What’s the etiquette if you use the last of your therapist’s tissues?

Everyone I know seems to be a little tired at the moment. Flaking on plans is the new normal; requests to postpone are met with welcome relief. Is it the change of seasons? Perhaps we are mentally setting out on a new year and a new beginning, a remnant from our childhood routines (or less of a remnant if you still work in education).

I am tired for more obvious reasons. We moved to London six weeks ago, and are still working things out. The admin of bills and old and new deposits is almost done- although we are still waiting for our old letting agent to give us back the scraps of our deposit left after their ludicrous demands (first time I’ve been charged for putting in picture hooks- £10 each, if you please). Everything is unpacked (although things are still missing) and we’re settling into our new routines. My new commute is only 15 minutes each way instead of over an hour and a half – everyone exclaims about how much my life must have changed, but so far all I’ve done with the extra time is sleep a little more, go to work early and watch more television in the evenings.

This move has been strange for me – it’s a moving forwards and a moving backwards at the same time. People ask how I’ve enjoyed exploring my new area, but I used to live twenty minutes from here and I’ve worked here for five years. I had a lot of plans for all the things I would start/finish/complete once we’d moved: start a new exercise regime, reconnect with dancing, see friends much more often, explore all London’s opportunities… the list was endless.

Of course, we’re only six weeks in so I shouldn’t really expect myself to have accomplished all those things at once. But as always I’ve been hard on myself and am disappointed in how little I’ve done- I haven’t joined a new gym, partly because of a prohibitively high joining fee; I haven’t gone back to dancing, because I’m scared I’ll be crap and that people will think I’ve put on lots of weight; and for the first five weeks I saw only one of my friends – all other plans were postponed by one or other of us because life kept getting in the way.

However, because of things falling in my lap or because I had priorities I didn’t realise were there, I have made a few changes. I get into work by half eight, which I like because it’s nice and quiet. I’ve become a regular attendee of a yoga class organised by a colleague. And I’ve started seeing a new therapist.

The decision to go back to therapy came about through lots of tiny steps. This therapist was recommended to me about a year ago by a friend – she urged me to look for someone who was trained in body psychotherapy after my car accident, as body psychotherapists are trained to notice how we hold tension in the body and help us to release it. I couldn’t find such a therapist in Canterbury, but I kept the idea in my mind, and was reminded of it often by my habits of tensing muscles in response to anxiety or frustration. I’ve clenched my jaw for about ten years, not grinding my teeth (thankfully), but tensing my jaw for so long I get headaches and my jaw clicks whenever I open my mouth fully. That tension has spread down the right side of my body, particularly since the car accident. I tense my right ankle as if my foot is on an accelerator, which tenses my hamstring and my hip, and you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get hip muscles to relax – especially when the tension is often unconscious.

I started seeing this therapist partly for those reasons but also because I am very tired of constantly doubting myself, putting myself down and not feeling good enough. Something my therapist has said more than once – in only two sessions so far – is that I’m very hard on myself, I don’t give myself much of a break. For the last ten months, since buying a full-length mirror for the first time in three years, I’ve felt deeply unhappy about the weight I’ve gained and consistently either feel disappointed when I see myself, or avoid looking at myself altogether. A friend finally suggested I speak to somebody about it, because while everyone has some worries about their appearance, mine have affected me very strongly and to the point where I’m using up far too much mental energy on what to eat and what to wear. Although my diet hasn’t changed very much – it’s pretty healthy in general – the amount of time I spend trying to decide if I should eat that Kit Kat or have cheese on my spaghetti Bolognese is simply exhausting. It has got too much for me and I can’t deal with it by myself. So for all those reasons together, I got the name of the therapist, and set up an appointment.

It’s an odd feeling, starting therapy. In many ways it’s so much easier not to go. Unlike many physical illnesses, when starting medication seems like an obvious choice, with mental health, you can always convince yourself you can beat it on your own. What good will just talking about it do? I can do that by myself. I can talk to my friends, or my partner, or my children. I can fix it, I don’t need to pay to go and sit with somebody for an hour. What a waste of money!

I understand that point of view. I’ve thought it myself, many times. I still think it to some degree. And seeing a therapist is tough – you are so vulnerable, and you have to be totally honest with yourself and them, and thoughts will come to mind that you’ve buried for years – and you have to express them to someone you hardly know. I have been very tired since I started, and have cried pretty much every day about something. I feel like a glass of liquid with some sediment at the bottom, and someone’s stirred the liquid very fast so all the sediment has flown up and is swimming round and round and round. A line from a book summed it up perfectly – “her mind plunged desperately for some hold upon slippery banks.” My first session with my therapist I started crying about two minutes in and barely stopped for an hour – for one horrible moment I thought I was going to finish his box of tissues.

At the same time as it’s difficult and tiring and I feel as if I’m three steps behind on life and running to catch up, everything is so unsettled and I’m so tired and I just want to sleep in a cave for a month, the therapy is worth it. It’s giving me some space to look some emotions in the face and square up to them. I’ve been more honest with my bosses at work about some things that aren’t going well for me, and received support in return. I’ve had wonderful conversations with friends, some of whom are also in therapy, and our bond has deepened through our shared experiences. I’m taking steps towards more self-care, making some plans for more exercise, and doing some yoga in the mornings to help stretch out all those muscles that get so tensed and strained from holding my anxiety and that of others.

Most of all, I feel like I’m helping myself. It’s a great (and expensive) gift I’m giving myself. It’s difficult not to feel sometimes that I’m a failure for doing it, especially as I’ve had some counselling before. But I remind myself that it’s because I’ve learned more about myself, and seen how much more I could be. And asking for some help to get there doesn’t feel like failure – it feels like strength.

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This train terminates here. All change, please.

They say moving is one of the most stressful things you do in life. Not all moves are created equal, though. Some, like leaving your home and everything you know because it’s impossible for you to stay and live, is its own category. Next to that I feel like me moaning about getting to move to London, one of the most exciting and expensive cities in the world, is very much #firstworldproblems. And it is. It is also a completely ridiculous system that offers tenants no security whatsoever.

Until you’ve got a fully completed (signed by everyone) contract and a set of keys, you can’t put your full weight on the idea that you are going to be moving. It used to be that if you liked a flat, you gave the agent a holding deposit and unless they were real cowboys you could be fairly safe that it was yours. Now – that system is dead. You have to send in an offer, for all you know at the same time as six other people are doing the same thing, and then wait for the landlord to choose who they want based on your ‘profile’ and your offer (which generally is the amount they’re asking, because this is renting, I’m not buying the bloody place). But even once your offer has been ‘agreed’, there’s no relaxation. We had 48 hours to complete our references. We got the initial email from the referencing company at 6pm on a Wednesday night. At 6.50pm we got another email chasing us to fill in the form. At 10am the next morning the letting agent chased us to get our landlords and employers to finish the references. You may think, well relax, they wouldn’t actually take it off you, especially as by this time we’d sent them a significant chunk of money to pay for the referencing and for the agent to change the name and address on a contract boilerplate – but this very agent showed us a property which they said was under offer but the tenants were being a bit slow getting their references together, so the landlord had asked them to keep showing the flat to people. And if we went over the offer by as little as £5 we’d probably get the place. Wow. What a beautiful system.

Anyway. That bit is over. I was dreading flat hunting in London and it was every bit as vile and stress-inducing as I remembered. We have ended up paying more than £300 a month more than we originally intended. Our rent is almost double what we’re paying in Canterbury for a larger place. It is easy to focus on the negatives.

However! One of the main reasons for the move is for us to swap commutes, and we have managed to achieve that. I was fully expecting to still have an hour’s commute to work, because in London, unless you can walk, everything takes an hour. But we did find somewhere I can walk from, so my commute is now a 10-15 minute walk. I have no idea what I’m going to do with all the time I’ll have now that I won’t be out of the house from 7am to 7pm four or five days a week (I get a work from home day at the moment – and yes, I will be giving it up when we move!).

We will be a 15 minute walk from one of my dearest friends. I didn’t tell him where we were flat hunting, so I got to break the news to him in person last night – and it was delicious. We used to be flatmates and leaving him was one of the hardest things for me when I moved to Canterbury. We have many plans for brunches, walks in the park, and watching Queer Eye at each other’s houses.

Another of my best friends I haven’t seen so much lately since she had a baby, and has very few free evenings when she can leave the house. For me to go to hers I had to stay over because it was too far to get home. She’s just had twins and now I’ll be 30-45 minutes away, within easy reach for popping over for dinner/tea/to help out when needed.

Yet another of my best friends will be about half an hour away by tube – she is living in central London for the first time since we lived together in halls during our MA degrees, and her excitement at me being back in London is heartwarming and infectious. I can’t wait to experience London through her eyes, as she sees so much more of what there is on offer than I do.

Another friend who I speak to almost daily via text but who I see about once every six months will be so much closer – I’m hoping to invite myself over to see the house she’s bought with her husband, and see in the flesh the wallpaper I didn’t really help to choose (they ignored my suggestion) and generally hang out and drink beer as in the days of university.

For my partner this move is an opportunity to expand his work contacts, join a volleyball club, meet some people who are interested in playing board games (they bore me senseless) and generally spend some more time with people who are on his wavelength. I am really hopeful he will start to feel more settled and at home in England – when much of your interaction day-to-day with our country is through the news, even when you live here, it’s easy to feel unwanted and out of place if you weren’t born here (or sometimes even if you were). As London is one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world, with any luck he will find it easier to build a community.

I’ll be able to stay at work drinks without worrying about which train to catch! I can eat dinner somewhere other than King’s Cross! Every social interaction I have after work won’t have the inevitable, ‘Are you all right for time?’ ‘Well I can leave in the next ten minutes or I’ve got over an hour. Do you want to rush or do you want to get drunk?’ conversation! Going to the theatre with friends won’t mean getting home at midnight and looking dead-eyed at work the next day! I’ll be able to go out dancing again! I won’t be exhausted every evening because it’s taken me two hours to get home! I’ll be able to throw out the enormous, ugly backpack I carry all my stuff in, which I’ve finally admitted to myself in the last few days is MONSTROUS and I HATE IT.

London is busy, and stressful, and undeniably so expensive it makes you queasy. I will miss Canterbury enormously, and will definitely be down here fairly often (especially to see the one friend I’ve managed to make down here!). But I am trying to remember to count all the things money can’t buy me, too. It’s not easy: seeing the money you’ve saved over the last year vanish in the moving costs feels more tangible than the time I’ll have free and the different opportunities I’ll have on my doorstep. But the latter are equally real. And what do I have the money for if not to spend it? We are beyond lucky to be able to do this, to have the means (just) and the flexibility to do this. It may not be easy, but like all big changes, you have to hope that in the end it will be worth it.

Perfectionism

I haven’t been writing much lately. I have plenty of ideas in my head and still draft pieces as I’m walking around but haven’t found the time or the headspace to write anything down, and part of that is thanks to one of my biggest flaws: perfectionism.

I’ve often thought of it as being low self-esteem or anxiety, and I’m sure they’re contributing factors, but what it boils down to is that I am a perfectionist. I hate getting things wrong and hate feeling like I’ve made a bad job of something, or haven’t done as much as I could have done. In some ways this is useful and it makes me good at many parts of my job, but it is also self-destructive. I get far too upset about the little things and that lack of perspective is really unhelpful.

There are a couple of recent examples of this. One is the issue I’ve written a few blogs on this year, about body image. I am still struggling to view myself in a healthy and positive way since gaining some weight. I do not always recognise myself when I catch sight of my reflection, which I find unnerving, and I do not feel attractive at all. I think a lot of this problem is in my head: my body shape has not changed THAT much. But it is different. For most of my adult life I’ve been able to walk into shops, pick up the smallest size on the rack, and it will probably fit, or it will be a bit big. Now, I essentially have no idea what size I am. Clothes I’ve worn in the last few days have ranged in size from a 6 to a 12. I am throwing out a lot of clothes that no longer fit, but when it comes to buying new ones, as well as not knowing what size to choose, I don’t really know what will be flattering anymore. I can’t “get away with” some options I’ve worn in the past. High-waisted pencil skirts used to be sleek and slimming but now make me look squat and shorter than I am. T-shirts no longer sit neatly above my jeans but get a little stuck on a bit of tummy and make me look like I’ve had an over-generous lunch.

Or do they? I am aware that my own view of myself is not healthy and not necessarily grounded in reality. I’ve had other periods in my life when I’ve had half of my brain absolutely convinced of something, while the other half is fairly sure the first half has lost the plot. I had a brief period years ago when I was convinced I was pregnant. I wasn’t. I had nearly a year when I was certain that my hair was falling out. It stressed me out horribly, and I was forever checking my hairline in the mirror and trying to judge whether it had changed. My hair wasn’t falling out at all, or no more than is normal, and eventually the anxiety subsided and I forgot about it. I fear the same thing is happening with my view of my own body, that I see something that isn’t really there.

It is a certainty that my body has changed over the last few years, as I’ve hit 30 and been commuting and sitting down for an extra three hours a day. But I don’t know if the change is as drastic as I perceive it to be. I do have little stretch marks on my inner thighs, and I’ve never had stretch marks before so I’ve found that a little bewildering and upsetting. It’s on one leg more than the other, and they don’t seem to be fading, so I’m a bit worried that they’re not normal – even though really I know they probably are, it’s just new and I no longer have that “skinny” body I’ve had for so long.

The other ridiculous thing, as well as worrying about any of it unduly, is that even when I was very slim and had none of these issues with a tummy or stretch marks or anything else, I wasn’t happy. I thought I was TOO thin, a view backed up for me by various people at high school and all the media ever that tells you that “men like a bit of meat on your bones”, or “men only like big boobs”, etc etc. So I’m upset about losing something I didn’t particularly like. What a mess.

The other perfectionist example is from this week, when we had a pub quiz as part of a team building week. One of our founders is also a quiz master so once or twice a year, he puts together a quiz for us. In the first ever work quiz, I was on a team with the CEO and overruled him on a question about the bridge on the river Kwai. It turned out he was right, and although we won, he brought it up the following year, making me realise he hadn’t forgotten my mistake. (This is hell for a perfectionist, who hates being reminded of mistakes, even when they’re seemingly inconsequential quiz answers.) This week at the quiz, a question on the bridge on the river Kwai came up again. I completely lost my head (aided by some wine) and insisted I knew the answer – unfortunately, I once again put down the wrong thing (the bridge on the river Kwai is in Thailand, not, as I seem to be utterly convinced, in Myanmar). When I realised my mistake I felt like chucking myself off a bridge, and ever since whenever I think of it I cringe and inwardly berate myself for being such an idiot.

I bet you’re laughing though, aren’t you? To everybody else, it’s a very funny story about how fallible a person can be, insisting on making the same mistake twice instead of saying ‘bridge on the river Kwai? Count me out, I am not getting involved’ or thinking about it for two seconds and saying ‘I can’t believe it is Thailand, because they’re the only southeast Asian country not to be invaded in World War Two so I have no idea why anybody was doing anything with a bridge there, but it is Thailand’. I’m sure everyone’s lives are full of these silly moments which make you pull a rueful face, but to me they mean more than they should, and there seems to be a part of me which really feels like I’ve failed when I make any kind of mistake like that. Half the fun and potential for fallout from quizzes is that you have to make a decision as a team, some people will be ignored or overruled, some people will insist on certain answers, and everyone at some point will be wrong. It shouldn’t matter, but because I have an unrealistic idea of how perfect I can be if I only try hard enough, I feel like it does matter and everyone is sneering at me for being so stupid. Even though, really, I know they’re not, and it’s making mistakes like these that make people like you more because you are human and they can imagine the pain of realising what a goon you’ve been and empathise with that. (For the record, my team won the quiz anyway – and apparently the rest of the company have never seen me so ecstatic; I reacted as if I’d won the lottery and a gold medal at the Olympics and the World Cup all at the same time.)

Being a perfectionist is a real pain in the arse. I wish I had a more realistic and healthy view of myself and a more positive attitude towards my own failures. I waste a lot of time worrying about things I can’t change that nobody else thinks are problems anyway. I don’t really have a neat solution today – I’ve been this way for a long time and learning to be kinder to myself is not going to be quick or easy. It doesn’t help that most of what we read tells us how happy we’ll be once we’re a) thin and beautiful and b) wildly successful. And all that involves striving for perfection, being your “best self”, picking the best selfie for Instagram, never eating cake, always getting the promotion, never getting fired, always being in a relationship, never regretting a decision, and so on. I’m trying to take baby steps, giving myself permission to shop around for new clothes, and practising self-care when things don’t fit; and reminding myself that embracing imperfection makes you far more fun and likable than if you’re always pristine and never trip over your own feet or say something stupid. Nobody is ever going to be perfect, despite what social media may want us to believe. I will, however, learn something about the bridge on the river Kwai, other than the fact that it is – allegedly – in Thailand.

The Beauty Myth

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog about putting on a little weight. Although the blog ended on an upbeat note, I’ve been struggling to view myself positively. I tried to decide what I needed to do if I did want to lose the weight I’ve gained, and thought of some ideas – cutting out alcohol, no snacking on biscuits, more physical exercise. All these are easier said than done, especially the last couple of weeks as I’ve had a shin splint and even a little walking has been painful. The negativity around my appearance, compounded by a few other things happening in my life that made me feel a little inadequate, culminated in a few occurrences where I found myself thinking: I’m hungry. That’s good. I should stay hungry, because I want to lose weight. Immediately after I thought this I thought, uh oh. That’s not good at all. That’s the opposite of good. I need to tell somebody about that.

I’m part of a body positivity group on facebook so I wrote a little note about those thoughts, and said I was ordering a couple of books around self compassion and changing attitudes to food, but did anyone have any advice. A couple of people replied, and although they were very supportive, I felt so ashamed and silly that I took the post down. I thought people weren’t replying either because I’m too slim, and they were thinking, what does she know about it? Or thinking, Jesus, she needs to see a doctor, I’m staying well out of this one. I’ve found over the years that some of these groups on facebook are remarkably helpful for my self-esteem and general mood, so when you cry for help and are met with silence, it feels even more painful. Better to say nothing than to hear nothing in return.

I decided to try to tackle the problem myself, firstly by eating properly and trying not to worry about it. In general this went okay, although I did get a bemused and, to my overwrought brain, smirking glance from someone in Sainsbury’s when I wandered between the snacks and baked goods for some minutes trying to decide which, if any, to purchase. I always get hungry in the afternoon at work and as I leave work at 5 and get home at 7, eating something is imperative if I’m not to get home in the worst possible mood and be a complete pain to my poor partner. But everything I looked at that looked tasty had so many of those horrible red labels on, telling you it ALONE was 25% of this and 29% of the other, that I gave up. In the spirit of eating properly, though, I did go to a Portuguese café and get a custard tart. So I achieved 1) eating, but not really 2) not worrying about it.

Secondly, to help me, I bought several books. I bought Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh, who some may remember as a Bake Off finalist from a few years back. I’ve read some of her articles and she talks a lot of sense. As a former anorexic I thought her opinion on changing your attitude to food would be useful. I also bought Self Compassion by Kristin Neff – I suck at self compassion. I am extremely hard on myself. Lastly I bought Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe, aka @bodyposipanda. I’ve loved her facebook page for some time, she always has something appropriate and encouraging to say. But having started her book, I realised that really, first I should read the bible: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. This book is simply essential reading.

I actually started The Beauty Myth a few months ago, but the statistics on rape and attitudes towards rape were so depressing I had to take a break. It was written in 1990, only two years after I was born, so sometimes when you’re reading it you think CHRIST this is horrific- but it’s nearly 30 years ago, things must be better now, right? But the fact that so much of it is so resonant to me, and is shocking and not shocking at the same time, suggests that not as much has changed as you might hope.

What her research does show is what a completely bullshit, half-baked, cruel, ludicrous thing the idea of the “ideal woman” is. It’s simply an invention. The ideal of women’s body shape has changed numerous times in the last hundred years alone, never mind the rest of history. Today, we are expected to be curvy in the right places, and toned all over. As someone says in the book, nature does not make women like this. For nearly all women, it’s simply impossible to achieve. Which makes it perfect as a tool for keeping women focussed on their appearance instead of breaking through glass ceilings.

Women in the 1960s and 1970s were working to change the status quo. They were no longer confined to the house, and amongst other things, were no longer so responsive to ads and articles about how to clean the oven perfectly. So advertisers needed something else to sell women, and they struck on our appearance. The number of articles on dieting increased by 60% between 1979 and 1980. Women’s dieting wasn’t a huge deal, and then suddenly, it was. Anti-aging products were flung into the marketplace despite not being properly tested and doing absolutely fuck all- something that was eventually noticed and the advertisers got a slap on the wrist, but judging by the number of anti-aging products my mum keeps buying, the slap wasn’t big enough. Cosmetic surgery became massive business, despite going against the fundamental Hippocratic oath of: first, do no harm. The very concept of cutting up healthy people, and overwhelmingly women, to “improve” some part of their appearance which is only wrong because the media wills it so, is enough to make my blood boil. When Wolf was writing, she tried to get statistics on death rates from cosmetic surgery, and was told no such records were being kept. Today I did a little googling, and there is now some information – but it’s not exactly easy to come by and some studies are hugely out of date (the most popular one for liposuction was from the 1990s, and the results showed a higher risk of death from liposuction than from ordinary surgery).

The Beauty Myth made me cry tears of frustration but in the end left me feeling powerful and motivated to change. Because what I see is that in the time since she wrote the book, not enough has changed. One of the things she said we needed was a third wave of feminism, and here we are, right in the middle of it. But we have a long way to go. She talks about breaking down the barriers of competition between women, saying we need to become advocates for each other and band together instead of seeing beauty as a finite resource – if she’s pretty, that must mean I am less so. Although I do have friends who I support and they are very supportive of me, that competitive element certainly hasn’t disappeared. I struggled to connect with a colleague very recently because I was so envious of her appearance – when I did finally talk to her properly, I found she was sweet and lovely and as happily touched by a compliment on her appearance as any woman.

Wolf wanted us to learn to roll our eyes at the adverts and the “beauty pornography” plastered all over magazines and television, but I haven’t managed to do that much. Magazine editors say girls are smart enough to tell when a picture is photoshopped, but I’m not. Or I assume that everything is photoshopped but I don’t know which parts or how much or what. And even if I try to rationalise an image like that, it’s too late. The instinctive judgement and comparison has already happened, and I have come up wanting.

But I am, as I said, determined to change this attitude to myself, and do my part to help overthrow this ridiculous set of impossible standards. I am tired of seeing all my female colleagues, regardless of size and shape, sit down to lunches of salads and carrot sticks. I am sick of hearing everyone say ‘oh, no, I’m trying to be good’ when birthday cake is offered round. Our attitude to food is MISERABLE. Of course we should eat healthily as much as possible, but if their thought processes on these occasions are anything like mine, it’s far from fucking healthy. When you think about it rationally it’s insane that we’re all trying as hard as we can to look the same – especially now, when the person we are aiming for is at best surgically altered, at worst a computer-generated image.

People struggle with the body positivity movement, and some mistake it for a rallying cry for all women to put on as much weight as possible. It’s not about that. The point is that no matter what size you are, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Your size should not be a “bad” thing. We are all “good” bodies. Maybe you want to lose weight, and that’s okay. But it shouldn’t be a source of pain and hatred towards yourself. Instead, our bodies should be sources of joy, pleasure and happiness. This is one of my favourite passages from the book, and one I may have to print out and put up somewhere: ‘The pleasure to be had from turning oneself into a living art object, the roaring in the ears and the fine jetspray of regard on the surface of the skin, is some kind of power, where power is in short supply. But it is not much compared to the pleasures of getting back forever inside the body; the pleasure of discovering sexual pride, a delight in a common female sexuality that overwhelms the divisions of “beauty”; the pleasure of shedding self-consciousness and narcissism and guilt like a chainmail gown; the pleasure of the freedom to forget all about it.’

We are all works in progress with this. I fully expect to have plenty of bad days. But I hope not to have that thought again that I should keep myself hungry, that feeling empty is “good” because the way I look and am is “bad”. I am well aware that that is the first step towards a couple of very destructive illnesses. With the help of Naomi Wolf, and the other books I’ve bought, as well as the confused but steadfast support of partner and friends and family, I want to feel beautiful and strong and capable regardless of whether my shape changes. Fingers crossed the world will change more too to make it all just a little easier for me, and everyone else, to achieve.

Travel

For my generation, travel is the (attainable) dream. People who have jobs that involve travel are envied, and saying that you’re not super keen on travelling is like saying you don’t like puppies, or halloumi (I should say now, I don’t like halloumi).

It’s not that I don’t like travelling. But it does make me very anxious. I didn’t travel at all for a while when I was younger, actually for about six years – from age 17 to age 23. During most of that time I was living in London, and either a student or working in publishing. The people who said to me that flights were so cheap and “why not just go away for a weekend” confused me – yes the flight isn’t so bad, but I have to sleep somewhere, and eat, and where does the money for that come from? I have friends who spent those years backpacking and sofa surfing, but that never appealed to me. The anxiety of it would have outweighed any pleasure. Is that a weakness? Perhaps.

Without those cheap options, the few hundred pounds involved were out of my reach – I had savings, but wanted to save them (a smart move as it turned out) and my salary didn’t even cover me month to month – I was always borrowing money from my parents. Any trip would have come out of my already overstretched salary, and as I always earned more than my ex-boyfriend (he was rarely earning a salary even, but living from one inadequate money injection to another) a trip abroad for the two of us would likely have meant me carrying the majority of the cost. My first job in publishing paid just £10,000 a year, and the second only £18,000 – you can see how it wasn’t easy.

Anyway so I didn’t go anywhere. This isn’t really a newsflash, there are many, many, many people who do not travel. But for my age, and in my circle of friends and colleagues and acquaintances, not going abroad was bizarre. I felt self-conscious about it, and the longer I didn’t go anywhere, the more of an obstacle it became in my head. That finally broke a little when I was 27, and I went on a few trips to Europe to go on blues dancing workshop weekends. These weren’t too anxiety-inducing for me, because it was a controlled situation. I was going abroad, but there were people there I knew, and stuff to do, and most importantly it was just a push to get up and go. The FOMO became bigger than my apprehension about going somewhere where I couldn’t communicate properly, and the anxiety of travel.

Since then I’ve been to a few more places, mainly Canada to visit my boyfriend’s family. Last week I went to Iceland with him (he can pay his own expenses, thankfully – setting the bar low!!) which was one of the first times I’ve gone abroad without a “grown up”. I wasn’t staying with someone who would come and pick me up, I had to arrange our transport and where we were going to be and how it was all going to work. It was still structured – we booked a package including a few trips, so we had various times when we had to manoeuvre ourselves to a bus stop to be picked up by a coach – but still, it felt like an important step to go somewhere without that safety net.

Is it sad, that I find travel so strange and anxiety-inducing when I’m about to turn 30? I feel like it is, a bit. It’s easier for me to bow to a pressure in my head that says it will be simpler to stay at home, but the more I do that, the worse it becomes. The trip to Iceland was an anxious trip for me – I catastrophise like you wouldn’t believe; just endless scenarios running through my head of what could go wrong. When I said to my partner on the penultimate day that I’d just about started trusting the coach company to actually be there to pick us up, he looked incredulous. It had never occurred to him it might be a problem, whereas half my thoughts had been about what we would do if they didn’t pick us up or drove off without us leaving us stranded in the middle of Iceland. I imagined falling off boats or slipping into waterfalls. Sometimes the thoughts were so strong it felt like I might do it just from the force of the worry. What a waste of time! If I didn’t have to think about all those things, think of all the other things I could be thinking about.

It makes me sad that this is a habit my brain has got into. But I’m so glad that I fought it to go away and do all the things that we did – I loved Iceland and had so many incredible experiences while we were there. In fact, I loved it so much that I now have a far more common problem: the post-holiday blues. How easy it is, when you come home from a country where steam rises out of the ground, and whales swim half an hour from the shore, and volcanoes cover the earth with ash and lava – how easy it is, to find everything you do on a day-to-day basis at home tired and mundane. I’m tired of the worries I have about things which are, of course, exactly the same as they were before I went away. I can understand far more clearly a friend of mine who said a big fat FUCK IT to everything a year and a half ago and went to Australia. I don’t know if I’d ever have her guts, but I understand the motivation more now.

I’m well aware that some of my anxiety around travelling comes from my mum. We went on annual holidays abroad when we were children, mostly by car taking the ferry to France or Spain. The few times we had to go to airports I remember my mum being sick with nerves. Neither of my parents have been abroad for some years, mainly because they’ve had a dog which has never been put in kennels, and he’s a bit of a prima donna so they aren’t sure how he’ll respond. I expect my mum’s anxiety around it all is a restricting factor as well. And she’s very happy to catastrophise on my behalf too – when I told her we were visiting a waterfall she responded saying ‘have fun- don’t fall in!’

Now that we’ve been somewhere once I’m feeling far more comfortable about going to more places, experiencing more new things. Iceland was very easy in one particular way: everyone there spoke English as naturally as if we’d been at home. I can do nothing but panic and do a blank stare at people when they ask me things in other languages – even in Spain when if I’d put my mind to it I could have worked out exactly what they were talking about. One time it was about Coca Cola, for heaven’s sake! I do feel terribly guilty though, going to places where I know none of the language and expect everyone to know English. I was depressed and fatigued by the behaviour of some of my fellow Brits on the trip to Iceland – conversations overheard were always about inadequate this or that, just little nitpicking moans about everything. On one of our coach trips, we had a guide describing the places we were passing, and telling us some culture and history. He spoke exceptional English, and paused now and again either because he was trying to think of the right word or because he had a slight stammer. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard someone behind me copying him and guffawing. I turned round in amazement thinking it must be a child – but no, a man of at least 35. I gave him a furious stare and he stopped doing it. But really! You get up there and tell us all about it in Icelandic, you fool! See how you get on!

I’m sure this must be a strange post for a lot of people who’ve never felt fussed about travelling, and have embraced the issues with communication and so on as part of the adventure. I am hopeful that the more I do it, the more I take steps one by one to go to new places, the less the anxiety will get in the way. Even if it means that I have to learn to adjust better to the flat feeling the first few days after I get home, and not just sit around in a sulk. Which definitely isn’t what I’ve been doing. (Except it is.)

Lady Bird

I’m still not absolutely certain whether I want children or not. I’ll be 30 in May so many people would tell me that I need to get a move on and decide (although plenty of others these days would tell me not to worry about it for another ten years). Like most people, probably, I’m very worried about having a child and bringing her/him up badly. What if I pass on my anxiety, insecurity and general tendency towards melodrama? What if they don’t like me? What if I don’t like them?

I went to see the film Lady Bird at the cinema yesterday, which is about a teenage girl trying to negotiate all the usual difficulties of being at that age. School, friendships, relationships, and family: it’s all there and the plot is absolutely packed with twists and turns, events going right and going wrong. I loved it all, but her relationship with her mother is especially good. I expect every girl and mother who goes to see it will be smiling, grimacing, or weeping with recognition.

They are alternately best friends and worst enemies. They fight and shout and say horrendous things to each other, and both say the wrong thing at almost every opportunity: and yet, share moments of understanding and love more easily than they will with anybody else. You can see perfectly how much they are hurting each other, but you can also understand their motivations and empathise completely with each point of view. I was never half as confrontational with my mum as Lady Bird is with hers, but I can still recognise the pattern of their relationship. And I can see how easy it is to have such a relationship with your child, or with your parent, despite best intentions on both sides.

I am lucky to have a close relationship with both my parents. I went to a concert with them this past week, to see Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra play a tribute to Benny Goodman’s legendary 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall. My Dad and I have long bonded over swing music. I have bought him many CDs for Christmas and his birthday over the years, sometimes chosen entirely at random by walking into the old huge HMV on Oxford Street (before it closed down) and picking based on the cover or reviews. I can’t remember exactly why I chose it, but I bought him a recording of Benny Goodman’s 1938 concert many years ago. We would often put it on when it was the two of us making dinner on a Saturday night, when Mum traditionally had a respite from cooking. The routine in my parents’ house is to walk the dog to the pub and back before dinner, so we would be tipsy and very hungry, trying to cook while bobbing our heads along to Benny Goodman playing swing and blues. Our favourite track, unsurprisingly, is Sing, Sing, Sing. About ten minutes of glorious big band sound, interspersed with brilliant solos. Apparently, when the concert was played in 1938, the audience were bewildered not just by the mix of white and black musicians on the stage, but also by these extended solos that stretched on and on. If you listen to the recording, there are a few solos followed by swells of music, abrupt stops, and then a lot of applause – which slowly, confusedly, fades away as the audience realises yet another soloist has begun.

The concert at the Barbican we went to see this week wasn’t quite up to that standard, in my very humble opinion, perhaps because the atmosphere is rather different in a very chic and rather expensive concert hall, with little gaps in between each song while we had the next choice explained to us – not to mention applauding the musicians who’d just played and welcoming on the next guest. But it was still a wonderful evening. My Dad and I nudged each other and shared conspiratorial grins at our favourite pieces – which for me, for the most part, made up for the fact I’d rather offended my Mum on the way in by asking if I could swap seats so I was sat next to Dad.

Our relationships with our parents are so very complicated. I felt it during that evening of music and I felt it very strongly while watching Lady Bird – so strongly, in fact, that I kept bursting into tears for an hour or so afterwards, remembering  the many desperately poignant moments: the parents making sacrifices for the children, and the children breaking free and breaking their parents’ hearts as they went. And yet it wasn’t a sad film, overall. There was a lot of joy in it too, a lot of laughs and so much love. So very, very much love.

At the same time as I’m entering the age when I have to start thinking about whether I want to start a family, I’m also entering an age when a few more of my friends have lost their parents. These are still very young deaths – early 60s or so. But they are already more common, no longer the extra rare and dreadful bad luck that robs people of their parents when the children are in their teens or earlier. I am conscious of wanting to spend more time with my parents, not just because I enjoy their company and my Mum makes me feel guilty when I don’t, but also because even if I see them every month or two, that’s still only 6-12 times a year. Is it enough that I won’t regret being around more, if something were to happen? I suppose we will always regret not being around more in those circumstances, and I know many people who see their parents much less – it’s all a case of what you’re used to. But since my car accident last year, I’ve been even worse at worrying about terrible things happening to people, and fretting over whether I could have done something to help (…to avoid an entirely fictitious accident – honestly, being inside my head is completely exhausting). I worry particularly about my parents. They aren’t in the best of health, but a long way from the worst of health as well. My Mum always says she doesn’t want to get to an age where she’s a burden – in fact in many ways she seems to have been looking forward to death since I was little (which is great for the child, as you can imagine! Oh hello, several years of therapy). My Dad, meanwhile, is very much of the attitude that he’s going to do what he enjoys, for as long as he can, and doesn’t bother with any of these ridiculous government guidelines on food and drink which could potentially give him a few more years. To him, it isn’t worth it the extra years as they would all be much less pleasurable without the wine and the cheese (a much healthier attitude for the child, although does lead to some nervousness about how quickly the wine and cheese could catch up with him).

I’m sure one of the most difficult things to learn as a parent, once children are past a certain age, is that you can no longer control their decisions or actions – and nor should you try. In fact, at this rate, I’ll have just about got the hang of not trying to influence my parents’ decisions or blame myself for them not being completely happy, and then I’ll have a child to not try to influence and not blame myself for as well. But then, I’m lucky, because there will always be those moments to remember of love, and feeling at home with my parents which nothing else will ever beat. Unless I do have children, I suppose, and manage to have as good a relationship with them as my parents do with me. Which may be enough to make me think it would be worth the heartache. Maybe.

Change

This year, as I am entering my fourth decade, I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve learnt and achieved. How does it compare with where I thought I would be? Turning 30 is a manmade phenomenon, a landmark where none really exists, but just because something is all in our heads doesn’t mean it feels less real and tangible. I thought by now I would have learned to eat chocolate without getting it on my trousers, but I haven’t. I rather hoped I would have worked out what I want to be when I grow up, but it seems I’m still wondering.

It’s a strange feeling when we have a solid idea of who we are and what we’re about, and then suddenly find we’ve changed without our noticing. I was bemused the other day to realise something I’d known for a long time – that I work in the finance department of a technology company. That certainly wasn’t something I or probably anybody else would have predicted for me. It doesn’t mean it’s bad – far from it – but it’s unsettling when you realise something about you or your path has changed.

I’ve had another revelation this week. For the last two or three years, I haven’t owned a full-length mirror. I didn’t think it was particularly important, and in some ways it was rather nice – if I couldn’t see whether or not an outfit worked together, then I could just assume that it did and roll on with it. But at the same time I realised I wasn’t entirely sure what I looked like anymore. So I bought a mirror. And it turns out I’ve changed rather.

When I was younger I was very thin, so thin that people always accused me of being anorexic and called me names. I didn’t like it at all, but as I got older I changed a little and people started telling me I was slim in a nice way, rather than a mean one. When I was 24 my hips suddenly realised I was no longer prepubescent and they expanded somewhat, which I also rather liked. I’ve always been insecure about my breasts being too small but overall I thought I was rather a nice shape.

I’m still more or less the same shape, I think, but I’m certainly no longer the waif I was growing up. My hips have decided they didn’t do a good enough job when I was 24 and seem to have expanded again; I’ve grown a bit of a tummy – a pouch to hold my extra cookies, as Jess says to Nick on New Girl – and my thighs have changed shape too. The last may partly be muscle as I’ve been going to the gym and doing squats and deadlifts, which are bound to add on some muscle, but I’m not sure, maybe some of it is fat too. I’m aware that I’ve put on a bit of fat the last two years, mainly I think from having a commute which means I’m sitting down for an extra two hours a day, which makes quite a difference.

Anyway, rightly or wrongly, I was surprised by how I looked. It wasn’t the image I had of myself in my head, and it’s a very odd feeling to find that the body you’re walking around in doesn’t look the same as you thought it did. How can you possibly miss it, I thought, it’s there all the time! I wasn’t sure I trusted the mirror, and my friend said mirrors lie, so I decided to have a wardrobe clearout to see how much had changed.

Well, oh dear. Several dresses that used to be sleek and flattering now make me look like a sausage in a very tight casing. A pair of trousers I rather like and thought looked nice now look decidedly strained. A couple of skirts now no longer fit neatly round the hips but sit up round the waist in an extremely unflattering fashion. Determined not to be annoyed or shamed by these clothes that no longer serve me, I now have three large bags of clothes for the charity shop.

Well, who cares, you might ask. So I’ve changed shape a little – what does it matter? It’s an excuse to go shopping! New clothes! Hurrah! But unfortunately it isn’t quite that straightforward, at least not for me. There’s such a degrading feeling to having to throw out clothes because you’ve put on weight at the best of times, and for me it’s compounded by not really knowing how I fit into my own idea of myself as being very thin and slender. This may sound ridiculous to a lot of people who’ve seen me lately. I am still by most sane measures a very slim person. Some would say I’m now a “better” weight – for the first time in my life I’m designated at as a ‘healthy weight’ by the BMI index, whereas previously I’ve been classed as ‘underweight’ or even ‘emaciated’. But I’m still feeling a bit despondent, a bit unattractive, and, most strangely, a bit less worthy than I used to. In today’s society women are held up to an impossible list of physical ideals, but I do know that putting on weight is almost never seen as a Good Thing. It’s the butt of so many jokes on sitcoms and TV programmes: running into an ex when you’ve put on weight is about on a par with smacking someone over the head with a golf club. There is a definite feeling that you’ve lost, or failed, by changing shape in that direction.

Of course, the whole idea that who we are should be interpreted or judged by what we look like is absurd. It doesn’t make any difference. Or rather, it shouldn’t  make any difference. I’m no longer the super skinny girl who would get called Twiglet or gently asked by a doctor if she has any trouble eating. While that isn’t a huge part of my identity it is still a part, and one that I now need to adjust. Right now I’m in danger of adjusting too far the other way, so I’ll be careful of that. It’s good to have a realistic sense of what you look like, but also to hold that idea gently, and to try not to make it a focus of your thinking. Being a touch heavier doesn’t mean I’m less clever, or smart, or interesting as a person. And I need to keep reminding myself that seeming attractive to others is only partly to do with what you physically look like – it’s more about how you see yourself. If you feel good, people will respond to that.

So I’m going to buy some new clothes that make me feel pretty, and keep chucking out any old clothes I find that make me feel crap. And put in some practise at thinking of myself as a fairly slim, reasonably toned woman, with a bit of a tummy – and a great arse.