Monday, 23 May 2016

Not all men harass women, but all women have been harassed by men.

CN discussions of sexual violence, including rape, sexual harassment & assault

I really, really love dancing. I am incredibly self-conscious and need a good few drinks before I’ll do it, but when I do, I love it. Especially to music from my childhood or adolescence, in a sticky club with my best friends, dancing until my knees are killing me. I have so many good memories of last minute Friday nights out while I was at university, with good music and dancing for hours. It was one of the only ways I was able to relax or reward myself during my final year, where the stress of finals and degree classifications and my ongoing health problems felt like they could kill me.

I don’t go out dancing very much any more. I realised today that the last time I’d properly gone out has been months ago, at least. I don’t remember when it was. There’s a number of reasons for this — London is extortionately expensive, getting home is a pain, I’m skint and tired and can’t travel very much. But the main reason I don’t really go out dancing any more is because of men.

If you ask any woman or person who is read as a woman in their 20s, they will tell you about the times they were told as a teenager that sexual harassment was a normal part of an evening out, especially a night in a club. Expect to be groped, felt up, kissed, touched without your consent. It just happens. It happens to all of us. Why are you making a big deal? You were really drunk, anyway. Get used to it.

Everyone is told this, because every person has had the experience of a man touching them in some way without their consent on a night out with their friends. Not all men harass women, but every woman has been harassed by a man.

A few nights ago I was out in a city I don’t live in with a relatively big group of people, all of whom would be read as women. As we’d arrived early in the night, we’d managed to secure an area for ourselves where we could sit down and had our own space to dance, alone, without the usual club crowds. It was going wonderfully. 

And then a middle aged man came over to us and said, “alright, ladies?” or something to that effect. I asked him to please leave us alone, that we didn’t want to talk to him. At this, he became affronted. He insisted on staying with us, because it was a free country and he had the right to stand where he wanted, apparently. It didn’t matter that I had pleaded with him to please, please just let us be. It didn’t matter because he didn’t care. He didn’t care because he was so angry that a woman he did not know did not accept his perceived entitlement to a conversation with us, to sharing a physical space with us. We told him no, and he did not accept our unacceptance of his advance. He stood leaning at the bar, looking my friends up and down as they danced, who were unaware of his glances; his eyes lingering on the curve of their calves, the dress tied at their waist, the plunge of their neckline. It made me feel sick and I wanted to cry. 

At this point, I ended up asking a staff member who had been going to and fro from the area we were in to the bar with empty glasses, to ask him to leave. The staff member got security, which is not something I would’ve chosen to do given my own bad experiences with security staff members in clubs. They’re the ones who didn’t believe me when I was in tears telling them I’d just been groped or assaulted by a man, and they’re the ones who then threw me out of their club because I was drunk and crying and I was the one to blame. Oddly, the security staff were good. I could count on one hand the number of times this has happened. But I know they were only good because I wasn’t drunk, I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t slurring my words, I was sober and alert and articulate and purposefully did not let the less sober members of our group talk to them, because I knew they wouldn’t take us seriously. Which is bullshit. I played their game, because without doing so, we would’ve been thrown out. 

It was exhausting. I hadn’t been in a club for months. And this was why. Of all the things to happen on a night out, spending too much money, talking to groups of women you don’t know in the bathroom and being harassed or assaulted by a man are almost all of the guaranteed ingredients, no matter where you are. 

In my first year of university, like many others, I went out a lot. And so I was sexually harassed or assaulted at least once a week, often more. I became so angry, all of the time. I had so much rage inside of me, because men thought they could touch me when I didn’t want them to, and no one thought anything of it. I started hitting back, literally and figuratively. I remember an incident in a club in Belfast, where a man I didn’t know pinned me against a wall and kissed me furiously, one hand on my cheek and one grabbing my waist. I struggled to get free, and when I did, I punched him. And then I was promptly thrown out. At one point, I was boycotting a well known club and bar because they threw me out after I reported that I’d been felt up — they told me I was on drugs and I was causing problems. I remember months later my best friend texting me drunkenly, telling me she was sorry that she was going to the bar because the work party she was out with wanted to, and she felt so guilty about it. She was the only friend to even acknowledge and legitimise the pain and anger i felt towards the club and its staff. Everyone else ignored it as another thing that crazy Aisling was doing because she’s a crazy feminist. 

I harboured so much rage and anger in my body that year, and together with a cocktail of then-undiagnosed mental health problems, it ruined my time in university. When I am back in Belfast, my main memories stem around where and when I was assaulted, at which time, and what I was wearing. I know I am not alone in this, because this happens to most women at some point during their life. Learning this, learning about the politics of structural oppression and patriarchy and feminism helped — I had a framework in which to place my experiences and the thoughts I had. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t any of our faults, even though we all felt like it was. 

What I didn’t realise or expect was the long-lasting effect these years have had on me. Granted, I’m still young. I’m only 23. But a lot has happened, a lot has changed and I have grown hugely since the age of 19. My life is very different now, and I feel older than my years. What I didn’t expect were the flashbacks and dreams that periodically dominate my life these days. I didn’t expect that I would stop wearing certain things, especially heels. I didn’t expect that I’d drastically change my hairstyle, partially in an effort to look less conventionally attractive to men. I didn’t expect that a few words from a middle-aged man in a nightclub in Edinburgh would send me over the edge, anxious, awake and crying till 4.30am, reliving the past experiences I’d had and ending up taking a valium in an attempt to quiet the images and the taunts swirling around my head. I didn’t expect to ever identify with the term ‘survivor’. But here I am. 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Death is not noble.

Content warning for discussions of death, frank discussions of suicide including methods, mental illness.

Death is not noble. 

In so many pieces of writing on mental illness, the diagnosis, the experience, the horror of it all - it's all romanticised as hell. And that's bullshit. Dangerous, dangerous bullshit.

I remember reading these kinds of posts when I was a clinically depressed teenager who kept being told that I was an attention seeking little shit. Because I was attention seeking, because I felt like I was dying. I felt like my mind was killing me from the inside. And so I looked at how to make that inside-dying seem like it was worth something, like it meant something, like it could mean something other than the ending of a life prematurely. I tried to make myself feel better because I could have followed a line of tortured genius artists who lived and died by depression. 

But it didn't. And I am still here, several dangerous suicide attempts later, I am here. 

And in the twelve or so years I have suffered and lived with mental health conditions, the one thing I have learnt most of all is that there is no glory in death. There is nothing cool about being so unwell you want to hurt yourself. There is nothing edgy about drinking yourself to oblivion because you don't know how else to get yourself to sleep. There is nothing epic or romantic or amazing or incredible or noble about death, and there never will be.

I don't know what I believe about what happens when we die. I know that I think about those I've known who have have died a lot, but I don't know what that means. 

I know a lot of young people who have died by suicide. I do not use their lives and their deaths as a bullshit positive means to 'keep myself going', because that implies that there was something good about their deaths. And there wasn't. There is nothing good about parents being left and siblings being left and a life being ended fifty years before it should have been. Every death was in some way preventable and every death was a life on earth ended far too short. 

Death is not noble and neither is depression. Those of us who suffer with chronic depression and suicidal ideation and tendencies will tell you that at the worst moments, there is nothing we would not do to rid ourselves of what we feel. I would trade my pain for anyone else's, because depression makes you a selfish little shit. And if you're reading this and you've never experienced depression, I am glad. I am glad because it is the worst thing I have so far gone through in my (admittedly short) twenty-three years, and unfortunately for many of us it is chronic. People do not see when you haven't showered in ten days, when getting changed makes you cry, when doors and phones and bills go unanswered, and when you're such a horrible irritable little dick that people can barely stand to be around you. Because depression isn't cool and it isn't romantic because it is fucking shit. 

Death is not noble and me dying at the age of 13 would have done absolutely fuck all. It would have broken my parents, my wonderful caring parents, and it would have destroyed my three sisters. It would have scarred my best friends and it would have (metaphorically) killed my grandparents. I was a scared, ill, lonely child, who thought suicide was the only way to end the pain.  

Whether or not there is an after life with a higher religious power isn't important. We can all believe and have faith in whatever we want to believe and have faith in. What matters is that death is not romantic and it is not cool and it is not noble. There is nothing romantic about being found covered in your own vomit, or a train driver having to live with the fact that they hit someone. 

Death is so often the premature ending of a life that should have gotten grounded at some point for staying out too late, that should have gained their college qualifications, that should have grown as an adult and developed political beliefs and went on demos and yelled at Tories and had their faith in the world broken and torn down and rebuilt by the people around them. That should have fallen in love, which is the best and worst thing a person can have happen to them. That should have gone in and out of periods of being a dick, because we all do. And that then should have wised up.

I am currently going through a rough patch. I have tried to kid myself that if I died, I would be doing it for a higher cause. Right now, that the DWP would have another person to add to their list of people they've denied benefits to who have then committed suicide. That the mental health services in my area are stretched to breaking point and the lack of care results in patient suicide. That trying to live a life in London on barely any money eats away at your head, and your heart, until it's too much to live with and you can't do it anymore. But none of that would have mattered. Because even if all of those things were true, my poor sister would still have to identify my body, and my parents would have to arrange for it to be flown home. People would have to organise a funeral. My room in London would have to be packed up, my bank account closed, the posters on my wall taken down. And none of that is romantic. None of it is cool. None of it is heroic. And no matter how much incredible poetry or music I could have written, or lives I could have touched - it wouldn't have made it any less terrible. 

I came across this PostSecret postcard years ago, when I was a depressed teenager. And unsurprisingly, it always stuck with me. I don't know what the answer is to chronic suicidal ideation. I don't know why some of us suffer with this. But we do, and the least we can do is make sure that we keep talking the romance out of it. There is no romance in suicide and there is no beauty in death.