"Miss, which one is normal?"
Me: What do you mean by normal?
Woman: You know, straight.
Me: Well... Straight is heterosexual but, you know, normal is different for everyone.
Hmmmm - do I have time to think this true with her? Does it matter?
Funders probably don't think about these little interactions when they make their data collection requests. When you’re meeting a woman for the first time – a woman who is (more often than not) distressed, wanting answers, needing someone to listen to her – you have to get through the paperwork. Fill out those five forms – wait, do you have the one with the right funder logo for the right project on it? Get her to sign it – to make sure your manager can provide evidence that this face to face meeting actually happened, crucial for justifying the unit cost. Monitor the achieved outcome and write thousand-word reports every three months.
It wasn't until I was writing reports myself that I noticed we got more women ticking the LGB boxes when I gave them the forms than when my more straight-looking colleagues did, they also tell me their Irish connections, of which there are many, definitely more than any official statistics would imply.
I see data doesn't always tell us everything; I guess visibility is a thing.
We tried adding more options to the forms once, in an effort to keep up with current identity politics thinking (hoping) we had our fingers on the pulse. We had a long list of sexualities and genders, boxes for queer, pansexual, non- binary. But they had to go.
Woman: Why do you have a box for “queer”? That's an insult!
Me: Some people identify as queer.
Woman: No way, not having it, that's offensive. Take it off.
Me: There are people who identify as queer, have taken back the word, reclaimed it, and think of it as opposition to the standard boxes they don't feel they fit into. ‘Queer’ works better for them.
Women: it's just rude to call people queer in here
Me: 'okay, fair enough - but some people do identify as queer'
Women: 'No they wouldn't, see? it's an insult'
Me: Okay, we'll change it, anything else?
Women: why can you only be white & Irish, my mums Irish & there's only one box for mixed race what does that even mean?
Me: it's to count a hidden white minority thing or something, I don't really know - very good point though....I have to do it to give to the people who pay for the project & show who comes to the workshops in case we miss anyone out
Women: just tick something so....
Mostly we don't even talk about it - boxes are ticked, they change every few months for people - turns out identity is pretty fluid in here anyway
Sometimes I think there are more meaningful questions we could ask
How many houses does your family own?
How much of your inheritance wealth is stored off shore?
Have you ever made people redundant to save money? Or payed yourself dividends from a company while putting workers pension funds at risk?
Have you claimed expenses beyond what's considered reasonable by a shared measure?
Opps - Wrong demographic, wrong institution
Sometimes I wonder if a peerage in the House of Lords is as socially knitted & networked as a stay at HMP Holloway. If you could join the connections up & lay the map on top of each other would it show us the same picture.
It's where you come from, it's who you know - you were born into this.
I was in life crisis recently and I needed to access a support service. My sister was dying of breast cancer - well she wasn't dying really she was living until the end but the end was fast approaching and then she died - at 32 and 6 days, at four weeks married.
It was all very sudden, an emergency - life is like that, all can change utterly, you think "this isn't happening to us"
Life - it's supposed to be fair, but of course it's not, it never was, you think about it a bit more and a little voice quietly whispers back "why shouldn't it be us?" "why should it be someone else's sister?" This is suffering, but it is natural suffering as unnatural as it feels, as out of order as it is.
It was at Christmas, of course. My family were in free fall, long buried grief came tumbling forth it wasn't just this crisis it was all the crisis we ever had, time collapsed, moment by moment the panic rose up as the clock loudly ticked - but it would not stop - I could not think.
Stress hormones steering through my body, screaming at me, the pain was physical. The brutal fucking pain of it - of life.
My cousin took me to the cancer support centre. They sat me down in a beautiful purpose built building, that instantly soothed me with its architecture, water features and calming music. They made me a cup of tea, got someone to talk with me, arranged an appointment within three days, offered me reflexology, art therapy within the week, saw the rest of my family who wanted to be seen, including hospital visits to my sister. They rang me to remind me of my appointments because they understood I could not keep that mundane information in my head, just like I couldn't use the hospital parking machine. They carved out some space within it, to find the gratitude, find the strength.
I had bigger things to do, extraordinary events to be present for - life was now on another dimension, I miss that clarity you can find at times of extreme and heightened living, the fog returns too quickly.
When she passed away the rang me, I could tell them how incredible it was and they understood, they came to the funeral, out of the hundreds it meant so much, and they continue to offer support when I'm at home.
There are some difficult things that society is more organised to support with, some things it's easier to get help with. In my experience as a family we were more supported to live with terminal cancer in all it's brutality than with the loneliness of grief or watching someone you love lost beyond you, carried away in a Bi-Polar breakdown - but that's another tragic story for another time.
The reason I am telling you this is to say that not once was I ever asked to fill in a form. After about 8 weeks my reflexologist apologised for having to ask for my date of birth, which she wrote in a book.
I am not saying that evidence isn't important but I am saying that I am eternally grateful for the care, kindness and connection they showed me before all else. I will most likely fundraise and give back more so that there is support for the next person in my situation. Also because I wasn't the first and won't be the last and I don't want their service to be beholden to some complex funding that takes three times more work to administer than they spend with the people who need them.
When someone is in crisis, a major event, like going into prison or coming out of prison or just carrying the crappy hand they've been dealt through life another day, or dealing with suffering someone created they don't need to be faced with a referral form, they don't need someone to ask them which boxes they tick, or complex questions about their past. They need someone to be there, to be human, to be kind, to give real support & offer something more than signposting to the next place that signposts them to the next place as their details are harvested for monitoring forms, crops cashed at report time. People, whatever their pain need someone to respond.
Life stories & 'equal ops' stripped and processed, millions spent and nothing done except of course the beast has been fed for a little longer, market doing it's market thing, with people as targets.
Well the people have certainly been hit - bullseye - but there is another way, and we can become more "Trauma Informed" or as I like to think of it, more set up for life.
One Small Thing is an initiative that hopes to help people to reimagine services provision check it out at www.onesmallthing.org.uk - I recently went to an event of theirs and it helped me to make these connections.
Copyright, Holloway Prison Stories. May not be used without permission.