Do you have a plan?

“Phoebe, do you have a plan?”

“I don’t even have a pl-.”

The above is a quote from one of those Friends episodes that absolutely nails being a mid-twenty-something with no bloody idea what you’re doing. We all assume when we’re growing up that you reach a certain age when everything will work itself out: you’ll marry your partner and buy a house and start having a family, all while holding down that great job you fell into after university. I used to watch this episode of Friends without really getting it – of course people worked out what was going on in life! I wouldn’t still be floundering in my mid-twenties!

Well here I am in my late twenties and the shit is in many ways not coming together into a perfect sphere like it was supposed to. I graduated into the second year of a global recession and suddenly realised I should have spent the last three years getting masses of work experience as well as a First Class degree. This is thanks to what I see as the ultimate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. One mildly embellished CV later I got a job on the minimum wage working for a man who shouted himself puce in the face whenever he thought I’d made a mistake. A few years later, the relationship I’d started at university which I assumed would end in marriage – because that’s what happened with the relationship you started at university, according to my parents and most of my friends – finally kicked the bucket, and I went back to university to restart my career and, suddenly, restart my love life too.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in a happy relationship, but about as close to acquiring property or a dog as I am to writing a bestselling book – i.e., some light years away. I have a job I enjoy with people I like very much, but the boundaries of it are constantly shifting and I am frequently plagued by worry that the problem with creating a job from no job title, is that the job title can disappear and the job can go with it. Throughout it all I wonder if my problem is the same as that of Monica and Phoebe: I don’t have a plan.

When I was at university a friend told me the plan she’d made for the rest of her life. She knew what kind of man she wanted to marry, how many children she wanted to have, where they would live, and what job she would do, right down to the events she’d host for local disadvantaged children when she was retired. She asked me what my plan was. I said: ‘Well, I thought I’d finish this degree, and then… see what happens.’ She was as astonished and terrified by my lack of a plan as I was by her planning down to the nth degree.

I don’t do well with long-term plans because I’ve always found the ground shifts too much underneath me for any plans to be of any use. This shifting ground can be good or can be bad. Sometimes opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I like not having a plan to change – I don’t like changing plans if I do make them, in terms of the day-to-day and longer term. Other times, people disappoint you, and I feel it’s slightly less painful if you haven’t pinned too much on them to begin with, so I try not to. Most of the time any plans I put in my diary or on my calendar have a question mark after them, because then it hurts a little less if it turns out people have forgotten, or they cancel at the last moment.

But not having a plan can also be very unhelpful. There can be things you want to achieve but if you don’t set down the end destination it’s difficult to plan the route to it. I shy away from deciding, even in my own head, what I want the destination to be because I don’t want to be disappointed when it vanishes into the mist. Or because I fear that I won’t be strong enough to get there, and it will be twice as embarrassing when I collapse in a heap and have to be carried home. This is going against every motivational quote and women’s magazine ever written, not to mention all self-help books, but to be honest they always speak in such vague language that I’ve never really known what they meant. ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits!’ What does that mean, in concrete terms? Show your working! Give me diagrams! It’s only now, when a potential goal of mine has been moved further away, possibly due to my own lack of certainty, I can see that I do need to set down that destination – even if I’m not 100% sure about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it involves other people being on board too. But your determination might be a guiding light for them.

One of my science teachers in high school praised me for saying that I thought X was the ‘probable’ outcome for the end of an experiment. In science, this lack of ego is good because it’s often difficult to be certain. But in life, going around saying ‘maybe’ and ‘I might but I’m not sure’ could just end up with me not quite going anywhere. And that would not be a good plan.

Highlights of 2016

THERE WERE NONE, I hear you cry. Well, the other day I found a piece I wrote this time last year on highlights of 2015. Apparently I thought 2015 pretty much sucked in terms of news items as well, although I don’t remember it being particularly bad – apart from the Conservatives winning the UK election. Reading back through the post I remembered lots of little things I enjoyed about that year, and although 2016 was rubbish in terms of democratic votes, gun shootings, and celebrity deaths, it’s important to also think about the good things. This isn’t going to be one of those list of good news for the environment etc which have been doing the rounds lately, but rather a list of my own personal highlights. Some are tiny, and some are life-changing. What were your highlights of 2016?

The Guilty Feminist Podcast

This year I finally started listening to podcasts, and this was the first one I tuned in to after it was recommended by a friend (thank you Gillian!). Female comedians discuss a range of topics, from shoes to periods to nudity, and examine their complicated and at times contradictory relationships with femininity, feminism, their own bodies, and the people around them. It is hilarious and thought-provoking, wonderfully forgiving and a real tonic if you think feminists are shouty and irritating. Some are like that, but some of us don’t have a clue! The show starts with a list of brilliant ‘I am a feminist but…’ quotes, such as: ‘I am a feminist… but I often find myself promoting this podcast by saying, it’s about feminism, but don’t worry, it’s funny.’

Dancing at weddings

I’ve been to a few weddings this year with my partner. I struggle with weddings. I find the logistics of getting there, finding somewhere to stay, talking to people you don’t know, and figuring out when it’s okay to leave very stressful. But I’ve discovered that dancing at weddings with my partner is the best. This summer we went to a stunning wedding of a friend of mine (the same Gillian who recommended the Guilty Feminist podcast – congrats on the awesome wedding too!) in rural Kent, in a big marquee and the groom’s family’s back garden. I was panicking about what to wear up until the last minute, and got changed 30 seconds before we had to leave into navy trousers and blazer and a red shirt (then got self-conscious when my partner said we looked like we were heading to a business meeting). Anxiety + free champagne meant we were both wonderfully silly by the time we sat down to eat, and still pretty tipsy when the music started. We both love dancing and we barely stopped for the next couple of hours. Several people complimented us on our dancing, which felt wonderful and all in all it was a fabulous evening. I like weddings now.

Lazy corgi fight video

I love the beginning of this video, with a corgi lying on its back with its feet in the air. What is it doing?! And then the “fight” – I’m going to snap at you… and then just go and lie over here… and bark at…nothing… These dogs are just ridiculous. Corgis themselves make no sense. How are their legs so short?! So comical.

14th May, Canterbury

I moved to Canterbury this year after ten years of living in London. This was one of the life-changing highlights to the year: I moved in with my partner and started a much longer commute to work. For the most part living together has been lovely, and although the commute isn’t my favourite thing in the world, I love living in Canterbury. When I got back after Christmas it felt like home. And although there are pros and cons to being out of London, I certainly don’t miss the tube or the weekend crowds. Or the exorbitant rent. Although the rail pass does its best to make up for that!

Started anti-anxiety medication

This might be a strange thing to put as a highlight of the year. Having to take medication is bad, right? I certainly thought so for a long time. Even though I’ve been blogging about mental health for a while now and I am very supportive of friends who are on medication, I really fought going on anxiety medication myself. I realised that I still saw it as a sign of weakness. I thought I should be able to get past it on my own. And I put a lot of work into that and when I was feeling generally okay, the self-care worked. But when you’re tired or something knocks you so you take that lift back down to the beginning again, sometimes it’s too tough to haul yourself back up all the stairs on your own. I’ve been on anti-anxiety medication for six weeks. I’m on a very low dosage and it still sometimes gives me nausea, but I also have some more space in my head to combat anxious thoughts. I’ve achieved things that I’m not sure I could have done if I hadn’t been on medication. I don’t know what will happen, whether they’ll keep working, whether I’ll need to switch, or whether I’ll need to up the dosage, but right now I think they’re working. It’s easier for me to take a step back from anxious thoughts. There’s no point saying to myself “you don’t need to worry about this” because that doesn’t work. But I am finding some relief from going a step further and thinking “you don’t need to think about this. There is nothing saying you need to spend time and energy going over this. Let it go.” Just gaining that step and finding a bit more stability is feeling great. Keep your fingers crossed for me that it stays good.

Dyeing my hair

While in most areas of life I’m quite frightened of change, as we all are (I heard someone on the radio recently say everybody is scared of change, and if someone says they’re not, they’re lying) when it comes to going to the hairdressers I LOVE change. The bigger the change, the better. If I have a haircut and come out looking more or less the same, I’m a bit disappointed and have generally forgotten I had the haircut by the time I get home, so someone saying they like it confuses me. You like what? It’s the same! This year I dyed my hair red for the first time. I’ve wanted to do it for about a decade so it was pretty exciting for me. It didn’t go quite as bright as I wanted so I’m planning to get it done again soon. I look so quiet and demure that most hairdressers are worried I’m going to get upset, so they tend to – consciously or not – tone down what I ask for. But my current hairdresser in Canterbury seems to trust I want what I say, so I’ll ask him to dye it next. Hopefully it won’t come out some dreadful shade of pink.

Driving home for Christmas

I passed my driving test four years ago, then only drove on the odd weekend at my parents’ house for the next four years. Now I’m living in Canterbury, I have my car with me here. Unfortunately the years off and the fact I was driving somewhere I barely knew meant I started getting extremely anxious about getting in the car. Panic attacks and heated arguments with my partner while driving ensued, and although I kept at it, I was still struggling with nerves. I would be so anxious about driving fifteen minutes to the nearest stables for a riding lesson that I could barely stand due to extreme nausea. Then I started anti-anxiety medication, and although I was still anxious before I left the house, once I was in the car I was fine. So I took a somewhat bold and impulsive decision – I do this sometimes – to drive myself from Canterbury to Suffolk to stay with my parents at Christmas. I hadn’t been on a dual carriageway for four years and had never driven on a motorway. But for some reason I decided that having a parent come down and sit in the car with me, or drive in front of me so I at least knew where I was going, was not as good as going solo with the Google Maps app and ‘winging it’. Well, I was right. I had a couple of fun moments at roundabouts and risked speeding tickets here and there (with added adrenaline rush because when you take my little car over 80 miles per hour, the steering wheel shudders) but the sense of achievement was second to none. Definitely a highlight of the year.

Other people’s achievements

I am very lucky to have an amazing circle of friends, family, and partner. They share in my achievements and my worries as I share in theirs. Although there have been difficulties and sadnesses this year, several of my immediate circle have also had wonderful news that I have loved sharing with them. My best friend is pregnant and expecting her baby very soon. I love that I was one of the first to know about the pregnancy, and I’ve loved keeping up our dinner routine while we can and checking in on how she’s doing. Apparently my general cynical nature has been a great tonic to her when all she wants to do is complain about feeling fat and having rib pain and most of the people around her are saying OMG YOU MUST FEEL SO BLESSED!!! My ‘yeesh, poor you, that sucks’ has been very useful, she says, which I’m very happy (and relieved) about. In other news, my partner had his first academic book published this year. It’s a huge moment and I felt so very proud going to the launch and hearing him talk about it. Getting to read a published book by someone you know and love is really wonderful, and I couldn’t be happier for him.

There are more great moments but I feel like this post is already quite long and gushing. I encourage you all to note down a few things that went well this year, even if it was just a great book you read or a brilliant movie you saw. Looking back on them in the future is really encouraging, and god knows we all need some good things to remember about 2016.

Mutual kindness and mental illness

I read an article recently about the secret to making a marriage last, based on the research of John Gottman. While the article found many of his findings exceedingly obvious, the theory of mutual kindness struck a chord. When we are in a secure relationship of any kind, whether it’s a friendship, a romantic relationship or a family bond, it is easy to start taking it for granted, and to stop making the tiny overtures of friendship we make with people we don’t know so well. The research suggested that whenever someone makes a tiny comment about their day or something they’ve noticed, they’re sending out a tiny message for reassurance and comfort. And if those gestures are knocked back more often than not – “you’ve told me that before” “I don’t think that’s true” or just a “hmm” and barely a glance up from the phone/tablet/TV/computer – then the bond can begin to fail.

I was thinking about this in the context of relationships with people who suffer from mental health problems – depression and anxiety, and particularly the latter as it is what I’m struggling with the most these days. It struck me that this advice relates even more to these more difficult relationships, and in a number of ways affecting both parties.

First of all, if you are having an anxious or depressed day, it can make it much easier for you to take your mood out on the person who is closest to you. You know they are not going to leave but at the same time it terrifies you that they might, especially when you are low or feeling like a burden. This fear and discomfort with yourself makes you more likely to lash out, especially if you’ve had to spend a day pretending to be perfectly well so you can carry out your job. If you have been fake smiling or hiding anxiety attacks behind water cooler chat all day, the pent-up pressure getting released may make the evening at home difficult. You want to relax but sometimes you’ve forgotten how. You want to have a nice evening in but you’re exhausted and just want to lie down and cry. The knowledge that you’re wasting the precious free time does not make it any easier.

I found myself in this mood recently and the only thing that helped was a kind of forced reset. You know when you can only turn off a computer by holding down the power key? I did that. I forced off all electronic appliances, poured a glass of wine and parked myself on the sofa with an Agatha Christie. No electronics within reach, all notifications off. It helped, but any kind of half reset I don’t think would have had the same effect. For partners, it can be very wearing to be on the receiving end of this kind of mood. It is isolating, frustrating and sometimes hurtful. I can’t offer much advice except to try to be patient and, for me, it’s probably best to give me some space. I want company but know I’ll be bad at it in that mood. And while it could also be useful for a partner to suggest a total relaxation shutdown, ultimately it needs to come from the person who is upset. If you suffer from mental illness you need to learn your own moods and how to cope with them, to get support from people around you without pushing them away. Easier said than done, so, in the words of a best friend: communication, all the time, until you can read each other’s minds (or near enough).

The issue described at the beginning also works the other way round in these relationships. If someone with depression or anxiety reaches out, especially about how they are feeling, even in a very small way, it can be very difficult for them. In the words of Dr Brene Brown, we are making ourselves vulnerable by opening up about something that makes us feel ashamed. People get anxious about all sorts of things: job interviews, flying by plane, public speaking, driving, going out to social events, going out to places they don’t know, talking to people on the phone, going to the shops, going out of the house, going outside a set of rooms. If you suffer from anxiety, when you’re in one of those triggering situations – I, for example, get anxious about driving – then your physiological reaction to doing that thing may be the same or even more extreme than someone going to a very important interview, or sitting an exam, things that make most people at least a little anxious. Because for most people, these things like making a phone call, or going to a party, are “normal” and not stressful at all, we feel ashamed that we get so worked up about something so “small”. So with any reaching out about these things, the need for mutual kindness is ramped up to a hundred because of the shame behind the feeling. If our partner or friend or family member then replies with something that is cutting the feeling down, making it sound silly or irrational, if they respond with a deep sigh or an eye roll or even with a platitude like, “oh don’t worry, it will be fine” we feel a hundred times more shut down and irrelevant than someone might under “normal” circumstances, if they shared something they thought was funny or interesting and were met with stony ambivalence or disdain.

For partners and friends it can be very difficult to know how to respond. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the fullness of the feeling that person is having – try to imagine it from their point of view, take it seriously and don’t just shrug it off or treat it with frustration. Think of how you would want to be met if you were talking about something you find particularly frightening and difficult – this is that thing for that person. I used an example the other day – I’d booked myself a horse riding lesson, which I was really excited about, but nerves about the drive there and parking in the small and awkwardly shaped car park were making me very nauseous. My partner said, “but I thought you wanted to go riding?” because for a normal person, the excitement of going riding would outweigh the nerves of a ten-minute drive. I explained that, for me, it was the same as if he was going for a job he really wanted, or even had the job and today was the first day, and he was quite nervous about it, and then if I said, “but I thought you wanted this job?” Somehow you need to find a way to understand that what seems so small to you, is not small to the other person.

The person suffering with anxiety or depression has to be careful to do the same thing. I often find one of the best ways to get me out of a low or anxious mood is actually if my partner needs me for something  – I tend to start focussing on them and my own problems seem smaller because I’m not looking at them so closely. But it can be difficult sometimes, if you’re caught up in your own head and are used to being the one to receive support, to remember to turn around and give it to your friends and family and partner too. Especially if you are afraid that part of their issue is their worry over you. Of course they need other people to lean on too but it can help, when you’re in a good place, to talk over the effects and issues together. Talking about the difficult times and what you both want and need in those situations is essential. It’s a give and take process – and mutual kindness and empathy is absolutely key.

When you’re both feeling down, as my partner and I have been a bit this week after the US election, it’s even more important for us both to practise mutual kindness. I feel like we’ve both feeling a bit defensive, hurt and beaten down, like little creatures evicted from our safe shells, trying to find some comfort and warmth. We all need to turn in towards each other, be honest and stay vulnerable, to keep our closest circles a happy corner in which to regroup in these difficult times.

 

 

Going home

Recently, I had a worried conversation with my Canadian, reliant-on-a-work-visa partner. He works in academia, already intensely competitive, and possibly soon to be chronically under-resourced. Getting a job here if you’re from outside the EU has already become more difficult in recent years, and with the recent hateful headlines from our home secretary and PM, the situation looks like it could get significantly worse in the near future. If this government go ahead with their plans, his name will be on the list of ‘foreign workers’ his university will have to hand in. If he wanted to move on from his current position, would anybody take the risk and hassle of employing him without British citizenship? I told him I was frightened, that if things get worse, he would want to go home.

Go home. As I said the words I felt a jolt. Were we not already at home? Where would home be, if we moved to Canada? We would both likely know nobody, and have only each other. Would it be home for him again? Could it ever be home for me?

I’ve been musing on what home means for almost a year. I use the term to refer both to the flat I currently live in, and my parents’ house where I lived permanently from the ages of 4 to 18, and where I’ve stayed at various intervals since. In the last ten years I have moved house ten times. Looking back, were all those places home?

Do any of you ever have that experience of thinking, “I want to go home!” when, technically, you’re already there? Home isn’t just a place, but a feeling. I lived in a flat for three years and it never truly felt like home to me. I never settled properly there, rarely had that warm, comfy, I’m at home feeling about it. I consider this feeling to be similar to the suddenly trendy Danish idea of hygge – that warm, comfortable, safe, and entirely without stress feeling. I suppose the time I lived in that flat was full of stressors, not least a deeply unsatisfying and, In the end, mentally damaging work environment. Would anywhere have felt like home, under such circumstances?

I left there and moved home to my parents for six months. Going back to my family home is such a complicated feeling for me, in part because I’ve never fully left. This is true in a physical sense – my old bedroom is so full of stuff it looks like it is still occupied day to day, with clothes in the drawers and wardrobe, four bookcases full of books, and a dresser covered in jewellery. I go back and feel the pull of all those belongings that I still, aged 28, cannot have with me as I can’t afford somewhere with enough space. I am wondering, like many people my age, if there will ever come a time when I’m not storing some possessions with my parents.

Mentally, too, I am still deeply connected to this home. I get on very well with my parents and deeply enjoy their company, and they mine, so trips home always feel too short – even when they also feel constrictive, being back under their rules, and feeling the pain of things they do and think that I cannot change. This is one of the pains of growing up: some people find it fairly easy to start a life on their own terms, in their own space, with their own chosen people, and don’t feel much guilt at having flown the nest. For me, it is more difficult. I have never had a Christmas away from this home, and with all the emotional ties of Christmas traditions, this is one holiday when I feel I should be at home. I feel guilty for not visiting more often, and for not staying longer when I am there. Whenever I leave, it is painful on the one hand, and like getting out of an effortlessly warm and comfortable bed on the other. It is still, and always will be in some ways, my home, even though it is not without difficulties. For most people, the family home has some elements of push and pull, as all families are rarely entirely without tensions.

Recently I moved out of London after ten years, settling in Canterbury and commuting back to the city every day. Canterbury, the town, does not yet feel like home. I am too transient, spending most of my waking hours still in London, and still feel like a weekend guest here. I have joined the library, the cinema, the gym, but only know small bits of the town and have barely begun to join them together. The flat I’m in is starting to feel like home – but for the first time in a few years there is no space here that is mostly mine. My partner has the “spare room”, which really is his office as he works so much at home. I only go in there to hang laundry. It contains none of my possessions and the futon we have for guests, but also for me to sit on, is both very uncomfortable and currently facing a wall. My space to sit in is the living room, but it is a communal space, no corner to hide in, and no part of it to which I can withdraw. It feels sometimes like trying to make a nest in a corridor. It is too open and there is too much traffic to make a properly cosy, individual space.

If I feel unsettled sometimes at the lack of a specific room I can go to to be at home and shut the door on the world, how must people feel who are home-less? The number of people unable to afford a roof over their heads is on the rise, as renting rules get more and more out of hand, combined with a still struggling economy. Many families find themselves in temporary spaces and individuals find themselves on the streets. I cannot understand how having a home isn’t a basic human right. It is the bottom of the pyramid, the base on which all wellbeing is built.

And if homeless people here are feeling desperate, imagine being one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe. The people trying to scrape a life in the camps in Calais, and those waiting to hear the verdict on whether they’ll be allowed to claim refuge. The newly settled refugees in Germany, who I’m sure are hard pressed to feel like they can build a home there, knowing how much anti-refugee sentiment is present. Even the people hoping for better in Canada, where so many have offered to take refugees in, trying to find jobs and their own ways forward.

Recently I read the news that tens of thousands of Afghan refugees will be sent back to their country, in a deal between Europe and Afghanistan. They lie and say that it is safe for them to return, even though the Taliban are now controlling more territory than they have since 2001. One of the largest cities, Kunduz, has been without electricity and water for days at a time. They are not being sent home. There is nothing akin to hygge on offer there. And what of the Syrians, whose home is being bombed out of existence? If they ever get back, what will there be? It will not be the place they remember, perhaps ever again.

Even here, in England, in this affluent and apparently civilised society, I am struggling lately to feel that this country is my home. The words and actions of this past year, from citizens and especially from politicians, have made me very afraid. I would be afraid even if I hadn’t had the audacity to fall in love with someone who wasn’t born here, but the fear of being separated or forced to make a huge decision about our futures is pressing on me. Theresa May said there is no such thing as a global citizen, that if you are a global citizen then you belong nowhere. She is telling the people who live here and have done so for years, and paid for the privilege, and contributed to this society on so many levels, that still they do not belong. This is not their home.

I don’t understand. Why is it so wrong and bad to have not been born here, and to want to live here? Why do these people want to stifle our differences, and force us all to be the same? Rudd talked of the injustice for poor English people of having no job “because of immigration”. I would like her to show her working. I do not believe this can be the case for the majority. More likely that the jobs market has shrunk as investment in infrastructure and public services has been cut.

I am frightened that this country will continue to change and no longer feel like home. I am frightened that one day in the not too dim or distant future, my partner’s work visa will be one of those ‘clamped down on’. That we will have to decide whether to keep together through money and a piece of paper, supposed to be held due to love alone, or to run across the sea together, me leaving behind everywhere and everyone that have felt like home to me.

Home is a place, and a feeling, and a sense, and sometimes a person, or a set of people. If you are very lucky, you will meet someone who immediately feels like home to you. But even then, it takes effort and love and time and peace to build a home that will last. For people without all those things, and even perhaps for some of us who are not quite settled where we are, we will still know that emotional rush and ache of wanting to go home.

Struggles of a Feminist: how to observe women’s bodies

I went to see a French Canadian circus the other week called Barbu. There were six acrobats, four men and two women. The men all had impressive beards, which played their part in one of the first acts as they roller-skated in a circle all holding onto each other’s beards. They started the show fully dressed, in hipster steampunk style clothing of fawn shirts and trousers, with cloth wrapped around their waists in an interesting imitation of half an old-fashioned corset. One of the women was also part of a roller-skating act at the beginning, dressed in a top and a little skirt. As she spun horizontally, only attached to a man on roller skates by a strap around her neck (wow) her skirt inevitably flew up showing modest black underwear. When she was back on her feet, the man made a show of pulling her skirt back into position for her with a flick. The second woman was dressed in stockings and suspenders, and a vest in an approximation of a corset – but not a corset, as that wouldn’t have given her the flexibility to do the extraordinary things she did, weaving her body in and out of a large ring suspended six feet above the floor.

The differences in the male and female outfits gave me the familiar feminist rage of wishing that women didn’t always have to showcase their bodies even while doing something that required such elaborate skill and training. These differences can also be seen now at the Olympics, with men and women competing in the same sport given quite different outfits to wear. I’m sure that many of the decisions behind these outfits come from the women themselves, wearing things that make them feel able to do their jobs to the best of their ability. But I still wonder why most women playing tennis continue to wear little skirts when shorts would have the benefit of not flying up all the time. Or why female track athletes are often exposing their midriffs when their male counterparts aren’t. And, most famously, why female beach volleyball players are more or less in bikinis when the men are in shorts and t-shirts. Apparently the women are no longer required to wear these bikinis, but the fact that they were once is ridiculous, and unfortunately has led to a view for some of female beach volleyball being more soft porn than it is sport. I myself struggle to get past this idea, and to sit and watch them play without imagining the guffawing objectifying language I’ve heard thrown at the players in the past. ***Update: I watched the men’s Olympic diving last night, so I now feel I need to add a bit about their outfits. Were they always that tiny? On some men they literally barely covered the tops of their buttocks. I’m sure it’s for streamlining but I actually found it very disconcerting. It doesn’t affect my point in this blog, but I did want to acknowledge that the men are also sometimes in teeny tiny outfits!***

This circus and now the Olympics is making me ask a lot of questions of the way I view female bodies. I was good and ready in my irritation at this circus for having only the women semi-dressed – but then the men came out in only their underwear. What was I supposed to think now?! I could no longer be righteously feminist-ly annoyed, I had to acknowledge that there appeared to be equality here. I did still notice differences in the way the men and the women were presented, and how they held themselves. The women, who were also now in plain black crop tops and shorts underwear, acted quite differently; one woman was confident but quietly so, while the other was aggressively sexual, strutting and staring out at the crowd and, for me, feeling quite confrontational. It felt like she was looking at all the straight men in the audience, daring them to want her, and at the same time looking at all the straight women (particularly those there with a straight man) and saying well your bloke is looking at me and wanting me right now, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The men, by contrast, were quite playful in their nudity. There were some homoerotic jokes, and a man came on to do his act wearing a large disco ball round his body, covering from the tops of his thighs to just below his arms. On a woman I think it would have been titillating, just covering her breasts and arse and suggesting there was nothing underneath, but on the man it was mostly comical.

Watching them all and noticing my reactions, I began to feel quite uncomfortable. Some of it was plain old-fashioned jealousy, not wanting my partner to be sitting next to me and lusting after women on a stage. But then, you may ask, didn’t I find the men attractive? Wasn’t I lusting after them a little? Honestly: not really. They were fine male specimens, but they were just male bodies. I was detached from them and sitting in a crowded public space, sitting next to someone I loved: I felt no particular need or urge to find them attractive or to think about it much one way or the other. I wondered to myself if that’s the way my partner felt as well, and I struggled to believe it could be so. And I realised that I couldn’t see the women in the same way: their bodies for me were bound up with too many other thoughts and other ideas, and I couldn’t see them as non-sexual beings. Not in the sense that I wanted to sleep with them myself – this blog isn’t me not so subtly coming out as a lesbian – but because I kept seeing them as direct competition to myself. And I realised that this is a huge problem.

I have found something very similar with the Olympics. While I can watch the men play and appreciate their form and see that yes, they are attractive, it gives me no pause for thought at all. I am far more interested in what they can do and how skilled they are at whatever sport they are participating in. But with the women, I struggle. I judge. I compare. I frequently feel wanting. I feel the urge to make comments on their prettiness, how much make-up they are wearing; I assess the size of different parts of their bodies and how well-balanced they are. I am very envious of their power and strength, but at the same time I feel slightly relieved if I don’t see them as being objectively sexually attractive. I hate myself for this because I know it is entirely irrelevant, and something that these women themselves are probably worried about people thinking and I don’t want to be somebody else adding to that. Most of them are very attractive, in their looks and their bodies and their abilities, and then I hate myself again for feeling worn down and a little sad after watching some Olympic events. I’ll sit next to my partner and fret about whether he is judging me against what he’s seeing on the screen. I find myself seeking reassurance and getting needy and being a bit of a pain in the ass.

I also realised when I was watching the circus that I will downplay the women’s abilities, just as so many people do to women, often without even realising it. The woman was spinning in the air hanging on a hoop with her ankle casually by her ear and I found myself thinking, well that’s not that difficult. OF COURSE IT FUCKING IS. But I felt angry and threatened by her because she was wearing stocking and suspenders and I couldn’t disconnect my admiration of her performance from thinking that men would be watching her and wanting her. It is toxic, this feeling of needing to be admired and approved of to the extent that if another woman at that moment is being looked at with awe and, perhaps, some desire, that that automatically lessens our own attractiveness and our own worth. This is particularly true of situations when your partner might be the one looking at someone else, but I can remember instances of it being true even when the men weren’t even people I would want to sleep with. There was a boy at school when I was about 17 who was a friend of a friend of mine. He was a bit strange and he frequently made me uncomfortable with various remarks. I had absolutely no desire to be with him at all. But he had a habit of putting his hands up our jumpers at the back to warm them when it was cold, and I would feel jealous if he always did it to my friends and not to me. Even though I simultaneously hated him doing it to me because his hands were fucking cold and he freaked me out more than a little bit. What the hell was that? Why did I feel that competition even with someone I wasn’t interested in?

Happily I think it’s something I’ve grown out of to some extent. But I still see it in this need to be always found attractive, and not just attractive but the MOST attractive. Which is understandable to some extent but it’s also pretty ridiculous. It’s impossible to go through life only finding one person attractive all the time, and it doesn’t have to be threatening if your partner looks at someone on a stage or on a screen and thinks they’re beautiful. It doesn’t even have to be threatening if they’re someone who they know personally. Obviously there are lines here and if your partner finds other people so attractive that they can’t help themselves sleeping with them, then that’s a whole different story. But all I’m talking about is looking at a person and thinking they are nice to look at. We all do it and I hate that I feel this competitive, insecure, poisonous feeling when I judge myself against someone and feel less attractive and crap as a result.

So I am trying to work on seeing women’s bodies as just that, bodies, there to do a job and achieve some incredible things and not just something for people to have sex with. Of course, I’ve had a lot of help seeing women’s bodies this way, from all advertising and many films and music videos, and everywhere else that women are presented as props, sexual props, without personalities and voices and abilities beyond being sexual. I just didn’t realise how much I had internalised it myself, with other women. And that makes me really wonder about how I look at myself. I know that I am not always happy with my figure because it doesn’t balance out the way that the women’s bodies do on the posters – if I want a proper hourglass, I need a padded bra (and SO WHAT) – but I never thought so baldly about how that was connected to me thinking of myself as just a sexual being. Just a thing for people to have sex with. Which is crazy, when you think about it, because the majority of my time is and always will be spent not having sex. So why should I have to be judging myself on that all the time? On being attractive and being found attractive and on looking as close to the women in advertising and on the screen as possible?

So I am fighting it. I wrote recently about getting more into sport. God damn it’s hard to keep up when you work full-time, commute two hours a day and often sleep poorly but I started again this morning after a week or so off, and I will push harder to continue it as it makes such a difference to my mood. Feeling the strength in your body is so much fun. I’ve had a recurrent dream since I was young about being powerless – physically powerless; I’ll try to punch someone who has made me angry or who is threatening me in the dream and there will be no strength in my arm. I try but I make no impact. I feel like that can carry over into my day sometimes, and exercising and feeling the power running through my muscles makes me feel more powerful in other areas too. Power: the ability to act or produce an effect. It’s what is often denied to women in all kinds of public spaces; they are without agency and without power, unable to produce an effect except to make men want to possess their bodies. I am going to try very hard to uncouple my automatic thoughts of viewing women in this way, as competition, and to see them as more, to see them as what they are: powerful and strong and not trying to be a threat to me. They’re just human bodies, just women, not a yardstick I need to measure myself against.

I would like to thank the Guilty Feminist podcast and my fellow Guilty Feminists on the facebook page for helping me to think through these things, to see them for what they are and also to write this blog explaining how much this affects me, when as a feminist I shouldn’t be thinking these things (although I will try not to beat myself up about it if I do, because society has taught me to think this way). If you haven’t yet listened to the Guilty Feminist, you absolutely should. It’s hilarious, thought-provoking and marvellous. And the facebook page is one of the best things on the internet.

 

 

Introvert, Depressive, Anxious, Female – Normal?

As is probably true of us all, I’ve been pretty down this week. I’ve been struggling with concentration, sleep, and general irritability. Although I would no longer classify myself as depressed, I am aware that my moods fluctuate quite a lot, and I do what I can to keep them in check and generally don’t feel like I do too badly. So I was a little surprised yesterday when one of my best friends said she thought I should see a psychiatrist.

I’ve been thinking it over ever since and it has made me aware of several things. Even people who have experienced mental illness, talk about it a lot, seek treatment for it, and understand what it’s about, do not always like being told that they need help. I don’t want to be one of those people who refuse treatment when people around them think it is needed. But it is a horrible feeling, perhaps even more so if you have had treatment before and improved, because it makes you feel you have failed by being ill again.

In my case, there is also apprehension and scepticism over what a psychiatrist can do for me, and how that would work in practical terms. In the past four years I have had two years of counselling, six months of antidepressants, six sessions of CBT and a prescription for anti-anxiety drugs (I only took one, which made me feel so ill I could hardly sleep, work or eat for 24 hours. Apparently this is common and can last up to six weeks, and as I have very little excess body fat, I thought it was better to be mildly anxious than starve). I do not really want any more talking therapy. I know the background of why I am anxious, and sometimes low, and I don’t really feel that talking about it any more will make it any better. I don’t really want to try pills again – my main issue is low self-esteem and sadly there isn’t a pill for that. The side effects when I have taken them before were also rather troubling and off-putting.

The conversation with my friend focussed my mind on what I’ve been wondering on and off for the last couple of years, or even longer than that. Am I ill, or am I just me? There are so many ways of interpreting our behaviour and thought patterns these days, with so much more knowledge of mental illness freely available, that it all too easy to label someone as one thing or another. Here’s a good example of what I mean: when I was at school, I used to hate being asked to answer a question unless I was 100% sure of the answer, and that was rare. I was terrified of getting it wrong. Various books I have read over the last few years have included examples of this and attributed it to a different ‘label’. Quiet by Susan Cain says this is introversion. Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In says this is common among females, because we are socialised not to consider our answers important and to be quiet and shy and let the boys speak. Or you could say this is the beginnings of anxiety, a deep-based fear of being found not good enough that requires therapy or pills to solve. Or is it just me? Just the way I am, that I don’t like talking about things I don’t know much about? I don’t know. It could be any of those things, or none, or all. So how do we know when we are mentally ill?

When I was at school or doing my BA, the label ‘anxiety’ was not that common amongst teachers so you just had to get on with it and do the best you could. I know that universities are far more aware now and some make special provisions for students who experience anxiety, particularly for presentations (I don’t know about schools; I’d be interested to learn). This is good in some ways, because people can get help and support, but it can also reinforce negative behaviours. Using the example of presentations, if my teachers at university had known that I was so nervous I thought I was going to be sick before each public speaking effort, and so anxious during those five minutes that I couldn’t breathe properly, maybe they would have let me off. I would have been so relieved, and I am a little envious of the students who are let off now. But: avoiding what makes you anxious in this way does not do you any favours. If you never try, you never learn that it doesn’t kill you, and you never improve. By the end of my BA degree I could do a presentation with far less nerves, and my audience would be more or less unaware that I was anxious at all. It is still a problem for me, but I learnt that I could do it. Not facing these anxieties is called negative reinforcement: the immediate relief of being let off is so marvellous that you keep doing it again and again, and you never get any better.

So is it useful to give yourself a label and use it as an excuse? For things that make everyone anxious (public speaking is one of the most common phobias) maybe it isn’t. And I can’t say I’m generally anxious because a lot of things that some people loathe I have no issues with. I adore flying, for example. I get anxious before some big social occasions where I’m not going to know many people, but who doesn’t? I now get anxious when I drive because I haven’t done it much lately, but again, isn’t that normal?

Another example I read about was a girl who lost both her parents very early in life. After the death of her mother when she was only about 20, leaving her an orphan, she went to see a counsellor. The counsellor told her she was ‘ordinarily unhappy’ and for a long time the girl was livid. But the counsellor meant: of COURSE you are unhappy. Who wouldn’t be? And in some cases this is a useful way of looking at things. You’re nervous of talking in front of 30 other people you hardly know? Fair enough. It’s not unusual. It doesn’t need a label.

My friend is worried that I may still be suffering from a form of depression, which may have been misdiagnosed by a GP without the time or expertise to look into the problem fully. By the standard definition of feeling down and hopeless and plagued by negative thoughts for two weeks or more, I am not depressed. I have been low this last week, and anxious, but again with all the news this past week or two, WHO HASN’T been feeling down and anxious?!

I do know that there are some things that are not perhaps ‘normal’ for me to worry about as much as I do. And I could call that anxiety, as they can get into self-reinforcing and self-inflicted spirals. But most of them are to do with self-esteem: am I good enough at this? Do people like me? Am I important? Am I pretty enough? Am I clever enough? It’s exhausting. But it’s not constant. So is it an illness, or is it just something people suffer from – particularly women?

I have been listening to the Guilty Feminist podcast a lot lately – highly recommended – and listened to one yesterday on Worth. They discussed how much they felt they were worth, both in monetary terms for their jobs but also in terms of standing up for what was important to them, and measuring their own worth by different standards. Sarah Millican was the guest, and she said it had taken her a long time to work out that she needed to judge her own worth herself, without taking on anyone else’s assessment. She read out a review she had had after appearing on a television show where the reviewer essentially pronounced her worthless because she was not young and sexy, but neither was she a wife and a mother. Too often women have their worth judged in these ways, rather than on anything else. It’s a huge problem, because when women judge their own worth in this way, even if they wouldn’t judge their friends like that, it’s easy to feel worthless. Oh, my boyfriend didn’t want to sleep with me this evening therefore I’m not sexy therefore I am worthless. I am single and in my thirties and don’t think I want children therefore I’m worthless. I’m in my fifties and have been at home raising my children for thirty years, but now my children have all left home and don’t need me every day anymore therefore I’m worthless.

I am well aware that I have issues assessing my own worth, and believing that I am not worth much leads to problems all over the place. If I don’t think I’m worth much, I don’t understand why my partner would think so, so I think he’s going to leave. I get irritable and needy, and then he gets upset, and then I feel even more worthless because I’m being a pain in the arse, and the cycle keeps going. This, I think, is what my friend thinks I need a psychiatrist for, and probably because she’s heard stories of these kind of issues with my partner too often for too long, and there’s nothing much she can say, or anyone can say – except perhaps a professional. Maybe she’s right. I know what the psychiatrist will say, but is that a reason not to go? Do I need a label? Or can I cope with this on my own? Is it an illness that requires treatment, or is it because I’ve grown up as a slightly introverted woman and these are common tropes in many women’s lives? I really don’t know.

I am considering going purely for the guidance of a professional opinion. At the same time I am aware that my best friend in all this is probably myself. If the worst problem I have is negative thought spirals, the best thing I can do is practise mindfulness. When I did it actively for a few weeks, I procrastinated less at work, I got into less idiotic thought patterns about my partner’s ex-girlfriends (of ALL the pointless things to think about, that’s got to be one of the worst) and I felt much better and more confident in myself. We have been told time and time again that exercise is effective as medication for some mental illnesses. So even if a professional would give me an anxiety or depression label, does that also mean I need psychiatric treatment? If I don’t think I need it, odds on it won’t work. So ultimately, my opinion is the one that’s worth the most.

The Sounds of Silence

I’ve been thinking about different kinds of silence lately. A few weeks ago I was on the phone, telling somebody something I found difficult to say. Even though there was a lot of noise around me, suddenly I was acutely aware only of the silence on the other end of the line, and me throwing words into that abyss.

Silence seems like such a simple concept on the face of it. Just an absence of noise. But what kind of noise? Sometimes by silence we refer to an absence of voices, or an absence of traffic noise, or just an absence of a noise that may have been particularly trying to us for a long or short period of time. For example if you’re listening to a song you particularly dislike, and when it stops you feel a sudden surge of relief at that silence, the absence of that particular sound.

When it comes to conversations with people, there are so many types of silence. It might be awkward, or loving, or so full of tension it seems deafening. Of course, on the phone, there’s also the silence that means you’ve been cut off and you really have been throwing noise into nowhere for the last few minutes. But most of the time we can feel something in a silence. We try to gauge people’s feelings through the lengths of their silences, the quality of that silence. Sometimes we are wrong, but silences are surprisingly easy to interpret. We wait or we break the silence, depending on how sure we are of what it means, and how much nerve we have to sit and listen to it. Silences are so important.

This got me thinking about other silences, including very brief, even momentary silences in poems or songs. In poetry, a break, or caesura to give it its fancy name, changes the flow and feel of a poem or gives the reader and the listener a moment to reflect on the words that have just come before. Sometimes it can be where we would naturally take a breath when reading aloud, but often it serves to isolate a particular thought, and give it extra emphasis. In songs, breaks in the music can mark the end of a phrase, but, particularly when you’re dancing to music, breaks and pauses and silences can be full of feeling. There’s a great satisfaction to anticipating a break and stopping dead for it, but also in continuing to move in a certain way into that silence. When the silence ends the music may have changed. The silences mean as much as the sounds.

I’m sure you’ll all remember John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece of music that consisted only of silence. It is a strange concept, and many people thought it was just ludicrous. How can we say it is a composition or a performance when it’s just nothing for four and a half minutes? We are so uncomfortable with concentrated silence in modern Western culture – perhaps in Eastern culture too, I’m not really sure – maybe less so. It is so rare to sit and consciously not do anything, especially now when we all have smartphones and tablets readily to hand, not to mention books and music players. I can imagine the silence in those concert halls being full of tension, confusion, antagonism, but perhaps for a few, a deep and peaceful quiet.

When we’re with others we expect there to be sound. Everybody pities the couple sitting in a restaurant who aren’t speaking to each other. But who knows what kind of silence they’re sharing? It could be bored, distrustful, resentful, panicky, tired, restless, or apathetic – take a moment to think about how each of those silences would feel. But it might also be comfortable, content, smouldering, happy, teasing, sleepy, or peaceful. One of my favourite quotes of all time is from Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction: “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute, and comfortably share a silence.” But it’s so rare. People are usually more comfortable with noise when they are around others, feeling that they should be interacting and saying something.

The exception to this is when we are surrounded by strangers. Then only silence, a particular type of silence, will do. This is a silence characterised by noise spilling out of earphones, and keypad tones, and muttered expletives when people get in our way. People on tubes and trains keep their silence, even if in this case silence just means no speech, unless it’s between people who already knew each other. But, thinking about it, even with this broad definition of silence, the individual people are rarely sitting in total quiet and peace. In their heads, there is noise from the music they are listening to, or the videos they are watching. Or if they are reading, their minds are full of the voices they are giving each character, and the pictures and places that are being conjured up by those silent pages. I used to experience a total silence toward the outer world when reading – I would be completely deaf if I was really involved in a book. I didn’t hear people calling my name or telling me dinner was ready or that it was my turn to read aloud to the teacher. It was a gorgeous self-imposed deafness. I am, sadly, less good at creating that silence outside my own head now. It is something I am working to reclaim, and not just when I’m reading. I’m working on sitting in a crowded place, or an empty place, and doing nothing. Just sitting and being, and ignoring any noises around me that I don’t find interesting.

In the wider world, there are many other different qualities and types of silence. I’ve been living in London for almost ten years, and a lot of the time it’s very loud. Constant traffic, chatter, sirens, and building work. But I’ve noticed that every now and again, and not that infrequently, the noise stops. I’ll be walking along a street in central London and just for a few seconds the noise dies away. There’s a brief but full and peaceful silence, like somebody pressed pause. Then a car engine will rev and the silence is over.

I love those small and gentle silences. But the quality of them is so different to silences in the country. There silence is the norm, just trees and the wind and sometimes the odd bit of traffic. It’s absolutely lovely in many ways, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I find it harder to sleep there now because of this almost total silence. I have become used to the buses moving past my window at regular intervals through the night, and to falling asleep to the sound of traffic. If I wake up when it’s dark I can guess the time by the sounds of the cars. Sometimes at times when you think that silence would be preferable to noise, silences are, again, less comfortable. For people who suffer from insomnia, silence can be much more difficult to rest against than some kind of noise. I personally think there is no silence more lonely or that inspires more desperation than the silence of those around you sleeping. Even if, technically, it is not silence because you can hear their breathing, I would call that a silence and it can be a very difficult silence. There is so much to be felt in that silence – all the rest and quiet we are missing, because we cannot fall asleep.

Moving from these silences, I thought about the invisible and private silences inside ourselves. Silences can be easy to stay inside, if speaking will cause discomfort or irritation or danger to ourselves. Then many people will stay silent. Other times silences are difficult to keep, but are kept because they serve a better purpose than speaking. The example of this that has affected me most recently is from the book To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron, about his journey to the sacred mountain, Mount Kailas. In the book Thubron also tells stories about his family. His father shot several wild animals when he was in India, and he kept the hides and taxidermied remains in their family home. His mother never liked them, but was deeply conscious of the complex emotions her husband had towards them. He was proud of them, but at the time that he shot the animals he was also afraid, and uncomfortable, and overcoming those emotions to bring the animals home had enormous importance in the view he had of himself. Despite the discomfort they gave her, his mother never said anything about the animals. She knew that voicing her displeasure would cause great disquiet to her husband, so out of her love for him she kept her silence. I think there’s an important lesson here, in an age when we feel we always must have the right to be comfortable and to have our voice and opinion heard, either in the wider social cause, or in this concept of “keeping things in” being unhealthy to ourselves. Of course most of the time speaking out is very important, and staying silent about things that are unjust or wrong is not something we should maintain. But, in smaller ways, we should sometimes consider the impact that speaking or acting will have on everyone else. On some occasions, keeping your silence might serve better than making noise for the sake of making noise.