Trying to see the real me

One of the reasons why I’ve been posting more gender-related posts over the past week is because I’ve been trying to figure out more about myself, and it’s been at the forefront of my brain a bit too much.

As I was growing up, from adolescence through to my early 20’s, I’ve been mocked or criticised for what others perceived as wrong, abnormal or unacceptable. I had no interest in sports, so was often criticised for poor-performance when school P.E. lessons forced me into playing football and rugby. The P.E. teacher even pulled me aside once and told me I must “put more effort in”.

A word often thrown at me during those years was sad. Not sad as in unhappy, but sad as in socially-inadequate or undesirable. This was 1995/96 – in the era of Oasis and Spice Girls, I was digging 70’s Prog Rock. I couldn’t help it: I just preferred music with a lot more substance so, to me, Oasis sounded boorish and lazy while the Spice Girls were mere plastic, mass-market pop. I liked Oasis a bit more around the Heathen Chemistry era (2002), but by then it was too late.

I was also not one for “going out”. I’d go to the cinema with a couple of friends, or to a concert, but that was about my limit. I certainly wasn’t going out every weekend to the places “people my age” went to – it just didn’t appeal to me, but I was made to feel like I was abnormal for thinking so. I was even told that “I wouldn’t meet anybody” if I didn’t go out. When I got home after meeting my now-wife for the very first time, my mom asked me how we’d met; I lied to avoid the “sad” stigma she applied to dating agencies.

I’ve also had two serious bouts of depression and anxiety within the past ten years:

The first time, the expectations of others was pulling me in opposite directions. My son had only just been born, and my wife was suffering with post-natal depression – while she was trying to cope with all that, I was thirty miles away at work, trying to leave my home life at the door, as was expected of me, and pushing myself to succeed. The extra money was very-much needed with an extra mouth to feed, but to get promoted required me to overcome my introversion and become more visible – as if introversion was something that could be cured or grown out of. The pressure got too much, and I just snapped.

The second time was similar too – significant pressure from work, and a home life that left little opportunity for “me time”. I felt like I was merely existing, and failing in my duties as a husband and employee. I was also having trouble sleeping with so much whooshing around my head every night. I was off work for several weeks, taking professional counselling with a more specific focus on self-esteem. It’s not easy undoing 30+ years of criticism, mocking, social-programming and bullying, but I’m trying to keep what I learned in mind.

That brings me to today. I’ve made significant progress in regards to my self-esteem and self-confidence over the past year, but I still feel as if I’m holding myself back.

One theory I have is that it has something to do with “identity”: I don’t want to take the easy route and conduct myself according to pre-packaged, or stereotypical, identities. I want to build my own, free from the confines of arbitrary characteristics such as my race, nationality, age and sex – I didn’t choose to be born in the late 70’s as a white, British male, and I don’t want to behave like one. When I walk out of the door, I want the world to see me in the analogue way my wife does, not the digital approximation that marketers or the media would say I am.

I’m also quite concerned about the obstacles I’ll face. While I’m trying to break my programming and ditch the inauthentic parts that came from social conditioning, I recognise that there are many who rely on, or are even protective of, these unwritten social norms. They’re like a comfort blanket that keeps the world clean and organised. I’d like to be very open about myself and who I am, but I get the impression that, if I do, I risk being seen as a threat rather than an individual: a threat to society, a threat to my family and even a threat to my children. I’m aware that such people will not be in a majority, and that there will be others who believe the complete opposite, but the fear of confrontation and the risk of damaging existing relationships is still very real.

A big part of me wants to say “bollocks to all that – just do it!”… but am I ready for the big reveal?

Losing My Religion Part II: Dealing with the last big trigger

Although such a thing doesn’t happen as much as it used to, whenever my mood takes a significant dip, Captain Paranoia burrows deep into my long-term memory, resurfacing with a handful of mental images I believed were long-forgotten. Stupid things I’ve said or done, mistakes I’ve made, chances I’ve wasted and any number of past regrets. When the Captain returns from the depths, he always says “Do you remember these? You were soooooo stupid back then! What on earth were you thinking?! You want to learn about who you really are? Well there you go. That’s you in a nutshell: complete and total idiot… and once an idiot, always an idiot!

It’s getting easier to ignore the Captain, but sometimes the painful reminders don’t come from him.

Trying to distance myself from, or come to terms with, my time in the church is still a major hurdle because the triggers are all the more real. I’m still, technically-speaking, a member of the church. I’m still on the electoral roll (not that I’ve been to an AGM in five years), and the Standing Order still goes out every month in my name for tax purposes. Even small things can trigger bad memories – earlier, when I saw a Phatfish CD in a local charity shop, it reminded me of the many times I was required to lead the music group in yet another rendition of This is My Worship. That’s another thing – in my head, I’m well and truly done with the music group, but I’ve never officially left. It just feels like a loose end I don’t want to tie up.

One thing I’ve managed to avoid so far is a face-to-face confrontation. I’ve seen a few members around, and have exchanged a pleasantry or two with them, but there are some members who I hope I never bump into. They will ask the one question I don’t want to be asked: why don’t you come to church any more? In their eyes, I’ve just gotten a little lost and they can help me find my way back to the right path. All it takes is an invitation to the Alpha course… or to Back to Church Sunday… or to one of the more “fun” services… or, better yet, to a social. Something to ease me back onto the path of salvation by showing me that church, and church members, aren’t always dull and dreary.

They assume my faith is intact but my relationship with the church needs a bit of a bandage, and a little pastoral care will soon fix that. It’s not that simple. I’d woken up to realise that my faith was always paper-thin, and I was merely trying to convince others that it wasn’t. My path is no longer the Christian path: they mostly run parallel with each other, and occasionally merge, but I simply cannot let myself sleep-walk through the rest of my life. For me, living equals learning, and you can’t learn anything with a centuries-old book filtering what you see.

Most importantly, though: I’m not going to try and change your path – please don’t try to change mine.

Declaring War on Captain Paranoia

Even though I spent most of last year trying to reduce my stress and anxiety levels and improve self-esteem and self-confidence, I’ve not really kept up with it during the winter months. For a couple of days this week, the weather has been absolutely terrible so, rather than head into town, I’ve legged it into the car park and sat in my car for an hour. Usually, I plug my earphones in and listen to an album, but today I only sat through one side. For the remainder of the hour, I sat, I thought and I read.

Last Sunday, we were discussing going out as a family to a National Trust property or just somewhere local. I thought this would be a great opportunity to get my kilts back out and carry on where I left off last year. I went upstairs, got dressed, and when I came back down, I asked my wife “does this look all right”. Her response was along the lines of “Well, yeah, but your kilt could do with being ironed and it looks pretty windy out there. You’re going to be very cold.” – I agreed with her instantly.

Now, I recognise it was pure optimism on my part, and sensible realism on my wife’s, but it knocked me down a little – not in a toys-out-of-the-pram way, but because I felt that, by asking her opinion, I was looking for a get-out clause. I was talking myself out of it yet again. I’d always convince myself it was the wrong time, wrong place, wrong weather – and when the right time, place and weather came along, I’d find some excuse, however small, to talk myself out of it. 9 times out of 10, it was the fear of embarrassment, ridicule or – in extreme cases – physical harm. It’s something I’ve carried with me since my teenage years when my internal program was instructing me that social inclusion is critical, and embarrassment leads to exclusion… so avoid it at all costs.

One thing I promised myself I’d try to do this year was to fix problems rather than avoid or accept them, and the first step is always to recognise them.

Whilst sitting in the car, I looked for various sources that showed positive experiences and reactions to men wearing skirts and kilts out in public. I actually came across quite a few. One wore them to work for a whole week as part of his normal attire, another was about singer/songwriter Will Young’s experiences, and another showed a video of three other men who took up a similar week-long challenge.

 

In the latter, all 3 felt at first as if everybody’s eyes were fixated on them – but there was one moment in the video that spoke quite loudly. One of them was told by a friend that “nobody cares that you’re wearing a skirt except you“. He was absolutely right! For all my experience last year, I experienced no negative reaction beyond a couple of immature remarks, yet here I was ignoring the facts and focusing on a hypothetical worst-case scenario. It is what Ben Elton dubbed Captain Paranoia.

BenElton
Ben Elton: The left-alignment of this photo was completely intentional.

My next stop was to find ways of dealing with paranoid thoughts. There is a Mental Health charity in the UK called MIND, and their website is a font of useful information. Reading their digital booklet on paranoia highlighted that my thoughts were just that. I was being completely over-sensitive and basing my negative thoughts on emotion rather than evidence and experience.

In addition to talking things through with my wife, I’m going to try practising Mindfulness as a means of focusing on the here-and-now, going with the flow and becoming more self-aware than self-conscious. I also feel this may help with other issues, such as when I beat myself up over mistakes I made back in my teens and early 20’s, believing they still reflect badly on me today.

If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work – but I’ll never know unless I try.

Bowie or Barlow: Dealing with Ennui

This time last year, when I really started assessing who I was and what I wanted, it felt as if I was undergoing some sort of mid-life crisis at the age of 37. At the time, my job security was uncertain and was having to deal with a lot of extra pressure. I’ve not been writing much here in the past couple of weeks because that’s all coming back.

While I was spared from the cull, the role I moved into was not what I was expecting and, with my current objectives, I could do with having an extra brain and an extra pair of hands. I had a pre-assessment for an internal position in the Procurement department last week, which I think went pretty well, and I should know some time next week if I’ve made it through to the face-to-face interviews. A change of scenery and a fresh set of challenges and experiences would be good for me right now, so if I am invited for an interview, I want to put everything I can into it. (I was invited for an interview, but taking recent events into consideration, I felt moving roles at this time would not be a wise decision and so withdrew my application)

With the weather starting to warm up, I’m also looking forward to getting out of this winter slump. I’ve been in jeans most of the winter and I don’t find them all that comfortable, especially when you’re active. I feel so much more comfortable in looser clothing, so I’m looking forward to getting my kilts out once more.

I watched this video on LaylahTalks earlier this morning about blocking out negativity, and it did give me some food for thought. I recognise that there are still some things I over-think to extremes, particularly when they don’t conform to majority opinion, but once I actually go and do it they don’t turn out anywhere near as bad as I think. It just needs a little confidence and a bit of a reality check: I’m lucky to have the support I need.

It boils down to this question: Would you rather be a David Bowie or a Gary Barlow? Both are, without argument, successful musicians but the big difference being that Bowie was always breaking through the boundaries Barlow wouldn’t cross. Almost everything about him was chameleonic, yet always one step ahead of everybody else. He didn’t follow, he inspired. 

Let’s just say that, in my record collection, it’s Bowie 6 – 0 Barlow.

 

Gender, Marketing and a New Year’s Challenge

Last Summer, as previously reported, I made quite some headway into giving society the middle finger and expressing myself the way I wanted to, disregarding the opinions of complete strangers and trying my hardest not to read their minds or interpret their body language. Compared to how I was this time last year, I ended the year more confident and secure but still recognising I’d still got some way to go. Going out and around the Midlands in a utility kilt was perhaps the most outwardly-expressive thing I did towards this, but as the winter has taken hold, doing so has not been a good idea. With management approval, I wore it to work for Children in Need day back in November (which was a bit scary and a little stoopid, but still raised £15), but still feel I’ve lapsed somewhat and fallen “out of practice”.

I’ve become more aware in recent months of how gendered marketing is and why, some examples of which are borderline comical. I found one superficial example in my own home. There are two cans of shaving cream in my bathroom – one “for him” and one “for her” – and I compared the ingredients of the two. Apart from the odd minor ingredient, the only real difference was that my wife’s had aloe vera and mine didn’t, but the mere presence of aloe vera doesn’t make an item “for her”; if I went a little upmarket as opposed to buying my toiletries from Lidl, I would find plenty of shaving creams “for him” containing aloe vera. In a nutshell, the only real difference was that her can was white and pink while mine was grey and blue.

Obviously those who deny that gender is “a social construct” are oblivious to how much money is being made gendering identical items, playing on our insecurities to prevent “him” and “her” from sharing.

If anything, I’m a pragmatist or, at least, I’d like to be – brushing marketing aside, an item’s purpose should be of higher priority than its demographic. Scroll back through the contents of this blog and you’ll see that I’ve also mentioned “Mantyhose” a couple of times. While this would enable my utility kilts to make an appearance during the winter months, and also push my bravery/confidence/not-giving-a-fuck to new levels, there are always safety concerns. I’ve heard stories about people being assaulted for not conforming to the normal expectations of male behaviour and appearance, but in the same breath, I’ve not heard about anything like that happening in the UK. Even so, such an attack would be rare. Would anyone be even remotely bothered, or am I just over-thinking and grossly underestimating the population’s open-mindedness?

2016 may have been a bit of a bastard for many, but I have to reflect on and feel proud of the progress I made. A new year means new challenges, and I want to try and blast even more neuroses and anxieties than I did last year.

“Be yourself. Give your free will a chance. You’ve got to want to succeed” — Jon Anderson

Losing My Religion

Up until a few years ago, I was a regular church-goer. It was rare that I didn’t turn up on Sundays. I’d served a term on the church council, been a leader in the music group, manned the sound desk and projector along with various other duties. After several years of church life, one day I just felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. Complete and total apathy with a sprinkling of “why am I even doing this?”. I was tired, fed up and completely unmotivated.

I was tired of leading the music group. It always seemed like I was playing the same songs constantly, and when we introduced new ones, they weren’t all that different from the old ones – they certainly didn’t say anything that hadn’t already been said in hundreds of other songs. They made Westlife sound lyrically-diverse. There seemed to be limited avenues for expression: I got the impression that, when I wasn’t leading, my role was just to stand at the back and keep the rhythm – solos were for flautists. I also grew to loathe the songs we took from Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons, purely because we were playing them so frequently.

I was tired of the cyclical nature of church life. Liturgy was the same month-in-month-out, sermons appeared to be recycled from last year, and the droning voice of the congregation always sounded pre-programmed. Why weren’t we moving forward? Why were we stuck in a seemingly-interminable loop?

I was frustrated by church politics too. One church, one people, one hierarchy. I recall one incident when, during my term on the council, it was suggested that we purchase a batch of Diamond Jubilee Bibles to give to primary school children within the Parish. It was stated that this would be a great opportunity for youth outreach, and almost everybody agreed. Everybody but me. I argued that, on those grounds, the money could be better-spent: giving a primary school child a Bible and saying “here’s everything you need to know about being a Christian” was like handing them a Haynes manual and saying “here’s everything you need to know about fixing a car”. It’s useless without guidance, context or explanation – so why don’t we invest in something more educational and aimed at a primary school level instead? The response I got was basically just “You have a valid point, but… FREE BIBLES!”. I then saw no further point in engaging in church politics.

I grew particularly weary of the “Big Church” mentality. I sensed a lot of admiration for huge contemporary churches like Holy Trinity Brompton and Soul Survivor, and it often appeared to me as if the church leadership sought to emulate their loud-and-modern approach as a way of encouraging growth. This approach was the one thing I liked the least about the two Spring Harvest events I attended – everything had to be sanitised in order to make it more suitable for a mass audience, rather than risk offending certain denominations. We were a rather small, local church with huge ambitions, but I felt we were trying to reach out without actually going out and doing something – instead, we hoped that the people outside would step inside of their own accord if they saw we weren’t stuffy or traditional.

After a lot of self-reflection, I noticed a recurring thread: whenever I was supposed to be experiencing all this spiritual activity, I was conscious that it was happening to other people and not me. That would imply that either (a) I was unworthy, (b) it was actually happening to me but I wasn’t aware of it, or (c) everybody else was merely having a psychosomatic reaction. Upon deeper reflection, I realised that I was never a true Christian, just an actor pretending to be one. I’d never actually given myself completely to Christ. I was enough of a head person to be a Christian philosophically, but was not enough of a heart person to be a Christian spiritually – I always tended to back away from doctrine rather than embrace it.

That was the old me, but would the new me ever go back to being a regular church-goer? I’d never say never, but a lot of water has since flowed under the bridge. I don’t think I could bring myself to sing worship songs when I feel absolutely no connection to them (truth be told, I saw a copy of Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons in a charity shop and felt like buying it just to destroy it for cathartic effect). I couldn’t bring myself to say the Creed when I don’t actually hold those beliefs. I also couldn’t bring myself to pray, believing that there might be any point in doing so.

After all… if there is a god, why would I lie to them?