Let’s Talk About Body Dysmorphic Disorder

… 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.

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intro

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.

But hey.

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.

Right.

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.

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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.

eating

Ah, food.

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.

acceptance

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.

lucky

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*

therapy

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.

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reading

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.

Reflections on Body Dysmorphic Disorder by Nicole Schnackenberg.
I wish I could have read the first-hand accounts of BDD featured in ‘Reflections’ ten years ago – I just assumed I felt so shit because I was a teenager and all teenagers hate themselves, right? *facepalm*

moving on

Phew.

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):

https://bddfoundation.org/helping-you/about-bdd/#when-does-a-concern-with-appearance-become-bdd

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/body-dysmorphic-disorder-bdd/#.XTYaCXt7k2w

http://www.dorsetmentalhealthforum.org.uk/body-dysmorphic-disorder.html

27 Things That Make Me Happy

I turned twenty-seven last Saturday.

Let’s not talk about it. *cries old lady tears*

Ok, so I’m not actually old. But I am actually confused.

What exactly keeps happening to time?

I don’t understand.

*cries again*

Anyway, I wanted to mark the occasion (late, as always) with some bullet points and some of the things that make me happy in life. Twenty-seven bullet points and happy things, to be precise. Plus four photos.

So here they all are, in no particular order:

  • one: family. Dammit those weirdos mean the absolute world to me.
  • two: friends. See above explanation.
  • three: chocolate. Although it also makes me feel sad because it has a scary number of calories in it #emotionalminefield. Mostly, though, the yumminess is worth the calories.
  • four: colourful hair. My hair was untouched by bleach/hair dye up until two years ago so I’m making up for lost hair dyeing time now. And I absolutely love seeing other people’s colourful hair – I don’t want to think about how much time I’ve wasted on Pinterest and Instagram looking at prettily coloured hair.Pastel pink balayage on long hair
  • five: reading (surprise, surprise). I can’t overstate how important reading is to me. Whether it’s books (obvs my fave), newspaper articles, blogs, or even just the back of a shampoo bottle, I am OBSESSED with it.
  • six: running in the rain. I can’t quite believe I’m putting actual physical exercise on a list of things that make me happy, but running – somehow (I think it has something to do with magical endorphin science things?) – does make me happy. And rain is my favourite going-for-a-run weather for a couple of reasons. Firstly, not only is the sound of rain therapeutic and calming, it also conveniently helps to drown out my desperate gasps for air. And secondly, all that sky water makes me look a bit less sweaty and disgusting.
  • seven: high-waisted jeans. The day I discovered high-waisted jeans was a revolutionary day in my life (I don’t even care how sad that makes me sound). Low-rise and mid-rise can burn in fiery jean hell. I have actual hips with actual flesh on them. Over time, I’ve learnt to hate me and my fleshy hips less and – you know what? – I really don’t appreciate my hips being cut in half by badly tailored denim.
  • eight: cats. Cats are just fabulous and they do the funniest things. IMG_20190410_144958_011
  • nine: sassiness and sarcasm. Being sassy and sarcastic is fun. But sassy sarcasticness is all about the goldilocks balance. Too much and in the wrong context, it’s rude – and rude isn’t fun, rude is just rude. You don’t want to overdo the sass. You need to know when sassy one-liners are inappropriate and you need to know when you’re speaking to a gentle soul who needs to be eased into your sassy ways. But don’t be afraid to get sassy every now and again. Sometimes, sassiness and sarcasm are the only answers to life’s problems.
  • ten: lists (see entire post). They make me feel organised which makes me feel happy. In reality, lists just make me a disorganised person hopelessly brandishing a piece of paper decorated with words that somehow made sense when I initially wrote them down (again, see entire post).
  • eleven: stationery. Stationery is life. Life I tell you. *waves hands in reverie towards the heavens*
  • twelve: pudding/dessert (whichever word’s your preference). To be honest, I could quite easily go for a three course meal made up entirely of pudding courses. Which probably means I have a sugar-related pudding problem, but, after twenty-seven years on this here earth, I’m finally at peace with who I am as a pudding loving person.
  • thirteen: looking triumphantly around a room I’ve just tidied. Obviously the process of tidying can be horrific, infuriating, and distressing, but the smug feeling afterwards is priceless.
  • fourteen: fresh bedding. It’s just so snuggly and cosy and perfect.
  • fifteen: the phrase “fuck it”. They’re the two most liberating words in the English language. You always know something good, or at least something interesting with mixed results, is about to happen when you hear/say those words.
  • sixteen: (and on that note) swearing in general. I just really bloody love it, right from the bottom of my feckin heart. Sorry mum.
  • seventeen: flowers. They make the world a better, prettier, more colourful, more bumblebee-full, and more butterfly-full place. What’s not to like? Mayor of Casterbridge rose on vintage black lace.
  • eighteen: writing. Although, like chocolate, it also makes me sad. It makes me sad because I get frustrated that I’m not better at it. It makes me happy because it’s the ultimate outlet for my weird little brain and all its weird little ideas.
  • nineteen: the seaside. There’s no place I’d rather be; whatever the time of year, whatever the weather. Man O' War bay, Durdle Door, Dorset.
  • twenty: unexpected book conversations. Obviously all book conversations make me happy, but there’s something extra special about an out of the blue book chat. It’s a magical, warm the cockles of your heart moment.
  • twenty-one: Christmas (when I’m not at work). It’s just a wonderful time of year (when I’m not at work). Eating, drinking, and being merry (when I’m not at work) are all things that I’m good at doing anyway, so the fact that it becomes socially acceptable to do all these things in excess at Christmas time works out really well for me.
  • twenty-two: cognitive behavioural therapy. I was referred for CBT in July last year, started it in September, and in February this year was released back into the therapy-free wilds. This is a whole other blog post and that post will be super long and emotionally messy when I get round to it (not pitching it well, am I?). Basically, although CBT is hard work (why oh why oh why can’t therapists just flick a brain switch and magically fix minds?) the results are worth it and make for a much happier life in the long run.
  • twenty-three: baking. In general, I’m not a confident person and spend a lot of time thinking I’m doing things wrong. But baking is one thing that I am confident at. And I can eat the end result (mostly). Perfect.
  • twenty-four: cups of tea. I ❤ tea always.
  • twenty-five: charity shopping. I know some people get a bit grossed out about secondhand clothes – an attitude to which I have two words: washing machine – but I unashamedly love thrifting. You never know what you’re going to find, it’s much more environmentally friendly, and it costs a lot less than buying new.
  • twenty-six: baths so hot they make my skin a radioactive lobster shade of red. I’m old now and my body hurts – baths the temperature of lava make my body hurt less. That makes me happy.
  • twenty-seven: finishing things I’ve started. Sometimes (ahem, a lot of the time) I get distracted halfway through projects/housework/books/talking/writing blog posts, so actually finishing things makes me all happy-smug inside.

*basks in happy-smug glow*

So there you have it. Twenty-seven happy things. I’m looking forward to another year full of them.

Here’s to being a little bit older and a little bit wiser.

Four Quotes For March

So that was the March that was.

The last few weeks have rushed passed in a blur and they’ve involved a lot less reading than I would have liked, but I’ve been making my way through a few slowly, slowly.

I’ve been trying to keep track of little snippets from each one – too often I read books without stopping to make a note of the pearls of wisdom in them, pearls that I know I’ll want to refer back to but always, inexplicably, think I’ll be able to remember. (The only reason I think I’ll be able to remember them is because I forget that I have a terrible, terrible memory.)

But I actually managed to take notes this month. And I didn’t even lose the notes.

Miracles can happen.

I narrowed the quotes down to these fabulous, and kind of random, four. They just spoke to my messy old soul for some reason. I hope you like them too.

‘I remain a curious cosmonaut through my own tiny mind.’ – page 229, Pure by Rose Cartwright. I loved this book and can’t recommend it highly enough. It made me cry, made me laugh proper belly laughs, and made me marvel at just how much unnecessary pain our brains are able to put us through. We should all stay curious cosmonauts – through our minds and through every day of our lives.

Celestial night sky paper collage, made from recycled magazine pages.
Can you tell the crazy glitter-glue lady piece of my soul took over while I made this?

‘Never leave a void where something may be written.’ – page 289, The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell. This sentence stopped me in my tracks. It sparked something in my brain and felt like a call to arms. A call to create.

‘More than half the skill of writing lies in tricking the book out of your own head.’ – page 42, A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett. Ah, Sir Terry. He just knew how to sum things up perfectly, because that is exactly what writing feels like – whether it’s writing a book or, although maybe this is just me, a blog post. There is some super weird magic/curse stuff going on and I’m not sure I will ever understand it. I just wish I could trick words out of my head more often.

And randomly, on the subject of stretch marks, from How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran‘Puberty is like a lion that has raked me with its claws as I try to outrun it.’ I’m pretty sure most women will remember the moment they noticed their first stretch marks as a teenager. Personally, I was horrified. It absolutely felt like being attacked by the claws of a horrible life/time lion, and I was totally, 100%, definitely not okay with it. Random jaggedy red lines appearing all of a sudden across my hips and the tops of my thighs? No thank you, life. But apparently – and annoyingly – the lion of life doesn’t take into consideration what you want or don’t want. Which I still don’t really think is fair, but oh well. *sighs*

Hopefully I’ll keep on keeping track of quotes and keep on keeping track of where the notebook for them is, so I have some wisdom-pearls to share for April too.

*says a little prayer asking for another miracle*

Walking Off Winter

It’s only a few more days until winter is officially over here, and I am so, so ready to say goodbye to it. Readier than I have ever been. I’ve tried to embrace the last few months, tried to get on board with the constant tingle of cold gnawing at my bones. I’ve tried to appreciate sludgy snow, biting winds, silver grey skies, short sharp days, and spattering rain; tried to embrace my inner ice queen. I have so, so tried. Really and truly.

But my heart wants spring now, right this very minute, more than it has ever wanted spring before.

I want blooming flowers and zesty bright greens. I want long, long days and I want evenings spent laughing in slowly, gently, softly dying light. I want to lounge in warm, golden sunshine with a book, blossom tumbling from the trees, bees humming through the air. I want strawberries that are fresh and juicy and sweet. I want floaty dresses and flip flops. I even want SPF 50 sunscreen.

*sighs forlornly*

There’s just the matter of those tricksy few more days to get through.

I’ll be spending them how I’ve tried to spend the rest of winter: walking off the cold, walking off the grey, walking off the cabin fever.

And, of course, there’ll be the odd bit of reading thrown in too.

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Spoilers

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.

Poppy the cat and The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey.
Poppy wanted to read it too

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.

Maybe.

So if anybody needs me over the next few days, I’ll be the one in the corner practising my lalala song.

Ten Lessons From Travelling Alone In Dublin

Wednesday 6th February, Southampton Airport.

I was sat in Costa with a cup of tea clamped between my shaky hands, staring out at 6am darkness, and one word flooding my sleep deprived brain.

Alone.

I had never done it before. Never travelled solo, never left the UK without family or friends. Without safety in numbers. Without backup. Without someone to talk to, to confide in, to hold my hand during turbulence, to take the piss out of my imminent-death-fearing tears. (Defying gravity is just asking for trouble, right?)

But there I was. All alone.

And I was about to learn some things.

*

My first lesson: I can fly without crying. There and back my stomach was filled with butterflies, but my eyes were empty of death-fearing tears. Which is a positive development. (Side note: I did almost have a panic attack in the toilets after arriving at Dublin Airport, but I managed to rein it in. Which I guess is positive?)

Second lesson: the Irish are super friendly. I was never far from a conversation, whether it was about rugby, the right way to make a cup of tea, books, Irish history, Dorset, doughnut unicorns, the new Mary Poppins film, Brexit *sobs*, or even just the weather. It was very rare that I actually felt alone alone.

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The Spire in Dublin

Third lesson: if in doubt, go on a guided walking tour. There was a part of me that really didn’t want to look like a tourist – despite absolutely, definitely, completely-and-utterly being a tourist – but the walking tour was one of the best things I did. Not only did I learn a lot about Dublin, I also met another solo traveller and we spent the afternoon charity shopping, chatting, and photographing our way around the city. I went on this tour and can highly recommend it if you’re ever in Dublin.

Fourth lesson: I don’t like Guinness. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t, but I just wanted to make sure. (I did finish the whole pint though.)

Fifth lesson: things are expensive in Dublin. A teeny tiny hot chocolate will set you back over €3; a packet of Cadbury mini eggs is €1.99 *throws hands into the air in disgusted disbelief*; or you can buy two creme eggs for the bargain price of €1.70. (All the important things, obviously.) I suffered severe Dairy Milk withdrawal symptoms over the three days I was there.

Sixth lesson: the middle of a superking bed is the bestest, cosiest, snug-as-a-bug-in-a-ruggliest place ever to read a book. It’s just a shame I ended up hating the book I read (The Queen of Bloody Everything by Joanna Nadin. I was more than happy to leave it behind at the hotel).

Seventh lesson: keeping track of key cards/passports/tickets/money is stressful. I can’t even count the number of times I thought I’d lost my bus pass and all the mini heart attacks that followed that thought.

Hotel mirror selfie, Dublin, February 2019.
Now you see me, now you don’t

Eighth lesson: when you’re travelling alone, there’s no-one to judge your questionable dietary choices. My breakfast on Thursday was a hazelnut praline doughnut and my breakfast on Friday was a massive chocolate muffin, just because I could. You can judge me all you want, but I’ve eaten them now. So there. *sticks out tongue*

Ninth lesson: (seeing as we’re on the subject of unhealthy food) ice cream in February is totally a good idea. A friend recommended a visit to Murphys Ice Cream, so I stopped off there on Friday afternoon, even though my core body temperature was roughly -40°C. The ice cream was amazing and all the staff were so lovely (see lesson number two).

Tenth and most important lesson: 99.99% of people are inherently kind and awesome. My flight home got cancelled because of Storm Erik. After having a little cry at the Flybe desk and trying to figure out where the hell Southend was in relation to Dorset (I used to think I was good at geography, but I officially take that thought back), I joined a painfully long and completely stationary queue to rearrange my flight and ended up chatting to a few of my fellow flight cancellees. It turned out that one of them – an amazing lady/guardian angel called Sue – lived near my home town, and after figuring out we could catch a flight to Exeter, she offered me a lift home with her. I know the general consensus is that you should never get in a car with strangers, but not only was I 100% sure Sue wouldn’t kidnap me, I’d reached a point of tiredness where I was 100% willing to be kidnapped so long as I was vaguely near my house. Sue didn’t kidnap me, and I will always be grateful to her for keeping me calm and looking after me (and the non-kidnapping). Thank you, Sue!

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Storm Erik through an airport window

I can’t wait to go back and explore more of the city, and more of Ireland too.

Just maybe when there’s less stormy flying weather.

31/10/18

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.

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Mama Pippin

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.

Maybe not.

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.

It’s not right, Mum. You. There.

Come home.

Camera Shy

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.

Nobody is.

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.

Be ready.

Because life is alway saying cheeeeeeese.

blurry

*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.

Moomin Medicine

Last night, five minutes after turning out the light, I started to cry.

Not a delicate, ethereal, movie-style cry, but a full on ugly and snotty cry that made me feel like all the water in my body was cascading out of my eyes and nose.

The cry started for a lot a lot of reasons – and I came up with more and more reasons as I went along (thank you, brain!) – but somewhere down the melodramatic, tear sodden line I actually managed to have a good idea.

Read the Moomins.

So, in between disgustingly hideous sobs, I hauled myself back out of bed, switched back on the light, and found some Moomin medicine*.

It came in the form of Moominpappa at Sea, and in one chapter I was cured.

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson.

First, I laughed.

“I’m going to stay here,” said Moominpappa. “I shall stand guard over it. I’ll stay here all night if necessary.”

“Do you really think,” Moominmamma began. Then she just said, “Yes. That’s very good of you. One never knows what will happen with moss.”

No. One never really does. Moss is tricky like that.

Then I nodded like a congregation at church.

“It can take a terrible long time before things sort themselves out.”

Hallelujah, praise be.

And then I found myself wondering if Tove Jansson had broken directly into my brain.

“…only nice thoughts came into his head, thoughts of islands in the sea, and great changes taking place in all their lives.”

It’s good to cry sometimes. All of us need a good old fashioned tear-fest every now and then. And maybe, seeing as last night was Halloween, I was simply exorcising a few emotional ghosts.

But I was certainly grateful for my Moomin medicine.

*side effects may include: laughing, smiling, marvelling, a warm happy feeling in your heart, and forgetting all your woes.

Comfort Book Food

Not only is autumn the perfect excuse to curl up with a book, it’s the perfect excuse for indulging in a cheeky bit of comfort food. So with autumn in full golden, leafy swing and with the final of  The Great British Bake Off this Tuesday *sobs dramatically* all the stars felt aligned for me to get out the mixing bowl, raid the cupboard, and make something yummy.

I headed over to The Little Library Café – a brilliant website full of recipes inspired by the food in books – for ideas. Sure enough, I found a recipe that I not only had the ingredients for, but was inspired by a book (well, series) I had read (well, listened to) as a child.

My sister and I used to borrow cassette tapes of Milly Molly Mandy from the library and listen to them before bed, and just the mention of those three ‘m’s is enough to bring back a flood of guilt at the late fines my mum had to pay when I lost one of the tape sets. She actually ended up having to buy them off the library in the end. Oops.

Sorry mum.

Library fines and childhood guilt aside, Milly Molly Mandy also brings back happy memories of being tucked up in bed, snug as a bug in a rug, listening and laughing and wondering at all her little adventures in the quaint English countryside.

Now it brings back yummy memories.

Chocolate? Love it. Ginger? Love it. Chocolate and ginger all smooshed together in a cake? That right there is a recipe for true and everlasting love.

The recipe itself was really easy to follow (although I did manage to mess up the tin size because I always have to do something at least a bit wrong. It meant I ended up with a slightly flat cake, but it also meant there was extra room for a thick layer of icing. Every cloud). I added chocolate chips to the batter* and I made a mascarpone and chocolate icing rather than butter icing, because the cake mix was quite sugary and I thought the creaminess of the mascarpone would balance out the treaclyness of the sponge (it did).

It’s safe to say that I’ll be staying away from the bathroom scales for the next few weeks, but the deliciousness was worth it.

Now I just have to emotionally prepare myself for Tuesday.

The cake will probably help.

Homemade chocolate and ginger cake, baked using a recipe from The Little Library Cafe.

*the more I write about chocolate, the more I realise I should probably go on some sort of detox. This makes my soul hurt.