I am not a convert: the problem with gender-neutral toilets

I recently went to see a play called ‘The Convert’ at the Young Vic in Waterloo. For reasons which will remain known only to me and the person who accompanied me, I was not really able to focus on the play and did in fact sleep without shame at points. This will therefore not be a review of ‘The Convert’. I’m sure the play was great. The reviews tell me so. However, the thing that really grabbed my attention were the gender-neutral toilets.

Gender-neutral toilets are a tokenistic concept

In reality, there was nothing new or neutral about the toilets. What was formerly the women’s toilets was now designated as ‘gender-neutral: cubicles’ and what was formerly the men’s toilets were now, ‘gender-neutral: urinals and cubicles’.

The reality of gender-neutral toilets 

Before the play began, I made the following observations. I saw 3 men come out of what were essentially the women’s toilet but saw no woman leave what were essentially the men’s loo.

In the first interval, I heard a woman in the women’s loo exclaim how wonderful it was to have gender neutral toilets and how much she loved it. I then wondered why she still made the decision to use the women’s loo if it was all so wonderful.

In the second interval, I saw a long queue outside the women’s loo. I saw all the men enter the men’s loo and I saw only one woman use the men’s loo. Good for her given that both loos were available for all to use. Personally, I have no desire to visit a men’s loo. I don’t care how long the women’s loo queue is. More fool me you may say. That’s just fine is what I’ll say.

So the question is, why are most women still choosing to use the women’s loo and why are most men still choosing to use the men’s loo? I think it is because we do what we are most comfortable with. For the 3 men who decided to use the women’s loo, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But, in this new world, I have the feeling that the people that will benefit most from this change, will be men, not women.

Why do I care so much?

I made another observation as I queued outside the women’s loo in the second interval. I saw at least 3 men leave the loo and then do up the zips on their trousers. I am not sure if this is normal or a guy thing but it is certainly not something I wish to be exposed to which may have been the case if I had chosen to use the men’s loo.

As a woman, there are times when I want to change outfit or do something which exposes a part of my body that I will only be comfortable doing in front of other women who have breasts and a vagina just as I do. That is my prerogative and my business. I should not have to worry about whether a man who has the right to enter this ‘gender-neutral: cubicles’ loo will enter just as I am about to take my top off or put it back on. Of course, this would not be an everyday occurence anyway but what is wrong with men and women having safe spaces?

I think that what this trend to neutralise the distinction between men and women does is that it risks us no longer being able to acknowledge and celebrate our womanhood and manhood.

I remember a talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which I asked her what it means to be a woman. Unfortunately, I cannot remember her answer. But when I posed the question to many of my other friends, what I realised is the following. It is definitely about biology but it is also about who we are on the sliding scale of ‘womanness’.

I know some may say I am confusing gender with sex and that is just fine for me. I don’t mind putting the two together because I am a woman who hates clothes shopping but loves book shopping. I love football and UFC but I hate violence. I hate cooking but love to cook for others. I am also a woman who believes being a woman does not mean an iron is an extension of my arm nor does it mean that a hoover is my best friend or any other stereotypes that may exist of how I should be because I am a woman. My hair is short which means sometimes I am mistaken for a guy. I am not offended since I am secure in my womanhood.

Being a woman is like being on a sliding scale. I hate make-up but will go nowhere without earrings. My body is curvy but I am athletic.

So how does all this relate to gender-neutral toilets?

Womanhood is not one thing. But in my opinion, being a woman is first and foremost about our biological difference.

There are biological differences which mean that one person is a woman and another a man. This is irrespective of our opinion about who we are. Surely in the place where we we need to use those biological tools, we should be able to have loos which are for those with penises and loos for those with vaginas. Surely we should have spaces where we can feel comfortable dealing with needs related to menstruation or milk-filled breasts or anything else that affects us because of our female biology.

Surely we can have a gender-neutral loo without disposing of men’s and women’s loos.

 

 

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Silence kills: the reason I write openly about the state of my mind

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They say that bacteria needs seven things to grow*. Well, I believe that mental illness/disturbance needs just one thing to grow – SILENCE.

Those who know me know that I tend to be a very private person. I do not have a deep need to be heard. I do however have a desire to encourage others not to struggle alone. Writing publicly about my mind took me a long time to do and to some extent goes against my nature. But, what I realised is that all silence ever did for me was:

  • allow my shame to grow
  • make me feel alone
  • make me feel like there was no way out of my problems
  • result in the deterioration of my mind
  • prolong my suffering
  • allow me to lose out on life

I decided to write about it and write publicly because:

  • I know that when I die, if I do nothing else in this world, if I achieve none of my other dreams, at least my words might help others confront their struggles/seek help/know they are not alone
  • I would hate for others to lose out on life in the way that I did. If my writing helps someone seek help quicker or speak sooner, then this blog is worth it
  • people need to know that no matter their experience, they are not the only ones to have suffered from mental illness/disturbances
  • my mother encouraged me to speak openly and she also encouraged me to stop writing during times of relapse so that I could focus on getting better
  • I come from a long line of ‘strong’ women. I thought I was weak because I could not cope with all that was going on in my mind and in my world.  I now realise that strength has nothing to do with mental illness. It is not a weakness to struggle or to become ill. The weak/strong dichotomy just resulted in more self-loathing which didn’t work out well for me. I now prefer to consider things in this way: each human being has differing levels of resilience and I can grow mine just like others can grow/have grown theirs.
  • I want others to know that mental illness does not have a face, a race, an age, a profession etc

I write because my silence almost killed me. I write because silence kills.

Thirty signs that you are progressing in eating disorder recovery

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This list is not exhaustive and each sign is an indication that you are heading in the right direction. If you are not yet there with any of them, this list is only meant to indicate some things to aim for. Wherever you are at with it all, keep going and please be gentle with your mind and body.

  1. You realise that recovery has everything to do with food
  2. You realise that recovery has nothing to do with food
  3. You don’t completely flip or punch someone in the face when they tell you how ‘well’ you look
  4. You prefer the non-emaciated version of you to the emaciated version of you
  5. You find yourself eating without overthinking
  6. You don’t avoid social occasions involving food
  7. You don’t generally flip out at people because your brain is less malnourished
  8. Cooking does not provoke the terror of God in you and or leave you in a cold sweat
  9. You don’t feel the need to compensate for eating
  10. You are able to laugh without a care in the world
  11. You are no longer hiding your recovered body from the world at large
  12. You know that the answer to difficult equations in life is not weight loss
  13. You no longer have to go to the toilet every 10 seconds at nighttime
  14. Your body is no longer painful to touch/the oedema has gone
  15. Your waking hours are not consumed with food or thoughts of food
  16. You are less interested in Man v. Food/Great Cake Bake Off and more interested in whether Brexit means Brexit and what is happening in the world beyond you
  17. You are not deluding yourself or others about your eating habits and compensatory behaviours
  18. You eat regularly whether you are hungry or not because you are still in recovery
  19. You are weight restored but you keep eating nevertheless
  20. You are no longer having serious body checking sessions
  21. You are able to take a shower without self-loathing
  22. You are accepting of your body irrespective of BMI. You take pride in your body, you rub your growing tummy, because you know how bloody hard it has been – this recovery journey
  23. You don’t give a shit how much you weigh, how much your food weighs or how many calories you have had today
  24. You are honouring your extreme hunger – both physical and mental – without punishing yourself thereafter
  25. A flat stomach is no longer your life’s purpose. You exercise for pleasure, not for pain
  26. You are able to see the evils of an ED and want to shout it out loud to whoever will listen
  27. You are interested in helping others recover even though you are still in recovery
  28. You do not feel the need to play the ‘lose weight, gain attention’ game because you know your voice, not your body, is your most powerful weapon
  29. You keep eating even when and even though you feel like shit. Basically, you continue eating in spite of your other mental health struggles.
  30. Living with you is no longer hell on earth for those around you and you are able to be present and enjoy the company of others

Personally, I struggle most with 8, 18 and 29. I think I’m cool with 16 and 21.

Now, over to you. I leave you with my recovery anthem.

 

Navigating the murky waters of depression and food fatigue during ED recovery

 

The Student Who Became My Teacher

In a former life, I was a teacher who had the great pleasure of working with some fantastic students. I once turned the tables on my students and gave them the task of teaching the class a new skill or schooling the class in some way.

I vaguely remember one student teaching the class some football skills and another teaching art techniques. Yet the lesson which most stood out was the one delivered by one of the cheeriest students I’ve ever had, on the topic of depression. She delivered a presentation on 7 different types of depression including post-natal depression, bipolar disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Prior to her presentation, I remember calling this student one morning to find out why she hadn’t yet turned up to class. ‘I can’t decide what to wear,’ she said. My response, ‘just pick anything and get yourself here.’ And she did. She came in, a few hours late but she made it.

During her presentation on depression, she said that it sometimes manifests itself in angry outbursts and spoke from her own personal experience about being subjected to the anger of a loved one who was in fact struggling with depression.

Hers was the presentation which I never forgot and will never forget. At that time, I did not know that I was only a few months away from my first (or second) major episode of depression. I didn’t know that my student’s inability to choose an outfit to wear was symptomatic of depression rather than inertia. She was in fact a wonderfully spirited young lady who was highly opinionated and fun to be around (I know that is a precious thing because some young people are HARD WORK). But good humour or the ability to smile or laugh does not disqualify someone from depression.

I learnt so much from this young lady that I became pretty good at spotting the happy depressive or the seemingly lazy depressive. I started using a different approach to work with students who struggled with depression. My previous ‘get yourself into College’ approach was replaced with a ‘come in and let’s chat about what’s going on’ approach. The latter was much more effective than the former at helping the student stay the course and more importantly at helping them access support within the College.

Mental Unwellness Is About The Things You Cannot See

Depression is, like most mental illness, about the things you cannot see rather than the things you can see. It’s the physical paralysis which keeps you in bed and the verbal paralysis rips out your tongue. It’s the talk of plans for the future whilst questioning your existence. It’s the person you have a drink with who makes a joke in public but thinks of themselves as the joke in private. It’s the person that turned up late for work yet again despite repeated warnings who is struggling with insomnia rather than inertia. It’s the seemingly absent-minded individual who asks you to repeat yourself for the fifth time in an hour. It’s the person who says, ‘sorry, I can’t come out tonight, something came up.’

I don’t know what became of this student of mine but I do remember her as a funny, hardworking, loving and highly sensitive individual who enriched me in a way I could never have imagined.

My First Experience of Depression

My first experience of depression happened soon after I became a teenager. But, at the time, I did not realise what was happening. I just knew that I was deeply unhappy (for various reasons) and had fallen out of love with this thing called life. In school I was pretty happy and active but my mind was littered with thoughts which I still find challenging as an adult. I managed in the best way I could until the entrance of the eating disorder which helped me become a functional depressive, a state which came back to bite me in adulthood. Perhaps confronting it then would not have landed me where I am today. I say this, knowing that I am also positively changed because of my experiences and have learnt to appreciate simple rather than grandiose pleasures – a fallen leaf in autumn, a cloudless sky, the thrill of speed and the time spent in the company of those I love.

For those of you who have played Jenga, you will be able to visualise the moment that one piece is taken out and the whole stack come crashing down. That was my second major experience of depression. I am still trying to find and collect the scattered pieces. The suddenness and enormity of my descent into depression was like taking a ride through the rapids of hell. Confusion, fear, anxiety, disassociation and an inability to see in colour meant that each day felt like a sadistic exercise in the art of staying alive. The realisation of the fragility of one’s own mind is an incredibly terrifying experience. It still echoes inside my head today, in spite of the passage of time. Amidst the tornado, I did manage to come to a decision about the way forward.

An Eating Disorder Is Not Conducive With Life

In order to recover from the depression, I would need to confront and overcome the eating disorder which lay in the shadows. It had hitherto, neither dominated me nor prevented me from living what I considered to be a full life at the time. It did however, cast a shadow over my life as it was at the time. It meant I socialised with others, except for close friends. It meant being secretive with my family and friends and unfortunately, it meant forgoing potential relationships. I was still able to study, work, do things that I enjoyed from time to time and appear very functional. Being functional was good enough, or so I thought. I couldn’t foreshadow what was to come – a time when functionality would slip first into disfunctionality and then total collapse.

When everything eventually fell apart and I entered a day programme for eating disorders, I was so far removed from the person I had been that I lost all sense of self. It was like trying to find my reflection in a once clean stream whose waters had been muddied beyond redemption.

That said, the day programme helped me stay just out of reach of the talons of depression. Unfortunately, it didn’t help me address the ED. Even though I have serious reservations about the delivery of ED treatment in general, I know that the conditions at home and in my mental state were not right for me to recover. I couldn’t give up the ED (restriction and purging) for fear of the depression. And so began the almost decade long game of running around in metaphorical and literal circles.

The Dangers of Using Exercise in Mental Health Recovery

Running was the other thing I used to help me keep depression at bay. That and swimming. It brought me out of catatonic states, it helped me find a reason to keep going whilst at the same time, keeping me entrenched in a state of emaciation. It also perpetuated the falsehood that I could only deal my thoughts by running the heck out of them. In fact the biggest reason for going on ridiculously long runs was to tire myself so much that my thoughts would sleep for a while. Never worked. At least not for long.

So I return to the song which I posted at the start of this blog. The lyrics sum up all you need to know about how some people manage depression and mental unwellness.

Once upon a time, I tried to run it away. Neither snow nor rain nor freezing temperatures could dissuade me from running. Now I try to cycle it away or swim it away or pretend it away or sleep it away or hide myself away but all of these are temporary fixes for something which is a recurring issue. It was in fact the reason, that I spent so long stuck in a eating disorder. Hiding from rather than confronting it keeps a person in eternal hell.

For me, the eating disorder always felt like a lesser evil. The thought of losing my sanity, of coming so close to letting the waves completely take me has always been a more frightening proposition than the idea of struggling with food forever. Yet exercise is not a panacea for mental unwellness.

Telling someone with an eating disorder to use exercise to cope with depression is like telling someone whose heart is failing that exercise will make their heart stronger. Yes, in theory, exercise can strengthen the heart but if it is seriously damaged, recommending exercise might just be the nail in the coffin.

Whilst the first few months of my second attempt at recovery went pretty smoothly, mentally and nutritionally, the past few months have been pretty tough. Continuing to eat whilst in the throes of another episode of depression was not really a difficulty which I had given that much thought to. But now it’s here, I am not sure that I am dealing well with it or that I know how to deal with it.

The strange thing about depression is that its bones have normally calcified by the time I am aware of what is happening. By that point, I am far too immobile to move easily through it. First my mind begins to struggle and then my body.

Depression And Appetite

Depression has made my appetite plummet and in turn made food harder to face. There is now more anxiety around meals and less ability to force myself to eat when I don’t fancy anything in particular. This is compounded by the fact that I am now weight restored plus (as I call it). I am not flirting with a marginally weight restored body, I am fully embracing weight restoration. Forcing myself to eat at this higher weight is indeed a massive challenge. A skipped meal here, and a skipped meal there was the beginning of an ED for many a sufferer.

The Dangers of Complacency in ED Recovery After Weight Restoration

Given my belief that EDs are primarily a mental rather than physcial illness, it really is incumbent on me to stop giving myself permission to skip meals simply because my weight is normal and my appetite low. I am well aware of the fact that I have now given myself permission to allow my appetite to dictate whether I eat or not. I know this is a dangerous path to go down in recovery. I also know that if I let this go on for much longer, I risk undoing the hard work I have put in over the past six months plus.

The one thing which I have tried to do is to eat out with others, a task which comes with its own challenges. It helps sometimes. Yet in truth, I am fed up of eating, of food, of choice, of the daily monotony of it, of the discomfort of fullness and the anxiety around deciding what to eat and making something to eat.

Sometimes depression and eating disorders are two separate entities and sometimes they are bedfellows. For the first time since I began my recovery, I have begun to doubt my ability to recover from either.

Ultimately, I think that if I cannot find a way to manage and perhaps eventually overcome the episodes of depression, I may put my long term recovery from the ED in jeopardy. I am still committed to ED recovery and learning about me. But……..

Where Now?

That’s the question I’m still asking myself.