Gender identity: biology, sociology, predestination or choice?

Gender identity: biology, sociology, predestination or choice?

In politics and psychology, the war to explain sex and gender is hotter than ever. Why?

A few weeks ago I listened to a segment on our public broadcasting radio. They were interviewing a psychology professor who was vehemently defending biology as the defining factor to distinguish gender, men from women, male from female. Leading up to our election a couple of weeks ago, our conservative parties were ranting against “gender politics” and “norm critical” education in schools. Which made me remember my own studies of psychology and the lessons we’d been taught there, how our teachers painstakingly tried to explain the differences between biology, sociology and how we don’t really know how they interact with each other, what ultimately is the defining factor, except one. More about that later.

DNA, chromosomes, and hormones

I have yet to hear anyone argue that a newborn boy and a newborn girl are the same. They’re not. Obviously. Chromosomes decide what sex a child will have, even though Mother Nature has been known to surprise us with various varieties, children we consider intersex, kids with various chromosomal defects, for lack of a better word. We also know that the male hormone “testosterone” and the female hormone “estrogen” impact on how male or female a body appears. Boys with little testosterone will have less body hair and softer features, to exemplify.

So far so good. We also know that hormones will affect our mood, potentially even our personality. However, we also know that all of the above isn’t a given. It’s not a law of nature, like gravity, with no exception. In fact, that is where “nurture” comes in and starts to change things. There are plenty of experiments with how children are affected who are “raised” as the opposite from their birth sex, and there are – of course – our gender fluid and trans friends, not to mention intersexual people. Nature vs nurture. Who is more important?

Front cover of my new children’s book The Dragon Princess, which released September 20, 2018. Get your copy today!

Nature vs nurture. Why is it so important to some?

Seeing how people fight and argue in this debate you’d think it actually matters as if the future of humanity were at stake. But does it? And why? Looking at research and what little I know about nature vs nurture, my take is this: so what? Whether our gender is predetermined by DNA is really not important, because plenty of people live perfectly happy in bodies where their DNA and chromosomes do not match their gender. The opposite is–unfortunately–also true: people who are miserable in their bodies even though the chromosomes perfectly match how their bodies appear.

It’s probably not a big surprise that I believe in choice, that I believe that nurture is much more important than nature. Sure, nature provides us with different preconditions, but that’s it. It merely determines our position at the starting line of life. How well we manage to go through the parkour of life, that’s an entirely different question, where I believe nurture plays a role, and–most importantly–personal choices. These personal choices will, of course, be influenced by both natural predisposition and how we were nurtured.

In a perfect world, that would be it. People would be allowed to determine their own gender expression, whether it’s trans, gender fluid or even genderless/agender. Unfortunately, society complicates things, for a great many reasons.

Conservatives vs progressive

In politics, you’ll find resistance against “free” individual gender expression on the conservative side (on the famous GAL-TAN scale, which is different from the classic left-right scale, as many socialist countries also discriminate against gender expression) while progressive voices usually are much more open-minded.

In our western society where “liberalism” is the lodestar (sorry, couldn’t help it, and no, I’m not behind the infamous op-ed) people’s individual choices are at the center of the economy, and most conservatives want us to make our own choices. Yet oddly this is different. Boys are blue and girls are pink. As mentioned above, our conservative parties in the election fought a fierce battle in the recent election against gender politics, against a preschool where kids are given a choice and taught that it is okay for boys to play with dolls and for girls to play with tools.

Somewhere, there is this idealized picture that we have a pre-defined role closely associated with our sex, our gender and the expression thereof. If you dream of a society where women are the care-takers, child raisers, cooks, and homemakers, it may seem comfortable to find your explanations in biology. You can tell the frustrated women that they don’t really have a choice: “don’t blame me for inequality, blame Mother Nature. I’m sure she knows what she’s doing!” Take it a step further and replace Mother Nature with a deity and you have the perfect storm. And gender politics is evil, as it fights–like Don Quixote–against that which is predestined.

Choice, however, makes things much more complex. Suddenly, you have individuals who live in a soup of biological factors, social factors, and personal choices to be made. And gender politics are a tool to help them find themselves. Some boys will be more “masculine” in their gender expression, some will realize that they are really girls and will want their bodies to match that. The very same is true for girls. At the end of the day, we all find ourselves on a spectrum, from one-hundred percent masculinity to one-hundred percent femininity, where the vast majority is somewhere between the poles.

Nature is at the core of my coming fantasy series. A story for youths and teens primarily dealing with the big threats our planet is dealing with today. Coming November 15, 2018.

What are you, my friend?

Part of the conundrum is the value society attributes to the two poles. Like a battery, masculine is “+” and feminine is “-“, male attributes are desirable, feminine ones are not. That is the sad truth at the core of it all. Our entire world is seen through those lenses. A woman crying in a public hearing is weak, hysterical, a man doing the same is passionate, in touch with his emotions.

I’m a man, but I’m also gay, and thus very much associated with all the negative associations attributed to women. In Turkey, for instance, the word “gay” is exclusively used for bottoms (or receiving men), whereas a top is not. It’s the “female” role that defines who’s gay. A large part of my coming out process (which is a life-long thing btw) was focused on my gender identity/expression, to come to peace with that which makes me a man and that which might not. I have loads of traits which society might consider female and I have spent years trying to figure out whether I should “blame” nature or nurture for them. You know what? I don’t care why. It doesn’t make any difference to how I feel. It shouldn’t matter to anyone. The important thing is how we feel if it’s due to chromosomes, hormones or socialization is irrelevant, or it should be.

But what makes a difference is how I am perceived by others, how my choices are reflected in society. When people or groups keep insisting that my choices are wrong, even though they are just right for me, that’s hurtful. Do I care? At my age, I can barely care enough to lift a middle finger, but I understand that it is a HUGE issue for our young, our impressionable members of society. Our teens who define themselves not based on who they are, but based on their relationships with others. They are at the epicenter of the struggle. It is them we need to support.

On my mind…

I often write about stuff on my mind, big, small, important, inconsequential. And I love to debate. Grant you, it would be easier and more welcome to do so over a cup of coffee/tea, sitting in comfy chairs, but that will have to be another day. For now, feel free to comment and add your two cents, or three. What is your experience? Do you agree with the above or do you have a different view?

Here’s the thing. If only we keep talking, across the great divide of diverging views, we can bring them closer to each other. Yelling, screaming and tweeting will not. So feel free to add your comments. Have a wonderful week.

Hans

Social media fatigue is totally a thing, but what else can an author do?

Social media fatigue is totally a thing, but what else can an author do?

Social media is still ‘da shit’, but I’m so over it…

I just listened to a podcast, a show I listen to regularly (and have appeared on, myself), and the guest talked about Instagram and social media, and how posting Instagram images with his significant other garners him a ton of extra likes. I can sympathize. I recognize myself in that. And I wanted to talk to you all about it. I’m an author. My passion is storytelling and as a writer, I tend to primarily use my words to pen them down. The whole process of selling, marketing and self-promotion does not come easily to me. I just don’t like to talk about myself. I don’t like to see myself on pictures, yet I realize that in order to succeed, I must.

When a new book of mine hits the bookstores, I love to see it featured in magazines, I like to see it reviewed, and I certainly don’t mind seeing it reach the #1 or #2 spots on charts around the world. There’s no author who honestly doesn’t appreciate their books being a success. What I don’t understand is that it takes me to make them successful. What’s wrong with the characters in my stories? Their relationships, the trials they face, the storyline? Why does my smile have to be the deal breaker for buyers, readers? And to go back to the first paragraph and that podcast, it’s not just the artist themselves, it’s their family, too. We are expected to also include our children, our partners, our pets and our homes, our vacation spots and dinner recipes when we post on Facebook etc. I really struggle with that. And I’ll get back to that topic in a minute.

Why I quit Twitter

I quit Twitter this summer, retiring for the second time (after 2010) from the platform. I no longer saw the value of it. It’s become a megaphone to yell out our messages, but no one’s there to listen. Your ranking on Twitter is determined by how well you follow back, but we all know that after a 1,000 follower threshold you’re done. You can’t really follow your stream anymore. It simply becomes unworkable. I had about 8K followers and followed about half that number myself. I never even looked at my stream, and I can only assume the same was true for most of my followers. Most posts are generated by bots who dish out ready-made stories, aka “valuable content” on our behalf, on a regular basis. Where’s the “social” in bots spewing out automated content into the vastness of the Interwebs? Huh? I quit, and I save time and money, but most importantly, I don’t think I’ve sold fewer books because of it.

My schizophrenic relationship with Facebook

I have almost two-thousand “friends” on Facebook. Needless to say that most are not my friends, not even acquaintances, because I don’t know most of them. When I, reluctantly, joined Facebook to help organize my husband’s 30th birthday party (long story), I quickly garnered my first thirty friends. I was excited. They seemed to be waiting for me. Those evil algorithms had me on the hook. Almost a decade later I have unliked all pages (and keep unliking things I liked, such as “classical music” also turned pages by Facebook since then) and I have left most groups, as Facebook turns all of those things into advertising hooks. The sad part is how stupid those algorithms really work. Just because I like a post or a page doesn’t mean I like the “phenomenon”, but to advertisers, it certainly seems that way, and they can push their adverts much more precisely. Those fools! Profit does Facebook, but not the advertiser, not unless their approach truly is “spray and pray!”

When strangers send me a friend request I usually accept, unless it obviously is a fake account or someone who’s only interested in me for a visa or my money. How am I to know who reads my books or not. It’s not as if they send you a message explaining why they’re friending me. I once asked a guy from the Philippines why he friended me and he said: “Facebook suggested it” #facepalm Is that what it’s come to? A stupid algorithm telling us who we would be friends with?

No choice really!

When you have as many people on your list as I do (and I’m far from the 5K limit), and you follow all of them, your stream becomes unmanageable, worthless. So I automatically unfollow people I don’t know. But even then, there’s no guarantee that I actually see stuff from my ‘real’ friends, or from people I know. Because Facebook’s almighty algorithms deem your friendship dead if you haven’t liked or interacted with someone for a while. Little do they know about personal human relationships… My best friends and I can go months, years even without talking, only to resume where we left off the last time. Facebook was supposed to make it easier to stay in touch, but with the constant assault of worthless snippets of lolcats, recipes, memes and what not, our brains just can’t deal and we actually think less about people we’re not constantly in touch with then we used to before social media, simply because there’s a multitude of people constantly occupying our minds. People we don’t really care about, people we do not even consider to be friends. Why thank you, Zuckie!

Unfortunately, I don’t really have a choice. Sure, I can delete my Facebook account and lose touch with everyone close (and not so close), but I’d also lose touch with my only true marketing channel. Although, I wonder, how many of those 1,800+ people I have on my friends list on Facebook actually see my posts? 100? 200? Do the right people see them? I can’t tell.

Where to draw the line?

I’ve written about marketing on numerous occasions before on this blog. On how sex sells to social media trends over the years. I’ve always been wary of posting stuff to Facebook (while I still had a page there) that was personal. I know of authors who work closely with their partners, heck I know of partners whose names are unknown, they’re simply known as “xyz’s hubby” or “xyz’s boyfriend” which is quite sad really, at least IMHO. They play a persona, and I know for a fact that their real lives are quite different from what they show online. Different personalities, different relationship dynamics etc. But they know that their audience is voyeuristic and that they expect to peep into their lives, their kitchen and, yes, their bedroom.

I’ve always kept my family out of my work, as much as I could. I know people are interested, and I’ve resisted. Am I simply an old fool? Old school? A fossil who doesn’t get social media? But how social is it to pimp out my son to an audience when he has no say over the process? My husband has been very adamant that he has no interest in being pimped out to my readers, and he gets quite upset when complete strangers send him friend requests. The stalking really gets to him. I can’t blame him. I wouldn’t be too thrilled if his employees suddenly began to send me friend requests.

What can we do? What’s the solution?

Photographing author Hans M. Hirschi in Central Park, NYC. May 1, 2017.Which brings me back to the podcast and the Instagram posts of a couple garnering more likes than the ones of a single person… Times are certainly changing. The question I’m facing is to what degree I’m willing to sacrifice my own privacy, my personal space, and integrity and go with the flow, to get those likes, catch those followers, make those book sales.

Feel free to comment. What is your take on social media in late August of 2018? Where are we heading? What’s the next big thing? I like to interact with my readers, I actually do, beats the heck out of simply being monitored in silence on Facebook. LOL, you can find me there as Hans M Hirschi if you’re so inclined, or here on Instagram, where I primarily look at pretty pictures of nature.

Hans

#Migration is threatening the very fabric of our societies. It shouldn’t. #humanrights #refugees #politics

#Migration is threatening the very fabric of our societies. It shouldn’t. #humanrights #refugees #politics

Migration is a symptom, not the root cause. We should focus on that instead

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” From “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

I often think of these two lines from the famous poem, engraved at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor of New York City. The statue represents, to me, everything that is good about humanity, and Ms. Lazarus perfectly captured the essence of the welcome to New York, Ellis Island and the promise of America, the promise of the Land of the Free, the Land of the Brave, the American Dream.

Why do people migrate?

Nothing symbolizes the promise of America like the Statue of Liberty, as she stands proudly in the harbor of New York. Yet never before has this promise been as threatened as it is now.

I’ve asked myself that question more often than not in these past weeks, months and years, ever since we Europeans saw the biggest refugee crisis since probably World War II at our shores, as the Syrian War escalated and millions left the country, fleeing to Europe. These days, we reap the crops from the seeds that were sown in 2015: every election, in every European country, is all about migration.

In the U.S., where–for now–the Statue of Liberty still shines her lamp at night, a man got elected into the White House on the back of a promise to end migration, the very core of America’s success, to build a formidable, “beautiful” wall along America’s southern borders. And we’ve seen the pictures and reports from the Texan border, where parents are separated from their children. Children which are kept in cages, kids as young as two to four years of age.

This makes me wonder. Migration? Why on earth would we migrate? I don’t have all the answers, of course, but humanity has always been migrating. If we hadn’t, we’d still be living on the edge of rainforest and savannah in Africa, and who knows, maybe Earth had been a more peaceful place.

But migration seems to be part of human DNA, this insatiable curiosity for discovery, learning new things, exploring new realms. It’s led to humanity populating every last corner of our planet, including places I personally wouldn’t want to live in, including the Arctics, the desserts of South Africa, the Amazon jungle or Australia’s red center. But for the people who migrated there from Africa eons ago, it’s home.

Most humans aren’t migrating voluntarily…

But curiosity isn’t the only reason why we migrate, or else farming wouldn’t have become a trade. We’d all still be hunters and gatherers. And we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place. When our ancestors reached the shores of Alaska, Australia, the Pacific Islands, the Andes, the Amazon basin, Scandinavia etc. they settled down. They developed distinct cultures based on what the land provided, and from those early ancestors, beautiful cultures evolved: Inkas, Mayas, Inuit, Sami, Aboriginal, Samoan etc. Too many to count them all.

So we do we see migration today? Shouldn’t it all be bliss then? Well, apart from those among us who have that migratory gene, some of us humans are forced to migrate for two other reasons: 1) threats to our lives and 2) inability to survive on the land/provide for ourselves. While the distinction may seem semantic, or intellectual, from a legal point of view, it is an important one: the former entitles you to the status of a refugee under United Nation conventions, the latter does not.

In the (filthy) rich west, we seem to have forgotten what it is like not to have that daily meal on the table, we seem to have forgotten what it means to risk life for speaking our minds, praying to the wrong gods, looking suspicious or loving the wrong person. We seem to have forgotten what it is like to be persecuted, hunted, just for who we are. But it’s all coming back to us now.

Empathy is the key to understanding migration

To understand migration, we need to understand the root causes. I may never know why Mr. Trump’s granddaddy left Bavaria for a life in America. Maybe he harbored thoughts that may have become a threat to his life or maybe he merely wished for a better life for himself and his family in America. He wouldn’t be the only one, because let’s not forget: all Americans today, par first nation members, are immigrants, and the vast majority came to America, not because of persecution, but to seek a better life, i.e. 2) above, that which is not protected by those important UN laws.

When you see central American refugees at the Mexico-US border today, they are there for the same two reasons. They didn’t leave because they wanted to, but because they saw no other reason, either because they were persecuted for being a minority or because they couldn’t provide for their families. So they pack their meager belongings and head north to the promised land, just as every white person in America once did. Now think about it: “how would you react if you were in the same situation?” In the case of my American friends, why did your ancestors leave your home countries?

Fight the root cause instead

Sadly, rather than fighting the causes that make people leave their countries, we fight the refugees. The U.S. treatment of children at its borders is inhumane, but I guess it’s easier than tackling the corrupt regimes in Central America. And the EU does nothing to stop the war in Syria, which is the main reason why people flee the country. Admittedly, the situation there is very complex and Europe has little leverage over a war fought between essentially Russia and the U.S., but maybe it was time we presented Trump with the bill for what the refugees cost us next time he reminds us of our debts to NATO?

The other big wave of immigration is from Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa. Both regions suffer greatly from corrupt regimes, and both are –at their roots–due to Western imperialism. Be it French or English colonies, it’s not surprising that many people in those regions look to Europe, France, and the UK for delivery from governments unwilling to provide for its people. Just today I was reached by the news that ethnic cleansing is rampant in Kamerun, a country historically linked to both the UK and France, with a French and an English speaking part. They’re now at each other’s throats. But the EU does nothing.

Why it’s easier to fix North Korea than say Iran

Fixing the root cause of migration isn’t easy. I’m not naïve. It’s also the reason why Trump chooses to meet with Kim and not Ayatollah Khamenei, even though a meeting with the latter would be more promising. Iran is, for all intents and purposes an open country, a country with rule of law, a democracy even, to a degree. North Korea isn’t. Kim is a ruler in the image of the best in Europe: Charlemagne, Louis XIV, or Henry XVIII. He need never ask his people for permission to do anything. Khamenei was brought to power thanks to a revolution by the people, to end the oppression of a ruler who was held in power by, at least partially, the U.S. The fact that many Persians abhor the U.S. is found right there. Iran is a proud country, with a history dating back thousands of years and having faced the west again and again ever since Alexander the Great. Lots of reasons not to trust us. But as swiftly as Khamenei and his ayatollahs came to power, as swiftly they could be removed again if they lost the support of the Iranian people. A sign of the openness perhaps, but not all Iranians dislike their government…

Whereas in North Korea, the situation is different. The people hardly have any information, the country is completely isolated, and the memories of American troops moving through the country north toward the Chinese border in 1952 are still alive among the elder. They genuinely fear America, from first-hand contacts (and decades of propaganda since.) But if that one propaganda channel suddenly changes its tune? If the leader suddenly smiles with Trump and shakes hands? Needless to say, reality is complex, in both cases, but there are reasons why people act the way they do.

To build trust in North Korea takes one person: Kim Jong-Un. In Iran, Trump would have to convince an entire people. That takes time. In Guatemala for instance, it would take years of working to strengthen the economy, fight corruption on every level of government, empower first nation initiatives etc. to stem the flow of refugees from that country. Makes for lousy tweets, boring Instagram updates, few likes on Facebook. Hence of little interest to the new generation of politicians like Trump, Orban, Söder, Farage, Kazcynsky et al.

Nobody wants migration unless want to themselves, or have to…

This is my personal story of “migration”. Luckily it was only a nightmare, but I promise you, waking from it was a great relief. Free for you to read and contemplate.

I am an immigrant myself. I left my birth country of Switzerland for primarily political reasons. I moved to Sweden because it was more open to people like myself, more open to the idea of Europe. I got to stay not because they sympathized with me, but because I met a Swede. Humans like me have always been around, we’ve never really seen borders as anything but hurdles to overcome. But for most of us, my family and relatives included, migration is not on the menu. We are close to our homeland, our own town or village. We rarely travel beyond county lines, and even when we take that charter vacation once a year we come home, applaud a safe landing and exclaim “borta bra, hemma bäst!” (Swedish proverb: good to be gone, better to come home)

Unless war comes, or a famine, and we suddenly find ourselves fleeing for our lives. Not primarily for our own sakes, but that of our partners, our parents, and our children. So think about it, what would you do? Would you flee if you hoped to be able to provide for your family elsewhere? I would. As an author, I am privileged to host a healthy dose of imagination in my brain. It once ran amok after the Russian invasion of the Crimea and the (still) looming threat of further aggression in the West. My story “Nightmare” is the result. You can read it for free, right here, or read it along with several other short stories here.

Why are we arguing over this?

The arrival of large groups of people, numbers likely to grow exponentially once our oceans rise significantly due to global warming, is–no doubt–a threat to Western societies, our way of life, our wealth, beyond the threat from home-grown extremists. Suddenly, we must make tough choices of paying for that extra opera performance or paying for beds for refugees. A new playground for our kids or a classroom for the new arrivals. Some politicians, always looking for short-term optimization of media coverage and thus an uptick in approval rates or votes will do whatever it takes to vilify migrants. Us against them is an easy sell, certainly easier than justifying investing in Africa or Central America, closing borders seem so much more effective and media savvy than behind the doors pressure on an African dictator or two. We built the EU to stop that, to tear down borders, allow for free migration of our people, only we forgot that Europe is no island. We’re not alone. And many members bring a dark past along, former colonies eying our riches, people seeing opportunities for themselves and their families. We really cannot blame them for that. We would do the same. Many of us have already done that, or have ancestors who did, ten, one hundred, one thousand years ago. The best way to stop migration is to remove the need for it. If people can safely and peacefully provide for their families in their own countries, 99.99% won’t want to leave. The handful that still comes will continue to enrich all our cultures.

Finally…

As always, if you like my blog or my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great day and don’t be shy: your experiences and comments are valuable and most welcome.

Hans M Hirschi

#Depression, loneliness are stepping stones on the way to suicide #mentalhealth #LGBT

#Depression, loneliness are stepping stones on the way to suicide #mentalhealth #LGBT

Depression is a very common affliction, and we all can suffer from it during our lifetime

I’ve had better days, and nights. When you’re contacted by friends, as you’re brushing your teeth, getting ready for bed, alerted to a publicly posted suicide note from a close friend, your entire being goes into crisis mode, and for the next four hours, I spoke to suicide hotlines, the police, family, friends, and acquaintances, scrambling my tired synapsis trying to find clues as to where said friend might be, what he might do, how. This isn’t the first time I’m in this situation. About four years ago, shortly after we had visited a close friend in Los Angeles with our newborn son, barbecued in his yard and spent a great day, we had a conversation on the phone where said friend announced that he was done with life. He suffered from depression and had attempted suicide in the past. I knew that. I also knew he medicated and thought he was fine. Panicking, nine time zones away, I contacted a local suicide prevention program and asked them to reach out. That night, I lost a friend. He never forgave me for making that call. A call that could’ve saved his life, had it been serious.

No choice really

I lost a friend. That is fine. Because he is fine. Healthy, he met a guy, got married and moved to San Francisco. But he never forgave me for making that call because suicide is illegal in California and failing can get you in jail… All is well, which is really all I could ask for. Depression is a vicious disease. Anyone can get it, and we all are depressed from time to time. The difference between suffering from Depression and “just” being depressed is significant. We all have our lows every now and then, but when you’re clinically depressed, the effects are deeper and they last.

Picture depression like a black hole in the ground. You call in, you realize it’s not very deep and you climb out again. Sure, you may have scraped your knees, bloodied your hands, and you’re dirty, needing to wash your clothes, but all in all, you’re none worse for the wear. For someone with clinical depression, when they fall into that same hole, they can’t get out. They are unable to feel the ground underneath their feet, and they feel as if they keep falling, i.e. things are getting worse. There seems to be no way out of it, no end (no positive end anyway), and they can’t grab a hold of the walls and climb out. Everything is slippery and wet, they can’t get a foothold anywhere. They just tumble and for every step they DO take, they fall right back in.

Therapy, medication help

This is where therapy and medication come in handy. They provide a steppingstone, a foothold. They “dry” the walls of the hole, enabling the patient to climb out of it, to see normalcy again. Because that’s what this is mostly about: outlook. I, like most people, have been depressed. Not clinically, but you know, down, really down. And you know what? It’s easy to let yourself fall, once you fall. You escalate any and all disagreement, you choose to view anything negatively, even though you probably might view it as something positive if your mind frame were different. Depression, like most mental afflictions, is about our thought process, how we interpret the signals around, and we have a choice. When depressed, that choice seems mute, impossible.

Stigma

For someone who’s healthy and “normal” (as in occurring in relatively frequent numbers, not better!), it seems that making the choice of interpretation should be easy. Duh! But for someone with a bout of depression, it’s not. I get that. I’m an author, I’m surrounded by a lot of artists, and we are prone to mental afflictions. Always have been. There are good reasons for that. As authors and artists in general, we need to be able to reach the depths of human emotion in order to transform those emotions into paintings, music, sculptures, and books. Therefore, we are in great sync with our emotions. You’d be surprised by the number of artists with mental afflictions, or rather, meeting someone who claims to be “healthy”. It makes you wonder if they’re merely faking it.

And faking it, they might. Simply because there is still so much stigma associated with mental health, or the lack thereof. Even though nobody’s ashamed of admitting to hay fever, asthma or having a cold.

The downward spiral of depression

People with depression are often jovial to the outside world, they put on a brave and happy face. My friend, the one who ‘ruined’ my sleep the other night, is never seen with a serious face on any photograph. He’s got a bubbly, happy personality, and he often expresses his gratitude for all the chances he’s been given in life. As a good friend, I know it’s just a facade, a Potemkin one at that, hiding the truth of an existence most of us wouldn’t dream of in a nightmare. A difficult life.

The challenge for many people with depression is their inability to get help. The need to keeping up appearances (for whatever reason) is so strong, the willingness to acknowledge the problem so strong that they let themselves sink deeper and deeper to the point where they see no way out but to give up completely, and bow out of life. I don’t mind people ending their life, in principle. When you’re old and terminally ill, why not. We do it with our beloved pets. Better for them, better for us.

What about those around you?

But to take your life when you’re young? Physically healthy? There’s really no reason to (and I refuse to make any religious arguments here, because “Harry Potter”, who cares what he has to say on the subject) except that the patient feels as if they’re this great big burden on people. They can’t, they refuse to see the other side of the medal: family, friends.

I was telling my son about my friend and how sick he was and that he was all alone in this big city. Sascha, with the wisdom of a five-year-old, responded: “but how can he be lonely with so many people?” That is exactly the point, isn’t it? Not just as a problem with our society in general where New York feels lonelier than a tiny island with 1,400 inhabitants like ours or that someone in a depression isn’t even capable of seeing their own friends and family as present anymore if they’re not physically in the room. It’s so easy to be lonely. It’s so easy to choose not to dial a number. So simple not to. To just watch this star die, or that one. To get sucked deeper into the abyss that is depression. Not to reach out. Not to cry because one is strong really, while inside the shards of ones broken existence are cutting fresh, bleeding wounds.

It’s easy to believe that the world would be a better place without me. The pain within getting stronger, the loneliness outside palpable, physical. The decision easy. The deed as well. You write that note and you leave…

But you’re not alone…

The reactions to that note were amazing, at least from my vantage point. So many people reached out. It surprised me that one human being could be cared for by so many. So many who would miss him. No, we no longer live in a village where you see people every day, where you meet them on the way to the bathroom even. Our modern world works differently, less physical, more online. For better or worse. Calls were made, the police were alerted. Friends who had only known ‘of’ each other began to communicate. We worried, we shared, we searched. Friends spoke to family, for the first time, ever.

Finally, he was found. Alive and well. He’s now in the care of professionals. I’m glad and I felt great relief. And as my tensions released, I realized how stiff my body was, how everything hurt, headaches and just how exhausted and tired I was. Not just from lack of sleep, but from the tension, the nightmares (author here, remember? Great imagination) and the fear. When it all came tumbling down, I took a sleeping pill and went to bed. Next morning, I’m still tired, my body still aches, but at least my mind is at peace.

I speak not for myself…

I’m not the only one who cried tears of relief yesterday. A mother, a father, siblings and relatives cried, too. So did friends on every continent: Australia, America, Asia, Africa & Europe. I know that some will read this who are aware of the situation and the names of the parties involved. It is not my intention to reveal them. What I hope this post will achieve is to serve as a beacon, to others who feel they are on the verge of slipping into that hole. Don’t let yourself fall. Fight! Talk to someone. The sooner the better. You would be astonished at the great compassion humans can exhibit, if you only ask.

Call a suicide hotline. I won’t list any because every continent, every country, and every city have them, in some shape or form. Just google. Make that call. Ask for help, because even if you feel that you have nothing left to contribute, your family, your friends do, and they would miss you terribly.

If you’re young, and LGBT…

I heard your “but my family…” the second I typed the word. Yes, I know. And I understand you perfectly. You’re young, very young, still at home, and you have no friends (yet) to talk to and your mom and dad hate you for what you are, they mourn that which you can never be, they threaten you to become something you know you aren’t. I understand. Been there! It is pride month in the world, and in some countries, we feel as if we’ve accomplished it all, yet there are still so many families out there where children keep the lock to their closets close to their hearts, where society shuns you. In the words of the Trevor project: “It gets better!” Call them, talk to an understanding youth organization. Reach out, get help. You are NOT alone. Our family is big, and we are strong, and even stronger together. I will never turn away an LGBT youth in need, but I cannot be everywhere. Make that call, you are not alone. That is my solemn promise. It’s worth it.

Finally…

To my friends with depression and other mental afflictions: know that I love you and that I am grateful for your contribution to my life. I support you in your quest to feel better, to become stronger, for your strength to fight the demons.

As always, if you like my blog or my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great day and don’t be shy: your experiences and comments are valuable and most welcome.

Hans M Hirschi

Here’s what happens when you seat a dozen #introvert #authors around a table… #ASMSG #ampanicking

Here’s what happens when you seat a dozen #introvert #authors around a table… #ASMSG #ampanicking

I just came home from my first ever publisher conference in the UK

I think the answer to this post’s heading is almost a given: not much, or should I say “everything”? I’ve never been to a publisher conference before. But when my own publisher, Beaten Track, invited their eighty something authors and our families to a get-together slash publisher conference last year, I quickly said yes. For two reasons: a) Debbie, the owner had been to see me a couple of years ago and we did some amazing editing work together, and b) I had always wanted to see that corner of England, Lancashire, north of Liverpool. We booked our flights early and used miles to save money. The Hirschis were going to Britain, no matter where the bloody isle would be at the time of the meet-up.

I finally got to pick up my first copies of my new novel. As always, a special moment.

I finally got to pick up my first copies of my new novel. As always, a special moment.

A quick hello and books

We flew to Manchester and rented a car, got stuck in one of the endless queues that plague British freeways (The M25 is also known as Britain’s largest parking lot) before we pulled up in front of Debbie’s house. I had a box of books to pick up and I wanted to say hi. We flew in on Friday, but the meetup wasn’t to begin until Saturday afternoon.

I got my books and we left Debbie to finishing her master thesis in psychology, nerve-wracked as she was about combining a master thesis with organizing a publisher conference, all in one weekend. Some people are better left alone at certain times. We’d see her again within 24 hours anyway. The publisher conference started laid back with a dinner. Of the eighty something authors in Beaten Track’s stable ten showed up, plus families, which gave this a very familiar setting.

Some had driven in from the neighboring town, others from across the UK, some from Europe and some all the way from the US. But as indie author finances go, most couldn’t afford the time or the trip. Hopefully, next time we’ll be a bigger group.

So what actually happens when you DO sit down and talk?

I’m always amazed just how introvert most of us are. Even I, who usually labels himself an ambivert, gets all shy and quiet in this sort of setting. It’s almost as if we amplify our own discomfort. Sure, as an empath I tend to mirror other people, but it was almost painful in the beginning, and poor Debbie (an introvert herself) had to fight hard to kick things off. So we started with legal discussions which quickly went down rabbit holes of physical v virtual postal addresses. After that, the group had relaxed enough to talk about all sorts of things and the time allocated to us went by in no time.

So what was on our mind? Marketing, of course, is always on indie authors’ minds, and Amazon’s seemingly erratic behavior in trying to cull fake reviews and review trolls can drive any small publisher and author to an early grave. Roe Horvat, our resident graphic designer and a brilliant author in his own right, gave tips on what to think about to make a stunning cover, one that appeals to readers, and we all agreed to open up a blurb clinic.

Blurbs, every author’s bane

This was just one of the countless topics of the weekend. Note: an internal joke

This was just one of the countless topics of the weekend. Note: an internal joke

Some publishers write the blurbs for their authors, but when you have a publisher who believes that blurbs are Satan’s afterbirth (in spirit, not her expression though) then authors are on their own. And we rightly think it’s torture, because if you could summarize our novels in 200 words, why on earth did we just spend months and tens of thousands of words writing the bloody story? But maybe by helping each other, we can all get better blurbs.

Blurbs and great appealing covers are important if you want to be noticed on Amazon’s (and other online retailer’s) sites, where a reader might see your cover scroll by for a few seconds before it’s gone. The cover must make you want to click on it so you can read the blurb. The blurb must be the closer of the deal. If it doesn’t make you want to read the story you’ve lost a sale. I’ll be honest and admit that my own blurbs aren’t exactly deal closers. I’ll be a happy user of the blurb clinic.

In a way, picture our readers as flies… Your cover is the honey or the nectar that attracts it, wants it to eat, while your blurb is your pitcher plant, closing the deal. And if this picture doesn’t help you, what about the elevator pitch? No? Okay, move on… LOL

We all want to sell more, but how?

No, you don’t become an (indie) author to make money. The number of people who can live off of their writing alone can be counted in the thousands, worldwide. It is what it is. But we’d all like to sell more, and I was reminded of something (and I shared it with the group), particularly given recent events with authors beginning to trademark words (the idiots!), that Elizabeth North, CEO of Dreamspinner, said at a conference a few years ago: “Publishing isn’t a finite market. It’s not a finite cake we’re sharing. Authors don’t compete against each other. Great books will entice readers to buy more, similar books.”

I believe that Elizabeth is onto something. Sure, readers will always choose a book over another, first. But who’s to say they won’t come back for seconds, thirds? As authors, we shouldn’t view each other’s success as something bad, particularly not within a genre. It’s a good thing, because if the readers like that story, chances are indeed they’ll want more, and yours could be next.

Collaboration galore

If you are contracted by a small publisher, we all sort of pitch in. Someone helps with covers, someone else does a newsletter, a third person does proofreading, a fourth one coordinates with bookstores etc. It’s inevitable, since not one person can do it all, not in the long run, and no chain is stronger than its weakest link. I think it was a great initiative by Debbie to organize this publisher conference, and I hope it will return, in some shape or form.

While we’ve all worked with each other on projects such as anthologies or our own books, most of us had never met in person. It is that element that is crucial in human culture and communication. It smoothes our future collaborations. That alone was priceless.

Finally

As always, if you like my blog or my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great day and don’t be shy: your experiences and comments are valuable and most welcome.

Hans M Hirschi

Authors, writing and mental health: correlated? How? #amwriting #amreading #ASMSG #MondayBlogs

Authors, writing and mental health: correlated? How? #amwriting #amreading #ASMSG #MondayBlogs

There is no doubt that authors suffer from mental health issues. It’s complicated…

A while ago I noticed the absence of one of my author friends from social media. A quick check with others made it obvious that they were suffering from a bout of depression and needed some time off. Depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, you name it, there isn’t a mental health challenge that I haven’t encountered among my author friends. Are authors particularly prone to mental health issues? Does writing make you sick? Or do you need to be “crazy” (in the broadest sense of the word) to write in the first place? Authors and mental health, let’s have a closer look.

Mental health is a thing and it ain’t going nowhere…

Mental health is a thing in today’s society. It wasn’t when I grew up. Or at least we dealt with it differently. When my dad’s godfather’s wife jumped in front of a train after having escaped from a mental health facility, it was shushed. Nobody talked about it, yet mental health facilities were infamous. The one nearest where I grew up was in a village called Cazis. As a child, going to “Cazis” was the equivalent of being insane, crazy, a mental case. The village gave the name to the mental health hospital. It was weird when my mother was sent there for two weeks evaluation in the spring of 2013, to evaluate her Alzheimer’s. But back in the seventies and eighties, we didn’t talk about bipolar or “mano depression” as it was referred to back then. We didn’t talk about depression or any other mental disorder. Those affected were simply “crazy”, “nuts”, “insane” and that was it.

But many were never in a hospital or a mental health institution. It seems as if we have more people suffering (in general) from mental health issues today than we did back then. Is there an inflation? We did have something though, back then. Something you don’t see much anymore: originals. Every town had one (or two), “originals”, and I have a hunch they were the ones we might treat differently today.

The drawback of the increase in mental health diagnosis

I think it’s a sign of progress that we can talk (more) openly about mental health. I’m glad that it’s no longer (as stigmatizing) to say that you’re suffering from depression, any more than it should be to talk about cancer or any more “traditional” physical ailment. On the other hand, it’s a shame we still distinguish between mental and physical health. The vast majority of mental health issues are physical, due to malfunctions in the brain, not just “mental”, i.e. how we think/feel. Hormonal imbalances, genetic defects, etc. There are countless things that can go wrong and make an organ as complex as the brain tick differently. What we consider the norm is not very common.

Yet I’m not entirely convinced that every diagnosis is helpful. In one of my first psychology classes, one of my colleagues asked the professor how he would define mental health. The professor didn’t think long before he replied: “Mental health is the absence of a diagnosis.” It’s a sentence I’ve never forgotten. It’s a consolation that in one way or another, we’re all mentally sick. That we simply haven’t been diagnosed yet. On the other hand, I wonder why we need to slap a diagnosis on children just to get them help in school, why so many of society’s social welfare is based on mental disease. No diagnosis? Sorry, we can’t help you, because we don’t have a neat little box to fit you into.

I have no answers here, but I see it as one of our time’s greatest challenges to tackle. If you have a view to contribute with, please feel free to comment.

Chicken or egg question?

Mental health for authors then… When I think about that, I often wonder what comes first? Do you need to be nuts to write or does writing drive you crazy?

English author Britt Michaelsen once said something very profound: “authors need the thickest of skins and the thinnest of skins.” What did she mean by that? To write, authors need to be very thin-skinned in order to be in touch with their characters, their stories. To learn from other people about the human condition, to be empathic. But we also need the thickest of skins to handle criticism and feedback from editors to publishers and publicists, not to mention reviewers and readers.

How do you combine that, without going schizophrenic? No pun… As an empath, I know acutely just how difficult life can be when you easily pick up on other people’s emotional state. To constantly listen in on how other people feel, to be intimately in touch with your characters can be taxing, and it can be depressing. It can also be exhilarating, thrilling. But does it cause depression? Does it make you bipolar?

To read bad reviews, having to suffer from online trolling and all the other misery out there can be challenging, too. When people ask you to go and die, kill yourself when a story you poured your heart’s blood into is being trashed for no other reason than because people get away with it, it can be very depressing. When you win awards, read beautifully crafted reviews and receive fan mail, it makes your heart skip beats. But does it cause depression? Bipolarity?

No easy answers…

I don’t think I have the answer. Not sure I want one. But it’s a fact that many authors suffer from mental health issues. Whether we are overrepresented compared to the general population I can’t say. I’m not sure if it is our thin sanity membrane that enables us to write. Or is it writing and the consequences thereof that wear down our mental health immunity. Maybe a combination of both? What do you think? Whichever it is, mental health is a thing. It’s here to stay, and I’m glad that authors thematize it in their writing, helping others to have characters to identify with, and for all of us to be able to have a more open discussion about mental health, without stigma.

Feel free to contribute! As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week.

Hans