Wednesday, September 10, 2014

RU OK Day: The Bad Stockbroker

It's been a big week for mental health awareness, and some of you might have been surprised by how quiet I've been about it.

Yesterday (10th of September) was World Suicide Prevention Day, so there's been a lot of statistics flying around emphasising what a pressing and urgent issue suicide really is. As I've said previously, I would personally like to see more nuanced conversations around suicide, beyond "Don't Do It". But an international day of recognition isn't nothing, and I hope that it helps people who need to talk about suicide or suicidal tendencies do so more easily.

Today here in Australia (11th of September) it's now RU OK Day, a national initiative intended to encourage people to ask their friends if they are indeed okay. as with World Suicide Prevention Day, I have some personal misgivings about the actual effectiveness of this campaign on for a significant proportion of people with serious mental illnesses, but it's also encouraging to see people at least considering mental illness something to be spoken about, as hamfistedly as they might do so.

Instead of grumbling about what I don't like about these campaigns, I decided to take a more positive tack, and write up one of the most valuable pieces of advice I've ever been given about dealing with my own depression and anxiety.

(No, the advice is NOT "just be positive")

Way back in the way back times, a couple of years ago, I was deep in the throes of a really bad brain period. So bad, in fact, I'd actually managed to wrangle some appointments with a psychologist paid for by the Australian welfare agency, Centrelink. I was expecting the psychologist to pretty poor, considering he was almost certainly working for a laughable wage, but to my surprise he actually ended up being one of my favourite therapists of all time.

I was enormously self concious about my crazy at the time - I was convinced that my anxiety, depression, and general emotional instability made me entirely worthless. As I saw it, there was no hope for me - I was unemployed, and I would stay unemployed forever because no-one would ever take on a total fuck up like me. I was so ANGRY at myself for being crazy, all day, every day. I resented the way my brain worked so much I couldn't conceive of being kind to myself, let alone letting any perceived fuck ups pass without at least a day of tormenting myself. I KNEW all the terrible things I was afraid of were wildly unlikely, I KNEW my brain wasn't coming to rational conclusions. But I couldn't help listening, and I hated myself for it so much. I KNEW that depression lies, but I couldn't figure out how to dismiss thoughts that were so damn loud and persistent.

And this is where The Bad Stockbroker comes in. He began as a throwaway comment from my psychologist, a phrase he used to sum up just how irrational the lies that mental illness tells us are. When I explained I had trouble dismissing the parts of me that insisted everything would turn out the worst possible way, he asked how often they'd been right. I thought about it for a while, and then had to admit that actually, on the whole, those predictions hadn't been right very often at all. He asked if I would trust my money to a stockbroker who came up with inaccurate predictions as often as my anxiety did, and a lightbulb suddenly lit up my brain. The Bad Stockbroker was born, and has become an integral part of how I manage the impact my illness has on my life.

Imagine, if you will, all the parts of your brain that tell you unhelpful things all day are actually a person. Bundle all the "They really hate you" and "You'll never make it" and "Why even try" into a little squishy ball, and then make that ball into a person. That person is The Bad Stockbroker. In my mind, the Bad Stockbroker looks something like a conglomeration of these two images...

He wears a really cheap, wrinkled, shiny looking suit with a disgusting looking stain on the lapel. He's always sweaty - even in the middle of winter, he's always got a slight sheen on his balding, combed over forehead, and his office always faintly reeks of stale, sour sweat. His office looks a bit like this...

Noir Office by Francois Conradie
All the furniture is a little bit broken, and a little bit sticky. He only has one chair for clients, and it always feels like it's about to fall apart when you sit on it. His office is in a really rundown part of town, in an office he rents from some friend of a friend in an overly complicated and yet suspect arrangement. He is, to put it bluntly, not very good at his job. If you give him your money, he will every now and then make a successful prediction. But for every successful prediction he makes fifteen wildly inaccurate ones, and if you let him have all your money, you'll be broke in a matter of months.

Take a minute to just really picture this guy in your head. Gather together all the little details that make him real for you. And then ask yourself - would I listen to this guy's advice?

By creating a character with a backstory, and an office, and a fondness for cheap whisky, I found it much easier to dismiss what the psychologist called "intrusive thoughts". All those second guessing, fearmongering lies your brain tries to tell you are WAY easier to ignore when you imagine them coming from The Bad Stockbroker. "You can't go to the shops," he'll tell me. "You'll get run over, or someone will laugh at you, or you'll get robbed." All I have to do is imagine the crusted crumbs on his sleeves, and I remember he's not someone I should take advice from.

"Yeah, I did pick this shirt myself. Why do you ask?"
There is one more part to the whole Bad Stockbroker technique that I had to figure out for myself, over the years since the idea was first suggested to me. See, my ability to dismiss The Bad Stockbroker isn't consistent - depending on what else is going on at the time it can be really easy, impossible, or anywhere in between. Manging my mental illness on a daily basis takes energy, XP, spoons - however you want to describe it, there is a certain amount of resources required to be a (more or less) functioning member of society, and some days I use up the resources I have faster than I can replenish them.

On the days when I run out of resources, I can't do the mental maths it takes to translate the intrusive thoughts into The Bad Stockbroker, and then dismiss them. They repeat enough times and I can't help but listen, like when you've been up all night watching infomercials and you suddenly decide you DO need a lettuce dicer after all because you're too tired to remember you hate lettuce. Sometimes, I do give The Bad Stockbroker my money, because I'm too tired to argue. And inevitably, there's mess to clean up later, because he's VERY bad at his job. For a long time, I used to kick myself around for days after one of these lapses. Even if the mess left behind by the actual lapse was tiny, or even completely undetectable to everyone else, I would treat myself like I'd lost the family fortune in a slot machine.

Eventually, I came across a school of therapy called Mindfulness - it's verrrry loosely based on some Bhuddist meditation practices, and to be perfectly honest, a LOT of the material written for it is ludicrously woo-woo. Like, you can smell the patchouli as soon as you open these books. There's lots of talk about "sitting with the moment" and "honouring experiences", but once I got past all that there was actually some really useful stuff in there. One of the central ideas of Mindfulness is that no feeling or emotion is inherently good or bad, and that judging ourselves on our thoughts or feelings just leads to more stress. It's a grand idea, but as it turns out it's rather difficult to put into practice on a daily basis when you're someone who has as many feelings per minute as I do. I'll admit, I haven't yet figured out how to distance myself entirely from my emotions, and "honour the experience" - but I have learned to forgive myself for being crazy, for being weak, and for sometimes listening to The Bad Stockbroker.

Mindfulness helped me take a step back, and look at my relationship with The Bad Stockbroker in a less emotional way. It made me realise that, in the real world, despite their shadiness and ineptitude, people still give money to the real life Bad Stockbrokers every now and then. Looking at the news, I see stories of people being ripped off by these kinds of shysters all the time! Human beings make decisions that are not in their own best interests pretty frequently - All humans too, not just the crazy ones. The most neurotypical person has had at least one moment of weakness, where something seems like a great idea when it's really not. So how could I expect myself to be better, more sensible, stronger and more rational than literally EVERY OTHER person in the world? THAT is some crazy talk. If no-one else has figured out how to avoid decisions that aren't in their own best interests EVERY SINGLE time, then perhaps it's okay not to hate myself for messing up every now and then. Don't get me wrong, there is still a part of me that clicks it's tounge in frustration and disappointment every time I listen to The Bad Stockbroker - but I no longer hate myself for it. I do my best to ignore his wacky advice as much as possible, but if I do get sucked into his bullshit, I don't tear myself apart. I sigh, I shrug, I clean up the mess, and I start again. 

Mindfulness also helped me get on better terms with my Bad Stockbroker.  Mindfulness teaches that thoughts aren't inherently good or bad, and so because The Bad Stockbroker is a personification of thoughts,  he's not inherently good or bad either.  He's just someone who is really bad at predictions, in a job where being good at predictions is kind of his whole deal. When I thought about it like this,  I actually started to feel a little bit sorry for The Bad Stockbroker. I felt bad saying no to his suggestions every single time,  so every now and then, when the stakes are really low, I'll throw him a bone. Maybe I'm considering going out, even though I'm tired, and he's in my ear predicting the literal end of the world if I do. I know he's wrong - but every now and then instead of saying no, I'll say, "Okay, let's stay in". Just like a real person,  I've found if I let the Bad Stockbroker have his way every once in a while,  it's easier to say no when it really matters. 

So, my summation of years of therapy is simply this - acknowledge your Bad Stockbroker. Give him an office, an outfit, a cheap haircut and a nasty cigar. Laugh at his advice as much as you can, but don't hate yourself if you end up listening to him every once in a while.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Rest Is Silence

It's been an exhausting couple of weeks for feminists on the internet, especially if you also happen to be a geeky feminist who likes video games. While this week the news of the gross invasion of Jennifer Lawrence's (and others) privacy has gone massively viral, for me this latest development is just the tip of an awful, horrifying iceberg.

I feel for Lawrence and the others who had private pictures got taken without their permission, I really do. It must be a horribly upsetting feeling, knowing your image is floating around the internet for all to see, and there's nothing at all you can do about it. Hell, I don't even like letting other people take my picture because it feels too much like giving up control, so I can only imagine how I would react if pictures I hadn't chosen to share were suddenly freely available.

Unfortunately, however, this is far from the worst treatment of women I've seen even in the last two weeks.

If you're not a gamer, you were probably lucky enough to miss what's been dubbed "GamerGate" - a spewing forth of terrifyingly misogynistic vitriol against Zoe Quinn, a female game developer. She came to my attention first with the development and release of (in my opinion) a really interesting indie game called Depression Quest. The whole current mess was sparked by a blog post written by an ex partner, which I'm not going to link it here. I think the fact that person wrote up so much deeply personal information and put it on the goddamn internet is gross enough, without giving them clicks. Suffice to say this person accused Quinn of cheating on him a video game journalist. From this accusation, a certain sector of video game fandom leapt to the conclusion that Quinn had slept with people in return for positive reviews of her game, therefore she was a symbol of all that is corrupt and terrible in video game journalism, therefore she deserves to be harassed and threatened until she no longer feels safe in her own home. So they did.

Since this "news" broke, there has been a lot of accusations thrown around - some people say Quinn fabricated the harassment, which I find kind of hard to believe because every time I mention her name on Twitter people I've never spoken to before magically appear to explain to me how terrible she is. (Seriously, it's like Candyman - just say "Zoe Quinn" three times and they appear)
Some people have said she released her own private information, so she could gather sympathy for the harassment that ensued, although I'm not sure how this would really be worth it. Some people have said that even if she did sleep with the reviewer in question, he didn't review her game so it's not actually corruption in journalism, just kind of poor decision making. But there have been very few people pointing out what seems glaringly obvious to me - that nothing she could have possibly done could make the level of harassment she has received reasonable. Regardless of what she did or did not do in her supposedly private life, the level of harassment she has reported is absolutely disgusting, and totally unacceptable.

(Just a side note - in the time it's taken me to write that paragraph, I've received five mentions on Twitter explaining how Zoe Quinn totally does deserve it, because I mentioned her name an hour ago. This "news" broke two weeks ago, and I didn't use Quinn's username to minimise visibility)

Just as that storm was starting to settle down, Anita Sarkeesian released the latest installment of her ever controversial Tropes Vs Women in Video Games YouTube series. From the very first days of the Kickstarter that funded the creation of this series, Sarkeesian has been consistently pummeled with varying levels of harassment and abuse from video game fans who object to the project. Personally, I'm not actually a huge fan of the series. I think she cherry-picks the examples she uses far too much to take her conclusions seriously, and her issues with sex work come through loud and unpleasantly clear. It really bothers me that she's doing what I consider a really important project, in what I consider a sloppy and biased way. However, as with Quinn, the level of harrassment and abuse she's received are absolutely disgusting, and totally unacceptable. Feel free to Google the particulars of, say, the abuse added to her Wikipedia page - I don't want to link it here. But apparently just spewing forth revolting vitriol wasn't enough to really express the distaste some video game fans felt for her most recent video though - again, like Quinn, Sarkeesian was forced from her home after graphic, credible threats.

As a woman who puts her opinions on the internet, these events are deeply unsettling. While I have no particular fear I'll ever be famous (or conventionally attractive) enough that anyone will be bothered digging up nude pictures of me, I disagree with people on the internet all the time. What if I disagree with the wrong person? Will people call MY parents? Will graphic letters detailing how an anonymous stranger would like to dismember my body show up on my doorstep? Will photos of me be pulled out of the backlogs of the internet for public, detailed dissection and critique? Or will I just get buried under an endless wave of nagging, relentless, insistence that I should shut up? Will people show up in my Twitter mentions over and over to explain to me and everyone I know how I really deserved it? I had someone explain to me just this morning that "we don't get to choose how people punish us", which is a sentence with rather terrifying implications to my mind. If I upset someone, and get treated in a way that I think is disproportionate, will anyone stand up for me? Will anyone step in and say, "Hey, that is uncalled for!" Or will they just step back, fold their arms, and say, "Well, you knew this was coming."

Because this level of harassment is not happening to me (yet), it's easy for me to stand firm in my conviction that no-one, ever, deserves to be treated the way so many women in the public eye are treated. Not ever, no way, no how. I don't care what they did, I don't care what they didn't do, I don't care if their password was ABCD1234, they DO NOT DESERVE this. By all means, feel free to imagine female celebrities naked, or tell people you think their arguments are flawed. But if you find yourself calling someone slurs, or hacking their email, or attacking their friends, then YOU are the one in the wrong.

I'm sure of this right now - but I wonder how my courage would stand up under fire. I watch women retreating from online conversation due to harassment, abuse, and general old fashioned nastiness, and I don't blame them. I'm always sorry to see them go, and sad that it doesn't seem to be getting any better, but I don't blame them at all. I wonder when I'll join them.