Mental health, poverty, and the devastating erosion of the social safety net.

Content note: This essay contains mentions of suicide.

There is a summary at the end of this post for anyone who struggles with the full text.

Today it’s come to light that Iain Duncan Smith, the Minister in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), has decided not only to retest everyone on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and discount many of those with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, they also plan to stop extreme psychological distress from being counted in Personal Independence Payments (PIP) assessments. (Source) (Source that ISN’T the Daily Mail)

This means people with psychological disorders that disrupt their lives to an enormous extent will not get the support they  may desperately need.

Rather typically of this Conservative government, they previously stated they would be cutting the qualifying distance in the PIP assessment in order to be able to afford the support for people with mental health conditions. This means a large amount of disabled people were kicked off the benefit for support that is now being withdrawn, apparently. It was a way to bring in more cuts and nothing more.

People are so scared about what their futures hold, and then going to be staring at the possibility of losing all support while still being incapable of working.

This is going to cost lives.

I have lost a lot of people in recent years, and I’m already seeing people discussing potential suicide if their reassessment comes up and it’s too much for them. I see a risk of a knock on effect which affects a wider group, those with both physical and mental health problems. I’m genuinely concerned that I may not make it through another application. Last time nearly killed me.

A long standing complaint of all of these changes is reassessment of people who have no hope of recovery. I personally have two conditions and neither are going to get any better. Over time my health will go downhill. I also have mental health problems which can be extreme at times. I need a lot of assistance throughout the day and will continue to, so what on earth is the point? Ah yes, just keep making changes and reduce the number on it regardless of the consequences.

I expect we’ll begin seeing a lot of appeals too. Appeals tend to cost the government an enormous amount. It’s worth remembering that at some points in this government’s term in power, enormous claims were made about 75% of people on ESA being fit to work, based on some dodgy statistics because Atos were just refusing everyone. A very large portion of that 75% actually had their decision overturned, at great expense of the state who had to pay Atos per person fit for work and the state for the cost of the appeals. Is it really worth the cost to both the state and the wellbeing of sick people? It’s costing a fortune.

At times it appears as though the only way you can get through an assessment and be treated with humanity is by pure luck. Some incredibly disabled people have been denied assistance in recent years and the government, far from attempting to ‘lift people out of a culture of blah dependency blah blah’ they’re placing them in poverty and risking homelessness.

A thing I find very disheartening, aside from the lives that will most certainly be lost as a result and impending poverty for so many, that we have so few helping to fight for us. We can’t easily organise, march, and petition. We get passing recognition but little besides that from so many activists. Just look at how long we’ve been fighting for a cumulative impact assessment, the WOW petition has taken a lot of people trying to bring attention to it for a very long time.

When we make noise, the most we can usually hope for is a Guardian article and lots of ‘if they’re so disabled, how are they marching?!’
We need people who are able to march with us, to petition with us, to get our voice heard and bring attention to the egregious behaviour of this government. Disability and mental health issues don’t make for sexy campaigns, there’s no way of making it palatable. Issues of disability are so ignored in this country, and most media attention we get is to criticise us.

The changes they’re making, I suspect a media line of mental illness being over diagnosed or a lot of implications that it’s a character flaw will emerge. Very much downplaying the severity of it, as well as making claim that those with mental illnesses are just getting more support after the £1bn ‘investment’ (it’s not new money, it’s just been moved) which is why the reduction. Alarm bells are ringing, loud and clear, and they sound fascist.

We’re all living in utter terror, always worried about that brown envelope coming through the door that could spell poverty/homelessness. People with mental health problems, rather than being able to focus on getting better in order to get back to work, are having to panic about impending judgement looming over them, threatening to throw their life into turmoil.

We already have to survive on so little. Financial stress can be devastating on it’s own. When you’re already having so many problems with health and living on a low income (as most on these benefits do), the idea of someone coming and taking your last lifeline away is terrifying. If they fail to take any evidence into account, as they often do, you can lose everything.

As I’ve stated above and will again: This will kill people.
The UN’s human rights investigation into our government cannot come soon enough. We signed up as a nation to the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and we are currently doing everything we can to avoid any responsibility while withdrawing desperately needed support.

I pray they reconsider but sadly I don’t see it happening. Call me pessimistic but frankly I fear they see us as barely human, they won’t care.

Summary: Iain Duncan Smith plans to not only retest everyone on ESA (Employment and Support Allowance), but limit both ESA and PIP (Personal Independence Payment) when it comes to people who are debilitated by mental health problems. I am expecting stories to appear that denigrate the mentally ill, and I don’t expect there to be an enormous uproar with big protests, but rather a big news story for a day and then dies down to a simmer. It will go ahead, and people will die because of it, being unable to work and having no access to disability support.

Welcome to the Bendy Zebra Club!

Many of the people who follow me on twitter and on here will know that I’m not in the best of health. What many don’t know is in what way, what’s causing my problems and quite how much they have impacted my life. You see I have both syringomyelia and EDS, and best guess is that the latter may be responsible for the former though “who knows?!” as my neurologist once said. In truth I’ve been wanting to write more about them for some time, syringomyelia in particular is incredibly rare, affecting (according to 1966 study) 8.4 out of 100,000 people. The form I have affects less than one percent of cases. EDS is nowhere near as rare, but it is still very uncommon, or at least not commonly diagnosed.

Mild extension of wrist and elbow

A lot of people have great difficulty when it comes to getting a diagnosis, and I am no different in that regard. Many GPs don’t recognise the symptoms, and even a lot of rheumatologists are not well versed in it. This makes it being discovered as a cause for the problems a person may be having very difficult indeed, and many people that I know with the condition have had to do their own research and presenting it to a GP in order to get anywhere. This of course brings up it’s own issues, both surrounding self diagnosis and the potential for frustration if a GP still refuses to refer.

I’ve heard countless tales, and have my own, surrounding all of these problems. I also know a good number of people going through it right now.

Hyperextension of thumb and wrist

It’s not been a great day today; from the moment I woke up this morning I’ve been in considerable pain and oramorph doesn’t seem to be touching it; such is typical of EDS. With hyperflexible bodies and predisposition for frequent, if not constant dislocations comes a pain that few painkillers can do anything to dull. As neat a party trick as it is, a ‘normal’ body is certainly something I wish I had.
EDS is a syndrome caused by having collagen which didn’t form quite right, and I like many other people with this form of Ehlers, also have a natural and bizarre high tolerance to opiates, a difficult time with NSAIDs, and no other real choices.
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Fingers hyperextending at the knuckle joint

The photographs in this post are of me taken a little over a year ago. They’re some examples of hyperflexibility can come with EDS type 3, or joint hypermobility syndrome (I should be clear here, so as to not leave people worrying; you can have joint hypermobility without issues such as pain, dislocations, skin issues or other stuff. So if you recognise these examples in yourself it’s not necessarily indicative of EDS). Other things included in type 3 which are or have been present in my case are:

  • spontaneous or heavy bruising,
  • odd ‘scars’ on the skin which look like – but aren’t – stretch marks,
  • patches of skin which is velvety soft,
  • folds in the upper eyelids and at times under the eye
  • Scars leaving behind a silvery sheen and can take a long time to form,
  • cuts, while healing, can be very discoloured
  • Raynaud’s syndrome (incl. Livedo reticularis)
  • high palate of the mouth, causing small jaws and overcrowding of the teeth and migration
  • advanced early onset periodontitis, jaw infections and loose teeth
  • splaying of the toes
  • ankle supination or pronation
  • fragile/thin/translucent skin
  • A whole bunch of other shit

I have type 3, hypermobile type, and also thrown in for extra fun is some type 4 crossovers. I’ve had 8 teeth removed, with the remainder wired in place, orthotics to prevent ankles supinating, wrist supports, a bite riser to alleviate night-time jaw dislocations, I’m an expert at putting my own joints into place after dislocations, I’m covered in strange scars and marks that don’t necessarily have a cause, much of the skin on my body is not only bizarrely soft but virtually see-through.

Type 4, which I have very, very mild symptoms of, is commonly called ‘bleeder’ type. I bleed, oh do I bleed. I don’t have to apply pressure or even move to find myself covered in bruises, if I’m cut it takes a very long time to clot, and while I was fortunate enough to miss out on cardiac issues, I unfortunately got the menstrual ones.

I had to fight very hard to get a diagnosis at all. I’ve known for a few years I had it. One of my parents does, 2 of my siblings do, other relatives do.. It’s not rocket science to put the pieces together and finding they fit.

When the pain started to get beyond what I could handle I was around 9-10 years old. My knees had been ‘popping’ [subluxing] and I’d been seeing specialists for it at a local hospital, told that it was down to having ‘flat feet’ and ‘inverted hips’. By the age of 12 I was investigated for rheumatoid arthritis, only to have the specialist laugh when he saw me move and say ‘nope’ and suggest fibromyalgia. After a lot of fighting to get an answer, in the end I was misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia and M.E. Misdiagnoses that still get brought up with doctors today and it has impacted my care at times. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding them as diagnoses within the medical community still, and despite not being present they are still dredged up for reasons I cannot fathom.
I’m now 27 years old, my diagnosis was confirmed late last year by a rheumatologist trained by the incredible Prof G, the UK’s only EDS specialist. To get that appointment with her has taken me almost 3 years, and it took me listing my symptoms, looking at my scars, EDS lines, skin, eyelids and a few examples of extreme hyperflexibility for her to sign off on it. It’s been 16 years of fights and wrong turns, poor decisions, and most of all self-doubt. I’d asked several GPs, over and over again, to allow me to see a specialist only to be turned down. “Well they’d only offer physio and pain relief..” completely missing the fact that illnesses which are an enormous part of your life, which impact every choice you make out of self-preservation and manageability, are a part of who you are. The uncertainty in itself was a struggle. I’m a bendy, it’s a part of who I am and it will forever impact my decisions. There were also the cardiac investigations which may not have happened were I not to push, access to hydrotherapy and pain clinic, ongoing access to physiotherapy instead of a few terms of it.

It’s been a long road and a stressful one, and like so many others I am so relieved to discover that, despite all my self doubt, I wasn’t wrong. The pain, the dislocations, it’s all there and all related. It also ties in greatly with my neuro issues and could potentially give answers for Dave in future, but without the diagnosis it’s unlikely to have a correlation noted or taken seriously.

Splayed toes and translucent skin

Regardless of the state of my body and all it puts me through, I will admit that I’m proud of myself. No longer distracted by so much, and a fight in regards to health is so, so much, I’m able to look back and see all I’ve accomplished with it being there and affecting so much

I also feel incredibly lucky that, while going through a struggle to diagnosis and found out exactly what is wrong with my joints and body, as well as through the challenges of daily life, I have met such an incredible group of people. Other bendies, other activists, other people just like me. People who can joke about dislocations, laugh about reactions people give or pain or wheelchairs. Who I can moan about ableism to and they can share the same with me. It’s my journey with EDS, in part, which has caused me to meet some truly inspiring individuals who I gratefully call friends. And I will forever be thankful that I’ve had that chance to meet and share with them.

Edit: A note from a most wonderful sloth on why it’s bendy zebras

Because in the medical world, they are taught that if they hear clacking hoofs, they should expect it to be a horse. But occasionally, it’s not what they expected and it’s a zebra – Basically a rarity. So anyone with a rare condition is considered to be a zebra. The EDS community have taken on the zebra as a mascot as a result.

Revised 13/01/2016

Explaining Dave; My journey with Syringomyelia

As many people who read my blog will already be aware, I have a number of health conditions. A lot of my activism is dedicated to trying to find a voice for people with disabilities, chronic illness, and mental health problems, as a result I spend a lot of time speaking of my own experience of ill health, physical and mental. What some may not know is just how rare one these health conditions is, or even what it is. Given that I find myself having to explain it to doctors from time to time, it’s no real surprise that the general population doesn’t know of it. In this post I would like to introduce you to my syrinx, who I’ve named Dave, and my journey through onset of symptoms, diagnosis, and learning to accept him as a part of my life.

For some time I’ve been meaning to write up some things on this, namely explaining it in more depth and also my experience of diagnosis, which I’ve wanted to write for myself more than anyone else. Even years later, I find the memory of it quite frustrating and I’d like to get it down.

I have “idiopathic” syringomyelia, a cyst formed of spinal fluid in the centre of my spinal cord, blocking some of the nerves response my legs and left side of my abdomen..

When I was 18 years of age, in the October, I woke up at around 8am with pins and needles in my left foot. Thinking I just slept funny, and having suffered sensory and mobility problems in my legs in the past, I thought nothing of it and carried on with the day.
As time went on the pain got not only stronger, but began to present in my right foot and leg, and spread further up my left. By the evening a lot of the pins and needles and sharp pains had gone, and instead I was left with numbness, as though my legs had gone to sleep. In the space of a day I had lost all but a very dull sensation when touching my legs.

Having had similar (though nowhere near the same degree) in the past I didn’t think to go to A&E, it had been investigated thoroughly and the result was considered to be within normal parameters. I had not yet been diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and a year previously had found, my spinal canal was “slightly enlarged”. Any and all neurological symptoms were, as many others with syringomyelia and EDS find themselves being told, ‘psychosomatic’.

I made an appointment to see my GP, a man I’d only recently begun to see. After skimming through my notes he announced that ‘unless you have broken your back, which is highly unlikely as you’re here, it’s probably all in your head’. He prescribed me tramadol and prozac and sent me home.
Upset and frustrated I left and didn’t go back until a few weeks later, when the sensation had deteriorated further and I could no longer stand, even with walking aids. I went to another GP and asked for the chance to see a neurologist; something was deeply wrong.

Months later I got my chance, seeing a well regarded neurologist at the nearby hospital. He told me not to pin my hopes on anything being found after previous investigations had come to nothing. I was told I’d have a full spine MRI as well as a visit to neurophysiology to check and see what signals were going through. Frustrated and far from hopeful of finding answers I went home and waited.

The first to come through was neurophysio. They use that blue tacky substance to stick electrodes to your head, a part of the process I’ve always found quite uncomfortable as they tend to push down quite hard. I’ve quite a fragile scalp and one caused a small laceration under the pressure that was applied. The doctor wired me up and had my lie down, he told me he’d send small shocks into my ankles, let me feel what it would be like on my hands. He told me he’d be able to have a look on screen to see what was ‘going on inside that thing in your head’. The shock to my hand was quite painful, and not having had such a thing tested on my range of feeling in my legs I expected it to be no different. I lied back and waited. 20 minutes later I was roused from the sleep I’d fallen into.

Next up, the MRI. It was the same machine in the hospital that I’d been in before. I’d gone through it all 3 times already so turned up prepared. I had my own blanket and some Winnie the Pooh PJs to change into. (Last time they couldn’t find a blanket and it was so cold my hands and legs were blue by the end of it. Apparently it was quite an odd thing to think of, but as anyone with EDS will tell you, the cold can really, really hurt.) I was slowly guided into the machine after going through the tick box questionnaire, making sure nothing would heat up or rip out of my body were it to go ahead. The same familiar mark, like a line of pencil, was there at the top of the tube, and as with every MRI I’ve had since, I stared at it while the whirs and bangs and zonks droned on around me. Done and over with, I went home.

Two days later, having stayed up late the night before with my now husband, talking about frustrations and expectations, I had a lie in. I was woken at just before 9 by my phone going off. It was the neurology department notifying me of a cancellation the very next morning, asking if it would be possible for me to come in for the results of my MRI. For some reason alarm bells didn’t go off, though I did think it was quite bizarre to have the MRIs ready so quickly, let alone them having been seen by the neurologist. Normally the wait is upwards of 6 weeks before you hear anything. But, it was a chance to get it all out of the way and the frustrations as over with as they could be. Nothing could have prepared me for that appointment.

I wheeled into the office of a grinning neurologist. He was incredibly excitable, speaking so quickly I could hardly keep up with him. He did a quick examination to re-check my reflexes and sensation before I moved back to the wheelie bin  (my nickname for my chair, cue ‘i’m trash’ joke) to hear his verdict. “Very rare”, “very uncommon”,  “quite remarkable” and then came “surgery”. He was beaming at his discovery and I just blanked out.

Surgery. Neurosurgeon. Spinal surgery. It didn’t properly hit until I got home, stuck between my relief and pure fear. Relief at feeling I finally had an answer (incomplete as it turned out to be), and some way to get better, but then was the idea of my flesh being cut open.

Much of the next few months was spent crying and worrying about what was to come, waiting for news from the neurosciences department in the Bristol hospital I would be going to, from the neurosurgeon who would be taking my case. A few months passed before it arrived and I spent the journey to see him distracted. I was going through a kind of high, manic phase and, now, I remember very little of it. I remember being told there were only four cases, if they counted mine, that they’d treated. I remember being told they would ‘fillet’ me, cutting ‘up here by your brain, right down to here by your bum, open you up and have a poke around to see what’s going on’.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, I wasn’t and still am not eligible for surgery. As much as anything it’s because I’m too much of an unknown. Other cases he was familiar with, he pointed out, with their ‘published articles’, all had a cause. They had tethering of the filum terminale, Chiari Malformation, cancer, arahnoid webbing. Mine has nothing. It’s just there and they don’t know why. A syrinx with no cause.

Syringomyelia is normally caused by some kind of blockage of the spinal fluid flow. The pressure spiking, or simply having nowhere to go, can cause it to leak into the centre of the spinal cord. A patch of the cord could be the path of least resistance in the face of a blockage, and so in it goes, forming into a syrinx in the usually pin-width central canal.

The images below are taken from some of my MRIs over the years (of which I lost count, I’ve had so many). If you look closely you will see in them a small, unchanging, unmoving circle. In the centre of it is a white dot which gets larger and smaller, and around it is a dark grey area. The white dot, that’s Dave, that’s the syrinx, the cause of some of my symptoms; not all, I should add. It’s complicated by the Ehlers Danlos Syndrome which can also have some neurological symptoms, and the suspicion of occult tethering; where the filum terminale, a little ligament at the base of the spinal cord which shouldn’t but does pull the cord taught for some and is not uncommon in EDS.. The dark grey area around that growing and shrinking circle that is Dave, is my spinal cord. Dave should not be there, that central canal is not supposed to be anywhere near as visible, if at all.

Turning it into a car analogy, Dave is the twat in a transit van who keeps breaking, swerving and switching lanes without looking on the M25, making you 3 hours late for work because he’s left a few crashes in his wake.

These are poor examples at showing his size, though I don’t have the better and more recent MRIs which show him clearer and larger. From it’s point in the centre of the cord, the syrinx puts pressure on all around it. Instead of being squeezed from the outside, it’s from within, stretching the fibres and sending out and receiving the wrong signals from around the body in relation to the area of the cord affected. It’s fucking up the nervous system from the very inside of it. And for me, no one’s certain why.

According to a study from 1966, before MRI, it was estimated that the prevalence of syringomyelia in the population is 8.4 out of every 100,000. Idiopathic syringomyelia makes up less than 1% of cases out of that 8.4.
For me, my syrinx, Dave (and speculatively symptoms from other EDS related complications, according to the doc) had left me an incomplete paraplegic. That is, I have no sensation from the hip down on my left side, and from around level with my breast on my right side. Between the two sides is very mixed, but I usually say it’s ‘waist down’ for ease.

Dave limited my mobility which is incredibly tiring both physically and mentally. In order to move my legs I have to consciously think about what it is I’m doing. Am I having to move my right or my left? How do I make my foot go there, or move like that? The easiest way to move my legs is, aptly, also one of the most taxing. I tense all the muscles during the movement, for some reason it helps focus and then I am less likely to fall. To walk in a way that looks ‘normal’ I think ‘hip, raise knee, lift foot, place foot while moving from hip and knee, hyperextend knee, push weight forward, raise from hip…’ and so on.

You know the line from Kill Bill? “Wiggle your big toe”? That’s been quite an influence in my life because goddamn you would not believe how hard it it. Not just moving toes, but moving them in a particular way. To wiggle one toe, or even all of them, without them just spreading out or curling up and not releasing. I’ve had hours of fun just sat on the bed trying to work out what I have to do to move them how I want.

Anyone who’s ever thought about how nerves work probably knows this isn’t the extent of it. When the spinal cord itself is affected, any number of things could happen. For me, those things include incontinence, feeling like I’m being burned (imagine touching a red hot ember, that pain within the first moments of touching it), aching, stabbing, the feeling of bugs crawling around under the skin that’s so vivid you find yourself looking for them. Electric shocks, tremors, muscles tensing and cramping, feelings of cold or heat. There’s very little that it can’t make you feel. One of the hardest realisations I’ve had to get to grips with is that this may not be the worst of it.

Syringomyelia, as mentioned above, often has a cause. Treating the cause is what usually brings about an improvement (if any) with the size of a syrinx. It’s not something they can go into and just suck out, its right in the centre of the cord. There are options such as putting in a shunt to prevent pressure from rising in the cerebral spinal fluif, but even that does not have great success rates. What is considered ‘success’ with a shunt varies widely, too. For a lot of people who have had shunts installed and their syrinx reduced in size as a result, many have suffered a change in symptoms that they wouldn’t exactly describe as an improvement. Increased pain is among the top problems which I see a startling number of people among syringomyelia/CM noting, yet they are considered a success because the syrinx itself has reduced.

Dave, my syrinx, he is presently (and has been for a number of years now) around 30cm long and 4.6-4.7mm wide at his widest point. One thing that doctors do not like pointing out, and so have skirted it almost every time I’ve asked – almost – is what the future is likely to hold. The reality is that it’s not necessarily going to be bright. Because of the nature of an idiopathic syrinx, it being so hard to treat and the reality of ‘success’ rates, it really is an unknown. In American literature it’s largely considered to be a progressive problem, wherein the syrinx grows in length or width, or in some cases another syrinx appears somewhere else along the cord (in some of my MRIs you can see an enlargement in the canal in my c-spine about 3cm long), and mobility and sensation are further decreased as a result.

For me it’s a balance of what I’m able to do now and my quality of life, vs the risks of a shunt and the potential for success. This decision is out of my hands at present, though given the balance as it is right now I wouldn’t consider surgery an option anyway, particularly after the surgeon’s ideas of an expedition of sorts. It’s always going to be difficult, and the future will most likely be more so.

What I cling to with dear life is the comfort that I am human. While I do suffer from quite severe depressive phases which may give me incredibly negative thoughts about it, I often find comfort in knowing that we are very adaptive creatures, we are creatures who find ways around things.

I have learned to walk again. I can wiggle my big toe if I try really hard. Despite the problems I developed with the EDS I can just about hold a pen, or a cup of tea. These are things that, thinking back to the times where I tried so hard to relearn or adapt and they seemed impossible, I managed.

I’ve often found myself asking the question ‘why did this happen?’, but the answer is as simple as the question, and given what I write above, is also quite a positive thing if looked at in the right light. It’s because I’m human. Bodies are incredible things; they can perform incredible feats and possess remarkable strength. They can also be so incredibly fragile and have the power to mess you up quite royally.

Initially written for Rare Disease Day (28/02/2014) revise 13/02/2016

How to reel in, keep track of, and hide your footprint online. From tweeting and ads to IRC and Google.

There is a summary at the end of this post for anyone who struggles with the full text, although on this one I’m not sure it will be of much use.

Note: Knowing absolutely nothing about Apple products, I have omitted them from this post. Other than strictly online stuff, you’re on your own.

After a conversation with Jules Clarke on twitter over the measures that I have employed to protect personal data, control my digital footprint, and generally be more secure online, it came to my attention that a couple of the things I do are not especially common or at least aren’t something your average user considers.

After a recent resurfacing of a stalker who is mostly interested in digging up my personal history (thankfully it’s that rather than wishing to cause physical harm), I’d like to share just a few of the basic things that I have used to help limit my own spread of data around the web and prevent anyone from being able to explore my life through any trails I’ve left.

This is not a comprehensive list and some of the suggestions are simply about making you more secure than your average user rather than completely locking everything down so no one can ever find you.

I’ve attempted to format it in a way that you can jump to your area of interest, especially given that I have managed to make it so bloated with my chatty style of writing. My apologies for that! Regardless of the enormous amount of text, I do hope it can help some of you perhaps pick up some things you previously weren’t aware of.

I do kindly ask that people do not message me on twitter or elsewhere with their take on online privacy. I do understand this is something you may have an interest in, and you may disagree if your approach to these things differs, but as with anything in technology it tends to lead to a barrage of information or lecturing on things I already know.

If you have anything you wish to add to this list, however, you are welcome to add it in the comments below and if I feel like discussing it I will.

1) Use the Ghostery app/browser plugin. This prevents trackers on websites right down to Google analytics. You have the option to completely block all trackers on all sites, pause tracking if you wish for it to be temporarily disabled, or selectively choose which ones you wish to have blocked. You can find it on their website here

2) Use a VPN. I use a private one which is run by a friend on a home connection but there are a number of companies who offer them. Hide My Ass and AceVPN (this one I used and have reservations about), last I checked, have privacy policies which expressly state they do not collect and sell on your private data. There are a lot of VPN providers out there, but be sure to check their privacy policy to see what they do with your data. Some are also a rip off, only allowing you a certain amount of data with a premium cost so be sure to check data limits too.

What a VPN does is mask your IP address. Every website you visit, every service you use online, you give away your IP address which is a unique identifier. It can also be used to narrow down your location to a certain country and with some ISPs, the area in which you live.

By using a VPN, you connect to the IP address of a server designed expressly for the purpose of hiding your own. Your web browsing continues as normal without interruption, but instead of giving away your IP, you give away that of the server you’ve chosen. This means that if someone sets up a malicious website intended to get your IP address, they’re unable to. If you use Internet Relay Chat (IRC) – a place where things such as Distributed Denial of Service attacks aren’t uncommon at all if you piss someone off – it can prevent your internet connection from being clogged up with enormous amounts of data sent to your IP to take you offline. This is especially a problem if you have data limits or are on an IP address you cannot change.

You can still get viruses and malware as everything you do is still directed to your own computer so be aware of that.

For IRC you can also purchase products such a bouncer (BNC) which does the same thing, only expressly for IRC.

3) Keep an inventory. I have a spreadsheet that’s kept on a USB stick encrypted with PGP that contains the name of every website I have ever opened an account with as well as the usernames (note: not the passwords or security questions), email addresses and phone numbers that have been associated with the account (including what the back up address is). I also keep track of all my email addresses as well as any account that I have since closed, and how it was closed.

For example, recently I went through the list and closed around 60 accounts. Some of these accounts could, according to the companies, not be closed in a way that involves full deletion (this is bullshit but whether you start quoting the data protection act at them depends on your patience because fucking hell they run around in circles sometimes). If a lack of deletion is an issue, mark it down. I leave a note saying that I have removed all personal/identifying information I can from the account and deactivated it, or that I have hidden all of the contents but not closed it as I don’t wish to lose it.

I’ve put together a template inventory, 2 pages long. It contains example accounts, both email and websites, and column suggestions for each.

inventory template

Example of an inventory of online accounts

4) Use a password management system. While it can be argued there’s a risk keeping everything in the same place, services handling such sensitive data pile large amounts of money into securing it. There are a few of these around such as Dashlane, LastPass, Roboform and others. Many password managers charge for some services, but there are some out there that are reasonably priced and easy to use.

They will keep track of passwords for you which makes it easier for you to use insanely complicated passwords. They tend to have a secure password generator built in, generating such things as lH^e63nm9CpfjADA@)*&J* (though you can remove special chars). You simply install the app or browser add-on, create and account and start saving.

With a password manager, you can use your account across any number of computers without having to remember details. Needless to say, you should keep the login information very private and use a good password for it. A full sentence is usually a good one, for example.

5) Email management. For any sensitive data you may get over email, use IMAP (is POP3 still a thing?) and ensure SSL is enabled. They’re options that every email provider should be able to support and, if they don’t, you should consider not using them.

If you are particularly concerned about the safety of something you are sending and the person on the other end is willing to take part in the handshake, use encryption methods such as PGP. There’s a few options you can find on Google along with how to use it.

If you have a custom email address on your own domain (or someone else’s), it’s worth looking into just how secure it is. Over the years I have seen some terrible shoddy practices from domain providers where breaches of customer has been a problem. A way that a lot of the risk can be taken away in this is by using something like Mozilla Thunderbird or Microsoft Outlook (ew). Set your email up so that once it has downloaded to your device it’s deleted from the server. Responsibility for backing up and storing your emails is placed squarely on your own shoulders so any loss of data is on you.

6) Use a good firewall. At the very least, use firewall. Any at all. You may find your router already has one, it’s worth logging in to it and looking under the ‘Security’ tab if it has one. Check the settings are allowing outgoing data while blocking incoming. You should also be able to set up blocked websites (bye-bye Daily Mail, if only I barely knew thee) and any particular rules for certain addresses and IPs.

If you’d prefer to use a software one for any reason, be it Microsoft’s inbuilt one if you’re using windows or some third party software, I’m afraid I have no recommendations now that Deerfield’s VisNetic has gone. Frankly that was a masterpiece of a firewall but sadly even the archive is now gone.

For years now I’ve been using a Firebox (a ridiculously over the top bit of kit for a home user). There are, however, an awful lot of reviews out there that can give you an idea of what’s available, both ones with fees and free. I would offer to rule a few out but given I’ve not used them for some time, they may well have changed. Beware of anything too bloated. It shouldn’t make your computer act like a kitten attempting to drag a row of terraced houses up a hill.

7) Use an anti-virus program. AVG and avast! are, for the most part, alright for home users if you don’t want to deal with fees. For complete coverage Kaspersky and BitDefender are probably the ones I would recommend if cost isn’t an issue, although I’m sure others would disagree with me as tends to be the case with anything. Symantec’s and McAfee’s products are ones I wish had a physical manifestation so I could throw them off a cliff, pick them up, and then throw them under an articulated lorry. That’s something I know I’m not alone in. They are the bane of many an IT professional’s lives.

Trend Micro also have some pretty good products that are worth checking out. HijackThis is a neat little tool that I used regularly used before the switch to GNU. It scans everything from start up applications to browser add-ons and, if there’s anything suss your antivirus may not pick up as it’s not technically a threat, HijackThis will. It can take some time if you’re unsure of what each thing in the list is, but Google is your friend for that. If you’re a techie it’d be no problem.

Malware Bytes is also reasonably good and I know a couple of IT management companies that use it when viruses become a problem on individual computers.

If you’re on any Linux/GNU system I probably don’t have to recommend anything at all, you’re likely on top of it, but look at clam av etc etc.

8) Restrict information. Use, say, the birthday of your mother when you open accounts rather than your own, your favourite musician’s last name instead of that of your Mother or Grandmother, and the name of the nearest major hospital instead of the one where you were born (or the next nearest if you were born local to where you are). While I wouldn’t really recommend writing down security information, you can keep track of what details you are using by writing things like “Mum’s <month>”, “<name of hospital” and so on. It would tip you off if you struggle to remember.

I know this seems ridiculous, but there are a lot of ‘phishing’ games that go around which ask you to use your Mother’s maiden name for this, your pet’s name for that. A good example is the ‘find your porn name using x’. It leads you to give up information which makes up a lot of security questions, and if you answer a few it’s possible some of the services you use could be compromised.

9) Social media. This is a long one given the enormous part it plays in our lives and some recent (and distant) experiences so please bear with me.

This is technically something that falls under the last point; restrict your data. As anyone following my new Twitter account will know and as I mentioned at the top of this post, I have a stalker. To illustrate the lengths that some people will go i’ll explain what it is he has done and the measures I can take to restrict his access. Much like the odd troll on there, he sets up scripts to search through account archives where possible as well as trying to break into accounts when he finds them. Being lax on both data and passwords, I had left myself very open to him and I was very lucky to notice his return so I could begin to fix my mistakes.

I had a lot of tweets on my old account which makes for a goldmine of information. It gives away details of every part of my life if pieced together, and with the right phrasing and buzzwords it could mean he finds some very painful information to confront and mock me with.

While it is easy to say ‘just delete your old tweets’, to do so can actually be a lot harder than you would expect. Twitter’s API only allows for the deletion of the first 3200 tweets through apps, and while tools like Twitter Archive Eraser are capable of going over it again and again, it can take a hell of a lot of time. It’s probably obvious and as I’ve explained, this is why I deleted my old account.

What I’ve done on my new account is set up Tweet Delete. It’s an application which automatically deletes your tweets after a set amount of time, meaning your archive never becomes that kind of mine of everything you share of your life.

On Facebook you’re a little more stuck as it’s up to your friends how information you share with them (i.e. tags, comments on their posts) is managed. If you put a comment on a public post, there is no way that you can limit it. You also need to be careful of the information apps you use collect on you; rarely are these things truly free. There is a pay off.

You can, however, limit a lot of other things. Who is able to add you as a friend can be changed to friends of friends if your social circle is not particularly wide and unrelated. If you go through the account settings you can also restrict how you are found; make it that no one can find you via your email address or phone number. If you go into your ‘about’ tab you can also restrict that information so others aren’t capable of seeing it, including things like your birthday, website, and other things you may have put on there. So that you don’t end up with your friends list showing to all and sundry you can open the ‘friends’ tab, click the ‘manage’ (little pencil in the top corner of the list) button and change the privacy.

One of your biggest friends on Facebook is easily the ‘Limit the audience of past posts’. Anything that was previously public or shared with friends of friends is automatically reeled in so that no one outside of your friend’s list can see it. This is right down to being unable to see the full image or comments on your public profile photo. It does not affect posts you have kept to yourself or limited to a custom audience. You can also set it up to stop automatic tags, both on other’s posts and on yours. It gives you the option to make it that you can review all tags before they’re applied, so you can be kept out of other’s posts or prevent friends from letting strangers see your content.

Facebook keeps things such as things or people you have searched for, and while packed with so much stuff it’s a little confusing, the Facebook activity log holds the answer. Go to ‘View Activity Log’ on the top of your profile, and click ‘More’ underneath Photos, Likes, and Comments. Towards the bottom of the list you will see ‘Search’. At the top of the page is the option to clear it. You can’t turn logging of search off, but it’s something (I’ve included an image as I know some have struggled to find it before.)

Where to find the search history on Facebook

Screenshot of where to find the search history on Facebook

The activity log is generally handy to filter out and figure out what you’re shared in the past, making it easier to delete where you feel it necessary. Of course, if they’re things you want to keep and otherwise don’t have copies of, you can download your Facebook archive.

A lot of social media and other accounts do also allow you to be notified every time someone logs in, the IP address that they use, and their location. If you are worried someone may be accessing your account this is definitely worth employing in the arsenal of things you can use.

Though for a lot of people it’s certainly over the top, going over posts every few weeks to delete ones over a certain age can stop it from becoming an overwhelming task later on.

10\ Make sure you have a back up for account access. Although this wouldn’t be necessary if you keep an inventory and use a password manager, it’s not uncommon to abandon email addresses that are associated with any number of accounts. Over time passwords and security questions are forgotten and, if that email address is among them, it can leave you completely locked out of any number of accounts, unable to do anything about it. You can stop this from happening with a second email address and phone number.

Most email accounts, and sometimes others such as social media accounts, now ask that you put a phone number of secondary email address in your settings so that if you’re locked out it can be used to verify who you are and give you back your access.

As with other things, it’ worth checking the privacy policy of websites you’re not especially sure of before this information is handed over. Some rather less than secure companies will readily admit they sell on your information to third parties who may use it to send you spam. Online pharmacies and a whole shitload of ebay sellers are terrible for this.

Online pharmacies are relevant as recently one or two got in trouble for their handling of NHS prescription data (presumably in raw format, mind), although in fairness, anonymised data is also handled badly by the NHS under their care.data scheme. You can learn how to opt out of that here but it’s obviously a whole other barrel of ferrets.

11) Two-step verification. This is another obvious one, I know, but also a very, very handy one providing you’re able to get a mobile phone signal or access your email account. You enter your password, and the service will send a code which you have to enter before you are given access. Not all services allow for this to be done through email, a mobile phone number may be required.

If you live out in the Styx, as mentioned, getting a signal can be impossible which can make it difficult to impossible for some services.

12) Clear you browser on closing. Go to the settings in your browser and search for the options to clear your history. Somewhere there should be the option to delete your history every time you close the browser.

13) Clear and turn off your browser history in Google. This is quite simple but an option that a lot of people are completely unaware of. In fact, a lot of people have no idea that their Google account even keeps their search history, which can make things just a little bit awkward if somehow someone gets ahold of it given the kind of things we all search for. I imagine a lot of people would be confused if they found I was looking up eating nasal mucus for sexual gratification and shitting dicknipples (I don’t recommend that one). Don’t worry though, there is a way you can stop this being an issue and Google has a nice little run through of how here. 

14) Do not click any links you do not recognise. Again, this does seem obvious, but with the way we share links around now you can end up accidentally having a problem from clicking something from a person you trust.

This goes for shortened links, unfamiliar and suss looking domains, too. If the link is from someone you know and it looks legitimate but you’re unsure, search google for it. It can give you some idea of what it is you’re going to be looking at and any virus checkers on your browser should alert you to issues.

A lot of link compilers that are used on Twitter to collect the day’s news stories a person has looked at (and then shared via that same system) include malware. While I’ve managed to offend a person by refusing to look at one before because of this, it can even cause problems right down to an influx of spam accounts as clicking has alerted them to your presence. It’s better someone’s annoyed you won’t look at something than deal with that.

When receiving emails, even if it looks like it’s perfectly legitimate and from a company you recognise and not caught by a spam filter, it’s better not to click any links but instead go to the website in question manually to do it. Some look quite sophisticated and mask what they are well. It’s better to be safe than potentially hand your IP, password, and other information over to someone with malicious intent.

Summary: Unfortunately I am unable to walk you through the steps in so few words, but I’ve made it so that hopefully you can get the gist if you look over the bold areas of the post and explore the ones that interest you. From two-step verification to keeping an inventory of accounts, they’s just some largely basic things that can help keep you a lot more secure than your average home user and generally keep you more in control of your footprint.

Edit: Some things I have not mentioned here that are useful.

  • TRUSTe’s opt-out removes you from many major targeted advertisers (the notifications for their website is hilarious in Ghostery).
  • Ad-Aware by lavasoft which blocks pop-ups (which your browser should anyway) and the majority of adverts across all website, they also do all sorts of other security products.
  • Duckduckgo, a search engine that has privacy in mind, for example they don’t track you the way that Google do. I personally don’t find it to be as good as google and it can be glitchy as hell. I find most home users won’t go near it with a barge pole but it depends how far you wish to go. As long as you turn Google’s tracking and history collection of, I find mind people carry on using it.

No, I will not laugh at people lying drunk in the street.

There is a summary at the end of this post for anyone who struggles with the full text.

I appear to be one of few people this year who isn’t relishing in laughing at and mocking people who have got intoxicated to the point they’re collapsing in the street, with little thought to the circumstances that may have led to them getting into that situation in the first place.

There is one in particular that has popularised this trend of mocking circumstances people find themselves in. The photograph pictured, by Joel Goodman, been described as a ‘perfect’ scene; with ideal lighting, vivid colours, well framed and with an extraordinary look of one of Britain’s streets being policed on New Year’s Eve has been shared hundreds and thousands if not millions of times in the first few days of 2016. It’s a chaotic scene that shows a man lying on the ground in the street in the background. There is a man held down on the floor by two police officers at the forefront while a woman, dressed up for a night out leans over, seemingly trying to say something to him or them. A crowd stand around watching in the background.

What’s happening in this photo? The way it’s being shared is completely devoid of context but the assumption is that they’re knock-down drunk. That they gave overindulged, been drinking heavily on New Year’s Eve and have lost control of themselves to some degree. While the background has now been explained to some degree by the Manchester Evening News, it wasn’t known at the time it went viral. Most of those sharing and laughing at it will not be looking to find out the context and simply have no idea. At a glance, without that context, we don’t know if they’re drunk or if the two men have been fighting or one has attacked the other, we don’t know if the man lying down is injured and someone’s given him a pint while he waits for an ambulance (odd as this is, I’ve seen it happen more than once), if drugs are involved or if either of the men struggle with alcoholism.

Sharing photographs of people who have fallen down in the street is beyond crass, cruel, and I honestly would have expected a lot better from people I know. Particularly of feminists who take an interesectional approach to social issues. Many of us have been in that situation, some of us through no fault of our own having been drugged or plied with more alcohol than we intended on drinking. One of the most common forms of ‘spiking’ a drink is people buying doubles instead of singles or topping up drinks so that someone loses track of their alcohol consumption. The coersion of ‘just one more’ when inhibitions are already down.

Men who are a part of ‘lad’ culture regularly boast of getting women drunk so as to get them into bed. Having spent some time staying at a pub while homeless (the landlady was very kind and offered me a place to sleep for a while) I have witnessed men doing all they can do get women intoxicated. I have tried to intervene for some, informed women they’re being given doubles, triples, and informing them when their drinks are topped up behind their back. Do you know what these things lead to? Being drop-down drunk.

Don’t think for a moment that the images which can end up circulated of intoxicated revellers are all perfectly innoccent because ‘in all likeliness..’, I know somebody locally who was the subject of such a photograph, taken of her on a bus after having had her drink spiked (the police were involved although I’ve no idea if it was drugs or alcohol). I don’t believe the photograph went beyond local circles but to say that it affected her would be an understatement. Last time I spoke to her, admittedly a few years ago now, she was still finding that people recognised her as ‘that lass who passed out on the bus’. People still laugh at her for being in a situation of vulnerability that was forced upon her while she was trying to have a nice Saturday night out with friends.

And this is the point, it’s a situation of extreme vulnerability some people are going through. Even if that vulnerability is self inflicted it could well be that they don’t have all that much control over it due to alcoholism or peer pressure/coersion (which anyone aware of social issues knows can be a very, very powerful thing). Many are at a point where they are largely helpless, not in full control of their actions or understanding what is going on around them. In this case, whatever has happened to the two people involved in the photograph, they have woken up to find themselves the subject of unending ridicule. This is something they cannot outrun because of one night where they clearly made some bad decisions. Global shaming, particularly for the man who could potentially be injured for he’s been photoshopped into so many images for laughs that it’s becoming a meme in itself.

How would you feel if it was you, through whatever circumstance listed above? How would you feel if it was a friend of yours and you knew the context to be a bad one?

Much like the premise of my last essay on here regarding consumerism and considering context, when it comes to pictures of people lying in the street, these are things that anyone who considers themselves to hold an intersectional approach to social issues should stop and think of. Equally anyone in health who has experience with alcoholics, people who have been drugged on a night out, or those who have been plied with more alcohol than they knew of should, as a consultant I know put it, know better.

Show some kindness. If you don’t know how those in the photo feel about it, don’t share it. Misfortunes around substance use and abuse are not a laughing matter.

Summary: I don’t believe it’s right to take photographs of people in vulnerable situations without their consent, let alone when they’re not fully in control of their faculties. There could be a lot of reasons a person has ended up in that situation; alcoholism, spiked drinks, trauma. When you laugh and share these photos, you are potentially mocking (usually working class) people in tragic situations. Even those deliberately getting themselves into that state, you’re laughing at vulnerability of them while they’re unaware their misfortune is being ridiculed online. When going viral, a person may be unable to escape it. Give it some thought.

Edit: Anita Sharma on Twitter has sent me this link to a pdf by the All-Party Parliamentary University Group which I recommend reading if you’d like to explore this side of abuse within lad culture. Some of the issues mentioned in this post which centre around that culture and behaviours towards [mostly] women which are prevalent in social situations involving alcohol are looked at in more depth and offers a wider context of the issues involved.