Does the Best Safety Really Lie in Fear?

There are many unheralded benefits of age, one of which is invisibility -changing from a potential threat into a banality. A non-entity for whomever might otherwise be at risk. I can watch from shadows while the world strides past –on the street, in a bus, in a coffee shop. Wherever.

Men, until they age it seems, can be a liability to women –but I never thought of it like that, of course. Few of us ever do. I never thought I was a threat, but now I see I was wrong.

Does danger evolve, or is it the perception? The perceiver? Has its essence been reinterpreted, or merely renamed? Now that I am rapidly becoming a befrailed bystander in my retirement -background noise- I am also subject to harassment I never thought existed.

It’s not the same, I know. It’s not something I have had to endure throughout my life. Something woven into the fabric of each day that hides in the warp and weft of life until the pattern suddenly surfaces from the chiaroscuro like the shark’s fin in Jaws. Knowing the menace is always somewhere beneath the surface, and yet having no choice but to swim above it…

Watching from the shore, where the danger is rarely seen and never felt, it is all too easily dismissed. Maybe that’s why I’m trying to draw a parallel with the tide of years. I’m trying to understand something new to me. Frailty, thy name is Age.

For me, it’s not sexual pestering, of course, and usually not a threat of bodily harm –it’s more of a dominance thing… And yet, isn’t that what the gender divide can be about? Power? Identity insecurity? Role playing…?

I’m not even sure what role hormones play anymore –not all men are provocateurs. Not all men are cursed with the need for entitlement or the fear of losing status . Not all of us are insecure. But I think I can see what is going on –if only through a glass darkly. I think I can understand the gist of the article I found in the BBC news about women worrying about the ‘right’ amount of fear to show in public: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-41614720 The appropriate balance between sensible caution and the avoidance of a perceived threat.

Until I read it, I’m not sure I would have put it as forcefully as Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray, a researcher at Durham Law School, specializing in violence against women, and one of the 100 Women BBC named as influential and inspirational. But, I’m not a woman quietly smothered by the social blanket either thrown over my protests, or wrapped securely around my screams of dissent much as it might around a tired child’s body. It is hard to shift perspective like the article demands.

Dr. Vera-Gray had been speaking to women about how they change their behaviours through fear of sexual harassment and assault for her new book The Right Amount of Panic: How women trade freedom for safety in public. But I have to say that I had never thought about the need for the tactics she has identified that are outlined in the article. 

For example, she outlines conduct I’m sure we’ve all seen in streets and public transit –all seemingly innocuous, innocent, and yet all purposive: ‘Maybe, like Delilah, a black British woman in her early 20s who I interviewed, you stay away from wearing the colour red, to avoid standing out. Or like Shelley, a British Asian woman in her 30s, you’ve developed a death stare, looking tougher than you feel. Maybe like Lucy, a white British woman in her late teens, you’ve pulled out your phone and made a fake call with your battery long dead. Or like Ginger, a white Latvian woman in her 20s, you’ve kept headphones in without playing music so you can hear what they think you can’t.’

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights report (FRA) in 2017 on sexual harassment in Europe found that ‘almost half of the 42,000 women surveyed had restricted their freedom of movement based on the fear of gender-based violence.’

‘Liz Kelly, one of the world’s leading sociologists on violence against women, coined the term “safety work”, to describe the habitual strategies that women develop in response to their experiences in public. We perform safety work often without thinking, it becomes part of our habits, or “common-sense”.’ Peeking over my own male-built walls, I had no idea this was going on.

‘The vast majority of this work is pre-emptive, we often can’t even know if what we are experiencing as intrusive is intrusive unless it starts to escalate: he speeds up and crosses the street when you do, he moves from staring to touching. But as this is the very thing safety work is designed to disrupt, success becomes the absence of what might have happened. […] we know that it doesn’t, it simply can’t, always work, and those are the only times we can count. So women are stuck, made responsible for preventing harassment at the same time as unable to know when we’ve been effective.’

But, as Dr. Vera-Gray seems to conclude, ‘[…] there is no “right amount” of panic, there’s only ever too much or not enough. And with no way to know when we’re getting it right, we’ve learnt to just keep quiet.’

I don’t want to seem like a gender apostate, but I find the conclusions very troubling. As Robbie Burns put it O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us! But, alas, we see the world, like we see the reflections in a mirror, only through our own eyes. And that’s not enough –we share the same journey, albeit sometimes on different paths. And that’s why there’s a need for signposts along the way. Conversations about the route. We all have to know where we’re going.

Maybe I will never understand; maybe I can only approach it vicariously, but at least it’s a start. I can stand in shoes that will never fit, even if I can’t walk without discomfort.

But maybe that’s what it takes –a sort of self-empathy, before it finally sinks in…

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Is What’s Past Really Prologue?

War has so many faces and wears so many different clothes that you might be forgiven for misunderstanding its refugees. Confusing cause and effect in their behaviour, their appearance, and perhaps, most obviously, in their adaptations to the stress of upheaval and migration. There is no universal pattern that obtains, and few things to offer as a template for relief except, perhaps, a welcoming succour. And when numbers become overwhelming, even compassion is strained in the melange of personalities and temperaments that inevitably occur in those fleeing danger. Not all victims may be to our liking, and when resources become limited and privileges are necessarily constrained, the reactions can be unpredictable on both sides. Empathy can mutate into grudging tolerance. Forbearance. Endurance.

But think of the effects on the refugees, first forced to flee intolerable conditions, often leaving behind members of their families, then subject to the hardships and exploitation of the journey,  finally being forced to trust themselves to the charity of strangers. It cannot be easy for adults to have their identity subsumed by that of victim, and everything they were, everything they had, everything for which they had worked no longer possible. No longer recognized, let alone appreciated, in a strange land with often stranger customs and language.

And what must it be like for their children who haven’t yet learned the curse of humiliation, or understood what the theft of identity may mean to their parents. They’re caught in the middle ground between witness and casualty, understanding neither. Lacking the tools to navigate the waters, some, I suppose, internalize it; others lash out. But none escape entirely.

I came across an unusual manifestation of trauma that seems unique to Sweden (so far), for some reason –the newly coined Resignation Syndrome: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-41748485  ‘[…] it affects only the children of asylum-seekers, who withdraw completely, ceasing to walk or talk, or open their eyes.’

‘The health professionals who treat these children agree that trauma is what has caused them to withdraw from the world. The children who are most vulnerable are those who have witnessed extreme violence – often against their parents – or whose families have fled a deeply insecure environment.’

‘As more Swedes began to worry about the consequences of immigration, these “apathetic children”, as they were known, became a huge political issue. There were reports the children were faking it, and that parents were poisoning their offspring to secure residence. None of those stories were proven.’ A not so hidden ‘blame the victim’ scenario that tends to surface under conditions of societal stress.

‘Numerous conditions resembling Resignation Syndrome have been reported before – among Nazi concentration camp inmates, for example. In the UK, a similar condition – Pervasive Refusal Syndrome – was identified in children in the early 1990s, but there have been only a tiny handful of cases, and none of them among asylum seekers. The most plausible explanation is that there are some sort of socio-cultural factors that are necessary in order for this condition to develop. A certain way of reacting or responding to traumatic events seems to be legitimised in a certain context’ writes Dr Karl Sallin, a paediatrician at the Astrid Lindgren Children’s Hospital, part of Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm.

Theories abound, of course. There is a view ‘commonly held among doctors treating children with Resignation Syndrome, that recovery depends on them feeling secure and that it is a permanent residence permit that kick-starts that process.’ Unfortunately, with increasing numbers of refugees arriving, both the patience and the available resources are wearing thin, so stricter adherence to admission criteria do not always allow a family to stay. ‘Last year, a new temporary law came into force that limits all asylum seekers’ chances of being granted permanent residence. Applicants are granted either a three-year or 13-month visa.’

One treatment seems to be having some success, even with those not granted permanent visas, however. The thesis is that  sickness has to do with former trauma, not asylum. ‘When children witness violence or threats against a parent, their most significant connection in the world is ripped apart’ –the very connection on which the child has been dependent. ‘That family connection must be re-built, but first the child must begin to recover, so Solsidan’s [the treatment center’s] first step is to separate the children from their parents. “We keep the family informed about their progress, but we don’t let them talk because the child must depend on our staff. Once we have separated the child, it takes only a few days, until we see the first signs that, yes, she’s still there…” says Annica Carlshamre, a senior social worker for Gryning Health, a company that runs Solsidan, a home for all kinds of troubled children.

Even if effective, I would imagine that not every family would be willing to part with their child to strangers, nor would the number of treatment centers be equal to the task. Still, it may be a method worth exploring further.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Resignation Syndrome, Situational Adjustment Reactions, Panic Attacks… I am not alone in wondering what these may produce in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, affected –either in childhood when coping mechanisms may not yet have been learned, or worse perhaps, in adulthood when the mechanisms may have been discarded. What can we expect from a generation torn from its customs, and rightful expectations of a peaceful family life? A generation often deprived of education, to say nothing of safety? What is normal to those who have never experienced it? And what are the obligations of the rest of us to them?

War, it is said, will be with us always, but we must not be fooled by its seeming inevitability. I suppose it is unbecomingly naïve in this time of terrorism and bellicose patriotism, but I still remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? It’s not an answer, perhaps -just a hope…

Is there really nothing new under the sun?

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. The older I get, the more I understand the wisdom of that passage from Ecclesiastes. It’s not that I have experienced everything, seen everything, and I certainly haven’t thought of everything; I have no proof whereof I speak, and yet… And yet it seems to wear the ring of understanding, doesn’t it? ‘It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen’ as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said.

I suspect there’s something truly atavistic about touch. Something inescapable, at any rate. Birth, suckling, and rearing are universals –at least for mammals- and each involves contact, albeit a closeness that often diminishes with a maturity that adopts different forms of communication. Different types of connection. But its primacy never really disappears –whether in fighting, copulating, or even greeting, it lingers like a shadow never fully in the background.

I’ve written about it before, sometimes vicariously, with a soft brush, sometimes even with a gentle nudge, and once when I was moved sufficiently to address it as a subject worthy of a title: Touch  https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2013/01/25/touch/ But somehow, it creeps back again and again as needful as a hungry child to be noticed.

Like the fabled Phoenix, it rose anew in an article in the CBC news, and as a still-unrequited lover, I have rushed to it again with open arms: http://www.cbc.ca/1.4363121 It’s amazing how such a basic thing as touch seems to require mention again and again – as if without the attention it would slip beneath the waves like a curious seal and be seen no more. As if we continually need the reminder to see our noses.

And each time it surfaces in a different place than we expect. ‘In the past 20 years, scientists have discovered that our hairy skin has cells that respond to a stroking touch. It’s a trait we share with other mammals. Now psychologists in England say their work shows, for the first time, that a gentle touch can be a buffer against social rejection, too. […] The study builds on previous ones showing that receiving touch from loved ones after a physical injury is supportive.’ -a coals-to-Newcastle study you may ask? I mean, really… But I suppose that statistical validation is a way of indicating that it is a conclusion once-removed – that the findings are hopefully divorced from any possibility of emotional contagion. Still…

It continues, ‘Pain is ubiquitous across medical disciplines. Yet touch has been shown to improve outcomes in people with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia and in pre-term infants, the study’s authors said.’ Once again, the older and wiser amongst you might have to fight against the urge to roll your eyes. Of course touch is important, I hear you whisper, as you move on to another, less flagrantly transparent article.

There was a point to underlining the glaring intuitively common sense observations, however –but not, alas, until the nether end of the article. ‘Our brains are attuned to combining information from our five senses. And when much of our time is spent engaging with social media, which relies on visual and sound cues alone, it’s easy to forget the power of touch.’ This, in an era of proxy reaching, and touching a friend online -‘just “liking” a post or texting an emoji.’

Maybe it’s more obvious to those of us who didn’t grow up with a smartphone in our hands or a screen in our face, but it still needs repeating: Of course touch is important! So is actual eye contact. And body language. There’s something about proximity that facilitates communication and realistic interpretation.

A study at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia –one of undoubtedly many of this type- tracked ‘100 mothers and babies over four years [and] they found mothers who used skin-to-skin contact reported breastfeeding for a longer period, less postpartum depression, and a closer relationship with their babies compared with mothers who did not use the method.’ Without re-stating the obvious, the contention was that ‘Because the baby is being held so close to the mother, the mother learns the baby’s signals…’ And, of course, then the usual self-evident trope that ‘It’s not just newborns who benefit from skin-to-skin cuddling — moms do, too’ with the requisite reductionist explanation ‘For the mother, the close contact stimulates the hormone oxytocin, which helps to promote maternal feelings’ as if a physiological justification for the observation were required to bolster the issue… Just in case.

Surely we know all this, though. Surely, if we look around us we can see touch in action -even in a downtown shopping mall.

I rarely go to malls -I find the crowds of strangers annoying- but every so often, the anthill instinct surfaces, and I dip my foot in the colony just for the experience.

I am usually wary of casual contact and, as on a busy sidewalk in the city, there is an unconscious dance to avoid touching strangers. It’s not a fear thing, nor a dread of pestilence; I do not feel uneasy for myself or my property, so much as that my closeness, however accidental and unintended, might be misconstrued. Touch can be therapeutic and welcomed, for sure, but it can also be unwarranted -misunderstood by a stranger – frightening or threatening if unrequested.

I picked the wrong time to test the mall, I think. It was noon and filled with casual shoppers, their eyes on window displays, and bags akimbo, they wandered aimlessly from store to store, depending on a mall-acquired skill to avoid the Brownian motion alive around them. Me? I felt more dizzy from the chaos than innately protected, and found myself leaning rather self-consciously on a pillar near a bank of seats, watching for a vacancy to rest. I admit I shouldn’t have let down my guard, but I am basically a visiting country mouse -a mall virgin, I’m afraid.

Still, I didn’t expect to be knocked down by a distracted shopper –a thin, middle aged woman at that- but I suppose that anybody, if hit unawares, would go down as quickly. At least that was my embarrassed conceit on my way to the floor.

The woman, a business executive by the look of her dark-blue pant suit and blindingly white blouse, was mortified and stooped to help me up. I must have looked confused –I’m sure I was- at the sudden horizontality of my position when she first extended her hands to me.

“Are you alright, sir?” she said, her eyes leaning heavily on my face. “I’m so sorry… I don’t know how I managed that…” she added, her words thick with remorse.

Sometimes, I think I look younger than my years –one gets used to the reflection in the mirror- but obviously she saw me in a different, more fraught light, and her expression melted as she mistook my surprise for fragility. Suddenly she hugged me –a brief, but reflexive attempt at apology. It couldn’t have lasted more than a fraction of a second, but it was as if, for that instant, she was not a stranger, but a caring person responding to the needs of another.

She blushed at my smile, then touched my sleeve as she walked away, her head disappearing in the crowd like a bird in a forest. But I have not forgotten that heartfelt touch. Some things are special –ordinary or not. Touch is a gift, and I felt unexpectedly blessed…

Whether ’tis Nobler in the Mind

I may have inadvertently stumbled upon something important. I may have found a boundary marker that potentially distinguishes New Age from Old Age. Of course, definitionally I could be way out of my league –New Age being construed as anything that happened after I left university- but considered as a panoply, I think it works, if only conceptually.

I happened upon an article in the CBC news app while scrolling through my phone, that struck me as interesting: http://www.cbc.ca/1.4302866 -perhaps because I had never thought about technology in those terms, and perhaps because I felt embarrassed that I had been caught doing just that.

The premise was that we seem to turn to various apps on our devices for problem solving of many sorts. Everything from comparing shopping prices to trends in fashion to the latest news. And, as we are increasingly discovering, these digital peregrinations revisit us in the form of directed advertisements hoping to cash in on our whimsical journeys. Nothing is thrown away in the digital world –even our whims are stored, categorized, and pragmatically redistributed. And if notions, then it seems a small step to include moods. Emotions –positive, or otherwise- should be equally trackable.

In fact, I learned that ‘Google announced it now offers mental-health screenings when users in the U.S. search for “depression” or “clinical depression” on their smartphones. Depending on what you type, the search engine will actually offer you a test. […] And Facebook is working on an artificial intelligence that could help detect people who are posting or talking about suicide or self-harm.’

Perhaps this is where I feel the shadow of a boundary issue. There seems little question that mood disorders transcend age and gender; what is more problematic, however, is whether there may be a generational divide in confiding those emotions digitally, or even believing that solace could lie therein. The problem is not so much in putting these issues in writing –diaries, and correspondence, after all, have long been a rich retrospective source for biographers. The difference, it seems to me though, is the intent of the disclosure –diaries have traditionally been personal, and usually, not meant as a way of communication, but rather a way of sorting out thoughts. Private thoughts. Letters, as well, were directed to particular individuals –often trusted confidants- and not meant for publication outside that circle. Have the older generation –Generation R, for example (Retirement, to attach a label)- been sufficiently swept up in the digital river, to feel comfortable in clinging to its flotsam like their children?

I’m certainly not gainsaying the efforts of the internet giants to expand into the mental health realm –it seems a natural progression, so perhaps this is a start… and yet it’s one thing to key in on various words like ‘depression’ and have the algorithm kick in with a screening test, but another to sift through the context to determine the appropriateness of offering the test. I suppose random screening like that may be helpful for some, but as Dr. John Torous, the co-director of the digital psychiatry program at Harvard Medical School and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s workgroup on smartphone apps, observes, ‘”One of the trickiest things is that language is complex … and there’s a lot of different ways that people can phrase that they’re in distress or need help.”’ Amen to that.

Quite apart from translational difficulties and the more abstract and culturally-fraught issues with their changing metaphors and societal expectations, there are other language problems –even in the dominant language of whatever country: changing vocabularies, local argot, and misspellings, to name only a few.

To state that human culture is complex, is a trope, and to believe that artificial intelligence will be able to keep up with its multifaceted, ever-changing face, anytime soon is probably naïve. And, as the article points out, privacy –no matter the promises of the internet provider, or the app-producer- is another weak link in the chain. Quite apart from malicious hacking, or innocent and trusting confidence in the potential for help, ‘Our phones already collect a tremendous amount of personal data. They know where we are and who we’re speaking and texting with, as well as our voice, passwords, and internet browsing activities. “If on top of that, we’re using mental-health services through the phone, we may actually be giving up a lot more data than people realize,” Torous says. He also cautions that many of the mental-health services currently available in app stores aren’t protected under federal privacy laws [at least in the United States], so you’re not afforded the same privacy protections as when you talk to a doctor.’

In a very real –if mainly age-related- sense, I am relieved I did not grow up in the digital age. I am fortunate that Orwell’s prescient ‘1984’ was available, not as a quaint attempt at predicting the future, but as a warning about a creeping surveillance that seemed so malevolently unrealistic when it was written –it was first published in 1949, remember. And when I read it, the date was still sufficiently far in the future that it seemed more science fiction than predictive. Yet, as the years wore on, and society changed in unexpected ways, the horrors of the theme, for me at least, became more and more uncomfortable. More and more possible, despite the reassuring smoke blown in our eyes by those eager for progress, and mesmerized by the possibilities.

I mention this, not to suggest that I was unique in this discomfort –I was obviously not- nor to imply that what we are now experiencing is evil, or even threatening, but merely to explain the hesitation of many of those my age in accepting, unreservedly, the digitally-wrapped gifts so readily proffered. It is not a venue to which I would likely turn for health issues, or emotional sustenance.

For me, there is something more reassuring about an eye-to-eye encounter with another member of the same species, able to understand the vagaries of language, and compare the nuanced phrasing of my words with the expression on my face. Perhaps, I’ll change -perhaps I’ll have to- and yet… and yet I’d still feel better dealing with an entity –a person– able to experience the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And yes, someone who has read and understood what Shakespeare meant.