Friday, 27 May 2016

The canary

     There is a bird that lives inside my chest. I call it my canary. It’s the first warning sign to me that a situation is potentially dangerous. When I feel the first flutter of wings against my ribcage, I know. This is what living with anxiety feels like.

     It’s not ‘worrying’. It’s not ‘oh dear, hope things will be ok’. It’s not even an ‘be careful’. Anxiety becomes a physical entity that takes hold of my body. I have problems walking properly. The muscles in my legs tense and I end up taking odd, stiff legged little steps, knees unyielding. I feel as though I’m tottering along the street, about to trip at any given moment. And because I’m scared that I’m going to fall, I become more nervous, more tense, and I usually do stumble, and my brain flicks a V at me and says smugly ‘See? I knew you were going to do that.’ Brain wanker.

     I stop eating too. My throat closes up and to consider swallowing anything vaguely solid causes a ripple of panic. It’s not so much not wanting to eat as being unable to contemplate eating properly. Small nibbles, possibly, if I have a few minutes of feeling calm. Three or four wine gums, one at a time. Half a biscuit. On an average day, two crumpets with cheese. But because my body is locked into an overwhelming surge of adrenaline, the food goes undigested, and within half an hour, I’m uncomfortably full, feeling sick, and have to puke it back up into the toilet to have some relief, for a little while. I have no idea why, but it does help.

     When you have anxiety, every sense is heightened, every threat magnified, every potential for danger is laid out in a detailed risk assessment, including bibliography, references, and acknowledgements. Absolutely everything is something to be feared. We have a fourth floor balcony with solid concrete walls that are at least four feet tall. But if I find a Blondie standing near the ledge that is pretty much nipple height, I freak the motherfuck out. ‘GET AWAY FROM THE EDGE’ I shriek, in quavering tones, somehow convinced that they will manage to vault over the wall and hurtle to a splashy death below. It’s even as simple as walking past a spiked railing and automatically thinking ‘bloody hell, if one of us tripped we might fall in that direction and accidentally hit that and HOLD MY HAND BLONDIES BECAUSE WE’RE ABOUT TO DIE.’

     It’s bloody ridiculous. I expect every situation to have the worst possible outcome, so I am perma-primed against disaster.  Everything braced for impact. And the worst part of it is dealing with people. And the worst part of dealing with people is disagreement. Which is stupid, because I’m gobby, opinionated, and I don’t give a toss what people think of me. But I’m not good at confrontation (some of you may be breaking off from reading at this point to scoff incredulously. All I’ll say is that I’m good at hiding my feelings sometimes). And I was a bit taken aback by some of the responses to a (now removed) blogpost I wrote last week. More than a bit, to be honest. I felt under attack. One comment was deleted by the writer almost as soon as it was posted – wisely, as it identified a few people in it – I left the others up until I deleted the post, because I generally have a halfarsed policy of allowing discussion on posts, no matter how upsetting I find the things that people say to and about me.

     Maybe because I’ve become used to people being kind to me for the last few months. Maybe because I’m not as robust as I used to be. Maybe because for the next few days and nights I was on my own, and didn’t have anything to distract me. But those comments – both here and in other places online – really scored into my head. There are ways of making your point without being unkind. I doubt those people would have said such things to my face, and the fact that the worst comments were made anonymously pretty much sums them up. But it’s set my anxiety off in a way I haven’t experienced for a few months, and I feel ashamed.

     Ashamed that I have hardly eaten this week. Ashamed that I’m finding it hard to leave the house just to take the rubbish out. Ashamed that my face feels strained. I know this is a temporary panic, even I can’t maintain this level of catastrophising for too much longer. But since last week, I have been braced against disaster, expecting something terrible to happen at any moment, waiting for it to happen, constantly on edge, constantly expecting the worst, seeing everything through hyper eyes and feeling that everything is personal, every action and word is just one step away from someone launching a full scale attack on me. It’s fucking exhausting.

     There is a bird that lives inside my chest. I cannot release the canary from her cage, as hard as she beats her wings. If I could let her fly away and never return, I would do it in a heartbeat, I would do it without ruffling a single feather ever again. But the canary is always here. She is just as much my prisoner as I am hers. 


     I am fucking starving. Absolutely fucking starving. Literally, starving.

     I don’t eat much, these days. In the early days of What Happened, I managed, a bit. Then Mum came and took over cooking. I managed to eat the dinner she cooked, most nights, trying to set a good example for The Blondies. It felt tasteless, though. Lumps of food, sitting in my mouth, chewing endlessly until they became mulch that had to be forced down, then sitting heavy in my stomach, feeling as though it was gaining mass as my body gave up on the whole process of digestion, my stomach feeling distended. Sometimes the bloated, stuffed feeling would pass. Sometimes it wouldn’t, and I’d end up puking secretly in the toilet.

     Unsurprisingly, I lost weight. I wasn’t huge to begin with, and I’m far from skeletal now, but I’m smaller.  The weight kind of fell off without me noticing. It’s stopped now, because even though I don’t eat much, my body’s worked out that food is a rarity, and jealousy guards the slim pickings afforded by two crumpets a day and a fuckload of coffee.

     I should eat, I know that. This isn’t a healthy diet, and my body’s not going to thank me long term for the lack of vitamins, fruit, vegetables, fat, water etc that it’s being denied.

     But I can’t eat. I don’t feel hungry; don’t have those pangs that tell me I need to eat. I have dizzy spells. I feel weak. I get tired easily. But I can’t eat. My throat has closed. I have to force myself to swallow the bites of crumpet, and I feel sick. Sometimes I am.

     And the thing is, I loved eating. Loved food, cooking, feeding, snacking, stuffing my fucking face. I used to eat a whole baked Camembert with four slices of toast. And now I can’t. I wish I could. But I can’t.  And if I’m entirely honest, I like not eating. There was a prolonged period when my life was completely out of my control. When I lost every secret I had, every vestige of privacy, and my distress and vulnerability were exploited, scoffed at, dismissed, even used to attack me with. I could not control anything that was happening to me, and I was blamed for that loss of control. The only thing I still retained any power over was what I ate.

     Not eating becomes a pattern. You don’t eat because you can’t. You feel a misplaced sense of pride about not eating. Your appetite shrinks. You don’t eat. Then, things improve, you eat a bit more. Things slide, you revert to the coping strategy that is not eating.

     This isn’t a good week. There have been a few too many days when I haven’t eaten. When The Blondies aren’t here, it seems pointless. But I’m not feeling in control of things at the moment, so I suppose that for now, so until I feel better, I will be starving.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Udderly unthinkable

     A couple of people have suggested to me recently that I ought to start dating. Hang on, sorry, you’re not going to get much sense out of me for a bit, admire the view, talk amongst yourselves, have a three course meal and go for a walk, because this fit of hysterical laughter will be prolonged.

     I’ve never dated in my life, and I’m honestly not about to start now. No, nope, nup, not happening. The reasons are LOTS.

     To kick off, I’m not ready. Not even ready to think I might ever be ready, despite being born ready. It’s less than six months since I ended a 16 year relationship, and the post-mortem in my head is still inconclusive. Awaiting test results. Lab analysis incomplete. But the one firm conclusion I have reached is that cause of death is unlikely to be established by embracing some other stiffie. Nah. I need to live with myself for a bit. As easy as it would be for me to distract myself with fun and bounciness, it would be the equivalent of having two pints to treat terminal heart disease. Not healthy. Fun at the time, maybe, but it’s not getting to the root of things, even if I entered into it with my eyes pinned open, loins girded, and a grim determination to have fun.

     Jumping into something new would be cowardly, it would be me trying to avoid thinking about what went wrong, what that says about me, about how I contributed to the failure. Being happy and flirty and having fun is all very well, but not when you’ve destroyed a family. Putting on my fancy clothes and going out might give me a boost, but it’s immature in this situation. It would be avoiding responsibility, and absolving myself of any blame. I’m not into relentless miseryporn, or self flagellation, but neither do I want to be the type of person who has chocolate smeared across their face, hair, hands, says 'Chocolate? No... I haven't seen any chocolate... Although actually I think that A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away.' No. I’m supposedly a grown up. For all that I twat about, I should at least have the grace to accept blame, not avoid it with ‘you hang up, no you, no you hang up’ teenagery twatting about.

     And then, awkwardly, there’s the physical matter. The last time I did the whole ‘WOAH I’M NAKED WITH YOU FOR THE FIRST TIME’ thingy I was 19, a size 10, lithe, lean, and toned. Now I’m 36, I’ve had two children, and I’m (briefly) a size 8. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit withered. I have stretchmarks, and scars, and sagginess. Recent weight loss means I no longer have a comfily rounded little Buddha belly, but I do have the skin to prove I once did. If I go down on all fours, my stomach neatly cleaves in two from my bellybutton downwards to give me udders. Seriously. Like fucking jowls, but on my stomach, actual fucking udders, freely swaying like the unravelled old socks my teeny tiny tits now resemble. I look like some kind of sodding rare mammal, four teats on display, dangling swags of loose and empty skinnage, a sort of dried up once doubly efficient wet nurse. The thought of revealing this too, too solid flesh to anyone is enough to want to make me seal myself into a frogsuit for all eternity, never mind all of the other loose and freewheeling parts of me.

     The real reason though is Them. Yeah, The Blondies. Because of decisions that I took, and choices I made, they have had their lives turned upside down, inside out, dribbly arse cheeks over saggy tits. And what they need now is security, stability, and the knowledge that I’m not distracted by anything else. They need to know that they are paramount and that I won’t fail them by devoting serious energy to anything other than them. I have friends, interests, I have writing, and that’s enough, more than enough. I have a charmed life these days, and the magic of the charm is sharing my life with them. Beautiful, bewildering, bewitching Blondies. I don’t want to share this with anyone else, because it’s entirely mine. No one else has any right to it.

     I’m not saying never. Maybe, one day, when the storm clouds have been chased off the horizon, when this sea of troubles becomes a millpond once again, when this little ship is ready for haven, I will be ready to think about a new relationship, perhaps, maybe, possibly, with caveats. I might let someone close to me again, and be a bit selfish, a bit selfindulgent, and perhaps I will rearrange things in my life to suit me, not automatically cleave to what other people ask. But not now, not yet. And certainly not for a long time (and definitely not until I've worked out how to rid myself of these fucking saggy bastard UDDERS).

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Relay race

     For S, who is running her own race

     I’m not, never have been, never will be sporty, athletic, or even especially healthy. I skived off as much PE at school as was humanly possible, and the idea of willingly joining a gym is an alien to my mind as a day without coffee and cigarettes. I don’t do fit.

     I have, however, just completed an especially personal endurance event just lately. A really fucking long endurance event that’s taken quite a toll on me physically (lost 15kg, since you don’t ask). And you lot have been through it with me. The ridiculously laboured analogy that occurred to me this morning is that whilst I’ve been running this marathon, you lot [extends arm to encompass blog readers, tweeps, facebook peeps, Mum, friends, The Blondies, and most of all you, yes, you. You know who you are] have run parts of it alongside me, keeping me company along the way as I ran down the miles. Some of you pretty much dragged me over the start line in the early days, and then kept pushing me on when I dropped to my hands and knees and went into reverse. Others have handed me bottles of water as I’ve passed, or given me a bit of kitchen roll to blow my nose in. Some of you have pointed out where the portaloos are. You’ve cheered me past milestones as onlookers, and dragged away those who were trying to sabotage my progress.

     I kind of see you lot as being relay runners, passing the baton on and around, keeping me company and always keeping me moving onwards. And I’ve ticked off those milestones in my head as I’ve passed them. Ending a relationship. Making it through a day without crying. Fighting for what had to be done, telling The Blondies, kicking the motherfucking shit out of Maisie, and navigating the obstacle course that was moving in (it’s six weeks later, and I am becoming increasingly attached to my sofabed). At least one of you has been with me every day, even when I was taking a breather from always running uphill. And you helped to keep me motivated and focussed as I’ve approached the finish line, my eyes finally able to see the prize.

     And the prize is this. Being able to write again. I need to write. It’s not simply something I enjoy (although fuck, YEAH, I do, I love writing, even when it’s painful). No, I mean I need to write, to ease my mind. Something that was hard in the early days was not being able to blog freely. I ended up with a private blog instead, which helped, and no, there is NO way that anyone else is going to read that. I have to write, and I need to. I love to write, and it helps me, and sometimes it helps other people too, maybe if they think something is funny, or honest, or it tells them things they didn’t know, or is just a little reassurance that someone else feels the same.

     I’m not being Bessie Big Bollocks when I say that I don’t write for an audience. That’s not me being wankily airy fairy and pretending to be above nice comments or replies. I honestly don’t write thinking about who might read it when I blog, because if I did, I’d feel too inhibited. But in the days just before this race began, I was, very tentatively, starting to write for other people. One of those is Outline, a local magazine that’s fun and sassy, and cool, and all of the things I’m not. You might have seen me squealing a bit last night that for the very first time, something I’ve written isn’t just words on a screen, but actually physical print. It might not sound much, but to me it’s a small, but important step.

     The other magazine, to which I owe so much, was Standard Issue.

     Yes, the one started by Sarah Millican. I’m part of the gang that is the fairly eclectic, varied, and engaged group of women who contribute articles, and quizzes, and round ups and just… generally write about real stuff like mooncups and being the other mother and home schooling, and [cough] why I love Norwich, an article that gave me an odd mini fame for a few days.

     And as much as you lot have been here with me all this time, so has Standard Issue. The reaction that I had to the article I wrote about Norwich has been another one of you in some ways. It was a reminder that I can write, that I can get my message across with written words, that things I write sometimes resonate with others, and as I focussed on the finish line, the reminder that soon I would be able to write again gave my feet wings.

     I love Standard Issue. I love the ethos, the woman’s mag that is no bullshit, no advertorials, no circle of shame. It’s straight up, feisty and empowering writing by women for women. It’s a fucking inspiration to me, frankly. Principled, passionate and proud, as it deserves to be. You can pretty much sum it up with this video  

     And you know there’s a but coming, because you know there has to be. This stuff doesn’t come for free. It costs money to keep this show on the road/magazine on the internet. And if you don’t accept vast sums of moolah in exchange for your editorial policy soul, then it’s always going to be a struggle. I’m not going to twat about. Standard Issue needs money, to keep going. To give women like me and not like me, a magazine that reflects us as we are in our infinite variety, not the way we’re told to be by the other magazines out there that will tell you the top 10 key aspirational coat themes for this season to make you feel rubbish about yourself.

     And because Standard Issue is just as much about the readers as it is the writers and the articles, this isn’t a one way street. Give them your bloody money and they’ll give you something too (depends how much you can spare, see here for details) But you won’t get something purely in material terms. What you’ll also get is a website that features the best, most brilliant, boldest writing to devour. And now that my endurance event is over, now that you can take my stabilisers off, it’s time for me to take the baton myself and thank you all for getting me here, to a place where I’m not just writing again, but being able to take writing more seriously than I ever could before. You lot did that, just by being here. I’m not good at asking for help, and even worse at accepting it. Plenty of you have offered in the last six months, and I haven’t taken many of you up on your offers. But if you wish you could do something, then please think about joining the Standard Issue gang. You’ll be giving writers like me and not like me a real platform, and more than that, you’ll be giving readers the magazine we all deserve. My race is run, but writing is just beginning.