A stigmatised diagnosis

This is a post I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready to write; it has taken 8 years to finally commit to paper (pixel?).  I have been wanting to share what it means to live with complex mental health conditions but have kept a lot to myself because of the fear I have carried about the nature of my diagnosis. 

I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in my early twenties and have lived in fear of people’s reaction to my illness and the assumptions that accompany it ever since, but I have recently realised that now I am in recovery I might have the power to challenge some of those ideas and assumptions. I will almost certainly write more about this, but for now here’s an outline of how I came to have that label, and how I got to the point of recovery.

When I was about 7 or 8 I started showing behaviours and traits that would later be diagnosed variously as depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder. By the time I was 10 I was self-harming.  Throughout my education I would use various damaging coping mechanisms to try and keep intrusive thoughts and low mood at bay, and to keep me functioning well enough to hold down work, education, and a social life. I could be very clingy as a friend, and responded incredibly badly to even the most mild form of rejection. Not being acknowledged in the street could make me catatonic with depression or spark a long string of passive-aggressive and bitchy messages to or about the person who had apparently rejected me. I was stable enough to still have friends – or, in some cases, my friends were kind enough to stick around despite my bullshit – but I was deeply unhappy and felt like I was losing control of my mood, my intellectual capacity, and my relationships.

When I was 23, after trying every form of SSRI (then) in existence, along with mood stabilisers and a very long course of psychodynamic therapy, I was stuck in a cycle of behaviours that would see me become deeply suicidal and presenting regularly at A&E either to try and prevent harm or to treat it. Often I went alone and didn’t tell anyone. Sometimes I managed to find someone to come with me. Going back to the GP after one such incident, which saw me admitted overnight and then discharged when no inpatient beds were available, she asked if I had ever heard of Borderline Personality Disorder. I had, and had even been told by some of my more learned friends to seek a diagnosis, but I deeply feared what it meant about me.

I had heard that Personality Disorder was a kind of illness that ‘psychos’ had. I had heard that Personality Disorders were ‘incurable’ and that people who had them would never work. One friend, ordinarily one of the most compassionate people I know, had gone so far as to tell me to ensure I never had a diagnosis of PD because, “those people are awful; you don’t want to be associated with them”.

I went from the GP that day with a sense of relief (“it has a name! I’m not a fuckup!”) and dread (“I have a disorder of the personality, I am such a fuckup”). I started a new course of meds that included a mood stabiliser, and eventually went back to the GP and asked about how to get some decent treatment.

Getting to access treatment would be a 3 year process, but I was finally able to attend the Complex Needs service near where I was living after another year at university. The service offered was a form of specialist treatment called a Therapeutic Community, in which people come together and work alongside one another for a fixed period of time (in my case, 18 months), meeting a few times a week and committing to offering support to one another by phone in the meantime. Any time. I took support calls from others at midnight whilst at a church conference in Chicago, and called out for support myself when I was feeling suicidal late at night. The support of people whose emotional landscape was congruent with mine, and who were willing and able to work with me, was enormously beneficial.

I have been in recovery since being part of the TC, but still have ups and downs. When I am not feeling well, I can still be hurt by a small rejection, or become overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts of failure or disaster, but even then I am usually able to do my job and keep a hold of my commitments.

I’m proud of the work I put into my recovery, and grateful for the support I had to get there. There’s no doubt that without treatment designed for my condition and funded by the NHS I would not be able to do the things I can do today. 

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Interesting Times

Originally posted on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church

There is a Chinese curse which says, “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. – Robert F. Kennedy, 1966

Although Robert F. Kennedy spoke these words over 40 years ago – and there was in all probability no such Chinese curse – the idea of “interesting times” as a curse has been with me over the past week as we reflect on the political situation that arose out of the General Election of the 8th June.

The election campaign was one in which the idea of  British values’, and how we apply them to building society was at the forefront of political dialogue. In political campaigns, individuals and their experiences are reduced to caricature and distortion, pitting “Benefits cheats” against “the Just About Managing” and “the Muslim Terrorist threat” against the idea that Britain is a “Christian Country”, but behind each of these labels are lives and experiences that can’t be captured in a soundbite. In the face of the tragic deaths in the Manchester Bombing, the London Bridge attack, and the Grenfell Tower fire. In the stories of schoolchildren and their parents attending a conference, friends sharing a drink, and multi-generational families sleeping in their homes are woven the full narrative of human experience and history.

Tragedy and turbulence have a way of focusing us on what is important, and it is no surprise to me that the values of people of faith are being examined so closely at the moment. Unfortunately, with Tim Farron’s resignation, and the well-publicised Calvinist conservatism of the DUP, the old stereotype of Christianity as an authoritarian and socially destructive force has reared its ugly face. I am grateful, therefore, for our Muslim brothers and sisters whose Ramadan suhoor (morning meal) was interrupted by the news of fire and who took to the streets to provide food and comfort to people watching their lives and families torn apart. They model the faith that I hope we, too, show to our communities. They simply serve, with no questions asked.

The Apostle Paul knew more than most of us about ‘interesting times’. When he wrote the letter to the Romans in the 6th or 7th decade of the first century, the Emperor Nero was in the habit of executing Christians for entertainment, and he himself had been complicit as a young man in the religious execution of Christians in Jerusalem. He put himself in harm’s way to protect others and share the life-changing Gospel. His perspective on political authority in this context is an interesting one, In Romans 13, he spells out that civic authority is put in place for the common good (Romans 13:4), and that moreover that government’s authority is an important arbiter of our values. In other words, we are responsible to the people we elect, but also responsible to consider the role of civic authority when we hold them to account.

If the role of Christians is to offer Christ’s hands and feet to the world, and to build the new realm, the question for us in this time of of uncertainty is how we can best do that. The answer, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Creator-Parent, and of the So,n and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Simply that. Our responsibility remains to spread the Gospel of love, to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, and to love our neighbour. Never has it been so important.

May you be Christ’s hands and feet in the world today.

Blessings
Kate

Tempted in the Wilderness

Cross-posted from the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church

Like many of you, I watched events unfold in Westminster earlier this week with some anxiety. When I lived in London, I would go to Westminster Bridge to think, to look out over the river and to watch people passing. It is a funny thing to see your ‘safe place’ breached. Parliament in the Palaces of Westminster has been for centuries a symbol of democracy, and an act of violence on its doorstep was understandably a frightening thing.

In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted three times. First, to break his fast by turning stones into bread. Then, to jump from the pinnacle of the temple to demonstrate the love of God. Finally, to take possession of the earth’s dominions by worshipping his tempter. These temptations have in common that they are designed to tempt Jesus into demonstrating his power even at the cost of the law of God he holds dear.

Jesus could be tempted because he was fully human as well as fully divine. He could be tempted because he was isolated and hungry. He could be tempted, because we can all be tempted. This week, we are scared. Temptation comes easily when people are scared. It would be easy to be tempted to mistrust, especially as the newspapers and websites we read continue to recycle the same lines about “conversion to Islam”, “radicalism”, and “identity crisis”. It would be easy to succumb to the voice of the tempter that repeats these lines until they apply not only to this one man but to anyone who looks like him, prays like him, or shares his heritage.

It is tempting to prevail on the power we have at our disposal (our elected representatives, for example) to challenge or hurt other people because we have been hurt. It is tempting to turn against refugees, economic migrants, or imprisoned criminals. But Christ who modelled resistance to temptation tells us only to serve the law of God, and the law of God tells us to love our neighbour (from wherever they came) as ourselves, and to forgive those who harm us seventy-times-seven times.

As we approach the time when we are invited to remember the persecution of Christ at the hands of powerful people who accused him of threatening their power, we recall our own temptation to turn from enthusiastic supporters of Christ to the people who condemn him. We have a choice whether to succumb to the temptation to cast our blame far and wide, or to forgive the attacker and care for his victims and their families. Let us pray to follow the path of Christ this Lent.

Stand Alongside Esther

The Jewish festival of Purim begins at sunset tomorrow (Saturday 11th March). Purim commemorates the intervention of Queen Esther to prevent the mass murder of Jewish people under the rule of the Persian king Xerxes. The king’s vizier, Haman, required complete subservience from subjects under Persian rule and objected to Esther’s uncle Mordecai’s refusal to prostrate himself before Haman. As a result, Haman persuaded the king to grant permission for him to exterminate the local Jewish population.

Esther used her role as queen to intervene with Xerxes – she risked her life by approaching the king without his express invitation or permission. She persuaded him to recognise the loyalty of her uncle Mordecai and question his vizier’s motives, and as a result of her intervention the local Jewish population was spared massacre; Haman was hanged from the gallows he constructed in order to execute Mordecai.

The full poetic justice of the story of Esther is contained in the Book of Esther, and is worth reading in full. It is an adventure story, a story of conquest, outrage, and xenophobia. Amongst the Jewish traditions for Purim are hecking over the name of Haman when the scripture is read in the Synagogue, and eating pastries known as Hamantaschen (“Haman’s ears”), to dishonour him for his racism and violence. At the same time, Jewish families send food parcels to friends and increase their charitable giving to remind themselves that their survival is not guaranteed and that it’s vital to stand alongside those who might not. And then, they celebrate with bright costumes (or fancy dress) and rejoice in a time in history when the Jewish people triumphed.  (Want to try your own Hamantaschen? Here’s a recipe.)

The story of Esther reminds me of all the times Christian leaders have stood on the side of Haman throughout our shared history; through expulsionspropaganda, or collaboration. I also know that Jewish communities are not the only ones whom we as a church have demonised and feared. As we travel through Lent it points to a particular form of human frailty; our tendency to fear people who are not like us. In the story of Esther I find a challenge to stand up for oppressed peoples everywhere.

Esther stood alone because the Jewish people were isolated from power; let’s seek out where Esther stands alone today, and seek to amplify her voice and stand alongside her.

The Best You Can Be (through God)

Wednesday 1st March was Ash Wednesday, so this coming Sunday will be the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a traditional season of penitence and abstinence when Christians around the world recall Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11 and Luke 4:1-13) and prepare for Easter. In modern popular culture, this has become simplified into “giving up” something for Lent, but preparation of body and spirit for Easter is much more than feeling virtuous for forgoing a chocolate hob nob with your tea!

Spiritual renewal, penitence, and acts of charity are also important parts of the Lenten journey, and many people will take up disciplines during the season that help to enhance their spiritual lives. For example, adding regular times of prayer or reading Scripture into their routine, or learning a new prayer discipline. You might choose to go without your morning coffee, and donate the cost instead to a charitable cause. If you have the means, you could even take the opportunity to increase your regular giving to church, or join the Moderator’s Circle to support the work of the denomination.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that no one can serve both God and materialism (Matthew 6:24). In order to be fully committed to the love of God, there should be nothing between us and love of God and neighbour. It is unlikely that any of us will be able to truly attain this in our lifetime, but seasons of intentional abstinence from our sources of material comfort help us to recommit to the ideal of being fully dependent on God and so becoming more Christ-like.

The process of Lent is part of the lifelong journey of seeking to become more Christ-like; making sacrifices and resisting temptation in order to focus on God and others. It is a part of the long process of learning to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. As we come to the end of Lent, we will come face-to-face with the worst of ourselves in the stories of the Passion, so we prepare for that by engaging to our best ability with the law of love in the Gospel.
Whatever your Lent discipline is, commit to it daily as a reminder of the best you can be in the strength of God.

Time to Talk

This post originally appeared on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church.

For several years now, 2nd February has been known as Time to Talk Day, when mental health charities and activists commit themselves to helping people to talk about their own and others’ mental health.

We all have mental health – just as we all have physical health – and it can be good or bad. The most commonly quoted statistics say that one in four people will experience mental health problems, with one in ten suffering at any given time. We also know that in our communities, complex mental health conditions are more common than in the wider population, probably because of the stigmas associated with our gender identities and sexual orientations. This fear of people’s reactions can also be a barrier to finding effective treatment. It is unfortunately also true that churches are not always safe places to discuss or disclose mental health conditions. Poor mental health can sometimes be interpreted as an indicator of a lack of faith, and some symptoms are interpreted as a person being ‘difficult’.

Jesus met a man forced to live outside his hometown, in the caves near where his erstwhile neighbours kept their pigs. He was harming himself and talking in a way that people couldn’t (or didn’t choose to) understand. Only Jesus approached and addressed him directly, asked him his name, and offered help. The man had for so long been identified by his problems that he even gave his name as “Legion” for the many ways in which he felt attacked by his thoughts and feelings. Relieved of them, he was calm for the first time in years. He didn’t lose his history – and the people around him are unlikely to forget it, even if they bring him back into the community – but he was in a position to make his own decisions once again and he chose to rest at Jesus’ feet amongst the disciples.

It is not always easy to follow God in the midst of crisis, particularly when your mind is in chaos, but it should feel safe to be amongst the people of God. The people of God who follow Jesus are called to have the courage to stand with one who is isolated even from their experience of themself and to ask their name. In the midst of crisis, it is hard to feel loved or wanted, but a hand held or a shared cup of tea can reach through the Legion of difficult, destructive feelings and anchor someone to the world and the people around them.

I have always had difficulties with my mental health – just like some people do with their physical health – and one of the ways it manifests for me is a fear of being on my own. I find it hard to sit in silence and pray when I am feeling unwell, but sharing with a prayer partner or being part of a congregation is very soothing. Others find it hard to be in a group when they are anxious or depressed and might forgo church for a time. Reaching out to someone you’ve not seen for a while might not feel like much, and you might not even see its effect, but it can be the difference between a bad day and a better one.

Our mental health is precious. Get to know what soothes your spirit, and take time for it regularly. If you think someone else might be suffering, don’t be afraid to reach out to them and invite them to name their pain. When they are ready to ask for help, they will need someone to be Christ to them.

If you are suffering today, please reach out to someone and know God is with you.

Blessings

Kate

Pray for Peace

First published on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church.

As we come towards the end of 2016, I think we are all reflecting on the changes that have taken place in the past twelve months, as individuals, as a community of believers, as a nation, and worldwide.

Uppermost in my mind are the effects of the political changes of the second half of the year. After the referendum on the European Union in June, we saw a recorded increase in hate crime across the board, but particularly racially aggravated incidents. The xenophobic language of the leave campaign seems to have contributed to this increase.

Similarly, following the election of Donald Trump as President-elect of the United States of America, there was a renewed sense of threat against our churches, against black people and other people of colour, and against the LGBT+ communities. The language of the campaing appeared to give this permission.

That Advent comes in the end of the calendar year, amidst the shortest and darkest days, reminds us that Christ is a presence with us in all our own times of cold and fear, and encourages us to look to the future. The Nativity stories we read in the Gospels tell of a family living in a politically hostile landscape (Roman Palestine) who were forced into seeking asylum in Egypt because of the whim of a corrupt ruler. The birth of Christ gives us hope because it overturns corruption and the status quo through the simple subversive image of God as a child fleeing for his life. That is the Unexpected Peace we are commemorating with our service this Sunday.

The Christchild is alive in every young person desperate to leave Alleppo. Mary’s loving care holds fast in every mother, stepmother and mother-figure who protects the vulnerable. Joseph’s steadfastness is present in every father or protector who places themselves between the court of public opinion and the righteousness of God to keep the law of love.

As Lorraine reminded us last week, the peace of Christ is not a reality in our world yet. Advent reminds us to pray continually that the Prince of Peace will come once again amongst us, that God’s Rule of Love of will create the world anew, and that we will be agents of unfamiliar peace, unclear hope, unrevealed joy and unknown love.

Theatre has never been a safe space

Mike Pence attended a performance of the extraordinary – and deeply political – hip-hop musical Hamilton last night. The cast and crew had been told in advance that he would attend, and chose to use their platform to speak out about their alarm at the way the country has responded to his election.

This statement has caused quite a stir, as I’m sure you’re aware. Firstly, President-elect Trump has argued that theatre should be a “safe space” and that Mike Pence has been denied that, and secondly many people have argued that something about the time and the place was inappropriate – that VP-elect Pence paid(?) to see a show and not to be hectored.

Honestly, though, I don’t think the theatre has ever been a “safe” place in the way Mr. Trump seems to mean. Art is not neutral; however it is dressed up and presented it is part of the cultural conversation.

In the specific case of Hamilton, we are invited into the violent and turbulent political world of the 18th and 19th centuries where dialogue is anything but polite. The sheer diversity of background, culture, education, and politics is reflected in the rhythms and styles that shift and change around each character. From the prose style of George Washington to the superior and dismissive ring to George III’s brief appearances to the boisterous young revolutionaries everyone has a voice and those voices are almost constantly in conflict. The viewer isn’t safe, or contained, but drawn into a political conflict that feels so real it’s impossible not to see in it the echo of the Puerto-Rican American man who has lived in a country suspicious of his language and heritage whilst laying claim to the very country that heritage springs from. This is made all the more stark by the decision to cast professional productions entirely with performers of colour, with the exception of George III.

The musical also challenges the assertion that the USA is in any way a monoculture. As well as the way in which it highlights early differences in state culture, the founding fathers and their allies are shown to be a mix of heritages and backgrounds with influences ranging from the writings of the French revolution through to family culture, tragedy, and upbringings across the British colonies. Hamilton is described as, “A bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in a forgotten spot in the Caribbean…” and once gleefully cries to the Marquis de Lafayette, “Immigrants: we get the job done!” This is not neutral to current trends in dialogue; on the Hamilton Mixtape, a whole track with this title is dedicated to how we talk about immigration in the 21st century (lyrics, Spotify).

We could pick almost any piece of musical theatre and find similar controversy. Picture the moral outrage that was poured over Jerry Springer: The Opera, or the horror with with Georges Bizet’s extraordinary opera Carmen was greeted when it opened.

When a writer and composer set out to tell a story, everything about the way they choose to tell it reveals who they are and what they believe. Jerry Springer: The Opera lays the blame for the blame culture squarely at the door of talk shows and ‘reality’ TV. Prosper Merimée’s Carmen (on which the opera is based) places the blame with Romani culture for Carmen’s behaviour, and her murder, whilst the opera can be read as a more nuanced work that seems to view a man and his female victim as equally culpable when jealousy causes José to kill Carmen. You don’t have to agree with these viewpoints to be drawn into the story, or to enjoy the music. You don’t have to realise you’ve been exposed to them to be influenced by them. Whether we like it or not, art is political and artists have a major platform.

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The cast of Cinderella, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, Feb. 2007

When I had my own opportunity to write for the stage, I chose the pantomime Cinderella, because it is so easy to parody. I was writing for two performances to a maximum of 1,000 people (I think about 600 saw it in the end) but I knew I had one chance to convince some of them that panto is more than a vehicle for last year’s I’m a Celebrity runner-up, and that I had a real chance to show that there is validity to telling our childhood stories through a queer lens. Yes, it was daft, yes, most of the best jokes were classic panto set-pieces, but even that microcosm of the theatre started with the idea that I have a right to see people like me on stage – an inherently political idea. (A side note, we had as our director the marvellously talented Luke Davies, who has continued this sterling work and you should all support him in that.)

Would I have used my platform to ask a man who has the potential to take my rights away to protect us instead? Perhaps. I hope so.

I applaud the cast of Hamilton for acknowledging their role and their platform, and choosing to use it. In the wake of a spike in violence, vandalism, and hate crime in the wake of his election to the office of Vice President I, too, am looking to Mr. Pence and Mr. Trump to say more than, “Stop it,” and to protect the people of the country they have pledged to unite. I am grateful Mr. Dixon’s gentle reminder to the audience that no one comes to the theatre to be booed, and would hope that if I were in his position I would have had the courage of my convictions to do the same.

The theatre is not “safe space” where the world is shut out. The theatre is where the world works out its politics, its philosophy, its meaning. Vive le théâtre! Vivent les artistes! Vive la révolution!

With the last word, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself;

 

Seek Out & Stand Against Injustice

First published on the blog of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church.

People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.
Edmund Burke, Revolution in France

For many people, this week has felt like it will be remembered by future generation as a turning point. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America felt impossible mere weeks ago. Both those who voted for him and those who voted for other candidates feel a change in the nature of US politics from the era of the first black President to the election of a disruptive candidate pitched against the ‘establishment’.

We cannot, of course, look forward into the future. Only God can stand outside time. We can only look to learn from our past. In the recent past, the ‘Brexit’ vote seemed to give permission to people who harbour racist and other descriminatory views to express them publicly in protest or hate crime, and many fear a similar permissive culture emerging in the United States of America in the weeks to come.

Many MCC Churches in the USA are preparing themselves against that possibility, offering extra support, and creating prayer spaces for people who feel vulnerable as a result. Many the most vulnerable will be Trump supporters who are people of colour or allies who had believed that their candidate’s election would be a source of unity, and not division.

As we seek to become Christlike, we know that we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world today. It is for us to seek out, speak for, and protect people at risk in any part of the world where hate and division takes hold, whether it’s speaking against a racist demonstration at the Monument, reporting a hate crime, or sharing the writings of marginalised people to amplify their voices.

We cannot ever say how Jesus would have voted, all the candidates are beloved Children of God and created to serve God in their calling. We can say that he put himself between a mob and a vulnerable woman (John 8:1-11), that he shared water with a victim of persistent racism and misogyny (John 4), and that he cared for the sick regardless of their social position (e.g. Luke 7:2-10). We must equally receive the stories of others and care for them, regardless of their politics, their religion, or any other arbitrary human division.

This is particularly important as we enter into commemorations of war, destruction, and loss of life. Our interim Moderator, Rev. Rachelle Brown, has gifted us with this prayer for the week:842731103

We learn from Jesus that love is greater than fear.
In this hour, we pray for those who are afraid.
In times of uncertainty, we believe
God makes way for new life.
We offer ourselves
to be communities of spiritual transformation.
May the light and love of God begin healing us
and grant us wisdom. Amen.