Thursday, 7 June 2018

On endings

There is an emptiness to it that I did not anticipate. Or perhaps I did, but I didn't have time to consider it before it happened. I was borne to the inevitable ending by anxiety and stress. I kept waiting for it, wishing for it. It came, and then what? The euphoria can only last so long. The impossibly long list of things to do that I put off with the endlessly repeated phrase 'It can wait' now hovers, encroaching. But still I feel I have no purpose. For weeks, months, my life has been the inside of libraries. I did not think I would miss it so much. I am someone who craves routine. I am someone who has never coped well with change.

I went home - I thought it would help. But the walls didn't seem as familiar as they usually do. My bed did not feel like my bed. It has not been harbour for me for so long now. I am no longer an undergraduate, bouncing from home to Oxford and back again. Something has shifted. The house seemed to have shifted too. It felt somehow alien. I walked back from the train station just now along a lane littered with confetti mingling with the dead leaves under my feet, shaving foam congealed on the pavement. Vestiges of euphoria. I saw people with red carnations, giddy, stumbling along the street. I wanted to tell them it won't last.

I read so I do not have to think. I read as I did when I was a child, when I felt so uncomfortable in myself that I lost myself in escapism, in the stories of others. I want to go back there now - to people and places that exist elsewhere, that aren't tethered to this reality. I want to live there for a while. The stories welcome me back as if I hadn't left, into the mind of now this character, now that. I feel my own future stretching ahead, a blurry grey horizon, and I do not want it to come into focus yet, so I tether myself elsewhere.

Someone is ill. Someone is sad. I do not know how to offer comfort. All I have done - all I have been able to do for months - is think about myself. I do not remember how to comfort others. I am angry that my selfishness is noticed, is pointed out like a festering sore. I must learn how to be unselfish. I must learn to cope with change. I must learn that life is not always about having a purpose, about having a routine, and that sometimes you can sit with the change and the emptiness and allow it to happen. Sometimes just existing is enough.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Breaking up with someone

Hi all. It’s been a while.

I have been toying with the idea of writing a post like this for a couple of months now, but I haven’t really known where to start. This story is not entirely mine. Half of it belongs to someone else. But I’m feeling a little off-centre today, and writing helps me to centre myself. Besides, half of the story still belongs to me, and I think I should be allowed to tell it.

I started to realise something was wrong when I couldn’t remember the last time I wrote poetry. It had been months, and it was symptomatic of how I’d been feeling generally. I felt stifled, weighed down. The wrongness felt like a heavy cloud hanging over me. At first I thought it was just depression. I explained it away as something innately wrong with me, because I didn’t want to - couldn’t - look at the relationship in a critical light. We were happy. I was not. I was the problem.

Increasingly I began to look to external influences to feel better about it, to pull myself out of the rut. I posted instagrams of us together. I told all my friends about the nice things he’d done for me, the nice places he’d taken us to. I held on to this shining, pristine vision of a relationship from the outside, validated externally by ‘likes’, by people telling me how lucky I was. I felt so horribly guilty in my unhappiness, like I was trying to pick apart something I should be grateful for. But I still held on in the hopes that one day the clouds would clear. 

Instead of confronting our lack of compatibility, I tried to push him to change, and tried to bend myself into a pretzel to fit around him. We both tried to jam a square peg into a round hole for months. Because on paper we were perfect. Because on instagram and in anecdotes our relationship was untouchable. But people are so much more complex and many-faceted than words on a page, a picture in a square box. Anecdotal evidence of love is not love when behind the veneer you no longer feel like yourself.

And that’s what it came to. Me, sobbing, sitting next to him and saying “I don’t feel like I have an identity anymore”. Because I had torn myself apart for being unhappy. Because when our communication started to break down I stopped expressing my true feelings altogether. Because in response to our relationship falling apart around me I had tried to pour myself into it, to liquefy myself so I’d fit a mould. I almost succeeded in losing myself entirely, but some small voice in me said “Enough, now.”.

Nobody tells you how much it’s going to hurt when you actually do it. For a little while before I made the decision it felt like I was splintering in half. But I listened to myself, to that voice that was telling me I would feel better for it. And before long the clouds lifted. Sun streamed in. I no longer felt heavy, but light. The self I hadn’t seen in months came back and said “I’ve been waiting for you”.

The best advice someone gave me when I told her I’d felt like I was losing myself was: “And how sad that would have been if you’d lost yourself. There’s a space for you to occupy, and it’s not with him.” I am occupying that space. I am doing things for myself. I am loving in ways that do not harm me or stifle me. I am writing again. I am finding new ways to grow, taking root in an identity which isn’t going anywhere.

We all think the first love, the first person we can see ourself being with forever, is going to last that long. Most of the time it doesn’t. I’ve learned that that’s okay. The chances you are going to be completely compatible with another person are low. But it is not ever worth losing yourself to defend something which is transient when it isn’t right.

Friday, 10 February 2017

I cannot be 100% happy 100% of the time (and there is nothing wrong with that)

I just walked past a shop window and saw a book, titled “For every minute you’re angry, you lose 60 seconds of being happy”. I stopped walking. Snowflakes were landing in my hair, and I could feel my nose beginning to turn red with cold, but I was struck by something in that book title so I stood there for a few minutes considering it.

In some of my unhappier times, I have spent time reading messages about forgiveness. I have pored over poems about happiness and healing. I have imagined myself as the person who forgives people for her own happiness, who finds healing in it, who does not spend time being angry. I have equated anger with a disease, with toxicity festering inside me, making me unwell.

But the problem with those poems, and with that book title, is that they presuppose that your anger is toxic. They presuppose that you have the luxury of being able to forgive people at will, to let go, to just refocus your energy on being happy. They presuppose that healing is linear. They presuppose that anger cannot be productive.

I went to someone recently and told them I thought that I was going crazy, that there were two people inside me - one who was well-adjusted, and happy, and healed, and one who was bitter, and angry, and terrified. The second self, who I tried so hard to repress in my pursuit of linear healing, in my pursuit of happiness, would occasionally burst out of me at inopportune moments. I’d have an argument with someone and have an urge to smash something, to scream. The rage really scared me. Anger, especially that kind of unbridled rage, was not something which I associated with myself. I was well-adjusted, kind, capable of forgiveness, capable of being happy all the time. I could choose not to be angry. So why did I feel like I was losing it? Why did I feel like I wasn’t in control?

The person that I told this listened impassively. She seemed vaguely concerned, but I had expected her to be terrified. I had expected her to tell me I needed serious help, that I had lost my mind. She said “All of these feelings are normal. You are allowed to have them. You are an emotional person, who feels things, and trying not to feel them is what is causing this. You repress and repress and repress and it suddenly bursts out of you. Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to be angry.”

I was shocked. Allowing myself to be angry was not something I could reconcile with being a happy person, with being someone who was healed. But the problem was that I could not differentiate between the two different kinds of anger. There is the anger which eats you alive, which keeps you awake at night. The anger which makes you into a person which you are not, which festers, which makes you jaded and bitter. Then there is another kind of anger. A productive anger. An anger which drives you forwards, which helps you to heal, which helps you to realise things about yourself, which helps you to process when something awful happens because it makes you angry that it happened, it makes you realise that it was not your fault. 

Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things come out of nowhere and knock you off your feet for a second. Sometimes there is a pressure to get straight back up, to find your happiness again, to ignore it. There is a pressure to forgive too soon, to avoid processing your feelings because you are avoiding the negative in the pursuit of the positive. 

For every 60 seconds I spend allowing myself to be angry, allowing the feelings to come, to help me process, I have another 60 or 600 or 6000 seconds of being able to be happy without repression. I have a motivation to move forwards. I have a sense of my rights as a person, of my boundaries. I am calmer, I am kinder, I am happier. I am able to harness the productivity of my rage without allowing it to consume me. I am in control of when I let it out, rather than a dormant volcano waiting to explode at the people I love.

So I don’t think that book has it right. I haven’t read it, but I think that the title speaks from the privilege of not having anything real to be angry about, of never having had anger come to you even when you don’t want it, even when you want to cast it aside and be healed. It jumps from A to B without any consideration of how hard it is to get there. 

Eventually I know and believe that I will get to the point where it doesn’t help me anymore, where it begins to dissipate, where I become that person in those poems about healing and forgiveness that I read. Right now I am between being angry and being healed and able to forgive, and that is okay. I will get there. And anger - the non-toxic, productive kind - is one of the things which drives me forwards.

Sometimes you cannot replace anger, or sadness, with happiness. Sometimes you cannot refocus your energy. Sometimes you need the bad feelings to help you heal, to help you to get to the good feelings. Being angry sometimes does not mean I am not a good person. Being angry sometimes does not mean that I am not capable of being happy. Being angry sometimes does not mean I am not healing.

Monday, 6 February 2017

On self-criticism and fear.

(cartoon by Liana finck)

I am not always very good at being nice to myself. I’ve addressed this briefly in other blog posts in relation to my anxiety, but I wanted to give it its own post, because it’s an issue I’ve been struggling with especially recently.

I’m writing this from my bed right now. I’ve got an essay due in tomorrow evening, which I haven’t done any reading for, but I woke up this morning feeling fluey and tired and all my plans to have a productive day and do some exercise have gone out the window. I know that what I need is to rest, but there is a voice in the back of my head saying ‘you’re lazy’, ‘get up, you’re not even ill’, ‘it’s going to be a crap essay, like last week, if you don’t start work now’, ‘why are you so bad at managing your time - you should have worked more over the weekend’. It’s relatively quiet right now, but it's there.

Some weeks it’s really really loud. I’ll slip up and say something stupid, and spend the rest of the day inwardly abusing myself - ‘why do you always do this’, ‘why do people even like you’, ‘you should just stop talking altogether’. My essays are never good enough. If I forget to do an admin job, or miss a meeting with someone, I convince myself that they’ll hate me, that I’m incompetent, that I should never have taken the job on in the first place. It’s like I’ve got an inner self, and I can sometimes tune her out, sometimes even shut her up completely for a while, but as soon as I am feeling overworked, or tired, or stressed, there she is again. The opposite of a personal cheerleader. Someone really put it in perspective for me recently when they asked if I would ever talk to someone else the way I talk to myself sometimes. I was horrified even thinking about it.

I’ve never really known why it is that I have this - I’ve attributed it to anxiety before, to low self-esteem, to any existing mental health issue that I’ve had at any one time. I always try and attach her to an external factor, because then I don’t have to face the facts that her voice is my voice, that it is me that is the problem. 

Last week I was at a session with a new counsellor, and she said - in my first session with her, bear in mind - “I think you live in a lot of fear”. This woman, who had known me not 40 minutes, hit the nail right on the head. I am afraid. Afraid that people won’t like me, that I’ll let people down, that I’ll never be ‘good enough’, whatever that means. And this fear drives me to intense perfectionism - everything I do has to be the best, otherwise people won’t like me, people will think I’m a fraud.

In my first year I had an obsession with deadlines. If I was off by even half an hour I’d freak out, sometimes even cry - I knew I was being dramatic but it felt like the worst thing in the world. I did a personality test towards the end of the year (the Myers Briggs - it’s pretty cool if you’re into that kind of thing) which gives you 4 letters to describe yourself: I got ENFP. My friend, having watched me freak out numerous times over deadlines, was surprised that I was an ENFP, not an ENFJ. I’ll highlight the differences here: “ENFPs tend to withhold judgment and delay important decisions, preferring to "keep their options open" should circumstances change.”, whereas “ENFJs tend to plan their activities and make decisions early. They derive a sense of control through predictability.”. The reason for my deadline obsession wasn’t a wish for predictability, but fear - fear that my tutor would hate me, that I would be seen as a bad student, that people would realise I was a fraud and that I shouldn’t be here (imposter syndrome am I right?).

The truth is that I am so hard on myself because I am scared. I am scared that if I cut myself some slack then my work won’t be good enough. I am scared that if I say something wrong then my friends will decide they don’t like me anymore. I am scared that if I miss a deadline my tutor will hate me - which actually isn’t true, because last term when I apologised for handing 3 essays in a row in at 3am the day before the tutorial, 9 hours late, my tutor brushed aside my apology and said he was ‘impressed that I had poured my blood sweat and tears into getting the work done’. But it’s not always easy to listen to logic.

I had such an epiphany last year about ceasing to judge myself based on other peoples’ perceptions of me, and I really thought that I had come past that, but it turns out that I haven’t. The voice is still there because I haven’t let go of that fear yet. I am not yet ready to rely on myself, because that is the scariest thing of all. But I am going to start trying to be brave, and let go. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Healing from trauma

At first, it will be easy to pretend that nothing has happened. You will think that you are over it. Everybody will believe that you are over it. They will see you laughing, smiling, being your usual self. They will see you being friends with that person. You will convince yourself that it was insignificant, that you were making a big deal out of nothing, that you deserved it, that you don’t have a right to be upset. You will carry on.

Eventually cracks will start to appear - someone will make a joke which reminds you of something, and you will feel like vomiting. But you will smile, you will laugh. No one will notice anything. They will touch your shoulder in a harmless gesture, and you will want to recoil, but you will not. You will smile, you will only tense up slightly. No one will notice anything.

These cracks at some point will become too hard to bear, so you will begin to distance yourself, to save your smiles for people who are completely unaffiliated with them. You will not even notice that you are doing this. You will think that you are just ‘branching out’, ‘making new friends’. You will stop spending any time in college at all. You will ‘explore other libraries’, ‘start new hobbies’. You will think that you are just busy. You will not notice that these are avoidance tactics.

You will miss your best friend’s birthday pub trip to go and do sport. You will think that it is because you want to stay fit. You will not recognise that the real reason you are not going is because you do not want to be exposed as a fraud. You will not realise that you are not passing up spending time with those people because you are busy, but because you are scared of doing or saying something that lets on how you are really feeling. You will leave your friend looking sad because you’re missing her birthday. You will carry on.

Eventually you will be unable to keep smiling. A joke which goes wrong will bring your entire facade crashing around you. You will laugh. You will smile. But something will short circuit, and before you know it you will be in floods of tears. You will see people looking confused. You will feel ashamed. but you will not be able to stop. You will feel angry. You will feel scared. You will try to bring the facade back together. You will try to tell people that you are fine. You will try to accept responsibility for your own actions, but will find it difficult to figure out what exactly you did wrong. You will still beat yourself up.

You will report what happened. You will think that this will make you feel better. It will not. Even when the person you tell says ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘This is not your fault’, you will still think that it is your fault. You will lie on your friend’s bedroom floor and cry. You will feel like a selfish mess. You will be terrified that you will be told that you are wrong, that you will be told that you have made it up. You will beat yourself up again for being so pathetic. You will go home to your family for a while because even your best friend’s room doesn’t feel safe anymore.

You will come back. Everything will be resolved by people higher up than you. You will think that this will make you feel better. It will not. You will feel like it is your fault. You will alternate between terrifying, burning rage and overwhelming sadness. You will stop eating for a few days. Someone will tell you that your feelings are similar to grief. You will feel like you do not deserve this analogy because you have not lost anything, except maybe your sense of self. You will feel like you are drowning. You will find out what people are saying behind your back and want to scream ‘YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED. YOU DON’T KNOW HOW I FEEL. YOU DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH YOU ARE DAMAGING ME’. You will not. You will stay silent. You will do your work. You will avoid college. You will carry on.

Eventually, after a while, you will feel like you are healed. People will have stopped talking about it. They will have moved on. You will feel like you have moved on. Everybody will think that you are fine. But you will see that person and have a panic attack. You will feel pathetic again. You will feel like it is your fault. You will spend increasing amounts of time in your room. You will realise that this is an avoidance tactic. You will come out of your room. You will spend time with friends. You will start to feel happy and safe again. 

Sometimes you will have bad weeks. Sometimes you will feel like you are about to lose it completely. You will beat yourself up for not being over it. You will feel weak. You will try to get it together. You will get it together. You will remind yourself of your own strength. You will carry on.

Monday, 31 October 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

Have you ever read a poem where it feels like the poet has reached into your head and pulled something out, woven it into words you never could've come up with to express a feeling which you didn't quite understand? That's the feeling I get when I read this book. It must've become annoying by now to my closest female friends that every time we stay up until the small hours of the morning talking about life and broken hearts, I find a poem by Rupi to read aloud. One of us will stumble upon a feeling and I'll get up, reach for her on my bookshelf, reaching for the writing which will render that feeling universal, make us feel less alone. She takes your pain and makes it tangible, then makes it bearable, then teaches you to allow yourself to move on from it. She is the voice I need to hear when I am feeling low, feeling like I can't fathom how to let go of anger, or hurt. "It's okay" her poems whisper. "You are allowed to feel this way, I have too. You are allowed to feel broken. But you are also allowed to rise up from it, stronger than you were before." Rupi's poetry helped me to find an inner strength that I didn't now was there, and taught me to support and love the other women in my life. I want to give her book to every woman I've ever met who's had a hard time, or even those who haven't, just in case they ever do. Buy it, read it, keep it forever, pass it on to generation after generation of women. Just get a copy of this book - I promise you won't regret it.

(a taste of Rupi's poetry)

Friday, 14 October 2016

I've finally stopped worrying about what I eat (and I feel great about it)

When I was 16, my BMI matched my age. I know this because one morning my mum asked me to work it out - the night before my sister had seen me getting changed into my pyjamas from her room across the hall and seen the vertebrae of my spine sticking out. For her, that was it. She’d spent weeks and weeks watching me make excuses at mealtimes, eating a yoghurt for breakfast, skipping lunch at school for one piece of toast, and overexercising, and she’d kept trying to make me see that something was wrong, but I wouldn’t listen. Finally, desperately, she told my parents, and they stood and watched me weigh myself, worked out my BMI and were mildly horrified that I’d managed to become malnourished under their noses. 

I was taking my GCSEs at the time, and had taken them so seriously that I’d let my phone go out of charge for weeks, deactivated my Facebook and shut myself away to revise for 8 hours a day. I felt out of control - these exams were dictating my life. So I decided to reestablish control by restricting what I ate, by becoming as small as I felt that I was inside. I socially isolated myself, and flipped out at any one of my friends if they commented on how little food I was eating. I was obsessed. I’d go to the gym 4 times a week and not allow myself to leave until I’d burnt at least 500 calories on the cross trainer. I’d sit in the library at school and work out how much I’d had to eat that day, the amount of calories I’d consumed directly proportional to how guilty I should feel. And it worked. I was tiny. But it was never enough. I sometimes think that I wanted to be so small I could  disappear.

I’m not exactly sure when it started - there isn’t a single moment when I decided to stop eating - but rather it built up over time. Between the ages of 8 and 13 I was very overweight. I’d look at pictures of people in magazines and feel sad because I didn’t look like them. I found it difficult to feel like I mattered because I was overweight. The kids who bullied me at primary school, the adolescent crushes who I felt would never feel the same way about me, the films and tv I watched in which nobody looked like me all built up to the overwhelming feeling that I just didn’t fit in, didn’t matter. I was reading a section of ‘girl up’ by Laura Bates recently in which she asked children at a primary school to draw a picture of themselves as they were, and a picture of themselves with anything they’d like to change if they could. She showed a selection of pictures, from both male and female children. In the boys pictures there was no real discernible pattern - larger biceps here, an attractive girlfriend there. One boy drew himself as a magician. But in picture after picture the girls had drawn themselves as smaller, thinner. Reading that made me want to cry. The overwhelming impression is that even at a young, formative age, girls want to shrink themselves. And that’s what I felt.

After that pivotal conversation with my parents I had a decision to make - I either had to do what they asked and try to eat more, to (to my horror) gain weight, or carry on as I was, listening to the voice in my head telling me to eat less, to get smaller, so I might finally feel like I was good enough. I had to choose the first option. I knew that if I didn’t I would ruin my relationship with my parents, and in that moment, looking at the concern on their faces, I couldn’t do it to them. I couldn’t continue hurting them. So my mum and I worked out a regime (which at first mostly involved eating pop tarts and mars bars at various points of the day) and slowly I started to put on weight. It took a long time for me to break out of my rigid regime, but by the age of 17/18 I was back to a healthy weight, and my parents were satisfied.

But the disordered eating didn’t stop there. The voice was much quieter, but it was still there. When I first arrived at university I would still feel bad about eating beans on toast the morning after a night out, ridden with guilt because of all the calories I’d consumed the night before in alcohol. I would watch people eating chocolate bars at lunch with fascination, because it was something I’d never allow myself to eat. I described my eating habits - no carbs, no meat, mostly protein and vegetables and very little else - to a friend once and he looked at me and said, half joking, ‘how do you live?’. Being vegetarian gave me a ready excuse - there was a whole food group that I could avoid - and I also often hid behind the statement ‘I’m just trying to be healthy’. But, even though I wasn’t depriving myself of nourishment (I was eating around 1800 calories a day), I was still obsessed. I was still following rules, restricting myself, always thinking about the next meal and how I could make it healthier. I still wanted to be thin. I still didn’t feel good enough.

Over the summer I spent a lot of time watching videos from the StylelikeU youtube channel, in which women are interviewed about their lives, their passions, their sense of self. The message they send is that women are not just their bodies, or what they wear. They are not defined by how attractive they are. It showed me that there are so many other ways to feel like you matter which don’t involve shrinking yourself, which seems like a self evident truth, but was something I’d struggled with for all of my teenage years. All these women were so beautiful, despite many of them not fitting into the idealised standard of what is considered to be attractive.

Watching these videos, and educating myself about body positivity, had a huge effect on me which at first I didn’t even notice. It was as simple as having a meal without once thinking about the amount of calories in it, or not caring when someone commented that I’d put on a bit of weight, or just deciding to buy a new pair of jeans when my old ones didn’t fit me anymore, rather than holding onto them to torture myself into losing weight and shrinking back into them. Now my eating habits aren’t exactly 3 meals a day normal - I’m at university, so some days I’ll forget to eat lunch because I’ll be writing an essay, or I’ll eat half a packet of biscuits while sitting at my desk. But the important thing is that I’ve stopped worrying about what I eat. I’ve stopped criticising my body and started to accept it for what it is. I’ve put on weight and I don’t give a flying fuck (excuse my French). I am not my body. I am the books that I read, the people that I spend time with, the values I uphold. I am my interests and passions. I am myself. And I feel pretty great about that.

I want every girl who’s ever felt like she needed to lose weight to fit in, or to feel like she mattered, to feel this way too, but I know it’ll take time. Just know, please, if you’ve ever struggled with body image issues, that you are not your body. You are not the standards which media and society set for you. You are so much more than that. You are, as my friend said to me recently, a precious gem that should be cherished.