Thursday, 15 August 2013

MAKING THE GRADE


 Ah, it's A Level results day or the day when I realise I'm really really still not over the greatest disappointment of my life and resent the hell out of some 18 year olds with their whole lives ahead of them.

I was in Upper Sixth and gearing up to take A Levels in English Literature, History and Politics when in I got sick in December 1996. I went from getting 3 As in my mocks to not being able to get out of bed in the space of a week. I spent the days I should have been doing my exams alternating between vomiting, sleeping and sobbing myself to sleep in bitter disappointment.

Everyone helpfully pointed out that I could take re-sits and the pedant in me resisted the temptation to point out you can't re-sit something you've not sat at all and gritted my teeth instead. I was still missing out even if I took the exams a few months later. The excitement and plans of my peers wasn't something I could share. They were preparing to spread their wings and leave for new lives. I was preparing for surgery. I felt so left out of their milestones and newly adult interests, like a child listening to the grown ups talk.

Overnight I'd lost everything that gave me pleasure and structure. Friendships were strained, my academic aspirations stunted, plans put on hold and my reputation amongst my peers as the smart one who was going to excel destroyed. And worst of all, I had no idea if it would come back. Would this surgery sort me and I could continue with only a small blip? Or was I destined to stay on the sofa watching This Morning forever?

I don't remember very much about the day all my friends got their A Level results now, but at the time it would have qualified as my personal hell. Listening to their excitement and achievement and knowing that my joy for them was mainly being overwhelmed by massive disappointment and a sense of failure in myself. If you persue the academic route past GCSE, you are told that your exams are crucial and that to come out with no grades is the very worst thing that can happen.

Well, I'd come out gradeless and gallbladderless and all around me was the insistence that without A Levels my life was over (and that was from the teachers and government, not the supposedly histrionic teenage girls...) The only thing I was excelling in was disappointment. I was gutted, but I managed not to scream 'you got a B at A Level and you're fucking crying? How do you think I feel?' at the friend who insisted on telling me this in detail and then not inviting me to the results party with everyone else. (I recently saw her lie about her results on Twitter and chuckled evilly.)

No, I think I took a path of the higher moral ground and cheap booze that night and concentrated on the whole re-sit thing. November was totally the plan and then have the rest of the year off and go to uni in September 1998. I'd study until then and then earn some money so when I got to university I'd be older, wiser and richer than my peers. Dead simple.

Until I discovered they'd abolished November re-sits that year. June 1998 was the earliest I could do my exams, but the only way to be legally able to sit them was re-enrol at school. My headmaster kindly offered to bend the rules and just shy of my 19th birthday I was sat in a school uniform like the new girl again. I think I lasted 6 weeks. I don't remember because the fatigue was so severe I felt like I was hallucinating.

June came and went and as my friends arrived back from their first year of uni, I was missing my A Levels for the second time. In September I enrolled at tech and claimed Income Support to reduce the cost of 3 A Levels from a grand a pop to £30 each. I'd have been pissed off if I'd spent the full amount. I missed my exams in 1999 too in a haze of vomit and pain.

Next September I did night classes to cut down the amount of energy leaving the house I needed to expend. I also dropped the two I didn't really need to get into university as a 'mature student' and finally in 2000, just as all my friends graduated, I sat my English Literature A Levels. Unsurprisingly since I'd been studying the syllabus for 5 years, I got an A.

It was an absolutely massive anti climax. Each peer group I had befriended and studied with had already sat their A Levels and moved on to something else. They weren't interested in my seemingly childish achievement as they had more adult thoughts now. I don't know why I was surprised since none of them had offered much empathy or understanding of my repeated rubbed into the wound disappointment over the almost four years I'd watched all of them grow up, get grades and basically leave me behind.

One friend came with me to get my results, but none of the rest seemed bothered. Despite having sat with a rictus grin for each of their exam results parties, politely not wanting to ruin their night bellowing 'it's not fair' and then sobbing into the punch, no one cared to go out and help me paint the town red. I met up with some friends, dying to celebrate my achievement and effort and was usurped by everyone wanting to stay in and watch Nasty Nick be evicted from Big Brother and eat Pringles. On a pie chart of disappointment, it's hard to say which was worse: getiing the results or not getting them.

I'd spent all that time worrying about my life being fucked up by my A Level delay, I'd felt like a silly childish failure who wasn't important because I wasn't hitting the same milestones as everyone else and I'd been hurt and rejected by people's lack of interest in my difficulties. I don't think ever admitted to myself how hard I was finding it. Told to think positively, I thought acknowledgement was giving in and I felt weak admitting that disappointment was ripping me apart. In hindsight, I'm not surprised I coped by developing an eating disorder. The one thing I was good at was being skinny.

I do wonder how well I'd have coped if I'd known that my fears were real and that not getting my A Levels really would fuck up my entire adult life? I'm now 34, have one A Level to my name, dropped out of my degree and haven't worked for 10 years. I've never earned above minimum wage and since I was 15, I haven't completed a full year of work, study or training without prolonged absence. I'm completely and utterly unemployable and my CV paints me as the most unreliable person possible.

Ot course, I know that I'm dedicated and resourceful and determined. That seemingly not sitting my A Levels but finally getting to uni isn't because I'm a flake but because I don't give up. All that being stopped in your tracks has taught me to flexible where I can be and to learn to adapt to new places and people all the time and to start again and see it as a challenge. These are skills most people don't have even now and I had them before my 20s. But ultimately when you're asked to write your achievements on two sheets of A4, they don't count and they go against you.

The only thing I'm abundantly qualified in is disappointment. It's a useful life skill up to a point, but I've never found it gets any easier the more you try it. It just mutates and twists into bigger uglier shapes. It's made me mature and it's made me less understanding at the same time. As friends start to feel disappointed with life as their 30s bite and their boyfriends don't match up as life partners, babies don't arrive and dream jobs and houses are beyond their grasp, I roll my eyes, mutter 'life's a bitch, huh' and then feel like a shitty person on top of everything else.

I try not to dwell on the enormous shitstorm of disappointments my life has brought where the rule seems to be that no matter how small my desire in life is*, it won't come true (almost all stemming from the same fact that i'm ill and have just got more complicatedly ill over the last 10 years). I've learned to adapt to day to day living and count my small blessings and on the whole I'm content and massively appreciative of what I can do and have achieved. But sometimes I just need to acknowledge how shit and unfair it is and not put a brave face on.

And that day is always A Levels results day. It sneaks out even though I don't consciously think of it in between. I'm torn between envy and irritation as those perky teens celebrate more academic achievement than I've managed and get to go out and celebrate with something that isn't a bastardised potato snack. The difference is this year, I'm not going to apologise for it...

*apart from better friends than I used to have. I have those in abundance and I love them.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

ICE CREAM LEFT ME COLD....


 Last night was Friday night, end of the week, traditional time to chill out. Because I'm now prematurely middle aged, I decided to spend mine wearing my slippers and watching some telly. I caught up with some soaps and then decided having been massively enjoying Scott and Bailey on ITV and hearing such good things about Broadchurch, I'd give the new ITV drama The Ice Cream Girls a go.

It was introduced by the continuity announcer as having 'scenes of a sexual nature' but other than that I knew nothing about it. I primarily listen to Radio 4 so never buy a TV guide. I've never heard of the book it's based on. So imagine my shock when those 'scenes of a sexual nature' actually turned out to be a fairly explicit rape.

And by shock, I mean gut wrenching triggering, feelings of revulsion, total panic and a wave of sheer anger. One minute you're lying on the sofa, the next you're plummeting off an emotional cliff and trying not to be sick. I don't expect people to police everything that might possibly be a trigger to each person and in fact, I'm often fine with rape scenes and discussions of rape on something like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. But the difference there is that I know what to expect on SVU and I can choose whether I'm in the mood for that or watching cats dressed as sharks on a Roomba instead.

I don't particularly want to rehash the trigger warning debate, but last night's lack of warning didn't just upset me. It enraged me. To describe a rape where the woman actually tearfully says 'you hurt me' as a scene of a sexual nature is massively irresponsible. It reinforces so many 'rape myths' once more. Rape is just bad sex that women regret. It's not rape if you've consented before. I't can't be rape if it's your partner, or he tells you he loves you. It can't be rape if you don't scream and kick and fight the whole way through. It's just a scene of a sexual nature.

I wonder how many people watched this disturbing scene last night and instead of learning that rape is degrading, often physically painful and usually perpetrated by someone you know, thought they'd just seen two people have bad sex? I wonder how many men saw an experience they've had and shrugged it off that she's frigid or bad in bed than realising they raped someone? I wonder how many women and girls still couldn't understand why a similar experience left them feeling so bad inside for so long when it was just a 'scene of a sexual nature'?

Pretending rape is just about sex rather than about power has consequences. It normalises abuse, misogyny and violence. It stops rapists and their allies taking responsibility for their actions. It prevents victims from coming forward and healing from their experience, trapping them in shame and silence. It stops the people who sit on juries understanding that it's not as straightforward as 'he said, she said' or women making accusations for the sake of it. It stops the police and CPS seeing that sexual offenders tend not to just target one person just once but often go on hurting and harming people for years.

I'm not suggesting that ITV cause all that singlehandedly, but when you place that in a culture than normalises rape all the time, where cases like Steubenville or Rehtaeh Parsons where even photographic evidence, confessional Tweets and jokes about participating in a gang rape, at best result in a jail sentence measured in months or at worst the suicide of a young woman, it is just one small building block in making sure sexual violence is ignored time and time again.

I was so enraged by ITV's dismissiveness last night that I got up this morning and sent an email of complaint before I'd even made my first cup of tea. I could just about understand not mentioning the scene at all in the continuity announcement, but to deem that people are more worried about smut than watching a woman being brutalised is bloody insulting. Especially when I've heard ITV warn about 'scenes of sexual violence that some viewers may find distressing' before on the Carla Connor Coronation Street storyline. I don't know if the fact The Ice Cream Girls was post watershed made the difference, but it certainly made my blood boil.

I'll let you know what kind of response I get from ITV. My money is on a variation of 'sorry you were offended' and 'bloody hysterical women' but who knows...

Thursday, 28 March 2013

ANTI SOCIAL FUND




Yesterday I had a moment's silence for the Social Fund. Previously a centrally controlled pot of money available to people under strict rules, it will be abolished in its current incarnation from the 1st of April. Its passing doesn't just mark the removal of my own personal safety net but a further dismantling of the welfare state.

The Social Fund was genuinely open to everyone. Crisis loans supported benefit claimants and those hit by unexpected changes to their lives of the worst kind. They fed you and clother you in fire, flood and fear when the insurance companies can't act fast enough or you don't have your documents to hand. Budgeting Loans and Community Care Grants offered opportunity and social mobility. A low cost, low interest option, they allowed for the risk of changing your life and trying to make more of it all.

All these grants and loans came in the guise of cold hard cash, a currency opne to misinterpretation, but also opportunity. As of April, they transfer to a council run scheme with each Local Authority setting their own rules from a non ringfenced budget and will become a combination of pre paid card, vouchers, food stamps at a food bank or allocated items. It's the realisation of Alec Shelbrooke's 'scroungercard' idea refused recently in the House of Commons. I warned then that was a decoy to distract from the eradication of the Social Fund and I take no pleasure in saying "I told you so now".

Sneaked in by the back door, this new incarnation of the Social Fund is in direct contradiction to Iain Duncan Smith's idea that claimants should take more responsibility, a mantra he uses to force through every change to welfare he dam well likes. The Social Fund now knows better than you what you should spend it on and offers only the barest essentials such as Asda cards for food only in Birmingham. I claimed a Crisis Loan to pay the shortfall between my Housing Benefit and my hostel costs when my benefits were delayed due to the address change of being in Temporary Accomodation. Being able to rollback the prices and slap my arse in Asda would not have helped put a roof over my head. Lack of flexibility and this patrician attitude would have had me on the street.

I then also claimed a Community Care Grant when I was rehoused. I was awarded £350 to furnish my entire flat and I was already told what i could or couldn't have. Cutlery was a non essential but curtains were fine (presumably so I could keep them shut and signal my scrounger status to my neighbours...) But within those boundaries I chose what I needed and I took responsibility, showing evidence for what I wanted, pricing it up and shopping around in my local area. I felt treated like a member of my new community and I've been able to integrate fully.

I've helped other people apply for Social Fund payments since. A friend got the deposit for her flat that way or she would have ended up homeless. A neighbour claimed costs for her 25 year old daughter's funeral costs after she was unexpectedly killed by a drunk driver. Clients have been able to keep their flats while in hospital or prison. Others got the cooker that allowed them to eat properly and take their meds, saving on relapse and hospital admission. We've helped people sleep in a bed for the first time in 4 years, heat their homes, get cars back on the road so they could start new jobs and not have to choose between heat and eat. Each one was a small event. No one ever got more than a few hundred pounds and they were able to take small steps that became big strides.

The conditionality and morality clauses such in Manchester's new Social Fund remove that fair and adult attitude and infantilise us all while allowing payday loan companies and supermarkets to make more money from more misery. These are organisations who don't even pay their staff a living wage and get state support in the form of tax credits, bleeding even more from the welfare state and leaving it in critical condition. The changes to the Social Fund will be as detrimental to stability and security as the bedroom tax and a test as to what other universal entitlement can be eroded in modern Britain. And unless they start specifying exactly what those who take out loans from tax payer funded banks can spend it on, you woun't be able to convince me that the whole thing isn't utterly ideological and unfair to the most vulnerable.


(The image above is by the very funny and clever @DocHackenbush on Twitter. Many thanks to him for saying it so well and letting me use it...)

Thursday, 14 February 2013

ONE IN A BILLION...



Today is to most people Valentine's Day, but it's also the slightly less Hallmark friendly (and a lot more important) One Billion Rising. Organised by Eve Ensler, it's a chance for women and girls to rise up, speak out and demand that violence against women and girls is taken more seriously with a view to being stopped. It's particularly important when you realise that the one billion of the title is the number of women on the planet who have suffered gendered or domestic violence, rape or sexual abuse. That's 1 in 3 of the entire femal population of earth. That means when you are in a room with three women at least one of them will have been a direct victim of fear and violence. It doesn't even cover those who have been made afraid walking down the street or harrassed at work or while socialising. It's a terrifying indictment of the way society normalises something so serious.

On Tuesday night I was in a room with 15 other women and each of us had suffered sexual violence. Despite it being a positive event, celebrating the completion of our training as peer led supporters on the unique Amina scheme through Eaves, where we take our experiences and use them to support and empower other women going through similar, it took me aback to think that every single one of us had been through this. As we ate sushi, socialised and eyed up a particularly stunning cake, I looked around at these beautiful, poised, well dressed smiling women and thought that no passer by would ever have guessed what we had in common. It was both poignant and painful to think how we could equally have been at a book group as making the effort to rebuild our lives from the hurt of sexual violence. There was no cliche, no distinguishing feature of victimhood, nothing to mark us out and with it the chilling realisation that violence against women can happen to any women in contradiction of all those ridiculous myths we hear trotted out each time the subject comes up in society.

As we talked and congratulated each other on 50 hours of bloody hard work, we didn't talk about what had happened, but what we could do now. We looked forward (not just to dessert) and the whole mood was strong, not strident. It was a place I never imagined myself standing. Even though I felt much improved on the days when I simply couldn't imagine ever doing more than existing after my rapes, when I started at Amina, it seemed like I would never really heal the raw gaping pain that was at the centre of my life and which affected everything. I wanted to join the scheme because the only way I've ever found of easing that sorrow and soreness is to campaign and agitate so that at least one other woman in London would not have to live through the same shitstorm I did. The abstract idea that organisations like Sapphire had changed because of mine and other women's campaigning was a start, but perhaps slightly selfishly I wanted to see that evidence in real life. I had wanted someone to come along and fix me, so I went looking to fix someone..

And I did. I haven't for various reasons actually done any pairing with another woman on the scheme yet. But on the way, I found myself fixed pretty well instead. In looking for something else I found an environment that offered support, acceptance and understanding that comes from having experiencecd the same things and wanting to work together because if it. There was no competition, no victimhood, no othering, just women who understood each other, working to explain emotions and responses and share. There was no angry denouncing of men, no impotent raging and frothing, no wallowing, no backstabbing or sniping or any other group of women cliches. Just encouragment to tackle things we could and change small things and to use the expertise we all have from having survived. It shifted something in me and I could finally understand why some women use the term survivor not victim. I could finally imagine not just surviving, but living.

Some of that came from looking at the politics of sexual violence, understanding the normal natural responses to trauma and being practical and pragmatic, but most of it came from meeting the other women I trained with who are truly brilliant. Kind, considerate, inspired, determined, decisive and funny, they showed me by example and their own efforts, opening my eyes beyond the self absorption of simply surviving. They shared their good days, big achievements and constant challenges, admitting to trials, tribulations and traumas and showing me that I didn't need to recover completely before getting on with life. I could be be flawed and fucked up and still achieve. Since meeting those women and becoming friends with them, I've achieved more than in the rest of my adult life put together. My life is changed beyond recognition but I know I will never outgrow them. While I am ridiculously spoiled and blessed to have other friends and family who have loved and supported me no matter how hard it, there was something especially important about meeting people with whom there was an immediate shorthand and mutual understanding and no need to have to look for the words for it all.

I can't thank them enough for the support and love and kindness they've shown me. I know that they will be brilliant with the women they are paired with and work toward helping when in simply being themselves they've given me so much. It has been wonderful to take such valued friendships away from this, but it has also been life changing to have my preconceptions of how women can't be trusted to work together shattered and disproved by a wonderfully sisterly (but non touchy feely) attitude at Eaves. I may not be singing, dancing or flashmobbing for OBRUK today but I'm making sitting in my pyjamas, drinking tea and talking about myself a feminist act by showing that women working together really does make a difference. So if you aren't doing any of the other OBRUK events be assured that being a friend to someone who has experienced  fear or violence as a woman the other 364 days of the year is something to be very proud of. But if you want to do something proactive to mark the day, a donation of time or money to Rape Crisis or Eaves will share that kindness a little bit further.