The Pool: Joan Bakewell’s comments about anorexia were harmful, but not surprising

Sometimes I look back on my youth and wish I’d had more problems. Been raised in a war-torn country, sent scavenging for food on the streets. That way, whatever else I’d endured, at least I’d have avoided suffering an eating disorder. As it is, I’m stuck being the kind of narcissist who wastes decades of her life on anorexia and bulimia (still, unlike some I know, I’ve not yet been self-centred enough to starve to death).

At least, this is the impression of eating disorders given by Joan Bakewell in a recent interview, in which she suggested that anorexia among young people “arises presumably because they are preoccupied with being beautiful and healthy and thin”. “No one,” she argued, “has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food. They do not have anorexia in the camps in Syria. I think it’s possible anorexia could be about narcissism.” Thanks, Joan. Good to know we only put ourselves through it because we’re worth it.

Read the full post at The Pool

New Statesman: There’s more to supporting those with mental health problems than fighting stigma

According to a survey conducted by the BBC to coincide with its In The Mind series, the stigma associated with mental illness is subsiding. More people would be prepared to reveal a diagnosis to friends and employers. Ten years since the release of his documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry argues that things are changing for sufferers: “it’s more talked about […] It’s in the culture more and it’s understood more.”

This can only be a good thing. There’s no way of quantifying just how much the pain and isolation of suffering from a mental illness can be compounded by the fear of others finding out. Even now, I find it difficult to answer seemingly simple questions, just in case someone fails to understand or disapproves. What were your schooldays like? Why did it take you so long to finish your degree? What does your brother do? I am cagey, not least because when I do tell the truth, even the nicest of people are unsure what to say, leaving me to feel I should offer reassurance. Yeah, but I’m not mad now! Sure, he’s schizophrenic, but he won’t kill you or anything! Cue nervous laughter, and a relationship ever so slightly marred by the sense that I must now prove myself to be “normal”, an impossible task for any of us at the best of times.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

How sad is sad enough?

How sad is sad enough? How thin is thin enough? How lonely is lonely enough? These are apparently important questions if you want to have a voice.

Today I found myself reading the Daily Mail (I was visiting my parents, so please don’t judge me). Two articles caught my eye: one on a woman whose pregnancy had apparently cured her anorexia (“I knew for the sake of our little one I would have to finally put it all behind me”), another by a female journalist who describes herself as unable to stop starving (“however unbalanced my own diet may be, I can’t imagine ever not living as a functioning anorexic”). I haven’t linked to either of these, not least because they include calorie counts, lowest weights and photographs of emaciated states. If I were still struggling with an eating disorder, I’d find such details triggering. Even without a diagnosed ED I feel bad enough. Continue reading

Erasing the outlines: A personal post on anorexia, feminism and gender

There are times in your life that you find yourself going back over, again and again. For me the years 1987 to 1996 have a particular resonance. Filed away somewhere is the sense that then, and only then, I was really me. I know it’s not true – I was a dull person, a thin shadow who thought only of food and cold – but I still feel that I came closest to owning myself. Never close enough, of course, but what more can a woman expect?

I’ve just finished reading Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady. It’s a brilliant book but one that I’ve found incredibly triggering (and “triggering” isn’t a word I often use). It has set off a lot of memories for me, and a lot of resentments that usually bubble under the surface of my fleshy, ageing exterior. It’s a book about women as people – real people with real inner lives – and it surprises me how rare that is. It’s about women trying to make themselves heard and then watching it veer off course, again and again. At the risk of sounding self-obsessed (and this is a self-obsessed post) I can identify with that. It reminds me of my own experiences as an anorexia patient and the scars that haven’t gone away. Continue reading

Thanks, Sun! Challenging the mental health system, one lie at a time

Whether you’ve been a mental patient yourself, or merely cared for someone who is, it’s easy to feel let down by system. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of devoted healthcare professionals out there, people who are more than ready treat each patient as an individual, but sometimes it’s not enough. Care provision can be patchy, medication unreliable and wider social support networks non-existent. Thank goodness, then, for the Sun.

With today’s 1,200 KILLED BY MENTAL PATIENTS front page the newspaper sent a clear message to an often uncaring society. As Stig Abell, the paper’s managing editor explained on twitter, the piece was all about creating “better communication between agencies” and enabling us to see the “ill as victims”. About bloody time! As the sibling of a paranoid schizophrenia sufferer, I’m sick of seeing the mentally ill being ignored. What better way to draw attention to those who are suffering and marginalised – and garner some much-needed sympathy in the process – than by making other people think that the mentally ill are out to kill them? Genius! Continue reading

Hardworking people, mental illness and “Mandatory Intensive Regimes”

Amidst all of this week’s Tory Party Conference nastiness, one thing I didn’t pick up on in George Osborne’s hardworking people / help to work ramblings was the specific impact his proposals would have on those with long-term mental illness. It’s easy not to notice these things. Personally I spend so much time trying to figure out how a Workfare job isn’t a job and why, by extension, all jobs don’t just become Workfare jobs that I’ve little time to focus on anything else. So until today (when @stfumisogynists alerted me) I wasn’t aware of proposed Mandatory Intensive Regimes “to address underlying problems including illiteracy, alcoholism or mental health troubles” — you know, those problems that are usually no big deal, but are really bloody annoying when they stop you from bringing in the profits for society’s self-appointed wealth creators.

Apparently you’d only end up on one such regime as a last resort, if you’d failed to find employment after completing the Work Programme and were deemed to have one of the problems listed. I can’t help feeling it’s a curious way of going about things – isn’t it possible to diagnose and treat mental illness before a person’s been put through the Work Programme wringer? Or does it just not matter until then? Do we honestly not give a shit unless the mentally ill are getting on our nerves with their scrounging ways? It would appear to be the case. I have to say, this both angers and frightens me. It seems, frankly, inhumane, not to mention utterly ignorant of the complexities and difficulties behind that two-faced phrase “helping people to work”.
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So why DID Asda think a mental patient Halloween costume would be okay?

So, fellow mental patients, just how mad should we be getting about Asda’s Halloween “mental patient fancy dress costume,” complete with strait jacket, fake blood and cleaver? After all, the supermarket has now apologised for any upset caused, withdrawn the item from sale and promised to donate “a sizeable amount” to Mind. So no point going psycho now. Let’s all calm down, keep taking the tablets and leave the normal people alone.

Given the degree to which mental health stigma has seeped into our everyday language, it’s not all that surprising when retailers think it’s okay to make fancy dress costumes based on The Mad. You can see how it happens. The mentally ill, when they’re not being dismissed as everyday malingerers, tend to assume a mythical status. They’re lurking in the shadows, never to be seen in broad daylight. How can you offend a thing that isn’t even real? Continue reading

Mental health, stigma and Amanda Bynes

Calling all B-list celebrity mental health monitors! Do you ever fear that when it comes to ex-Nickelodeon actress Amanda Bynes’ descent into her own personal hell, you might lose track of which entertainingly mad thing happened when? Then fear no more! For MTV has created Amanda Bynes: A Timeline of Her Troubles. Never again shall you fret over whether the being “kicked out of gymnastics class over talking to herself” came before the appearing in court “looking dishevelled in an ill-fitting blonde wig, sweatshirt and sweatpants”. At last someone’s taken the time to document it all, from the racist tweets to the involuntary psychiatric hold. Phew! Guess this means we can finally relax and get back to more serious tasks. Who’s up for placing bets on the next Z-list suicide attempt?

To be honest, I’ve never been much of a Bynes fan. It’s not that I’ve never seen any of her films; who needs to? My main gripe is that I wish she’d done a bit more lashing out before getting carted off to the institution. Or perhaps if she’d self-harmed in public, that’d have been fine (providing we got pictures). This, after all, is what modern celebrity-watching is like. Waiting and hoping for famous people to implode, and then wallowing in faux concern. After all, these people need our armchair diagnoses, delivered via the Sidebar of Shame. How else would they cope?
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Sweeping it under the carpet: Depression, Prozac and Giles Fraser

I’m writing this post to dispel a few myths about depression and the use of medication. I should mention, however, that I’m none of the following: psychiatrist, psychologist, pharmacist, biologist, philosopher, renowned expert in happiness and the inner workings of every human soul. That said, neither is Giles Fraser, the Guardian’s Loose Canon, but he hasn’t let that stop him. Besides, unlike Fraser, I’m in a permanent fog of drug-induced pseudo-contentment, hence I’m even less likely to demonstrate any degree of restraint.

In a piece entitled Taking pills for unhappiness reinforces the idea that being sad is not human, Fraser rehashes many common stereotypes about depression, mental illness and SSRIs. To be fair, he doesn’t do it quite as nastily as some people. He’s no Julie Burchill, for instance (sorry, Giles!). Nonetheless, making tired, half-baked claims in a seemingly well-meant manner can be even more damaging than just being an out-and-out bully. Continue reading

To the woman who sat next to me at the eating disorders clinic

Obviously I noticed your daughter before I noticed you. I expect you are used to that. Legs so thin, how could it be any other way? I tried not to stare but it’s so hard not to. People used to stare at me in much the same way, or so I’ve been told (I never noticed at the time). Once you’d both signed in, you came and sat next to me, with her on the other side of you. I noticed you then but only because I couldn’t see her any more.
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Fear, anger and “dangerous schizophrenics”

Dangerous schizophrenics, eh? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t lock ‘em up and throw away the key, at least not until they’ve actually done something. It’s political correctness gone, quite literally, mad.

Yesterday evening I watched an ITV News report on Nicola Edgington, official, card-carrying DANGEROUS SCHIZOPHRENIC. Except apparently she has “borderline personality disorder” instead. I don’t know the precise distinctions – beyond the fact that one seems to make you more criminally culpable than the other – but I do know that “borderline personality disorder sufferer” doesn’t sound as good as “DANGEROUS SCHIZOPHRENIC”. Hence the report was at pains to highlight the link between people being DANGEROUS and SCHIZOPHRENIC. It isn’t much of a link, but still, it’s one that’s always worth exaggerating when you’re aiming to be sensationalist, ablist and utterly shameless in your reporting. Continue reading

Anorexia and bulimia at Christmas: Finding ways to connect

In 1993, over the Christmas break, a woman faked her own abduction and then falsely claimed to have been raped. Her reason for doing so? Publicity, perhaps. A misguided need for attention. But also an attempt to get away from the holidays. The woman, a bulimia sufferer, simply could not face this time of year.

When the news of the fake abduction broke, I remember most people, my family included, being scathing. What a waste of police time and money. What a great deal of worry caused to family and friends. As if an eating disorder can be an excuse! And yet, while I couldn’t exactly understand the woman’s actions – and still can’t – a bit of me wanted to try. As a sufferer of anorexia and bulimia, I recognised the panic that Christmas can cause and I recognised, too, the lack of comprehension that sufferers face. Continue reading

Depression and the questionable value of telling stories

Hey everyone! Yesterday it was the turn of Caitlin Moran – today let’s all flame India Knight! These female Times journalists don’t half ask for it, don’t they? (Meanwhile, Rod Liddle treads the same old hate-filled path because, well, he’s just Rod Liddle. Funny, that.)

I have a feeling that Knight wrote something deeply offensive about mental illness in yesterday’s Sunday Times. This is just a feeling, though, since I’m not about to subscribe to the bloody thing to find out. All the same, I’ve seen the “taster” paragraphs and it doesn’t look promising: Continue reading

The Daily Mail and Emily Lloyd: Yet another actress stands accused of being human

In 1987, the year in which the film Wish You Were Here? was released, I spent most of my time in a mental hospital. I was 12 years old and suffering from anorexia. For most of the summer and a good part of the autumn I was on on bed rest, intermittently awarded and denied “privileges” based on weight gained and lost. For several weeks I was denied visitors, phonecalls and reading material. Fortunately, one day I found a copy of 19 stuffed down the side of the bed. For a long time the magazine was all I had to look at, other than the carpet, the wall and the ceiling. So I read it again and again. Continue reading

Clinical depression: Ever tried the ‘pissing about’ cure?

When modern life started getting her down, Jessica Brinton refused to pop Prozac. Instead she decided to get spiritual and went on an energy odyssey.

Sunday Times Style supplement, 12/08/12

It’s been almost a month since I started ‘popping’ Prozac again and I’ll be honest: I have no idea what effect it’s having. I still have feelings that I wouldn’t even want to blog about, but then I don’t know how bad I’d feel without the pills. So I’ll keep on ‘popping’, as it were, while still attempting to make those “positive lifestyle changes which help boost self-esteem” (Step 1: avoid all magazine articles which include the phrase “positive lifestyle changes which help boost self-esteem”). Continue reading

Yes, I have heard of St John’s Wort

Lately I’ve been feeling a bit down. Actually, make that very, very down. Poor, sad, glum, down me. But don’t worry. This morning I headed to the doctor’s and asked for some pills. I got them and now I’m looking forward to feeling much, much better.

You’re probably reading this and thinking “well, that sounds perfectly reasonable”. But in case you’re not – in case you’re my mum, or my friends, or some random person I’ve just met in the street – here are a few clarifications to put your mind at rest: Continue reading