The damage of diet culture

Happy new year, readers! It’s that time again, when the tinsel and Christmas jumpers have vanished from the shops, to be replaced by a range of items designed to make you hate your body. Lycra, dumbbells, kettlebells, diet pills, skinny tea, diet books and magazines, protein powders. To turn on the TV or open Facebook is to be bombarded by images of skinny, muscled humans advertising weight loss programmes. Just like the relentless fake-happy-clappy magic-of-Christmas advertising onslaught since October, there is no escape. And this writer is having none of it.

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Farewell, Facebook

It’s well past lunchtime on Thursday, December 27 and I’m still in my dressing gown. Isn’t Christmas great? Tea and biscuits beside me,  I’ve  just submitted my first Mayo News column of the year (toxic January diet culture, I’m coming for you next week), and am remembering, as I do fortnightly, how much I enjoy writing and how little of it I do for fun, these days. 
I’m now in my sixth year of writing for the Mayo News and I will never not be grateful to the team there for the opportunity they gave me in 2014, particularly Edwin McGreal, Michael Duffy and the late Neill O’Neill. Somehow they thought that the ramblings they spotted here and on my various social media platforms were worth encouraging, and as a result, for over five years I have had a reason to sit down and do what I enjoy more than anything else. It is a privilege and one I never take for granted.
The turn of the year is always a time for reflection and also, for forming new habits and ditching some old ones. My attempts at new year’s resolutions are usually pretty feeble, but there is a common theme every year, and that is to attempt to spend less time online. Earlier in 2018, I made the decision to mostly quit Twitter in an attempt to claw back some time for other stuff. It is a decision I have not regretted, despite sorely missing the interaction and learning I had enjoyed on the platform for years. I still use it to auto-share blog content there, though I rarely engage. 
But online addiction does not relinquish its hold easily, so it’s time to cast off some more of the chains, and this time, it’s Facebook that needs to go.
2018 has been quite a year. It was a watershed year for women, and in Ireland, the repealing of the Eighth Amendment was one of the most historically, socially and politically significant events we will ever encounter in this country. Much of it played out on Facebook. Eight months after the campaign (mostly) concluded, its effects are still being felt on a social level, but also on a very personal level by many. World politics has been more tumultous than ever, with the Brexit storm raging, Trump breeding hate, and wars and genocides on enormous scales that barely merit a mention in the mainstream media.
Closer to home, social media is once again playing a strong role in raising awareness of social injustices such as evictions, and providing a platform for right-wing reactionaries to hijack people-powered movements. Closer to home again, outrage on local issues often trumps logic or accuracy of information.  And always, Facebook plays a pivotal role by providing the platform but absolving itself of all moral obligations or responsibility.
Personally, it was a challenging and relentlessly busy year. Yet I’m pretty sure that had I not spent considerable amounts of my spare time, scarce as it was, scrolling through my phone minding other people’s business (or being typically unable to resist a good argument!) I might have have felt a lot better mentally for it.
The conversations that take place on these platforms are simultaneously informative and misinformative, passionate and vicious, progressive and regressive, enlightening and worrying, but always mentally taxing. Alongside the nuggets of learning and food for thought, the mundane is celebrated, and most terrifyingly of all, crimes against grammar continue to mushroom. And still we scroll, and scroll, and scroll.
This year I will revisit the New Year’s resolution I make in some shape or form every year. And that is to put my time to better use, by creating, writing, volunteering, spending more time with loved ones. Planning rather than drifting, and re-introcuding some discipline. So the scrolling needs to stop. The biggest casualty of my online addiction (there is no point in denying this reality) has been my ability to focus and concentrate. In 2018, I read three books. Three. Yet I probably scrolled about ten miles on Facebook using my thumb. What a miserable tally and what an absolute waste of time.
A bit like diet culture, Facebook now feels toxic.It breeds negativity, gives a platform to liars, promotes division and judgement of others, and it thieves hours and hours of time that could be put to better use. I have always advocated the power of social media as a learning tool (and without it, I would not be in the job I am today, nor I would I be lucky enough to know a lot of brilliant people), but as of December 31, I’m done with the Big F.
I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg will lose much sleep over this, but I am far from alone in deserting the platform, when people who bought so much into these  platforms and embraced the technology early are leaving in their droves, it says something. I am tired of implicitly supporting the bad behaviour and moral bankruptcy of these tech giants by maintaining a presence. I am also tired of having my private data commoditised – something that never bothered me in the past, but I am getting quite elderly, odd and cantankerous now, so he can sod off.
I’m well aware that many people quietly depart the platform without feeling the need to write about it, but it was my friend Nick McGivney who inspired me to actually bite the bullet by posting about his own departure, and maybe this will provide food for thought for others too. Also documenting something like this means that you have to stick to it and I need all the help I can get to keep my resolve.
Inspired by Nick, a group of us plans to write a letter or two to each other throughout the year instead. Anyone wishing to stay in contact can get me by emailing thecailinrua@gmail.com. For now, I’ll continue to man a feeble attempt at an Instagram account, though given the narcicissm on that platform, I doubt it will be for much longer. And of course, anyone that knows me can pick up the phone or knock on the door. Because no matter how useful technology is, nothing will ever beat the warmth and civility a face-to-face conversation.
Thanks for the memories, Mark. Now, here’s to making some 3D ones instead.

Twitter, it’s time

Dear Anne-Marie, you have been on Twitter for

6 years, 8 months, 7 days

(since 30 May 2011)

So says “Twiage”, an app which tells you just how long its been since the last day you didn’t take part in an argument online.

I jest, but …

That duration is inaccurate in my case. I’ve actually been a Twitter user since early 2008, where it seemed like the next logical step after discussion forums. So that’s ten years in total a twitter user, with a brief hiatus in 2011. That’s a story for another post; but my second inception has felt like a lifetime in itself.

And today is my last day. 

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Don’t forget to smell the roses

May, for me is an odd month. Traditionally the time of year when the flowers appear, the languid summer evenings kick in and the sense of rebirth is strong; in all of the loveliness, there is a bittersweet pang. It’s a month of anniversaries, laced with memories of loved ones lost. The sense of time passing, like water flowing, punctuated only by the numbers on the calendar, flicking by faster each year. This year, there are some significant anniversaries. Like a birthday or a wedding date remembered, only a different type of milestone. Though none less significant.

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2017 – A Pace Odyssey

Greetings, readers of this blog. Real life has been so, so busy of late that blogging has really taken a back seat.

Funnily, when I moved back to the west, I somehow imagined that life would be much less busy; that I would have more downtime. I even harboured quaint notions of writing a book. However, that’s looking more like a pipe dream at present, and in fact the opposite has proven to be the case. Continue reading

ASIST Training – the aftermath

A couple of months ago I wrote about my decision to enrol for the ASIST training workshop. Devised by Living Works to enable people to deliver “suicide first aid”, the course is delivered in Ireland by the HSE (National Office for Suicide Prevention), co-ordinated by the HSE Regional Resource Officers for Suicide Prevention and most importantly, it’s available free of charge to everyone, though places are limited.

At the time, suicide was in the news (even more than usual), and it got me to thinking; if the State is going to continue to fail people who are in immediate danger of suicide – and there is no disputing that it isthen the rest of us had better damn well start equipping ourselves to deal with it, and fast.

My reasoning? Once upon a time, I told someone I was close to that I felt so low that I didn’t want to be alive any more. I can still see the look of panic in her eyes, but despite her best intentions I felt even more hopeless and alone after the conversation ended. Late that night I put on my coat, sneaked out and sat numbly for a long time in the cold by the river, weighing up the pros and the cons of being alive. I decided that the pros were few and far between and the world would probably be a better place for everyone else without me in it. But for some reason or another, I decided to go home and sleep on it. The next day brought a different conversation with someone else, with a far more positive outcome. However, many others have left their homes in a similar state of mind and never returned.

Fast forward a decade and a half, to a time when we have realised that far more people than we realise have experienced depression, mental distress or have felt suicidal. There is far less shame in talking about it now, but many of us just don’t know how. We’re afraid of putting someone under pressure, of burdening someone else with our problems, or if we’re asked for help, we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, or not knowing where to get professional help.

Thinking about my well-meaning friend, and putting myself in her shoes, I realised that even  having felt suicidal myself in the past, all these years later if I were placed in a situation where someone told me they were suicidal, I still wouldn’t have a clue how to deal with it. Neither would I know where to look for help if faced with an emergency. Over the two days spent attending ASIST, I learned something very valuable. The help is within each of us.

ASIST

Though the HSE offers a number of workshops around the topic of suicide prevention (and I’m sure others do too), covering general awareness of and alertness to the signs of suicide, ASIST is an intervention workshop, which means that it’s designed to equip you to intervene in a situation where there is a strong and immediate risk of suicide and ensure that the person at risk is kept “safe for now”, while putting in place supports to help them through this crisis period. The workshop also trains participants to seek a shared understanding of reasons for suicide and reasons for living. For some, this can be as dramatic as “talking someone down” from a dangerous position; for others, it can be interrupting the planning process or planting uncertainty about the decision and helping them to focus on reasons for living.

So, having completed the two days’ training, what’s the verdict?

Well, first and foremost, it does what it says it will. I can confidently say I would feel far better equipped to intervene in such a situation now than I would have this time last week. Basically what the training does is:

  • attempt to explore –  and subsequently remove – your own biases and attitudes towards suicide, so that they don’t influence the intervention.
  • It gives you a clear “pathway” or model to have that conversation with someone, bearing in mind that such conversations can be long, circular and challenging.
  • It does not focus on long-term problem solving; merely a “safe for now” approach,
  • and at all times, it acknowledges the need to protect the wellbeing of the person who is intervening.

The course is two full days, though they are shorter than average with lots of breaks and plenty of tea and coffee. We had two trainers and broke into two smaller groups of about 12 people. The sessions are mostly interactive – and while many people (myself included) shy away from group work and role play in sessions like these, it’s absolutely essential to contribute, or at least to witness, if you’re to feel confident working with the model. And you will. And it’s not all doom and gloom – there are plenty of laughs too!

One incredibly important thing I felt ASIST did was  was to acknowledge that not everyone who dies by suicide has experienced mental health issues. This is a point I feel is frequently lost. It also acknowledged the effect of alcohol on our mood and decision-making. And it also acknowledged that as a caregiver, even if you intervene to keep someone “safe for now”, you may not be in a position to provide further care, and that is fine – you can seek assistance or hand over responsibility if you need, once you have intervened.

Given my own experiences I was apprehensive about attending, and make no mistake about it, the two days are tiring and emotionally draining. If you’ve recently lost someone to suicide, or felt suicidal in the past, or are feeling unwell in the present, it might not be the best environment for you. So bear that in mind, but on the other hand, learning to work your way through the model and equipping yourself with this knowledge and confidence is empowering too.

I won’t go into much more detail here, apart from to say that I would highly recommend attending this training. It’s available widely – and for free – through the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention along with a lot of other related courses – check them out here. You’ll need to contact your local Regional Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention to get the latest local info. And please feel free to drop me a line or comment below with any questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

For those based near me in Mayo, the next ASIST training takes place in the Ballina on Tuesday 31st May and Wednesday 1st June – contact Mary for more information. 

Suicide first-aid – a useful life skill? HSE ASIST training …

Following my last post over on Facebook, I’ve just registered with the HSE to complete their ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) course. Though not highly publicised, it’s a free, two-day interactive workshop in suicide first-aid which trains participants to reduce the immediate risk of suicide and increases the support for a person at risk.

ASIST

The issue of  our high suicide rates is always simmering away in the background, but it feels like recently, frustration with our mental health services, and increasingly, the difficulty in accessing treatment is starting to reach boiling point, as more and more people tell their story. There was the horrific death of Caoilte O’Broin, whose family had so desperately tried to get him the help he needed, only to meet frustration and closed doors at every turn, the tragic death of Stephen Byrne, and of course the dreadful loss a while back of Sharon Grace and her little girls, not to mention the loss of Una Butler‘s family. And of course Bressie’s impassioned appeal to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children to address the “epidemic of our generation”. I could go on; these are just a handful of examples.

Dealing with service issues can be fraught, frustrating and there are many problems to be navigated, not least the question of the involvement of families in mental health treatment, and the terrifying barriers to treatment that exists when a person, such as Caoilte, has a dual diagnosis.

I therefore feel, that for as long as we live in a country where equity of access to well-resourced, timely, affordable, holistic, compassionate, recovery-led mental health treatments is at present, a distant aspiration, we need to start equipping ourselves to better deal with the reality around us. That reality is that approximately 500 people annually in this country lose their lives to suicide. While our government has an obligation to step up to the plate, I can’t – won’t – accept that there is nothing we ourselves can do as a society to try and change this.

Prevention strategies have their place when it comes to addressing suicide; however, we can all sit at any point on the mental health spectrum at any time, and sometimes, it’s emergency intervention that’s needed. While we have become very, very good at telling people in distress that they should “seek help” or “talk to someone”, if someone did exactly that and told you they were considering killing themselves, would you know what to do? Would you feel confident you could help?

I know I wouldn’t.

According to the HSE, the ASIST workshop encourages honest, open and direct talk about suicide as part of preparing people to provide suicide first aid, and helps participants understand what help and support people in crisis might need. But it aims to instil a confidence in dealing with crisis situations that may just save a life. ASIST workshop places are limited, they say, therefore preference must be given to participants who are likely to come into contact with someone who is at risk of suicide in their daily lives. Given our current suicide rates, that could be any of us.

See how I got on.

Further Information

  • Training dates: Regular trainings are scheduled around the country – you can find more information on these by contacting your Regional Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention at the following link. http://www.hse.ie/…/resour…/officers_suicide_prevention.html
  • Cost: ASIST training is free. You just need to register in advance.
  • Who can take part? Anyone can partake in ASIST training, but it is particularly suitable for all kinds of caregivers – health workers, teachers, community workers, Gardai, youth workers, volunteers, people responding to family, friends and co-workers. he course can be intense, and it’s not recommended for people who may have lost someone to suicide or have been recently bereaved.

Download the ASIST leaflet 

Other mental health training resourses from the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention