Birmingham

I got chatting to a woman on the train. When I found she lived in Swanston I cadged a lift there from Nupton, saving about forty minutes waiting in the cold or clanking along in the bus. I almost warned her not to trust strangers, but am delighted with this stranger’s kindness.

I must get a notebook. The train recording voice kept repeating something like If you have a pushchair, please step onto the platform first then remove the pushchair backwards. I love “Please do not behave like an idiot” notices and announcements. Presumably they had a pushchair accident recently, perhaps with shopping (please God not a toddler) falling onto the line. We could condense announcements: Please remember to take all personal belongings, including pushchairs, if you are leaving the train. “I knew there was something I had forgotten” is not an excuse.

I can more or less remember the words of the recorded voice, repeated at each station, but not of the plummy young accents in the train to Birmingham. They were gossiping of a girl who, desired by a young man, made out with another woman to mess with his head. I could have noted the details, and the words they used- something like “psycho bitch” in tones of approval, but if I try to remember now I would write the kind of thing I myself would say enthusing about her. The character would flatten out. Or the man who sat beside me. He wanted to tell me how he did not understand the ticket machines. He had not used them before. He had left his travel pass at home, so had to pay £12 for a ticket. He has family in “Cov”, but he likes his flat in Birmingham, where he has lived for twelve years. He smelt a little, but not the worst I have smelled. I wondered if people from there generally called it “Cov”.

A woman on the bus got the Metro free paper. The front page story was of a rapist aged 17 who had attempted to murder his victim to cover up his crime. “That’s somebody’s son,” she said. “Seventeen, and his life is blighted for ever”. I hope that is a commendable ability to see the suffering of all involved, rather than a patriarchal valuing of the boy even when he does something so vile. She did not comment on the woman involved.

I went to Birmingham to meet Lucy. She was delayed by snow, and I hung around a bookshop. I hated “The Chimp Paradox” so much I almost bought it to challenge my preconceptions. A psychiatrist, Steve Peters, simplifies brain physiology to argue your frontal lobe is your human part, rational, compassionate and humane, and the limbic system is your “inner chimp,” the emotional part which thinks and acts without our permission. You have to tame your inner chimp. I am with Mary Oliver, You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves and Walt Whitman, I know I am solid and sound. Like all people. It behoves us to know ourselves, and have all parts in concert, but there is no “rationality”, not even any analytical thought, without emotion. Reason is the slave of the passions, and if I subdued my “inner chimp”, or “soft animal”, I would merely become the slave of someone else’s.

Confidence

By the end of the week, he had a tin on the table in front of him, openly: it had a picture of a cannabis leaf, and the words “EnviroMENTALLY FRIENDLY”. That’s confidence, I suppose, happy to be who he is, without hiding, though the law still disapproves. I wonder if there was anything in that tin. Even as a symbol of his rule-breaking, it made me nervous.

Helen asked us to remember a moment when we had felt confident. I told of one- I don’t know why I felt that way, I just did. I walked to the queue of Promenaders at the Royal Albert Hall, passing a technician’s van and cracking a joke at the technician, who grinned. Possibly I skipped the queue a bit, my memory is hazy on that one. The queue advanced into the hall, and when I got to the front of it the door was closed as fire regulations would permit no more people. So I suggested to the woman next to me that we go for a drink, and we went out together for two months. And another evening we went over the railings into Hyde Park, and held hands.

-You were smiling as you told that story.

I was. Perhaps it is good to remember such things. Good things happen.

Icebreaker, say something no-one would guess of you. I was on Channel 4 news. I tell the story: I got a doctor sacked for lying, and for a level of arrogance remarkable even in a doctor. And we got one of my clients on the news. That was back in the day when the “story” journalists told was sometimes doctors wrongly finding disabled people not entitled, rather than shirkers working the system

(Helen passes me a tissue).

I wanted to be the expert talking head, but as a consolation prize I performed as a doctor, coming up to a door in a terrace and knocking on it. My back in my black coat and my briefcase were visible for a few seconds as the journalist described the doctors over doomy synth music.

I got him sacked. As the word of a benefit claimant would never be believed over a professional man’s, I got seventeen of them, all saying the same thing. I have done these things. I have striven and achieved. And now I can’t see the point and would rather hide away.

-You can confront others.
-It does not do any good.
-How do you feel?
-Rueful, ridiculous, despairing, empty.

I am still doing some worthwhile things.

At another time I recited my affirmation! How could I, with these people? I closed my eyes as I did, not wanting to be aware of their responses. I forgot the words “truth and courage”. I did not like the all-purpose affirmation offered, it was not authentic for me. Remind yourself daily that you are amazing. That you can do anything. That you are unstoppable. That you are a great person. That you are of value to the world. That you have the power to do anything you want to do and you can be anyone you want to be. Do this every day to tap into your true potential and live an amazing life. I don’t know what I want to do. I find what I want when I see what I do. I imagine I want something and do nothing towards achieving it. I would say that and think of times it was proved wrong. Looking at it again I see it is not all bad. I am of value to the world. Charlotte who was in sales likes all of it.

Someone says you don’t have the power to do anything, or the time. You could be at a professional level trailbiking, says the man with the tin, but still need sponsors and money.

Helen encourages us in self-talk: not “I am weak”, but “I am strong”. I don’t even like that. I am enough may be true and affirming.

Feeling good II

I moved her to tears. Happy tears, or those tears you cry when you had a burden, and it is lifted, and you are enabled to see the full pain of it.

That confidence building course built my confidence. But I have had to think about it, helped by this logic puzzle by Alex Bellos in the Guardian. I am fairly sure I have got the puzzle right, by squeezing every bit of information I can infer from the information given. As I write, the answer had not been published.

I made her cry by sharing my understanding of the inner critic, which I got from others, and my response to it, which is my own. The inner critic is a frightened child part of me, and of you, and I will not bully it because I will show love to all of me. That means listening, but not accepting its view, which is unduly pessimistic. So I imagined it as a little girl, and dressed her in a white velvet dress. Her options are to sit on the naughty step, or to dance and sing. Or, perhaps, to accept my reassurance. I am safe enough, good enough, capable enough. There is worry, and it need not overwhelm me.

Zoe wrote it down, as she wanted to remember it. This is always a lovely experience. At a community building event I recited a poem I had written, and someone asked me to write it out for her. The next day she recited it to me from memory. I feel warmed and valued. She treats me with respect, but she truly respects what I say.

Charlotte cried a little. No, she is not laughing, and concealing it by pretending. She values what I say. Another exercise Helen gave was to say three words about another person here. We have opened up a little, though at the jobcentre we don’t trust. I have opened up a fair bit as I will, even when I do not trust. Charlotte was given me, and called me “calm, inspiring, thoughtful, kind, unique”. Five words rather than three.

Inspiring.

That’s a good word. That’s not just picking a word for the sake of it. She has been bitterly attacked by her inner critic, and my words hold the prospect of relief. Those were tears of relief.

I felt a little low on Saturday. No, I felt low- do not minimise my feelings. I felt low. I thought, yesterday I did something worthwhile, I touched those women deeply, they valued it, they valued me. I did not find it difficult, saying a piece of wisdom I read and elaborated years ago, but not everyone could. That made me feel valuable. I have so few such experiences, so little opportunity for that! And now, squeezing every bit of joy from Charlotte’s tears, I decide that it need not be a transitory moment- Oh! I did something worthwhile!- but can be a memory to create joy. I was reminded of that NLP technique, at another time in the course: think of a joyous memory, associate a gesture with it, then use the gesture to evoke that joy and confidence. Years ago I picked on my nieces and nephew crying excitedly “It’s Uncle John!” as I went up their path, which was less joyous after I transitioned, and Susan stopped me seeing them.

So possibly those other two might value my company. I am not merely interesting as a specimen.

I am sailing close to the wind here, but- you have not hurt me. If you tell me something, and I know it is wrong, it need not hurt me. If we are distant, now, if you let me down then, that is all you were capable of at those times, but you appear capable of more sometimes- I have seen it. I want to be open to you, and show my darkness as well as light, for

the night is as bright as the day
darkness and light to You are both alike

My darkness is beautiful. You will see that in time. I have faith in you, though you have let me down (and I you, though I do my best)

No. I am quite certain I have that puzzle right, though as I write the answer is not yet published.

Ceasing to pretend

Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. Between these two banks the river of my life flows.
– Nisargadatta Maharaj

Helen wants me to fix goals, ideally to get a job. My goal is to stay on benefits, because it is a lifestyle I can cope with, I am in control, and there is only just enough money. I tried to make a difference once, and it was too hard.

I tell Tina of Mark, the playwright. Helen’s powerpoint slide said she got divorced, but actually she only split up from someone she was cohabiting with. She changed it to “divorced” in case a religious person judged her. “Hallelujah,” said Mark, bitterly, imagining himself humorous. I challenged it, saying that I am very religious, and do not judge others. Mark says all religions are like a cult, brainwashing people. Harlan tells of his cousin, who was “a bit slow”

-do you mean he had learning difficulties? challenges Helen-

who converted to Islam and ended up in a mental asylum. We do not stick to the subject. Today Harlan, instead of referring coyly to “relaxants”, named his crime as if daring anyone to make something of it. He smokes weed. He used to smoke £100 a week, now since having his kids it’s £30, and as far as he is concerned that’s money in his pocket.

We go off the subject easily. It is diverting enough.

Do you want to change yourself? asks Tina. You said Mark, just like you, is “walled up behind a mask or persona, disappointed and resentful”. That’s heavy shit.

I want to stay on benefits because the uncertain generosity of whoever is filling Ian Duncan-Smith’s tiny shoes- David Gauke, Google tells me- is pleasanter and more reliable than any chance of earning money. Helen challenged us on Monday to think of what we would like to do, at the end of her course, and I wrote to be myself without the mask. And now I think I am lots of different acts, but always acts.

On Sunday, with her, what happened? Possibilities:
-she used me as waste disposal, and I liked it.
-It was nothing under the surface beyond what happened.
-we were playing a game together which both enjoyed. I hope that. It would be intimate. She holds me at arms length.

-What parts of you are there, meeting her?

It might be easier to say what parts are not. My resentment is under the surface, always balanced with fascination. My care, appreciation and playfulness are there. I am articulate, except when she asks why I thought we might be embarrassed to meet, and I could not answer her. Because she could always withhold her acceptance of my answer, and question each answer in recursion.

-What’s that feel like?
-Sad and powerless.

For which part are you sad? The lawyer or the romantic? The older or younger self?
-Possibly all of me.
And at that my inner critic explodes in triumph and derision. But I am just a set of different acts, I said. I am proved inconsistent and incomprehending.

There is sadness in me, and there are other feelings. I am sad about her, wanting union, partnership. Fascinated, resentful, I love to see her. What I get is wonderful, and I am held at arms’ length.

-What do you get? Unrequited love?
-Her presence, charisma, sparkle. I will keep coming back for that.

-Have you ever been loved?

Yes. A woman loves me, and I did not know, and now we cannot be together. My father let me down. My mother was too scared. H called me “Cariad”, and now I think of her with pity, despair, irritation. She always responded the wrong way to everything, I burst out. We betrayed each other repeatedly is an old line I am not sure is true.

-And what about yourself?
I like myself and I wish myself well. I despise myself. I am very beautiful.

Those voices, you despise yourself; you are beautiful. How opposite are they?
-I am opposites.
-We all are. I see them both, but they don’t talk to each other. The different parts of you pull you apart sometimes. We’ve got to get those parts talking to one another.

So we arrange to skype again.

People

He tells us a paedophile targeted his daughter, and after that what he says is confusing. He put the man six feet under. He told some biker mates of his about him, and they dealt with the man, and he won’t say what they did. So I wonder if he did start off saying he killed the man then walked it back, or if I misunderstood. Is anyone else as uneasy as I am? Helen says you would do anything to protect your child. I consider that depends on how immediate the threat is, and how certain you are of the wrongdoing. I don’t trust the police in every circumstance, but that is a matter to refer to them. I thought of challenging, perhaps even telling my meeting a paedophile story, but fear it might be misconstrued. I remain silent. I thought of complaining about him. Talking nudgingly about murder is not right. I was glad when he was not there next day, but he was forty minutes late.

Before, he needed help filling out the forms. He says he was sent to a special school, and they did not get taught anything. He tells how his “work coach” mocked him, saying he was not doing enough to find work, so he complained and got a new work coach.

“So you dealt with the problem,” says Helen, who after all is here to instill confidence.

“We’re not here to help you. Go down to Evolve,” they told him. I feel there should be help for people with literacy difficulties. Evolve is an adult education centre, I am not sure about their funding or what advice or help they provide. He says he will be pulling his kids out of school, it is the worst in the county. “They hide when they see me walk through the door”. This series of stories of confronting enemies successfully disturbs me. I would like to think of schools as potential allies. I can’t tell his age, he looks too old to have teenagers. I do not like sitting beside him, he manspreads into my space.

Jill and Zoe (she does not use a diaeresis) are friendly enough, chatting away. Others are guarded. We did an icebreaker, saying something about ourselves no-one would guess, and that has not opened us all up. Helen says Newcastle people chat at bus stops, and no-one does here. I protest we do. Maybe not in Corby, where she is living. “Corby is different, that’s Scotland,” says someone.

One man when younger wrote a play, produced it, made money from it, got good reviews, thought he was The Boy. Here he is, in the town where he was born, trying to write a novel for 25 years. He went to the pub Jill worked in, and she saw him working hard in the bookie’s. None of our lives have gone as we might hope. One woman is in hostel accommodation, always noisy, not clean, not safe. She had been living with her mother, and looking after her sister’s children. She had a sales job. She seems bright and articulate.

Jill was on benefits for twelve years as a single mother. Now, you cannot claim as a single mother if your youngest is five. So she went to the jobcentre, and asked if she could go on any courses. No, because then she could not claim any benefits. That seems stupid to me, too. Perhaps she could have done courses while eligible as a lone parent, but I feel people are wasted, where a little help would let them fly. Let us fly, something.

Helen thinks English people are generally not touchy-feely, but E who likes horses is a huggy person.

I have just discovered Joan Didion, and might not have written this but for this line: “People tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. This is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” Her italics.

There are lots of posters on the walls about the armed forces. “Ten questions you might have about Army Jobs”. They are all about training, pay and roles. “Will I have to shoot anyone?” and “Will I get shot at?” are not on the list.

Against confidence

I do not want to be confident. When I feel confident, I make mistakes.

Russell Crowe, every time he came on set, required a round of applause. He can produce wonderful performances out of a place of deep insecurity. The applause might be an affirmation of his power rather than of others’ respect for him; but remembering it is not enough, he needed the symbol of it each time.

I am doing an “Improving confidence” course, and seeing how I interact with people new to me. I am unlikely to meet any of these people again, and in one case at least I am glad of that. I am also hearing useful stuff. You need to be confident approaching a horse: they can read you, and take advantage of a nervous person.

I feel they, and I, are dancing around a central truth which is hard to put in words, and their words are very different from mine. I faced difficult challenges until I could not any more. Helen, the tutor, says Mindfulness practice, or “chill-out time”, is good for health. Yes, when I could not come down from the last stressor before being stressed anew it became too much. I am completely turned off when she quotes from “Feel the fear and do it anyway”:

Squash that doubt. Squash it down!

Well, no. It is me, and I will not be cruel to myself. Perhaps I should coax myself reassuringly- yes, this is important to me, I will give my all to it– and possibly I should listen to the doubt, and get myself away from the situation. I forced myself, and then I gave up, and while neither forcing or giving up has made me happy they may be the best I can do. I am not sure what middle way is available. I can think of words for it- reasonable, ordinary courage; know your limits- but don’t know what that would look like in practice. It is a judgment in each case, and I can make mistakes both ways.

Helen tells us Richard Branson is afraid of public speaking, Whoopi Goldberg of flying, Oprah Winfrey of people chewing gum (after continual bad experiences of her grandmother sticking it to her own furniture) and Jodie Foster of other people’s opinions. As she is the youngest of the four, aged 55, and our age range is from sixties down to twenties, including people who do not recognise her, I feel they should get different examples to show respect to us. What is Taylor Swift frightened of?

It was all too much for me, and I don’t feel this course is going to help me at all with that. “Once more into the Breach!” they shout encouragingly, and I just get more worried.

What words describe confident people, class? Self-assured? Yes, possibly. Or, merely acting it. Georgia O’Keefe was absolutely terrified all the time: effectiveness is the goal, not confidence per se. Smug, suggests C. Her former boss in sales had loadsamoney. Knowing what you want and going for it. I feel telling me being goal-oriented is good is no use to me, if I cannot find goals within myself. Or I can, such as keeping my benefits and keeping out of others’ attention, and they are not the goals I am supposed to follow.

Rather than being “Confident”, I want to be open to possibilities. I imagine the meekness which would inherit the Earth- no sense of entitlement, observant and aware, no assumptions, open to possibilities and pursuing them when seen. I feel confidence is a product of success, which in part is luck, in part is social and community support, so cannot be given by a course. But I am here, and trying to get all I can from it. T performs a drag act, and shows his photographs. I show some of mine, too. We are capable people, and we are in the jobcentre.

Confident, not confident

With Léne to Nupton, to start the Queer Trans Inclusion Partnership. She drove me down, and we compared notes over lunch in a pub. I learned that the shy, silent types we want to get talking are not called “difficult to reach” as they were when I was delivering services, but “seldom heard”. That changes the phrase from the perspective of the service provider to a global perspective, as when someone is not heard that is a problem for everyone.

We gave a talk for about half an hour. I wanted to say how self-declaration made no difference from the current position for the wider community: only people committed to transition will seek gender recognition. I spoke almost without notes. I quoted Scottish Women’s Aid in our support. I can speak confidently. On a platform, I have a role, which I play well.

And then we discussed things as a group. Only eleven turned up, three trans and several others gay. How to include trans people? A woman at the STD clinic said that her rainbow lanyard won the trust of LGBT folks. Was there something else needed for trans? I felt that a rainbow would do. Someone felt a trans flag, blue pink white pink blue, would be better. It will cost a bit to get NHS printed on the lanyards, and other people have expressed an interest, so a decision would be good. I don’t want to require a different symbol for trans. Someone did, and I wanted to shut them up but went silent.

I would not have read –, but he talked of his trans experience. He wanted to know how to engage older trans folk- he is 23. On his website, he has soundcloud interviews showing the change of his voice over the last year on T. Now he has facial hair, he seems a gentle, charming, alert young man, in rainbow braces.

possibly the hairline, round over the temples, is feminine-

I would have read — even without the context. She has a professional job within a large company, and is their trans face to the world and within the company. We went for a drink, after. We have made a good start. And I have judged them, perhaps as a way of showing trans is not safe, to my own satisfaction. I am better off reclusive as I am. It was Friday evening, and blokes came to the pub from the office. I am uneasy with them swearing so loudly. The pint of “Black Hole” tastes weird. “Black Sheep” at lunchtime was unusually bitter and hoppy, but clearly fresh. I try drinking my pint and ignoring the taste, but eventually take it back to the bar, where the man agrees to change it for Black Sheep. Why would he not? He wants to keep the customers happy. And, if he refused my trying to be overbearing would be useless, what with the bouncers on the door. I am still pleased I asked.

There’s a new drama on the telly, Love, Lies and Records. It is set in a registry office, and has a number of ridiculous plot lines, as if taken from lurid weekly women’s true life magazines like Chat, Yours or Take a Break. None are believeable, and only Rebecca Front as the villain, whose ambition to be supervising registrar has been thwarted, is watchable, but it has a character announce she will be “coming to the office dressed as a woman” from the following week. She is gormless but mostly harmless. She is promptly thrown out by her wife, the mother of her children, and cadges a bed from the big-hearted heroine. Her beard stubble is showing in the morning as she makes up. What would the target audience think? At best they would see her as harmless and she would win sympathy. Surely she would not arouse fear, though possibly disgust. But I want role-models on the telly, not people having a crap time. And it’s not about the clothes, not really. After deadnaming her, the villain says “It’ll take me some time to get used to it,” clearly never intending to.

Sharing our stories

Should we share personal stories of transphobia? The time I was called a “fucking nonce”, the time I was assaulted. Yes, if there is a good reason to.

The story becomes mine, to do with as I wish, when I have processed the emotion arising from it. That man tried to push me in front of a car. I was distressed after, but talking of it now does not bring up that distress. The world has risks, and chaotic individuals, but fortunately the risk of coming across such a person is low.

Processing emotion is a bad reason to tell these stories in public. I have told my stories privately, using people as confidantes, as my distress returns and eventually it subsides. But I don’t want to use them to gain sympathy. She has heard people’s stories, and she is angry. She wants to tell their stories to make other people angry on our behalf in the same way. I don’t feel that emotion is useful. It paints us as victims. Sometimes, journalists want us to tell those stories as entertainment, to paint a picture of the world and what kind of people we are, rather than to produce useful change for us.

And, as a professional I wanted to see what good I could do. People would be surprised when my care and sympathy turned into a curt dismissal; it was because I felt they had no chance.

It might be better to share public transphobia. Linda Bellos, otherwise an admirable person, does not like trans people, saying of us, If anyone of those bastards comes near me, I will take my glasses off and thump them. Yes I will take my glasses off… But I do, I am quite prepared to threaten violence, because it seems to me that what they are seeking to do is piss on all women. I don’t, actually. That shows there is a general problem of prejudice, which everyone who wants diversity and inclusivity should oppose. It illustrates a systemic problem rather than individual victimhood.

I do not want to come over as a victim. Society has a problem of transphobia. It is pervasive: The Times reports that Lily Madigan has applied for the Jo Cox Leadership scheme, calling her Lily Madigan, who was born male but identifies as female. This is not a story: woman applies to women’s scheme. It might be a story if she got in, so we could celebrate her, but this is only of interest to those who want to tut or fume at “men pretending to be women”. Linda Bellos should know better than to get in bed with Rupert Murdoch. Let us gather to resist this transphobia.

We are people with rights. What can you do so that we vindicate our rights?

But she has heard the personal stories, and she is angry. She is fired up on our behalf, and cannot believe than anyone hearing those victim stories would not feel the same way.

unable to speak

Would you rather be right, or happy? Oh, Right, every time, vindicated in my own mind. Actually, only both will do.

I don’t want to look her in the eye. I don’t want to say anything: I don’t see the point. What I think, and how I see things, does not matter, and even I can’t believe it. Is any common understanding necessary, or possible? What is talking for?

-What were you writing, just then?
-I watch the emotions run across her face, in silence.

Dr Graeme McGrath wrote to my GP that ironic detachment is a powerful defence mechanism for me. I pull myself together. My feelings are below the surface, and I can talk. There is bitterness in what I say.

It seems my pain is a weapon to be held against me. It felt to me that the rules around our meeting, rather than building trust, were a game to make me safe for them, to keep me controlled. The offer was a listening game, where one person would talk for five minutes, one would listen, and one would observe, then we would discuss the experience. I wanted to get straight down to the problems. So I did. I started by saying “I don’t trust you”.

They admitted some difficulties. We do not really know each other. There are tensions in the group. It seemed to me they see me as a threat. They are doing all they can to restore relationships, and therefore any difficulty with that is my fault.

I need to approach them in a state of perfect ego-less Love, and perhaps that would be misconstrued. The most important thing in my life is how I relate to these people. Possibly the relationship will break down completely, and I will be excluded. That might be the fabled “Rock bottom” where I finally begin acting in my own interests without illusion, or a further slide into withdrawal and isolation.

What do I want?

To be myself. Not to be suppressing myself, being careful, pretending, acting, holding myself back in order to fit in. I do this out of fear. It has become unbearable.

And to fit in. To build relationships, take a constructive part, serve so that I do some good and have my service appreciated.

So I wonder. What do I tell myself? I am Charismatic, enthusiastic, passionate. I am forceful and strong-willed. These are all beautiful things, and when my passion or ardour comes out when I speak, people feel overwhelmed, and feel resentful. Or they see my passion directed at another, and they rush in to defend the other against me.

I am Good. I am seen as Bad. So what I tell myself is not improving relationships. It is simply a narrative. I struggle for a better understanding. I am uncomfortable with myself, sometimes self-suppressing, sometimes with passion bursting out, and so others are uncomfortable with me. I do not see others properly, their concerns or fragility.

I hear that other people are uncomfortable with me, and whether or not I hear about particular instances I do not understand how. So it seems all I could do is suppress myself.

Then there is the siren song of the non-dual mystic God-In-Us brigade. They say you must be present in the moment. Sometimes it seems I am that, but when I feel that way I can still create even greater distance from others. Possibly it is just that I have expectations and demands for them, which they will not meet. Can I shed all my expectations?

So I am forced back into stories. I must respond in a state of perfect ego-less Love. I have no idea how that would be. See “Present in the moment” above.

Being completely powerless, I might respond as someone completely powerless. I would be watchful. Who is this person, what do they want, and how can I avoid antagonising them?

By the end of the session, I am able to look her in the eye, and say what it seems I want to say. I am calmer. This may just be because I am ceasing to address the concern. I was caught up in my inner turmoil, conflict and incomprehension, and now I just stop.

The listening ear

“People tell me things,” he said. He has a sympathetic manner, and simply by not interrupting or gentle prompting at the right moment might get me to tell all my woes, but I got the feeling telling him was not entirely safe. Might he use what you told him? Why would you tell people these things anyway? Because it is a relief. You get it off your chest. You feel better.

Samaritans can talk to a supervisor after a difficult call about what they have heard. While listening, I needed to empathise, to feel with the other. After hearing, I always found I needed to shed their pain. Sometimes I was like a dog shaking myself on coming out of water, and sometimes it took much longer. Once I needed to talk to a friend for two hours. And sometimes it was as if they had a bottomless pit of pain. I would listen, and it would be as difficult as the most painful story could be, and I gave no relief.

Why would you do that? I liked it. It made me feel useful. It was a thing I felt I did quite well. It made me feel good. I would always rather say I do a thing because of what I gained from it- it made me feel good- rather than claim a good quality. Perhaps I am a loving soul, perhaps it is a sign of lovingness to want to do this for people, but that seems to me a story I tell about myself rather than a perception. “I am a good listener” is an idea to alter my conduct, or make me feel guilty when I do not live up to it. There is no life in it. In a particular moment, I want to listen and earth distress. It seems to me to be good right at that time. There is the life.

It also seems possible to me that someone might want to listen, because that feeling of being useful might make them feel better. Three of us at the trans club- the Baptist minister, the trainee Unitarian minister, and me- heard a trans man begin to tell his difficulties, and we all leant forward in unison, with our concerned listening faces on.

People offer to listen. There’s a way of saying “How are you?” to which the only acceptable response is “Well, thank you” unless you are really distressed, in which case you still need their consent to be a shoulder to cry on. Lots of people use “How are you” as a conventional greeting and are not interested in any answer. And there’s a way of saying “How are you?”, dripping with sympathy, begging to hear your most intimate thoughts.

And it is good to phone a friend. I share what is on my mind at the moment. She listens, asks some questions, does not sort my problem out but may say something useful. It is reciprocal. I do that with H occasionally. She has just moved house and is settling in. The couple she is staying with are really nice, welcoming and friendly. I am glad to hear it.

If you offer to listen to me, you take the risk that my hurt is too much for you to bear. If you are in a fragile state, perhaps it is better not to search me out and offer to listen. It is not my fault if you are perturbed by what you hear. But remember that I do not need you to make me feel better. My response is my own.

I wanted to communicate the depth of my distress, and I did so by curling on the floor in a foetal position. That was where I was at the time. I am not feeling that bad all the time. So it was a clusterfuck, two fragile people colliding, and if either had been less fragile at the time there would have been no problem. Not my fault, though, and unfair to blame me.

Do you like to listen, or find unburdening to someone does you good?