Changing Your Mind – Thoughts on TMS

Over the past year, and especially since the publication of Switched On by John Elder Robison, there has been a lot of attention around a therapy called TMS (or rTMS–Repetitive Transcranial Stimulation).

It’s something I have deep reservations about but others have written passionately and eloquently on the subject. What I want to consider is why somebody would choose to undergo such a therapy that literally changes their mind.

I’m no stranger to the negative feelings that arise when considering the gap between how I perceive myself and what I see when I look in the mirror: that’s a big factor in my gender dysphoria.

I also know first-hand how it feels to be teased and ridiculed for hand flapping, physical clumsiness, social awkwardness, unusual speech patterns and eclectic interests. I’ve had life-long difficulty making and maintaining interpersonal relationships, and I have times where I feel keenly the lack of people with whom I feel comfortable opening up about my problems and feelings.

I understand the drive to make physical changes to one’s body. After all, I’m in the process of seeking treatment to modify my own body, bringing it into closer alignment with what I see in my mind by erasing or concealing male characteristics and developing female ones.

There are two parts to my gender dysphoria. First there is my need to have other people respond to me as a woman, reinforcing my gender identity. Second there is my need to see my own body physically match the mental image I hold.

So as a trans woman I am actively seeking treatment to make changes to my body. This is in contrast to my feelings about my autism. Both my gender identity and my autistic identity go to the very heart of who I am.

The thing is, although I will happily modify the physical characteristics of my body I wouldn’t consider altering my mind. My neurology is inextricably tied to my identity: I feel that changing my mind would make me into a different person.

There’s a line there. I’ve put a foot over that line a few times, testing the water so to speak. I’ve experienced the effects of drugs that affect the workings of the brain: alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, SSRIs (anti-depressant).

Some of them have positive aspects. For example, alcohol reduces my social anxiety. But there are negatives too: I make poor decisions under the influence of alcohol because it inhibits my self-control and risk-aversion: I’ve gotten myself into some dangerous situations as a result.

Speed (amphetamine) left me unable to concentrate, marijuana was relaxing but caused mild hallucinations and a degree of paranoia. The SSRIs reduced the intensity of my emotions, leaving me feeling numb: in the end I had trouble focusing and engaging with things in my life.

These were all temporary effects: my mind returned to its usual functioning state in time for which I was grateful. You see, I wasn’t myself when under the influence of any of these drugs.

I guess my point is that given the complexity of the human brain and the way its many regions interact it is not possible to adjust one aspect without affecting others. Just as a particular drug affects a small number of electro-chemical interactions in the brain with wider-reaching side-effects, so a therapy like rTMS that alters a small region must cause knock-on changes across the entire organ.

My opinion is that it is not like tuning an engine, a relatively simple system with a limited degree of interconnection and feedback between its components. It’s more like introducing a foreign species into an existing ecosystem. The effects can be slow to manifest, and predictions are error-prone due to the complexity and chaotic nature of the system.

There is no way to know what other effects rTMS would have. It might reduce my social anxiety, but even if that was all it did it would make me respond differently to people I interact with (like alcohol). And if my thoughts and behavior are changed then I’m no longer the same person.

I don’t want to change who I am: I’m comfortable with my identity as an autistic trans woman with all that entails. Changing my body doesn’t affect my personality, my thoughts: I remain me. Changing my mind makes me into somebody else. I would lose the essence of what makes me this particular unique individual, and the thought of that fills me with dread.

This leads me to suppose that for somebody to even contemplate such a thing they must not like who they are. Internalized self-hatred, blaming their neurology for what they see as their failings. It’s like body dysmorphia projected onto the ego, the sense of self. The antithesis of neurodiversity’s principles; an inability or refusal to accept one’s differences.

I see this as a result of thinking colored by the medical model of autism that sees it in terms of pathological deficits, as opposed to the social model which instead looks to society’s failures to provide suitable accommodations and acceptance as the causes of disability.

There’s nothing wrong with my mind: I have no reason to change it. I can’t say the same for the society I live in.

Lost in Translation

My language pains me.
I long for facility
To spin metaphor.

But I’m too literal.

Even when I write in terms of imagery my words on the page are simply descriptive of what is in my mind. I listen to songs like I am the Walrus with a strong sense of jealousy.

How I would love to be able to take that step beyond my literal translations to that fantastic realm where instead of painting what I see I am able to conjure whole new worlds.

It makes me feel that I have no imagination; that everything I think of is derivative. I am only able to assemble montages of what already exists, apply what others have invented.

My words disappoint me because they are such a pale imitation of the richness and depth of my thoughts. They are static, a snapshot of the mental maelstrom giving no clue as to the turbulence within.

Disengaged

My representative
Is a faceless man in a suit.
I didn’t vote for him,
I don’t support his party,
Or their policies.

So I sit here wondering
How can I feel represented?
How can my voice be heard?
Who looks out for my interests?
Who understands my life?

Every cross I mark on a ballot
Falls unseen
Into a bottomless pit.
No sound, no ripples
As if it never existed.

School Reports and My Past

I often look through my old school reports. It’s been difficult the last couple of years because they all talk about Ben and refer to that boy, someone who, although it used to be me I no longer recognize.

I recognize the words and know they refer to me, but whenever I read that name or those male pronouns I feel a cognitive dissonance. It was me, but at the same time (and strongly) it is not me. Not the person I am now.

And yet… I still open that old folder and read those words.

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IMAG0280IMAG0281The subjects (from top to bottom) were Chemistry, Design, English, French and Geography.

I can’t emphasize enough how hard it is to read “he” and “his”, or to see “B” or “Ben”. Imagine reading something about you that refers to you as someone else. Not only that, but someone of a different gender!

I know these reports are mine, I know they are referring to me, but I’m a woman called Alexandra; these reports about some boy called Benjamin feel emotionally like they’re about someone else although I know rationally that they refer to me.

I’ve had conflicted thoughts about my daughter. I know she has a mother and a father, but I am not comfortable describing  myself as her father. I’m one of her two parents, sure, but I can’t bring myself to think of myself in such male terms as a father.

She calls me Alex, not “Dad”, which I’m happy about: I feel very uncomfortable with the male implications of father but I also recognize that I am not her mother. There’s a word missing from English, one to describe a female parent who did not give birth to the child.

To say it hurts is such an understatement. It tears my heart to pieces, leaves me crushed and beaten. I tell people she’s my daughter but I feel inhibited from saying that I’m her “parent” because I can’t say I’m her mother and I don’t believe “father” is appropriate.

Technically speaking I am her father, but emotionally I can’t accept that label. I can’t accept anything that suggests a male identity I don’t identify with. It’s frustrating, but I can’t find an answer to my conundrum.

Brain Dancing

The Brain Dancing Festival, a celebration of creativity in autism, is a series of creative events in Oxford, organised by the charity Autism Family Support Oxfordshire. An important part of it is the art exhibition at The North Wall which continues until the 2nd of April.

Neurodiversity can be thought of as brains dancing to different tunes, each of us with our own personal rhythm driving the pulse of our lives. It’s a celebration of the richness of difference, an acceptance of the value this adds to all our lives.

As an autistic woman myself I am committed to the goals of the neurodiversity movement, in particular the idea that everybody has something to offer, that our very differences are a source of creative potential.

So it was with a great sense of excitement that I accepted an invitation to attend the private viewing of Brain Dancing, an exhibition featuring works by artists either on the autism spectrum or having family connections to somebody autistic.

I’d never experienced a private viewing before so I had little idea what to expect. I’d seen several TV and movie scenes resembling cocktail parties that people attended to be seen but something told me reality would be somewhat different.

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I arrived a little late, a result of the combination of parking the wrong side of the city and the bus services being disrupted by a traffic accident-related road closure. Walking in through the door I was greeted by the welcome sight of man bearing a tray of drinks.

I looked around; I was glad to see that my decision to dress casually fit in with the relaxed atmosphere. There were probably between 40 and 50 people there, most of whom I didn’t know, but I found myself by happy accident standing next to someone familiar, Stu Allsopp. I said hello and we chatted easily for a few minutes between the introductory talk by Gita Lobo, manager of the exhibition’s organiser, local charity Autism Family Support Oxfordshire, before a video presentation started.

After a brief fight against the technology we were treated to a short film that described the work of the charity and showed a few of the children and families being helped. It was a strong, clear message of respect and acceptance, providing support to young autistic people and their families to help them fulfill their potential.

I had realised while watching the film that I was standing directly behind my good friend, participating artist and curator of the exhibition, the wonderful Sonia Boué who had tended the invitation to me.

She told me I had missed meeting her fellow artists from Magdalen Road Studio, Katie Taylor and Kate Hammersley, who had been looking forward to seeing me; it was lovely to hear that people had been keen to meet me but disappointing that I’d not got there early enough to see them. But as compensation I did receive an invitation to the private viewing of Kate Hammersley’s upcoming exhibition at Wolfson College.

And so to the exhibition itself, a varied sampling of artistic expression demonstrating the creative influence of autism. I decided to work my way around the exhibits starting by the door where I had come in. After all, having a structure to activities is reassuring.

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I began with Sonia’s works. First was the iconic handbag recalling Barcelona in a Bag above a painting titled Departure, a multi-layered and fascinatingly-textured painting: I spent some time examining it closely, becoming lost in the minute detail of its strata. I found myself wanting to touch it and experience the different textures more directly.

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As I moved on through her pieces I felt drawn into a narrative: the sense of depth and history left behind in Departure, through exodus and exile–destierro–via internment and subsistence living to a new beginning and new life in a new land.

Next were a selection of beautifully observed landscapes by Rosalyn Goh. I was especially attracted to one featuring a river flowing between tree-lined banks, the sun glittering off the disturbed water as it rounded a bend.

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She captures the essence of the water so well. There is something exquisitely tranquil about her paintings. They capture scenes that you can imagine yourself in, encountering such perfect moments during a walk through the countryside.

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The third artist, Janet Millikin, showed works in two very different styles: bold, abstract works alongside intricate geometrical drawings reminiscent of technical drawings. Looking closely at the abstract pieces it was apparent that the inked intricacy was common throughout.

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I found myself staring long at the picture above, enjoying the way that the shapes and colours inspired dragons and other fantastic beasts, emerging like cloud-beasts. There’s an intriguing contradiction between harmony and aggression; a softness with hard, sharp edges.

 

Continuing on my circuit of the room I next came to a set of photographic prints on canvas by Richard Maguire whose work I had encountered before online. He has a great eye for composition as well as a sympathy for his subjects that brings out unexpected impressions.

I am particularly drawn to water and the play of light in reflection and refraction; two of his photographs featured scenes with water and I was captivated by my exploration of the elemental nature of the scenes.

The next course in my feast was Tom Eyre and a varied set of works including an ocular pumpkin in a simple style of embellished line drawing, a sculpted wolf mask that evoked friendly play rather than ferocity, and an abstract swirl of colour.

It was this last painting that I felt the strongest reaction to. It could have been a Dante-inspired scene of souls carried within a storm of fire, or the noise, heat and raw emotion at the heart of battle: I sensed powerful turmoil in its chaos.

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Finally I came to two display cases containing jewelry crafted by Joanne Turner. I’m drawn magpie-like to anything shiny and these pieces were a delight. The delicate patterning of the surfaces of the links in her chains reflected from the spotlights as I moved my head, almost hypnotic.

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There was an organic feel to the various works, accentuated by the slate plinths and occasional simple wooden blocks. Deceptively simple in form, they held a depth of character in their surface textures; rather than being polished to a mirror finish they revealed subtle patterns hammered lightly into the metal.

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Overall it was a wonderful evening. Between the pleasure of meeting friends again, the stimulating conversation and my enjoyment of the artworks on show it was a most successful viewing, and I cannot thank Gita and the other organisers enough. I highly recommend this exhibition, and would urge you to visit the charity’s website (link at the top of this blog) to find out all about the work they do.

The Legacy of Empire

One hundred years ago, on Easter Monday, thousands of ordinary people rose up against the powers that had occupied their country for generations. The uprising was defeated within a week, opposed by overwhelming force.

Nearly three hundred civilians were left dead by the bombs and bullets of the Empire, and many of the rebel leaders were quickly convicted of treason and executed. Against the backdrop of global conflict this could easily have been just a footnote in history.

It wasn’t the first uprising, and it wouldn’t be the last. But the violence of the response, the lack of discrimination with which thousands–many of whom had no involvement–were taken prisoner and interned fostered growing resentment of the occupation and support for the rebel cause and its armed opposition to British rule.

The Easter Rising of 1916 was the turbulent birth of the modern Irish Republic. It saw the issuing of the Proclamation of the Republic, claiming independence from the United Kingdom, and the banner under which they fought was the tricolour that is today the flag of the Republic.

Unlike America’s Fourth of July, the Irish Easter Rising is rarely mentioned in mainland Britain. Irish independence was to take many more years to achieve, and even then the six counties of Northern Ireland were excluded, remaining under British rule: the country was partitioned.

The fallout from this continued to fuel conflict for decades, leading to the Troubles and the equation in mainland Britain of Republicanism with terrorism. However, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 signalled the willingness of most of the parties involved to end the armed conflict and pursue their aims by peaceful means.

That is not to forget all those who died on both sides of the fighting; rather it is to honour them by constructive actions, building a better future for all of us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the way to achieve this, not the bitterness of resentment and blame.

In many ways for people in the UK, Ireland is our closest neighbour. We share a common language, and many Irish live and work in the UK. Because of this and the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, many mainland British hardly think of the Republic of Ireland as a distinct country. But of course that is exactly what it is.

It’s time the UK acknowledged the Easter Rising of 1916 in the same way we acknowledge the Fourth of July for Americans: as the moment when a nation threw off the shackles of Empire and took its first steps towards self-determination and independence. Surely that is something all people deserve the right to, and something to celebrate.

I’d like to thank Tric Kearney for her post Tomorrow we rightly celebrate as the inspiration for this.

Nightmare

She took her leave in dead of night
And silently slipped out the door,
Then by the silver full moon’s light
Retraced the path she took before.

The trees reached up so black and bare,
Frost crackled, glistened under foot.
From bloodless lips the misty air
Of breath hung still and dark as soot.

Deep in her eyes red sparks of light
Burned bright as embers in the ice
That formed her face. Her dreadful sight
Would still one’s heart, exact her price

From those who caught a fleeting glance
Beneath the veil she wore by day
While through the mortal world she’d dance
To watch unseen our artless play.

Raven-clad in cloak of sable
She craves the blood that brings relief.
Nightmare from an ancient fable
Long lost to memory and belief.

Time Capsule

Nine keys,
What locks will they open?
What secrets lie within
To tumble forth?

Stacked papers,
Old letters bound in ribbon
And a watch
Anchored to a past time.

Photographs
Hold frozen memories,
Fade more slowly
Than the pictures in my mind.

The Ennui of Pointless Exchanges

So much time alone
Discourse a forgotten art
Even with myself.

Social relations
A memory on a wall
Posted on Facebook.

I think about Death
And the high cost of living
Balancing my books.

Monotonous trap
Even pain is no relief
Routine no solace.

Chocolate fixes
Addict’s way of marking time
Needle track stretch marks.

Life is but a joke
Reasons to get excited
Like thieves in the night.

Slowly fade away
Melt into billowing swirls
Of media dreams.

Saying It Doesn’t Make It So

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

There’s an article that I’m seeing a lot on my timeline just lately titled All white people are inherently white supremacists. Now, I have a knee-jerk reaction to generalization in all forms which is to assume that there are holes in the argument.

In this case, what stands out first and foremost is that it is the old “all men are inherently rapists” trope, recast in terms of race.

But there’s a little twist in this article: the author tells us that when they say supremacist they don’t mean quite what the dictionary tells you the word means, what everybody who hasn’t read the article would assume it means.

No, in this article a supremacist is not someone who advocates for the superiority of a particular group; it is someone who benefits from the advantaged status of that group. In my book (despite the denial of the author) they are talking about privilege.

Sorry, but you don’t get to redefine such a loaded word just because it suits your desire for an attention-grabbing headline. There are already words and phrases in existence that carry the meaning you want, unless you just intend to provoke and incite a reaction.

It’s disingenuous of the author: the redefinition of the word is calculated to undermine the position of anybody asserting that they are not a white supremacist. And because it’s about race, that touchiest of subjects, especially in the US, people are reluctant to call “bullshit” lest they incur the righteous wrath of those who take it all at face value.

The essence of this piece is to imply that all white people are the same: at heart they are indistinguishable from the shaven-headed neo-Nazis and KKK members who proclaim the primacy of the “white race”. I call bullshit.

There’s a particular statement in the article, “All white people […] won’t challenge and disagree with genocide, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, gentrification, the hypersexualization of young Black girls, the criminalization of young Black boys.”

That’s simply not true. In fact I find it hard to credit that more than a handful of white people would agree with those things. But according to the author all white people “are inherently racist” and by implication support the oppression and subjugation of other races.

I must admit I’ve been surprised by the support shown for this deeply flawed article with its sweeping generalizations and unsupported, easily refutable claims. It’s the same sort of polemic as Trump’s attacks on Mexican immigrants in that it caters to the prejudices and insecurities of a particular audience.

But here’s the thing: just because the author believes in what they wrote, just because there are published words on a page does not make it true. I know what a supremacist is, and claiming it means something else just doesn’t hold water. If you want to play games with language, you’ve got to do a damn sight better than that.