Archive for the Non-fiction Category

Don’t Give Up – #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek 2017: Blog #1

Posted in Non-fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , on May 8, 2017 by becciseaborne


Ironically, the point at which you feel like utter shit, when you most want to give up, is the point at which you should be most proud and defiant. When it feels that bad, it’s not because you’re a failure, as you believe, but because you’re working your very hardest despite all the obstacles. It is precisely the time not to give up, because you’re just about to win this particular battle. 

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Congratulations…and Please…: a Letter to Jeremy Corbyn

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , on September 13, 2015 by becciseaborne

Dear Jeremy

I can’t congratulate you enough on becoming the new leader of the Labour Party. I’m genuinely excited and hopeful for UK politics in a way I never have been before, as I’m sure you are being told by many, many people.
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I’m not really sure why I’m writing to you, but something about what has happened in the last few weeks, and yesterday in particular, just made me want to tell you how much what you’ve achieved so far means to me. And to many people I know.
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I come from a family of Labour Party members and trade unionists, though we’d all lapsed during the Blair years and beyond. I’d never previously been a member, although I’ve been a trade union member for quite a few years now. I joined the Labour Party a few weeks ago as a supporter so I could vote for you (I’m sorry to say I didn’t as my ballot paper never arrived, despite me chasing it). At that time I promised I’d join as a full member if you were successful; I did that yesterday as soon as I heard the news, and I gather at least 15,500 have done the same. I want to do my part in making sure this works.
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Your unwavering commitment to a set of principles which inform your decisions and actions, and which have seen you on the right side of history time and time again, are too rare in British politics. However, what you’ve done, above all else, is offer this country an opportunity to change the narrative, to show that there is a better way to be, a better way to discuss and think about things, and a better way for politicians (and the media) to behave with one another. You set a challenge for the Conservatives in so many ways and on so many levels. You have them so scared they’ve resorted to mind-boggling propaganda about how the Labour Party now represent a serious risk to national security. It’s almost farcical.
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The positive tone, the reality, the humanity and compassion you have brought back to British politics leave me breathless with anticipation for what we might achieve for, and with, the people of this country again. What really strikes me is your unwillingness to engage with the negative discourse, but instead to find that positive stance, focusing on the issues and how best to address them. You leave personality, shaming, and put-downs well alone, and deal directly with the issues that concern the public. It is such a long time since someone has done that, and it makes me so grateful.
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I think your track record speaks for itself as you’ve managed to maintain your principles and integrity during a really dirty time for politics, so I don’t doubt that you’ve a very real chance of getting us where we need to be in 2020 and beyond. The leadership position, however, is a very different animal, and I guess what I really wanted to say is, be careful. And continue to be brave. Please don’t be swayed. Please don’t allow the spin doctors or the media manipulators or the policy makers of any colour, to move you off course. I can only begin to imagine what the pressures will be when it comes to the crunch, but please always remember that what got you here is what this country really wants and needs…don’t let go.
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And finally, I want to wish you all the best in this role – our time has come.
Kind regards
Becci Seaborne
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PS – you’ve made a fantastic start already; straight off to the Refugees Welcome rally yesterday, and the mental health open day today – keep that up too please.

Is Stephen Fry right about God? I don’t know…but that’s important

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , on February 1, 2015 by becciseaborne

Conversations about faith and religion happen less often for me these days. I struggle with the closed-mindedness that even some of the more ‘enlightened’ people I know display. It’s almost as if this subject is the last bastion of what it’s okay for educated, liberal/socialist people to be bigoted about. Stephen Fry’s recent, and very public, attack on God did trigger a brief exchange though. It got me thinking.

I was raised as an atheist by atheist parents, one of whom I would say is fundamentalist. But for me there is something quite unsatisfactory about this perspective; it is so very certain and intolerant. There are atheists who can match any religious zealot for their blinkered preaching, and who refuse to listen to – to really hear – what other viewpoints can add to any debate. (Equally, there are those atheists who are curious and open minded of course.)

Stephen Fry described atheism (i.e. the absence of a God) as making things “simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living”. He also criticised a ‘capricious’ and ‘monstrous’ God (if one existed) for creating bone cancer in children and allowing suffering that is not our fault. I have two issues with this, which on close inspection are slightly contradictory I have to admit, so I won’t explore them in depth here just now. But see what you think anyway…

Firstly, he takes an incredibly human-centric view of the issues; these cruelties he identifies are not fair, not “acceptable” to us as humans, but what about everything else that inhabits this planet? Humans are filling up the planet at a rate which is simply not sustainable, and we are only one part of a very big picture, which his comments fail to acknowledge. Surely a God who created all the world would have equal concern for everything in creation and would have to try and hold things in balance in a way that perhaps we cannot conceive?

Secondly, there are atheists who lack precisely the kind of compassion and humanity that Stephen laments as absent in this ‘maniac’ God. Many atheists, looking to science, make claims about what is true and known, and consequently what is right. Richard Dawkins is essentially, technically right about a lot of things. But it doesn’t make him morally right, or even good. He ultimately apologised for his comment about how expectant parents should terminate “abnormal” foetuses, but that doesn’t change the fact that he clearly believes this to be true, a moral requirement, based in scientific reason. Pure rationality would dictate that he is “correct”, but where on Earth is the humanity, compassion, hope, and love in a view like that? How can anyone but the most utterly diminished kind of human being think and function in this way?

This kind of narrow thinking and insisting on rationality alone blocks out other possibilities and closes down opportunities to gain a far deeper and richer understanding of what it means to be human. Not only does this approach diminish the discussion itself, often rendering it a pointless monologue dressed up as academic debate, but it causes other, wider audiences to switch off too.

I was brought up by people who thought they knew best, were right about things, and raised me to believe it was important to be right in that way. I’m sure this isn’t uncommon, however being sure of things is very limiting, and I’ve spent most of my adulthood trying to cultivate a sense of assured uncertainty. Learning to live comfortably in the ‘I’m not sure zone’ is difficult but interesting. The thing that has helped the most, has been choosing an area of work that means I get to be with people from all kinds of different worlds (colleagues and clients alike).

In various roles around the criminal justice system, involving support and/or rehabilitation I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who have challenged my assumptions and changed the way I see the things around me. They’ve enabled me to realise I don’t know best, and I don’t have all the answers, but that it’s alright as long as I’m prepared to ask questions. And to listen to the answers I’m given; really listen.

In the end I don’t know if Stephen is right about God, but what does it mean to be right anyway? For me it’s important that I don’t know, because it means I’ll keep on asking questions, and when you ask questions you learn things you never expected to know. I can’t think of much that’s better than that.

 

Epilogue I

I once asked my Dad if he preferred writing or playing music; Mum looked at me as if to say, “You know the answer to that”, and I was pretty sure that I did. But what I found out was that he’d written a piece of music for a friend’s wedding. And I got to hear it too. I may have never known that my whole life if I hadn’t asked that question.

Epilogue II

Within hours of first posting this, I was on the phone to my Dad talking about a music recital he has coming up. He’s played in rock and folk bands all his life, playing by ear with no musical theory knowledge, and his recent foray into the learned world of classical music practise and theory is being put to the test for the first time at this recital. I asked him how the apprehension for this is different to all the other gigs he’s ever played. Quite a lot of discussion and information flowed…including the fact that his band, St Willys Cool School supported Jimmy Hendrix in East Dereham in 1965/6. I couldn’t believe I’d never known this. Ironically, East Dereham is precisely where Stephen Fry got married last week.

A Vaguely Female Type Thing

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , , on January 31, 2015 by becciseaborne

 

Allison Torneros

 

For quite a long time in my early twenties, I refused to identify as female and wouldn’t allow people to refer to me as female, or as a woman, girl, lady, whatever. Recently, for some unknown reason (perhaps because I’ve been reflecting on related topics of late), this fact came back to me.

It’s not to say I thought I  wasn’t female, or that I thought I was anything else. I was, I insisted, a ‘vaguely female-type-thing’. I’m still not entirely sure what this was an expression of; it certainly wasn’t an outright rejection of the female gender itself. Perhaps it was more a reflection of my confusion about what being female really meant, what the expectations and conventions were and whether I agreed with what I found to be held as true by others. More particularly, it may have been connected to how that was perceived by others in relation to  me, and especially those close to me at the time. It may also have been linked to aspects of sexuality; it certainly emerged at the time of a particularly…let’s say ‘problematic’, relationship with someone whose own sexuality I’m still not sure of. (I’ve no idea if he is either.)

Given that it was a time when I was still pretty aggressive and obnoxious, I’m sure most people thought I was either taking the piss or trying to provoke an argument (again). But in reality it was quite a sincere statement about an undefined uncertainty. This was probably located in confusion about what I wanted as well as what it was okay for me to want, specifically as a female. This was most likely in relation to life goals generally; career, relationships etc. By this time my idea of what I might want to consider as a career was gaining some clarity (the ‘how’ being slightly less straight forward), whilst my experience of intimate relationships was deteriorating, and I was finding interesting ways to distract myself from the latter. So my sense of identity was a little out of kilter.

Growing up, I gained an overwhelming belief that I should not accept any limitations placed on me by dint of my gender and that I could and should  be anything I wanted to be. In more recent years, as with many other aspects of my upbringing, I realise that what I received were, in fact, mixed messages. The conflicting aspect of these messages came from two different sources. Firstly, my parents have very different aspirations for my sister and me. Primarily, my Mum wants us to be happy; over and above anything else she wants us to be ourselves and to be happy, regardless of how or why. Of course my Dad wants our happiness too, but he sees the route to this as being categorically prescribed through convention and achievement; good education, stable relationship, respectable career, stick to the rules, plan everything, and avoid anything risky, unusual or potentially painful.

Secondly, the way I see it, there was a discrepancy between some of what my Dad articulated and some of the messages he gave off subconsciously, that we picked up by osmosis. Looking back there were many inconsistencies. In particular, I grew up understanding it was important to be informed and have an opinion (and most importantly, to be right), but mostly I felt painfully, knot-inducingly unheard.

My Dad assesses many important (and unimportant) things on the basis of the skill and effort that has gone into them and the level of the achievement that is gained by this. Whilst moderately liberal in some ways, he holds onto some quite traditional views, which although he doesn’t mean them to be, are sometimes expressed indirectly in ways which give quite judgmental, limiting and prescriptive messages. For me these frequently have the effect of inducing somewhat self-flagellating episodes of self-criticism, self-doubt and a reluctance to make decisions based on my own inclinations and desires. The further effects of this in the past have included an inability to discern what it was I actually wanted at all. Of course there have been many other factors at play in these situations, but this backdrop certainly hasn’t helped. These conflicting notions formed a powerful contradiction within me which I’ve only perceived and explored more recently, but which was partly expressed, I think, through the ambiguity in that chosen label in my twenties.

Well over 10 years later I’m still pretty confused about what it means to be female, the difference now being that I believe I’m in good company on that score, and that I’m equally confused about what it means to be a human being. So the gendered aspect of my overall perplexity is somewhat diminished, though it’s still significant for me. The other difference is that I generally tend to feel a bit more okay about my various confusions and am usually able to take them as the signal of the starting point for a journey rather than as an indication of failure, or as a barrier to some unknown goal, the genesis of resentment and anger.

So how can we take these journeys? It seems to me that the more opportunities and routes of expression we have for the various aspects of ourselves – aspiration, inclination, sexuality, gender, all of our passions – the better. For me, risk taking is an essential part of this…it’s a cliché that keeping on doing the same things will only get you the same result, but it is nonetheless true. This presents me with a challenge in terms of my inner contradictions. My nature is that of a risk taker, but I was raised by a powerfully risk averse figure who formed my learned behaviour, and that is hard to break out of. I also love and care deeply about him, and do not want to cause him disappointment or heart ache. Perhaps secret subversion is the key? It certainly has been at times, but I don’t think that’s healthy for positive self-image or identity either. So honesty and bravery are perhaps a better course. Those have certainly featured at times too, and continue to be a work in progress. This phrase has become somewhat of a mantra in recent months and years. Maybe a carefully plotted line between the two, occasionally straying a little wider than intended in one direction or the other as life’s messiness intervenes?

In the end, a significant factor in my moving beyond being a Vaguely-Female-Type-Thing, whilst still in my twenties, was the transition to a much happier and sexually healthier relationship which accompanied another transition into a more stable and assured self-identity. This continues to be a work in progress, and has not been a linear process, not least of which because that relationship ended a long time ago. What it showed me, however, is what it is possible to hope for. Hope and possibility are so important for human existence; we can only survive and grow if we insist on seeing them, even (or especially) in our darkest moments. In the presence of hope and possibility, we never stop looking for the opportunities to take a risk, or for the routes to connection and expression. That Vaguely-Female-Type-Thing does visit occasionally still, but I understand enough of what she tells me to find a path and start walking.

 

 (Art: Allison Torneros)

For a Sister on Her Marriage

Posted in Non-fiction with tags on January 23, 2015 by becciseaborne

Ellie & Jon 4

It will shock some of you to know that I won’t be saying much – well not in this bit anyway. Some things are so important it is neither easy nor desirable to use lots of words about them.

Most of you will know that that Ellie and I are lucky enough to be very close as sisters, although I’m not sure how much of it is really down to luck; I know Mum and Dad have been a big influence in how our relationship grew from the very beginning. But the roots which join us together go way beyond biology, blood or DNA. Some people just have a permanent connection in time and space – our shared roots go to the centre of the Earth and are fused there forever.

Bizarrely when we were younger, I always thought that what made us close was that we were similar. Of course if you know us, you know that’s ridiculous, and as we’ve grown up (a bit) over more recent years, it’s become patently obvious to me how very different we are, and it’s become just as clear that this is one of the most important things about us. Even now we still grow and learn from each other, and we couldn’t do that if we were too alike.

Having said that there are some pretty fundamental things we do have in common – that are in those shared roots – which provide the safe environment for us to explore and celebrate our difference. We both value loyalty, integrity and a sense of personal responsibility. Having shared beliefs and values like this to form the basis of a happy lifelong relationship is crucial, and I couldn’t be happier to know that these are all things Jon is just as passionate about too.

For Ellie and Jon, loyalty to family and friends is fundamental to who they are, and their concern and commitment to the social and physical world around them has informed so much of what they’ve both done with their lives so far.

You will be blessed if you stay true to these things you believe in. If you are as loyal to each other as you are to your friends and family you will always have a home and feel loved, and if you look after each other as well as you look after the world around you, you will grow together forever. That is what I wish for you both.

Needfulness: Thoughts on Obedience and Empathy

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , on December 3, 2014 by becciseaborne

There is much that’s contested and disputed over what restorative justice “is” – and what it isn’t. Despite this, I think it’s fair to say that most would agree that at the core of restorative justice – and restorative practices more widely – is a concern to identify and meet the needs of people who have been affected by the actions of one or more parties. Volunteering for Circles of Support and Accountability brings me into contact with people (core members) who have caused serious harm, but who also have significant unmet needs. Meeting these needs will not only support them to have a better life, but will also enable them to manage their behaviour and reduce their risk of reoffending. What also strikes me about many core members is the apparent inability and unwillingness to recognise or address their own needs. In getting to know core members well, the reasons behind this often become clearer, but recently I came across a discussion by Hal Pepinsky which I thought shed some interesting light on the subject.

In his essay, ‘Empathy Works, Obedience Doesn’t’ (1998), Pepinsky makes a powerful case for the dereliction of the concept of obedience as a tool which forces us to subjugate ourselves to the wishes and directions of others, losing any sense of our own needs and inclinations in the process. I find this argument fascinating. It’s not without its problems, particularly in framing it with the logical conclusions he wishes to draw from his assessment (a complete absence of punishment or the requirement of obedience). What his discussions highlight for me, however, is that there is a need for a better balance between what we sacrifice of ourselves, and how we are enabled better to identify, understand and meet our own needs. This seems crucial in order to function in a healthy, balanced, empathetic and emotionally literate manner, as Pepinsky, and many others besides, articulate cogently.

Reading his discourse, I was minded to reflect on my own experiences of addressing needs, what tools I’ve been given to do this throughout my life and by whom. We would all imagine, I assume, that our parents and families would be the primary source of such qualities and skills, followed perhaps by school, and friends. But here, as with so many things, families are able only to pass on what they already possess – any deficit is nearly always inherited. And Pepinsky is right in one very crucial sense; our socialisation is about how to fit in and how to please others. When our baby sibling is born, our parents undertake careful exercises of incentivising our “good” behaviour toward them. And so we learn that addressing someone else’s needs, and pleasing others brings reward and gratification, and that this should become our priority. We learn that attending to the needs of others is more important than attending to our own. It seems to me that very soon, not only will we lose the inclination to engage with our own needs, we may well lose the ability to distinguish between our own needs and those of others at all. We switch our internal gratification through self-fulfilment for a second-rate external version, handed out by others for pleasing them; our fundamental needs supplanted with far shallower, but more amenable ones.

This is different from being compassionate and altruistic, where we are able to work towards the needs of others whilst keeping our own inclinations and requirements in balance with this. Essentially, according to Pepinsky, this is subjugation of the self, and strikes me as being very dangerous. In any given situation, not to know whether our instinct and our decision making is being driven by our own or someone else’s goals creates a deficit in self esteem which can be utterly corrosive, and the consequences far reaching. Every time we undertake an act which fulfils anothers’ needs at the expense of our own, we are sending and reinforcing a message to ourselves that our own needs are less worthy of attention and action than anyone else’s. The result of this, most obviously, is a failure to meet our own needs. This is damaging enough in itself, but is accompanied by a constant downgrading of our own self-worth, and more irrevocably, a further disengagement from our own needs. An additional consequence may be a potentially permanent inability to identify or engage with these issues at all on our own behalf, or at least to be able to separate them from those of other people in any meaningful or useful way.

Pepinsky argues that in such a state of needful disenfranchisement, people resort to dissociated violence and aggression, perpetrating crimes against their fellow citizens. Whilst this line of thought feels intuitively plausible, I would go further and say that there are many people for whom the subjugation created by obedience leads to a very different but equally corrosive dynamic. Imagine, for example, how someone who is unable to make emotional decisions based on anything other than meeting someone else’s needs (without even necessarily being aware of this), would go about creating and sustaining healthy intimate relationships. Imagine how they might fare at work in negotiations with colleagues or business contacts; how they might build supportive and healthy friendships; how they might cope with stressful and demanding situations at home or work. Imagine how they might raise and nurture their own family. Acknowledging and addressing our own needs is, foremost, an act of self acceptance, which is a permission giver in the most positive sense. It enables us to say ‘no’ in a respectful and engaged way; it allows us to put ourselves first, to negotiate, to change our minds, to move on from things, and to feel less guilt about all of these things. It even gives us permission to try – and fail – at things, which is possibly the most important thing of all, especially for core members who are trying to rebuild more positive lives, often in completely new ways.

It is a very slow and complex piece of work getting people to unlearn such an ingrained response pattern, which is usually established in a formative stage of development. For many, it can never be fully undone, but as the cliché goes, awareness is the first step to addressing an issue. So I guess vigilance is the key, and crucial to that, is having the right people walking beside you too. Fundamentally that is what Circles of Support and Accountability is about. As is true friendship.

Ched Evans has Served his Sentence for Rape – Should he Play Football Again?

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , , , , on October 17, 2014 by becciseaborne

In her comments on 15th October, (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/15/ched-evans-sentence-rape), Clare Carlisle encapsulated, to my mind, the essence of the dilemma around this issue for us as a society in our current cultural framework. She identifies our need to find forgiveness (there is so much literature on the healing powers of forgiveness, try http://theforgivenessproject.com/ for information and resources), alongside our desire to set an example and send a message that sexual violence is harmful and wrong. In agreeing with her, I do not mean that victims or survivors should have to find forgiveness towards their assailants; this cannot and should not ever be an expectation placed on those who have experienced sexual abuse. However, no human behaviour occurs outside of or distinct from the culture of the community in which it takes place. As a society we have a duty to understand what has happened in order to find a response that reduces the likelihood of it happening again.

I have worked professionally with survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, and I’ve worked with sex offenders who have served long prison sentences and been through heavy-duty therapy and treatment programmes, who make a genuine commitment to an offending-free life. I have family and friends who have been affected by sexual violence. My thoughts and beliefs here are neither routed solely in the personal or professional (though they partly spring from that place of course), nor are they overly abstract and idealistic. My experiences inform my practice, which informs my thinking, and the same in reverse.

If all we can do as a community is hate, then what can we expect in return but resentment and hatred (however unjustified we might feel that is)? These feelings fuel the sort of permission-giving thinking that leads to sexual violence. Who wants that? Isolation disconnects people from positive influences and the reinforcement of pro-social beliefs and values. What we need is for people to take responsibility for what they’ve done and understand the harm they’ve caused; admitting to these things is difficult for any kind of transgression, let alone something of this magnitude. No one in their right mind is going to do that if they think they’re going to be met with both barrels. That’s human nature, and nearly all of us will have denied something or minimised it to avoid the consequences and the associated emotional stress. We all fear hatred, disgust and stigma. Creating a safe space, by promoting meaningful reintegration into society whilst at the same time not letting anyone off the hook, can go a long way to achieving this sort of shift for people who have offended sexually.

The even better news is that this often delivers things that survivors of sexual violence need too – to be listened to, understood, validated, vindicated. We don’t have to exclude people to deliver these goals and send a strong message to society (and other past, present or future survivors). The message can be, you need to be fully accountable and commit to a new life that will not create any more victims (…survivors).

In the case of Ched Evans, my feeling is that whatever happens should be informed by the extent to which he accepts responsibility and intends to alter his behaviour accordingly. He pled not guilty at court, and put his victim/survivor through the pain and exposure of a trial. This should not be forgotten or left unaddressed. However, there is, in my professional and personal experience, a world of difference between what someone will admit to within in a criminal justice process, and what they may come to explore and acknowledge outside that process, given the appropriate context. The extent to which Ched Evans is able and likely to do this will, almost certainly, depend on the space and support he is given by being allowed to rebuild a life which is connected with his community. This doesn’t mean letting him off the hook; it means seeing the behaviour as distinct from the person and reflecting back to him the hope and belief that he can change and become accepted once more into society.

Katie Russell of Rape Crisis England, rightly highlighted the need for a strong public message that sexual violence will not be tolerated in football (or more broadly); surely nothing could be more powerful than supporting Mr Evans to make a commitment to behaviour change through a full understanding of the damage he has caused? Whilst we must recognise the extent of the damage – on a societal and an individual basis – and respond to the needs of survivors, it does not seem possible to find a sustainable and satisfactory response to sexual harm without engaging meaningfully with all affected parties. I hope Sheffield United consider such issues very carefully, and consult with professionals when considering whether to re-sign him.