Writing through deadlines

During the week a colleague put a call out for tips on how to advise students who are gripped with anxiety in the lead-up to deadlines for written assignments.

This post is pure hypocrisy, because this is something I still struggle with myself. But I can offer some suggestions based on what has worked for me.

There’s some suggestion that students today struggle more with this than past students. I’m not really surprised by this. I went to high school in the 90s, in the aftermath of three events: the introduction of HECS which created intense competition for scarce places at the ‘best’ universities; the intensification of assessment in new Victorian Certificate of Education, where your final mark rested on your performance on three assessment tasks; and the recession of the early 1990s, when youth unemployment was above 20%, making it seem like academic performance was no guarantee of a job at the end of it all.

The discourse on fragile young people tends to emphasise the emergence of the risk society, helicopter parenting, and ‘cotton-wool kids’, and no doubt there’s truth in those claims.But fragility also comes from the intensified expectations placed on moments of assessment — and the frankly terrible advice to ‘begin with the end in mind’, never losing sight of a goal that may be years down the track, rather than focusing on the ‘next action’.

There is a discourse of resilience that emphasises ‘grit’, which I think gets heard as being unemotional and unrelenting about setbacks, and that just becomes another expectation. The superego gets the upper hand over the ego and the id; rumination takes the place of action; and the end result is panic. Once panic sets in, it’s nearly impossible to write.

Panicked students make demands for emotional labour that, for subject coordinators, probably call to mind the advice to use a broomstick to assist a drowning person — because otherwise they will latch onto you and you’ll both sink and drown.

Similarly, the Lifeline operator training emphasises containment rather than soothing: managing panic not via reassurance that everything is going to be okay, but by asking the caller to pick the issue they want to focus on, and then addressing that specific issue. This isn’t a cold and unfeeling process — it can be warm and empathetic — but it seeks to avoid rewarding and reinforcing the demand for an outside source of emotional regulation.

I want to mention one last part of the background: the relationship between perfectionism, rumination and paralysis (or depression). In a perfectionist student, the superego is running the show. They’re a smart person for whom thinking has been the solution in the past, but the problem requires action (writing). The more they ruminate, the closer the deadline gets. And by this point, the unconscious mind — the body, where emotions are experienced — has gone from whispering to SHOUTING its anxiety in order to get the attention of the conscious mind. In that state, it is very hard to do the action that is required, because complex tasks benefit from lower arousal.

So these are the steps that have helped me:

  1. Stop trying to ignore how it feels: listen to those feelings instead. There’s a short guided meditation called RAIN that goes through four steps: Recognise, Allow, Inquire, Nourish (or the more Buddhist practice of Non-Identification — this is happening but it’s not me).  As soon as you have heard them, they will stop shouting.
  2. Re-establish your routines for bodily self-care. Go and do the grocery shopping. Cook yourself a meal. Go for a walk in the sunlight (or in the rain). Go to bed on time.
  3. ‘Throw away the stick.’ This is advice I got from the wonderful therapist Carol-Ann Allen in Melbourne. Stop using this piece of work to beat yourself up.
  4. COMMUNICATE. When I was in undergrad I had somehow picked up how annoying my lecturers found it to receive special consideration requests and the various demands for emotional labour that came with them. So when I got stuck, I stayed silent, I didn’t ask for help, I didn’t see a GP or a counsellor. It wasn’t until I got kicked out of uni that I finally learned how to seek help. For students, the thing to remember here is that your lecturers have worries of their own and they don’t give a damn if you need more time, so long as you’ve submitted the paperwork. You need to send a just-the-facts e-mail — this is happening, I’m seeing the counselling service about it, I will submit a request for special consideration, can I please have x additional days deadline.
  5. GET HELP. If you can get an appointment, a student counselling service is a better option than your GP. The GP is going to give you a note that postpones the deadline, but probably isn’t going to help much with the panic. A counsellor will still give you the letter, but also help you address the panic and come up with a plan to get it done. For subject coordinators: there is an issue here that universities are not addressing at all well, which is that students with social anxiety/social phobia often have enormous trouble with the first step — communicating that there’s a problem and they need help. At a bare minimum counselling services should take web bookings.
  6. Write the fucking essay. You know how to do this. You’ve done it before. What did you do the last time? Remember that, and restart the process. Sure, it may be a scramble and the end result may be scrappy, but you’ll get it done.
  7. Most important step: continue to seek counselling and to build your repertoire of self-care practices after the essay is submitted, or this is just going to happen again.

I want to close with a wonderful quote from an essay by Prof Elspeth Probyn in the Affect Theory Reader that I re-read whenever I’m going ten rounds with the cursor.

I lectured my body sternly, but it wouldn’t listen to reason. To my mind, it was just the pressure of a deadline that was making me ill… It dawned on me that I was experiencing the terror of not being equal to the interest of my subject. The idea that I would not interest readers triggered what seemed to be a mixture of fear and shame.

There is a shame in being highly interested in something and unable to convey it to others, to evoke the same degree of interest in them and to convince them that it is warranted. The risk of writing is always that you will fail to interest or engage readers, Disappointment in yourself looms large when you can’t quite get the words right or get the argument across. Simply put, it’s the challenge of making the writing equal to the subject being written about. (Probyn, 2010[2005])

Writing is fundamentally about vulnerability. Thus, another part of my writing routine is to re-watch this lovely TEDx talk by Brené Brown, from before she got all Oprahfied.


Country Zero

This week a study of the phylogenetics of the early AIDS epidemic in America was published. Nature reported this as ‘clearing the name of Patient Zero‘, the Canadian flight attendant Gaetan Dugas named as such in publicity for Randy Shilts’ book, And The Band Played On.

I’ve never been able to get more than ten pages into that book — each time I’m put off by the heavy-handed journalistic writing style and tactics. I’ve heard the argument that Shilts simply misunderstood Dugas’ study participant code, patient ‘O’ for Oscar:

In fact, Dugas’ moniker “Patient Zero” was actually a misinterpretation of the identifier “Patient O” used in a dataset for an AIDS cluster study centered in California. Patient O was meant to signify that he was a patient from Outside California. (source)

But I have trouble buying that because it is the most journalistic thing on earth to want to nominate a villain, to give him a name and a face and a story.

As I understand it, nobody few in the gay community thought Gaetan Dugas was the literal starting point of the AIDS epidemic, and some have now asked ‘how can this be news?’ It’s news because it contradicts accepted facts about the epidemic in the mainstream news audience. I’ve seen some very rosy assessments of the study. Mark Harrington wrote:

It’s hard to overestimate the damage that the “Patient Zero” myth has done to expand the hatred and discrimination against gay men for allegedly “starting” AIDS; and probably as well deepening the shame and guilt many PWAs must have felt in the first two decades of the epidemic — many people with HIV still suffer from internal shame or guilt as well as from external stigma and legal, structural, social, and often violently destructive and often fatal discrimination or criminalization; just as Haitians have been blamed for “bringing HIV to the Americas,” or others have been blamed for becoming infected without their knowledge or agency by a new infectious agent. The beauty of Worobey et al.’s paper is that is it combines both human history and a deep reading of the literature with the most modern phylogenetic analyses and synthesizes the work of scores of scientists over the past 35 years first to understand, and then to defeat, AIDS and HIV. This paper represents science as enlightenment, and, one hopes, the truth will set many free from destructive self-blame or social stigma. Let the healing begin.

If HIV stigma teaches us anything, it’s that stigma is not a set of incorrect beliefs that can be rebutted by a clear statement of the facts or by new scientific research findings. People are not just ignorant, they literally cling to falsified beliefs, because those beliefs are the foundation for power relations. It is not the case that myths about homosexuals wilfully spreading the illness followed from the nomination of Dugas at ‘patient zero’; rather, they came first and he was selected as their exemplar.

While the new study lets Dugas off the hook, my concern is that it substitutes Haiti as the ‘country zero’ of the American epidemic. Although the Worobey study describes its methodology as ‘phylogeography’, it falls down in one very big way: it fails to explain why it stops its backward-tracing of the epidemic in Haiti. We know, from research wonderfully summarised in the RadioLab episode also titled ‘Patient Zero‘ that HIV entered the human population at the turn of last century in the Congo. How does it wind up in Haiti?

We could make an educated guess. European powers trafficked African people to Haiti as slaves from the 16th century onwards.  About 22% of Haiti’s population traces their heritage to people kidnapped from Cameroon and the Congo. Second, when Patrice Lumumba negotiated Congolese independence mid-last century, Belgium and America worked hard to destabilise his leadership and disrupt the de-colonization process, inducing a political crisis and a stream of migrants and refugees. Lastly, as Paul Farmer has documented, Haiti itself has grappled with terrible poverty, having been forced to pay reparations to France for loss of property (i.e. slaves) when it declared independence.

There’s another question the study leaves unanswered: why did nobody notice this terrible illness had showed up in America until it started affecting gay men? Answer: because they were white, middle-class men, with access to health care and a political voice. In his essay for Drain, Theodore Kerr undertook a careful tracing of the deaths that were subsequently discovered to have been due to AIDS. When asked what he made of this study, he said first ‘it’s not news’. I was powerfully reminded of this quote from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay on paranoid readings in cultural critique:

Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Pat­ ton, about the probable natural history of HIV . This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the U.S. military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin.

“Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,” she said. “But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things– what would we know then that we don’t already know?” (source)

Before AIDS was re-named, after it was Gay-Related Immune Deficiency or ‘Wrath of God Syndrome’, in the earliest days of the epidemic, it was attributed to the ‘4H’ — homosexuals, Haitians, haemophiliacs, and heroin users. By omitting the question of how HIV ends up in Haiti, we are left with a story as old as public awareness of the epidemic itself. For that reason I don’t share Harrington’s confidence that we’ve beaten stigma; we’ve just reshuffled the characters in the narrative. We’re still looking for a bad guy instead of seeking to understand the system that helped HIV on its journey.

Further reading: Theodore Kerr’s incredible piece on ‘AIDS 1969: HIV, History, and Race‘.

Mark Kenny’s ‘lesson for same-sex couples’

Mark Kenny has an oddly peevish piece in today’s Fairfax papers, headlined ‘Naive campaign against marriage equality plebiscite made some serious miscalculations’.

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Source: Hannah Gadsby (7 Oct 2016)

It fits within a long-standing tradition in which gay people are characterised as infantile, emotional, short-termist, not fully rational — the same treatment accorded to women.

Kenny trots out a very tired set of descriptors. Gay people are naive, unquestioning, gleeful, and unable to assess what’s in our own interests. In need of a sober, rational, white middle-aged middle-class man to explain it all to us.

Despite its obviously self-serving nature – denied publicly but acknowledged privately by senior Labor figures – the opposition’s decision to block the plebiscite, was greeted last Tuesday with universal acclaim by the broad left including the LGBTI community, the ALP’s activist base and that of the Greens.

Mark, sweetie, we fucking know it’s political. We don’t see Labor as our rescuers. We haven’t forgotten how Julia Gillard made exactly the same bargain you describe Turnbull making — trading off support for gay marriage to win the support of her Right wing.

What grates here is the combination of an explanatory tone (“Let’s be clear… What’s more…”) with a fatuous lack of analysis, one that lumps queer people and Labor together as ‘the broad left’ who are in ‘universal acclaim’ of the ALP decision.

Um, have you ever met a lefty, Mark?

The piece excoriates ‘the left’s high-mindedness’ while ignoring the facts of Australian homophobia and transphobia. Kenny dismisses out-of-hand “the inherently unprovable claim that a public plebiscite would unleash a vile tidal-wave such that sexually conflicted and alienated youths would suffer inordinately, and would in some cases take their own lives.” He doubts that “the inevitable discomfort caused by the aforementioned hate-speech would be so profound that it would not be assuaged by the broad condemnation of said hate-speakers by civilised society.”

First of all, all predictions are inherently unprovable at the time they are made. Congratulations, Mark Kenny, you’ve discovered the arrow of time. But you can look at what happened in the past, e.g. the Irish marriage referendum, and connect it up with what we already know about predictors of distress and suicidality. Like I did in this post.

Secondly, to a kid bullied at school using words and phrases taken from the ‘No’ case in a plebiscite — i.e. exactly what is happening to Latinx kids as a result of the Trump campaign — it is no comfort that Turnbull, Shorten and Di Natale take different positions.

Kenny offers a fantasy vision of rational prejudice, where it is possible to calculate whether ‘sexually conflicted and alienated youths’ (what. the. fuck.) suffer inordinately, and to total up the nasty things in one column and the nice things in another and cancel them out to the extent they overlap. (I’m not kidding about this: Kenny refers to it as the ‘balance-of-harm consideration’.) And if people who experience homophobia and transphobia experience more pain and fear than is rational, then we should dismiss that.

To put it mildly, as someone engaged in full-time study of stigma and discrimination, that’s not how this shit works. Vulnerability is not evenly distributed. You can’t average it out across a population and calculate it rationally. People have different life experiences and live in different geographical places, religious communities, remote vs urban settings, etc. These differences pattern their past exposures and sensitivity to discrimination.

We’re not saying every queer kid will be put at risk of suicide: we’re saying we know that some will be. And what Mark Kenny is implicitly arguing is that’s worth trading for same sex marriage. And what the queer community is saying, with near unanimity, is no, we’d rather wait.

Kenny concludes with this: “A lesson for same-sex couples who right now could be further away their goal of legal marriage than they thought a few months back.”

Thanks so much for that, Mark.


Good things


In an earlier post I wrote about wanting to clear my to-do list before leaving Melbourne. However, one new thing wedged itself onto the list and refused to budge: my mother’s enduring cold rage about this post from August last year.

Mum had asked me to let her know whenever I’m leaving the country, so before my trip in December last year, I sent her an e-mail saying I was headed off on holiday, and then moving interstate to start a PhD. I got a two word reply: ‘be well.’ Recently I set off on a trip to Oxford, my first time visiting the UK, and this time I actually called, and got five minutes of liquid nitrogen. Afterwards, I sent an e-mail saying I wasn’t going to do that again, and got a reply saying at some point I’d need to forgive her and not to bother staying in touch.

It was one of those moments of misrecognition that characterise unworkable relationships. I wasn’t seeking to hold anyone accountable for past misdeeds, but rather, I wanted a present-day relationship that acknowledges we will have different perspectives on events we both experienced. That was too much to ask for.

My understanding of depression is quite different from the popular account of an imbalance of chemicals in the brain — a theory that has never been proved, nor even studied; it’s pure marketing. I understand it as contentful — it refers to something.

In my own case, it’s a reiteration of what I had to do to survive as a child with two parents who hated each other and both, in their own ways, treated their kids as an audience for their efforts to win the divorce. In short, I had to shut down the fight-or-flight impulse, numb my feelings, keep my feelings locked inside and out of sight to avoid further conflict. And as Brené Brown points out, you can’t selectively numb, it’s all-or-nothing. Solutions that work for us in childhood become limitations we grapple with in adulthood.

I got that e-mail on the same day as my Overland piece went live. That was a fairly plaintive piece, incredibly personal, and I probably overdosed on vulnerability. I spent the next two days in bed, watching Luke Cage and living on Domino’s. Then on Monday I got up and set to work finishing my presentation for my thesis confirmation, which was on Tuesday.

My week of good things

My thesis confirmation seminar went well; following some advice passed on by Will Nutland, when we caught up for coffee in London, I put myself back into it, starting the presentation by telling a story that helped the audience make sense of my topic.

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In turn, that meant (retroactively) that it wasn’t completely insane to fly to London for a workshop for four days only three weeks before my thesis confirmation. The workshop wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, but the writing I did for it set up the way I reframed my thesis.

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On Tuesday, Labor finally confirmed it would oppose the same sex marriage plebiscite.

BP confirmed it was abandoning plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

Former politicians lost their High Court bid to get more privileges.

My former boss and his long-term partner got married in Ireland.

I got invited to help out at an event I couldn’t otherwise attend.

A couple of friends had babies and they are both damn cute. (Not guaranteed!)

Canberra finally started showing signs it’s spring.

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I went to my GP to get anti-depressants (a low dose of a medication that has worked for me before). Now I just need to get my lumpy gallbladder sorted (or evicted).

The lovely Zoe Bowman, feminist and writer, took me out for dinner at Monster and it was freaking delightful. Especially the waiter with an owl tattoo on his hand.

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Finally, I bought a bike and it arrived… in a big flat box. So today I put it together and went for a ride through Canberra, to get coffee, vote, and go to the gym for the first time in ages.

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Living in the upside down


I had an article ‘The undead past‘ published on Friday on the Overland blog. It is a reply to people who argue ‘one way or another’ a plebiscite is our best chance for same sex marriage. We all know it’s inevitable, but how it happens really matters.

Here’s the thing, though: when we do finally get the right to marry, we have gone past the point where we can celebrate it. Winning this right no longer fits the usual rhetoric – righting an historic wrong, recognising all love is valid – because the fight itself has given lie to all of that.

The piece has been shared a lot on Facebook. Compared to twitter, people are a bit more circumspect about what they’ll share on Facebook, because they often have old school friends and extended family members who hold divergent political and religious views.

For this piece to be shared so widely in a relatively conservative social media space suggests, to me, a growing consensus against a plebiscite. Indeed, the Guardian reports a Galaxy poll finding support for a plebiscite ‘continued to decline with only 38% of voters in favour and 44% against.’

Today, Australian researchers from University of Queensland and Victoria University have released results from a survey of 1,458 people in Ireland, asking about their experiences of that country’s same sex marriage referendum in 2015.

As reported in the Guardian, when asked if they would go through the process again, knowing how it felt like the first time, 15% were undecided and 54.5% said no.

Among the qualitative responses, as reported in the SMH, respondents said ‘”I hope no other country has to go through that … it was a dark time to be a LGBTI person”, while another felt as if they were “in shark-infested waters”.’

Among the quantitative responses, when confronted with materials from the ‘No’ campaign, 64% rated feeling distress at 5 or above on a seven point scale (from ‘not at all’ to ‘very much’) for posters/flyers and 67% for TV and radio messages. Those numbers jump to 77% for comments from local community and 80% for comments from family.

I focus on distress because it is a known predictor of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, particularly in young people. Depression is not a confounder, here, but part of the causal pathway: same sex attracted people are three times more likely to be living with depression, and the risk correlates with exposure to homophobic prejudice.

We know there is a substantial minority of people who are vulnerable; we know the plebiscite will cause them distress; we know distress is a predictor of depression, suicidal ideation and attempt. It would be irresponsible and unsafe to proceed with a plebiscite.

Grindr’s HIV-positive filter works just like Cerebro

A few weeks ago I ran a piece raising concerns about Grindr’s proposal to enable filtering by HIV status on its hookup app for gay and bisexual men. The story got picked up by CNN, Mic.com and the Fairfax newspapers in Australia.

My main concern was that it enables HIV-negative men to enact a kind of ‘digital quarantine’ that they may think will protect them from ever encountering a person living with HIV on the app.

While I was in London, my Grindr app updated and the filter became available. Here’s how it works: guys on the app have always been able to identify as members of different ‘Tribes’, such as Bear, Daddy, Twink and Poz.

Now, Grindr has enabled a ‘My Type’ filter that lets Premium users see only guys:

  • with photos
  • in a certain age, height, or weight range
  • of a certain ethnicity, body type or positional preference (e.g. ‘top’ or ‘bottom’)
  • who are single or not, looking for hookups or not
  • and who belong to certain Tribes

This is how an HIV-negative guy could enact digital quarantine against Poz guys:

In the first image, I’ve ticked all the Tribes except Poz — this is the ‘digital quarantine’ mode. As an educator who’s done countless hours of online outreach, my prediction is that negative guys who fear HIV will begin to pressure Poz guys to join this tribe.

In the second image, there’s something equally concerning: what we might call ‘HIV Cerebro’, after the technology used in the X-Men movies to visualise all the mutants worldwide.


If there are only 3-4 guys meeting the criteria in my local area, the app will expand the search radius… When I set ‘My Type’ to include only guys in the Poz tribe, it showed me all the guys identifying as Poz in a search radius up to 17,000km away.

Many of those guys were out-‘n-proud Poz activists in London and the States, with profile headlines like [+u] meaning ‘poz, undetectable viral load’ or ‘u=u’ undetectable  = uninfectious (this is true).

But there were also a small number of guys in countries where having sex while HIV-positive is illegal even if condoms are used; and where homosexual activity is illegal.

Here’s the kicker. In the interviews I did with different media outlets, I noted that sites like DudesNude and apps like Hornet offer a similar ability to see other Poz members — but only if you join the Poz tribe yourself.

Grindr is unusual in allowing anyone to search the Poz tribe, as long as they have a Premium membership.

A further problem is that when you tick the box to ‘enter’ the Poz tribe… absolutely nothing happens (left image, below).

This is a missed opportunity on Grindr’s part. At a bare minimum, clicking the box should trigger a pop-up with information about the possibility of being identified, and identifying strategies for protecting themselves and local organisations that can provide support.

Most guys won’t need this, and might even feel it’s intrusive — but it needs to be made clear that joining the tribe makes you findable via ‘HIV Cerebro’.

This is important, given the app also allows people to list their Facebook, twitter and Instagram accounts (right image above) — linking people’s identities to their online activities, which might include chats about sexual fantasies they would never enact ‘in real life’. Such chats have been interpreted by courts and researchers alike as evidence.

In case that seems like a long-shot risk, remember that Grindr’s global equality initiative was only created in the aftermath of reports that security officials in post-revolutionary Egypt were using Grindr to identify and arrest men who have sex with men.

Grindr recently issued one-off messages to Egyptian users to warn of a similar crackdown on men who used Facebook to meet other same-sex attracted men.

Were you aware this is how the Poz tribe works? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

You can also join the discussion on the Bad Blood Facebook page.

This post has been updated to reflect a correction made by Mark ‘middle’ Hubbard (comments).

Stigma as metonym

Five dollar word: metonym, noun, ‘word used in place of a closely related word‘.

The Victorian Government recently launched strategies for hepatitis B and C, causing me to nearly fall off my chair — these have been ‘coming soon’ for nearly a decade.

vic hep C strategy poster

Don’t mention the war on drugs: ‘those most at risk and most affected’

A writer using the pseudonym ‘The Golden Phaeton’ has been covering the treatments revolution in hepatitis C for Harm Reduction Victoria.  Apart from being witty and carefully-observed, their articles are just beautifully written.

Writing about the launch of the hepatitis C strategy, The Golden Phaeton concluded with this incredibly sharp insight (sorry) into how ‘stigma’ gets used as a metonym within the respectability politics of the blood-borne virus sector:

It was only on the subject of stigma that I found any fault with the [Parliamentary] Health Secretary’s announcement. […] It was interesting that drug users were not overtly mentioned in the policy speech. Stigma was mentioned. Discrimination was mentioned. But never were we told against who these evils were operating. Almost as if the words stigma and discrimination were functioning as a code to be used in order to avoid having to sully the lips by actually mentioning injecting drug users.

You can read the rest of the article here and sign up for HRVic’s newsletter as well.