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The following is a guest contribution by Sonja Missio (@sonjamissio).

I have mental health problems.

Like, real ones. Like, ones I’m medicated for daily and have seen shrinks for since I was about 11-years-old. Like, ones that affect me every day, from the way I eat to how I tell time—two very important activities for an Italian-Swiss like myself.

I have been diagnosed as having hypo-mania, with severe anxiety.

I’ve had lows and I’ve had highs (mostly highs) and it has changed my entire life. Now, don’t get me wrong: I eat right, exercise, have a boyfriend/dog/family/friends/job/mortgage/life, etc. etc. But in spite of everything, I am still crazy.

It took me until my mid-20s to get properly medicated and seen by the right specialists. I’ve done sleep studies and CBT conditioning, and even once saw a homeopath (spoiler: it was crap). And now, with the right and constant chemical support—a pill taken every morning—I am a functioning adult who can pass off as normal.

In fact, being crazy is my normal.

And that’s okay, because I have come to terms with it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fucking suck. Being crazy isn’t glamourous or in vogue, nor is it fixable or easy to deal with. Which leads me to the point of this post: Bell Let’s Talk Day confuses me.

I don’t mean the corporate or philanthropic side, nor the execution. It’s a brilliant marketing campaign, but I don’t understand just what it’s marketing.

To end the stigma of mental illness?

Okay. But what’s “stigma” and what’s “mental illness?” Because what I see people talking about are normal human emotions: you’re allowed to be sad and angry at times.

As someone who (in theory) has suffered the “stigma” of “mental illness” (and I am still not sure what that means), I can tell you that we’re talking about the wrong things. First—and not limited to Bell Let’s Talk Day—we glamourize mental illnesses. It’s all positive! Literally turn that sad emoji into a happy emoji (okay, that’s limited to Bell Let’s Talk Day)! And once we talk about it on social media, it all becomes better (and, weirdly, regulated).

Posts like, “depression get better!” and “I understand and accept your mental health problem!” (I am being intentionally vague) is both insulting and hilarious.

Pro-Mental Health Platforms seem to justify normal emotions, which is actually counterproductive for people who suffer under the (once again, very vague) umbrella of mental illness.

You know what would have be helpful for me while I was going through diagnoses? Knowing how my body would get destroyed once I first started taking medication—not that it was thumbs up that I was insane.

If you want to talk about “mental illness,” then talk about it. Talk about the raw, gritty, aspects of it: the breakdown of your mind, body, and consciousness—not this hegemonic, idealized, standard of “it’s okay to be sad!”

Being sad is not the same as having depression. Being nervous is not the same as having anxiety. Being hyper is not the same as having episodes of mania. Experiencing negative emotions is not the same as having  chemicals that are imbalanced in your brain and affect every aspect of your life.

“Mental health issues” cannot be destigmatized in a few tweets; they can only be detigmatized if we see them for their superficial value: that they really fucking suck.

We understand the horrific effects of cancer, AIDs, dementia, etc. because we talk frankly about them; we’ve actually destigmatized them (NB: I realize they are not all destigmatized equally. I mean to the point of popular understanding of what they are as  diseases); however, we have never, ever talked frankly about whatever mental illnesses are.

Turning a frowny face into a smiley face, or a thumbs-down to a thumbs-up, or having mental health superheroes may make the topic of mental health accessible to the masses, but it marginalizes those who have seen the real side of depression, addiction, mania, anxiety, etc.

To be blunt: the problem is that the current mental health platform appeals to an already acceptable, hegemonic, “normal” standard—which doesn’t appeal to crazy people. The target is impressionable people on social media who briefly think for the day, “Yeah! I get sad sometimes! I must have depression, and that’s okay!”

However (more bluntness), having mental illness is NOT normal and it’s NOT okay. In the same way that having a more “acceptable” illness (ie. cancer, AIDS, dementia) is not normal or okay.

What I mean by this is that having an illness—any illness—is not okay because there is something detrimental to your well-being. It doesn’t make you a bad person for being affected by it, but it’s not “okay” or “normal,” and it has to be dealt with.

Basically, it comes down to this: if you want to end the stigma, treat mental illness like an illness, not a cool Twitter topic. I get that we’re raising awareness, but we shouldn’t try to normalize something that is not normal.

But what the fuck do I know, I’m crazy.

Sonja Missio lives her crazy life in Toronto.

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EricThe following is my Last Word (click to read in PDF form) column from a recent edition of Soccer 360 magazine.

In 1938, while battling Francoist forces at the height of the Spanish Civil War, Pere Raurich sustained injuries that required treatment in France. He and his wife found refuge in the tiny commune of Saint-Priese, in the Ardeche department, before settling permanently in Marseille.

It was in Marseille, eighteen years later, that their grandson, Eric, was born. Eleonore, their daughter, had previously married a Sardinian immigrant named Albert Cantona, and little Eric would go on to win six titles at the highest level of club football—four of them with Manchester United.

Eric’s is a story of displacement, which is why, in late September, he revealed he’d be personally housing and feeding a Syrian refugee family for at least two years.

Eric2“My maternal grandparents were Spanish Republicans who fled Franco by crossing the Pyrenees on foot,” he told France Inter radio, adding that his ancestors’ experience had “certainly played a role” in his decision to offer a helping hand.

Three weeks prior to Cantona’s pronouncement, and in the initial pangs of conscience following the drowning death, and candid photograph, of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose family had attempted the perilous crossing from Bodrum, Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, the football world made its first, high-profile response to the emergency through the €1 million donation from Bayern Munich.

“FC Bayern see it as its social responsibility to help those fleeing and suffering children, women and men, to support them and accompany them in Germany,” stated Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the club’s chief executive. Bayern also proceeded to set up a training centre for new arrivals, recognizing the importance of Munich as a main port of entry into the country.

Predictably, albeit commendably, many of Bayern’s European rivals committed similar donations and settlement schemes in the following days and weeks. Arsenal—the first Premier League club to extend support to the refugees fleeing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime, ISIL and the various, warring factions in the region—contributed £400,000 and constructed football pitches at refugee camps in Iraq. Barcelona, in partnership with the Red Cross, launched a fundraising drive through its foundation and involved its players in an awareness campaign.

“This is an emergency situation in which 300,000 people have arrived in the continent from countries that are suffering from conflicts,” the Primera Division club declared in a statement. “Barca is encouraging everyone connected to the club to get involved.”

Now, it’s easy to be cynical when groundswells of goodwill produce as much publicity as help. Bayern, after making their commitment, were hailed throughout the world’s media as benevolent, compassionate and socially aware, and the clubs that quickly followed suit could have been, and were to some extent, cast as piggy-backers eager for similar attention.

refugees2But peer through the cynicism (and it’s telling that cynicism is often our default reaction in these instances) and you’ll see genuine compassion, big-hearted generosity and the best of intentions. Many football clubs, after all, were inaugurated as social concerns in the late 19th century and went on representing the interests of their fans through the 20th. To some extent they still do.

“The clubs in many respects are following the public mood,” remarked journalist James Montague in a September interview with the Daily Star. “There has always been a community aspect to clubs. That is how clubs were born—representing an area, a factory and profession.”

He added: “Clubs were built by the fans, and the fans have always set the agenda as how clubs should respond, whether it was Liverpool FC backing dock workers in 1990s Great Britain or German clubs with banners proclaiming ‘refugees welcome’ today.”

Their conscience, in other words, grows from the grassroots. So does their wealth, which, in the cases of Europe’s biggest clubs, positions them as some of the continent’s most prosperous companies. Combine that affluence with a sense of moral responsibility and what results is both the aspiration and means to make a difference—a conscientious imperative to help. Because they can, and therefore should.

Unfortunately, the initiatives being enacted by Europe’s football clubs—and others around the world—are yet to be sufficiently mimicked by many governments whose countries could be doing exponentially more good than the sporting sector. Great Britain, for example, continues to disgrace itself by resisting the resettlement of refugees—an embarrassment we in Canada know all too well.

Beyond the matters of morality and conscience the intake of displaced people provides overwhelming benefits to societies, especially those with aging workforces and the space available to provide physical settlement and integration into tax bases.

And, who knows? Another Eric Cantona may have just now arrived in a land willing to take him. A football club might have provided the funds. Another story of displacement, kindness and achievement may well be underway.

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Christmas truce soccer

by Jerrad Peters

A first snow. Not much of one but when the sky cleared yesterday you could feel it getting colder and this morning there was frost on the ground. Then at sundown it started to snow. We’ve had so much rain a bit of snow is almost welcome. All month it’s been mild and damp and the wafting stench of bloated corpses has clung to your garments. Now in the cold the smell of war has been frozen somewhat although the staccato of gunfire seems louder than it did a few days ago and the whole notes of heavy artillery echo longer through the river valley. Sensitivity to one sense exchanged for another, perhaps. I’ll gladly make the trade.

But it’s quiet now except for the singing. Soon after dark we started to hear them, quiet at first, and then emboldened by booze or the fact we hadn’t shot at them, or both. When they got a little braver they stuck branches and small trees atop their trenches and hung lanterns from them. Then we noticed the occasional glow rise up from the earth and go back down again. The beam of their fags, like orange fireflies hovering just above the ground. A man with a fag in his mouth who sticks his head up is as good as dead, but most of our boys don’t feel much like shooting tonight. We’re thinking about home, the home-fires of Chester or Northwich and a better helping of Christmas pudding than we’re sure to get from behind the line in the morning. Besides, I know quite a few of the carols. The tunes, at least. Some of the others are humming along.

Then, at first light, the battlefield is changed. We notice a head poking out from their trenches and a bare hand waving high and slowly. A drunk from last night, no doubt. One of our fellows yells out to him.

“Fritz! Good morning Fritz!”

No answer, but for more waving.

“Good morning Fritz! All sung out, Fritz?”

“Good morning.” A reply.

“We’ve Christmas pudding, Fritz. Come over and get some.”

“If I come you shoot.”

“No we won’t. No fear, Fritz. Come over and get some fags and Christmas pudding.”

“I come part way. You come part way. I meet you.”

“Alright, Fritz.”

Our boy bounds over the top, his pockets stuffed with fags. He shakes the Saxon’s hand and slaps him on the back and exchanges the pudding and the fags for the sausages Fritz has brought. Then a few from their end lift a barrel over the edge and get out and start rolling it toward us. They stop where Fritz and our boy are having a laugh about something and dig a cup of beer from the barrel for each of them.

“Come over, fellas,” says our boy, holding his cup of beer for us to see and taking a long, hearty drink from it. A few go over. Then some more. And then I climb over with some others and we mosey into no man’s land. More from their side are making their way to the barrel as well until there must be a hundred or more, shaking hands and sharing a puff and slapping backs. When the barrel is spent they roll out another one and we send back for more Christmas pudding. We must make quite the sight.

By now I’m properly softened up and in the middle of everything. I hover over a German newspaper with a Saxon and then someone gets one of our Cheshire papers. My Saxon doesn’t speak English and we point at photos in the papers and make gestures with our hands. Ypes. He knows it, too. Was probably there, too.

Around midday someone produces a football. How a football was in a trench along the front I’ll never know but suddenly there is a football and I find myself chasing it. Instinct, really, to chase down a football. When I finally get it I find it soaked and heavy and I cross high and well to a Saxon running cross-field from me. Then the barrels have become uprights and a second goal is made between two piles of topcoats.

By the time everyone joins in we’ve got a right kickabout going and while you hear a “Hurrah!” when the barrels are split or topcoats breached I don’t think anyone is actually tracking the score. I have a few more runs with the ball and manage to do quite well despite the awkward boots and there is a Saxon who likes to keep quite close to me when I have possession. On one occasion I stop with the ball and try to pass it to myself by stabbing it through his legs. Clever, I think, until I slip on the slick surface and land squarely on my ass, the ball having gone nowhere. Laughter all ‘round, and my Saxon takes my arm and lifts me to my feet.

I’m not sure how long we’ve played before the game starts to break up, but you can tell spirits are starting to sink with the sun and by late afternoon many of the men have gone back into the ground. Those of us who remain glance awkwardly at each other, as if only now realizing what we’ve been doing. Our boys form a line and one-by-one shake the Germans’ hands. I’ve come to recognize several of their faces from the match and I slap those ones on the back. Then the quiet really sets in and thoughts of tomorrow, too, and we begin to saunter back to our trenches.

“Frank,” I begin to one my mates, “wasn’t a game of football just the thing? I thought of nothing else the whole time we were playing.”

“Precisely the thing,” he replies. “You work up a sweat like that and after a time forget all about your boots.”

“But wasn’t it funny, too? I mean, in this place?”

“It’s funny now, I suppose. Although when we were playing I didn’t find anything funny at all. I just wanted to play a bit of football.”

“You’re right,” I add. “It didn’t seem funny at the time.”

Someone calls that there’s hot coffee a ways down the line. Coffee would be wonderful. You can feel the cold again, and it looks as though it might snow. But I want to just rest in the quiet a moment. I peak above the trench and look across the ground we tore up today in pursuit of a football. We’ll tear it up again tomorrow.

But that’s tomorrow. Today is Christmas and today is still today. Today we took off our coats and forgot everything and played a bit of football. Tomorrow will come, but today we played upon ground we wish to destroy and had a game with good men who tomorrow will be bad men.

Amid death and destruction, a bit of soul restoration. A measure of salvation through song, through Christmas pudding, through football.

Exactly what happened on the Western Front, 98 years ago today, remains unclear. But various accounts, provided by both sides, point to a game of football being played during the Christmas Truce just west of the Belgian town of Wolverghem, near the River Douve. It’s also important to note that the Truce was not followed at every point along the front. I’d like to thank Operation Christmas Pudding for compiling letters and articles related to the Christmas Truce and making them available for public use. One such letter, written by Sergeant-Major Frank Naden of the 6th Cheshires and published in the Stockport Advertiser was particularly leaned upon in writing this story.

This story first appeared on thescore.com on 24 December 2011.

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