Monday, December 16, 2013

Coping with Christmas: a survival guide for when festivities are tough

This post originally appeared on The F-Word

It's supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. The cheerful TV ads encourage spending and the songs blaring out from speakers in every public space tell us stories of loving families and joyful times. But for a significant number of people, Christmas is an incredibly tough time of year.
A few years ago we published a post about the difficulties of getting through festivities for many survives of childhood sexual abuse. Amongst other things, the writer recommends doing Christmas on your own terms:
There is an awful lot of societal pressure to 'do' Christmas. Even now, after years of doing it my own way, I have learned that you can never tell people you are doing NOTHING on Christmas day. They look horrified! They invite you to their home, they suggest alternatives. They can't imagine that anyone would want to opt out of the celebrations altogether. Thankfully though, I do do something, but it is so much on my own terms, and so far removed from the traditional family day that I feel more in control, and more like I'm making it my own. 
But it does not remove the memories.
It is a difficult step to take but one that can make a difference to how in control someone feels.
Of course, there are many reasons why people dread this time of year. I talked with some other collective members, and we thought about the following groups of people, although it is not an exhaustive list:
  • LGBT people who aren't out, or who are and have difficulties with family and friends accepting them;
  • people with a history of abuse, especially if it relates to family or the time of year;
  • people who are isolated or lonely;
  • people in fear or violent relationships;
  • people far from home;
  • people with mental health problems or who are disabled or housebound;
  • people in poverty;
  • people who have been abused within a religious or cult setting;
  • people who have been bereaved, especially if the bereavement happened around this time of year;
  • people who do not celebrate Christmas;
  • people with eating disorders;
  • people away from their families;
  • people dealing with relationship breakdown
  • people with alcohol addictions.
Triggers are everywhere. It is impossible to hide from the visual, audio and even sensory reminders of how you are supposed to feel, what you are supposed to be doing and who you are supposed to be with, and it can become incredibly overwhelming.

So if you would love to be with your family on Christmas day but they don't want to see you since you came out to them, or if you want to see friends but struggle with the absence of public transport, if you would love to celebrate Christmas with your kids but simply can't afford a big feast, a twinkling tree and a pile of gifts, or if you have nobody around who you can safely spend time with, what do you do? Reach out

One man, James Gray, took out a newspaper advert to request company in order to avoid spending his tenth Christmas alone. Many readers commented that if they lived nearer to him they'd invite him to celebrate with them, but in fact there are Mr Grays all over the country, he is not the only person who is lonely and wants to share the day with somebody. And while taking out an ad in a newspaper may not be to everybody's taste, if you have nobody to spend the day with and you would love company, ask those around you. It can be scary because you probably don't want anyone to feel obliged, but sometimes you will find that somebody else is in the same position as you are, also looking for a friendly face to be with on the 25th. Do it your own way

Our guest blogger four years ago suggested,
You can also start to create your own rituals. If you want to celebrate Christmas, but not in a way that's inherently linked to a difficult childhood, then imagine what you would really like to do to celebrate, while trying to remove all society's pressures about the season from your mind. The day might start with an early morning stroll. You might write and illustrate a cartoon. You might clear out the clutter from the attic! You could also look at how other societies, cultures and religions celebrate special days, and get some alternative ideas.
Those also work if you opt out of Christmas altogether. Once you get used to people fretting about your lack of plans, then it's all yours. You can get on with it as if it's no different from any other day, perhaps using some self-made rituals if you find yourself feeling left out of the loop.
Other people enjoy working or volunteering on the day. zohra has found it uplifting to volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen, and I have friends who do not want to 'do' Christmas so are happy to take the Christmas day shifts at their place of work, allowing colleagues to take the day off and taking the pressure off themselves because they have a 'legitimate' reason to not be at a tense family dinner or a triggering Christmas Mass.

Avoid self-destruction

If you're feeling rotten it might be tempting to drink a bottle of Baileys and eat nothing but crisps, but these things will not only not fix anything they could make you feel far worse. Alcohol is a depressant and a lack of nutrients will make it harder to summon the energy to keep going, so limit the booze and try to get some vegetables into your system. Try to get the right amount of sleep, and if you are having urges to self-harm use your most effective coping strategies, reach out to somebody you trust or call a helpline to try to get through it safely.

Choose your priorities

Perhaps there are certain celebrations you would love to take part in, whilst dreading other events. The DIY Couturier recommends prioritising according to your desires, saying,
If you don't attend to the special seasonal thing that makes you happy, you're going to be absolutely miserable attending to the things that make others happy.
Damage limitation: social media
Helen tries to stay off social media. She says,
"I just end up watching half the planet's celebrations spread liberally across the day and that really doesn't help. The only slight light in the darkness last year was running a search for "Christmas is ruined" and watching the updates. If you ever wanted to learn what class privilege and the fetish of consumerism look like in a nutshell, that'd do it"
I watched a similar Twitter phenomenon last year, when somebody retweeted everything they could find that included terms such as "so unfair" and "I hate my parents". It really was enlightening, depressing and hilarious, all at once. If you are likely to be checking Twitter and Facebook on the day, look out for hashtags specifically for people who are alone or struggling. 


Are you the kind of person who can change or enhance your mood with music? Maybe schedule an hour or so of sad songs to feel thoroughly miserable to, and then up the tempo or stick on a comedy video to lift your mood. For me, good music and good comedy can make a real difference to my state of mind but you may have a different trick that is more effective for you: a great book, dancing around the room or writing a poem. Whatever it is, if it works for you, do it. 

Give yourself a break 

I am constantly amazed by my mind's ability to make a bad situation worse. If I'm already feeling fragile it can create a barrage of self-defeating mantras and vicious insults. Try to get through Christmas without adding to your distress by bombarding yourself with criticism, too. 

Have an escape plan 

If you can't get out of an event that you don't want to go to, have a clear escape plan so that, when you've had enough, you can get away. Prepare excuses for leaving, and work out in advance how you'll get home.   

Take pleasure where you can find it 

In situations that are incredibly trying we need to grab hold of anything that might help. Whether that's watching a cheesy film, finishing off a box of chocolates, reading 1,800 pages of Passive Aggressive Notes or just having an afternoon nap, do what you need to do to keep your spirits up. "Thinking happy thoughts" is not an unproblematic concept but, if it works for you, do some positive affirmations or lists of things you're thankful for. 

Finding positives in the small things and focusing on them can help, so when Helen informed me that, "Christmas Day is four days after Midwinter Solstice so there's about an extra minute of daylight...", it did genuinely make me smile. Find things like that. 

This, too, shall pass 

While this time of year is all-consuming and overwhelming, remind yourself that it will end. Whether that, for you, will be Boxing Day or at some point in January, the festivities will stop and the world will eventually get back to normal. 

How to support friends who are struggling 

It might be that you are thoroughly enjoying the festive season but you're aware that some people you care about are finding it tough. One of the most helpful things you can do is not make assumptions. Asking, "are you going home for Christmas?" presumes a welcoming and happy family life, as well as access to transport, and telling someone to "treat themselves to something nice" is an unrealistic and insensitive piece of advice for the 13 million people living in poverty in the UK. If someone has an eating disorder, let them choose how much, if any, of a Christmas dinner they eat, and if somebody is on their own then give them a call to see how they are and have a chat. 

If you love the carols and tinsel, it can be difficult to understand why Christmas is so difficult for so many people, but follow your friends' lead and offer support sensitively. 

Further reading

[The image is a photograph of two mockingbirds arguing. It was taken by Chiltepinster and is used under a Creative Commons licence]

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Nomination for Mind Media Awards 2013

Nominating myself for an award goes against all my self-depracating Britishness, but buoyed on by being named on the list of most influential people in Britain I thought I would give it a go.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have long-term mental health problems and this is something I write about regularly. I also produce a podcast whose first episode was dedicated to mental health and stigma, in an interview with Charlotte, aka Bipolar Blogger. The fact that I often write from a service user's point of view does not mean that I feel I can get away with poor research or inadequate information: I always thoroughly investigate whatever subject I am writing about.

I also try to write about mental health issues in forums which are not dedicated to health or disability issues. In particular, in the past year, I have written about mental health at The F-Word feminist website and for the New Statesman:

Challenging stigma is particularly important to me. The discrimination which occurs daily, and the prejudice displayed against people with mental health problems is an incredibly widespread problem and this is made worse by irresponsible reporting in the media. Making sure that I write responsibly is therefore a key priority, and in particular I take care to follow the Samaritans guidelines on writing about suicide and self-harm. I also publicise these and share them when appropriate on social media and with other writers. I also use Trigger Warnings and Content Notes when needed.

The platforms where my writing is published have considerable reach, and I expand this further by sharing the work on my Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest accounts. This social sharing means that more people are able to find and read what I write, and can in turn share it with their friends and contacts. 

Being named on the Most Influential Disabled People in Britain list does demonstrate the reach and impact I have. Through my writing and social media work I have made contacts and been able to network with a wide array of people and organisations, and I particularly enjoy having the opportunity to connect with people who would be isolated without social media as a means of communication. 

It is for all these reasons that I am nominating myself for the Digital Media section of the Mind Media Awards 2013. I believe so strongly that reporting on mental health should be responsible and should have service user voices at its core that I follow these principles throughout my work, and it is because of these core beliefs that I am putting myself forward.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Converge Podcast 03 "Zines are a good place for radical hope" - Interview with Zinester Cath Elms

On this episode of the Converge Podcast, I talk to Cath Elms, feminist and author of feminist perzine Here. In my Head.

We talk about feminism, longevity, typewriters, relating real life events to feminist theory, the zine community, how and why to start your own zine and much, much more. Enjoy!

Say hi to Cath and Philippa on Twitter - the text is populated for you but you can edit it.

Show Notes

Direct Download: converge_ce_zines_3.mp3

Subscribe to the podcast 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Converge Podcast 02 “Once you open your eyes and see it it doesn’t go away, it gets worse” – Interview with Cath Smith of The Women’s Room

When two women on Twitter heard BBC Radio 4′s flagship Today programme host discussions with all-male participants, and the show said they had not been able to find any qualified women to feature, they decided to do something about it. They set up The Women’s Room, where over 2,000 women have signed up to register their expertise and experience.

In this episode of the Converge Podcast I talk to one of the site’s co-founders about sexism, Twitter and women’s representation in the media.

Show Notes

Music (Creative Commons Licences)

  • Holloway Holiday by Scragfight (This is what feminism sounds like)
  • I dunno by Grapes (ccMixter)

Direct download: 02_Converge_The_Womens_Room.mp3

Subscribe to the podcast 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Converge Podcast 01 "A place to explore what I was feeling, and why I thought I was feeling like that" - Interview with Bipolar Blogger

Mental health service users face regular discrimination and are misunderstood and misrepresented by public opinion and the media. In this first episode of the Converge Podcast, I talk to Charlotte Walker, also known as the Bipolar Blogger, about her experience of mental ill-health, and how she has developed her blog and social media presence. We compare notes, share similarities and offer hints and tips to anyone listening who wants to better understand the issues surrounding mental illness and stigma.

Show Notes

Music (Creative Commons Licences)

  • Terminal by Drained Glory (Mansplaining on the Dancefloor
  • I dunno by Grapes (ccMixter)

Direct download: 01_Converge_Bipolar_Blogger.mp3

Subscribe to the podcast 

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Hello, long-neglected blog, I have missed you! There is lots to say and update.

A year and a bit ago I became self-employed as a freelance writer. I didn't think I was going to be able to make it work, but somehow it went from strength to strength and I do seem to be holding my own in this business.

In seemingly unrelated news, I have wanted a tattoo for 15 years. My inability to make a decision about what it should depict means I have never done it. I would make a decision and change my mind and choose something else and change my mind. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever settle on something to actually get one done.

Back to the business... when I'd done it for a year, this felt super significant. Despite illness, disability, and sometimes feeling completely like I was floundering, I'd done it. It felt really important to mark it in some way. Of course, a tattoo came to mind, but that endless question - what would it be?

My eyes came upon a sign I have had by my desk for the whole year, which had encouraged me whenever I felt like I just couldn't do this thing. It reads, "She believed she could so she did". When I needed a confidence boost, I would look at the sign and realise I could do it. Not only did it help me, but I'd also looked at it most days for a whole year and still liked it...

So there I had it, the tattoo. I had it done yesterday and I love it.

Did it hurt?

Well, yes. However it was a lot, lot better than I'd imagined in that respect. It was sore, kind of like being scratched again and again and again. I wouldn't call it painful, although some spots were worse than others.

Where did you have it?

My left inner forearm. I've always known that my first tattoo would go there, for some reason. I think partly it's because when I used to self-harm, that part of my arm took the brunt of my frustrations, so this was a way to reclaim it somehow. The old scars means that the ink might not be entirely uniform, but I can live with that.

I also wanted it to be somewhere where it would be seen. I didn't want a tattoo somewhere like my back where neither I nor anybody else would ever see it, I wanted it to be visible.

Any regrets?

Not even a tiny one.

Who did it?

Nikk at Good Vibrations Tattoo in Crookes, Sheffield.

But what about when you're 94 and it's gross?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Love Sheffield

I love Sheffield. This morning I had an idea of simplicity and beauty, and created the Love Sheffield design. With encouragement from @andlavendercats I added it as a t-shirt range on RedBubble, including on baby clothes, then also as an iPhone case and a greeting card and postcard. Enjoy!


Wednesday, April 04, 2012


I was interviewed for two fab articles with Women's Views on News:

I also, amusingly, turned up on the ITV News website and a Canadian News site,, over a twitter hashtag game about the government's plans to snoop on every email we send, amongst other things.

Some posts I've done at The F-Word:

Personally, things have been busy. I'm missing writing for Where's the Benefit? but since the Welfare Reform Bill (oh, sorry, Act) came into law I've felt entirely powerless over it. I need to get beyond a place where every possible action seems pointless, in that respect.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Got another forgery then, have you?"

The last few weeks I've been on two crutches rather than one. This started when I tripped and tore a toenail off, then continued when I got new neurological symptoms in a rather large new section of my left thigh.

While I am normally all in favour of the wonder of mobility aids, because they give people freedom and independence and, well, mobility, I get seriously less enthusiastic when I need two crutches rather than one. It means I am hurting my elbows and wrists on both arms instead of just one, it makes doing nearly anything a nightmare. I have to ask for help a lot more, it hurts, I hate it.

If it turns out to be long-term I'll just have to get the hang of it, but in the meantime, I'm seriously unimpressed.

This morning I got on the bus. It's a local service where it tends to be the same drivers most of the time, so I know some of them. Today, on spotting that I had two crutches and not one, a driver I know reasonably well said, "got another forgery then, have you?", and laughed.

It was banter. That bloody word. Can't I take a joke?

On top of feeling distinctly unimpressed with the two crutch situation already, this idiot added a whole other layer of fed-up-ness to the mix. For the rest of the day I felt self-conscious. Do all these people think I'm faking?

If he had thought about it, even for a millisecond, he would perhaps have realised that an increase in the number of crutches perhaps corresponded with a deterioration in my health. He would perhaps have realised that I might not be overjoyed about that.

Today was so painful. My arms are completely wrecked, and my right hand is considerably worse than usual. I don't know if that is a progression of the condition, or just a reaction to too much crutch use today.

It's not funny. It's not banter. It's thoughtless and fucking cruel, if you take even a second to think about it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Gay marriage is really very scary

A terrified umbrella group has been set up who believe that because of the gays, that teetering, vulnerable institution which is heterosexual marriage, is under threat.

Warning of the Profound Consequences of legalising same sex marriage, the Coalition for Marriage fear that, "if marriage is redefined, those who believe in traditional marriage will be sidelined". They also, somewhat inexplicably, warn that "People's careers could be harmed, couples seeking to adopt or foster could be excluded". Because presumably, if the gays can marry, this will cause widespread redundancies and it will mean that social services will no longer accept heterosexual married couples as potential adopters or foster carers.

Following is that infamous slippery slope, "If marriage is redefined once, what is to stop it being redefined to allow polygamy?". I'm surprised they didn't carry on to the usual "or what is to stop people marrying their pets?". Are the Coalition for Marriage so fearful that if same sex relationships get equal rights, heterosexual people will abandon traditional marriage in droves, to marry their gay best friend instead?

The Coalition for Marriage are running a petition which, they say, "demonstrates that there is broad public opposition to redefining marriage". They may have jumped the gun with this statement, as the 'broad public support' currently stands at 124 signatories, the vast majority of whom are Bishops, Rectors, members of the General Synod of the Church of England, vicars, Ministers and Pastors. Three Labour MPs and four Conservative MPs have also signed, but the people who have signed can be considered to be neither numerous nor broad in range at this stage.

They begrudgingly promote Civil Partnerships as justification for now allowing same sex marriage, before pointing out that "It's not discriminatory to support traditional marriage", going on to say, "People should not feel pressurised to go along with same-sex marriage just because of political correctness. They should be free to express their views". So, I'm expressing my views.

Quite why allowing same sex people to marry fills these people with such dread is not something I can understand. If I marry a girlfriend, it doesn't have to be karmically balanced out by a straight couple getting divorced. Heterosexual marriage is one of the most established institutions in the whole world - just what do they imagine might happen if I could join in? It's almost flattering that they think equal marriage rights would be such a powerful move that the entire heteropatriarchal institution would be under immediate threat. I would be quite happy if it would, but I fear it is overestimating what two men or two women getting married would actually mean.

(Clue, it would mean they were married, then got on with their lives like everyone else)

The Coalition are asking for people to sign up to the following statement,
I support the legal definition of marriage which is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. I oppose any attempt to redefine it.
Personally, I support the rights of same sex couples to marry, and of mixed sex couples to get a Civil Partnership.

Mind you, having just watched this video, maybe the Coalition for Marriage is right: gay marriage could in fact end humanity.

In all seriousness, however, many people struggle greatly with the inability to commit to marriage within their relationships. A video of Kitty Lambert in New York expresses powerfully just how ridiculous the current laws are.

You can see the full-length version of that video here.

[The first image is a screenshot of the Coalition for Marriage website. The second is a cartoon from Lefty Cartoons, used under a Creative Commons Licence. Hat tip to @bhiggi for helping me to find the second video. This post originally appeared at The F-Word]


Some things I have written elsewhere but have not cross-posted here for one reason or another.

Most excitingly, I wrote in The Guardian Comment is Free about getting abuse for being disabled.

And at The F-Word I vow to refuse to attend events with an all-male line-up on the panel

Gauge Your Victim-Blaming

Privacy and Prejudice

When is an affair not an affair? (Trigger warning)

Shocked Headline as Fat Disabled Woman Has Fun.

I have other big news which I will update the blog with as soon as I can!