Tuesday, 23 May 2017

An unexpected intersection

This is not about a motorway junction that sprung upon me in a surprising fashion. Instead it is about my experience today of an overlapping of two of my major preoccupations: anxiety and politics.

Those of you who live in the UK, and probably even some of you who don't, will have noticed that we have a General Election approaching.

Those of you who've read more than the occasional post here will have noticed that I have a tendency to express reasonably strong political opinions, and that those opinions tend towards the left-wing. I'm not ashamed of either of those things. I stand by my words.

Those of you who've really been paying attention will also have spotted that I have a tendency towards self-doubt and anxiety.

And it turns out that having strong political opinions, using Facebook, and suffering from anxiety and a fear of not being liked are a disastrous mixture. I'm going to preface the rest of this post by saying that it all turns out fine in the end. I wouldn't want anyone worrying on my behalf.

I had been planning to write a blog post about the Conservative manifesto position on social care for the elderly, and their subsequent change in position. Mostly because I think there's an interesting and worthwhile debate to be had about welfare spending on care, on what we (as a country) can afford, what those who have spent 40-50 years paying into the welfare state can expect in return, which benefits should be universal and which benefits should be means-tested (and by benefits I include the social benefits of education and healthcare as well as the financial benefits of child benefit, disability living allowance, income support etc).

I do have serious qualms about telling the elderly that they "should" pay for their own care if they have the money or assets to do so and that they "shouldn't" expect the younger generations to pay for them, when those elderly have spent a working lifetime paying into the welfare state for just this eventuality. They set out on their working lives within a state which promised them care from cradle to grave. And yet now the social contract they signed up to has been broken, and they're being told that we can't afford it, and that we'll look after them if they have a medically treatable condition, but that we won't if they have a medically untreatable condition that nonetheless requires a great deal of care.

Clearly, there is a problem with not enough money in the coffers, and an ageing population requiring more and more care. And there is a problem that wealth inequality in this country is increasing, partly fuelled by the absurd rise in house prices. So I can see there being arguments in favour of trying to ensure that that inequality is not exacerbated and that we don't bankrupt the country in trying to fund everything for everyone. We do need to prioritise spending. We do need to decide what can be afforded and what can't. We are already forced to do so within the NHS, with NICE assessing which drugs and treatments have a good enough cost/benefit ratio. But I cannot find it in me to agree that those whose minds deteriorate, through no fault of their own, are uniquely required to hand over their capital to fund their care, while those who suffer from other ailments are not. It seems fundamentally unjust. I would far rather see a lower threshold on inheritance tax and tighter controls to close the various dodgy loopholes that allow IHT to be avoided*. My idealism would rather we all pay a percentage to mitigate against the vicissitudes of life, not knowing whether we will fall victim to the stroke of terrible fortune that robs us of our minds, than that only the victims of misfortune pay.

Anyway... that was the blog post I wasn't going to write...

What I was really writing about, was making a few remarks on this subject on Facebook, and then finding myself defending my point of view to a friend. (Hello friend! Please keep reading!)

And then I went to collect LittleBear from school, knowing full well that I would be likely to bump into said friend. And I was wracked with fear and anxiety. I kept my sunglasses on, my head down, and sought out a fellow anxiety-sufferer to hide beside in the playground. I didn't want to engage in conversation with anyone, just in case. Just in case my views are weird. Just in case I've been too strident. Just in case I haven't thought things through properly. Just in case I've caused offense to a friend. Just in case she now thinks I'm an idiot. Just in case she doesn't want to be my friend anymore.

I know that for those of you with a rather more strong and stable disposition** this response will seem rather extreme. You may be bemused to hear that my hands were shaking and I was struggling not to cry in the playground waiting to collect LittleBear. I can only try to describe the effect that anxiety has - the cold wash that sweeps through me, the desire to run away, to hide from the world, to never have to speak to another human being. The welling tears that I fight to hide from the world. The terror that I may have put myself beyond the pale, and the escalating thoughts of catastrophe, of not only having lost one burgeoning friendship, but that this effect will sweep like a contagion through the school until there is no-one left who will speak to me. I am not exaggerating. The tears are returning even as I try and write this. The terror, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the dread of confrontation, the fear of rejection.

I am blessed in having one particular friend who I know gets it. I know she has had and still has her own battles with anxiety. And I managed to find a few seconds alone with her, to confess, to seek reassurance, understanding, absolution.

And then a voice piped up beside me, "we should carry on our political debate over a glass of wine!" Because the friend I was worried about offending is a normal human being, who interacts with other normal human beings in a completely normal way. And discussing interesting and controversial subjects with empathy, and intelligence, and wit is a completely normal thing to do, and not one that renders normal people into shaking, paranoid messes.

So we went on (without the glass of wine, sadly) to have a perfectly civilised conversation about the subject. And I'm relatively certain she doesn't think I'm a lunatic. Well, relatively certain she didn't think I was a lunatic.

Then I wrote this.

And this has been a hard post to write, and it may be that if you're reading it, the "today" that I refer to is now many days in the past, because I'm not sure that I'm able to admit all this just yet. It feels like a burden to place upon those who know me, who may feel that they have to temper their views, or filter what they say to me just in case PhysicsBear has one of her funny turns again.

But I don't want you to do that, I am not making a comment on you, nor do I want you to feel you have to moderate your words or actions towards me. In fact, please don't. Please, please keep being yourselves, and allow me to be responsible for my feelings, my failings, my fears. And if sometimes I write about those fears here, it's only to try and shed some light on how my mind works, so that if I sometimes seem to react in unexpected ways, those ways don't have to come as a total surprise. And if you too find your mind works the way mine does, you might not feel quite so alone. None of us should feel alone.

* In 2013-2014, only 7.2% of deaths led to payment of inheritance tax. See table 12.3 from the Office of National Statistics for raw data. Generally speaking for the past few years, HMRC are notified of approximately 250,000 estates per year on which tax is not due, and between 15,000 and 20,000 on which tax is due. There really is scope for the country as a whole to move away from the continuing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Instead of a few unfortunate people spending the bulk of their life savings on end-of-life care, perhaps all people should contribute to the care of the few, just as we do through the rest of our lives via taxation and national insurance. I know this is not necessarily a popular point of view.

** This is a deliberate joke. I feel the need to explain, in case my American friends don't get it. "Strong and stable" is the election slogan of Theresa May. There have been a lot of comedic riffs on this phrase. That is all.

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