Being mindful of mental illness

 (This post was originally written for OnTheLeftNZ.com)

There’s a lot of mental illness stigma in New Zealand. From the friend or family member who tells you just to ‘get over it’, to the many little ways that living with a mental illness in an unsupportive environment slowly erodes at you. Whenever I see a new campaign set out to help inform and educate people about mental illness I am heartened, but often end up feeling a tad disappointed. Campaigns tend to focus on depression, but other forms of mental illness are still so very rarely discussed.

The kind of depression that gets funding and celebrity campaigns tends to be episodic depression. I guess its appeal is that it can hit absolutely anyone and it’s treatable. If you have an episode of depression you can get out the other end and have it be over. It’s got to be very appealing to have your campaign finish with a happy ending, especially if you get to put a respected celebrity face to it. This is great, and I’m happy that campaigns like this exist, but they aren’t structured to talk about anything other than episodic depression, and so they don’t do much to raise awareness for other kinds of mental illness. They still lead into the idea that mental illness is the thing you should completely recover from, and that complete recovery is your only option.

I have clinical anxiety. My brain is wired this way and will always be a bit funny about certain things. I am prone to having flare-ups and relapses, and intense situations (especially social situations) can provoke my condition. I am currently choosing to function without medication specifically for my anxiety, as I’ve found treatments for my PCOS helps with the worst of my symptoms. This is a choice I make that is currently right for me, but this may change in the future.

I’ve had periods of depression on the top of my anxiety, but the anxiety is there through everything. I honestly thought it was just how everyone went through the world until I was finally diagnosed at 19. Knowing that this was a thing my brain did and would likely always do was a bit of a shock, but it has ended up opening a lot more doors than it has closed. I now know what behaviours I needed to watch for, monitor and how to manage my warning signs. This lets me live in a much happier space than otherwise.

I was lucky enough to see a good psychologist, who helped give me the tools that get me through my daily life. Now, even when things get tough for me, I can open this mental toolbox and use any of the tools I find inside there. I’m sharing a few of my tools here with you today, in case they might be useful to others.

I’d like to state that I am not in any way a qualified psychotherapist and the information I provide is as a sufferer and support person of others. If you have mental health concerns please take them to a professional first, as everyone is different and needs different things. Please also keep in mind these are my own personal tips that help me, and that other people need different things.

Be mindful of warning signs

My anxiety operates around an all or nothing thought pattern. If something doesn’t go quite as I expected I might think something like: “This didn’t go exactly as I imagined, therefore I am a dreadful person everyone hates”. This poisonous thinking sets off a chain reaction that in bad cases could lead to a panic attack. Often it leaves me feeling deeply uneasy and wary, unable to enjoy anything at all until the feeling passes, which can take hours or days. Often I’ll completely forget what the initial trigger was and be left only with this heightened sense of worry, it’s exhausting.

After a lot of practice I easily recognise my warning signs and can create my very own counter-serum using the power of my own brain. By recognising the hostile thought as an anxiety warning sign, I can work to dissolve it and neutralise the harmful effects. The way I do this is based off Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It feels stupid at first, but reinforcing positive memories and pathways helps to cement them, and helps to counter or overwrite the negative pathway trying to worm its way in. Changing the thoughts influences changes in feelings with enough practice.

As an example, I’d counter “I’m a dreadful person everyone hates” with “I get along well with good people” and think about the friends I’d had positive interactions with lately, and how awesome they are. They have time for me, so I must be at the very least tolerable. Thinking like this is usually enough to stop the anxiety spiral from revving up, especially if each thought has its own specialised counter-serum.

Forgive failures and setbacks

In particularly stressful times I quite often miss my warning signs and end up in an anxiety or depression spiral. Some days become completely unrecoverable. But hey, it’s hard to stay on top of your game all the time. Once I’ve slipped I make sure to instantly forgive myself for doing so. Just like that, forgiven. I wouldn’t be critical someone for slipping, so I shouldn’t give myself a hard time either.

Forgiveness for being human and for having a mental illness goes a long way to me feeling like I can pick myself up again. There’s a voice inside me that demands I perform at 100% optimal capacity every minute of every day. By telling this voice that no, it’s okay to be at 40% right now is comforting and makes my recovery easier.

Look back often

I make sure to always look back to check how I’m coping with how I’ve coped in the past. It’s not always better, but the overall trend seems to have stabilised for me in the last few years. Even though I am relatively stable, I still find it useful to look back to when I wasn’t coping well to help reinforce how much I have improved since those times.

Rewards

When I feel like I’ve done something well, I like to reward myself. Usually it’s something small, like a nice meal, a fancy drink or even just some time playing a new game. It’s nice to give myself a little acknowledgement at getting through something that I’d otherwise find intimidating.

Self care

When discussing mental health within the context of cognitive behavioural therapy, there’s a model made of three parts: thoughts, feelings, and physical self. I consider self care to be the soothing ointment that you put on one or all three parts. Self care for me is escaping into video games or buying some lollies or soda and curling up in bed. Self care is of course an entirely personal thing, but it’s a thing to do to make your thoughts, feelings, or physical self feel better, even if only for a short time. Sometimes all you need is a small respite from the constant active self monitoring that comes with long-term mental illness.

Safety nets

Safety nets are important. They are the people in your life you can talk to about how your illness might be affecting you today. They might not completely understand, but they can still be supportive and helpful in other ways. The most important thing to remember is that relationships are two way streets. While the people around you will hopefully have time for you, it’s important that you respect them, their energy levels and ability to engage with you on your needs. Even completely neurotypical friends get worn out and need time to themselves. If someone can’t help you, don’t take it personally, just ask another person in your net. If your net is small, reach out to other support online, in centres or over the phone.

Everything’s okay

Seems pretty self-explanatory, but it’s always worth saying. Things are okay. I’ve had to do a lot of work to get to okay and I have to do a lot of work to stay here, but it’s working. I feel like a person who has a lifelong condition but can manage it in a way that affords me a pretty great quality of life. I feel very fortunate.

If you need support and are unsure how to get it, below are some New Zealand-based support networks and organisations.

http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/ Mental Health Foundation
Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Youthline 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Samaritans 0800 726 666 (Lower North Island, Christchurch & West Coast)
04 473 9739 (other regions)

Tech Freedom Vs Feminism

(This post was originally written for OnTheLeftNZ.com)

[TW for mentions of harassment, sexual abuse charges, Julian Assange and literal nazis]

Ever since I was small I had an absolutely overwhelming sense of justice. This informs and influences my world at every level, permeating through everything. It makes sense to invest myself deeply in the things I care about, and to me that means fighting for justice where I perceive it lacking. Two such things are identifying as a woman and the internet.

For identifying as a woman it’s feminism, and for the internet it’s privacy, the open web and general internet and information freedom. In my heart I feel like fighting for feminism and fighting for Internet freedom should go together like the best of friends, but in truth these are two sides of my activism that constantly clash, and leave me a mess in the middle.

The tech industry and the open internet movement have a very pervasive and ever-present misogyny problem. This dominant rhetoric makes it increasingly difficult to interact with a movement that is supposed to be about freedom, privacy and security. It gets even more horrible when prominent members within these communities are known abusers, misogynists and outright hatemongers.

Several prominent tech freedom organisations choose to align themselves with and refuse to depose these kinds of men, no matter how horrible the shit against them is. The men themselves get away with harassing and abusing women because they are seen as being ‘valuable’ to the movement. Once you’re up on a tech freedom pedestal, it seems like it’s impossible for someone to bring you down.

Take Julian Assange – Editor in Chief of  Wikileaks. Wikileaks as an organisation is doing work for tech freedom and transparency in government that I’m desperate for. Their part in exposing the ever-looming TPPA is invaluable. However, I am absolutely not in any way desperate for information about an alleged rapist, or to hear from any of his apologists (if you say ‘honey trap’ to me I will kick you in your honey trap).

Assange comes across more as an embarrassment than anything else, and his presence at events creates active hostility towards rape survivors. Reminder: He lives in the Ecuadorian embassy hiding from sexual assault charges, not for anything related to being a Wikileaker. You could say that these charges have an unusual amount of weight behind them and are politically motivated, but that doesn’t stop them from being sexual assault charges. You can’t wish away the abuse here.

If anyone steps up to criticise Assange’s continued presence or airtime, there are many, many men willing to come out in active support of Assange, or at the very least wanting to ‘debate’, Sea-lioning the conversation. It makes it uncomfortable to be in tech freedom spaces and feel safe. Not only are people happy to defend Assange beyond all good reason, you are also expected to listen politely and not get annoyed about their derailing conversation. [Note, if you’re considering jumping in to try and tell a woman she is wrong to be suspicious/critical of an alleged rapist being in a position of honour, you should probably think about jumping into a skip bin instead, because you are behaving like trash.]

And this doesn’t just happen in one organisation, it’s a prominent and consistent problem throughout tech and tech freedom. The Electronic Freedom Foundation do good work combating unfair copyright laws and have a comprehensive campaign dissecting the TPPA. But they also support Weev, the man who has harassed Kathy Sierra off the internet.

Kathy Sierra, for those who didn’t get the chance to see her on twitter, is one of those fantastic minds that helps people to reinterpret the world in a way that makes better sense. She brought better ways of thinking, learning, and engaging with tech. She also took the most fantastic photographs of her Icelandic ponies. Weev is a Literal Nazi, known troll and destroyer of lives. While he did spend time in jail when he shouldn’t have, he is a trash human who delights in manipulating and gaslighting women. Despite his known status as the owner of a swastika tattoo, he still gets a pass from EFF. He just gets called ‘controversial’ before he’s mentioned. How shit a person does someone have to be before it outweighs their ‘value’ to the tech community? It seems like we haven’t reached that limit yet, and I honestly doubt we ever will.

(If you want to read in Kathy’s own words what being a victim of harassment is like, her farewell essay Trouble at Koolaid Point is the place to go to get some understanding and to get angry.)

I struggle to support EFF and their ‘free speech’ mantra. Yes, freedom of expression is important and necessary element of a free society. The right to be critical and speak out against oppressive organisations needs to be safe from prosecution and censorship. However, EFF push the freedom of speech line too far and take it to mean freedom of any speech on any platform. Recently The Verge published an article about twitter possibly trialling anti-harassment filters. EFF came out swinging against these policies, decrying censorship, or possible future use of censorship. This, at a tool that is being used to stop anti-semitic abuse. Last time I checked, hate speech and free speech were different things.

Funny how EFF stay bone silent when women are driven from platforms like twitter by harassing behaviour, but take steps to try and curb that harassment and they begin speaking about some kind of bizarre case of trickledown censorship. If you take that kind of line it means that we can’t ever do anything about neonazis or misogynists, and their victims get to continue to be victims for some imaginary ‘greater good’ reason. C’mon, people. I’m pretty sure we can have anti-harassment policies and still be firmly in support of freedom of speech. Abused and harassed people shouldn’t have to endure suffering for your ideology. If they do, your ideology is harmful and toxic.

It seems the mere mention of tools that support and encourage marginalised people to be a part of the tech industry incites a frothing flame war from the privileged. Mention a Code of Conduct or Anti Harassment policy or any kind of diverse speaker or employment strategy, and you will be met with a bunch of people angry that they don’t get to run around the net like naughty children anymore. Yes, there are consequences to your words. Yes, the internet is real life, it always has been.

It seems like these tech freedom organisations aren’t so much about liberty or freedom but are designed to support the status quo. When you support the stories of men who abuse and hate to the point of idolisation, you are doing so at the expense of the people they have hurt and will continue to hurt if unchecked. This apparently seems to be secondary to the all-important ‘freedom of information’ or ‘freedom to privacy’ or ‘freedom of speech’ that these organisations champion. As long as they have the right to say and do anything without any repercussions, they’re happy.

Unfortunately I don’t have any answers. The organisations who are doing internet freedom work are also the ones who are idolising and absolving the various hateful actions of men. It all adds up to build a pattern of anti-women rhetoric and it’s certainly one that makes me feel absolutely unwelcome. It stops feeling like it’s very much about freedom or privacy. It’s certainly not about the freedom and privacy of those who a typically and historically stripped of it (minorities, women, LGBTI or people living with disability).

This was a difficult piece to write. Not because of the subject matter, but because there is so much subject matter that it’s difficult to know where to stop. I have watched women be driven from tech and driven from their homes this year thanks to the harassment they have received, and I see organisations like EFF and Wikileaks being complicit or outright wooing their harassers. If you’re a woman in tech, you soak in this environment every day. It’s not special and over time it stops being particularly outrageous. But it never stops being disappointing, angering or horrible.

Why stay? Because despite all of this stuff. Despite the misogyny, the threats, the abuse and the torrents of shit, there’s some truly wonderful and amazing things that can be done with tech. It has such a beautiful and unlimited potential and it can and does bring so much good to people’s lives. Misogynists don’t and never will deserve to win. So I look to stay here and dig my feet in and be loud and fight while I can.

TPPA – The Monster in our future

(This post was originally written for OnTheLeftNZ.com.)

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is big. Really big. Like a big sleeping super secret behemoth that will soon extend its tentacles outwards from its slumbering location and take a stranglehold on us and 11 other countries around the world. Once it’s in place we won’t be able to do anything about it. And the scary thing is we’re not even supposed to know what’s going on until after it emerges from its watery depths, in control of far more than any normal trade agreement has the right to control.

If you ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about your concerns, you get brushed off. Like say, wanting to know why it’s so secret to NZ citizens, or why the leaked info we have about the Copyright and IP chapter is so harsh, or why health officials who are predicting this will be a huge and expensive blow to PHARMAC are being ignored. If you manage to ask, you tend to get one very dismissive answer back: “It’s International trade, this is how it works, you wouldn’t understand.”

It’s true that I’m not and never have been the chief negotiator for New Zealand in an international trade deal, so there probably is an awful lot about the TPPA and the international trade process that I don’t understand. However, from listening to experts who do, I’m piecing together a picture that says I should still be very concerned about what is happening here. We all should.

The TPPA is not a ‘normal’ international trade agreement

Most trade agreements are bilateral trade agreements. New Zealand has a bunch of these already. The thing that’s different about the TPPA is that it’s a multilateral agreement. Essentially the USA has decided instead of expending the horrendous amount of effort and time to set up heaps of bilateral agreements, it’ll just bundle a whole lot of countries all together and get them all out of the way in one big whack.

It’s a strategy that’s taken over six years to get anywhere, because the odd thing about getting a whole lot of countries in a room together with different goals, cultural values and desires from trade? They’re going to find it pretty tricky to agree.

From leaked documents (the latest ones here: https://wikileaks.org/tpp-ip2/), we can get a pretty good sense of what’s happened, who’s agreeing (or disagreeing) to what. But we only find this information out afterwards, and only if we’re lucky enough to get a leak this round.

The secrecy around trade agreements is apparently necessary in order to help broker the agreements, and it is something we have experienced in previous trade agreements. However, the TPPA isn’t completely secret – certain parties with a vested interest are able to view, comment and influence the content of the agreement. These parties aren’t the parliaments, social services or citizens of the participating countries, they’re corporations (predominantly US-based) who stand to make a profit. So, Disney, for example. Or representatives from the tobacco industry.

Of the 29 chapters in the TPPA, only five are related to what usually goes into a trade document – tariffs and the like. The rest are related to things like labour laws, IP and copyright and a whole lot of other things, stuff that it’s usually left up to the countries themselves to legislate. Proponents of the TPPA say this is just what modern trade agreements look like, and that we should expect to sacrifice a few things here and there in order to get access to the sweet, sweet, international export market. I think that allowing the US to have a stranglehold on New Zealand law isn’t worth the few coins it’ll get us.

The TPPA is not ‘free trade’

There’s this idea that trade, and especially free trade, are things that we want. And yeah, New Zealand needs things and other countries have them, so it’s a good idea for us to trade to get those things. Free trade is a term to describe when all the little tariffs and fees for getting our product into the desired country get lifted. For example, New Zealand beef and dairy into say, the US. If we set up a free trade agreement with the US, those pesky fees could disappear, and it could mean better profits for New Zealand and New Zealand’s dairy farmers.

The thing is the US already has a really intense dairy industry. There are a lot of protections and subsidies in federal and state law to make sure local farmers can run at a profit while maintaining low prices that consumers want. Agricultural farmers in the US have enjoyed protections going back to the 1920s and still remain pretty chummy with the people in Washington who make decisions about these things.

Any removal of tariffs on New Zealand imports of dairy or beef will be met with heavy lobbying resistance from US farmers whose profits would be under threat. It’s just not a thing that is very likely, no matter how hard we push for it. The States don’t need our product and it’d actively hurt their existing markets to give it to us. I haven’t seen a lot of discussion around this (mostly because I follow the copyright branch more closely), but it seems like access to the US market is New Zealand’s number one reason for chasing the TPPA, and it’s a lofty and highly unlikely one.

Copyright and IP

Corporate interests are using their influence over the TPPA to push for harsher copyright laws, claiming that this will encourage innovation and the creation of new content. There is no evidence that any of the proposed changes to IP and copyright reform will have a positive effect on creators – only corporate pockets.

The changes that are proposed include extension to copyright (meaning works will stay in copyright and out of the public domain for longer), compulsory DRM (that annoying stuff that is supposed to make it harder to steal, but just makes using legitimate products more horrible) and will put a lot of pressure on ISPs to be the gatekeepers of their users. This could affect our access to streaming services (geoblocking), as well as the overall privacy of users online.

New Zealand was due to have a copyright review last year, but this has been indefinitely delayed until we know what we’ll have to agree to under the TPPA.

New Zealand has stood against some steps of the copyright and IP chapters. Parallel importing would be incredibly unpopular to lose. However, there’s very real concern that pressures from the US combined with the tasty carrot of other chapters of the TPPA will mean New Zealand will sign anyway.

Other consequences

Because this deal is so big, so far-reaching, and with very little recourse left open to us once it is signed, it’s difficult to predict just what the consequences will be. There’s a lot to be concerned about, like how New Zealand’s government could be held accountable by an private international court if we make laws that are seen to cut into a company’s profits.

That’s right. We can be sued for making laws that would benefit New Zealanders if a company decides that law will affect their profits. Say, plain packaged cigarettes.

What can we do?

Since all this is happening in secret behind closed doors it’s hard to know what we can do. It’s even harder when you try to voice your concerns but are met with the same dismissive ‘you wouldn’t understand’ answer. It is tricky to keep the balance of all the chapters, all the countries and the dynamics and possible effects this agreement will have on us and the world.

With the TPPA composing 40% of the world’s economic wealth, this isn’t something we can fall asleep and wait for. This monster is coming, so perhaps we should sharpen our wordblades to try and disarm it.

The TPPA is ambling ever closer to its conclusion, and as it does so it is shaping up to look like a super terrible deal for New Zealand on all sides.

Nationwide protests happened today against the TPPA. To keep up to date with the latest info, http://www.itsourfuture.org.nz/ is the best resource.