Age is a number

The polls have closed in Scotland and the count has started. Aside from the excitement of a nation voting on whether or not to become independent (peacefully!), there are a few other quirks about the referendum that have drawn notice. One is that 16 year olds were eligible to vote.

Some people think this is a bad idea. Some think it’s “insane”, even. Typically the argument is that the brain of a 16 year old isn’t fully developed enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

I am extremely uncomfortable with that argument for several reasons. Firstly, the fact that that’s exactly the same argument that was used to deny women and various ethnic groups suffrage in the past (and in a couple of places even today). This will be rebutted with the assumption that our knowledge of the brain is better now, but during those previous debates they assumed their knowledge of the brain was correct too. The fact is, we know very little about the brain. They’ve just found a woman in China who’s 24 years old and has no cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for fine motor control, balance, motor learning and speech. Normally when this happens, the person dies quite young. In her case she had the symptoms of a minor to moderate impairment – difficulty walking, slurred speech, late development of both (speaking at 6, walking at 7). Why? Science doesn’t fucking know. The assumption is that other parts of the brain took up the slack. The brain is the least understood part of the human body.

Basing civil rights on mental abilities is really gross. It’s lead to intelligence tests that were rigged for failure. It’s lead to people with any sort of mental impairment being barred from voting (and the history of insanity is pretty fascinating for how mental impairment has been assessed over the years). There are plenty of adults who don’t grasp consequences very well who are nonetheless strongly encouraged to vote. You can vote with a concussion if you want. You can vote no matter what your educational level. There’s no obligation to even read up on the candidates or parties, you can go in there drunk with absolutely zero clues about any of it, pick two options at random, and it’s still a legitimate vote. The fact that we have a tradition of satirical political parties should be some indication that this is not some holy rite that only the most worthy should be blessed enough to take part in.

Meanwhile we let 16 year olds make all sorts of decisions that affect their future in dramatic ways. Pick school subjects, drop out, have children, leave home (in certain circumstances), drive. Car crashes are a major killer, particularly affecting Maori youth, especially rurally.

If 16 year olds are allowed to participate in adult society, and be quite strongly affected by decisions made there (eg youth wages, employment law, tertiary policy, apprenticeship schemes), I think it’s a little outlandish to consider the idea of allowing them to vote to be “insane”. 16 year olds are fairly likely to be taking or have taken civics classes fairly recently, and still have that information fresh in their minds. They are a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for. Not all of them will want to vote, and when you look at the places where they’re allowed to you’ll usually find that at 16 you’re able, but at 18 it becomes compulsory (either to just enrol or also vote), or 16 year olds are only able to vote in particular kinds of election but not all of them. But 16 year olds are right on the cusp of entering the adult world and the decisions people make here tomorrow will affect them strongly. Very strongly, considering some of the areas that have been policy focuses lately. Someone who’s in Year 13 this year and hasn’t turned 18 yet won’t have a chance to vote until they’ve already been in the workforce or higher education (ideally), raising a small child (also pretty hard work), or stuck on a benefit (increasingly more realistically) for two and a half years. That would have been me if you shifted my birth year – I didn’t turn 18 until just after I started university. And yet they have no say whatsoever on who gets to define the terms of their participation for those nearly three years. Looking at it through a civil rights framework, I just don’t think that’s fair. I want to encourage young people to take an interest in politics early. Maybe if we can catch these 16 year olds, it will be one of the factors we need to improve youth engagement. That can’t be a bad thing.

Clawing back

This time last week it was like the world was ending. There are certain things I’ve gone over in my head a lot, trying to figure out how to explain them to people who haven’t experienced it. I should be able to; there’s a strong literary thread in my family, I wrote a lot during high school and attended the Christchurch Young Writers’ School. (That might not be what it was called, I’ve been out of school for a while.) But I’ve tried, and in this respect having a breakdown is much like the Christchurch earthquakes – I can string words together but it all comes out as cliches that do nothing to really convey the complicated mess that it is. After the earthquakes there was too much emotion, all happening at once and none of it making much sense. During a deep depression there’s not enough. They’ve actually studied this, interestingly. People who suffer damage in the part of their brain responsible for emotion start to have difficulty making decisions. It makes sense if you think about it – if you have no emotional investment, you might think you’d become more logical, but how do you assess which outcome is better if you have no metric for deciding what is “good”? And that’s sort of what emotion is, a lot of the time. And when you’re depressed to that level, nothing is good. There is no ideal outcome, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hopelessness. I felt like schoolwork was impossible, I cried a lot. It was pretty much my default time-killer, really. Staring out the window at the empty yard gotten too unfulfilling even for my apathy? Might as well cry for a while.

By mid-to-late last week I was starting to get a bit of myself back. It’s hard work. I had to force myself through a lot of it, particularly dealing with the consequences for uni. I had help – I’d spent a couple of hours clicking through the Massey website looking for the most appropriate people to reach out to and couldn’t ever work up the momentum to actually email any of them, so in the end someone else emailed someone on my behalf and forwarded it to me. That worked. Once there was a point of contact in my inbox I only had to reply, and it didn’t matter if it was objectively the best person or whatever. In the end I dropped a paper, and then I worked as hard as I could to finish the assignments due for the two papers remaining. I will be the first to admit that those two assignments were not my best work. I think I actually put the wrong student id number on one of them, and I’ve been typing that thing out over and over for two or three years.

Don’t get the wrong idea when I say I worked as hard as I could, though. This isn’t the study habits of a diligent high school student trying to pad out their college application in America where you need a little more than a C average in Bursary (or whatever the NCEA equivalent is) to get into a decent school. I didn’t feel…. connected to it, really, like I have done in the past. That feeling that, yeah, I’m working on an assignment, I’m applying my learning and preparing for the exam if there is one and one day I’m going to use this knowledge or the experience of gaining it in the job market. I like most of my classes and I’m pretty used to that feeling. This was more that I consciously knew I had to get the work done, but I didn’t feel like it was very urgent. Not more urgent than staring out the window at the empty yard. The word vacuous comes to mind to describe that state, not so much a fuzziness as a general disconnection from reality.

Okay, here’s a metaphor. I have an Asus Transformer, the screen slides into a dock on the keyboard and clicks into place and lo, my tablet now looks like a laptop. Around the little sockets on the bottom of the actual tablet bit the plastic casing is of course thinner than it normally is, because it can’t cover that socket, right? So for the last couple of months, around one of the sockets the plastic had cracked at one end and poked out a bit unless there was pressure holding it in place, which there is when it’s docked. Recently I began having trouble docking it though. It slid in, but it didn’t click like it normally does, like when you’re doing up your seatbelt (make it click!), and if I wasn’t careful I’d knock it out of place. I could push it in but then it would be out of alignment on some other edge. Eventually I realised that the little bit of plastic had come off at the other end as well and it was sitting inside the dock on the keyboard, preventing the tablet from getting in far enough to make a proper connection. It was recognising the keyboard, I could type fine, it used the extra battery just like normal, but jog it the wrong way or accidentally kick it or something and nope, no longer connected. Sorry.

Obviously this allegory does not go much further. I can’t just tip my keyboard unit up so the plastic falls out and everything locks together again the way it was meant to. But it might be a little easier to understand than the other words I know, things like depersonalisation and derealisation and dissociation (of the three, probably derealisation is the most accurate, though it’s really meant to describe something slightly different.)

I submitted the second assignment today and I still have reading to catch up on. I actually had done a little bit of reading during those five awful days, because it was a way to pass the time and didn’t actually require much effort and, most importantly, the binders were right there. But I’m still behind in both papers and I’ll have to work on that this week. Right now I’m a little burned out for the day though, I’ve been reading too many articles and thesis abstracts and trying to assess them on a critical level to at least reach a level maybe vaguely acceptable in a third year paper. Mostly I just want to sleep for a long time. I don’t have many of the extra strength sedatives that might accomplish that left, though. I had to break into them last week after spending half an hour on the phone with a student advisor in the morning when my flatmate had some friends over in the evening. It sounds stupid, but hearing their voices, and particularly when they all would all laugh and the volume shot up, was unbearable. I ended up clinging to my pillow trembling, chest hurting from the way my heart sped up anytime a noise came that was louder than the general background levels. And more crying. After the drugs kicked in I was able to briefly duck into the kitchen to shove some ice cream and canned peaches in a bowl, after one had left and another went to pick up their dinner order and I only had to face three people. I almost couldn’t do that, but when you don’t eat enough as it is, occasionally you get to the point where you know you need to get some calories into you as soon as is feasible. And I didn’t know how late they’d be staying.

The struggle to convey an experience is pervasive, I think. Mental illness is terrifying because it’s isolating. If you could only find a way to describe it, it might lose some of its power over you, so you grope around for words that will tap into… something… you don’t really know what. A common spirit? Empathy? A quiet, disquieting feeling that haunts everyone when it’s dark and you’re all alone?

Maybe it doesn’t, though. You can’t know until you try to explain and see the reactions – whether people look at you afterwards with understanding, or whether they pull away like insanity is catching.

Making the hard calls

I mentioned that I was in touch with someone from Massey; this happened very quickly after I started to recover from last week’s crash. Luckily someone else set it up, because the Massey website is enormous and poorly designed and makes me want to cry in a corner far more than it makes me want to figure out exactly who the appropriate person to contact is and then email them out of the blue.

So, yesterday I had a 25 minute phone call with this student rep. And if you know me, you know I HATE phones. I actively refuse to make phone calls if I have any kind of choice and if I get a call without expecting it odds are about 50/50 on whether I’ll answer. But we managed some level of productivity despite my neuroses. She wanted to get a better idea of exactly what kind of support I have up here and what problems/diagnoses I actually have and then made lots of suggestions. I managed to write some down, so hopefully my notes will still make sense later. I dropped one of my papers and she said she’d check with someone else whether I would still qualify as full time without it since I study over summer, and she’s going to send me some forms for fees to be carried over, which means that I could take that paper again next year without paying for it again. I’ll have to take those forms to the doctor, but I need to go soon anyway for a new scrip. I’ll also ask him if there’s any particularly good places through PHO I could get counseling for free; if not, Massey lady will hook me up with student health at the Wellingon campus.

(I did get an email shortly after the call – I am still full-time, just. You need to take 8 papers a year, which usually means 4/semester, but 3 over summer means 2+3 the rest of the year is enough.)

Here is how phone calls affect me for the rest of the day: after a while, every single noise was stressing me. The cicadas. Some guy doing yard work with a power tool. A bunch of my flatmate’s friends came round and it was nightmarish; I could hear them talking but they laugh louder than they talk, so that set off my heart going faster than usual. I ended up huddled at the end of my bed trembling until I heard one visitor leave and one go to pick up dinner. That left flatmate and one other person, which I decided was my best shot to get something to eat and some juice to take my lorazepam with.

If I end up in a sharehouse, I feel I need a bar fridge. Leaving my room to get food is just too hard when I’m struggling.

Collisions

 

 

These are my study materials for semester one. You can’t quite tell from the angle but it’s almost a foot high – the bottom package is the size of the middle one and the stuff in the binder combined. Overall it’s over 3000 pages.

My flatmate is 34 weeks pregnant and will likely be premature. Her midwife wants her to be at least 36 weeks, so, sometime in March.

I originally applied for more financial aid in November, knowing that the best time to move would be in the mid-semester break in February and wanting to have time to save some money first. I’m still trying to get it.

There are plenty of people in my classes who work full-time and have kids and still manage to study. I’m not one of them. I had never completed first year before, let alone done a 300-level paper, let alone two at once as well as a 200-level, and I know that dealing with WINZ affected my work over the second half of summer, especially in NZ Land Wars. I don’t really want to be trying to study with a baby in the house. I just don’t. Excitable dogs barking is hard enough.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts for the future

It occurred to me last night that if I can’t find a decent place to live in Wellington, I could spend my last year of uni up in Palmerston North. (Approx mid this year – mid 2015.) The rent is much cheaper, and while the public transport system isn’t very comprehensive it’s flatter so walking or biking wouldn’t be as much of a problem. I’d have access to the Massey library in person, rather than having things sent out to me which is enough of a pain that I rarely do it. If I took even one paper internally I’d also get free bus fares – though if I was really lucky I could potentially arrange with the teacher to “be” internal but not actually have to turn up unless I’m able. It might also make it easier to connect with teachers and build up contacts that might be helpful when I’m looking for work.

Downsides include the cost of moving things up there, of course, as well as the fact that Palmerston North is a dreary hole populated largely by students, military families and the soulless. And while I don’t know where I’ll end up working after school, chances are decent that it will be in Wellington which means then either moving everything back or selling bits of furniture and buying replacements. I’m unlikely to want to take a job there even if I’m offered one. Also, all the mental health support I’m fighting to get access to is in Wellington. But it’s a very feasible option that I think is worth considering.

The long road to success

Something happened yesterday that shifted my world just a couple of degrees off-centre. I was coming home from the doctor, cleared the mailbox and walked up the steps to the door, digging my keys out. There was a parcel on the doorstep – course materials, for 279.301. Third year social policy. Government Policy, Planning & Administration.

It’s pretty common knowledge that this isn’t my first go at higher education. In fact it’s my third – the two previous attempts I didn’t even last a year. Picking up the course materials for a third year paper on policy process – not Classical Studies or English, but policy – was this moment of utter surrealness that basically just slammed into me. Unwrapping it and starting to look through the administration guide did not lessen the feeling. A while ago, my progress was classed as “ugh, not graduating until 2015.” Then it became “nearly two whole years left!” Now it’s “just over a year to go.” And there are a million posts out there about imposter syndrome, but the weird thing is that along with that, and at the same time as that, I’m also doing shit like looking at this three page list of relevant journal articles and books and going, “Ooh, that sounds interesting!” Part of me wonders what the hell I’m doing with this stuff and an entirely different part feels… sort of competent.

In completely different events from yesterday, of course, was the discussion about Anne Tolley’s criticisms of Metiria Turei['s clothes], which is only relevant because I was talking about it with Metiria. It occurred to me that this phenomenon, where New Zealand is small enough and laid back enough that we can have casual chats on Twitter with some pretty notable MPs (and political commentators, and current affairs show hosts, etc) makes politics here pretty different from physically bigger countries like USA, Canada, Australia, or more populated countries like the UK. Not for everyone, of course, but then you combine that with the relatively high number of MPs who come from pretty modest backgrounds in comparison to the US or UK and suddenly a lot of things start seeming a lot more plausible. I think Twitter has actually been quietly instrumental in being able to get this far through a degree, in switching social policy from my minor to my major, as well as in taking what I’m learning in policy and Māori studies and anthropology and history and being able to apply it in real life – and in taking real life and applying it to my school work. The conversations I have, and who I have them with, make all the theoretical stuff we cover in class practical and relevant. I don’t know that I’d get that anywhere else – maybe for anthropological and indigenous-focused papers, because damn I learn a lot about racial issues and colonialism on Twitter from both local and international people, but not for policy.

(And of course, if I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to make contacts on Twitter that will be useful when I have to actually (gerk) find a job.)

Reasonable accommodation

Despite what you may surmise from the title, this is for once not a post about housing. If you’ve been on Twitter the last couple of days you might have noticed that I have an essay due today. I’ve just emailed the teacher asking for a 1-2 day extension though, because this weekend has been HORRIBLE. And, given that I don’t know how things will play out with WINZ, and even if they go well I’ll have to deal with saving money to move and finding somewhere affordable (which even on SLP with the extras I can get there still means “basically a slum”) and buying a bunch of furniture, that’s not likely to change that quickly.

Which means this year I think it’s time to email my teachers at the start of each semester letting them know that in some ways I may be less than the average student. Ideally it won’t come up at all, but if it does, I don’t really want the first explanation to be on or after a due date when I can barely think and would rather be huddled in a corner sobbing.

Also, I was thinking, wouldn’t it be awesome if people’s first contact with WINZ could be an appointment where they sat down with someone and told them exactly what they were having problems with and got to discuss potential methods of fixing it that are NOT practically impossible, judgey, shamey, or which require constantly bringing forms in and getting letters demanding more stuff every week? Like, actual help, possibly with discretionary powers for people who are in a seriously stuck situation? A strong working relationship between WINZ and HNZ, for example, would be fantastic.

Sadly National’s in charge, so not something we’re likely to actually see.

Fun fact in #nzpol

Poking around some student allowance legislation I found something interesting.

Here is the schedule for the accommodation benefit in 2002/2003. This is the one that people on the student allowance get instead of the accommodation supplement. Around this time, I was flatting in a fairly decent flat in Edgeware/St Albans and paying $80. As you can see, the accommodation benefit was $40. They amended this slightly in 2003 to give you an extra $20 if you’re a sole parent.

Here is the current information on the accommodation benefit, as of right now. I’m flatting again, now paying $150. As you can see, the accommodation benefit is still $40.

They have not changed it in ten years. Even as housing costs have soared, it’s exactly the same as it was in 2002. Something about that just strikes me as wrong.

How exciting! A letter from the Minister

I’ve just had an email from Steven Joyce (the pdf has his signature and everything, and believe me it is annoying as hell for them to insist on corresponding by attached pdf whether they’re writing a sentence or a page) regarding my original email of 29 August in which I proposed policy to enable students with disabilities to have a better shot at getting qualifications that would help them find jobs and contribute to the economy instead of drawing welfare forever. Basically, the idea was that students with disabilities who can’t hold down a part time job as well as full time study and are thus limited to the $246 of Student Allowance could be allowed to also borrow Student Loan Living Costs. Since living costs are on the student loan, they’re repayable, not free money, which should go down well with right wingers who think those damn disabled people should take their 246 whole dollars and be grateful, dammit.

Steven Joyce didn’t like this idea much. See, it wouldn’t be fair. We’d be giving special treatment to students with disabilities, and then all the other students will want it too. (You know, the other students with higher income potential and lower costs of living, on average.) Instead, disabled students can apply for the $60/week disability allowance – if their costs are directly related to their disability and can be proven as such, and “rent” doesn’t count – or apply for scholarships. Yo, I’ve looked at scholarships. One of the very early posts on this blog was a breakdown of what scholarships were available. Most scholarships give you $500 or $1000. If you’re lucky they might be $1500 or even $2000. A lot of those scholarships go directly to the university to cover fees, which actually doesn’t help you at all in the present – all it does is reduce your future student loan burden. Which, believe me, I’m not dismissing as irrelevant or not worth it, but it doesn’t help you with your current financial stress that is making it hard for your to complete your education because $246 is absolute bullshit to live on whether you’re disabled or not – it’s hard enough to find somewhere to live that’s less than $246. So, there are scholarships left that give you the paltry sum of money directly, but most of those available for disabilities are for specific disabilities – blindness, deafness, MS, etc. Of the rest I’d be surprised if it amounted to more than $10,000 or so, among all the students in New Zealand who have other or non-specific disabilities and are struggling with money. To apply you need to know they exist, be able to navigate the process, and often have references, which is all stuff you have to take time and effort to manage when you’re already probably spending time and effort dealing with WINZ and the medical system and your own body, not to mention studying.

So, yeah, thank you Steven Joyce, for taking two months to tell me that the meaning of equality is making sure no one thinks people with disabilities are getting extra help. I’ll be sure to vote for you next time.