I was involved in a discussion with some friends recently, during which we pondered in what period of history each of us might have liked to have lived. For the most part, we figured that “about now” has a lot going for it. In some ways this was unsurprising because, as a group, I would say we are all quite pragmatic and forward looking. On the other hand, around the world at this time there are many unfortunate happenings and situations: divisive politics, climate change, conflicts and the usual poverty and hunger. We do live in Interesting Times. However, as a born optimist, I am complelled to look on the bright side and can identify a couple aspects of the world that have really got better lately …
The two things that I think have improved – at least, in the UK, but I hope further afield – are attitudes to sexuality and mental health.
Whilst there are still plenty of homophobic people out there – generally people who feel that anything “different” is necessarily “bad” – my sense is that they are increasingly a minority, with most people accepting others for who they are and judging them by how they behave. An individual’s sexual preference is nobody else’s business [least of all the state’s!]. An example is my camera club. I am guessing that the mean age of members is well over 60. One member is a woman who is a very good photographer and quite an outspoken individual. Some folks may or may not enjoy her work and may or may not like her as an individual, but I have heard no negative comments about her partner, who comes along sometimes, being a woman.
The other, perhaps bigger, area, where a shift in attitude has occurred, is mental health – or, specifically, the discussion of this subject. It seems only yesterday that, if you said something like “I have been dealing with a mental health issue”, the person to whom you are talking would step back a pace or 2 [maybe not literally, but you get the idea]. We have now moved towards a point when saying that you are taking anti-depressants has no more stigma than mentioning, say, aspirin; not quite there, but moving in that direction.
I have an example. It is common to hear people talk about anxiety and having panic attacks. I, for one, have always had difficulty understanding this. If someone says, for example, that they cannot go outside because they have anxiety, my instinctive response has always been to question what they are actually anxious about and expect them to try harder. I know that this may not be helpful, but it seems [seemed] logical. My attitude has changed lately. This came about when I experienced anxiety myself. I now have some insight into how it feels. In my case, it is do do with swimming.
Swimming is quite new to me – I started taking lessons not so long ago. But I am now an essentially competent swimmer and enjoy being in the water. I visit a local pool a couple of times a week and swim up and down. The pool has a deep end and a shallow end. Normally, I jump in at the deep end [always nervous, but overcome it] and then swim up and down. Often this occurs without incident. From time to time, however, I find myself swimming towards the deep end and suddenly find that I cannot swim; it is like I have hit a physical barrier. Normally I stop and then drive myself hard to complete the swim. Why the anxiety? I have no answer. There is no logical answer to this question. When I get to the deep end, I can swim away in a very leisurely fashion, with no great urgency to reach the shallows.
This experience has changed my view, but I also realized that the fact that I can talk about it – without feeling ashamed, or weak or weird – is new. I am sure that, just a few year ago, I would have been inhibited. Although I really dislike this feeling of anxiety [my swimming teacher thinks that I have anxiety about getting anxiety], I am actually grateful for the bit of insight that it gives me. On the other hand, if anyone can give advice to help me overcome it, I am all ears.