Social Brainwashing by Zoe Burgess

GuestBloggerSo how many of us have worked in an environment where we have felt a little like the only geek in the village? How many of us have been in that environment where we’ve kinda been the odd one out and it’s been a little harder to relate to those around us?

I know I have and it ended up nearly breaking me.

Now, I’m not afraid to talk about the struggles I’ve had on the road to accepting who I am and being proud of my lifestyle. Some people learn and get inspiration from others who have had similar experiences, for others opening up can be a struggle. Until people can start an open dialogue about their issues, they will always be pushed aside or left in the dark. So I’m not afraid to admit I suffer with depression, originally diagnosed with PTSD when I just couldn’t handle the shock of my father dying.

I had counselling where we tried to get to the root of my anxiety and eating problems. I had some very bad problems with eating, from having an under 500-calorie a day diet: only liquids, no meat, no dairy, no carbs and no processed food. Anyone with an eating disorder will tell you it’s not about losing weight, it’s about control, it’s about using food to control yourself when life goes out of control. It’s the pain of starving yourself being real, and something you can focus on, when the pain in your head and your heart can’t be managed. Most important with these problems is reaching out for help. I went to the doctor and was told stress, anxiety and depression had led to my insomnia and poor health. I was afraid at first, but then was put on anti-depressants and I realised it was time for a change.

This is where I realised that a form of “social brainwashing” had led to my problems. It wasn’t until I was out of a certain environment that I started to feel less depressed and more like myself. I was working in a job that at first I loved, I like children and childcare seemed like a natural place for me. Children are fun, curious and the next generation. Children should be respected and supported but also allowed to be children and have fun. It was great until I realised that while the children loved me and that playing Doctor Who or making monster costumes was great to a 5 year old, my colleagues had started to mention how “silly” I was.

I didn’t really notice at first… there were the comments about how much “like the children” I was and how I liked cartoons, but then it started to feel more like a judgment than an observation. Things changed after I lost my dad and my colleague started asking me when I was going to grow up and face the real world. Wasn’t it about time I thought about my future, settling down and having children as opposed to wanting to travel, play computer games and go to anime conventions? I wasn’t really happy about this. I like my life! I was geek and proud, but somehow I was starting to feel judged for this.

There are so many stories to tell about the isolation I began to feel and how I started thinking more negatively about myself. I’ll only relate a few, but I feel they are important to share.

DSCF3632After my dad died I started doing art again, it relaxed me and I could channel some of my emotions. I would sit on lunch break drawing Doctor Who art and colleagues would ask why I was drawing. What was the point of it, they would ask, “art is a hobby, not something that really makes a difference in life”. Then the manager said that it was good that I had a way to cope but I had to be careful not to ostracize myself as people didn’t want to talk to me if I was drawing. I continued drawing, even in light of this “advice” and even began to draw manga on shoes. This lead to questions of what I was going to do with the shoes. When I suggested that I would sell them, I was belittled by being told, “Who would buy them”.

I realised I had a very different view of the world, one full of art and self-expression, one where I was part of a fun community and a magical land of cosplay, but at work I was the freak, the outcast, and the “funny” one. It got worse when I started dating my boyfriend and was asked about our dates. We went to places like the British Museum or stayed in watching anime. “Aren’t you a bit old for that?” “Why would you go to the museum? It’s so boring!” “We live in Britain, what’s the point of going to a museum of British things?” And so forth.

Understandably then, I was going a little insane and I decided I needed a change. I wasn’t eating right, I wasn’t sleeping, I was doubting myself and I was so stressed that the doctor kept trying to sign me off work. I eventually decided being a geek and my love of anime was more important than these people and applied for a MA in Japanese Culture at Birkbeck. I wanted to take everything I knew from being a fangirl and study it further, move into an academic field, I wanted to be a professional geek. Of course my colleagues didn’t get it. They didn’t see the point of studying another culture, they didn’t understand what anime was, and they certainly did not appreciate my PhD topic (female anime culture in Britain and gender and sexuality).

Basically they stopped really talking to me about my interests and left me alone a lot. They talked about fashion mags, how drunk they got at weekends, and reality stars. Of course this was in contrast to my excitement over Doctor Who, the latest anime convention, or the next cosplay I was going to do. It was lonely and stressful, and I was desperate to be out of that environment. So many questions began forming in my head: why was I so different; why aren’t they interested in anything I have to say; why are my passions laughed at, criticised or ignored; why am I being called “funny”, “immature” or “silly”? Worse of all was that I began to believe these things.

It wasn’t until I finally left my job and started at university that I saw what had really happened. Because I wasn’t like them, because I had a different lifestyle, it was easier for my colleagues to make fun of or ignore me.  This reaction seems so common when people don’t understand difference, or when they don’t have the imagination or open mindedness to appreciate differences. The social acceptable “norms” of society and standards demonstrated to us by the so-called mainstream can be oppressive in certain working environments. I was judged by people who believed that they embodied these social norms and of course, I was found lacking. My passion for art, travel, cultural studies and fandom were not things a woman should be into when she works in childcare. Instead, I should be wanting children. Going clubbing was a “normal” past time, but I went to conventions. Is my cosplay really that different a costume from the makeup and skimpy outfits these girls wore on a night out? Why should I be the weird one because I can’t name a single member of the TOWIE cast but can name every actor that played Doctor Who?

Once out of this soul crushing environment I started to see that these people weren’t the “norm” either. They had isolated themselves from things I hold dear, like knowledge of British history and society, geography, and films. They only had each other for friends inside and out of work. Their bonds were built on fag breaks, children, clubbing and bitching about work. I had a network of people interested in so much more, but at the time I couldn’t see it.

DSCF3636What I learned from my experience does, I’m confident, happen to many people. Within these kinds of closed work environments, there seems to be an almost incestuous relationship between colleagues, but usually there is also always “the black sheep of the family”. Because this black sheep doesn’t fit in, its ignored, made fun of, or expected to change and conform. If it can’t change then it is made to feel that it is the source of the problem.

In realistic terms, this is the point at which depression and stress can set in because it’s difficult to know whether to fight a lonely war and be judged, or to try and fit in but lose so much of oneself in the process. I felt like I was being brainwashed. Once I was back at university with academics who valued my opinions, meeting fans and geeks who shared my world, I realised that my depression was caused by an environment in which the so called “social norm” was the standard by which I was being judged.

Well I say never let people dictate who you are. Don’t let them bully you into thinking your passions and hobbies aren’t important and don’t let them try and change you. I’m proud of how far I’ve come and can’t believe there was ever a period when I was trying to “fit in”. There is a place for you too, don’t give up.

My name is Zoe Burgess, I’m a professional geek! Well that’s the dream. I am working towards my Anime PhD and do cosplayer and anime panels. You can find me as @lonedreameryaoi on twitter and as Let Zoe Spoil You on various social networks, such as youtube and tumblr. My personal weblog is

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One comment

  • Guest
    March 5, 2014 - 11:41 | Permalink

    I am glad that you made it! When the mind is free, nothing else matters. When one speaks, he would always say his/her truth, not yours. That confuses people because they try to project their belief system on the others’. You discovered this and set yourself free. And once you set yourself free you will realize that only the sky is the limit! Thank you for sharing your experience…

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