Most of last week felt like a real struggle – like fighting through a thick, gloopy dark. But it also had moments of heart-warming, soul-lifting, and blues-battling wonder that left me feeling like things will be okay, no matter how strange they happen to be now – and they’re what I want to keep my focus on.
Two moments in particular stood out.
Both of them involved a field, and both of them involved my – already seriously overused – tear ducts.
I almost ended up in tears in the middle of a field. My sister and I were out for a walk by our local river when a big, big, big bird suddenly swooped above us, circling round and round. We’re used to seeing pigeons (tbh, isn’t everyone?), sea gulls, buzzards, crows, sparrows, herons, cormorants, and egrets on our walks but this was much more special: it was a red kite. Red kites became extinct in England in 1871, and their population recovery has been rocky and very slow since then (although it has recently begun to accelerate). My dad – who basically has the eyes of a hawk – occasionally spots one flying in the distance, and every time he does I always nod along and go “ooh” and “aah” – vaguely aware that there is some sort of bird shaped creature in the sky, but mostly aware of a whole lot of blue/clouds. But this red kite was so. close. and there was no mistaking it. It felt like a very special privilege to witness it swirling through the air just in front of us and had me blinking back tears (it had been a long day). It was utterly awe-inspiring to see, and, especially at a time like this, it felt like a good omen – a much needed reminder that things get better; they recover, they heal, and they thrive.
I actually ended up in tears in the middle of a field. This time, it was me and my mum out for a walk. Little did I know, my best friend – who I haven’t seen in person for two months – was out for a run at the same time. Cue a squeal of recognition and disbelief, a flash of happy heart butterflies, a moment where I couldn’t breathe, me bursting into tears, and an appropriately socially distant cry/talk/sob/chat from either side of the path. It was painful because I wanted to run straight into her arms and give her the biggest hug and not let her go, but it was also beautiful because I got to see her in actual physical real 3D life and it was the loveliest, most magical, surprise.
I hope you’ve had your fair share of heart-warming moments too.
I think it’s fair to say most of us have a bit more spare time on our hands at the moment thanks to life under lockdown.
And if, like me, you want to bury your head in the book-sand to make all the world scariness and heart loneliness go away, I have a few – eclectic and pretty random – recommendations that have all swept me away from my little corner of the world at some point in the last few years.
mudlarking by Lara Maiklem. This book is utterly de. light. ful. And wonderful in the truest sense of the word. Lara Maiklem shines a light onto the mysterious world of mudlarks on the Thames. It’s full of unexpected treasures, pearls of obscure history, and interesting insights into London life through the ages. Perfect for anyone who was brought up on a diet of Channel 4’s Time Team. Get lost in the mud from the safety of your sofa.
the lesser bohemians by Eimar McBride. This certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. It’s a messy and mesmerising (and pretty x-rated) ride through nineties London, following eighteen-year-old Eily as she navigates life as a drama school – plus, ahem, a school-of-life – student. I’ve never read anything like it before and doubt I’ll read anything quite like it ever again. If you can get into the strange rhythm of the writing (the first twenty pages will honestly feel like gibberish, but it clicks into place I promise), you’ll be rewarded with a story that’ll torture but ultimately spellbind your heart.
‘Girl I’ve been, woman I’ll be.’
moondust: in search of the men who fell to earth by Andrew Smith. Delve into the lives of the men behind the moonlandings as they recall their experiences before, during, and after their time in space. The book is filled with fascinating stories that don’t traditionally make the space race narrative. It’ll take you out of this lockdown world.
the invisible child by Tove Jansson. Tbh, anything by Tove Jansson will do the trick in tricky life times, but this little book of two short stories will capture your heart and soul hook, line, and absolute sinker. Moomin stories are always the answer, whatever the problem. Moomin up your life!
the great gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Okay people, this book. *waves hands in reverie towards the heavens* It’s glitzy, glamorous, and glorious. Obsession, pride, greed, delusion, selfishness, and jealousy twist together against a background of jazz age opulence and the effect is painfully intoxicating.
a fortune-teller told me by Tiziano Terzani. Would you live a year of your life bound by the reading of a fortune-teller? In 1993, Terzani did just that after being warned a decade before that he should avoid all air travel in that year. This intriguing book chronicles his earthbound adventures over those twelve months throughout south-east Asia and beyond, as he continued in his role as a journalist for Der Spiegel. It might make your feet itchy to get travelling again – #sorry – but it’ll also make you savour a slower pace of life too.
‘Every place is a goldmine. You have only to give yourself time, sit in a teahouse watching passers-by, stand in a corner of the market, go for a haircut. You pick up a thread – a word, a meeting, a friend of a friend of someone you have just met – and soon the most insipid, most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theatre of humanity.’
me by Elton John. This is an outrageously good memoir that’s choc-a-bloc full of amazing and jaw dropping stories, featuring names both big and small. It’s loud, bold, and colourful. The perfect antidote to low-key lockdown life.
‘Where would I be now? Who would I be now? You can send yourself crazy wondering. But it all happened, and here I am. There’s really no point in asking what if? The only question worth asking is: what’s next?’
the bear and the nightingale by Katherine Arden. Be transported to the fairytale wilds of medieval Russia in this first installment of the Winternight Trilogy. You’ll be so enchanted by the beautiful make believe world Arden has created, you’ll forget all about missing the real one.
when breath becomes air by Paul Kalanathi. Written in the last years of Kalanathi’s life after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, this is the kind of book that will make you sad – but in the best way possible, I swear. Most importantly, it will make you cherish life in all its weirdness and wonderfulness. Be prepared to cry, though.
jonathan strange & mr. norrell by Susanna Clarke. Basically, it’s regency-era England made magical for one thousand and six pages. And if that’s a sentence that floats your boat, you should definitely read it.
the power of now by Eckhart Tolle. We might all be looking forward to the end of lockdown – and boy oh boy do I know I am *cries* – but there’s something to be said for making the most of the here and now, no matter what the here and now happens to be. I don’t agree with everything Tolle says, but the book’s basic premise makes so much sense. All we ever really have any control over is what we do with (or how we respond to) things now. Right now. Not ten minutes ago or in ten minutes time. Noooooow.
the hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Take a magical and mystical and really rather delightful tour through the world of Middle Earth with a grumpy hobbit, a mischievous wizard, and a band of merry dwarves. It’s less intense than the Lord of the Rings series, but still has plenty of fantastical things for you to get your bookish teeth into. The ultimate lockdown read, in other words.
If you have any recommendations for lockdown reading, let me know!
… because it sounds super fun and fabulous, doesn’t it?
But I promise (blindly hope) it will be interesting.
Bear with me. Because it’s a long, long post.
Ah, this subject. *winces*
It’s a sore one.
Writing this post – and admitting this is an issue I struggle daily with – feels a lot like rubbing rock salt all over a wound, rinsing that salt off with neat bleach, and then bandaging it all up in a plaster made of velcro, thistles, wasps, and those big, bitey ants that live in the rainforest.
Sometimes talking about things that hurt makes them better in long run.
Hopefully it makes them better in the long run.
cute little ol’ passive-aggressive note
Before I ramble on, I’d like to note that I am very very very painfully painfully painfully aware of how messed up and broken the thinking behind BDD is, how contradictory and illogical it is, and its essential futility. And I’m aware, also, of how ungrateful it is. (For example: I think my legs are super weird and lumpy and enormous and gross and sometimes feel like they’re getting wider every second. But at least I have legs and at least they work. I would miss them if they were gone or I couldn’t use them. I should just love my legs! It’s so simple! *cries*)
If you feel the need to remind me of the lack of logic/the futility/the ungratefulness, please please please don’t.
BDD is complex and I can’t just switch it off.
It’s an ingrained thought process that has to be painstakingly unlearned.
And it’s a twisted personal belief system* that’s basically tattooed to every inch of my soul, and lasering all that shitty BDD religious text off of it has been, is, and will continue to be excrutiatingly difficult.
Let’s do this.
*head of church: my brain. Congregation size: one (meeeeee *waves enthusiastically from front pew*). Service times: any second/minute/hour the BDD spirit moves me to worship (which is a lot – I’m devout). Holy BDD days: every day *gets out tinsel and fairy lights and bad knitwear*.
what bdd feels like
We all have hang-ups about elements of our appearance.
Hang-ups are annoying but they’re mostly fleeting. They have very little impact on behaviours and only flare up every now and then – maybe in a fitting room, at the beach, or whilst having a photo taken.
BDD thoughts are relentless, time consuming, distracting, and impact behaviours signifcantly.
I’m guessing you’ve experienced that disappointed-at-what-you-see-in-the-mirror feeling? Your stomach sinks. Pieces of your self-esteem crumble away. Maybe, on a bad day, that reflection will make you want to cry. I’m guessing you’ve felt the embarrassment of seeing yourself in a badly angled/timed/lit photograph? You kind of recoil from it and you definitely don’t want other people to see you in it. You untag yourself or hide it at the back of the album. I’m guessing you’ve had the stab of jealousy on seeing a picture of a beautiful, airbrushed model in a magazine? Your chances of ever living up to that standard of perfection seem pretty hopeless. You hate yourself for not looking like they do and also hate yourself for caring. And I’m guessing, too, you’ve had days where you just feel a bit shit for reasons you can’t quite put a finger on and want to hide away? Of course you have. We all have.
We’re all human and all have vulnerable, squishy, softer-on-the-inside human emotions.
BDD feels like all those squishy emotions, all the time. Wave after wave after wave. Every couple of minutes, you suddenly remember how hideous you are and how disgusted you must make other people feel when they look at you. It’s like a rush of adrenaline coursing through your veins; or the buzz from a double espresso shot at 3am; or the burn of a downed whiskey on an empty stomach. It hits you – sledgehammer to chest – over and over.
And sledgehammers to the chest inevitably wear you down.
Sledgehammers to the chest make day-to-day life difficult.
They inform every decision you make.
They put you constantly on edge.
And they make you spend all your time – all your precious life – simply trying to mitigate the next hit.
That’s a rubbish way to live.
vanity & self esteem
When a lot of people’s ears hear “body dysmorphia” their brains hear “vanity”.
It’s understandable – it is an obsession focussing on appearance, after all.
The vanity element is one of the main reasons I’ve always shied away from talking about BDD. I already hate myself – the last thing I want to do is make other people hate me too by making them think I’m vain and superficial. Especially as I already assume they think I’m hideous on the outside. The inside is all I’ve got. I don’t want people to think I’m hideous there too.
But BDD isn’t vanity. It certainly has habits and compulsions associated with it (frequent mirror-checking, continually asking for feedback on appearance, etc.), but these unhelpful habits stem from a total lack of self-esteem, extreme insecurities, and feelings of worthlessness rather than high self-regard.
Vanity is mostly defined as:
‘excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own abilities, appearance or achievements’ – Wiktionary
‘inflated pride in oneself or one’s appearance’ – Merriam-Webster
There is no pride in BDD.
There’s just shame.
The problem with dismissing BDD as vanity is that not only does it triviliase a complicated mental condition that happens to manifest itself as obsessive thoughts and compulsions relating to perceived physical defects, but it also heightens the shame and guilt already felt by people experiencing it – which makes them less likely to seek help for, and therefore recover from, what is a treatable mental illness. BDD attempted suicide and actual suicide rates are remarkably high. I’m sure (although I’m obviously not a doctor or scientist – this is just my opinion) part of this is down to people’s reluctance to talk about their obsessions with perceived appearance issues out of fear of being labelled as shallow and vain.
‘While the aim in many eating disorders is most commonly to reduce the weight of the body or to enhance the musculature and the aim in BDD is to ‘fix’ a perceived defect or defects, the underlying agony is ultimately the same: the belief that one’s physical appearance is something to be ashamed of, the notion that one is not good enough as one is, and the conviction that by somehow changing the physical body, one can become more ‘beautiful’, more accepted as human being, and more worthy of love.’ – page 33, Reflections, by Nicole Schnackenberg.
BDD thinking is messed up. But it’s not messed up to want to be accepted and loved.
That’s just human.
I love food. I hate food.
It makes me happy and it makes me sad. I wish I could just play it cool around it (I think I have actually got a lot better at playing it cool over the years) but the first thing food reminds me of is my body and how it might change my body for the (even) worse. And as you’ve probably gathered, being reminded of my body makes me all squirmy and uncomfortable.
I used to binge eat as a teenager and hated leaving the house (because I thought I was too ugly to go outside). Binge eating and rarely leaving the house, unsurprisingly, made me gain a lot of weight. Since my heaviest, I’ve lost 4 1/2 stone (63 pounds, 28.5 kilos).*
I still carry that weight around with me mentally, though.
When I eat in front of people, I worry about a lot of things. I worry about how disgusting I look while I’m eating and worry that my disgustingness will make people feel ill. I worry that people will think I’m greedy. I worry that maybe I won’t be able to control myself and will just eat everything in sight. My main worry is that someone will come over and call me fat.
When I buy clothes, I struggle to understand what size I should get and struggle to trust I’m seeing the right numbers. The label might say UK size 8 or 10 or 12 (it would really help if brands chose the same measurements for sizing) but hell no am I going to believe that. And hell no am I going to believe they actually, really, truly fit. I have to fight back against the idea – pretty much every minute – that all the fat in my body is bursting out of my clothes, breaking the seams of stitches, and oozing through the fabric.
Big baggy jumpers are my favourite item of clothing for a reason.
*although, obviously it shouldn’t matter what weight I am. Health and happiness are what’s important.
Coming to terms with the idea that you have a mental health problem, rather than a physical one, is one of the hardest parts of BDD and has taken me a good couple of years to grapple with.
This is my simplistic (but incredibly long winded, sorry *pulls awkward face*) way of describing it:
Imagine that you think you’re right-handed and you’ve been confidently, if clumsily, using your right-hand as your dominant hand for your whole life. It seems to be hurting you in weird ways that you can’t quite understand, and affecting a ridiculous number of your decisions, but it’s familiar. It’s uncomfortable but habitual. Newsflash: it turns out that you’re actually left-handed and your life would, in the long run, be so much better – and all those weird hurts would be significantly reduced – if you started using your left-hand dominantly. Imagine how weird that would initially feel. Imagine the leap of faith it would require to actually believe that you’re left-handed (look normal), not right-handed (hideously, disgustingly, irredeemably ugly). Imagine how many times you would have to stop yourself halfway through writing sentences (thinking obsessive, dysmorphic thoughts) to put the pen in your left-hand – where you’re told it should be but where it doesn’t seem to fit. Imagine how frustrating it would be and how much you’d inevitably relapse. Imagine the jumble of left-hand written and right-hand written sentences on a page, side by side in odd proportions, and how confusing they would look together (feel in your head). Imagine how much longer all those left-hand sentences would take to write. Imagine how wobbly all their letters would be. Imagine how much time it would take to get the left-hand’s writing up to the right-hand’s standard and how long it would be before you’re consistently reeling off pages of neat left-handed sentences (consistently thinking logical, realistic thoughts).
And then imagine how annoying, unhelpful, and humiliating it would be if, throughout the entire process, you had people telling you from the sidelines how they’ve never had a problem with being left-handed, and how they think you should just pull yourself together RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND and write them an entire manuscript in beautiful handwriting – complete with detailed illustrations – only using your left-hand.
Imagine how much you’d want to take the pen – in either hand – and write TWAT all over their smug face.*
*obvs you should never actually do that, but you can definitely think about doing it.
I have been lucky in my experience of BDD.
Although it has crippled my confidence and has impacted some aspects of my life severely, it hasn’t taken complete hold of it. I still leave the house. I still socialise. I can still hold down a job. I still try new things. I still have hope that things will get better if I continue to put the effort in and have the right support.
The BDD thoughts follow me wherever I go, but I still (mostly) go.
I think that is down to my weird and wonderful circle of family and friends.
At thirteen, I left school and studied for my GCSEs at home. One of the main reasons I left was that I couldn’t face crowded places anymore. I couldn’t bear being seen with (what I believed to be) my huge, strange body and disgusting face. I wanted to hide away. But I come from a big family and lived in a busy household that was always filled with people coming and going, doing interesting things, and living interesting lives. I was never going to be able to shut myself away in a little cocoon where no-one would ever see me. It was certainly stressful at the time (for everyone), but I guess it worked as a messy form of exposure therapy.
Plus, I get bored easily. Not leaving my room got very boring, very quickly. The fear of boredom overtook the fear of my ugliness and fatness.
So isolation never took root.
I also feel lucky that my early teenage years came just before the explosion of social media. I’m not sure how I would have coped with Instagram at thirteen – especially in the early days of Instagram.
On those fronts, I think I was really lucky.
But BDD does affect some aspects of my life massively and in ways that I have only talked – and will only talk – about with my nearest and dearest, my doctor, and at therapy. *taps nose secretively*
The last year has been a big one on the mental health front for me. I finally sought help for my anxiety and panic attacks, and was referred for cognitive behavioural therapy. My therapist quickly picked up on the dysmorphia, which I had been nervous to talk about in depth with my GP (because I was anxious she would think I was vain – and also because I was crying so much throughout the entire appointment I don’t think she could actually hear any of the words coming out of my mouth between sobs). Most of my homework activities were based on challenging my thoughts and behaviours relating to my perceived ugliness and fatness. Using the techniques learnt in CBT drastically reduced both my general anxieties and my dysmorphic anxieties.
I finished CBT in February of this year and was beginning to feel like I was a properly functioning, kinda normal(ish) human being who could start to make big decisions – decisions which I have spent a long time trying to avoid because I felt so useless and incapable.
Something happened recently, though, which caused a massive spike in my dysmorphic thoughts.
The CBT techniques have helped me from spiralling into anxiety-wonderland. Talking about it openly with people, rather than internalising it, has helped too. I’ve started yoga and restarted (for the gazillionth time) running – trying to take control of and use my body rather than negatively obsess about it.
But still the BDD thoughts have kept creeping in and setting up camp in my head.
Okay, now we’re back to a subject that makes me feel comfortable and confident and happy.
Is it weird that I had never considered reading about body dysmorphia?
I spend a lot of time reading. I spend a lot of time worrying about my body. And it never ocurred to me that it might be a good idea to pick up a book on the subject and learn more about it.
I think I avoided BDD books because reading is a form of escapism.
And why would I want to escape to a subject which simmers away in my brain every day?
But I was missing an important point. Knowledge is power. Problems shared are problems halved. Realising that loads of other people have been through similar experiences to you, seeing the thoughts that have swamped your mind every day for twenty years written down by someone else who has had them too, gives you a sense of perspective that is invaluable.
If you’re still with me *scans the horizon* then thank you for battling through. You deserve a medal. If I had one to hand, I would give it to you.
I’ve been writing this post for so long now (please send help! And biscuits. And alcohol.), I don’t really know if it makes sense anymore (or how many typos there might be hiding in it). I’ve probably not described some things very well and I’ve probably forgotten to describe some things at all.
But I’m going full Pontius Pilate and washing my hands of this draft now.
It is what it is.
I’ll continue to dip into books about body dysmorphia, continue to read articles, continue to watch programmes, continue to learn and to listen to other people’s experiences of it – and would encourage others to do the same. As with everything in life, it is so helpful to gain perspective. It lessens the severity, and therefore the impact, of dysmorphic thoughts.
But I’m definitely going to be doing those things in smaller doses than the doses I’ve been having in the last few days. *rocks backwards and forwards in a corner*
I don’t want to dwell and ruminate on it anymore – I’ve spent a lifetime doing that.
Slow and steady, little by little, I’m moving on.
And for now, all I want to think about are rainbows, unicorns, sunshine, kittens, and puppies.
Some links that might help explain BDD more clearly and succinctly than this post (I should probably have put them at the start and saved you from all my waffling, woops):
I love spoilers. With an embarrassingly large amount of my heart.
Maybe (probably) I’m some sort of deranged control freak who can’t handle surprises. Maybe I’m sabotaging a good, much needed workout for my little grey cells. Maybe I don’t have any little grey cells.
All I know is that spoilers – for books, films, tv dramas (and can somebody give me a few for real life, pretty please, I beg of you) – make me happy but seem to make other people sad, annoyed, and/or makes them stick their fingers in their ears whilst singing desperate lalala songs.
I can only marvel at the self control spoiler-haters have.
Because I have none.
Or, at least, that’s what I’d always thought.
Rewind to last Saturday.
4am saw me attempting to pack a backpack, drink a cup of tea, eat toast, and put on makeup all at the same time. The first three activities went relatively well, but the fourth really, really did not – as became apparent when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the afternoon (to be fair, there was never going to be much hope for my face with a 4am start to the day). 4.45am saw me driving painfully slowly through thick, soupy fog to Bournemouth station, praying not only for x-ray vision but that I’d actually make it to the station before the coach left. 5.15am saw me out of breath but tucked up successfully on a seat. 8am saw me blinking up, dazed and confused, into the bright blue sky outside Victoria coach station in London.
9.50am saw me on sunwashed steps outside the Faber Academy, legs a little shaky, heart a little fast.
I was there for their ‘Start To Write’ course and although I’ve been chipping away at writing a novel for years and years and yet more (painful) years, I had never written in a very structured way, in an educational setting, or with other people before. Hence the shaky legs and achy heart.
I felt very scruffy and under prepared – just my default setting for all of life really.
For the course, everyone in the group had brought along a copy of their favourite novel (I’d taken The Hobbit). The lady next to me had brought a copy of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey and from the moment she started describing the story I was fascinated.
‘Marion Sharpe and her mother seem an unlikely duo to be found on the wrong side of the law. Quiet and ordinary, they have led a peaceful and unremarkable life at their country home, The Franchise. Unremarkable, that is, until the police turn up on their doorstep with a demure young woman. Not only does Betty Kane accuse them of kidnap and abuse, she can back up her claim with a detailed description of the attic room in which she was kept, right down to the crack in its round window. But there’s something about Betty Kane’s story that doesn’t quite add up.’
Cue a round of oohs and aahs from my brain.
After the course, I strolled in golden sunshine to Covent Garden for a mooch around the shops. Of course, I ended up in a bookshop. Of course, I found and bought a copy of The Franchise Affair.
And then I broke a habit of a life time.
I didn’t research the book. I didn’t go on a plot synopsis search like some sort of spoiler possessed hunter tracking its story prey. I didn’t skip to the last few pages. I just opened the book and went in blind.
And it was fine.
Infuriating – oh so infuriating; three days of pain, of little angry roars from the bottom of my lungs, of opened then closed Google tabs – but totally fine. Totally. (I could have cried.)
Although the conclusion of the story was 99% certain from the outset, the hows and whys and nitty gritty details were enjoyable to see unfold throughout the book rather than in the paragraphs of its wikipedia page. Who even knew?
I’m not a born again spoiler-free convert, but I think I might just be able to restrain myself for one or two more books in the weeks ahead. Just one or two.
So if anybody needs me over the next few days, I’ll be the one in the corner practising my lalala song.
So, Halloween last year was an interesting one for me and my family.
It wasn’t spooky and it wasn’t ghostly, but it was scary.
This post explains why.
I started it as a submission idea for a magazine and decided I didn’t want to let it go. So here it is in all its messy glory. It’s basically a stream-of-consciousness letter to my Mum, right from the bottom of my topsy-turvy heart and brain. It may also shine a bit more light on my Moomin Medicine post from November.
And I’m happy to report that, although there are ups and downs, she is very much on the mend.
It’s not right. You. Here.
I sit on the bed and stare at my purple-blue feet that are too cold and too hot all at the same time.
I want to look at you, but you scare me with your smallness and your illness. I want to look at you, but I don’t want you to know that I’m afraid. You know my face too well for it to lie to you. It’s half your face, after all.
I lean back on the hard mattress and scrunch the thin blue sheets between my fingers. In my head a nurse comes over – a Miss Trunchbull style nurse – all stern and angry. The imaginary nurse tells me to get off the bed, tells me to leave the hospital, tells me never to come back.
But outside my head, nothing happens. No-one tells me off, no-one asks me to leave.
I stay on the bed that’s yours but not yours.
The side of the not-yours bed cuts deep into the backs of my thighs and it cuts deep into my heart. I shuffle, wriggle, squirm from both pains.
I talk about work and how it’s been busy. I look at Dad. I talk about the kittens, how they miss you. I look at Dad. I talk about the chickens, about breakfasts and dinners, about the Great British Bake Off and how Rahul has won, about the weather and how it’s cold today. I look at Dad.
I do steal glances at you with my half-yours eyes. I try to make them lie to you, but the look on your face lets me know I’ve failed. You’re not fooled – never have been – by my lying, half-yours eyes.
Dad talks. He’s so much better at this than I am. He knows what to say, knows how to be. I drum my fingers against the sparkly white edge of your bed and I stare at the clipboard hanging from the end of it. Note after note after note.
I wish I had my notebook.
You know the one – it’s the one filled with all the inane and absurd worries that my brain spits out and clings to so desperately, so hopelessly. The one my therapist has told me to keep. The one I chitter-chattered to you about for weeks and weeks, joking – hurting – about all the ridiculous and horrible scenarios my mind invents, all the while not knowing the ridiculous, horrible scenario real life had invented for you. I could fill all the pages of that notebook now. But where do I even start, Mum?
I’m worried about everything.
Why did your surgery take so much longer than expected? What happened? I’m worried that the surgeons might have left something in you – a scalpel, a glove, a piece of cotton wool. It happens sometimes, so why not this time? And I’m worried – so, so worried – about what they might not have taken out. What happens if they didn’t get some of the cancer? What if they couldn’t reach it all? Or, worse, what if they just forgot a bit? I haven’t read about that happening, but I’m sure it’s something that could happen – and if it can happen maybe it has happened.
I’m worried about germs hiding everywhere and I’m worried about all the germs on me. I’m worried that I kissed you on the cheek with all my germs; that I’m sitting on your bed with all my germs; that I should never have come here with all my germs.
Most of all – and this one eats me up alive – I’m worried that I won’t be able to look after you, that I won’t be able to repay all your years of looking after me. How can I be strong like you? How can I cope like you would when it feels like all my insides are going to bubble up and burn out of my chest?
The list goes on and on and on.
Dad’s still talking but now he’s talking to me, looking at me. I come around.
It’s time to leave.
Mum, why don’t you to come with us too? You shouldn’t be here and none of this should be happening, so why don’t we just pretend that it’s not? That will work, won’t it? That will make it go away.
I stand. I lie badly with my eyes. I kiss you with my germs. I’m desperate to go and I’m desperate to stay. This not-yours bed has stolen all of earth’s gravity and I don’t want to go back to falling through the empty space of home without you.
Time. To. Leave.
Dad and I walk away. A thousand gravity-cords stretch and pop and snap at my all-yours heart, ready to pull me back, ready to stop my hot-cold feet in their tracks. But away we carry on walking.
Like a lot of people, I’m not a huge fan of having my photo taken.
The sight of a camera lens pointing in my direction is enough to send a juggernaut of hyper self-conscious panic right through my heart. The words “say cheeeeeeese” are enough to make me want to sink into the ground and be eaten by worms. And opening the camera on my phone only to find my confused, freckly, selfie-unready face blinking back at me? Well, that’s enough to make me want to throw my phone into the sea pour les poissons*.
I’m both fascinated and completely repulsed by myself in photos. (Me, me, me, I, I, I, self, self, self. Sorry.)
For about ten years I barely let anyone take a photo of me. Photographic evidence of my existence in that time is minimal. As minimal as I could get away with. And the evidence that does exist is pained and reluctant, through gritted teenage teeth. I think everyone goes through a stage like this, long or short. (I’m kind of curious whether people felt like this way back in the day, sitting for a family painting? If someone could pleeeease invent time travel, because I’d like to go back and ask. Pretty please.) My stage just happened to be a very very very long stage.
So imagine my surprise when I found a photo from that time, taken a few weeks after my fourteenth birthday, where I looked… relaxed. At peace with the lens. Zen with the flash. Okay with the camera.
Granted, that’s probably because I thought the photo had already been taken and that the danger had passed.
But I’m taking it as a small victory anyway.
For me, the best things about the photo are the memories that come with it. Memories so so clear and sparkly. Devon. July. Running. Laughing. Brothers, sister, mother. Twinkling lights and a shushing, shiny sea.
I can walk right back into the blue and feel it all the way through my veins.
But there is one thing about the photo that I would change, even if that wish to change it is futile.
I would stick two fingers right-royally up at the voice hiding behind my forehead that told me I was all wrong, the voice that told me (tells me) I was (that I am) hideous, disgusting, fat, ugly, gross.
I wasn’t. I’m not.
And none of that stuff matters anyway.
We are all so so so much more than our bodies and our faces, no matter what those bodies or faces happen to look like.
We are all so so so worthy of having our pictures taken and not giving a flying fuck of how we appear in that split second.
So please. If you’re out there and camera shy like me, stick up those metaphorical fingers and tell that voice to piss the fuck off. Smile and grin and laugh and don’t care. Be at peace with the flash. Stare right down the barrel of the lens. Challenge that camera to a duel.
And in the wise, wise words of Moominpappa (I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself):
‘The world is full of great and wonderful things for those who are ready for them.’
Don’t let that voice make you think you aren’t worthy, whether it’s worthy of a photo or worthy of a life well lived.
Because life is alway saying cheeeeeeese.
*there’s a story behind “pour les poissons” involving a ten euro note, a gust of wind, and a sweet but matter-of-fact elderly French man in Collioure. I promise I’m not just being pretentious à la Fawlty Towers.
I found some old notebooks at the weekend and it was a strange and eye-opening experience going through them. The oldest one is from almost ten years ago, from when I was sixteen, and it made me smile, frown, and cringe all at the same time. It’s a bit of a mash up – part diary, part story about an Edwardian suffragette, part sketchbook. You can definitely tell I had been reading lots of classics for my GCSEs from the writing style of the fictional bits, and you can absolutely tell I was a teenager from the diary parts (holy moly, the angst!). And from the sketches, I clearly had an obsession with drawing trees and eyes.
The more recent ones still make me cringe a little, though I’m super happy to report I ditched the faux old-fashioned writing style.
I’m so so tempted to get rid of them because the idea of anyone else reading them actually mortifies me down to my gooey and very messy core, but I also know I’ll want to read them again in the future – even if it is just for something to giggle at. It’s nice also, maybe even helpful, to see the progression of my style and my ideas.
So it’s back into hiding they go, ready to embarrass me in another ten years.
The sun is burning hot and the sea shimmers a thousand beautiful blues.
We pick our way down a washed-away jumble of steps and baked mud, beyond a sign that says not to go further. The beach is toasty under my soles and tingly around my toes.
We set up camp half way round the bay and I strip quickly down to my bikini, head straight to the water because if I don’t get in now I never will.
The water is sharp and cold, a shock, a relief, icy as it slicks across my goose-bumpled skin. It cloaks me, hides me. I float, I swim, paddle, sit, stand, wriggle till I’m soaked through to my blood, salty down to my bones.
And I stay longer and longer, a fear bubbling under my skin until the cold forces me to ignore the fear.
Getting out is the worst part because my head hates my body, even though my body doesn’t really deserve to be hated.
Somewhere lost – very lost – inside me, I know that. I know it but still I don’t believe it.
The short walk back to our spot makes me, ridiculously, want to cry.
The towel is my saviour, a shroud, a thin paisley-strewn defence against eyes that will surely hate my body too if they glimpse it.
A book is my saviour too, releases me from my self.
Butterflies dance over pebbles, brush across my knees. They save me as well.
And the skylarks, they save me. They sing and sing, cheep and cheep, and they lull me away from the thoughts that circle round like vultures desperate to pick apart, literally, my flesh.
As we head back, back up those jumbly stairs, back up a very hilly hill, I try to love my legs, love every sinew, every muscle, every bit of cellulite – the real bits and the (apparently) imagined bits – as every one of them helps me back to the car, but I struggle to undo over half-a-life’s worth of muddled thinking. Of being and knowing and believing.
Unrosy. That’s the only word that seems to fit the last few months.
I’ve had plenty of sparkly happy shiny moments with my friends and family – so so many, and I couldn’t count them if I tried. Moments I have loved and will never forget. But I’ve also had plenty of moments with myself that have scared me. Moments where I’ve felt my whole life slipping away and been unsure if I can even catch it, unsure if I even want it. I’ve had panic attacks in public toilets, in my car, sat at the kitchen table, whilst folding the washing – the list could go on and on and on. I’ve had whole evenings of crying for no reason, just sat stupidly, pathetically, snottily trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me and why I can’t pull myself together. I’ve felt my whole body turn to lead, like it’s been switched off at the mains and my mind with it. I(‘ve) hate(d) myself through and through – more than I can find a way to say – then hate(d) myself for hating myself because isn’t that just the most stupid thing to do? Isn’t it illogical and embarrassingly self-centred? Isn’t it a ridiculous, pointless waste of time to obsess about how ugly and disgusting and hideous (I believe) I am? Only an idiot would waste that much time. *facepalm*
It’s basically felt like being run over by a ginormous and really rather emotional lorry. And now I’m at the side of the road, a little (lottle) bit dazed and confused, trying to keep myself in a vaguely normalesque shape, with some pieces of me feeling a little (lottle) bit mushier than before.
I know the pieces will get less mushy. I know things will feel more rosy. Quickly would be nice, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a little more complicated than that because this has all been a long time in the making.
Friends and family are the answer; reading and writing and creating are the answer. Talking sometimes, listening sometimes, silence sometimes – all of them are the answer.
And even, sometimes, just taking a blurry photo of roses is the answer.
The clock struck midnight and the world didn’t change. People cheered, danced, started a giant can-can; fireworks went off; confetti filled the air and fluttered to the pavement. The world didn’t change.
Still, there were butterflies in my belly and a stupidly happy happiness in my heart – that I’m sure wasn’t entirely rum based – at the prospect of 2018.
I know it’s just four numbers in a row. I know anything can happen – good and bad, beautiful and ugly. I know for an absolute, sure-fire fact that 2018 will see my face red and puffy and snotty and tear-stained on an embarrassing number of occassions (the ugly). I know I will laugh so hard my stomach will hurt (the good). I know I will love and I’ll probably hate too (naughty me). I know at points I’ll be elated, disappointed, bored, excited, inspired, confused (happens easily), annoyed (again, happens easily. Note to self – work on moral failings). Basically, emotions will be all over the place because that’s how I like to keep my emotions.
And I know that I have an unnervingly good feeling about the next 12 months.