distressing news, and my anxiety has been triggered. This seems to be a thing with me. Apart from the time when we had financial difficulties which triggered my anxiety, and then the fear, before diagnosis, of having anxiety which made the anxiety worse, my anxiety mostly comes out of nowhere. By which I mean, I'm not having continual, panicky, illogical thoughts that are triggering my anxiety. I can be fine - reading a book, watching TV, shelving at work, cooking dinner - just doing normal things, really, and then, out of nowhere, I'll get the tightness in my chest, soon followed by the difficulty breathing if I can't keep myself calm.

This is much how things were when I first started experiencing anxiety, when we were told that my Nan's cancer was terminal. If you'd asked me before then how I would react on hearing my Nan was dying, I would have told you I would fall apart; that I'd be a complete and utter mess. And though I was a mess for a few days, I got over it fairly quickly. I think that was down to the a fact that she had six months, so I didn't want to think about it. I wasn't in denial, but I decided that she's going to be here for around for a while, and it would be better to enjoy the time I had with her, than be an emotional wreck. So I was... not happy, but ok, a lot sooner than I expected.

Although, while I was emotionally ok, my health was a different matter. I wasn't sleeping, my migraines were becoming more frequent, my arms would go numb without warning (which I later learned is due to hyperventilating, and that you can hyperventilate without realising), and then I had my first few panic attacks.

This time round, a similar thing is happening. During a time when I'm not quite as devastated emotionally as I would expect, my anxiety is making an appearance. I was feeling anxious every few days, but now it seems to be every day. And today in particular, a constant tightness in my chest that isn't letting up, but I'm able to keep myself calm enough that I'm not having a full blown panic attack.

Although it's not great, it's good to know. Before receiving this bad news, I didn't know for certain that emotional distress was going to trigger my anxiety rather than my tear ducts. But I know this now, and I know how better to prepare myself. In future, when I get some emotionally upsetting news, I will know that my anxiety is likely to be triggered, and it will be easier to deal with, easier to manage, than it would if I started feeling anxious out of nowhere.

So while things are sad right now, and it's not so great feeling anxious, the silver lining is I've learnt more about myself, my health, and my anxious brain. And that can only be a good thing.

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Monday, 5 March 2018

London's The Like A Woman Pop-Up Bookshop

This post was originally posted on Once Upon a Bookcase.

The Like A Woman Bookshop Banner

This week, to celebrate International Women's Day, Penguin Random House have opened a pop up bookshop in Shoreditch, in partnership with Waterstones, The Like A Woman Bookshop, in which they sell only books by women authors. Today is it's opening day, and so I decided to pop down to show my support.

Photo of The Like A Woman Bookshop from the outside
The Like A Woman Bookshop.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Book Review: Red: The Natural History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey

Red: The Natural History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey

Red: The Natural History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey

Published: 3rd Septemober 2015 | Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Red is the first book to explore the history of red hair and red-headedness throughout the world.

With an obsessive fascination that is as contagious as it is compelling, author Jacky Colliss Harvey begins tracing the redhead gene in prehistory as it made its way out of Africa with the early human diaspora, only to emerge under Northern skies. She goes on to explore red hair in the ancient world (from China to the Islamic kingdom of the Khazars), the prejudice manifested against red hair across medieval Europe, and red hair during the Renaissance as both an indicator of Jewishness and the height of fashion in Protestant England, thanks to Elizabeth I.

Colliss Harvey also examines depictions of red hair in art and literature, looks at modern medicine and the genetic decoding of red hair, and considers red hair in contemporary culture, from advertising to 'gingerism' and bullying.

More than just a book for redheads, Red is a fascinating social and cultural celebration of a rich and mysterious genetic quirk.
From Goodreads.

This review was originally posted on my book blog, Once Upon a Bookcase.

Being "a Redhead" is more than just about having ginger hair for me, it's a huge part of who I am. It's part of my identity, mainly because of how people have treated or reacted to me because of my hair colour. I am a redhead because people see me as a redhead; they see the colour of my hair, and judge me for it and/or make assumptions about the kind of person I am. There are so many stereotypes about redheads, from having a fiery temper, to being wild in bed, that are impossible for a redhead to avoid. So being seen as a redhead is a major factor in my life. And that all comes into play when reading a book like Red: A Natural History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss HArvey, which looks into the whys behind everything I've experienced.

When I was a teenager, I read The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair by Marion Roach. By then, because of being ginger, I had already experienced bullying at school, jeers from strangers, and being stopped on the street, as if to be asked directions or what the time is, to instead be asked whether it's true what they say about redheads by an old man, who leered at me. I knew some people despised redheads, some people thought us ugly, and others fetishised us. Why? So when I discovered The Roots of Desire, I read it eagerly, wanting to understand why I was treated so differently simply because of the colour of my hair. That book entirely changed the way I saw myself. Among other things, there's a lot of focus in The Roots of Desire on mythology and superstition, and how some artists depicted those in their work  as redheads, and the beautiful paintings, specifically by the Pre-Raphaelites, I discovered of women sharing my colouring and looking absolutely gorgeous, plus Roach's own pride in being a redhead, had a profound affect on me. I became prouder of being a redhead, and I found I liked how I looked more than I did before. And, being a young girl who had an interest in mythology and anything to do with the occult, I have to say I found the link between the two exciting.

When I discovered Red: A Natural History of the Redhead, I was expecting something similar, but what I got instead was something that felt more true, because it was based on fact. Red looks into history, right from the very early humans to present day, and where in the world red hair showed up, and what that led other people to believe about redheads because of the people, at that time, who had red hair. Some of the Thracians, who the Greeks enslaved, a barbaric, savage race (think Spartacus, he was Thracian), had red hair. Some of the Vikings, another fierce and blood thirsty people, had red hair. Some Jewish people, who were discriminated against, had red hair. And Judas was a Jew, so depict him with red hair, and all he's known for is linked to red hair. Red also discusses redheads in art at length, but it talks more about the subjects - such as Judas and Mary Magdelene - and how those subjects are depicted (rather than the artwork as a whole) and the models and artists more a little more than the artwork itself.

This book was absolutely fascinating as it looks into the history of redheads around the globe, and what, with redheads making up only 2-6% of the population, that "otherness" meant to people who saw us. It talks about how the pale skin that comes with red hair is better at synthesising Vitamin D than darker skin, which in turn meant stronger bones, which then led to healthy pregnancies and births, with red hair then becoming a desirable trait in mates way back when, which is links to the stereotypes about our sexuality. This also relates to where on the planet redheads were located in the past, as their pale skin fared better at synthesising Vitamin D in places where there was less sunlight than those with darker skin.

Red covers a whole lot more, and it is absolutely fascinating, not just learning about the redheads of the past, but the human race itself. But for me, as a redhead, it's the better, more complete answers to the questions of why that really hooked me. It's strange to think you can understand yourself better for understanding why you are treated the way you are, but it's true. It just adds to how I see myself, and allows me to see clearer the way others see me.

And the science and medical side of things! It was also amazing to learn things that I always thought were typical to me, but turn out to be redheaded traits - we do feel pain more acutely, and surgeons suggest 20% more anaesthetic for us than other people, and we're also more affected by the cold than everyone else, feeling the pain of the cold where others are comfortable. It blew my mind to read that perfumes smell differently on the skin of a redhead than they do on other people because our mutated MC1R genes mean our skin mantle is more acidic than everyone else's, and that there's evidence our pheromones may smell different, too. Plus the link between red hair and melanoma, Parkinson's disease, endometriosis, and maybe even Tourette's syndrome.

Red is just a wealth of information that unearths the truth and lies behind the stereotypes and myths about redheads, plus a fascinating insight into just how our biology makes us different. I absolutely loved it, and I would recommend it to anyone who is or knows a redhead, or just has an interest in us gingers.

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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Book Review: Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy

Published: 3rd October 2006 | Publisher: Pocket Books

Meet the Female Chauvinist Pig – the new brand of "empowered woman" who embraces "raunch culture" wherever she finds it. In her groundbreaking book, New York magazine writer Ariel Levy argues that, if male chauvinist pigs of years past thought of women as pieces of meat, Female Chauvinist Pigs of today are doing them one better, making sex objects of other women – and of themselves. Irresistibly witty and wickedly intelligent, Female Chauvinist Pigs makes the case that the rise of raunch does not represent how far women have come; it only proves how far they have left to go. From Goodreads.

There is a way women dance these days. Whether it's with a guy or with their girlfriends. When I see it, it always seems to me that they're not dancing for themselves, they're dancing to be seen - by men. To be noticed. To have an affect on them. There are also female artists, and how they dance these days, in videos and during performances. It's all very sexual, and it's always, even before I discovered feminism, made me uncomfortable. Why do these women want men to see them that way? It's partly because of this that I had wanted to read Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy. But, as fascinating as it is, I was a little disappointed.

This is partly down to me. Female Chauvinist Pigs was published in the UK in 2006, and, being written by an American author, it focuses on America - neither of which I realised when I bought it. So not only is it a little dated, but it's also talking about American pop culture, of which I know very little.

Saying that, it was really fascinating when it came to the history of the American Women's Movement, something I knew nothing about. I loved learning about all the things they achieved until things became divisive between those who were anti-porn, and those who were also part for sexual liberation.

'"Sometimes [there] were emotional defenses of free speech, but to our bewilderment, we also saw that some women identified their sexuality with the S/M pictures we found degrading," Brownmiller wrote. "They claimed we were condemning their minds and behavior, and I guess we were."' (p63)
Levy talks us through the history that led to raunch culture from this divide in the Women's Movement, and how it led to programmes like Girls Gone Wild, and obsession with porn stars, strippers and pole dancing. How people claim women are now sexually liberated to be as sexual as they please, when really, it's all just for the male gaze.

'Why is this the "new feminism" and not what it looks like: the old objectification? [...] The truth is that the new conception of raunch culture as a path to liberation rather than oppression is a convenient (and lucrative) fantasy with nothing to back it up.' (p81 - 82)
As well as the women who are emulating strippers and porn stars, Levy discusses how some women now spurn anything to do with femininity; not wanting to be or liking "girly-girls" (yet perfectly happy to watch said "girly-girls" strip off along with their male friends), and basically linking girl/womanhood with weakness and negativity. Instead, they want to be like, to emulate, men.

'Women who've wanted to be perceived as powerful have long found it more efficient to identify with men than to try and elevate the entire female sex to their level. [...] There is a certain kind of woman--talented, powerful, unrepentant--whom we've always found it difficult to describe without some version of the phrase "like a man," and plenty of those women have never had a problem with that. Not everyone cares that this doesn't do much for the sisterhood.' (p95)
There was one chapter I had some problems with, though. In the chapter From Womyn to Bois, Levy discusses how lesbians present: butch, femme, and the new (at the time) boi. To me, it seems she confuses gender identity and sexuality, as if they are linked; bois like to appear young and boyish, rather than manly, and some even discuss with her the gender binary, and how it doesn't quite work. I don't know if it's the time, and things are understood better now, or if Levy herself just didn't completely understand, but when discussing gender identity and trans men (specifically straight trans men, because she's linking them to lesbians), she seems to not get that trans men were always male:

'But despite the differences between the scene and, say, spring break in South Beach, there are also meaningful similarities in the ways young women across this country, gay and straight, are conceiving of themselves, their bodies, sex, and each other. Women are invested in being "like a man," and in the case of FTMs, women are actually becoming men.' (p138 - emphasis mine.)
The whole chapter, really, made me uncomfortable. It was fascinating at times, but I also feel there is a great deal of lack of understanding - and not just about trans men, but lesbians, too. I could be wrong, but it felt... problematic.

The book overall has really interesting things to say on female sexuality, raunch culture, and what we're obsessed with...

'The women who are really being emulated and obsessed over in our culture now--strippers, porn stars, pinups--aren't even people. They are merely sexual personae, erotic dollies from the land of make-believe. In their performances, which is the only capacity in which we see these women we so fetishize, they don't even speak. As far as we know, they have no ideas, no feelings, no political beliefs, no relationships, no past, no future, no humanity.' (p196)

'[W]e are not even free in the sexual arena. We have simply adopted a new norm, a new role to play: lusty, busty exhibitionist. There are other choices. If we are really going to be sexually liberated, we need to make room for a range of options as wide as the variety of human desire. We need to allow ourselves the freedom to figure out what we internally want from sex instead of mimicking whatever popular culture holds up to as sexy. That would be sexual liberation.' (p200)
...but at the same time, I also felt like it wasn't saying very much in regards to how things can be changed. That last paragraph I quote talks more about what we can do individually, but a lot of this is down to popular culture, and there isn't really anything suggested in how to tackle changing what we see on TV and in magazines. As fascinating as the book was, as much as I agreed with the things Levy was saying, I feel not a huge amount was actually said beyond, "This is the ways things are, this is how we got here, and it's really pretty terrible." I also think it has become quite dated in the 11 years since in was published - although a lot of what Levy says is still relevant, I think, in some ways, things have got worse, that or they're just different here in the UK.

A fascinating read, but more one that wants you to think and change your ways, than trying to inspire you to get out and make a difference.

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Sunday, 16 July 2017

Why A Female Doctor Who Is So Important

13th Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker

Image Source: @BBCDoctorWho

Today, it was announced who would be playing the 13th Doctor in Doctor Who. That person is Jodie Whittaker. A woman.

This is huge. It shouldn't be, but it is. As a fan of the show, I am absolutely over the moon that we will have a female Doctor. At last. I can't tell you how emotional it makes me that next year, we will get to see a woman having adventures, travelling through time and space, saving lives and saving the world, in a lead role, every week.

Young girls will be able to watch the show, and see a woman, like they will grow up to be, as the Doctor, not just the Companion. They can imagine themselves going on adventures not just as the sidekick, the helper, the assistant, but as the one with the power. They will see a woman saving lives, instead of needing to be saved. They will see a woman with such intelligence and knowledge, making plans and strategising. They will see a woman being strong and powerful and in control.

We've seen more of this lately, what with the female cast for Ghost Busters and with Wonder Woman. But Doctor Who has a unique opportunity here. A person who was a man for centuries will now be a woman. Sure, the Doctor is an alien rather than human, and so is separate from us anyway, but I'm sure while becoming a woman may not necessarily be a surprise (Missy), it will be a shock. Will the Doctor experience gender dysphoria perhaps? There are trans themes here that could be explored, but only if they are dealt with respectfully and sensitively.

But there's also a chance to show the effect of sexism. The Doctor has always had the privileged of being deferred to as a man, if alien. Will the human race be so accepting of the authority and power of the Doctor, of the President of Earth, when she's a woman? That's if they even know the Doctor is the Doctor, but I'm sure the Doctor will experience the everyday sexism as a woman. Will the Doctor be catcalled, maybe? Will her ideas, thoughts, opinions be dismissed? Will she be listened to? Will she have to work that much harder to be heard, to prove that she's right? Are things more likely to go wrong because the Doctor's not listened to because she's a woman?

There's the Doctor experiencing sexism, and then there's the audience seeing how the Doctor is being treated differently to how she's used to now she is a woman. There is a lot the show could do here to explore and discuss gender inequality and sexism, and the conversations or change in perspectives they could spark.

I'm also interested to see what will happen in regards to the Doctor's sexuality. We've had Captain Jack Harkness, who is omnisexual, and Bill, who is gay. I don't remember the Doctor's sexuality ever being mentioned, but he has fallen in love twice, with women - with Rose and with River Song. The Doctor doesn't fall in love that often, and not all his companions have been love interests, but Rose and River will always be important to the Doctor - the Doctor will always love them, no matter what his gender. And what if the Doctor as a woman meets someone who becomes just as important? Will the Doctor, as a woman, be gay? Or will her sexuality be fluid? It's not impossible for a person's sexuality to change; they can believe they were one sexual oritentation, and then later discover they are another. So it wouldn't be surprising, necessarily, if the Doctor, as a woman, were to fall for a man. However, I think it might mean more if the Doctor were to remain attracted to women.

As I said, the creators of Doctor Who have a unique opportunity here. I am so excited to see what they do with Doctor Who next. Of course, Doctor Who will still be Doctor Who, the show at it's essence won't change. It will just be interesting to see this new change. Of course, there are more steps that could be taken. The actress they chose could have been a woman of colour, right? There are those fans who will have a problem with a female Doctor, so maybe they want to make changes one step at a time. A woman first, a person of colour next? I don't know whether that's necessarly the right thing to do, even if that is what they're doing. But it's a step in the right direction, at least, and I can't wait to see Jodie Whittaker in action.

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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Battling Anxiety in the Face of Terrorism

Red leaves against a blue sky

Living with a mental illness in a world where terrorist attacks are becoming a common occurrence is difficult. From what I can remember, the number of terrorist attacks has increased at an alarming rate since the Charlie Hebdo attack in France in January 2015. Wherever terrorist have happened, the news of each one has hit me with such sadness, fear and despair. This year it's felt constant - it's already June, and I can't count how many attacks there have been - and with each new attack, the longer it's taken for me to shake off the despair. So much death, so many injured. And the fear. The fear has been really difficult for me to get past.

The attack on London Bridge was the straw that broke the camel's back when it comes to my anxiety. With all the other attacks, despite the range of emotions I've battled with, my anxiety hasn't been a problem. But with London Bridge - the third attack in the UK in three months - it became too much, and my mental health couldn't take any more, and I've had a bit of a relapse. I went to work yesterday, and anxiety was pretty much a constant all day until I came back home. I work in the West End, and with how popular and busy an area it is I've been worried that it's a prime area for an attack. Only last Wednesday I was talking about the attack in Manchester, and saying how I felt it was only a matter of time until the West End is hit. Three days later, London is hit again, and my fear rocketed. I was lucky that I was able to keep my anxiety at bay enough that I didn't have an anxiety attack, but I have never experienced the affects of anxiety for so long - for most of the day.

Now I'm off on annual leave for six days, and it would be so easy to just stay in and not go out - especially as the weather isn't going to be great this week. But staying in because I'm anxious is just not something I can do. I'm fortunate that my anxiety is mild compared to others, but if I am to give into it, I can feel that it would only get worse, and it would just get more and more difficult to go out. What I'm struggling with is that this fear I have is not irrational, the thoughts that scare me are not irrational. Terrorism seems rife now, and I don't think it's irrational to think that I could potentially, at some point, be in an area where a terrorist attack happens. Likely is a different matter, but it's not irrational. I can't tell myself it won't happen. I can tell myself it's unlikely, try and convince myself I'll be fine, but I can't tell myself it won't happen. But at the same time, I can't let my anxiety or terrorism stop me from living my life.

I went out today, shopping. I could have gone local, grabbed what I needed, and got home quick, but I didn't. I chose to go to a shopping centre. I looked around some shops, bought a couple of tops, picked up the few things I needed, and ate out. I was out for a few hours. It was hard, but I knew I needed to do it. And it wasn't that bad, as I knew it wouldn't be. My Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is recent enough that I still remember my strategies, how to get through things, and I was fine. This one day isn't going to stop the anxiety, it's going to take time, and going back to work on Monday will be difficult again because of the area. But I'll keep working at it, and trying and, moving forward. It would have been easier to stay home, I would have felt safer staying home. But that wouldn't have been harmful and unhealthy. So I'm proud of myself for going out, and so glad that I managed to stay calm throughout.

I know that what I'm going through is nothing compared to what the families of those who have died, those who are injured, and those who witnessed it. But all of us are going to be affected by these attacks, and those of us with mental illnesses may be even more. And we've got to look after ourselves. Today was me looking after myself, and me living my life as usual.

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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Race for Life 2017 - Our Fight to Beat Cancer for Everyone

In May 2014, my Nan was told that her lung cancer was gone, and that after six gruelling months, she was in remission. To celebrate, my Mum and I signed up for Race for Life 2014, to happen in July, to raise money for a charity that would continue to help people like my Nan. In June, however, my Nan had a seizure. She was rushed to hospital, and after undergoing numerous tests, she was that that she wasn't, actually, in remission, that the cancer had spread to her brain. There was nothing they could do. They gave her six months.

Me and my Mum after completing Race for Life 2014, wearing our medals

So it was with a very different mood that Mum and I took part in Race for Life 2014 on a wet, rainy day in July. It was no longer the celebration we thought it would be. It was hugely emotional. What we were doing, the money we had raised, wouldn't help Nan. She wouldn't make it, she wouldn't win her fight. But still, we did it for her, thinking of her the whole way. It was us sticking up our middle fingers to cancer. It might be taking my Nan, my Mum's mum from us, but we were doing what we could to help stop it taking other people's loved ones from them. We were doing it in the hope that the money we raised would help other people going through what we were, what my Nan was, in the hope that other people would be saved, that eventually, a cure would be found.

Just over nine months after being told she was terminal, in the early hours of Saturday 4th April 2015, Nan died, surrounded by her family. Those nine months of watching her deteriorate are some of the worst of my life. Seeing this fierce, strong woman who was so full of fun and laughter, who I was always in so much awe of, become a shell of herself. The tiredness. How fragile she became, the slightest bump doing so much damage to her body. The lack of  strength that led to her being bed bound. The loss of hand-eye co-ordination as well as loss of strength in her hands, meaning she needed us to feed her, help her drink, help her smoke - the vice she went back to once she knew she was going to die anyway. The loss of memory, forgetting people's names, wasting her strength to ask something she'd already asked. How she remembered wishing me Happy Birthday when she hadn't, and when Mum told her she hadn't, used the very little strength she had to whisper-gasp-sing me Happy Birthday. She died 20 days later.

Later that same year, on Thursday 10th December 2015, bowel cancer took her sister, too. In the following year, on Wednesday 6th July 2016, their brother also died from lung cancer. In the space of 15 months, cancer stole three people from our family. It's been an absolutely heartbreaking few years for us. So much loss. So much grief. So much anger. All because of cancer.

And that's why, on 24th June, Mum and I will, again, be taking part in Race for Life 2017. This time round, we will be doing it in the memory of our loved ones. We'll be doing it for my Nan, who didn't make it. We'll be thinking of her the whole time again, and it will be so much harder. But we'll be doing it in the hope that others will win their fight, that others won't have to experience the grief of losing someone to this terrible, harrowing disease. We will be doing it as a thank you for the care Nan and her siblings received throughout their treatment. This will be our fight to beat cancer for everyone, and it will be even more emotional than the first.

And so I ask if you would mind sponsoring my Mum and I, to raise money for Cancer Research UK, to bring us a few steps closer to ridding the world of a disease that has destroyed so many people's lives. Anything you can spare will be greatly appreciated.

You can donate at our fundraising page here. Thank you so, so much.

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