Love of Country vs. Jingoistic Bullshit

I am Australian. I love my country.

I love the land. Australia is deserts and rainforests and reefs, strange and beautiful and wild. It’s isolation and distance and a scattered cascade of stars spiralling around the Southern Cross. It’s lyrebirds and magpies and mopoke! mopoke! It’s the smell of eucalyptus, the startling double-take when a tree stump unfolds and hops across the trail in front of you, fat tail stretched out straight for balance behind. It’s a wallaby meeting your gaze and waiting to see who’s going to move first.

It’s a wild sense of space, of grey leaves and red sand.

It’s bizarre and surreal, sometimes. It’s wedge-tailed eagles taking down drones, giant kangaroos taking down trucks on desert highways, and wombats literally crushing predators using the bony plates on their rear, because you can’t get much weirder than a fat blob of muscle that kills things with its arse. It’s giant huntsman spiders that you try to get rid of, and then give up and name “Fred” so you’ve got something to call it when it scuttles out from behind the TV. It’s a place where it’s a genuine national obligation to mess with tourists and internationals by spinning the most bizarre stories you can come up with as absolute truth I swear and having people believe it because Australia really is that weird, as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

Australia is being horrified to discover that so many other countries don’t have preferential voting or bulk billed medical clinics (and yes, I cry when I see Americans starting GoFundMe petitions for basic fucking healthcare. I literally cry). Australia is knowing that I have time to finish my degree without having to work my backside off just to afford rent, because I have a Student Allowance (more on that later). Australia is wondering why you’d need a gun to go for a walk. Australia is being incredibly laid-back about religion such that I have no hesitation describing myself as an atheist, because that won’t affect my job prospects or my social life in any meaningful way.

There’s a punchline. It’s coming.

I have a lot of privilege in Australia. I was born here. I speak English. I’m white (to be honest, if I were any whiter, my albedo would ban me from crossing the road. The reflection would blind people and cause traffic accidents). I’m very comfortably middle-class. And even though I am on the queer side, I’m a cis woman who likes blokes, and I’m married to a bloke, and monogamous, so my queerness is unlikely to appreciably affect my life in any way. Even though I have chronic illnesses, I’m heavily shielded from the consequences because, firstly, they’re largely invisible and don’t affect my mobility much, and secondly, my economic privilege cushions me from a good deal of the fallout.

So yeah: for me, Australia is a pretty good deal (I don’t feel guilty about my privilege. It’s not an accusation. I’m angry that other people don’t get to feel as safe as I do).

But Australia is deeply flawed. Australia is a colonised land, built on a history of deliberate massacre, of genocide, of horrific racism and suffering, and while overt genocide is considered gauche these days, apparently mysteriously dying in police custody is just fine. Australia is an insular, self-involved country that literally locks up and tortures people who did nothing worse than desperately ask for help. Australia is a puritanical moralistic warrior who took an embarrassingly long time to allow marriage equality, in some part because the Australian Christian Lobby held far too much sway for a country that considers itself to be super chill about religion. Australia is taking pride in the glory of our natural wonders and then selling it to mining companies because moral conflict is only something that happens to other people. Australia is loving Aussie rules football so much that we seem to think it’s okay to rape people as long as you’re good at kicking a footy around. For a country whose mantra is A fair go! and whose values supposedly include mateship, it’s nauseating how much worse our social welfare systems are getting, day by fucking day. Australia is an appalling lack of self-awareness, it’s Fuck Off We’re Full and Love It Or Leave It stickers on utes belonging to people who take an inexplicable pride in their bigotry and ignorance.

Love it or leave it.

What fucking nonsense.

There is no perfect country, and no place in the world where universal fairness and perfect justice hold sway. There is nowhere to go to get away from the flaws in your own nation.

Love it or leave it.

What jingoistic bullshit.

I’ve been challenged on this, defiantly told that Aussies love their country and it’s THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD and HOW DARE YOU CHALLENGE THAT. I’ve been told by otherwise intelligent, self-aware people that the United Nations shouldn’t criticise Australia because other countries have problems too.

This is what we call a false dichotomy, where you can hold only one of two positions: either Australia is terrible and you hate it, in which case you should leave; or it’s perfect and you love it, in which case you should never criticise it.

I love Australia. It’s my country. I never want to live anywhere else. There are things about it that are wonderful and amazing and glorious. There are things we get right. There are things we get almost right.

And there are things that we are so wrong about that it’s heartbreaking. I love Australia and I argue and debate and vote the way I do because I believe it can be better. I believe we can have a fair go for all. I believe that we can protect our environment and our economic interests at the same time if we use our brains. I believe that improvement is possible. I believe we can prosecute rapists and that hell, maybe they’ll be replaced by good athletes that don’t rape people. I believe that we can stop being racist pricks if we stop and think about it and actually take the time to give a shit.

But none of that will happen if we’re blind to the problem. None of that will happen if we’re busy chanting AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE OI OI OI and refusing to hear a word of criticism. None of us will get better if we’re not aware of what we’re doing wrong in the first place.

There is no conflict between loving your country and wanting it to be better. Believing that it can be better is real love, and real faith. There’s no dichotomy here.

There is, however, a lack of jingoistic bullshit.

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Do you care if what you are saying is true?

I’m developing a new policy before arguing with anyone. Essentially, arguing with people about things that I care about is exhausting. It’s emotionally trying. It can bring me to tears – which is already an uneven playing field for people who don’t care about what they’re arguing, who just want to stir up shit. It’s almost impossible to explain to someone who never has a personal stake in these arguments what it feels like to have a personal stake in these arguments. No, you’re not hysterical. You’re not overreacting. This is your life. It’s personal. It’s real. It matters.

So, when I argue, I’m investing, heavily. Often, the other person isn’t. Often, they just want me to perform.

I’m operating on a limited resource budget. I do not have the spare fuel to dance for the fucking audience.

Here’s my question: do you care about the truth?

No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m asking: do you care about the bigger picture? Do you care about robust statistical analyses and studies that tell us what’s going on? Do you care about the risks, the realities, the danger, the damage, the suffering, the truth?

Does it matter to you that you’re actually correct? Do facts matter?

Or is it more important to you that you score points, throw out rhetoric like a thirteen year old who has just had debating explained to you by your underpaid English teacher?

What if you’re wrong? Honestly. What are the consequences of you being wrong, and do you feel bad about it? If you care about being wrong – if that would actually bother you, if it leaves an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach – that’s a good thing. It means you’re invested.

If you’re wrong, have you done harm by being wrong? Are you willing to accept the possibility that you’re wrong? What would convince you that you are wrong? Or are you so ideologically committed to this argument that literally nothing will convince you? That you cannot imagine the evidence required to shift you on this point?

These are important questions. These are the questions that change the world, the questions that change you.

I’ve seen people change their minds. In Australia, we’ve seen that very recently – the postal survey on marriage equality was an unnecessary exercise in psychological torture, but the result was telling: people have changed their minds. A lot of people have changed their minds. How and why that happened is a story other people have told a lot better than I could, but the important thing is that it did happen.

I’ve seen people change their minds about sexual harrassment and toxic masculinity. I’ve seen people change their minds and admit that privilege is a thing and that maybe that privilege prevents them from seeing certain problems. I’ve seen scientists who were convinced that anthropogenic climate change was a myth run their own experiments to support their theories and step back when the results came in. Because… they were wrong, and wow, did the evidence overwhelm them. They had to let go of the cognitive dissonance.

Obviously, being a progressive lefty socialist sort of person, I find these to be positive changes. I haven’t seen a lot of changes in the other direction, but that’s probably because I’m not looking at the places where those changes happen. I have my own biases that I need to be aware of.

I have to be able to extrapolate beyond my own environment. If I believed the whole world resembled my immediate environment, I’d be living in paradise. I’m surrounded by compassionate, good-natured, generous and intelligent people, the vast majority of whom do care whether something is true, and they do care if something is fair.

I can use anecdotes and experiences from my life as supporting evidence. I cannot say that it’s the whole picture. I need access to a wider picture, to more data. I need to read things I actively disagree with – and believe me, I need to be in a good mental space to do that, because depending on what the topic is, I can be literally nauseated and enraged – because otherwise, I won’t learn.

Because it matters if I’m wrong.

It matters if what I’m doing is right, if what I’m saying is fair, if what I believe is true.

Of course, some shit is subjective. Some shit will only be true because your priorities are different from the other person, whose priorities are different, and for them, what you’re saying isn’t true. Reality needs to be experienced, and it needs to be interpreted, and consequences need to be prioritised. I think most of us are aware of this on some level.

Most of us are aware that, sometimes, we prioritise what we want over what is true or fair. Some of us find that uncomfortable (I sure as hell do), and some of us are perfectly okay with that.

I am really good at rationalising my behaviour, so good that I have to keep an eye on it. When I’m deep in a depressive episode, I can justify all sorts of bullshit impulse decisions. Even knowing that this is true, I have to be on guard.

And sometimes I let myself get away with it. Hell, I’m not perfect. I never claimed to be. I have my subjective priorities, just like everyone does. I’ve internalised a bunch of toxic bullshit, just like everyone else has. And living inside an interrogative framework to make sure that I’m trying to be fair and truthful most of the time is a bit tiring.

All the same, I’m going to ask this question, because some things are too important to leave up to ideology and rationalisation. People have rhetoric and anger and frustration and it builds up and spills over, because we’re fucking mammals, and sometimes we just don’t give a shit. We want what we want, we get defensive as fuck, we’re often bigoted assholes and it can take us a really long time to learn, and that’s if we even want to learn.

But if your response to feminism is “well, I believe in EQUALISM and women already have euqal rights”, or if you think we live in a post-racial society, or if you think that I would be less likely to be murdered if I carried a handgun on my person in the city (instead of the statistical reality that I would be many times more likely to die), then I’m pretty sure you haven’t run the numbers.

Sure. It’s more comfortable to think these things are true. It’s easier.

Climate change is scary. The idea that men kill women at a bizarre and ludicrous and indefensible rate is scary. The fact that people are still racist and bigoted and homophobic and that this perpetuates suffering and injustice and cruelty… is distressing.

Most people don’t want these things to be true. It’s exhausting and upsetting.

Thinking about whether what you believe is true, raising the possibility that you’re being unfair, or unkind, or that maybe there are some things about yourself that are less than fair and forthright- well, that’s uncomfortable. It’s squirmy. It’s painful. It can even be horrifying.

I still think it’s worth it.

Pace yourself when you argue, and – if you don’t already do this – ask whether you care if you’re wrong. Ask whether it matters. Ask whether you can be convinced.

Because if the answer to those questions is no, then you’re wasting my goddamn time.

Doing Painkiller Math: Pain Levels and Interference

There’s a lot of talk lately about living with pain and what to do about pain, and as a person who is in pain a lot, I thought I might throw my two cents on the pile.

People who aren’t in chronic pain, or who have never done anything worse than had to get through a crappy sprain, might not understand what it does to you long term. Now, that applies even to relatively low level pain that marches along in the background: if that pain was short term, no worries. You’d just tough it out, maybe try some paracetamol (if that works for you), or ibuprofen (if you’re able to take it. I’m not). You’d rest, take it easy.

The problem comes when even that low level pain is constant, or even only goes away for an hour or so at a time (FREE! I WILL DO ALL THE THINGS!).

I’m not saying my pain is low level. Pain is incredibly individual. My pain is abdominal and crampy, so it’s the kind of throbbing, burning ache that can sneak up on you. You shift a bit, feeling uncomfortable, but keep doing what you’re doing. You lean forward a little, frowning, but turn the page in your book. Then it gets bad.

I often don’t know how bad it’s gotten until I realise I’m hunched over, breathing through it, and I’ve closed my eyes, or I’m leaning on a desk waiting for the wave to ease. I do get sharp stabby pains (obviously bad!), and they floor me, but they’re not super common and they’re not the real problem.

Being in constant pain is not a not tough enough problem; it’s a medical problem, for a couple of reasons, even if you want to be a hardarse about it.

  • Long term, constant pain can lead to hyperalgesia/hypersensitivity, which is where the pain comes on even when the cause is gone. Your spine is sending panicky pain signals that are either completely unnecessary, or way overblown. I have that in my intestinal tract. Good times! There are a few ways to treat and reset hyperalgesia, and I’ve gotten some benefit from them. I recommend a really good pain specialist, if you can afford it (and that’s a real issue. My pain specialist is absolutely not cheap).
  • Long term, constant pain, whether it’s turned into hyperalgesia or not, is a mental health issue. It affects your concentration. It affects your energy levels. It promotes severe anxiety and depression. It makes you cranky and angry. I put in a lot of disclaimers when I complain about things, mostly because I know that when I’m in pain I tend to be really negative about everything else. If you don’t have the self-awareness to know you’re lashing out (and nobody is perfect), it can have appalling effects on your relationships and your family life. I know when my patience is running low, and I try to avoid people (even people I adore) who will set me off. I don’t walk Amos if he seems extra bouncy on those days, because I won’t be patient enough with him – and he’s a dog, he has no idea why I’m upset.

Essentially, expecting people to harden up and tolerate chronic pain, even low level chronic pain, is going to have devastating effects on their life. This is not to say you shouldn’t just go “oh well, I have a mild headache, might just take it a bit easy and drink some more water” – that’s not a terrible idea. Try icing and/or heating a muscular ache that’s just come on.

The thing is: chronic pain sufferers have already tried toughing it out. They’ve tried icing and heating – many of them keep doing that, to reduce the amount of painkillers they take. Since my pain is through some layers of fat and muscle, that… doesn’t help me. I’ve tried a few things. Sometimes a heat pack helps. The ice pack makes the cramps worse (possibly I was too keen with it), but about an hour afterwards, the pain seems to subside.

And sometimes, I say, fuck it, I’m done, and I take the painkillers.

My pain tolerance is actually pretty good (you might not think so, given the amount of painkillers I take), but there are some limits to what I can get through and what I can get done.

Here’s a list of the ways pain interferes in my life (not exhaustive) and how much. I’ll break it up into things I have to do and things I want to do.

Things I have to do

  1. Physio work and resistance training
    I have to do physio work and resistance training because I’m hypermobile. My joints basically collapse if I don’t, and then I end up in more pain. Now, the problem is that I have to do a lot of core work. I have to. But core work compresses my abdomen, which is already sore and crampy and inflamed. So it can make that pain worse, and the pain distracts me from proper form and tires me out. Still: it’s something I can work through.
    Interference level: mild to moderate – can tough it out most of the time
  2. Concentrate on reading scientific papers, designing experiments, analysing data
    This is a really bad one. This is my actual job. Pain can cause brain fog, and it’s hard for me to concentrate. It’s hard from me to separate this from me low blood pressure issues and muscle fatigue relating to the (suspected) EDS; they both interfere like bastards. What I have found is that if I take painkillers, my concentration is (usually) much better. I can string thoughts together and get stuff done. If I was allowing myself to try and tough it out, I would do an extremely shit job.
    Interference level: absolutely fucking appalling – toughing it out makes me useless
  3. Repetitive lab work
    This, surprisingly enough, is okay! I have been doing lab work long enough that it’s basically muscle memory at this point. I double check my maths, I line my reagents and tubes up with my tip boxes so that I know if I’ve missed something – I have a bunch of different strategies, the kind that most lab people develop, to account for my native absent-mindedness. I can get through a long day of lab work while in very bad pain, and still get stuff done. I shouldn’t, because of the whole hyperalgesia thing, but I can, for at least a day.
    Interference level: surprisingly low
  4. SCUBA diving and guiding
    This one is a mixed bag. For the most part, I do quite well. I have a lot to distract me from the pain – people to talk to, equipment to check – and when I’m underwater, the cold actually helps ease the pain mostly (unless I get the stabby style of cramp, and then I just have to tough it out. That’s only happened once though!). I don’t have trouble concentrating because, like lab work, diving skills are very much in the “muscle memory” category. Check gauges, check on group, count heads, point out cool things, help people with stuff. It’s all quite natural. Now, walking around wearing cold water dive gear is hard muscular work, but it’s not high impact or cardio, and I manage.
    Interference level: mild to moderate
  5. Sleeping
    It’s a problem. On the one hand, pain makes you tired, and when it gets past a certain point, you just kind of drop off (assuming you don’t have actual insomnia); but research (and personal experience) shows that sleeping while in pain actually does not result in quality sleep. You sometimes wake up feeling just as tired as when you went to bed. On the other hand, I’m not moving around, digesting food or compressing my abdomen when I’m sleeping, so it’s a mixed bag. I don’t like pain killers before bed because my (extremely wrong) instinct is that I could just sleep through the pain. I might take a sleep aid, maybe once a week (2-3 times in a bad week, not at all in a good week) on average.
    Interference level: mild (when pain is moderate), to severe (when pain is bad)
  6. Interacting with other humans and not being a complete dick
    Ah, this is a fun one. Sarcastic and impatient Kate comes out when I’m in a lot of pain. I’m less polite, less careful, less filtered. As a spectrummy lass, a lot of energy goes into my filters and my careful examination of what I’m saying and how people might take it (YES I OVERTHINK THINGS HUSH). I have to really tighten my grip on myself. A lot of the time, I’m not even upset or snarky, but my voice will come out very tight and strained and people think I’m angry with them, and then I have to manage that. I won’t ever take painkillers just so I’m not a dick with co-workers – I have a bit of a map with long term colleagues – but if I have to interact with a lot of strangers and I’m in a lot of pain, I will.
    Interference level: variable depending on context
  7. Writing stories
    This is not quite as bad as the “reading scientific papers” (unless I’m outlining. Outlining requires a lot more sharp focus for me personally), but it falls under that category. And yes, I do have to do this to stay sane.
    interference level: moderate
  8. Voyage work
    I love voyage work, but it is extremely intense. It’s 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, for multiple weeks, surrounded by people I don’t know very well. It’s basically a stress keg (and often heat keg: most of my voyages are in the tropics, which sets off the Crohn’s and the low blood pressure issues). I would not physically be able to do this without good pain management. Without painkillers, I would lose a significant portion of my income. I’m a contract, casual scientist. My last voyage earned me more than 2/3 of the previous year’s earnings.
    interference level: ahahahahaha massive

Things I Want to Do:

  1. Cardio (running, swimming)
    I could argue this is something I have to do, because it helps my overall fitness and energy levels, but people are more likely to argue the point, so it ends up here. Running is high impact, and it’s really bad for Crohn’s pain – but it’s my major cardio outlet, I’ve worked incredibly hard to be able to do it as a person with hypermobile joints, and it is incredibly good for my mental health. Pain interferes with it abominably. Running changes blood flow to the gut, and wow, does it show, it’s appalling. It can bring me to my knees (almost literally, but I very rarely fall over). Swimming… that’s something I don’t do much, just because of the level of faffing about required to make it happen, but even then, the increased blood flow seems to set off my pain. Not as bad as running, but still quite shit.
    Interference level: bad to really really bad
  2. Rock climbing!
    Pain does not interfere that much with rock climbing unless it’s super bad. I am a very slow climber because I have to set my joints and because keto doesn’t leave me with much explosive power (glucose is much better for that), which will limit me in a lot of ways, but it does mean that climbing is extremely low impact. It is core work, so that can be a problem, but it’s negligible. Unless I have very bad pain, I don’t have to take painkillers for this.
    Interference level: quite low
  3. Housework, dog walking
    I don’t put this under “have to do”, because the house can get to a fairly appalling state and life will move on, but it’s important for my mental health to keep things moderately tidy. Still, I can get a fair amount done in pain. I just focus on the next little thing. The next little thing. And the next little thing. And then it is done, and I relax, and feel a bit better about everything – whether it’s because the bed is made with fresh sheets, or the kitty litter is changed and the bathroom no longer smells like cat urine and poop, it’s nice. I’ve put dog walking under this because – again – Amos will survive without walks (he has other mental stimulation) for a few days. I can usually manage maybe 20 minutes while in pain.
    Interference level: low

I’ve exhausted my brain a bit here, and no doubt I’ll think of more as soon as I click “Publish”, but let’s go with the list as is. The important thing to note is that, even when the interference level is low, that’s only short term. If I had to do tedious lab work on end while in pain, it would become impossible.

If I let myself be in pain all the time?

I wouldn’t run. I would barely do physio. My joint health and muscle tone would decline until walking was exhausting (I’ve been there quite a few times). I would barely talk to friends. I’d suffer through interactions with co-workers at a bare minimum. I wouldn’t read papers or manage proper analytical work – I’d effectively be out of work and I would certainly not meet my grant conditions. I might get some lab work done. I would sleep a lot, but poorly. No voyages. No running. Severe depression. Possibly permanent damage to my relationships and friendships. My health would deteriorate on a number of fronts. I would barely write.

It almost goes without saying that my hyperalgesia would get a lot worse.

Now, here’s the deal: my GP, my main pain specialist and my gastrointestinal specialist want me to take painkillers regularly. They’re high dose codeine, and they have knock on effects that aren’t great for Crohnies, but it’s more important to shut up my spine and try to get the hyperalgesia under control. My other pain specialist (the guy who is covering while my main specialist is on maternity leave) wants me to not take painkillers. He wants me to be mindful, and expect to be in pain. I don’t hate the guy, but that attitude pisses me off. I’m okay with a very low level of occasional, unavoidable pain. In fact, if it’s very occasional, I’m even fine with higher levels of pain.

I’m not okay with visceral hyperalgesia that dramatically reduces my quality of life.

I only have one life. I have things I want to do with it. I’m not okay with fading into the background because of chronic pain.

This is a bummer of a post, but there’s an upside: I recently did a stint in hospital for an IV ketamine infusion. It wasn’t a magic bullet. It hasn’t made my pain disappear. I’m still needing painkillers, which really upset me at first, until I ran the numbers.

But.

I am needing a lot less of them. Which is super nice, and something to focus on whenever I cramp up and get upset about it. Now, whether that’s because of the ketamine, or because I am pushing myself to tough it out (ketamine doctor is the one that doesn’t want me on codeine), I don’t know. It does feel like I’m getting less cramping. I am simultaneously disappointed and excited, which is an interesting mix of feelings, let me tell you.

Now, from the above list, I have choices as regards a management plan. I could look at all the things where pain interferes heavily with my activities, and I could decide only to take painkillers (i) when I’m doing those things and/or (ii) when I’m doing those things and my pain is quite bad. I could do that. It would reduce my opiate intake – win.

But.

I have hyperalgesia. It might make that worse. So here’s the other angle.

I could take painkillers when the cramping starts – trying to fine tune a dose that works, which is very difficult, because codeine is packaged with paracetamol (acetaminophen for you U.S. folks). I can’t just take a tiny amount, see if it works, and then take a bit more if it doesn’t. I’m stuck with whatever dose I take for the next 4-6 hours – which can be catastrophic if I’ve badly misjudged my pain levels. This would mean I’m in a lot less pain overall, and it would be much better for the hyperalgesia, but it would make the side effects of the painkillers worse, and it would increase the risk of addiction or dependency (although, I do tell my GP exactly how much I take and when I take them, and she continues to tell me I’m low risk, and has promised to tell me when that situation changes. I trust her to do so). It might also increase the risk of tolerance, and making the painkillers less effective – which I really don’t want. It’s the main reason I’ve tried so many other non-opiate strategies. I don’t want to be dependent, chemically, and I also don’t want the stuff that works to actually stop working.

So this, my friends, is what I refer to as “painkiller math.” It’s a weird dance, and it’s difficult, and no matter what I choose, someone’s going to judge me for it.

Still.

Halved my dose.

That’s pretty cool.