Sunday, August 5, 2018

On falling in love with a place

I've often used the analogy of heartbreak to describe how I felt about leaving Boulder. This might sound melodramatic, but it's been four years and I still think that leaving Colorado was perhaps the only time in my life that I've ever been truly, gut wrenchingly, agonisingly heartbroken. For almost a year after everything was grey, both in a literal and emotional sense. When you're 1,624m above sea level everything is so vivid and vital. In comparison, Brighton was just dull, dirty and damp. That year I played a song by an American band called Railroad Earth on repeat, about a bird that is trapped in a house and desperate to get out. It was the soundtrack to the greyness.

I've gradually made my peace with my home country, but since being in Berlin I've been reflecting on what it means to fall in love with a place again. In my first months here I've tried to embrace this city as only a new lover can, exploring parts of it slowly, savouring the sweet unfamiliarity and the excitement that not only do you not know it yet, but it doesn't know you. (Oh, and you also feel like you need to wear makeup all the time). I'm cautious though, as someone who knows the pain of heartbreak usually is. I don't think anything will ever match the passion and urgency of that first love, but I'm older and wiser now and I'm willing to work towards something that's more practical, more gentle and may stand a better chance of survival in the long run.

The days before I left for Berlin it had been very hot in London and everyone had been sleeping with their windows open. As I was travelling to the airport someone very dear to me messaged me to say that he had woken up that morning to find a black bird on his bedroom floor. She was weak because she had been struggling for so long to escape through the half drawn blinds, but as he raised the blinds and held her up to the window she launched herself out of his hands and flew joyfully away. Out of the house.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Beyond Psychedelics '18

People are saged before the opening ceremony

Rafael Mendonca Costa and two representatives from Brazil share music and discuss ayahuasca and the rebirth of the indigenous movement in Brazil

Dr. Ben Sessa presents some of the preliminary findings of his study on MDMA for the treatment of alcohol abuse disorder

Sound bath

Representatives from Psychedelic Societies across the world discuss the future of psychedelic organisations

Friday, July 13, 2018

Breaking the mental health binary

Recently I was talking to a friend on the phone about a certain event in my life. I used the word "anxiety" to describe my feelings around the situation, to which they replied "oh but you don't have anxiety. You just felt anxious." This made me think. Is it possible to 'have' anxiety, or is anxiety just one feeling on the spectrum of human emotion? I tend to think the latter, but in today's culture where people are increasingly well-versed in psychiatric language, 'anxiety' is increasingly becoming a buzz-term which people are using to self-diagnose their perceived mental abnormalities.

This medicalised approach to normal emotions could be an issue for concern. According to a British Medical Journal blog post by psychiatrist Derek Summerfield, anti-depressant prescriptions have increased from around 9 million in the 1990s to 64.7 million in 2016 - without any evidence that mental wellbeing has improved. To quote Summerfield:

[When] the language of psychological deficit is inserted into the public imagination. People come to see themselves not as normally stressed, but as “ill.”

Psychiatric language around mental health has become so entrenched in everyday speech that normal emotions are being characterised as innate deficiencies - you don't feel anxious, you are anxious. Overtime these narratives become entrenched into the way we think about ourselves and our behaviour. 

A few months ago I was at a party where I didn't know many people. I felt uneasy, uncomfortable, so awkward that I couldn't even make eye contact with anyone and just wanted to go home. This is something I've felt in various degrees of severity my whole life, but armed with the new language I've picked up from friends and the media I started telling myself that what I was feeling was 'social anxiety.' Naming this feeling had the effect of making me feel better ("I'm not alone in feeling this"), yet simultaneously creating a narrative in my head about the way future social events are going to go ("I have social anxiety, I'm going to avoid going to parties where I don't know people in the future to avoid this.") 

In his book How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics Michael Pollan explains one of the reasons that psychedelics have been useful in treating mental illnesses like depression and anxiety is that they break people out of these narrow ways of thinking about themselves and their minds. Rather than reinforcing the narrative ("I'm mentally ill" "there's something wrong with my brain") psychedelics break down the ego and force a different perspective on the self. “The ego is stuck in these stories,” he says. Substances like psilocybin seem to work because “they dope slap people out of their stories.” 

In the studies on psilocybin for mental health, participants often struggle to describe their experience using words. Perhaps it's exactly because these experiences seem to transcend the narrow confines of our language that they are so effective. In this space, a person is no longer able to hang onto their narrative and is therefore finally able to reconceptualise their story.

At the end of the day, mental health is just a construct which humans have built up in order to rationalise their experience of the world. These boxes can be useful but it's also important to get out of them every once in a while.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Hallo Berlin

So after a few turbulent (to say the least!) months I've arrived in Berlin for the foreseeable future. As is fairly typical of me, I didn't plan this move too much and instead just went off of gut instinct - it's done me well so far and, to quote my dad, 'you should never waste a good crisis.' The crisis certainly would have been wasted had I stayed in London, the city I've been telling myself and everyone I'm trying to get out of for the past two years.

Fortunately I had the offer of a place to stay while I get myself on my feet, which for the moment involves looking for some work and somewhere to live.

I read a quote from Milan Kundera's The Joke recently which resonated with me, "I had several faces because I was young and didn't know who I was or wanted to be." For me personally at the moment the main dilemma revolves around work. My interests span a broad category which I guess could be considered 'wellness', both of the mental and physical kind, but within that there's some broader questions. How do I make my life meaningful for myself and others? How do I make my life meaningful for myself and others and get paid?

The key, I think, is reconciling all your faces - including the ones that seem somewhat contradictory. In the 'about' section of this blog I wrote about all the different masks I've worn on my life journey so far, writing about food, fashion, fitness, society, art, culture... you name it. I have this unshakeable and annoying tendency to want to commit myself wholly to one thing or the other.

Which brings me to my next point. Before heading to Berlin I spent five days in Prague for the Beyond Psychedelics conference. The conference was fascinating and being surrounded by people so passionate about the cause of furthering psychedelic research and culture was incredibly inspiring. It's not something I've spoken about on here before, but I had an experience on a magic mushroom retreat in Jamaica earlier this year which had a profound effect on the way I think about my life. Mainly, I realised that in order to be more at peace with myself I needed to stop being so preoccupied with the 'being' and get on with the 'doing'. Who cares if I'm a Londoner that loves to spend time in the mountains, a yoga and healthy eating enthusiast who also enjoys going out to bars? A mix of contradictions doesn't an un-whole person make.

Anyway, I'll interrupt this self indulgent stream of consciousness now as I'm about to go and sit in a bar to watch England play Belgium in the World Cup.

Auf wiedersehen.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Liv Wynter, Tate and elitism in the arts

Today I was on Twitter when I saw Liv Wynter share the news about her resignation as artist in residence at Tate.

In her open letter to the organisation Wynter points out that although Tate has made efforts to publicly support radical, queer and BAME artists in recent years, this isn’t reflected in the makeup of the organisation. “Tate has only 13% of their workforce that identify as Black or Ethnic Minority. Tate has only 9% of its staff that identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Every single director is white. In payband 1 there is only 3% BAME. Band 2 has 12% and band 3 has 7%! Only 4% of the entire workforce identify as disabled!”

Although I can’t know what it feels like to be a queer, working class woman in an institution like Tate I do have some idea of the world she speaks of. Last summer I spent three months interning on the arts desk of a well known newspaper, an opportunity I was thrilled about. I spent the weeks before my internship religiously following the news, reading the publication in question and preparing myself for the intelligent conversations I was sure I would have there. However, once I arrived I felt embarrassingly paralysed when it came to communicating with the majority of people I met. Most of the employees I met were white, male, public school and Oxbridge educated. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t able to participate in some light-hearted banter about Latin translation, I literally felt like I didn't speak the same language.

It was while I was interning at this newspaper that we heard the news of the pay gap at the BBC. This gave me the opportunity to attend an emergency meeting involving the women at the newspaper, where the predominance of public school educated, able-bodied, male and white employees was brought up and earnestly discussed. This points to something that Liv Wyner mentions in her resignation letter, that there are pockets of change present in these organisations “playing the long game”. But, she says, there is still a dire need for urgency - “to rip through the insidiousness of the institution to create at the very depths of it the diverse and radical space they claim on the surface.”

At the risk of jumping on Wynter’s message with a seemingly unrelated gripe, I think that my experience is more evidence of the elitist tendencies present in most, if not all, of Britain’s largest arts and media institutions. As a white, cisgender, able bodied and heterosexual female the fact that I can ‘pass’ in these institutions does not mean that I can, or should, try and learn the rules to the game which the elite in this country are taught from the moment they start school.

I don’t want to appear ungrateful and although we may not have ‘clicked’ the experiences I had at the newspaper were mostly positive. Since leaving the internship I’ve given myself a very hard time for not making the most of the opportunity. As with most things in life, though, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate what it is and isn’t appropriate to take responsibility for. Feeling apologetic or responsible for 'not fitting in' is something I suspect working class people, ethnic minorities, LGBT and cis-women trying to make a living in these institutions have done for a long time. Wynter's resignation highlights how emphatically calling out and refusing to participate in these paradigms can be the most powerful action of all.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Many mountains to climb

Sometimes it's necessary to shake up your environment to remind yourself what it is you really value.

Despite my previous chirpy positivity about the winter weather, all it took was a couple of nasty colds to make me retreat indoors and stay there. In fact, until this weekend away in Snowdonia I don't think I'd so much as even set a foot in my local park for over a month. Now, for some people I'm sure that's just fine, but if I've learnt one thing about myself over the last five years it's that if I spend too much time in the city, or doing city things, then I go a little nuts.

One of the biggest revelations I had on my year abroad was that I wasn't as much of an urbanite as I thought I was. Living outside of London for pretty much the first time in my life, suddenly all the things that made me anxious at home didn't seem so important any more. In London there's a lot of pressure to 'be' someone, and maybe it's just that I'm a little too inclined to narcissism but it gets me every. time.

It's a huge cliché, but something about fresh air and wide open spaces always helps to put things back into perspective. It's a combination of the reminder that to be warm, comfortable and fed are all we really need in this life, the physical challenge and the sense of insignificance against something so permanent and so old that helps me feel - for lack of a better or less annoying phrase - at peace.

Since returning from Colorado this little glimmer of fundamental truth I believe I discovered has been the driving force behind quite a lot of life decisions. When I left my job in content marketing in 2016 my boss asked me what it was that I actually wanted to do with the journalism MA I was just about to start. "I want to write for an outdoor travel magazine!" I replied. At a Halloween party last year, a much cooler and more successful journalist than me asked the same question. "What I reallllly want to write about is adventure travel" I drunkenly gasped. She looked horrified.

This weekend in Snowdonia reminded me about all of that in a big way. Considering I was just starting to feel as if winter was going to go on forever, this could not have happened at a better time. Not to sound too British about it but we were incredibly fortunate with the weather, and the day we hiked Cnicht was still and sunny. We didn't make it up snow-capped Snowdon this time, but I'm fully intending on returning for it sometime in the Spring.

And the best realisation of all is that with so many mountains to climb on this planet of ours, I've got a whole lifetime of adventures to keep me busy!

Platitudes aside, though, I'm definitely still narcissistic enough to make sure I get a good photograph for Instagram. Which just goes to show that some things will never change.