Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I was a thirty-something racist: part one

This is long; get a coffee.

I am Australian and I am a racist.  Well, at least I was.  I’ve been slapped in the face by the unforgiving palm of reality, and the shame-filled ripple effect it has caused is growing in intensity, rather than petering back out to the calm waters that once were my life.

The shittiest part is: I was the worst kind of racist—the kind who says things like ‘I’m not a racist but…’ and ‘look, I’ll try to make this not sound racist because I’m not being racist, but…’ or ‘I’m not racist; I treat everyone equally’.  Sound like anyone you know?  Sound like you?  Don’t be ashamed yet, because right now you are just a person silently reading something on a screen.  The time for shame will be if you get to the bottom of this and do not even have the slightest desire to explore this further.

Let me start at the start, with what we are taught as children in our schools. 

*DISCLAIMER--- What some children are taught today will be different to this, if they are lucky enough to be in a school committed to a black-white partnership.  I’m talking about people who have already acquired a ‘knowledge’ of our nation’s history*

When I went to school, the basic story was that Captain Cook discovered Australia, and colonised it.  He rocked up with a bunch of ships, came ashore and claimed the land.  Let’s break this down for a second, with a series of questions and answers…

1.       Child: ‘Why would a man, with a fleet and a nation behind him feel that it was ok to just take a piece of land that already belonged to someone else?’

Misinformed parent: ‘Because the inhabitants were primitive, savage and uneducated of course.  The British were civilised!  They knew better and the natives would be better off for it.’

Wrong.  That is invasion, pure and simple.  The British declared that the continent was ‘terra nullius’, meaning ‘land belonging to no-one’.  We go ahead and abhor invasion when it is somewhere else in history, but it happened here, in Australia.  It doesn’t matter that the British were in a different state of development than the Aboriginal people of Australia; that land ALREADY BELONGED TO PEOPLE, people who were very happy with their own culture and not in need of imported diseases, oppression, ‘guidance’ or the invaders’ idea of ‘order’.  Britain claimed that no individual or group held any ‘sovereign’ title to the land, so basically it was up for grabs, and they grabbed it.

2.       Child: ‘Well, surely Captain Cook and his men at least asked permission to settle, or negotiated some sort of compromise?’

Misinformed parent : ‘Well, no… why should they?  They were the superior race!  The Aboriginal people hadn’t even invented the wheel!  Or the bow and arrow!  It’s the natural progression of evolution!’

No, it isn’t.  And they weren’t superior, just different.  The problem is that they certainly thought they were superior, and they had the strength to simply take what they wanted anyhow.  So they did.  Did you know that Aboriginal people used to be officially classed as flora and fauna and that the word Aboriginal was not capitalised until the 1967 election?

3.       Child: ‘Why couldn’t they just share?’

Misinformed parent : ‘And let all the natives have the best land for building cities and ports?  Nothing would ever have been achieved!’

Not only did they not ‘share’ in any way whatsoever, the Aboriginal people were forced off their lands the more the settlement and invaders wanted to spread.  Many thousands of people died in battle for their land.  Many were simply killed as one might poison rats in a larder.  I’m serious.  Poisoning Waterholes was the easiest way, look it up.   They were also hunted.  Like animals.

4.       Child: ‘So… the Aboriginals were just kinda forced into the desert, where nobody else wanted to live?’

Misinformed parent : ‘Nooooo, they like it there.  They are a nomadic people, they prefer to be ‘on the land’.  It was better for them to be there, away from the settlements.’

Wrong.  Aboriginal people were forced into camps and reserves in the hope that they would die out in time anyway.  In 1916, Governor Macquarie decreed that no Aboriginal person was allowed to appear armed with any weapon within a mile of any settlement and no more than six Aboriginal people are allowed to ‘lurk or loiter near farms’. As a result, some Aboriginal people became fringe dwellers on the outskirts of cities and towns, while others managed a meagre living in the casual labour force of rural and outback Australia, being paid far less than their white-skinned counterparts. They were no longer allowed to live as they had done for tens of thousands of years, but neither were they able to become equal partners and citizens in the wider society that had taken their land.

5.       Child: ‘But… weren’t our explorers brave men, taking on the unknown, the new frontiers?’

Misinformed parent : ‘Oh yes!  They triumphed through many hardships and perilous terrain!’

Mhm.  With who to guide them, do you think?  Forced to guide them, more accurately—without Aboriginal guides many of the celebrated explorers would quite simply have perished or been killed by hostile Aboriginal people.  I’m not making this up; it’s written, in books and everything.

6.       Child: ‘So… nobody even tried to make a treaty with Aboriginal people or anything?’

Misinformed parent : ‘Oh, I’m sure they would have…’

No, they didn’t.  One guy actually, by the name of John Batman (seriously) did try, for land at Port Phillip bay.  Governor Bourke did not recognise the treaty, and the purchase was voided.

So, that was how the British invaders rolled at the time.  There are numerous horrifying documented cases of brutal massacres, utterly distressing cases of sexual abuse against women too young for Motherhood, not to mention the sickness introduced by the White man for which the Aboriginal people had no immunity, vaccination or cure.  Even the common cold proved to be fatal.  Aboriginal people were treated as a pest.  It is a common misconception that the settlement of Australia was a relatively peaceable affair.  This picture was painted for me by my Australian education.  What they omit is the details of the immense drop in Aboriginal population in the first 150 years of British occupation.  It’s estimated that the Aboriginal population of Australia prior to the invasion in 1788 was over one million.  By the 1920s, census figures indicate that only about 58,000 ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal people survived in Australia.  Those figures were done by a guy called Butlin.  Here is a little more info:

Butlin’s figures therefore suggest a 96% decline in the Aboriginal population. Not everyone agrees with Butlin’s calculations, and it must be emphasised that this paper does not rest upon the acceptance of Butlin’s figures. The lower (Radcliffe-Brown) population estimate still demands that we deal with a decline from 300,000 to 58,000, indicating that European settlement of Australia removed well over 80% of the original inhabitants. While there are arguments about whether or not this reduction constitutes ‘genocide’, such an impact on the Indigenous inhabitants resembles the fate of many oppressed ethnic groups elsewhere in the world whose mistreatment or annihilation we deplore.

Many, many people believed that the decline in the number of Aboriginal people was inevitable, because they were ‘stone age’ and even our Prime Minister John Gorton publically claimed that they didn’t even make tools and that they ‘would not know what another tribe was doing’.  ‘Sounds like pretty primitive thinking’ I thought to myself as I read this, ‘He must have been a really early PM.’  Yeah.  Early.  1968-71.

Moving on.  Let’s skip to the 1800s, when (in addition to settlers being given permission to shoot unarmed Aboriginal people on their property) a bunch of rules started popping up with regards to Aboriginal people.  Here are a few, along with some interesting facts:

·         In 1816: passports or certificates are issued to Aboriginal people who ‘conduct themselves in a suitable manner’ to show they are ‘officially accepted’ by Europeans,

·         In 1837: In London, a Parliamentary Select Committee affirms the ‘plain and sacred right’ of Indigenous peoples to land.  The committee reports genocide is happening in the colonies.

·         In 1838: A massacre happened at Vinegar Hill (60-70 Aboriginal deaths) and in Myall Creek, where 28 Aboriginal old men, women and children were butchered.  When their killers were brought to trial, and some of them subsequently sentenced to death by hanging, there was a public outcry from the settlements, at the fact that people would hang for the murdering of Aboriginal people.  There were also reports of poisoned flour.

·         In 1868: The first overseas cricket tour leaves Australia for England; the team is all Aboriginal, also 150 Aboriginal people are killed resisting arrest in the Kimberleys.

·         In 1869: Act for “Protection and Management of Aboriginal Natives” is passed in Victoria.

·         In 1883: NSW Aborigines Protection Board (APB) takes over reserves for Aboriginal people and sets up reserve schools – usually taught by untrained managers’ wives with an inferior curriculum. Aboriginal children could attend the local public schools providing they were “habitually clean, decently clad and that they conduct themselves with propriety, both in and out of school”.

·         In 1886: The Victorian Aborigines Protection Act excludes “half castes” from their definition of an Aboriginal person. As a result nearly half the residents of the stations have to leave their homes.

·         In 1901: Australia becomes a federation and Aboriginal people are excluded from the census and the lawmaking powers of the Commonwealth Parliament.  The Commonwealth Constitution states ‘in reckoning the numbers of people...Aboriginal natives shall not be counted’.  It also states that the Commonwealth would legislate for any race except Aborigines.  Also, the White Australia Policy bars ‘coloured’ immigrants and denies Aboriginal existence. Aboriginal people are excluded from the vote, pensions, employment in post offices, enlistment in Armed Forces, maternity allowance.  It wasn’t until we were very thin on the ground for manpower that the armed forces allowed Indigenous people to enlist, and often they weren’t even paid.

·         In 1908: The Invalid and Old Age Pension Act provides social security for all Australians except Aboriginal people.


You getting a bit pissed off yet?


·         In 1909: The Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW) gives APB the power to remove Aboriginal children from their families.  Oh, no big deal, just remove them from their fucking families.

·         In 1925: Australian Aboriginal Progress Association (AAPA) established. The AAPA, officially launched in February 1925, was the ‘first Aboriginal political organisation to create formal links between communities over a wide area’. It was important because of the role it played in planting political seeds that flowered in future generations of indigenous political leaders in south-eastern Australia. The AAPA campaigned for “freehold title to land, the cessation of the removal of Aboriginal children and the abolition of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board(APB).

·         In 1928: Another massacre, known as the ‘Conniston massacre’: whites admit to shooting 31 Aboriginal people after a white dingo trapper is killed. Aboriginal records show scores more died. A court of inquiry says the Europeans’ action was ‘justified’. Aboriginal people are refused legal aid by the Federal Government.

·         In 1937: First Native Welfare Conference – policy of Assimilation is adopted to make Aboriginal people the same as White Australians.  Whaaaaat?

·         In 1948: The Commonwealth Citizenship and Nationality Act for the first time gives a category of “Australian Citizenship” to all Australians, including all Aboriginal people.  However, at state level Aboriginal people still suffer legal discrimination.

·         In 1949: Australian Citizenship Act 1949 (Cth), gives Aboriginal people the vote in Commonwealth elections if they are enrolled for State elections or have served in the Armed Forces.

·         In 1953-57: Atomic tests, code named Operation Totem, are conducted at Emu, South Australia. A black cloud passes leaving many Aboriginal people suffering radiation sickness.

·         In 1962: All Aboriginal people are given the vote in Commonwealth elections.  Let’s break that down a bit.  Also in 1962, otherwise known as MCMLXII, The Beatles audition for Decca records, Ranger 3 is launched to study the Moon (it later misses the Moon by 22,000 miles), Leonard Bernstein causes controversy with his remarks before a concert featuring Glenn Gould with the New York Philharmonic, when he (Bernstein) announces that although he disagrees with Gould's style of playing the Brahms First Piano Concerto, he finds Gould's ideas fascinating and will conduct the piece anyway (this is really groundbreaking stuff here), The 34th Academy Awards ceremony is held; West Side Story wins Best Picture,  In Los Angeles, California, the first MLB game is played at Dodger Stadium, The Ranger 4 spacecraft crashes into the Moon, The first Walmart store, then known as Wal-Mart (which is still the corporate name), opens for business in Rogers, Arkansas, American artist Andy Warhol premieres his Campbell's Soup Cans exhibit in Los Angeles, Marvel Comics publishes Amazing Fantasy#15, which features the first published appearance of Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Beatles drummer Pete Best is fired and replaced by Ringo Starr (because he was too good-looking and charismatic, I have this on personal authority from a friend of mine who knew the Beatles), The first black student, James Meredith, registers at the University of Mississippi, escorted by Federal Marshals, earliest recorded use of the term ‘personal computer’ in the report of a speech by computing pioneer John Mauchly in The New York Times, Leonardo da Vinci's early 16th-century painting the Mona Lisa is assessed for insurance purposes at US$100 million before touring the United States for several months, the highest insurance value for a painting in history. However, The Louvre, its owner, chooses to spend the money that would have been spent on the insurance premium on security instead and Jim Carrey was born.  CAN YOU PICK THE TWO BASIC CIVIL RIGHTS THAT DO NOT BELONG IN A LIST OF THINGS FROM NINETEEN SIXTY FUCKING TWO?!?!?  And P.S. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples are still discriminated against, in our constitution, see here.

·         In 1966: Arbitration Commission rules equal pay for Aboriginal workers in the pastoral industry but defers it for three years.  Equal pay?!?!? *slaps face in horror*

·         In 1967: 91% of Australian voters vote YES in a Referendum to count Aboriginal people in the census and give the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal people.

·         In 1971: Neville Bonner becomes the first Aboriginal member of Parliament when he filled a casual Senate vacancy. In 1972 he is elected on the Liberal Party ticket in Queensland.

·         In 1972: the Whitlam Labor Government is elected – abolishes White Australia Policy, sets up Department of Aboriginal Affairs; new Aboriginal policy of self determination, and the Whitlam Government freezes all applications for mining and exploration on Commonwealth Aboriginal reserves.

·         In 1975: Prime Minister Gough Whitlam hands back title to Gurindji people, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) is passed in the Commonwealth Parliament, but also The Laverton Royal Commission in Western Australia investigating clashes between police and Aboriginal people at Laverton and Skull Creek in December, 1974 and January, 1975, found that police were unable to justify arrests and that some parts of the police story had been invented.

·         In 1977: Aboriginal woman Isobel Coe received $100 in damages in the Moree District Court, NSW against Malcolm Barber who refused her entrance to his bar.  One.  Hundred.  Dollars.  In other news, I was born.

·         In 1980: Link-Up NSW established to re-unite families of the Stolen Generations (remember, when white people saw fit to simply steal Aboriginal people’s children). NSW Parliament Select Committee inquiry into land rights for Aboriginal people.

·         In 1987: Prime Minister Bob Hawke sets up a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in response to the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and death in prisons and police lockups.  It is interesting to note that both Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke were Labour…

·         In 1989: The NSW Taskforce on Aboriginal Heritage and Culture recommends that responsibility for Aboriginal Heritage be removed form the National Parks and Wildlife Service and that a separate Aboriginal Heritage Commission be established.  National Parks and Wildlife?  What the ACTUAL fuck?!?!?

·         In 1992: The High Court of Australia rules in the Mabo case that native title exists over particular kinds of land – unalienated Crown land, national parks and reserves – and that Australia was never ‘terra nullius’.  Also, Prime Minister Keating (Labour) launches Australian celebration of International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1993), with a speech accepting responsibility for past mistreatment of Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal Australians and calling for reconciliation. The speech becomes known as the ‘Redfern Park speech’ (transcript here).

·         In 1996: Election of Howard Coalition Government in Canberra – seen as opposed to Aboriginal rights.  Howard = Liberal.  Also, in his first budget as PM, Howard cuts $470 million in funding to The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

·         In 1997: The report tabled in Federal Parliament that shook Australia. Bringing Them Home detailed painful evidence of the removal of thousands of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander children from their families, also, National Sorry Day - a day for organisations to apologies for the removal of Aboriginal children from their families. A chance for all Australians to recognise the pain thousands of Aboriginal people went through. The first ‘Sorry Day’ is marked by hundreds of activities around the country. The Australian Federal Government does not take part in ‘Sorry Day’, saying people who removed Aboriginal children thought they were doing the right thing and people now should not have to say sorry for what people did in the past, 12 October: Thousands of Australian people plant hands in front of Parliament House, Canberra in support of native title and reconciliation between black and white Australia and South Australian Premier John Olsen apologises to Aboriginal people for past wrongs, particularly the Stolen Generation: “I apologise on behalf of South Australians for the effects that the then Government policy had on the families and children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people [...] This sad episode has caused a scar on the face of this nation. [...] By apologising, I hope that we can now move forward.”

·         In 1998: Pauline Hanson and One Nation Party campaign against Aboriginal ‘special treatment’. Commonwealth Parliament statement of commitment to Reconciliation.

·         In 1999: On June 2, the Draft Document for Reconciliation was released for nationwide discussion by the Australian people, and Howard officially refuses a national apology for members of the Stolen Generations.

·         In 2000: May 27-28 Corroboree 2000 is held at Sydney Opera House to mark 10 years of work on Reconciliation. Here, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation presents to the nation Corroboree 2000 - Towards Reconciliation which includes the documents Australian Declaration towards Reconciliation and Roadmap for Reconciliation; over 300,000 people join People’s Walk for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge. Howard refuses to take part, Sydney 2000 Olympics. The Sydney 2000 Olympics showcased Indigenous culture to the world. The opening and closing ceremonies  celebrated Indigenous cultural identity and history and provided some deft political comment on contemporary Indigenous issues, and Indigenous athlete, Cathy Freeman lights the Olympic torch and wins the gold medal in the women’s 400m.

·         In 2001: Indigenous people and cultural events featured heavily in the Centenary of Federation program. The Yeperenye Festival outside Alice Springs was the largest corroboree ever staged in this  country – over 25 000 people and 40 Indigenous nations. The program celebrated the first Aboriginal federation of over 1000 generations.

·         In 2004: At least 40 police officers are reported injured following a night of violence directed at the police in Redfern, Sydney. The riot follows the death of a 17 year old Aboriginal boy, TJ Hickey.  I was snowboarding in Canada.  I never even heard about it.

·         In 2004: October 2004 – Howard formally dumps the word ‘reconciliation’ from the government agenda, axing the ‘Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Reconciliation’, also on the 26 November 300 members of the Aboriginal community at Palm Island protest over the death in custody of local man Cameron Doomadgee on 19 November. 9 are arrested and later charged. The Federal government admits progress in reducing Aboriginal deaths in custody had been slow.

·         In 2006: 27 September: Queensland acting State Coroner Christine Clements finds that Senior Sergeant Hurley was responsible for the death of Cameron Doomadgee in 2004 whilst he was in custody, then on 14 December the state’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare announce there was not enough evidence to convict Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley of any offence. There is nationwide protest and dissatisfaction at the decision.

·         In 2007: June 20: Jury acquits Senior Sergeant Hurley on manslaughter and assault charges.

So.  There you have it.  And that’s only a drop in the bucket, and only until 2007.  Waddaya reckon has happened in the last 7 years?  Why don’t you go have a look?

I can’t make this post much longer, because I imagine that the people who have hung on thus far are fading fast.  The point I am making in this particular post is that I used to be racist.  I was racist because I was uneducated.  I am completely and utterly ashamed to admit that I was one of those people that thought any, some or all of the following things, which I know that people I love dearly still think:

1.       ‘Yeah yeah yeah, sorry?  I’m not saying sorry.  What have I got to be sorry for?  I have never been racist to an Aboriginal person.  I treat them the same as anybody.’

2.       ‘What does it matter now?  What’s done is done.  History can’t be undone.  Why can’t they just get over it and move on?’

3.       ‘Ugh.  How is it fair that Aboriginal people get more stuff given to them?  That’s reverse racism.’

4.       ‘Why can’t they just see themselves as the same as us?  I do.’

5.       ‘Why are they all so lazy?  I’ve never seen one actually working a job.’

6.       ‘They bring this on themselves.’

7.       ‘Well maybe if they didn’t get smashed all the time…’

It’s gross.  And sad.  Here are the answers that I have now, to those questions:

1.       ‘It’s not so much about the actual utterance of that word.  It’s about the acknowledgement of the atrocities that were committed and then covered up.  It’s about admitting that the stuff we were spoonfed as kids in a classroom was not our nation’s true history, but a history of the white-skinned people who took it from its rightful owners.  It’s about realising that regardless of what I personally think, or what my family lineage is, my white skin carries with it a history, a story, and that until I accept, admit and embrace the truth and am committed to moving forward together, then I am not respecting the journey and struggle of Aboriginal people over the last 226 years.

2.       That’s right, mistakes cannot be undone.  But we can take responsibility for them.  This isn’t fixed.  You’re blind if you think so.  Racism is still very much alive NOW.  This stuff happened to them, and still does.  If you were persecuted, mistreated, disregarded, viewed as less-than-human and had your children stolen from you or your ancestors did, would you appreciate being told to ‘just get over it, it happened but we’ve moved on, why can’t you’?

3.       My favourite saying for the last few years is ‘equity for all does not necessarily mean equality for all.’  Do you have a grandparent?  Are they on a pension?  I’m not.  I am expected to work for the money I earn.  That’s not fair.  The government just gives all these oldies money, gives it to them for free.  Why?  They can still do stuff!  Make them work!  We need equality!  Know anyone with a loved one who is disabled, incapacitated, or ill in any way and receiving a benefit?  Not fairrrrrrrr, if they get free money, I want mine!  This is the difference between the two.  This money situation is not equality.  The amounts we are given are not equal, but it is equity.  I am able-bodied and thankfully able to enjoy an active lifestyle, so I don’t need money from the government right now.  Aboriginal people have been stepped on for a very long time.  They are at a distinct disadvantage in many ways.  Treating all Australians with equity means that not everything we all receive will be the same, because some need more help than others.

4.       Because why?  Why should Aboriginal people view themselves as the same as non-Aboriginal people?  You could read up on Aboriginal culture for a week solid and still not scrape the surface of their connection to their land, ancestors, animals and nature.  Why can’t we make some advancement towards their end?  Why can’t we non-Aboriginal people work harder to work together and respect everybody’s culture?

5.       Open your eyes, idiot.  Wider.  Wider.  Wider still.  That’s better.  Generalising an entire race into a horrible stereotype is racism, pure and simple.  When I went once to a rally for marriage equality, there was a group of religious assholes there with megaphones spouting hate.  The main guy said two things that stuck in my mind: ‘we know you were all molested as children, that’s why you are gay’ and ‘we know you all have prolapsed anuses from anal sex’.  Uhhhhhhhh pardon?  I think I know my own life.  I have never been molested and my anus is FINE.  I was dumbfounded that he just lumped all homosexual people into that category.  To be truly not racist or bigoted in any way means to stop applying these harmful stereotypes.  ALL THE TIME, ALWAYS.  It HURTS.  Gay people are not perverted, and they will not influence your children to be gay.  Greeks and Italians don’t like to be called ‘Wog’ by you, and no, they won’t make you dinner cos you feel like pasta.  All Asian people (including those from India, I mean Asia as a continent) are not bad drivers.  And all Aboriginal people are not lazy and perpetually drunk.  This is all racism and/or discrimination.  Think about it.  You don’t see a white person drunk somewhere and think ‘bloody white people’.  Why would you categorise any cultural group on the actions of some?

6.       No they don’t.  They are fighting for equity, respect and a true black-white partnership.  And they deserve to.  They don’t have to sit down and be quiet.

7.       See answer 5.

So that’s it for today.  Not my most light-hearted post, but if we all took a stand against racism, maybe one day we could truly wipe it out.  Just think about this stuff, please.  It will make you a better person.  Sometimes, admitting you were an asshole is a very good way to really start to become good.

This post will be followed by part 2, which will explore the ins and outs of white privilege.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. I will not be celebrating Australia day this year.  How can anyone celebrate the day people landed on this continent and began persecuting its rightful owners?  My personal hope is that one day, through a black-white partnership we can come up with a day/date on which we can celebrate reconciliation and working together, a date that means something good for all Australians, not just the dominant race/culture.  Pretty much no matter where you live, there will be something cool going on that uses the day to remember sacrifice and resilience, not invasion and conquering.  Google is your friend here.  If you live in my town, head to Semaphore, for Survival Day.  It will be full of people committed to a better goal than breaking the Guinnes world record for the longest chain of floating giant Havis (and I'm not kidding, that is actually happening).  I can already hear people saying 'fuck that, I'm an Aussie, same as everyone else and I'm celebrating Australia day.'  I'm an Aussie too, but I can't celebrate a history that held down the original inhabitants of our land for so long.  I'm just not that selfish and ignorant anymore.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mental Illness Is Not A Dirty Word

Well, words... but you get my drift.
This post has been a long time coming.  It has not been easy to write it, much less click on the publish button, a task that I will undertake in just a few short minutes.  It is a test.  It is not for me; it is for you.  What is it testing, you ask?  Well, it's testing a few things.  It's testing how much you know about mental illness, it's testing how much you will admit to yourself that you don't know about mental illness, it's testing how willing you are to admit that you may be wrong/have been wrong/have wrongly judged others and it's testing your willingness to adopt a new way of thinking.
BE AWARE that there are things written below about me that you, unless you are a part of a very small group did not know.  You won't like them.  You may be put off by them, freaked out by them, surprised, not surprised, horrified, bewildered or disgusted by them.  Therin lies the test.  let's see how you feel about me and mental illness when you're done reading.  When you are feeling feelings and thinking thoughts, take a step back and look at them, look at what they say about you, your values, your opinions and your genuine understanding.
You also may not give a shit.  The world does not, after all, revolve around me.  But I feel like I have something to say, and I have a bee in my bonnet about an issue (SURPRISE!) so I wrote about it.
I am ready to tell this story.  It’s possibly a good idea to grab a coffee and sit down.

I’m afraid of the dark.  I’m not ashamed to admit it.  Ever since watching The Sixth Sense I’m always uneasy when I’m alone and low on light.  Donnie Wahlberg cuts a sobering image: naked except for a greyish pair of sagging y-fronts, quivering and hunkered, cloaked in despair as he hisses ‘Do you know why you’re afraid when you’re alone?  I do; I do.’  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t see dead people.  But I do feel stuff, I feel a lot.  Sometimes, when I awake in the night needing to pee, I look to every gloomy corner en route to the can, expecting to see a dark figure, motionless, watching me stumble around with a full bladder and terrible night vision.  There is never anything there, but it doesn’t stop me from looking every single time.  I’m also afraid of space.  I’m much more afraid of space.  I don’t mean just, like, the space underneath the tallboy, with all the pet hair dust bunnies, odd socks and a dog food can that rolled under there after Bettie the bulldog stole it from the recycling and licked it clean.  I mean the space that you can only visit with a rocket.  You know, that place where nobody can hear you scream?  I’ll be the first to admit it; it’s a stupid fear.  I know that.  The chance that in my lifetime someone will force me to go into space is ridiculously minute, yet the thought of feeling the effects of a complete lack of gravity and seeing the earth in its entirety makes me feel sick to my stomach.  Yuck.  It started when I was a little kid.  I would lie in bed and try to wrap my brain around space.  I would think about our solar system, and then what contained that, and then what contained that, and then what contained that and then my brain would pop and I would gasp, feeling all of a sudden very very very small, and I would shake my head to get the thoughts out and start all over with something much more manageable, like Monkey (the tv show) and whether Tripitaka was a boy or a girl.  Ever since then, I hated learning or thinking about space.  I imagined being out there and something catastrophic happening.  I imagined myself being separated from my pals and floating off into nothingness, nothing to grab hold of, no possible way to claw myself back.  I would die alone, cold and without any books.  It wasn’t the first or last time I’ve been afraid of being alone.

All of my life I’ve been very different to everyone else.  I know it.  I’ve felt it, I’ve been told it, and I’ve revelled in it.  I’ve learned to be not only ok with it, but very proud of it.  I’m actually quite proud of the fact that I’m able to be proud of it, if you know what I mean, because it has been a very challenging state of mind to achieve.  Being a bit odd, individual or ‘unique’ is one thing, but the day that a doctor slapped a label on it became quite another.  ‘You have moderate depression and stress, and extreme anxiety’, he stated without any perceptible element of emotion whatsoever, ‘I will give you some medication for this.’  So he sent me home with a prescription in my hand and a big fat cloud bobbing over my head.  I went home in a daze, collapsed on the bed and cried my eyes out, repeating ‘I don’t wanna have depression’ over and over.  The first thing to surprise me was the way my wonderful Mercedes reacted.  She told me that having depression and anxiety, to her, is the same as having asthma and that as long as I learned how to manage it, it shouldn’t be a problem.  So, I Googled.  I Googled depression, I Googled anxiety, I Googled Prozac and then I Googled cats that say ‘oh no no no no’ just for good measure.  I feel a certain kinship with them now; since wandering into this depression caper I have found myself chanting that same melancholy mantra from time to time.

Allow me to describe a little of what I went through before finally going to see a doctor about my behaviour…

Like I said, I’d always been a bit strange.  Many people who know me would probably be surprised to find out that I have had—at certain times in my life—a nasty temper.  I’ve never taken it out on anyone else, but I sure have punched a lot of stuff.  I’m not proud of it; neither am I ashamed, as I understand it now.  I’ve punched walls, doors, windows, fences, tables, cupboards, cars, dirt, beds, water, a fridge and my own face.  The most painful one is the face, cos that hurts both your fists and your face.  The second most painful was the time I punched a shop front window and broke my hand in two places.  The least painful was actually the fence.  You might be reading this and thinking ‘why would you punch stuff?  Were you drunk?’  Yes, sometimes I was.  Sometimes I wasn’t.  The common denominator isn’t alcohol; it’s frustration.  My frustration came from all sorts of things, and for the most part, I felt like it was somebody else’s fault.  Interestingly enough, as it turns out, it was completely mine.  This year, it all came to a head.  This year was definitely the year for punching my face.  It’s the weirdest thing.  If I was having a confrontation with Mercedes, and I felt like it was going nowhere and nothing was being resolved, I would notice a feeling of helplessness creep in like rolling fog, silent and sombre, somehow quite final.  The sense of despair at this was tangible for me, and it built up very quickly, much like a filling bathtub.  You keep checking and checking it and it’s nowhere near deep enough and then all of a sudden it has overflowed and there is a river running through the house carrying all sorts of debris in its current.  I would be very calm and quiet and then all of a sudden BANG it was too much to handle and then my fists would be flying at my own face.  It was like a pressure release and a ridiculous malfunction at the same time.  I felt very small inside my mind, like a shy child hovering at the back of a room, as some awful invisible puppeteer turned my own body against itself.  I imagine it was quite scary to see, and thankfully it always signalled the end of the fight, because Mercedes couldn’t stand to let it go on.

So there was that.  Then, there was the endless striving for perfection and the endless guilt because, naturally, perfection is never actually realised.  There were the days I couldn’t get out of bed except to pee.  There were the days I forgot to eat.  There were the times that instead of resorting to the face punching, I would suddenly find myself wedged into a corner, scrambling to become as small as possible, covering my head and screaming for Mercedes to get away from me until my voice was hoarse and I could scream no more.  So, yeah, it was less than ideal.  I felt crazy.  I felt very unlike myself, or at least the impression of myself that I had come to believe.  All Mercedes said to me was ‘I don’t care what’s going on; we can get through it together.  It’s only going to be a problem for me if you don’t go do something about it.’  So, I did, and thus began my conscious journey through mental illness. 

The first thing I had to do was wrap my brain around what it meant to have a name for what I was feeling.  I hit a hurdle immediately when I was doing this reflecting.  I found myself wondering why I had to ‘wrap my brain around it’ at all.  When I was constantly feeling sick in my tummy, I went to the doctor to get to the bottom of it.  After many unsavoury tests, they told me that I had IBS and that my intestines had trouble processing sugars.  I was glad to know that, because then I knew how to stop the pain in my belly, end of story.  So why was I so intent on ‘wrapping my brain around’ mental illness?  Why was it even an issue?  I had an explanation about why I was behaving so strange, now I had to start to work towards addressing that behaviour.  Why was I worrying about telling my family, my friends?  Why was I worried about my roller derby team and league finding out?  Why was I worried about my reputation?  Why was I ok with my sporting mates knowing I suffered from asthma but not quite ok with telling them that it was actually, more accurately, twenty-five per cent asthma, seventy-five per cent anxiety?  The only answer I could think of was that there is a generally-held view by a lot of people that having a mental illness is somehow taboo.  The more I thought about this and the more I learned about things like depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, bipolar disorder and many other things, the more it irritated me.  The fact is, that anyone, anyone has the capacity to feel depressed or anxious.  Why is it that when a label is applied to it as a ‘condition’ or ‘affliction’ instead of simply an emotion it’s a whole different kettle of fish?  Imagine a person who identifies as ‘perfectly fine’, with no physical or mental health issues.  Then, imagine their parents die in a horrible car crash.  Then, imagine their partner leaves them a week later.  Then, imagine all of their hair falls out from the stress.  They then are so preoccupied with everything going on that they trip on a crack in the sidewalk, face plant, chip both front teeth, and discover that their private health cover actually doesn’t cover dental.  Odds are that person will feel depressed, and rightly so.  It would be a bit weird if they didn’t.  And take anxiety.  It’s a perfectly natural emotion.  Imagine you are snorkelling off the Great Barrier Reef and you look up to see a big black fin approaching you.  The feeling that hits you first would most likely be anxiety; that’s a pretty anxious situation.  So why is it that if it’s simply an emotion, it’s nothing to blink an eye at, but as soon as someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s all of a sudden a very serious, mysterious and scary thing?  That’s not a rhetorical question; I don’t know the answer and I’m asking you why.

In my case, it seems that a few things were going on.  Apparently, my serotonin reuptake function was on the fritz and was whipping away all my delicious happy juice too quickly.  Enter Prozac, one of many serotonin reuptake inhibitors on the market.  Also, I had developed a couple of behaviours in childhood that had become so ingrained in my psyche that I had no idea they were ruling my life with an iron fist.  Enter my shrink—a person with years of training in psychology—who helped me to identify these behaviours and reorganise my thinking.  Enter my recovery.  He reckons I won’t need to be on Prozac forever, but even if I do, I decided a long time ago that I don’t care.  Like a person whose pancreas don’t produce enough insulin, if my brain doesn’t balance things properly and I need a little help to regulate it, then hurrah for the twenty-first century.

So, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t feel ‘ill’.  I didn’t feel ‘ill’ when I was stuck in my bed and afraid I was going to get sent to an asylum a la American Horror Story and be skinned by Bloodyface.  I just felt that something was not right and that I needed to figure out what it was.  So, is it the term itself?  Is it hearing the words ‘mental illness’ that makes people edgy and triggers them to wonder if the person in question is going to have a psychotic episode and chase them down the street, all flailing arms and banshee wail, wearing undies on their head?  It seems so extreme to me.  Mental illness… I feel like for me, and potentially lots of other people, it’s not so much that I’m ‘mentally ill’, but much more like I’m ‘emotionally confused’.  They changed the term ‘learning disability’ to ‘learning difficulty’.  Why?  Essentially they mean the same thing.  Was it because of the stigma attached to the former?  What if we changed ‘Mental illness’ to ‘emotional difficulty’?  Would society as a whole be a little more calm about it?  Would consumers be a bit more ready to admit what they’re feeling to their friends, colleagues and families?  Because it isn’t going away, and I’m ok with that.  I know that my asthma will always play up depending on the season.  I know that my guts will hate too much sugar and milk forever.  I know that if I don’t give myself at least the simplest of routines, then I’m prone to, over time, suffer a lack of motivation which, unchecked can easily creep into depression territory.  What I’m not ok with is meeting people every day who are hesitant to admit that something’s going on because they feel that to admit it will change things forever and hold them back, when all it would do is ensure that they are more in touch with their own bodies and personalities.

Like I said, I hate space.  So, I went and saw Gravity, with Sandra Bullock and the delightful salt and peppery George Clooney.  I was petrified.  I shook and gripped Mercedes' hand so tight she went ‘ouch’.  But I got through it and only looked away from the screen twice.  And I’ll go back to see it again, just for good measure, because I am stronger than my fear; just like I am stronger than a label.  Mental illness is not a dirty word, but ignorance is.