Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Learning from top to bottom

2018 has been a year of learning and growth for me. So I could really relate when I saw this in one of those best of 2018 in Tumblr things:

Well kids, gather round, because I had one of those moments myself this year. A moment that shifted all my paradigms, distorted my memories, ruined my friendships, and almost got me kicked out of brunch. I want to tell you a story.

Let me start by saying...when my best friend from high school came out as gay in 1999, we weren't really surprised. And because he was effusive and popular and I am awkward and malodorous, I followed along with the friends he made, in and out of clubs. I met some lovely lovely people and had some great times, and "all my friends are gay" was said with a shrug, not a boast. I joined support groups myself when I was questioning. So what I'm saying is, I am no stranger to the gay life, or at least what the gay life was in the first decade of the Milennium (think cruising, not grindr). I've heard conversations at 4am, I've seen come ons and come downs and a lot of gay porn. (For some reason).

So of course I know gay men have sex, and I know how they have sex, and in what sort of positions,  and I know what tops and bottoms are.

Or so I thought. You see, that's what I thought top and bottom were: sexual positions. And like any sexual position, of course you'd have your preferences, stuff you liked more than other stuff. But I thought that was as far as it went.

Then I started watching Drag Race. And as I started to get into it, started to follow the lingo, I came to a horrifying realisation. Top or bottom isn't just what you like. It's what you are.

Top or bottom for gay guys, I learned, is a lifestyle choice. It's a complete identity. An identity that apparently comes with its own tastes in fashion and music and cuddling. It can even determine who pays for dates.

The first scary fallout from this is wondering how the fuck it is possible, even with my dim emotional awareness, that knowledge of this failed to reach me before now?

But much, much worse is the flow on knowledge that all the gay men I know, almost all of them, are either a top or a bottom. It's like when you find about sex for the first time and then you look at all the adults you know and think "oh my God, they actually do that?". With the guys I know, now I'm wondering who's who. I think back to the couples I've known - "I wonder who was what? I reckon it was...no hang on, remember the time he..." and now that is all I think of when I remember them (which I do a lot, with the whole memoir thing). I wonder it when I see gay guys walking down the street. "Do you reckon he's...?". I have to know.

This top and bottom thing is messing with my head. Overcome with curiosity at brunch, I turned to the gay couple sitting in the booth behind me and said "I'm sorry, I have to know. Which one of you is-" and they cut me off "finished with the tomato sauce? Actually, we're both done. Take the bottle". I don't even like tomato sauce, but I ended up covering my hash browns in it to hide my shame. I really am not good at making eye contact, and end up staring at the condiments when I'm trying to talk to people.

But the other thing I feel is kind of angry. One thing I did already know is gay people love making fun of straight people, or bi people who have straight sex, for having boring sex lives. Straight sex is something you know I've done at least once, since I have a kid, and I'm too poor to afford IVF (incidentally, my kid is lucky in this way, as an only child. He's too young to know much about this stuff yet, but when he is, no child wants to imagine his or her parents having sex. As an only child, G can imagine we only did it once, and it was a terrible drunken mistake we don't even remember, and the next day we were filled with guilt and remorse and returned to our lives of chaste platonic companionship except for the fact said sole, lone, only incident of forbidden lusts resulted in him).

So when gay people joke about straight sex being vanilla and boring I'm angry. I'm like oh bitch.

Because no matter what you think of not-gay-male sex, at least we're not doing it in the same position all the damn time.

But this top and bottom thing has blown my mind. How did the knowledge of this escape me? I've seen every episode of Queer as Folk, several times, albeit not recently. Did I miss something? Was I in the bathroom for all of the crucial chatter between Ted and Emmett? Was it all the chemical enhancements I was on at parties? I wish I was alive to see this. Cause I'm too old for earth shattering revelations anymore. And to my gay friends, I'm sorry, but I've thought about you having sex recently. Which is not as bad as it could be, but this is still pretty bad.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

2018, love and other catastrophes

Hey everyone, I've been on a bit of a blogging break cause I've been kinda busy. It's safe to say the past few years haven't been great for me, leading to such delightful low points as running down a Central Coast street past a bunch of pensioners in broad daylight with my underpants around my ankles*.

2018 was the year everything changed. I moved house, twice, but finally into a lovely apartment with a leafy outlook where I hope to stay several years. I've even been able to paint the rooms. I had surgery to correct an annoying hand problem that's plagued me for years and prevented me from driving. I lost 20kg. After what seems like 87 years, I graduated from uni, and landed a full time job (you want to talk miracles, people? I walked out of an arts degree into a great job in my field of specialisation. When does that even happen?). I have money, peace and stability. I'm daring to hope.

So... I decided it might well be time to dare to date again. Dating has changed rather a lot since the last time I had anything to do with it. Last time I was dating, we were all excited about America's great new President and the hope and change he represented, back here in Australia our most popular Prime Minister ever was surely going to stay in office for several successful terms, Taylor Swift was just an innocent ingenue who may or may not have had the best video of all time, and Steve Jobs should have just gone to the fucking oncologist.

Meanwhile, online dating has moved from the realm of losers and weirdos and genre specific forums (those were actually kind of helpful...Coffin Mates, anyone?) to the realm of the normal, the realm of a dizzying array of apps. It's socially acceptable now to say you use online dating apps. That's not to say what you find there is acceptable. I am not a prude by any means. I'm just...private about some things (the woman who described her induction in great detail is pausing for laughter). But I've seen things, things on dating apps. Things I expected from men. Men are trash. But I wasn't expecting to see them from women too. Let's just say I've learned not to open my messages on the bus. (Maybe a tiny peek). 

Through all the noise, I managed to cut through and get talking to a very nice young woman, who gained my interest with her vintage dress sense and kept it with her love of art and reading. We chatted over a week, seemed to get on, and we agreed to meet for an actual date.

My first formal date since the end of my marriage.

My first formal, prearranged date with a woman since I finally made public peace with my sexuality.

Because I don't like loud ambient noises of bars and restaurants, we agreed to a day time date, seeing an exhibition at the art gallery, then getting lunch in the city.

And despite my changed luck in 2018, I'm still me, the original disaster strumpet. So it all went wrong in spectacular, clichéd, I-don't-fucking-believe-this form.

I managed to get ready without an anxiety attack. We met on time, I wasn't stood up, and she looked like her picture not a greasy 48 year old guy named Warren, so we were off to a good start. Conversation was a little stilted, but like all milennials she soon warmed up to talking about herself - which was fine really, I'm just okay to listen. The art exhibition was great, I'll have to go back when I can look properly. Okay, so then we discussed lunch. How's sushi? Yep sushi sounds great, let's do it.

So we walk through the Domain and Hyde Park (Sydney you can be so damn pretty some times it makes it harder to hate you) and on to the Pitt Street Mall, and we're just discussing where exactly to eat when among the pre Christmas shopping crowds whoops, we cross paths with my ex husband.

And my ex mother in law.

And my seven year old son.

Who never, ever come into the city but did that day for a birthday lunch.

Who, on that day, in a city of five million people (plus summer tourists) I somehow manged to run into.

And when your own child spots you, it's kind of hard to pretend you didn't see someone. What followed was the 60 most awkward seconds of my life. It was so awkward that I've blocked most of it from my memory; my brain has just saved a buzzing noise filled with fuzzy images and dread. I don't think I introduced anyone. I don't remember if I even said anything much except Hi to my boy. I don't think anyone except my ex knew what was going on. (I sure as hell didn't). All I knew was that running into your ex, ex mother in law and your child - a scenario the worst 90s sitcom would dismiss as too far fetched - had just happened. To me. Because of course it fucking did.

Perhaps, in a land of fairy tales and destiny, a date could recover from something like that. Ours didn't. The conversation returned to awkward, to stilted, to parting ways without so much as a peck on the cheek. I didn't expect to hear from her again, and haven't. I'm not particularly upset about it - I know it might take time to find someone right for me, and the age gap would probably have been insurmountable.

But we'll never know, because on my first date after my marriage ended I ran into my ex husband. On my first date in three years I ran into his mother who probably hadn't been into the city in that long. On my first date with a woman I ran into my son, neither of whom knew of the possibility of the existence of the other.

I've learned my lesson though. To date people closer my own age. And if I do get anther date, to meet them in a bar in the country. And to make that country Denmark. Hopefully we don't run into anyone I know there.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

The "colonies" are not a threat to you. They're protection for us

Aw man, I was taking a break from blogging. See, I'm writing a memoir. I know I haven't done much, but "O.J. Simpson wrote a memoir, and the jury said he didn't do anything at all"1. Anyway, I have no delusions about getting it published; I'm just going to whack the thing online when it's done, and I'm not going to tie anyone up and force them to read it, and I could, cause I went to the gym a few months back, and even had a little go on one of the weight machines, and I think I'm still pretty pumped.

But I thought I'd post a little something about how Andrew Bolt is wrong. Of course we knew that already. But earlier this week Australia's most urbane and dashing far right bigot posted some racist tosh about how immigrants form colonies and refuse to assimilate, and I got to thinking about other colonies, and why people choose to live there to get away from the likes of Andrew Bolt. 

Yesterday, child in tow, I set off to pick out some paint colours for the bathroom (that beige is hideous). Ah, what could be more Australian than Bunnings on a Saturday! The crowds, the cupcake stall, the sausages. But what was perhaps a little less typical at this Bunnings, a Bunnings in Sydney's Inner West, possibly the most left-leaning area in Australia, was the number of same sex couples holding hands, exchanging kisses after finally agreeing on a light shade, and causing extended queues to look at paint colours (gay men take paint colours very seriously). They are able to do this because the inner west is largely a safe place to be openly gay, a place where gay people can live their lives without fear. And so there are lots of same sex attracted people and couples who choose to live here. I wonder if Andrew Bolt would call this a gay colony?

Columnists like Bolt, and here in Sydney scribes such as Miranda Devine and Piers Akerman, love to denigrate people who live in the inner city and inner west as luvvies, elites, out of touch, wanting to destroy Australian values of merit and hard work - which is a touch ironic, seeing as Piers Akerman, with all the charm of something a cane toad coughed up, has nonetheless managed to secure for both his daughters plum roles at News Ltd, while Devine, who is so anti elite she went to one of Australia's poshest girls' schools then an elite college at the University of Sydney, but is nonetheless not so much close to crazy as pulled up behind crazy yelling "back off arsehole, I saw this spot first!". No mind. When they're not fawning over Trump or whining about plastic bags, hating on the supposed inner city elite is rich, deep pasture for their small and shallow minds. 

Why do they think we live here? Why do queer and alternative people who've never quite fit in flock to the inner west? I mean sure it's the second hand bookshops and small bars and cafes with a choice of almond, hazelnut or tumeric milk. But it's also because we know there's other queer and alternative people here, and we can be safe. Some of us simply didn't feel safe where we came from - the regional areas and outer suburbs - and that's somewhat to blame on the hatred and at times violence stirred up by those who rail against the "rainbow agenda", the "extreme feminists", columnists like Akerman and Devine who pushed for the Marriage equality referendum regardless of the pain it would cause and who denied that pain when it inevitably happened. There's safety in numbers, so we come here where we can feel safe, and connected to others like us. 

When I walk down the street here, and see the rainbow flags hanging from windows and STOP ADANI stickers on cars, I know I am among my people. For many people, residing here means the right to live free of vilification and attack for being who they are. At a time when far right hatred is ratcheting up across the Western world, of course that's more important than ever. When we are under attack, of course we want to bunker down with others like us. But now the same bigots who helped create the conditions that made us feel unsafe in the first place are now furious that people are forming inner city elites and ethnic colonies. Andrew Bolt is furious:

Immigration is becoming colonisation, turning this country from a home into a hotel. We are clustering into tribes that live apart from each other and often do not even speak the same language in the street.

In Sydney’s Lakemba, nearly two-thirds of all residents are Muslim and nearly 70 per cent were born overseas. In Melbourne’s Springvale, one in four residents speaks Vietnamese at home. Another 10 per cent come from China or Cambodia. In Sydney’s Fairfield, one in four residents were born in Vietnam, Cambodia or China.

 In Sydney’s Five Dock, long after the heyday of immigration from Europe, one in seven residents still speaks Italian at home. In Melbourne’s North Caulfield, 41 per cent of residents are Jews, including hundreds who have lately fled South Africa. Dandenong now has an official Little Indian Cultural Precinct, with 33 Indian businesses.

Such colonising will increasingly be our future as we gain a critical mass of born-overseas migrants.

When racism in Australia seems to be getting more extreme and blatant - with no one in authority doing anything to stop it - of course migrants are going to want to be with others of their own race or faith. They can work and contribute to Australia whilst still enjoying the customs, traditions, foods and cultures they're familiar with - and there's the safety in numbers thing again. If men with payos or women in hijabs can feel a bit safer from attack walking down the street in their own communities, of course it's just human nature to want that.

These colonies will be our future, then, not because people don't want to be Australians, but because certain Australians don't want to accept a modern Australia in all of its fabulous diversity. There's no rainbow agenda in Newtown or Islamist plot in Lakemba aiming to take over the country. It's just people living their lives in the face of certain people who seek to make those lives harder.

1. P.J. O'Rourke, 2001 The CEO of the Sofa.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Disability welfare reform must start at the top

Yet another terrible story of a seriously ill person being told by Centrelink that they don't qualify for the disability support pension.

Single father Robert Laughlin is battling stage 3 bowel cancer. He's currently in a Melbourne hospital, unable to speak or move much, and being fed via tube; obviously unable to work or look for work. Centrelink have denied his Disability Support Pension application, forcing him on to the lower rate Newstart unemployment payment, with its "mutual obligation" requirements to report to Centrelink offices and apply for 20 jobs a fortnight. His family are rightly and justifiably furious. 

Unfortunately Centrelink have come back with their standard response to these issues: “We recognise medical conditions can have a significant impact on people’s lives; however, we do not have any discretion to grant payments outside the very clear criteria set down in legislation.”

This problem comes up again and again. In order to qualify for the disability support pension, a person's condition must be treated, permanent, fully diagnosed and stabilised. And even that isn't enough; you still need to be assessed by Centrelink health assessors, who can override the recommendations of your own treating physicians if they do not believe that your condition is sufficiently grave to disqualify you from any kind of work.

So, there's probably not much point speaking to Centrelink themselves about this. If it's a problem with the legislation, we need to change the legislation. We need to be putting pressure on the government. Either the criteria for Disability Support Pension needs to change, or we need a new payment that covers people in situations where their illness may not be stable or permanent, but they are still unable to work.

And the assessment of ability to work must be realistic, not based on the wishful thinking of conservatives that anyone can get a job if they just try hard enough. (Someone on Twitter said - and I wish I could find it so I could give them credit - that telling an unemployed person "the best form of welfare is a job" is like telling a drowning person "the best solution for drowning is fresh air").

Getting the current government to make life a little bit easier for those facing difficulty with it, however, will be like teaching a cat to waterski by giving it written instructions. The current Minister for Human Services is Michael Keenan. No, I'd never heard of him either. But the top two stories on his ministerial website laud the praises of charging interest on welfare debt repayments and a crack down on welfare cheats in Mount Druitt, so I'm guessing the guy isn't operating off a basis of compassion, or for that matter evidence. Nevertheless, there's a contact form on his website, so I'll be firing off a message today. (I'm always cordial when I do this, FWIW). I'd also recommend contacting your MP. Let's make this an election issue. If Labor and the Greens supported this, the Liberals would probably have to as well to avoid looking like dickheads.

There's an argument heard against increasing the rate of Newstart allowance: it's only meant to be a temporary payment. It's meant to tide you over during gaps in employment; it doesn't need to be livable because it's not meant to be a payment you live on. But changes to the disability support pension mean that for many people it is an allowance they live on for extended periods; they have no reasonable prospect of work, but are not deemed ill enough - or their condition is deteriorating, and not therefore stable - to receive the disability payment. It's a ridiculous, heartbreaking and ultimately untenable situation. Ordinary people know this; now we need to get our politicians to know it as well.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Pens down

Today is a day I thought would never come.

When I started my Bachelor of Social Science degree, my first, at the University of Newcastle back in 2013, I knew it wasn't going to be easy studying with a small child; but I was determined to make something of myself. I didn't want to work in call centres forever. I wanted to do some good in the world.

I had no idea what was to come. Since those first exciting lectures, I have moved from Newcastle to Sydney (switching to the University of Sydney) to the Central Coast and back to Sydney. My marriage ended and I've had a bunch of housing instability and other issues. And through (almost) all of it, I kept at my studies. There were times I was exhausted physically and emotionally from long commutes and passing up time with my child to get assignments done and poverty and just wanting to give up and go work in a shop, but I knew I had to keep going.

And along the way the familiar sandstone - and hideous 1960s buildings - of the University of Sydney became a second home to me. Sometimes, even a first home. It was my anchor, my refuge. Who cares what else is going on? Come here, and study. I adored my classes.

I think I might miss it.

Because today is a day I could barely imagine during all the years I had to screw my courage to the sippy cup, and keep going. I took my last exam. That's it - I'm done. I've completed all the requirements of my degree.

It may not be the degree I initially wanted, but it's still a degree from the University of Sydney, something that seemed the stuff of fairy tales when I was a teenager doing miserably average at a run down comprehensive high school in regional NSW. If it was achieved in hellish circumstances, well then I can appreciate it more.

I recently found a box of old diaries. An entry I made just before I turned 30 set out my goals for the next decade. Life didn't turn out how I planned then, but I can tick one item off the list: get a degree by age 40. Now I have done it. (Next - a PhD by 50). Pens down. Or as I prefer, from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyáma: Tamam Shud. It is finished.

And now I need to get a job. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

ABC bias and other urban legends

The Coalition government would like to privatise the ABC. Of course they would, because they can't see the value in anything you can't turn a profit from, especially not one that allows the unwashed masses access to better investigative journalism, local news, drama, comedy, arts and music than they can enjoy on any of the free commercial networks. Selling the ABC has been on their wet dream list for years, as was confirmed on the weekend, when the Liberal party federal council meeting voted overwhelmingly in favour of the sale. I mean, they'd hand the public broadcaster over to Rupert Murdoch in exchange for keeping what copper wire they could rip out of ABC HQ at Ultimo, if they thought they could get away with it.

But they know selling the ABC would be up there with dismantling Medicare as something they yearn to do but would be too deeply publicly unpopular to contemplate, prompting Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to sanctimoniously declare:

Which might be a little more plausible if there weren't scores of instances of government ministers and advisers stating publicly that the ABC should be privatised, including from Senator Fifield himself. Although it was fun for the rest of the day to see the LNP hacks rushing to defend the Senator by declaring that the Coalition will never, ever sell the beloved public institution that is the stinking pile of biased crap at the ABC.

Ah, that old clanger. ABC bias. The running commentary from those who want to sell off the ABC that it is a complete lefty/Labor/Greens love in, which successive LNP governments are powerless to rectify. I mean, I can see their point. I was watching Gardening Australia last week, and the segment was supposedly about winter garden maintenance but Costa wouldn't shut up about raising corporate tax rates. Those opposed to the ABC are convinced there's a left wing bias, but they seem uncertain just what that bias is.

I asked on Twitter for specific examples of bias, but no one mentioned any. In all the commentary on the privatisation vote, I saw many mentions of ABC bias, but never any specific examples other than allusions to the ABC accepting the scientific consensus on climate change. Which is something, huh? If the ABC was biased, you'd think they'd be able, heck eager, to provide evidence of this. Lefty types on Twitter frequently raise allegations that 7.30 host Leigh Sales is harder on Bill Shorten in interviews than when she speaks to Malcolm Turnbull, which, whether or not you agree with it, is at least a specific example of bias. But online commenters wanting to sell the ABC couldn't name any bias at all. Some of them, in fact, were so completely convinced of ABC bias they haven't been able to bring themselves to watch in many, many years, judging from one outraged non viewer convinced Tony Jones is both biased and blond.

But they've got nothing in the way of proof. It doesn't faze them, though. No matter how many IPA members appear running the neocon line on The Drum, no matter how many Liberal politicians and supporters are featured on Q and A, no matter if interviews with government figures are soft balled, no matter even that quantitative studies show the ABC has, if anything, a slight right wing slant; the side that proclaims itself to be on the side of cool headed facts over emotions, of "reals before feels", are relying on what they just know deep down to tell themselves the ABC is biased, in the place of any actual evidence. ABC bias is like the story you saw on Facebook about the friend of a friend of a friend's child who was kidnapped at a shopping centre, taken into the toilets to have their head shaved, and was about to be bundled into a getaway car when police swooped, warning no one to speak of this for fear of causing a panic (can you believe, in this day and age with all the resources we have at our disposal, people still fall for this shit). It's a myth, and urban legend, tale spread by those who don't know any better and pushed by those who profit from the lie.

Although Andrew Bolt did propose a test of ABC bias: see if any of its presenters believe it should be sold off. That none will say so, apparently, is proof the ABC if biased. And if the ABC drowns, we'll know it wasn't a witch.

Friday, June 15, 2018

This is what happens when you reach out and get help

With the recent, much publicised suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, social media was flooded with messages urging anyone suffering depression or thoughts of self harm to reach out...get help. I know people mean well. But what help is there?

I've been hesitant to write this post, but what the hell, let's go all in. This is what happens when you reach out. If you call a suicide hotline - always promoted as the best option despite dubious proof of efficacy - or tell any sort of health or counselling professional that you are having thoughts of self harm, they are legally required to report it. Me, I was too tired to hide from my psychiatrist my utter despair. So they call 000, or the relevant emergency number. Ambulance officers arrive, and under the Mental Health Act 2007 here in NSW, are legally authorised to detain you if they believe you are mentally ill or mentally disturbed ("no, I'm not mentally disturbed, I'm having a completely justified reaction to the shit heap my life has become").

The ambulance officers will then take you to hospital. If you're "lucky", you might go straight to the mental health unit. Me? It was a weekday, mid morning, and the newly opened mental health unit did not have beds available. So. Usually, you'll have to go sit in emergency. I hadn't taken anything, physically I was fine, I just felt like an utter wreck. And there you have to sit, with an ambo to babysit you, surrounded by suspected heart attacks and falls and babies with suspected meningococcal. At some stage it was decided it was easier to knock me out, so they put me in a bed and put benzodiazepines in me, which I willingly took - believe me, I'm much happier unconscious. So that was a blurry six hours. A psychiatrist came to talk to me. I saw her report when I left hospital. She wrote in the notes that I look older than my stated age. Well thanks, that just made me feel fucking fantastic. Do they do that for heart attack victims?

After a prolonged time, and still semi sedated, I was moved to the mental health unit. They confiscate and catalogue all your possessions. Again, do they do this with heart attack victims? Go through their bags and take their squeez bacon? Mental health patients can't be trusted with their stuff, apparently. I mean, I can kind of understand; they told me phones are taken because people will call 000 and report they've been kidnapped. But all my books were on my phone. They told me I could read the books belonging to the unit. Jodi Picoult. I shudder. I asked for a bible. The didn't have any but the chaplain visits once a week. That's very helpful. I wasn't allowed to leave that day.

Look, apart from the comment about my age, which I'll let slide, the staff were all very nice. But it was still pretty gross and dehumanising. Some of the other patients were glad of the opportunity to connect with social workers and support, but I was tired and wanted to go home.

Then the next morning, I saw the psych team. I put on my cheerful face. Yes I'm feeling much better. Actually, I wasn't feeling any better, and miserable from being in hospital. But I put on the happy face and was able to go home.

That's all there is to offer. If you reach out, and tell someone you're contemplating self harm or ending your life, this is what will happen to you.

So, imagine feeling like you want to end your life, then being put through the demeaning, dehumanising process of a psychiatric hold. I want to be very clear on this: it is not working. It is not working. When you reach out and get help, the help system there is is broken. It might psychically stop a person from committing suicide whilst they are in the psych unit, but it is such an awful experience that person will lie, say they are fine, to get out as fast as they can. The NSW Coroner's website alone lists scores of inquiries into people who were recently discharged from psych units then took their own lives. The way we "help"  doing is making things worse.

There's a lot of misunderstanding about suicide, a lot of emphasis on the individual rather than a sick and broken society. The suicides of the rich and well connected prove it can happen to anyone. And this is true, but suicide is more likely to happen to the disadvantaged, the poor, the abused, the unemployed, LGTBI people. We don't hear about it as much, that's all. The photogenic girl from a caring family who commits suicide seemingly from nowhere gets the media attention, but it's the young person without the loving family and support network that is more at risk. 

For some people, mental illness and suicide ideation comes out of the blue, for no reason. But for many others, it's a reaction to abuse, chronic pain, isolation, poverty, unemployment. These suicides on the fringes of society are not the ones we know and mourn, but their lives matter.

We need to move away from a mindset that removes depression from its societal context and puts the emphasis on the individual to get help. We need to look at the problems in society that are causing all this pain - and the relentless push to be happy that further isolates those who are suffering; this is a great post about the toxic culture of happiness. A bit of research into the use of psychotropic drugs would be good, too. Because as things stand, if my mind gets filled with the black sludge of misery again, I won't be reaching out for help. There isn't any.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Baby boomers: change the system or end up in the terrible nursing homes you deserve

I think I may have mentioned this, but I don't like neoliberalism.

That's okay, because most other people don't like it either. They just don't know it. But the ideology which has spread like a cancer through society for forty years - the ideology of maximising profit at all costs, cutting regulation, firing staff, user pays, and the hell with the values of compassion and decency that just get in the way of making money - they hate it. You can see it in the complaints about the terrible toll neoliberalism has racked on our society - everything from self checkouts, telcos sending jobs offshore so you speak to someone overseas who tells you your service won't be fixed for 6 weeks and can't conceive why that's a problem; TAFE unattainable and unaffordable, people with serious disabilities forced to look for work they cannot do, then they hate it.

The Liberal party and to a slightly lesser extent Labor party believe that government should "get out of the way" and let business do its thing, as free from regulation, and taxation, as possible. Therein lies job creation. But corporations pursuing profit above all won't employ a single person they don't have to, and often rather fewer people than that, as you'd know if you shopped retail or called your phone company lately. Government bureaucracies, similarly driven by KPIs and the relentless drive for efficiency, are little better.

And if anyone objects, says this is unregulated neoliberal capitalism and it's time to reign it in, oh the howls of protest from those in power. You want socialism! You want us to be Venezuela!

But a free market system that puts human services in the hands of barely regulated, for profit corporations, terrible nursing homes are the inevitable, and symbolic, result.

Nursing homes really epitomise what free market capitalism has become. The government has shifted human services to the private sector. Privately run nursing homes, free of regulation and heart, can stack elderly and dying people like firewood with a minimum of staff and count the profits coming in, hailed as successful business people driving the economy, and meanwhile it's the poor schlub who left a substandard school early, can't get a place at TAFE, and has lost heart after months of futile job searching who is called a parasite.  

Nursing homes are increasingly owned by foreign conglomerates. Research shows nursing homes owned by group capital consistently perform worse than non profit facilities across all measures of patient care. If you spend your lifetime voting for neoliberal economic policies, then a for profit nursing home is where you’re going to end up. Choice is not going to provide much comfort when the general standard is terrible. When you have media exposure like the Four Corners episode, people are outraged for a bit, then everything continues on as normal, because it's the underlying system that is terrible. The Baby Boomers are starting to go into nursing homes; by 2030 - that's 12 years away, think how recent 2006 seems by comparison - there will be half a million of them. And if we don't act now to make some pretty fundamental changes to our political and economic systems, these shitty nursing homes are what they all have to look forward to. We've already seen this in for profit care of at risk kids.

What do we value most as a society? What values do we vote for? If that's unregulated, profit driven capitalism, then as a society we're all headed for profit driven nursing homes that employ as few staff as possible, serve the cheapest possible food, skimp on medical necessities, and leave us to rot in our filth. There are high rates of depression and suicide in nursing home residents.

It's extremely stressful not only for the patients, but the families, the overworked staff. There are no minimum patient to nurse ratios and the complaints process basically consists of receiving a complaint, asking the nursing home did they do anything wrong, and when the nursing home writes back to say they didn't do anything wrong, closing the case (now where have I heard that before?)

But hey, when we die from that bedsore that festered after we were left in one position for 18 hours, at least our loved ones can show they cared with a hideously overpriced funeral! This is harsh, but it's the truth. These are hard conversations to have. It's hard for us to admit that we've lost sight of what's fair and decent in the last 40 years, and it will be even harder to turn things around. But Baby Boomers need to ask themselves what happens when they can no longer manage all the caravanning and being a grey nomad, when spending their kids' inheritance gets really old and so do they. As a society, we all need to shift our values, stop putting profits above people, and vote accordingly.

Because if we live by the profit motive, we'll die by the profit motive. 

Monday, June 04, 2018

The weird psychology of Barnaby Joyce and the Right

Oh, for a skilled political journalist to have handled the Channel 7 interview with former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and his former staffer turned partner Vicki Campion last night. Then maybe we would have had some answers to the questions that really matter - or at least had those questions asked in the first place. Because the real issues here aren't who fell in love with whom, or even what was said in the public confrontation between Joyce, Campion and Barnaby's ex wife Natalie. The questions that needed to be asked - relating to the integrity of our democracy - were ones like "why was a special role in Matt Canavan's office created for Vikki Campion once news of the affair began to circulate around Canberra?" and "Barnaby, considering that it was your fault voters in New England were forced to a byelection because you couldn't get your citizenship sorted out, was it ethical for you to then pretend everything was okay at home when you knew at that stage that the pregnancy was going to cost you your role as Deputy PM?"

In case you've not seen enough already. Source: Channel 7

Instead, what we got was something in the ball park between fluff piece and the full on car crash that was the Four Corners expose of Kathy Jackson and Michael Lawler (which I admit I watched 3 or 4 times). This was more of a minor prang than a write off, as crashes go. But what struck me as the strangest thing was a little softball piece tucked in towards the end, after the yucky stuff was out of the way, as 7 journalist Alex Cullen asked the proud new dad how he'd feel if his son wanted to enter politics. If that's what he wanted to do, I'd try to get on board, Barnaby said. But what if baby Sebastian wanted to join the Greens, Cullen asked? Barnaby Joyce shook his head. He'd wonder where he went wrong as a father for such a ghastly thing to happen.

And that might be completely understandable for this homespun, "country bred", conservative politician. Except for the fact that earlier in the interview, we'd seen Campion and Joyce describe how, early in Campion's pregnancy, figures from the National party had approached Campion and told her she had to abort the pregnancy, or "they're gonna come after you". Barnaby Joyce then described these National party politicians, whom he still sits in parliament with, as the scum of the Earth.

In other words, it was people from his own, conservative side of politics who had threatened his vulnerable, pregnant partner. And yet instead of distancing himself from these people, vowing off the National party after core members of it cause his family so much pain, Barnaby remains part of the party, worried he'd have gone wrong if his son wanted to join...the Greens. I don't get. Why would you side with the people who hurt you against the ones who wished you no harm? Why would you not be able to see that the way these National party figures behave in the lives of those around them is symbolic of the ideology they have for the country you claim to care about? Barnaby Joyce is just on the edge of awareness here, so he's screwing his eyes shut, sticking his fingers in his ears and singing to himself at the top of his lungs.

But he's not the first right wing politician to stubbornly take the ideological side of those who have caused them pain. Witness Pauline Hanson last week on Sky News, crying that fellow One Nation Senator Brian Burston had stabbed her in the back in a disagreement over company tax and his potential defection to the Shooters party. It's hardly first time Hanson has been let down by those on her ideological side, either. She's had a running feud for many years with her One Nation co-founder David Oldfield, slinging insults, allegations and innuendo. Conservative "hard man" Tony Abbott led the drive to have Hanson imprisoned on corruption charges in 2003. Right wing muck rag the Daily Telegraph got very mucky indeed in 2009 when they published a front page exclusive of nude photos of Hanson that, it turned out, weren't actually pictures of Ms Hanson at all.

And yet Hanson has never quite twigged that the nastiness she's received from the Right is emblematic of a bigger problem; that the Right is nasty. It's the ideology of ends justify the means, screw you I've got mine, survival of the fittest, and to hell with facts or compassion...it's the exact opposite of an ideology that would help the struggling Australians that she claims to care so much about. Now I doubt Pauline Hanson can even spell ideology, but despite the fact that it has been adherents of the right who have hurt her over and over again, she keeps lining up for more. She's best friends with Cory Bernardi; inviting Tony Abbott to help flog her latest ghost written "book"; continuing to believe and share the lies of the conservative gutter press despite falling victim herself. Her sworn enemies are the Labor party, and especially, the Greens, who have harmed her not at all.

It's an odd psychological trait of the right, to be loving your oppressors and hating the oppressed, or at least those who, whilst they may be on the other side of politics, have done you no harm. Maybe it's just part of the tribalism of modern politics; yes, these people have lied about me, lied to me, taken advantage of me, threatened my family, thrown me in jail, they're shits, but they're our shits, conservative shits. Maybe we can take solace that whilst the right hates and screws over the electorate, they hate and screw over themselves much more. 

And Barnaby Joyce? Look, I'm not sure the Greens would be rushing to welcome you right now (he's been rightly criticised for saying his six week son caused all the problems, as if none of the extra marital affair, lies to electorate and whiff of corruption would have been a problem if he hadn't knocked his girlfriend up). But for God's sake, get out of the Nationals.

Friday, June 01, 2018

No, regrets!

I used to hate Mayim Bialik. Well, hate's a strong word. But I wasn't too fond of her, what with the whole presenting herself as a neurological natural parenting guru whilst having a bris ceremony for each of her of her sons. I'm still not on board with that but with the videos she's been posting lately, I kind of wish she was my best friend. Like when she posted this video about hating, or at least envying, the people who say they have no regrets. Cause she has a tonne, and she shared a few.

Mayim encouraged her viewers to share their regrets. And I could get on board with this cause Lordy, do I have regrets. Traveling is an exhausting and expensive affair for me cause of all this baggage I carry around. So here are some of my regrets. I'm not going to list them all, cause we'd be here all day and a lot of it's way too personal, but here's a taste of the car crash of emotions I call my life:

  • I regret not calling out a coworker for the appallingly racist email she sent, which I immediately and furiously deleted, on Sorry Day. 

  • I regret all the drunk dialing. Obviously. 

  • I regret pursuing a business degree I didn't want instead of the dreams of acting and writing I did want when I was young.

  • I regret all the times I didn't speak up for myself, all the times I thought oh well, maybe if I'm nice, the adversary in this situation will be nice to me. 

  • I regret not saving money in my twenties. But I was insanely depressed, so...(a lot of my regrets have caveats regarding depression). 

  • But, and this one has no excuses, I regret the time, at age 27 and on the verge of buying an apartment in Newcastle, I thought "I might give life in Sydney a try and buy property later". But no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, or that property prices would more than double since then. 

  • I regret all the concerts and festivals I missed out on in my youth because I didn't have friends who were interested, and not realising I could just go anyway, on my own.

  • In fact I regret so many of the things I didn't do. I was raised with not doing things as default mode, and it was kind of a pattern I stuck with for too long, thinking everything was too hard and nice to think about but not actually do. So I regret all the times I thought about study, or trips, or events, but did nothing about it. My ex husband cured me of this habit and I'm forever grateful for that.

  • I regret leaving the moulded ceiling fixture I so loved in my first adult house behind.

  • I regret all the books I never read cause I was scared to try anything new.

  • So no, I don't live without regrets. In fact I kind of think that to live without regrets means living without learning, or shame, or growth. (And I'm very familiar with both learning and shame). There's some growth there too, and not just in my waistline; I will now absolutely speak up for myself, complain, demand to see the manager, no more do I just give in. And I try to speak up when I see racism or bigotry. I'm now about to finish (last two weeks!) a degree I love that will give me, I hope, lots of opportunity to write about social justice and the things I care about. And you best believe I just do things now, when depression and money permits, even if that's just taking a ridiculously long trip on public transport to a model railway exhibit in some suburb you've never heard of. And if they throw in a sausage sizzle, I might go twice.

    What about you? What are your regrets?

    Thursday, May 17, 2018

    No more "good blokes": a call for guidelines on reporting murder

    Somewhere in Australia, right now, there is a man considering killing their entire family, and themselves.

    There may, in fact, be more than one. Probably is more than one, in fact. But we know it's a man; perpetrators of familicide, or family annihilation, are almost exclusively male. Maybe he's lost his job, gambled his way into debt, believes the world is an evil and corrupt place; maybe it's for no reason at all. For whatever reason, he's decided that he wants to die. Not only that, but that everyone he loves most should die with him. And why not? If he was to simply kill himself, he'd be leaving them with the debt, with the shame. For that, he may be remembered as a coward.

    But the man planning how he can wipe out his entire family can be sure that if he does so, that act of murder will not define him. He'll be remembered as a good bloke.

    Like Geoff Hunt, who pointed a gun at the heads each of his three children and his wife, and pulled the trigger. He was remembered as a lovely bloke, a hardworking family man, driven to despair over his wife's traumatic brain injury and sparing his family the pain of their unbearable lives. As with reports from the Margaret River shooting that one or more of the children have autism, the mention of disability adds to the redemption of the murderer; the stress of coping with a loved one's disability makes murder all the more understandable. And when the murder of the Lutz-Manrique children in 2017 was described as "an act of love", it tells us that the lives of people with disabilities are not quite worth living.

    Channel 7 journalist Robert Ovadia is apparently angry that people are challenging the good bloke narrative. Ovadia asks whether we need to spell out that mass murderers are bad people, before stating we need to leave Aaron Cockman, who described his former father in law, who'd murdered Cockman's four children, as a good bloke - alone.

    The people who needed to leave Aaron Cockman alone are the media who broadcast the words of a man who was obviously in shock hours after losing his children. But no one was challenging Aaron Cockman. They were upset and angry that yet again, a man who murdered their entire family was being remembered as a good bloke - in one case, described as such in the headline of an article despite no one quoted in the article describing him that way. 

    The NSW Coroner found that Geoff Hunt murdered his family because of an "egocentric delusion that his wife and children would be better off dying than living without him." That is how we should be talking about family annihilators. Not what great blokes they were. The man planning how he will kill his family does not need to know his actions will be rationalised, explained away, forgiven. In the murderous, egotistical scheme he's devising, he doesn't need encouragement to see himself as a hero.

    Do we need to spell out that mass murderers are bad people? Yes. We need to say that good blokes don't kill their wives, their children, their grandchildren. We need the next "ordinary decent bloke" who plans to slaughter his entire family to know he won't be remembered as a good guy. We have guidelines for how suicide is reported in the media, to discourage anyone who may think of copying; we need guidelines on reporting mass murder. Of course family are entitled to remember the deceased however they choose; it doesn't mean the media need to report it. When it happens again - and of course, of course, someone killing their entire family will happen again, cause the world is a bit shit - then at least we can know we are trying a bit harder, as a society, to prevent it. 

    Monday, May 14, 2018


    This blog started life from the Xander and Nico pod, so yes I will post to wish my cat a happy birthday. When you have your own blog, you can post whatever you want.

    Sunday, May 06, 2018

    Onward Christian Hypocrites: The strange logic of Trumping God

    I don't think there's anyone who, by now, does not believe that at some time in the last 15 years, Donald Trump had sex with Stormy Daniels. The details of who paid how much when to shut who up about what are all a bit hazy, but it's pretty much agreed by everyone that the President of the United States, weeks after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child, had sex with a porn star. 

    (And on that, why is everyone in porn a "star"? How come you never hear of "porn extras" or "porn character actors"? No wonder porn stars have all got about 280 film credits to their names; they're busy having to do all the acting. I digress). 

    Even Evangelical Christians accept that Trump has been up to some shifty business, what with the Access Hollywood tapes, and now this; never mind that the man hasn't set foot in a church since elected. Evangelical Christians still love him. Prominent Evangelical Franklin Graham, son of the recently departed Billy Graham, has come out declaring that Trump's affair with Daniels is "nobody's business". You probably find it a bit revolting, and pretty baffling, that Evangelicals can protest gay marriage and in many US States make it almost impossible for a woman to access her right to control her own reproductive freedom, whilst seeing Trump as doing the Lord's work. 

    There's logic behind it, though. A creepy, weird logic, but a logic nevertheless. You see, God famously moves in mysterious ways. God, in fact, likes to choose flawed and ordinary humans to do his work. St Paul enjoyed torturing the early Christians, before a a funny thing happened on the way to Damascus and he turned to spreading The Word of Jesus. 

    But there's another Biblical figure Evangelicals have in mind when it comes to Trump. Specifically, Evangelical leaders are speaking of Trump as Cyrus, a 6th Century BCE Persian King who, whilst not a Jew, ended the Babylonian Exile, allowing the Jews to return to Israel and build the Temple. Whilst not being religious himself, Cyrus was used by God as a "vessel" to achieve His aims. Similarly, as a "flawed vessel", Trump is being used by God to achieve His aims, restoring America's place as a Christian nation.

    How is Trump doing the Lord's work? First of all, by stopping Hilary. They can't quite articulate why - some furious spittle about gas pipelines, Benghazi, Monica Lewinsky and headbands - but they're convinced that Hilary Clinton is evil, actually evil, an instrument of the devil; and Trump, by selflessly putting aside his own interests to run for President, has saved America from this scourge. 

    Then he announced plans to move the American embassy to Jerusalem; also good stuff. In Evangelical theology, it's all part of the plan to kick off with the end times and bring on the second coming of Christ. (Seeing Ultra Zionists and Fundamentalist Christians happily shaking hands over this when their end goals run at cross purposes is creepy, to say the least). 

    And Trump won't take away their God given right to have guns. (I mostly read an ESV Bible, and it seems to be missing the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus sang the praises of the AR-15; maybe that's why the fundamentalists tend to prefer King James). They're not worried about their kids getting shot just for going to school, because their kids don't go to school; they're at home, getting homeschooled, not being "handed over to the state to raise". 

    But Trump's real opportunity to do God's work is yet to come. The Fundies are counting on him to stay President long enough to appoint at least one more, conservative, justice to the Supreme Court. There's 9 Justices on the Supreme court, and they've basically had a balance of 4 conservative Republican, 4 Democrat and one Independent for the past few decades; this has been useful in ensuring judgements tend not to fall on the ends of the political spectrum. When Justice Anthony Scalia, a conservative Republican, died in early 2016, normal procedure should have been for Barack Obama to nominate a replacement; but the Republicans infamously held the seat open for a year, refusing all nominees until after the election, when they got their wish of a Republican president who nominated another conservative judge, Neil Gorsuch; keeping the ideological balance. 

    The reason all this is an issue is because, if any of the Liberal leaning justices die or retire, Trump will replace them with a conservative, and the composition of the court will be 5 conservatives, 3 liberals and an independent  - paving the way for the Supreme Court, so the Evangelicals hope, to overturn Roe vs Wade, the judgement that mandates a woman's right to abortion. If Roe vs Wade is overturned, the right to legislate abortion devolves to the States, and you best believe the likes of OhioIowaKentucky and Alabama would be wetting themselves in the rush to make abortion illegal.

    This is the issue Evangelicals care about more than just about any other. Not poverty or schooling or rising rates of maternal death or Presidents bumping uglies (a term that was rarely more apt) with a star of the adult film industry. Trump has been put in office to protect the millions of unborn babies liberals hate so much, and if the man has paid for or provoked an abortion or several himself over the years, well, that's none of their damn business. 

    Tuesday, May 01, 2018

    Not a good look

    I felt annoyed, kinda disgusted and above all, tired when I saw this photo of NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham at a Greens trivia fundraiser:

    (I debated whether I should include the actual photo, but decided to because the post won't make much sense unless you've seen it and anyway, with all the stuff I've discussed over the years, this isn't exactly a safe space.)

    I felt disgusted because it sure looks to me like he's making a lewd gesture that refers to cunnilingus. And that makes me tired. I'm sure it would make many other women feel tired as well, because we're so tired of the graphic abusive messages we receive online. Just recently, a man added me as a friend on Facebook. I don't normally accept friend requests from people I don't know or share any mutual friends with, but in this case, I'd seen him commenting on several political posts and he seemed okay, so I accepted this one. Well, he started with messages saying he wanted to meet me and when I demurred, it escalated to vile messages with graphic descriptions of sexual acts. And then again I felt annoyed, but also exhausted by the amount of misogyny women encounter online.

    So I felt pretty revolted and disappointed by what Mr Buckingham appears to be doing in this photo, and it seems I wasn't alone. There was fairly lively discussion on a (public) Greens supporters Facebook page, with defenders of Mr Buckingham stating that he is simply making an "up yours" gesture at the losing trivia team - and that inner city types wouldn't understand. Now, I'm from Newcastle, and I've never seen anyone give an inverted v salute to indicate up yours. It is always the middle finger. I guess things are different in other, non-inner city parts of NSW.

    But I always try to see the good in people. I know things can be misinterpreted and people make mistakes. I decided to reserve judgment until Jeremy Buckingham had a chance to respond to allegations he, as an NSW MP, is making graphic reference to a sex act in a photo - not a good look. This is the kind of thing I wanted to see:

    I want to apologise for being photographed in what I now understand is an inappropriate and offensive pose. Whilst no offence was intended, I apologise unreservedly to anyone who was hurt or offended by this gesture. I understand we all have a part to play in eliminating sexual harassment and assault from society. The Greens are committed to providing a safe environment free of assault. Anyone who wishes to discuss this further is welcome to contact my office. A link to the Greens Sexual Harassment policy and resources for those needing assistance can be found here:

    That was pretty much what I was hoping for. No blame shifting, no victim blaming, simple, gets the job done, offers help to anyone who needs it. I've cribbed this from John Scalzi's excellent guide to apologies, which lays out what a good apology should and shouldn't contain.

    You might argue that this is all a bit of an overreaction to a simple photo. Do we all have to issue formal apologies for everything we do in life now? In this case, no, it really isn't over the top. Jeremy Buckingham is a Greens MP, a public representative, a group we would hope is held to higher standards of public conduct. He also represents the Greens, a party which stands for progressivism and human rights. I know for me, there's no "confected outrage"; I simply saw the photo, prior to most of the discussion on the matter, and felt disturbed and disappointed, and didn't really appreciate being told my visceral reaction was petty, prudish or over reacting.

    In the case of Mr Buckingham, there ought to be an extra level  of sensitivity to these matters. The topics of sexual harassment and assault have been much discussed in recent times due to the #MeToo movement; in the case of the Greens, these discussions have been the more necessary and painful due to several incidents involving Greens members. High profile Greens member Jarah Crook, a former staffer of Jeremy Buckingham's, was accused of sexual assault by several young women, who allege the Greens failed to take proper action when alerted to the offences.

    There was also the case of the ACT Greens volunteer allegedly assaulted by a senior Greens member, with Greens founder Bob Brown appearing in the media attacking the victim for her public anonymity and not going to police sooner. At a recent "meet the candidates" forum for the NSW State election, candidates were asked about Brown's comments in light of Greens harassment policies; all disavowed the comments except Mr Buckingham, who stated he was unaware of any such comments, which seems slightly disingenuous considering they were the talk of Greens' circles for weeks (I never know anything that's going on, but I was well aware of this). At any rate, I hope that Mr Buckingham took the opportunity to fully inform himself of what Bob Brown said and shared the view that it smacked of victim blaming.

    So yes, I would expect Jeremy Buckingham to be more sensitive to matters surrounding sexual harassment and abuse; and to realise the hurt this photo caused and react appropriately.

    Instead what we got was this:

    “Attributable to Jeremy Buckingham: “This was a light-hearted up-yours and raspberry blown to the opposing trivia team after we won a trivia night. It was not intended to be anything else. I have apologised to anyone who has interpreted this gesture differently and any offense that it has caused.”


    “I am a fan of 1970s punk rock and Rick Mayall from The Young Ones who often used the two finger up-yours as a cheeky gesture.”


    “Hi Chris, Background (not for attribution) the photo was taken of the winning trivia team at a Greens trivia night. Jeremy is giving a light-hearted up-yours and blowing a raspberry at the opposing teams. It was not intended as any kind of sexual gesture. Perhaps it is the camera angle that makes it look like something it is not. It was posted by one of the other members of the trivia team to a private Facebook but then taken and publicised by former Shoebridge staffer Lauren Gillin.”

    Said responses being provided by email to a journalist from New Matilda as outlined here. No ownership, no real apology - it's not I'm sorry for what I did but I'm sorry that you took offence. And all finished with an attempt to paint this as some sort of factional smear in an internal NSW Greens battle I'm not even going to start trying to explain here.

    I was upset and disappointed by this photo, but I was willing to give Jeremy Buckingham the benefit of the doubt here, I really was. Instead, a learning opportunity and a chance to take the dialogue on sexual harassment in healthy directions regarding respect and a chance to link survivors with helpful resources  has turned into a disaster which does nothing to correct impressions that the Greens are a boys' club like any other party, that women can never feel entirely safe in politics, that concerns regarding harassment are not taken seriously or that as a Greens MP, Jeremy Buckingham understands the importance of his role in all of this. The photo was bad, but the obfuscation and cover up are so very much worse. And I'm feeling even sadder and more worn out than before.

    Edit: an earlier version of this post showed an uncropped version of the above photo.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2018

    Why can't we have anti depressants that work?

    I had another mental health episode recently. You wouldn't know anything was wrong to look at me; no talking to angels or strangers. But inside, I felt dreadful; an emotional flu, spiritual hangover, psychological gastro. Without going into gory details, in weighing up my options and desperately wanting to feel better, I considered heading to hospital. But I didn't, because aside from not much being in the mood for boiled carrots, I knew there was very little they could do to make me feel better. Sure, they could give me some valium to take the edge off and make me sleepy for a few hours, but that was about it.

    Pharmaceutical treatments for depression are still stuck in the Prozac era of taking some pills, waiting three weeks and hoping for the best in the meantime; yet as I discovered there are other treatments which may well offer longer term cures; but the powers that be have decided we can't have them.

    When it comes to antidepressants, we really haven't moved pharmacology much past the Prozac Nation era of the early 1990s. There have been minor developments, tinkering here and there, but SSRIs and SNRIs remain the fundamental pharmaceutical approach to depression. If someone suffering severe depression seeks medical help, the best they can be offered in most cases is to take these pills and hope there will be some improvement showing in a few weeks time.

    There is some evidence that SSRIs are linked to increased rates of suicide, particularly in the early stages of treatment; whether this is because the drugs elevate energy levels before they improve mood, or due to another mechanism, is still a topic of intense debate in the psychiatric community.

    Perhaps the worst aspect of modern antidepressants - aside from the fact that they don't actually make you feel better - are the absolutely horrendous side effects when you quit using the drugs. Symptoms of discontinuation syndrome include dizziness, confusion, fatigue and the brain zaps which will be familiar to anyone who's suffered from them (you know when you're falling asleep and feel like you're falling? I had that happen when I was walking down the street. It wasn't so great). Nearly half of users who tried to quit were unable to because of the severity of symptoms. My current primary medication, Effexor, causes withdrawal symptoms within hours; this is especially grim when I run out of pills near the end of the fortnight and have to wait a few days to afford to fill the script.

    And when people stop taking them, they are still depressed.

    So I kept searching for answers and found myself in forums for people who felt just as bad as I did. People struggling with severe depression, complex trauma, PTSD, able to openly share how bad things were and what they felt were their options. And of course the subject of suicide came up; someone said how they'd been dealing with the fall out from sexual abuse for decades, they'd tried every treatment available and now they were ready to give up. And someone said to them, I understand where you're coming from but before writing life off entirely, please try DMT. It will change everything.

    N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a psychedelic compound found in the ayahuasca and other plants. It's been called the spirit molecule, an experience which cannot be expressed in words (although this very long and odd article from VICE tries). It's been used in South American spiritual ceremonies for centuries, and there's a tonne of testimonies online of people who have used them successfully to treat depression, anxiety and PTSD, but in Australia DMT is a Schedule 9 substance prohibited except for research purposes.

    Many online commenters suggested one should travel to South America for the authentic ayahuasca experience under supervision of a shaman, but if I was able to afford an overseas trip I wouldn't be so depressed, so that's out. There are DIY groups holding ayahuasca ceremonies in Australia, but you have to know they right sorts of people to be invited, which I don't, and anyway it all sounds a bit too much like ponchos and white guys with dreadlocks for my liking.

    What I would like, without having to break the law or learn Spanish or hear bongos, is to be able to take myself along to a nice, clean medical centre and access treatment that would actually make a real, tangible difference in the way I feel.

    The Greens yesterday launched their policy of legalising cannabis for adult use, a sensible move long overdue (and I don't even smoke the stuff and still won't if it's legalised; I just never liked the way it made me feel). But overshadowed in the fuss is the Greens calling for more research amid concerns that Australians are missing out on a global renaissance of psychedelic drugs used in treatment for depression, addiction and in palliative. Australia is lagging behind on use of psychedelic drugs in psychiatry and there are no trials underway, with authors of an article published in Australian Psychologist advocating for the research into their use lamenting the conservatism in academic and research circles (remember when Australia used to be a forward looking, innovative nation? Now we can't even have decent internet let alone medical research).

    Stephen Bright and Martin Williams write in Australian Psychologist that whilst a range of effective therapies have been developed for conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and phobias, current treatments for severe depression and PTSD are not as effective. Psychedelic drugs enjoyed a period of successful use in psychotherapy:

    First synthesised by Albert Hofmann in 1938, LSD [...] led to a paradigm shift in psychiatry as numerous medicines were developed based on this new understanding of the brain. In the context of psychotherapy, LSD itself was also found to be effective in the treatment of a range of mental disorders, including addiction, anxiety, and depression. Just one or two sessions of LSD-assisted psychotherapy were found to produce profound, rapid, long-lasting positive effects with little need for further interventions, unlike psychoanalysis which involved years of therapy sessions.

    But despite little direct evidence of ill effects, the recreational use of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s lead Richard Nixon to ban all use under the guise of the War on Drugs, despite the protests of psychologists and psychiatrists as to their therapeutic value. Moral panics were indulged, risks wildly exaggerated. We know now that the War on Drugs has been one of the largest and most expensive failures in human history, but as the rest of the world begins to wind back the prohibitions on therapeutic use of psychedelics, Australia remains stuck in moral panic mode.

    It seems that there are drugs out there that when you take them, can make you feel better right away and offer some long term relief from symptoms of severe depression and trauma. Can we have them please? The war on drugs has had many terrible effects in four decades, certainly one of which is that people struggling with severe symptoms of trauma and depression cannot access real relief. For myself and others like me, any risks have to be weighed against the risk of the days when I don't know if I should board the train I intended to take at the station or jump under it. Let's get the trials going; I'll be the first one in line. 

    Tuesday, April 03, 2018

    The appalling legacy of Jocelyn Newman

    Howard government minister, political matriarch, social reformer and Godmother of Centrelink Jocelyn Newman passed away over the weekend at the age of 80.  Don't go to a Centrelink office to express your grief, though; security guards are trained to surround you if you cry. Instead, I thought we'd take a chance to reflect on Ms Newman's terrible legacy.

    Campbell Newman being interviewed (cropped)
    No, not him.

    When I refer to Jocelyn Newman as a social reformer, it is not a compliment. Ms Newman was architect and engineer of Centrelink, the interface of the Australian welfare system. Centrelink was established on Ms Newman's watch in 1997, combining several previous government departments such as the Department of Social Security and the actually useful Commonwealth Employment Service into a one stop shop of human misery. It's worth reflecting that it whilst the Liberal party claims to be for individual choice and small government, it was a Liberal government who created a horrifying byzantine bureaucracy. They labelled it all under the auspices of choice but for Australia's disadvantaged, the "choice" means submitting to the routine humiliations of Centrelink, or resorting to poverty and potential crime. And for all the rhetoric of a single government agencies reducing inefficiency, duplication and waste, the myriad sections of Centrelink are often completely separate from each other, unable to access each other's systems or even contact other departments.

    A full account of the miseries Centrelink uses to punish those who require its services would be depressing to write and tedious to read. The mainstream media brings us frequent accounts of Centrelink woes, sometimes ironically, such as in this article from the Daily Telegraph about the Welfare Super Bludger, which is not a really shit new children's superhero but a mythical recipient of Newstart allowance with the article highlighting one putative job seeker who stuffs up. (Apparently the guy misbehaved at 99 job interviews. How does anyone get 99 job interviews in a single year, let alone through employment service providers?!). There's little indication of larger issues, such as the cost of all the monitoring, the fact that people with disabilities are largely forced to rely on Newstart (and comply with "mutual obligation" requirements) instead of receiving the disability support pension let alone basic problem the ratio of jobseekers to jobs. 

    It all feeds in to the myth of the welfare bludger, whom everyone seems to know - any facebook post about the low rate of Newstart is flooded with irate commentators describing their neighbour who's been on the dole for years, spending all day playing video games, getting tattoos and going on holidays - triggering endless audits and crackdowns that but never shows up in audits. When there are not enough jobs to go around - especially with the loss of blue collar and unskilled employment - demanding job seekers comply with mutual obligation requirements is a farce. Requiring job seekers to show up at an office for a day a week applying for jobs that don't exist without addressing any of the reasons why they became unemployed serves little purpose other than to punish the job seeker for being unemployed in the first place. It's not at least giving them a chance or getting them out of the house; it is demeaning, humiliating and horrible.

    And today we won't even get started on the changes to granting of the disability support pension with insanely restrictive criteria forcing thousands of ill and injured people to deal with the job search system and providers with no understanding of disability - again, all to catch out the mythical bludger:

    "The best form of welfare is a job" is the homeopathy of social services. It doesn't work and it makes no sense, but its adherents cling to it with religious fervour and become defensive and angry when challenged.

    Jocelyn Newman cannot of course solely be blamed for the sorry state of affairs for Australian job seekers today, just as Centrelink cannot really be blamed for the policies they are forced to enact, like denying dying people the disability support pension. It's takes an entire government, and their mindset of the disadvantaged as a societal evil writ in policies punishing the poor for their very existence, for that. (Not that Labor is ever much better; witness the Gillard Labor government turfing single parents, regardless of training or childcare or anything else, off single parenting payments and onto Newstart).

    In truth, it's been decades of bloody minded adherence to neoliberal policies in spite of all evidence that has created the whole welfare hell; but in creating Centrelink, Jocelyn Newman opened up a corporatised, centralised portal to that hell.

    It's worth examining how far the current Australian welfare system has strayed from the ideals under which it was established in the days after World War Two: 

    "The moment we establish, or perpetuate, the principle that the citizen, in order to get something he needs or wants and to which he has looked forward, must prove his poverty, we convert him into a suppliant to the state for benevolence.

    That position is inconsistent with the proper dignity of the citizen in a democratic country. People should be able to obtain these benefits as a matter of right, with no more loss of their own standards of self-respect than would be involved in collecting from an insurance company the proceeds of an endowment policy on which they have been paying premiums for years."

    Which raging lefty socialist uttered these words? Why, it was Robert Menzies. Now there's a legacy I'd like to see revived.