Sunday, 24 June 2012

HOME SWEET HOME



You know when you hear something and you think it's the stupidest thing you've ever heard? Well, I can't keep up due to the number of absolutely outrageous proposals this crackpot Coalition have. There was selling off forests to flabbergast me. Then regional pay for public sector staff to stun me. And scrapping GCSEs in favour of reviving the O Level to make me go oh. But I really don't think they can beat this one for stupidity and callousness and utter WTF moments. They are talking about scrapping Housing Benefit for the under 25s...

I mean I know this government despises benefit claimants and bridles with revulsion when the welfare state is mentioned. They certainly have form for cruel actions when it comes to their Welfare Reform Bill and I don't trust them on the subject as far as I could throw them, but this one blows my mind. Can they really be suggesting that people don't need any kind of help with housing costs and living arrangements until they are 25? It's almost as if they have absolutely no idea how the welfare state works or how real life actually unfolds.

Life doesn't go according to plan. Good intentions and aspirations do not pay the rent. Plenty of people find they can't make ends meet at times, especially when they are just starting out and as not of all of us have a multi-millionaire parent to bail them out or offer them a spare house, they make a perfectly legitimate claim for Housing Benefit to help them out. And before anyone starts howling about laziness, the majority of these claimants are in (albeit low paid) work. Only 1 in 8 Housing Benefit claimants is unemployed and the majority of those can't work due to long term health problems.

Things are getting tougher out there and the safety net of the welfare state becomes even more vital. Young people are going to bust a gut to get uni (despite doing exams the government thinks are worthless) and many will have lost their EMA so have to count every penny while they study. They'll then move on to university where they know they are accumulating fees of 9k a year that will need to be paid back. Student halls are becoming swankier and more expensive with it. Rents are rising and landlords are getting fussier, forcing students to go through agents and pay extortionate fees just to rent a fleapit room in a house where the living room has been turned into an extra bedroom. Part time work is harder to get and the chances of saving up any money or making their loans go further are slim. So when they graduate into the worst economic climate and highest graduate unemployment for generations, they want to take the pressure off with Housing Benefit. It can be the difference between working a second job in a pub or being able to dedicate time to building up their career that will serve them long term (and ensure they pay tax for many years.) That option will be gone under this proposal.

It doesn't get any easier if you don't go to University. If you leave home at 18 to start work but study at night to improve your lot in life, you can't claim. If you leave care and are put into privately rented accomodation since council housing is becoming rare as hen's teeth, you can't claim. If you couldn't stay at home because you were being abused or because your family life is toxic, you can't claim. If you move on and start your own family, you can't claim either as a couple or on your own. If you lose your job or have your pay frozen or don't get a promotion you can't claim. If you get sick and can't work, you can't claim. And if life goes tits up and you have to flee forced marriage or domestic violence* and you wind up in a hostel or B&B, you can't claim either. I'm not entirely sure what you are meant to do. Not everyone's parents live in a house big enough to accomdate extra children til past the age of 25. Some people's parents claim Housing Benefit themselves and since this government changed the rules on non dependents allowances, literally can't afford to have their grown up kids move back in, even if there were any jobs in the area for them to come home too.

This proposal frightens me so much because without Housing Benefit available to the under 25s, I don't think I'd have made it through the worst time in my life. After my first rape, I was made homeless. I'd been working a pretty low paid job, starting at the bottom of the career ladder and working up. I'd been building up a make up kit for work buying nosebleed pricey products that would allow me to work more and I'd had an extended period off work prior to being attacked when I was living on Statutory Sick Pay. I knew nothing of the welfare state in those days and had no idea that on 12k a year in London, let alone SSP, I could have been getting Housing Benefit to help stretch my money further. in the space of 6 months, I found myself broke, homeless, unemployed and such a mess that I couldn't get through a job interview without crying and totally unemployable.

I had lived with my mum until I was 22 because of becoming ill at 18 and taking years to recover. I liked living with her as two adults with separate but interlinked lives, but I had been desperate to leave Belfast and spread my adult wings. I had spent 4 years counting down the days til I could leave and start a better career than barely ceasefire Belfast could offer. I was proud and independent and I'd already had so much disappointment in life that living in London felt like one of my few achievements. If it had been simple poverty forcing me out of my home, I'd have found it hard enough to ask if I could come back home and pack up my English life and have all my work on my career come to nothing. But having been driven out because it had such bad associations and I genuinely feared for my safety, I couldn't have coped with being hounded out of the city and country I'd chosen and worked so hard to live in as well. The belief that this was just an unfortunate glitch and that in next to no time, I'd be back at work and able to move on was the only thing holding me together. It was the point I was focused on and it was my salvation.

And the only way I could do it was to claim Housing Benefit. I moved into a hostel near Croydon under the watch of the Temporary Accomodation department of Lambeth Council which despite being a shithole of the highest order, cost a staggering £232 a week for the council and £17 in non covered costs for me to be paid out of my Income Support. It was simultaneously the most horrible experience of my life and a blessing of such riches I could hardly believe it. It meant I had a roof over my head night after night and a bed to sleep in and I didn't have to beg shelter from anyone or sleep on the streets. In the three months it took to get the hostel place, I'd exhausted all the favours I could ask of my rapidly diminishing circle of friends. The hostel also meant that I had proved I was not intentionally homeless and that the council was considering my application for housing. If they agreed I was vulnerable and in need, then I would be given the resources to put a deposit on a privately rented property or assesed for council housing. It would be the means to the end where I was well and working. It was worth the discomfort. Housing Benefit was my superhero. It's wide reaching cape was my safety net. And under these proposals I wouldn't have qualified at all.

I got through living in the hostels, although looking back I have no idea how. That's where I was living when I was raped the second time. That made it ten times worse and even more important that I saw it through. If I'd left before they'd decided to house me I'd have been through all that for no reason. I'd have suffered and put my family through hell for nothing. Some good luck came my way and I was given the council flat I live in now, making me in my eyes richer than the biggest Lottery winner around. I haven't got back to that stage where I'm over my glitch and working again (and anyway, it's a different career I have in mind) and Housing Benefit has supported me every step of the way. There was the terrible moment of fear when they changed the single room rent allowance to people over 35 and aged 33, I thought I was going to lose the security of my flat and have to move back into a shared house, but council tenants were exempted and my panic subsided for the time being.

But I know that millions of other people dealing with hardship, disappointment, geographical issues and life not going according to plan are tonight are wracked with that tight knot of blind panic as they see this government scribble yet another poisonous policy on the back of a fag packet and make young and vulnerable people bear the brunt of the economic crisis and their braying hatred for people who aren't like them. They are talking about condemning a whole generation to never knowing stability or their full potential by thinking they can remove Housing Benefit from under 25s and that's before they make countless children homeless and trap people into abusive and dangerous lives they might not survive. It locks young people out of opportunities for social housing for life and it eats away at the savings older people have for their old age to have to keep supporting their children to their mid 20s. Not only is cruel, but it actually makes no sense socially or financially. It's insulting to vermin to say this government are worse than them, but I'm all out of words to describe them adequately...




*Apparently there might be an exemption on domestic violence as a sop to people with an ounce of decency. But it won't mean anything now they've cut Legal Aid for Domestic violence cases and tightened the burden or proof for bringing a police or court case since this government came to power because it will be impossible to actually prove domestic violence even if you've still got the bruises on your face. Domestic violence is only considered as such if you live with the person abusing you as if you are an intimate partner.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

DADDY'S GIRL...


At risk of sounding like a precious tissue paper like little flower who gets totally overcome by Hallmark holidays, I always find Father's Day unsettling.

I have no relationship with my father these days. We live in different cities in different countries and never speak to each other. The only link we have is my brother and even that is not enough to make sense of the broken links between us. Our relationship is shattered beyond repair and a total absence of contact, although constantly painful, is the best of the bad options.

I haven't lived with him since I was 18 and every day since then has faded the supposed unconditional bond between parent and child to the point where I find it hard to remember I ever had a dad at all. So much time has passed without him being there to turn to that the idea wouldn't even enter my head these days. He hasn't reached out to me and included me in his life for a very long time and I've learned to do the same, partly out of practicality and partly out of self preservation. His absence from my life is total. I have no photographs of him, no items from him or that remind me of him. There's simply a void as if he excused himself from my life and never came back.

For a long time, I expected he would. Now I know he won't. He's gone and too much has happened to be able to start again. We have nothing that connects us now beyond DNA and I can't imagine how we could have any kind of conversation to recreate the intimacy and knowledge of the minutiae of life that is the the glue of genuine relationships. He knows nothing of my life, couldn't name a single friend of mine, find my house on a map, tell you how I take my tea or how I spend my time. And I don't know much more about him really. The fragments of what makes him a person rather than just a father are cloudy and from another life before I was an adult. They are disjointed and distorted and don't fit in, just occasionally popping up as life goes on.

He's been absent for my entire adult life, essentially washing his hands of me and my family just three months after my 18th birthday, and I've never felt that he's regretted that   or that it was difficult decision to make. He just went with barely a backward glance and absolutely no fight. From the first time he left, he's prioritised his choice in partners and seemed as any continuation of our relationship was going through the motions. Even around the time we got on best since then, when I'd just moved to England, it felt fleeting and transitory and as if he was waiting for something better than me to come along, and when he met his now wife a few weeks later, I was put back on the shelf like a toy he'd tired of and our relationship went back to being fraught.

Since the day just before Christmas 1996 that I discovered he'd been having an affair and lying to everyone for months on end, there's been no security in my relationship with him. I have never known that it will be the same from day to day. It was always unpredictable and exhausting in its uncertainty. I found it hard to reconcile the dad of my happy childhood with a barefaced liar who had dropped his wife and children as if an irritant to him and I gave him a hard time, pushing him and wanting to needle an emotional response from a man who insisted on being blank and impossible to read. I often got those emotional responses, but never the ones I wanted, just ones that further corroded my sense of self and the emotions that tied us together.

For a long time in my late teens and early twenties, I had ceased to like my dad very much and he seemed to have ceased to like me at all. It ran deeper than the exhaustion of parenting when your child has demanded your attention for nearly two decades and worn your facade of enthusiasm thin. It felt like he genuinely resented me and felt it was inappropriate that I was furious for his behaviour toward everyone in our family, but especialy me, my brother and my mum. He seemed to think that as my father my acceptance of him and his actions should be unconditional. I didn't. And this was compounded by the fact he couldn't offer me the same unconditionality as I struggled to come to terms with the serious ill health that had derailed my life at the same time. There was little understanding, bugger all flexibility between us, but I certainly still loved him all the same.

These days, I'm not sure I even feel that. The only emotions I have round my dad are failure, frustration and disappointment. Thinking about him and how much he dislikes me and how little effort he's made for 15 years, but especially the last 8, just casts a dark shadow over everything that makes me feel I can't do anything because I can't even get the man who created me to give the tiniest of two shits about me. I no longer feel the pull that I want to sort things and know more about him, just the sense that everything is ruined. I gave him an ultimatum in our relationship and without so much as a peep, he walked away. Knowing you should never give ultimatums you don't mean, I was prepared to end the relationship, but not for him to go without a question or a fight. I often wonder whether I made a sensible decision or sabotaged the last shreds of our once close connection.

More than once I've sat down and written an email saying I shouldn't have turned my back on him and to forgive me and start again and then something reminds me of the deeper betrayals and fissures in our relationship that I ultimately know I can't get past no matter how I hard I try. There's the inappropriateness of him taking up a young woman barely a year or two older than me. Or the time, he told me he wished my mother hadn't bothered having me. Or the time he had cancer and wouldn't let me tell a soul about it, telling me it would be my fault if he died. Or the hours long fight the Christmas after my two rapes where he informed me he could understand why men wanted to hurt me. Or the fact that the whole time I was homeless he never once offered me a place to stay even for a night.   And that's even before he refused to acknowledge any of my nervous breakdowns or mental health issues, constantly (and unfavourably) comparing me to his new wife and informing me directly and indirectly that I had no central role in his life and that I didn't measure up. And I remember why I cut off all contact. It was for my own good.

While things will never go back to being comfortable or easy with him, I'd like to get to a stage where I can look back on childhood memories, both those that involved him and that didn't, and not see them tainted by his later rejection of that time as soon as he possibly could. I might even be able to open my mind up to allowing myself to think of him and the influence he had on me in so many ways without irrational rejections and reactions. I feel like if I could start to look at him more positively, I might be able to see myself more positively too. I sense it's going to be a long path and I'll need the guide of a good therapist, but I hope I'll be able to think about the word daddy in future without immediately adding 'issues' afterwards. It'd be great not to be such a cliche...



Friday, 8 June 2012

KNOCK ME DOWN WITH A FEATHER...



Today I saw a pig fly. It was silhouetted in front of a blue moon and had been catapulted up there by a unicorn. And none of it blew my mind just as much as the news that the Metropolitan Police are admitting they need their McPherson moment because their handling of sex crimes has been so appallingly bad for years.

I could hardly breathe for reading this article when it popped up on Twitter on Friday night. It was too much for me to take in. Part of me was furious that such cases are still prevalent. Part of me was overwhelmed that the Met are being upfront and asking for evidence. And the rest of me was flooded with emotion to be proved that I was right, I am not a liar and I did deserve better.

Seven years ago I made a complaint against the Westminster Sapphire Unit because I was so unhappy about how they had handled my rape in August 2004. I had no idea what I was doing when I started it. I assumed it would be a bit like writing to British Gas and giving off stink, but probably without the M&S vouchers at the end of it. Traumatised, shell shocked, naive and not entirely sure what I wanted or needed, I sat down and wrote them a letter detailing every single issue I had with my case. It took days to write, overwhelmed me utterly and arrived with them exactly one year to the day that I reported the rape. It triggered off more than I ever thought I would cope with and as I detailed here, it would last almost 4 years before it was concluded. It was the hardest and stupidest thing I have ever done.

And I'd be lying if I said I'd done it for the greater good of feminism or other women. I didn't. I did it for me to start with and then by the time it really got rolling, I'm not even sure I wanted to do it for me but I was in too deep and was too stubborn to back out then. I think I thought that the police admitting they were wrong was going to undo the original attack. I never had any grand plan to stand up for anyone other than myself. I had to say that I worth being taken seriously otherwise I'd never believe it again and I'd never move on with my life.

I have no idea why other victims decide to make complaints. Maybe they have a bigger sense of collective responsibility? Maybe they are just grasping at something to stop them drowning as they try to find their way back from sexual violence? Maybe it makes them feel in control? I'm not sure it matters what the reason was, but that they stuck it out and increased the number of voices to be heard to a point where the attitude in the Met has changed so much. When I complained, in fact even when I wrote that blog post last year, I didn't forsee the Met being even the tiniest bit transparent. After all when my officers destroyed evidence in case and faked the paperwork and lied through their fucking teeth for months on end to me and their superiors, nothing much happened. The original officers got 'words of advice' and everyone else got a bollocking, but the Superintendent who forged my signature repeatedly to try and illegally end the complaint got off scot free and none of the officers who phoned me at 4am to put the frighteners on me saw any consequences. And it took almost 3 years to convince them I wasn't lying and make them actually look into the case properly in the first place which messed with my head no end. The mixture of hostility and ambivalence had me sure they would never really change and that they'd just continue to pay lip service.

To hear them go public tonight and ask for evidence of their failings has blown my tiny mind. It does not for one minute say they've changed for good and that no victim in future will have to endure a lack of justice and the worst of institutional failings and misogyny, but it is a massive sea-change that really makes me think that years of activism and campaigning and individual effort has had an impact. There has a subtle shift from refusing to listen even when confronted with the evidence to asking people to come forward and while it doesn't fix everything and it cannot heal the terrible pain their intransigence inflicted, it's incredibly hopeful. It feel like genuine progress when combined with Sapphire officers facing the courts for falsifying evidence when 4 years ago, that still only warranted a stern talking to at best.

So to see people who identify as feminists splash the story all over their timelines tonight by focusing entirely on the negatives is like a slap in the face to me. I'm not for one minute suggesting that this is all down to me, but I am expecting that those people respect the amazing achievements of the hundreds of women who went through hell standing up to the biggest police force in the country to keep the pressure on, even when they doubted themselves and the media ripped them apart and their lives fell apart round their ears. They made this difference in attitude possible and they should not be cheated of their moment. They should be applauded and thanked for blazing a trail and making a change because they stood up and made a fuss. This is an example of activism in action and it's crushing to see it written off by people who should know better as still not good enough. It negates the years and years of effort from victims and their friends and family and the solicitors and support workers who helped. It should be held up as a moment to appreciate the work that has already gone and seize the momentum to keep pushing so that the Met don't get complacent and think this is enough.

It's taken me years to be able to say 'I did something. I helped. I fought back when I could' and whiny as it might be to seemingly make this all about me, it stings when people you have helped smoothed a path for don't even acknowledge the wider issue, instead believing that the Met changed attitude all by theirselves. I mean this is probably the moment where I as a middle class white girl get a lesson about intersectionality and feminism that some women of colour or a different class got a long time ago and they are rolling their eyes at the drama queen over here. But I think it's important that women support other women as best they can and it seems like that message got forgotten. I hope they'll recognise that Rome wasn't built in a day and grow to support those who have been working on this for a long time so that we and the police know this is the voice of the majority speaking, not just the victimised.

In the meantime, I'd like to thank all the people who helped me add my voice. You've helped me pick up the pieces afterwards and you've been essential. Especially the other women I don't even know who also complained and kept each other company from afar in all those bloody waiting rooms. I appreciate your efforts more than you'll ever know. I just hope other people do too. And I hope that now the Met has confirmed we aren't liars, fakers, hysterics, freaks or drama queens, we can continue to put pressure on them en masse and build on what we've managed so far. Turns out it's not as unlikely as we all thought...

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

JUST THE ONE...



Sometimes things sneak up on you and emotionally suckerpunch you when you are least expecting it. This is how I generally feel about being single.

I genuinely quite like being single. I get to do what I want when I want. I have an entire double bed to myself. I can lie on the sofa and watch soaps and no one judges me. It doesn't matter that I feel about my grey hoodie the way Linus does about his blanket. I have great friends. I have time to spend on my family. I don't have to share my space and privacy. But every so often a bolt of loneliness about being single hits me like a well aimed slap.

It's never the obvious stuff like weddings or cheesy love songs that do it, but smaller things like coupled up friends mentioning the kind of intimacy that only comes with having another half. The present that is just perfect, the pet name that they aren't embarrassed to say, the story about the time they did something someone else would think is gross but they think is adorable or some other sense that their partner is the person around which their world orbits. These things all strip a layer of my skin back and expose that raw nerve that being perpetually single causes. I feel no bitterness at their happiness (hell, the world needs more happy people) and I enjoy hearing nice things about nice people. But once I'm alone again, the feeling breaks free and I find myself painfully enquiring of myself 'why does no one feel that way about me?'

Not only can I not answer that question, but I can also ask a whole load more of myself that help heap misery upon misery. For every rational response to 'why does no one feel that way about me'? (ie: using all that CBT I've had and giving practical answers where I can) I can't stop myself asking the obvious follow up. 'Why has no one ever felt that way about me?' This is the official way of asking yourself 'what the hell is wrong with me?'

I've had relationships with men. I've had intense feelings about a few and definitely been head over heels in love with one. I've dated several (including the one I was in love with) but there has never been any real emotional intimacy or reciprocation. I've never been introduced to their friends and family, I've never been made a mix tape or bought a Valentine's Day card. I've never been taken out for dinner or given a Christmas or birthday present. I've never been given the sense that I light up someone's life or that they really miss me when I'm not around. I've never been made to feel special or different to any other girl they've dated. I've never been spoken of as their girlfriend. I have never been admired from afar or had a man blush around me because he's nervous. I've never felt confident and comfortable around a man where I could just be myself.

I have had men want to spend time with me, but drop my hand in public when they've seen someone they know or actually deny knowing me when teased that they fancy me. I discovered when I split up with the man I was in love with, having dated on and off for five years, that he didn't know my surname. I've been told by another guy I dated when I was 19 that he didn't want a relationship at the moment with anyone, only to see him in a bar the next week with a girl who was the spitting image of me (and born on the same day for an added kick in the teeth.) I've been stood up on dates and told by a guy at uni when I texted to ask why that he had never met me and must have got him mixed up with someone else even though he was my friend's flatmate and I had slept on their sofa countless times. I've had a man sleep with me and then inform me, while we were still in bed, he'd only done so in order to be able to ask out a mutual friend of ours, because his ex-girlfriend couldn't object to that in comparison. I've been told by more than one man they would never introduce me to their mother as long as we lived. I've been dumped in favour of fungus in the shape of a sourdough starter. I've been compared to other female friends and failed to live up to them and told by some male friends they were only friends with me to have a better shot at those female friends, but had never considered dating me in the process. I've had a lot of ignored texts and unanswered calls. And that's aside from the actually frightening experiences I've had with men.

You might also say that I've had a lot of lucky escapes because the only thing worse than being rejected by men who act like that is to be in a relationship with them. My head knows that, but my heart is still asking the 'what's wrong with me' question. Why at the age of 33 have I never met a man who gives a shit about me? Well, logically I know some of it might be skewed by the fact that I'm quite nervous around men these days, don't get out much to meet any and have more baggage than Louis Vuitton. But then I think back and realise most of the rejection I've had from men pre-dated being attacked, when I was young and lithe and not entirely batshit crazy. In fact even before my parents split up and I went in for the old daddy issues cliche, I was invisible to men who seemed to look through me to my friends, rendering me an inconvenience in the process.

This is in fact my salvation. My poor luck with men is so long lived and such a strong precedent, I wonder to myself if there are just some of us who aren't relationship material? Do the people we date just not see us in that light? Are we too busy being single or radiating independent vibes that mean it simply doesn't occur to others than we might quite like to be wooed occasionally? I like this idea much better than the idea than the terrible lingering fear that I am actually unloveable. The idea that some people just don't clickt his way seems ever more likely after stumbling across this piece about what happens when you don't meet THE ONE, published in this week's Guardian Weekend and for once, quite helpfully opened to comments. It seems that there are quite a few other people out there who are also slightly bewildered as to why they are never partnered up, but are not at Bridget Jones levels of desperation about it and able to relate to the paradoxical feeling that they don't entirely want a partner but feel crap that no one wants them either.



I am actually very fond of all my friends' partners and pleased that the people I know who have got partners are with someone who thinks they are great and makes them happy. I just worry what will happen as they develop lives and families of their own, especially if my mum isn't around anymore, and I'm not sure which I fear more: being sidelined til I never see anyone at all or being invited to things out of pity, especially at holiday times. I already find bank holidays quite empty as they are the time everyone else spends with their partner and/or family and my family live a long way away (and they are all attached anyway.) Then I remember I can stay home and read a book while eating crisps and life feels pretty good again even if this statement was uncomfortably close to home:
Obviously, I've got my mum, who adores me, but other than my family, I don't really feel like I've got support. My friends have partners, so I play a smaller part in their lives, while they play a bigger part in mine.  

I'm also comforted by the fact I'm not the only single person I know and that the other ones I know are fantastic and thus I'm in great company. But what I don't know is if any of them feel the same way as me about being alone, because it rarely gets talked about. I have no idea if this is because I'm making a mountain out of a molehill and everyone is more balanced about it than me or because it's just not the done thing to mention our emotional yearnings in public unless we're anonymous on the internet* or quite pissed in real life. It seems to be ok to talk about having a partner or getting married but not why you are doing those things, with the result that they just come across as things 'normal' people do and can leave everyone else feeling 'othered'.

I have to remind myself that I'm not actually desperate to get married or have kids and that takes some pressure off, but I also have to think it's just as well I'm not setting my sights on these goals because they are almost unlikely to actually happen. I don't see myself settling down any time soon. I don't hold much hope that if I couldn't find someone keen when I was relatively healthy, socially active, financially solvent and younger that I'll have them queuing up now I'm obviously chronically ill, reclusive, broke and supposedly at the age when all women want babies. And that's not including the fact that I very rarely meet men I feel anything for beyond friendship. I feel like I've got more chance of winning the Lottery. And I don't even play it.

That's not to say I'm going to sit round and wallow. I'm going to carry on with the bits of my life I like but try not to torture myself when those inferior feelings come up. I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me, but anyone has a clue as to why I'm so perpetually single, do let me know. I'm a big girl now. I can take it. I'm going to count my blessings and not take things for granted. I'm not even going to give up on the dating game and get lots of cats. I'm going to have some psychotherapy. I'm not going to become bitter and twisted. But I am going to go postal on the first person who calls me a singleton...
















*Hilariously someone did recognise me from my comment on the Graun and email me to say they felt the same. This made me pleased on many selfish levels