Queer | Feminist | Doctor

Archive for October, 2013

Depression and Labelling

3 years ago, while undertaking a Masters degree, I became ill and had to drop out of the university course. I was diagnosed with a moderate depressive episode, started taking medication and having talking therapy. I ended up having 3 months of sick leave, and could probably have done with a bit more than that, but I didn’t want to miss my final year of medical school, so I gritted my teeth and managed to get that last year done while I was still quite ill.

Because my illness made it difficult to get out of the house some days, I didn’t have 100% attendance, and although my attendance wasn’t particularly different to the other fifth years, the fact that mine was due to illness meant that the University had to check whether I was well enough to work, before they’d let me have my degree.

This is one example of how, once you’ve been labelled as mentally ill, everything you do is associated by some people with your illness. This is not a new phenomenon. The “Rosenhan Experiment” in the 1970s sent “pseudopatients” in to psychiatic hospitals, presenting with fake symptoms, but behaving as their normal selves as soon as they’d been admitted. Their normal behaviours (such as keeping a diary) were labelled as pathological (obsessive note-keeping) and once they were discharged, most were given a diagnosis of “schizophrenia in remission” – i.e. once you have received a label of mental illness, you have it forever.

Over a number of years now, with some help from therapists, I have been trying to stop doing things which were previously making me unhappy. I am now open with people about my gender, sexuality and non-monogamous lifestyle – being closeted, especially with people who are important to me, like family members, was very uncomfortable. I also started dyeing my hair again, got more piercings and started getting tattoos – these were things that I had stopped myself from doing because I felt that other people would disapprove. Being able to be myself more authentically is much more comfortable than trying to “live up” to what I imagine other people’s standards are, even if it does cause conflict sometimes.

Unfortunately, I have discovered, some people do not see these changes in the same light as me. Some see me receiving a mental health diagnosis and then starting doing all kinds of “crazy” things. And some people have labelled those things that I have been doing to make my life easier and happier, as being somehow pathological. I don’t know if they hope that my personality will “go away” once my depression is better, or that I’ll return to being the less challenging, less expressive, more “normal” and ultimately less me version of myself that I used to be. And I don’t know how to reach out to those people, how to reassure them – if they think I’m “not myself” then will they listen to what I have to say?


Knitting at Nine Worlds

At Nine Worlds Geek Fest I delivered a session which was basically about making yarn from bought clothes. There are two main ways of doing this which I covered in my session – unravelling bought knitwear, and making yarn from jersey fabric (usually t-shirts).
I wrote this blog post so that people who didn’t make it to the session can find out what they missed 🙂


T-shirt yarn

This is made from jersey fabric, usually in the form of t-shirts. You can use old t-shirts, t-shirts you never wear, t-shirts bought from thrift shops/charity shops (especially those who sell clothing by weight) or if you have a particular yarn result in mind you can make it out of brand new t-shirts. If you are buying t-shirts to make yarn out of, try to get the biggest size possible. The yarn is made from the section of the shirt below the armpits so the longer the shirt, the better.

Once you have got your t-shirt, you next need some sharp scissors – dressmakers scissors are ideal. You can also use a rotary cutter if you prefer. Cut a horizontal line across the shirt, right under where the arms join to the body. You may find it helpful to draw a line onto the fabric first with a ruler, to make sure that it is straight. You can buy special fabric pens to do this, or dressmakers chalk which is cheaper, or you can use the corner of a bar of soap.

Now you should have a rectangular tube of fabric. Your next aim is to make a spiral cut so that this is turned into one long thin strip of fabric. There are a couple of ways of going about this. The first way is to start at the bottom edge, cutting in a slope into the fabric until the strip you are cutting is about 2cm wide. Any thinner and you will have problems at the next stage. Then just carry on cutting, keeping your cut the same distance away from the edge of the fabric. Hopefully you will end up going round and round until you’ve got to the top. The second way of cutting the fabric is to lay it out flat and make a series of parallel cuts into the fabric – do not cut all the way across or you will have lots of loops instead of a single strip! This is another point at which you can draw the lines on if you prefer. Cut until about 5cm away from the edge of the tube. You will then have a vertical strip of fabric with lots of loops hanging off it. Then you go along this solid edge, joining up each cut with the next one up. This joins all of the loops into a single strip.

Now that you have a single strip of fabric the next step is to stretch it. I usually do this at the same time as winding it into a ball but you can do these two steps separately if you prefer. All you need to do is go along the length of the strip, stretching it reasonably firmly between your hands. This causes the edges to roll up and the strip to look more like a piece of yarn. Once you’ve got it all wound up into a ball it is ready to be made into something.

The yarn can be knitted, crochet, woven (although it is stretchy so you need to bear this in mind), or used to make things like rag rugs or proggy mats.

Unravelling knitted items.

This can be a very cheap way of getting hold of yarn. At the moment high street shops have a lot of knitwear in them, and in the sales you can pick up jumpers for as little as 3 GBP. Often the ones in the sales are the extremes of size, and since you will be unravelling it, getting as big a jumper as possible is to your advantage.

The first step is to identify which jumpers are suitable for unravelling. Some mass produced knitwear is made by knitting a large sheet of fabric, then using an overlocker to sew it together, which sews and cuts the fabric at the same time. If you are wearing a t-shirt, then the seams will probably have been done with an overlocker.

This is no good for unravelling, as instead of having a jumper knitted with a few lengths of yarn, you have a jumper where the yarn has been cut into lengths as wide as the jumper is. Unless you are happy having lots and lots of bits of yarn a metre or less in length, these are not thje jumpers you are looking for. The jumpers you are after are ones in which the pieces of the jumper (ie front, back, sleeves) have been made separately and then sewn together. [pictures of the right and wrong kind of seam]

The second step is to figure out if the yarn will be any good once the jumper has been unravelled. Mass produced knitwear often uses yarn which is made of many thin threads held together, whereas yarn sold for knitting usually has one, two or three strands twisted together, which makes the yarn more robust and much easier to use for hand knitting. A bought jumper made of strands held together is not necessarily useless for unravelling – you will need to pay attention when knitting it to make sure the yarn is not splitting as you are knitting it. This can be an advantage however as it means that you can hold strands of the unravelled yarn together to make a thicker yarn, without it looking odd. [picture and explanation of unicorn hat and strands]

Another factor which can effect the result you get is whether the jumper is made with a single yarn or using different colours of yarn. Obviously using different yarns means that the length of each yarn will be shorter than if the jumper were made with just one colour. Fairisle jumpers are much more difficult to unravel as the strands are often twisted around each other. I would not attempt to unravel a fairisle patterned jumper as I think it would be far too much effort, but if you’ve got the time and patience to do it then there is no reason not to try.

The third factor which you need to take into account is the fibre/yarn type. Mohair and other fluffy yarns tend to be more difficult to unravel. With a mohair jumper you cannot just grab the yarn and pull it to unravel, you have to unravel it stitch by stitch and it often gets tangled. If you are buying a second hand jumper which is made of yarn with a high wool content, then it may have slightly felted together in places, which will make unravelling more difficult. If you are unravelling a jumper and are finding that it is resistant to unravelling, there are a couple of things that you can do. One is to soak it in water with fabric softener or hair conditioner in it – this lubricates the yarn a bit, hopefully helping it to slip past itself and unravel more smoothly. Another is to put the (dry) jumper into the freezer. I’m not sure how this one works but I’ve heard that it does help!

Once you have identified that the jumper is of suitable construction and the yarn is likely to be usable, the next step is to get it home and start unpicking the seams. Your best friend in this step is a stitch ripper [picture] which you can get from a craft shop/haberdashery department for a couple of quid. I usually unpick the side seams first, and then the sleeves and shoulder seams, which should break the jumper down into its component parts. Often the sewing technique used on the seams is such that if you pull on the right bit, it falls to pieces in your hands, which is most satisfying! If you can’t find the magic thread, then you will have to unpick it stitch by stitch. I usually hold the seam with the right side of the fabric facing me, with one side in each hand [picture], and pull the two sides apart so that I can see the joining thread in the gap between the yarn. An alternative is to unpick from the wrong side [pic]

The trickiest bits are usually the labels and the armpits. Labels are sewn onto the fabric and can usually be unpicked but you may have to give in and cut it out. Armpits are tricky just because there’s usually two different seams coming up against each other and so figuring out which thread is holding you back can be more difficult.

Once you have the jumper deconstructed into flat pieces, you can start unravelling the yarn. Knitting unravels in the reverse of the direction that it was made, and most commercially made jumpers are knitted from the bottom up, so you need to try to find the end at the top of the piece. If however you are struggling away trying to unravel a piece from the top, it is worth trying to find the end at the bottom just in case it was made the other way around. The ends of the yarn are usually sewn in to one of the edges of the fabric. Once you have found it, you will need to undo (or cut) the last stitch that was knitted, and from there you should be able to pull the yarn, causing the row to unravel. After the first stitch, you should not need to thread the yarn through anywhere – I’ve found that trying to do so can cause more problems than it causes so do so with caution. It *should* just unravel. It is worth winding the yarn into a ball as you go along, as tempting as it might be to just keep pulling on the yarn until the whole piece has disintegrated. If you don’t wind as you go, you will have turned a flat piece of fabric into a tangled pile of yarn which you then need to untangle, instead of a neat ball of yarn.

You can either use the yarn it as-is, or you can wind it into skeins to get the kinks out. I use a niddy noddy which you can buy (or make out of PVC pipe reasonably easily) or you can wind it around an object like a cardboad box. Once it is in a skein, tie some threads around it to stop it getting tangled, and then either hang it up in your bathroom to let the humidity get the kinks out, or soak it in water and then hang it up to dry. You will then need to wind it back into a ball – do not be tempted to knit from the skein, it is way more hassle than winding it into balls!

Next year I’m considering doing another session on making yarn out of stuff you’ve bought, but this time moving away from fabric/yarn and towards things like plastic bags, straws, wire etc.

Do you recycle clothing into yarn? Do you have any projects or techniques you would like to share? Or do you have questions or comments about what I’ve written here? If so please post a comment below – I would love to hear from you.


Assimilationism is the act of encouraging minority cultural groups to be similar to larger cultural groups.”

This word is one I’ve only learned in the past year or so, but I’m glad I did because I realised that it is something that I experience in a few different ways. I’m going to describe a couple here.

1. Heteroassimilationism

This is usually expressed in the idea that Queer people would have such an easier time of things if they just behaved like all the “normal” people. The idea that Pride would be a lot easier for people to “deal with” if it wasn’t full of people dressed and acting outrageously. Or when LGBT campaigns put forward the idea that the mainstream should accept us because “hey, we’re just like you!” – we want to get married, have kids, serve in the army, all the things you straight people want!”

Of course having equal access to marriage, adoption/fertility treatment + military service is important, but this kind of campaigning erases the experiences of Queer people who have no interest whatsoever in being “just like a straight person”.

2. Assimilationism in medical culture

Medicine is *extremely* hierarchical. A professional hierarchy is of course necessary to some extent – for newly graduated doctors to have the same level of responsibility as those who have been in the job 20 years would be dangerous and stressful for everyone. But the social hierarchy that we have really grates on me.

Doctors don’t just have a hierarchy within our teams, but some specialities in medicine have a culture of superiority over others. There are stereotypes for most specialities – anaesthetists just sit around all day, orthopaedic surgeons are knuckle-dragging morons, all surgeons lack empathy, etc. I think that patient safety and care quality would also be helped if we stopped trying to say that people working in other specialities are idiots! Do I sound like a hopeless hippy when I wonder why we all can’t respect each others’ expertise, the medical training we all have in common, and do our best to get along?

I’m really glad to find that recent reviews of the NHS have suggested that a less hierarchical workplace would be good for patient safety – the idea being that since junior doctors rotate round into different teams every few months, we bring a fresh perspective to the established practices in a workplace. We are uniquely placed to spread good ideas across different workplaces and notice when a team’s standards of care have drifted. I have a natural inclination to challenge lazy thinking, poor practice, stereotyping etc. I am still working on my skills at doing this without rubbing people up the wrong way – sometimes when I’ve asked someone questions about why they did something the way they did (consultants included) it has gone well, but other times it hasn’t and I’m trying my best to learn from my experiences. Having some of my views backed up by a prestigious review of health care in the UK strengthens my conviction that I don’t have to be assimilated into the medical social hierarchy to be a good doctor.

Of course, the heteronormative assimilation I experience in mainstream society is also present in medicine. My experience of this isn’t helped by the fact that I feel my queerness and my disability make me vulnerable socially, and so at work I tend to be more reserved and less vocal about my personal life than my more “normal” colleagues get to be. I think takes me longer to feel “safe” in a “mainstream” social group than it does with people who I know understand certain things about me, like what polyamory is, the fact that people have pronoun preferences, what pansexual means etc.

Since starting entering the medical profession I’ve begun to explore the boundaries of what is considered a “professional” or an “unprofessional” appearance for a doctor – standards which I believe are based in the medical profession’s origins as a profession run by rich white men. In my first job a nurse complained to my supervisor that she felt that my ear cartilage piercings were unprofessional. To his credit my supervisor told me that it was my body and what I put in it was nobody’s business but mine, but that I might want to think about how my piercings affected how people saw me. Happily I was able to tell him I hope that my appearance helps people to see that I’m the kind of person I am AND a doctor at the same time, which will hopefully challenge people’s stereotypes of what kinds of people get to be doctors. After a few months my supervisor let me know that I’d changed his mind, and that he admired me for sticking to my guns.

I’ve also tried having unnaturally coloured hair at work (I’m not the only hospital worker I’ve seen with pink hair, just the only doctor) which has similarly gone quite well and I’ve received compliments from some medical colleagues which has been great. I’ve also started using the phrase “one of my boyfriends” when the topic comes up, which has been quite interesting – some people don’t react in the slightest which does make me wonder if their brain has censored out my words, like a Derren Brown mind trick. Each further step I take helps me to feel more secure in being myself at work, which is considerably more comfortable than feeling that I have to be closeted all the time.

Hopefully though the effects of the decisions I make on how to present myself at work, won’t just have the effect of making it a more comfortable place for me to be, but will help other people to feel that they can be themselves – both hospital workers and patients. I believe that a diverse population is best served by a diverse population of healthcare workers. And I also believe in “being the change you wish to see”. This stuff is important to me, which is why I do it, and why I write about it. I’m really interested to hear about other people’s experiences of challenging workplace cultures, where the desire to do so comes from, your successes and times when things went less well. Leave your comments below!

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