It’s not Mental Health Awareness week. It’s just January 24th 2015. It’s Saturday. Today is not significant.
I’m on the tube and it’s not very crowded. I move towards the middle bank of seats. As I get on, I hear a high pitched noise being emitted from the bank of seats to my left. I sit down. As I do, a man moves from that side to the seats on my right.
I look to my left to see who made the noise. I can’t tell. It could have been any of the 5 people there I can see. I get out my book. I hear the noise again.
I look. I can’t tell who it is.
We get to the next stop. Someone sits down near whoever is making the occasional strange noise.
Another person moves away from those seats.
Finally I see the guy making the noises. They vary from groaning and a sort of heaving sound to woops and shrieks. He’s youngish I think, curly brown hair, pale skin, kind of a big mouth, open face.
I get panic attacks on the tube. Almost every panic attack I’ve ever had has been on the underground. They feel completely random. Maybe they’re linked to stress levels but I can’t consciously tell. It’s horrific when it happens. I get sweaty and hot and I feel like I’m going to pass out or maybe die. My heart pumps faster, I shake, I can’t breathe. It’s like my whole body descends into mayhem for literally no discernible reason. And the fact that there’s no reason doesn’t make it better. It makes it worse. Because I want to rationalise it but I can’t. I can’t explain it to myself or anyone else.
And when I’ve had panic attacks, when I’m shaking and sweating and pale and clearly not ok, mostly no one says a word to me. Twice people have offered help. But one time I’d already fainted so I’m not sure it counts. And I’ve had significantly more than 2 panic attacks on the underground. But I’m not having one today.
So it’s Saturday and I’m on the tube and a third person has moved away from this guy and all I can think is that for every person who moves away from him, I want to move closer. I don’t know his mental state. I don’t know how much he comprehends of the people moving. Does he know they’re moving away from him? He might have Tourette’s and have perfect comprehension of what’s going on around him but find himself unbearably trapped behind tics and noises and overwhelming compulsions. Or he might have something much more serious than that and not have any idea that the people on the train are made so uncomfortable by his presence.
Why is it so uncomfortable? Why have we cultivated this culture where we run away from someone who is different, feeling tense and scared until we walk away to sit two blocks of seats down the carriage where we can breathe a sigh of relief?
I think about it and I wonder if I feel uncomfortable. I don’t think I do.
I think about the people I know who struggle with depression, anxiety, addiction, mania, anorexia, low self esteem…I think about what they look like when you can see those things manifesting themselves and I think about when you can’t. Arguably, that’s more sinister. Because you never really know if someone is OK or not. We have no idea what’s going on behind the faces of all those people we see every day. The ones we talk to and the ones we don’t. But mental illnesses and struggles are not contagious. Why are we so scared when we see them? What instinct is it that tells us to be afraid?
I wonder if it’s because they’re too different to how people see themselves. We are, as a species, notoriously afraid of things that are “other”. Or maybe it’s the opposite – maybe they’re too close and people are afraid that if they look they’ll recognise all too clearly what they see. Perhaps it’s too painful to admit that the guy we call crazy is only one bad day, one life step, one change away from where we are.
There are things that I really don’t like. I don’t like sick, for example. If you’re puking, I’m not going to hold your hair. A 3 year old kid I was looking after had his first ever puking experience from a stomach bug, and when I told my sister about it I said “I was really good and only leapt away from him twice.” She said she was proud, but only after she’d laughed at me. I know why I don’t like sick. It smells bad and it comes from inside you and I have a visceral reaction to it that makes me feel like I’m going to be sick too. Maybe fear of mental illness is the same as that? I don’t know.
It’s a bit more crowded now. I move a few seats closer. Just in case. But by the time I’ve moved through the people and sat down again I realise he’s gone.
I wish I’d had the conviction to move closer more quickly. I wish that I moved when the first person did, not after the third. I wish for him not to have anything too serious, but I also wish that he doesn’t know that he’s the reason people moved on the train.
I’m not afraid of other people’s problems when I’m OK. I’m afraid that there’ll be no one to help me when I’m struggling. I’m afraid of people turning away because I’m sad and can’t make myself be happy and they don’t want to see me when I’m feeling like that. I’m afraid of becoming disconnected from everyone because they’re scared of me. I’m scared of being the person people move away from and I’m terrified of not understanding why I’ve been left alone.
I hope that if I’m in a situation like this again that I can act with kindness, that I can look at the person, whatever his or her struggle, without staring but without seeing through them, like I’d look at any stranger. I hope that I can smile at them without it being forced or patronising. Like I’d smile at any stranger. I hope that I can manage not to define people by the struggles they face, internal or external. I wish, perhaps naïvely, for a society in which, when we see people struggling we move closer to them to help, motivated by compassion, not closing our eyes or running further away because we’re inexplicably afraid.
The ever-important context bit – I’m allergic to alcohol. It comes up a lot as a conversation topic because we live in a culture where drinking is a huge part of socialising and people get weird when you tell them you really won’t be having even one drink. It comes up a lot on dates because we rely on alcohol to loosen us up and get through that initial god-help-me-this-is-so-fricking-awkward-why-won’t-it-end stage. I went on a first date with a guy and the not drinking thing came up.
The next day I got these messages, apropos of nothing. We weren’t chatting about my socially unacceptable allergy, just out of the blue this arrived:
For those of you wondering what comes after what the size of my iPhone screen allows in one shot, that last message reads:
Now slow down with all this rape talk. Its putting me off a bit….It’s totally not rape if you agree to drink it.
Unsurprisingly we haven’t been on a second date.
(Side note: At this point I ask you to excuse my misspelling of rohypnol. It’s not a word the iPhone likes, whichever way you spell it and I wasn’t really focused on that element of the conversation. That being said, grammar and spelling are always important.)
So this was December 23rd and I’ve been thinking about it since then. Wondering whether what I said was enough, if I should further explain why I feel so strongly about the situation. I’ve gone over and over it, wondering if I’m making too much of a stupid comment, doubting my gut instincts and then wondering why I’m tarring myself with the “hysterical woman” brush I hate so much. So before I change my mind, I’d like to speak it.
If I were brave enough, if I thought it would do any good, if I thought it would change anything, this is what I’d like to say:
I wanted to talk to you about the last time we chatted. I thought about doing it at the time, but I didn’t think I’d say the right things and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to say anything at all or if I would be wasting my time.
I don’t know why you thought it was OK to make a rape joke. We even had a conversation on our date about how a guy had made rape jokes on a previous first date I’d been on and how unacceptable I found it and how it was weird and a turn off for me. So that’s why I thought you just didn’t want to see me again and said “if you didn’t want to see me again you could have just said so.” Because I couldn’t think of a reason why you would decide that was a good line of conversation, why you would think that after making those jokes, I’d want to see you again.
Aside from that, there’s the much more important fact that you don’t really know me. Let’s be clear – I don’t have a blanket ban on joke topics. Adrienne Truscott had a whole hour of jokes about rape, naked, and did it so brilliantly, making such a blatantly necessary point that she won an award for it.
But you met me once. You don’t know me. You don’t know what might have happened to me and yes that’s true of everything before you know someone and you could put your foot in it with anything…but rape? Really? I made it pretty clear that I wasn’t finding it funny but you kept going with it anyway. And maybe I’m reading too much into things, but why choose to ask me if I’m allergic to rohypnol – a drug pretty much entirely known for its use for rape? Why not any of the other hundreds of drugs you could have chosen that don’t have rape connotations?
I don’t think anything is off limits to joke about on a stage providing it is done to make a point, with at least some semblance of an original take and in the right way. I also think this no limits thing applies to long-standing couples or old friends who know each other well enough to understand what issues really mean to each other. Context is everything right? But you continuing to make light of the idea of raping me after I’d clearly expressed discomfort…? Somewhat aptly, forcing the joke on me anyway? To me that is horrible and insensitive at best.
That’s really not a great best.
You seemed kind of OK when we met and maybe it was just a bad judgment call on your part. But even when you apologised you just said you were “sorry for making me feel uncomfortable”…but you didn’t say you were sorry for making jokes about raping me. Like the problem is me being upset, not you making the joke. Just another woman overreacting to a harmless joke about rape right?
No. Not right. I’m not overreacting and it isn’t harmless. Because it’s indicative of a wider attitude, that these things are totally fine to casually joke about in any context. And to me at least, it’s indicative of what might be at your core. Do you also make racist jokes? How about the occasional homophobic pop? I’m speculating of course, but suddenly these things that I loathe, these ideas that stand against equality, that silence people or belittle them or their experiences, their very real, hateful and violating experiences…they’re brought into the light and mocked and I have to tell you, they’re not funny. Rape is not funny. And your apology isn’t good enough.
What you should be apologising for is the fact that you persisted with a line of conversation that went beyond disrespectful and became creepy, bordering on threatening. What you should be apologising for is your attitude to something that is a horrible ordeal, that more women (and occasionally men) face than should ever have to. Oh, what’s that? It was “obviously a joke”?
Of course! Because the way to make me laugh is to talk about a horrific violation that you could commit if only I’d agree to take rohypnol. You’re right. That is just *hilarious*.
Someone pointed out to me that you clearly have no actual intention to rape me. I know that. I’m not an idiot. It was a bad joke in poor taste. But we let casual racism slide and incrementally, without us noticing, it becomes racism. We let casual sexism slide and slowly, without us noticing, it is sexism. We let jokes about rape slide and I dread to think what they actually become.
There were 22,116 recorded rapes in England and Wales from June 2013 – June 2014. This is 29% higher than the year before, despite a general fall in crime by approximately 16%. This could well be down to people feeling more able to come forward and report that they’ve been a victim of rape, but that’s still a shocking statistic. And those are just the ones that are reported. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29642455)
In 2005 the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a study called the National Crime Victimization Study. The results showed that approximately 2/3 of victims / survivors (however you want to think of it) of rape knew the rapist.
My worry is that maybe you’re the kind of person who one day won’t take no for an answer, who’ll think that some women are asking for it, who victim blames and who thinks casually misogynistic thoughts and secretly (or not so secretly) believes those thoughts to be true. My concern is that if we were together you’d expect me to put out when you want it even if I don’t, you’d ignore it when I’m uncomfortable because it suits you. You’d apologise for how I feel, not what you’ve said or done. You won’t open your mind and reevaluate your opinions or why you have them. You won’t question the effect society and ingrained attitudes to women have on you. You won’t ever fully respect me or how I might feel about something.
You said something on our date that made that ringing alarm bell thing happen for me. You said that women are physically built less funny than men. I don’t think that’s true because boobs are clearly hilarious and also because it’s a ridiculous thing to say as a generalisation. Ultimately there are lots of reasons why you might try to veil your “women aren’t as funny as men” opinions when faced with a feminist woman who does comedy. But I guess that conversation should have tipped me off. In at least one societally reinforced area, you think women are less able than men. In your eyes that must make us less than men. And that means you won’t respect us as much as you should. You’ll be surprised when we succeed but not pleasantly. You’ll enjoy it less – not more – because it proves you wrong.
I’ve done that thing that I do where I’ve over analysed something someone has done. I know that. But my gut instincts are pretty good about people and they’re telling me I’m onto something here. I can’t ignore that. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could comfortably see you again. Because you made a rape joke at my expense. Because you showed something true about yourself when you thought it was safe. Because you made it not safe for me.
So for future reference: rape jokes? Not OK. Apologies? Need sincerity. And women? Women are your equals and deserve your respect. It shouldn’t have to be said. It shouldn’t be allowed to slip under the radar and it hasn’t slipped under mine. You’re 35. You have no excuse. Grow up and start treating us better.