Speaking And Listening: Words From Behind The Glass.

If a mentally ill person speaks, and people choose not to hear her, does she actually make a sound? No. Outside of my actual symptoms, I think the worst part about having a mental illness is losing my voice.

To me, having managed it with moderate success for several years, Borderline Personality Disorder is now just a tiny part of my existence. Occasionally, it gets a bit bigger and demands more attention, but I combat it with strategy and technique, and put it back in its place. It’s like having an allergy – avoid the triggers and things are mostly fine. To me, my mental capacities and thought processes regarding the world in general, are now pretty sound.

But other people don’t see it that way, and that wouldn’t matter, except that they’re the ones doing the listening part.

Because I have a mental illness, anything I say can be attributed to it and dismissed as the crazed ramblings of an unhinged mind. If I have an opinion about something, it doesn’t have to count, because it’s tainted by madness. If I have a solution to a problem, people will smile, nod and entirely disregard what I have said. People will literally talk over me. People – and I am not exaggerating here – will actually tell me that I am wrong about something so patently obvious, just because it is me that has said it. This phenomena is not entirely dissimilar to what is commonly known as “Mansplaining” – when men assume that a woman doesn’t know what she’s talking about, simply because she is a woman. Except that this type of disregard is so much more damaging than that. This type of disregard completely strips a person of their ability to communicate.

Imagine standing in a sound-proof room that has a wall made entirely of glass. The whole world is on the other side of that glass, talking amongst themselves. You have something to say that is of the utmost importance, and your goal is to make somebody hear it. You scream at the absolute top of your lungs. You pound on the glass until your fists bleed. You scream, shout and wail, and none of them hear a thing. They just keep talking amongst themselves. You have no voice. Nobody hears you. How do you feel?

Frustrated. Isolated. Alone. Hopeless.

You may as well just stop talking.

This is a terrifying sensation. It feels like being buried alive, and the people around you are the ones tossing the dirt in the hole. The reason it is terrifying is simple: if nobody can hear what you are saying, how can anything get better? And the most frustrating thing of all is that you’re not even feeling ill. In fact, you’re doing relatively well. But that doesn’t matter – you were diagnosed with a mental illness, therefore you don’t get to speak. But then a more terrifying realisation strikes. If nobody will listen now, when you’re feeling well, what happens when you inevitably have a bad day, or a crisis? If nobody is listening, how do you explain what is happening to you? How do you ask for help? And when it’s too late, and you’re way down at the bottom of the rabbit hole, they’ll gather round and say, “But she never said she was struggling!”

If you are very, very lucky – like me – you might have a person. One single person that listens to you, and more importantly, actually hears what you’re saying. On occasion, like mine, these magical people might need reminding, but generally they’re tuned in to the right frequency. These are people to cherish, as they are all too rare. These are the people to remember when you are summarily dismissed by everybody else in the world.

I have a mental illness, and I have as much right to be heard as everybody else. Not everything I say is affected by BPD, and if you don’t have the skill to tell the difference, that’s your problem, not mine. I have opinions – they are mine, they are informed, and I will express them. Sometimes, my solution to the problem works and, while this may come as a shock, I can be right just as often as anyone else – even though I also happen to have Borderline Personality Disorder.

Perhaps this is why I write. It is a way to communicate with a world that routinely removes my voice because I am both a woman, and I am mentally ill. What am I screaming at you from behind that wall of soundproof glass? “STOP DISMISSING PEOPLE.”

To borrow the words of the great Dr Seuss, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.” A person should be heard, one hundred percent. Even when they’re crazy.

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International Women’s Day 2013 – What’s Wrong With This Picture?

On this International Women’s Day, the esteemed Menfolk that run our country have been waxing lyrical on Twitter about all the time and effort they selflessly devote to ‘empowering women’.

UK Prime Minister ‏@Number10gov

From access to justice & healthcare to empowering women in business, the UK gov’t is helping women across the globe #IWD

To really highlight all this positive action “across the globe”, our Government has spared no expense in providing us with a beautiful interactive map at http://engage.number10.gov.uk/international-womens-day-2013/ .  Here, we can click on little icons and read all about how our situations are being improved. On closer inspection, these achievements/activities can essentially be categorised into three groups: things the UK Government are doing to help women abroad, things other people are doing to help women globally that they have written about for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and finally (and in the smallest category) things the UK Government are doing to help women in the UK. Some examples:

  1. Things the UK Government are doing to help women abroad:
  • Sending UK Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone to participate in UN Summit to discuss body image in the media  (29th February 2013);
  • Having the Foreign and Commonwealth Office feature stories of women who work for various departments around the world, including the Forced Marriage Unit (Sophie Wright);
  • Having UK Minister Lynne Featherstone participate in a Europe-wide approach to ending violence against women;
  • Giving UK Minister Lynne Featherstone the title of ‘International Violence Against Women’s Champion’ and having her discuss the rights of Afghan women;
  • Giving UK aid, via the Department for International Development, to help end violence against women in Nepal;
  • Giving UK aid, via UK funded partner organisation Camfed, to boost school bursaries in Tanzania, helping girls have access to education;
  • Sending Baroness Warsi to meet policewomen in Afghanistan

While these noble and important endeavours basically amount to lots of talking and sending some targeted funds, there is at least some real action taking place here.

2. Things other people are doing to help women globally, which they have  written about for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

  • The Acting High Commissioner of Canada, Corin Robertson, has written a blog post about women in leadership;
  • The Montreal Consulate General hosted a roundtable discussion of Women In Science on 24th January 2013, and linked their video to this map;
  • Christy Turlington Burns, founder of Every Mother Counts, writes about “A Safer Motherhood Through Family Planning”;
  • Astrid Aafjes, founder and President of Women Win, writes about “Empowering Girls In Sport”;
  • The UN discussed the power of empowered women;
  • Selma Korjenic writes about her work. She is a Human Rights Officer for Swiss Organisation Track Impunity Always (TRIAL) which works to fight against impunity of perpetrators, accomplices and instigators of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, forced disappearances and torture;
  • Sabiha Husic writes – she is Director of NGO Medica from Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which supports women and children who are victims of war;
  • Lauren Wolfe is Director of Women Under Siege – an independent initiative documenting sexual violence as a tool of conflict – and she writes about sexualised violence in Syria.

This is all vital work, and thank goodness for the people actually doing it.

But, according to their map, what is our own Government actually doing for UK women, other than continually penalising us through changes to the Welfare, Health, Employment and Education systems?

3.  Things the UK Government are doing to help women in the UK:

  • Appointing Martha Lane Fox as UK Government Digital Tsar, and getting her to highlight the lack of representation of women in business and Government;
  • Creating support centres for rape victims in Hereford, Trafford, Dorset and Devon;
  • Providing new support for young victims of sexual violence and gangs.
  • Having the Ministry Of Defence publicise profiles of “women that are making their mark in the Armed Forces”;
  • Having the Home Secretary, Theresa May, create a campaign on television and in digital media, highlighting abuse of teenage girls;
  • Extending a year-long pilot scheme that provides increased protection for victims of domestic violence in Greater Manchester, Wiltshire and West Mercia.

What do all these things have in common? AFTERMATH. Every single point on this list, while important, is about dealing with women as victims. Victims of violence, victims of abuse, victims of sexism. Make no mistake, these initiatives are needed, but by consistently discussing women and girls as having subordinate status and being the weaker members of society, the cycle is perpetuated.

To truly progress, beyond discussion and rhetoric, the basic terms of the conversation must be changed. Our entire social system is constructed in male terms – Government, Law, Health, Education, Employment – and it is for this reason that Equal Rights will continue to be something to be fought for, rather than something to be enjoyed.

The Government (with only 22% of MPs being female) state that they are helping women have access to justice and healthcare, and are empowering women in business around the world. This belies their attitudes as the Gatekeepers, granting these privileges for which women should be grateful, as opposed to acknowledging that these basic rights should be afforded us as human beings.

Throughout the world we are hearing of Leaderships toiling away at making the empowerment of women a high priority as if, again, power were a privilege to be granted. On the contrary, there is a very simple fact that unites every single female on the face of the Earth. No matter their geography, politics, economic, educational or religious status, every single female has power. We are born with it, and we retain it, regardless of what the world does to us.

On International Women’s Day, of all days, let it be known that the women of the world do not need to be empowered by men. We simply need the men to get out of our way.

Sarah Myles