Changeling

Gazelle Twin has become my latest synaesthetic experience, and if that’s too wanky for you let me explain with what I have – billowing smoke, purple and bronze and black. I love the word “bronze”, it’s one of those satisfying moments when language is more than tool and expression, it’s got a form of its own in your mouth, like a magician’s trick. A ream of scarves, pulled beyond the throat and the teeth into the air, sailing against the sky.

“Changelings” is a stacatto beat of swordplay and temple interior, a dark hallway with angled walls and ceiling lost in shadows. I could hide there awhile, for reflection, for loss, for sustenance, for something that would make sense in an increasingly fragile world.

I feel prickly with heat, unnerved by the walls and doors and corridors. Every room I went into had grown eyes; mine were blind and my mind stupid. Birds and words and stones, falling from my mouth, too much at once, and where there are eyes there are ears too. I ran.

My legs are pocked over with scars from a childhood of self-harm, beyond conscious thought, when eczema and short hair and bullying were the bane of my life, and the pain caused me to roll over and over on the floor just to leave it all behind, since my hands were bandaged into useless paws. I’d sleep on the classroom carpet during lessons, and lie awake at night staring out of the window.

Scars. I tried to hide them with make-up when dancing ballet.

This hide has always been a threadbare thing. While in hospital, they thought I was burning myself with a cigarette, until it became apparent that the surreptitious sit-ups had worn the hole in my back.

I talked about this yesterday with the girl-ghost of my past and future, whose energy leaves me cold with regret for her suffering, and more alive and fucking glad to be so, than I have in a long time. She sparkles as mountain water running downhill, running uphill if she so wished, because after what she’s been through I doubt anything would be beyond her capabilities. A rare IQ and a list of mental disorders long as her arm. Nature is a cruel joke, we laughed at it, and solemnly reflected on how her school system had let her down. For all that intelligence, the system couldn’t work to her mind and her mind couldn’t assimilate the system. It happens. She told me of one teacher who took her to the back of the room and let her work alone, out of sight and earshot, so that within ten minutes she was done.
Not all those who wander are lost.

I can sympathise, if never fully understand. Everyone’s illness and experiences are their own. But while talking to her, it’s so clear how her recovery came about and will continue to run uphill, downhill, because she notices Everything. Subjects beyond anorexia, beyond anxiety, beyond depression. She told me of a nurse who had talked to her about the Little things in the World Beyond, while inside. We agreed that this is crucial in treatment – to lessen the risk of becoming institutionalised, that white stick of a word, which so many of us carried in the end. It took months to get used to life beyond locked doors, beyond ever-watchful eyes.

They were only trying to keep us alive, of course. But you never underestimate the power of owning power over a lock, thereafter – or indeed, your own thoughts and movements. The staff were our saviours and our enemies; not every choice/action was induced by illness, but by personal preference and human nature, yet they couldn’t allow for the slightest imbalance of the delicate peer pressure which the system relied on. If one of us got away with something, the rest would buck up too – for various reasons.

Anorexia is a manipulative, deceitful thing. It can turn a loving human into a wiry demon with hot eyes, raking nails. It’s an external manifestation of rage, fear, doubt, guilt, all the things buried inside where hurt has been caused or neglect has festered wounds.
To come back around, you have to learn to trust again. Not only others but your own opinions, ideas, emotional reactions, physical needs. And you have to finally confront what is inside, nothing so mundane as “good” and “bad” but You, and your place in the world. Because it’s useless trying to love and learn when you can’t bear to look yourself in the eye.

Triggers catch me out. Getting past immediate reactions is often the biggest challenge. Yes, I have a temper and I’m not excusing it. Control is a conflict within and without. I can try to explain, and fail.

I am not a nice person. I am black and white.

Experience has taught me to be distrustful again; I used to trust and talk about anything. After years of silence, it felt good to spill over and run on, until I learned that this could be used for and against me, or for and against other people. I still don’t know enough about how the world works, and rarely think beyond Today’s consequences. Such is the habit of survival and ignorance. The consequences don’t matter when you can pin your own selfishness and inattentiveness and arrogance on an eating disorder.
(When you still don’t know how much is You, and It.)

I never could get across what I mean to say. Being held accountable, responsible, these are things I’ve run from for too long – pride and shame have their say, much of what I don’t understand frustrates me, and I’d turn my face away rather than ask. Even when I bite my lip and confront, often the answers are elusive and sliding away in riddles until it all becomes the waste of my very precious time.
But I need to stick it out and ask again.

Oh we talked about that, too. Time. How you can hear it passing. The deepening of your voice and the creaks in your lower spine, the way things become funny for no apparent reason, how the world suddenly holds colours and is vital for it, and how some friends slip away while others remain. Some become vacant spaces of themselves and others the tapestry of a life renewed. It occurred to me (again) the other day, my 30th birthday, that we all change our minds as well as our skins every few years or so.

Become a new person. Shift the mindset, the style, the tone. We leave traces of ourselves behind, for others to follow. My mother has gone from exasperated parent to fearful carer to curious friend and confidante. I never dreamt we would one day have this sort of closeness; she was drawn to my sister and my father to my brother, when we were children. Nanna was the one who sat with me to reminisce and to weave past and future together. Her stories of our ancestors, of vague sepia-tinged memories of post-WWII England, now ring through my mind with those history lessons of school when I wish I’d paid more attention, or that more details had been presented for me to memorise.

Hurtling forward. Glancing back. I felt it at age 15, something changed, and my spine ridged itself while tension squirmed through me. I remember standing in the tuck shop with my friend K, trying to tell her what was wrong and coming up with nothing. Only that it felt bigger than me, than us, than homework and boys and periods, all the minutiae of life-change we were going through. To this day, I still don’t know what caused it – pale mind – but it lasted weeks, months, possibly years. I’d always been a worrier, but this felt different.

Half my life time ago, and here. 30 was supposed to bring the answers. I feel more confused and fearful than ever, but within context… There have been a lot of recent changes. Perception and perspective are everything. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to cope well with moving to a new station. The distortion of routines would have brought on panic attacks, restrictive eating, over-exercising to compensate and alleviate frayed nerves.
Now, it’s a loose laugh and a weary rub of the cheek, and enjoying the tension-banter while everyone adjusts, and… Performing the funeral rites of a tired old building. Walking each corridor, each flight of stairs, each floor one last time – turning out lights, closing windows, watching the sun burnish the horizon line (still blue) before turning away and closing the door.

When the world takes priority, things start to make more sense. Not everything, of course, but enough that I can get by. I’ll still miss cues and wonder why and how I stepped off the edge, and I’ll still run and hide from company and questions when it all becomes a bit like that butter scraped over too much bread. Thank you, Tolkien, for I’ve never found a better way to describe what extended interaction can mean to someone used to being alone. Whether through forced isolation in illness or as a reflection of Self, the child on the windowsill behind long curtains, reading into the twilight.

Sounds of the rain at the window. I hate that what I loved can become tinged with negative emotions. Symbolism is my friend and enemy. I have to watch what I say, and it segues through to how I think. Exasperated and… To be left alone. That was all I asked for. Some damage can never be undone. One man’s objective view is another’s inability to let go, so that I start to question Everything. I hold fragments of trust in one hand and opinions in the other. The pressure behind my eyes is often unbearable. I used to fall back on what others told me was Right, wanting to be Good and to go along with it, not to cause upset… But I know what makes my skin crawl, my mind go dark with old fears, and won’t go that way any more.

It’s not really anyone’s fault that this happens. But when these experiences are already known, and the prodding continues, I will give back what I can. Or turn my face away, whichever is easiest, since constant conflict is bad for the digestion and nerves. Fight-Flight is for the real moments of danger and fear, not an everyday experience. I’ve wasted enough time already.
Past still reaches out to present. I’m not an easy person to be around at the best of times. As Ma puts it, I walk into a room on heavy feet.

To quieten the room, damage limitation, I left by the side door and now Exile is a comfort I’ve longed for. It means I can concentrate in a quiet state, sitting in this library-mind where I’ve finally caught up on reading all those hoarded files, gratefully picked up along the way when offered; though whether I retain what is learned remains to be seen. Details usually emerge and flow back on a trigger, and then rarely when I need them, but it’s nice to know they lie there like neatly-folded blankets in the cupboard, ready for a change.

How to put them into anything useful that belongs to me, is another matter. Still too many gaps in my mind where context should be.
But listening helps. I pick things up as I go along, popping them on this shelf and that. I prefer listening to speaking.

What it’s all for, I couldn’t tell you. But it feels important to know how to connect past with present, conflict with peace, politics with people; and it staves off this Awareness, the fear that one day I’ll look around and realise I’m walking on the fence. Breathing underwater. When you become too Aware, you fall off, you drown.
Life just happens. That’s recovery.

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Gender Stereotypes: Harming our children

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, recently slammed No Gender December – an awareness campaign backed by Greens senator Larissa Waters, to highlight the consequences of gender-marketing toys to children. The PM insists that he doesn’t support “that kind of political correctness” and asks that we all “let boys be boys and girls be girls.”

Well, fair enough, Mr Abbott. I mean, where’s the harm in promoting stereotypes? Let traditions speak for themselves, right? Quit the meddling?

Well, no. As Senator Waters put it, “This isn’t about some toys being off-limits. It’s about children being free to play with whatever interests them without fear of being judged or bullied.”

There are the key words – “judged” and “bullied.” They come with very real consequences for children, for societies.
As an authority figure, someone people (might) look to as an example, it would’ve been nice if Mr Abbott had taken a more responsible line when broadcasting his views: but then again, these are clearly his beliefs, too. Which is a shame. It’s worth noting that his approval ratings have taken a good kicking from women voters in particular, with only 37% believing him fit to be their chosen leader.

The sad truth is that his views are in no way singular. They’re just another facet of the “outdated stereotypes about boys and girls” that feed into “very serious problems such as domestic violences and the gender pay gap.”
In response to Senator Waters, the Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi was a little more direct:

“Frankly, I think [Waters has] consumed too much Christmas eggnog to come up with an idea like this… To say you’re giving a boy a truck or a hammer is somehow leading to domestic violence and gender pay gaps is simply bizarre.”

Well, all things move towards their end, and one thread ties to another to form a smothering whole. Were I Mr Abbott, I’d be a bit cagey about having my views backed by someone whose idea of equality is suggesting that a man could have put his partner in a headlock to restrain her if she was being aggressive, or that this could be used as a restraining technique by police officers.

But then again, toys are only a few symptoms of a much wider problem involving sociocultural beliefs and attitudes about gender roles. The denial of certain types of behaviour and thinking – basic rights – for both girls and boys, create fissures between the sexes that become filled with beliefs that cause grief and pain, even when we’re not wholly aware of it happening. Doubt and frustration about what it means to be a girl or a boy. Repression of individuality.

Favouring boys and men, whether through the son-preference and gendercide seen in China – where one out of every six girls is eliminated through sex-selective abortion, abandonment, or infanticide – or with the global gender pay gap, feeds into the historical context of male privilege and patriarchal societies. When it comes to girls and women, their bodies and minds, male sexual entitlement plays host to a terrifying range of oppressive measures and actions. The kind we saw in horrifying detail with the Isla Vista murders.

Awareness is about picking apart the knots that help to perpetuate gender stereotypes and segregation, many of which begin at birth.

Take gender colour-coding. Walk into your average nursery and you’ll know from a cursory glance about the room what the baby’s sex is. From the moment we’re born, our identities are pinned to us with the associations “pretty in pink” for a girl, and boisterously blue for a boy. These perceptions have apparently become so ingrained in the public mind, that a backlash occurs when the perfectly rational argument for equality is proposed. As though by offering girls positive alternative role models – “women who do amazing things. Scientists and sportswomen and musicians and businesswomen and activists” – their progression through life is somehow inhibited by “politically correct” meddling.

In email responses to the PinkStinks campaign, set up by twin sisters Abi and Emma Moore, one little girl wrote: “I am nine years old, and I think PinkStinks is my voice. Girls like me shouldn’t be forced to like pink. Can you think of a good name for girls who don’t want to be girly girls but aren’t tomboys?”

And on the flipside, recrimination: “Do you sell campaign T-shirts in pink? And do you have any with ‘I am a leftwing communist loony trying to brainwash girls’?”

Abi called it “a wholesale pinkification of girls” that “sells children a lie – that there’s only one way to be a ‘proper girl’ – and it sets them on a journey, at a very, very early age. It’s a signpost, telling them that beauty is more valued than brains; it limits horizons, and it restricts ambitions.” Emma, referring to the vitriol directed at she and her sister for the campaign, said “We’ve tapped into something that’s clearly very deep and very powerful. Some people plainly feel attacked.”

This colour-coding is far more modern than many would like to believe. In June 1918, the American Ladies’ Home Journal told new mothers that pink was more suitable for a boy, being “a more decided and stronger colour”, while blue was seen to be “delicate and dainty”, and therefore “prettier for the girl.” Same old clichés, different colour-coordination. The switch-around didn’t occur until post-WWII; in 1948, it was noted in the Chicago Reader that “royal watchers” were apparently alerted to the fact Princess Elizabeth “was obviously expecting a boy, because a temporary nursery in Buckingham Palace was gaily decked out with blue satin bows.” Interestingly, it was also common practise until WWI for male babies and small boys to wear dresses until breeching, when they were put into trousers. The average age of this rite of passage was between two and seven. So no, boys haven’t always been prepared for rougher play in their clothing, and were once almost indistinguishable from girls, particularly with the fashions for longer hair. I have photographs of my great-grandfather as a toddler, dressed in a flowing gown and with beautiful curls, standing next to his mother.

But colours and connotations have come to define our perceptions and feelings, our reactions to one another. A study on the psychological effects of pink by Alexander Schauss in the 70’s, showed that “of 153 male prisoners put in cells painted pink, 98.7 per cent were weaker after being in the pink cells for only 15 minutes – presumably because of associations with the colour pink and femininity.” Which sort of flies in the face of the afore-mentioned evidence that, once upon a time, pink was the accepted-conventional colour for boys and men. It’s funny what a cultural placebo effect can do.

More troubling, is the light this shines on yet another facet of that belief that girls and women are vulnerable, the weaker sex; that femininity is something to be ashamed of, especially if you’re male. My landlady recently told me of an acquaintance who refused to let her son wear a “slightly effeminate” shirt in the two-minute drive from her house to his own; he’d got caught in a rain shower. Said acquaintance was convinced that he would contract feminine attributes and/or homosexuality if he wore the borrowed shirt, rather than a cold if he didn’t.

If you believe that kids don’t notice these gender stereotypes, that it’s an issue only adults care about, think again. From as early as five months old, children notice their surroundings in relation to familiarity (that safety-blanket feeling of “Me”) and build upon what they retain, in their preferences:

“Researchers have shown that male and female infants as young as 5 months of age become familiar with vastly different surroundings: while female infants were often dressed in pink, had pink pacifiers, and yellow bedding, boys were more likely to have blue bedding and curtains in their rooms (Pomerleau, Bolduc, Malcuit, & Cossette, 1990). Since parents surround girls with objects that are pink and boys with objects that are blue, infants may develop a preference for these colours based on familiarity. Another possibility is that once children identify with a certain gender, they seek out gender-related information and choose toys and colours that are commonly associated
with that gender
… Kohlberg’s (1966) early work on gender development suggests that children seek out gender-related information and look for ways to conform to these gender norms.” – Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences

So the next time you choose an item of clothing, or plan out the style of your bedroom, or daydream about the colour of your new car, ask yourself how many of your preferences are born of personal appeal, and how much are based upon the image you feel you “should” present to the world.

Then there are the toys.

“At some point over the last three decades the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to choose to what to buy without colour coded gender labelling… As every successful marketeer knows, differentiation makes for greater profit margins and segmentation gives you a bigger market overall.

So with three-year-old girls only being able to ‘choose’ pink tricycles then the manufacturer can charge more for that special girlie shade with a premium ‘Princess’ saddle. And of course that trike can’t be handed on to a brother or nephew, ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars.
But what may be driving profit margins is limiting children’s’ choice – and experiences. And ultimately limiting the UK’s social and economic potential.” – Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central: “Gendered Marketing Perpetuates Stereotypes, Constrains Minds and Limits Our Children’s Potential.”

gender toys
Image: Huffingtonpost.co.uk/Chi Onwurah

The toys marketed to boys today can be taken apart and redesigned, made to race and to fly. They do innovative and exciting things; they go places. Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, believes that these toys send messages to boys that they should be making things and problem solving, while girls should be caring and nurturing.

“Boys toys tend to contain didactic information, with technical instructions and fitting things together with Lego and Meccano, whereas girls’ toys tend to be around imaginative and creative play, which develop different skills.”

But what if a boy would prefer to play with toys marketed to girls? Thea Hughes, who started the Play Unlimited campaign which has got under Tony Abbott’s skin, found that her son Harper was being subjected to prejudice based on his preferences for pink and wearing dresses.
“I could see him starting to become aware that he’s being judged, and that he’s unable to make the choices he’d like to make, because of the social pressure. At such a young age, it’s just so sad.”

And on the flipside, Tricia Lowther of Durham in the UK, knew of her six-year-old daughter Marianne’s love for the Pixar film Cars. But when buying juice cartons in the supermarket, Lowther found that “it was a choice between cars and princesses, and I got her the Cars ones, sure she’d like them”; Marianne hid the cartons, telling her mother that “it’s boyish” and that she didn’t want anyone to know of her preference for this.

It hasn’t always been like this. I can remember, in the mid-80’s as a child, a limited Tinkerbell range of make-up and accessories; a few Barbie dolls. For the most part, toys on the shelves were gender-neutral, thanks to the second-wave feminists who had focused on driving out the typically accepted gender roles and stereotyping. This included non-sexist parenting, built on the belief that children should be able to choose whatever and whoever they wish to play with. So toys really were just toys – no Boys aisles and Girls aisles.

Lego

Fast forward to today, and feminism has moved more women into professions once held strictly by men, while men themselves have accepted – willingly – a great share of the domestic side of things. But when it comes to the markets aimed at children – toys, clothes, film tie-in merchandise etc – “stereotypes have never been so defined, or rigidly enforced. Pink and blue have triumphed in the toy market, and there are often serious social penalties for children who breach the divide. The rise of highly gendered toys is a result of capitalism, but it also suggests a deep, subconscious unease with the advances of the past few decades.”

In many films, books and video games aimed at both genders, it’s the boy-hero who saves the day, while the helpless princess (or whoever, she generally isn’t given enough characteristics for an audience member to care) waits breathlessly in a castle/haunted mansion/on a rail line, to be rescued.
He is typically portrayed as strong, fearless, unbeatable. Unbreakable. Unable to break down.
Especially if no one is prepared to believe he is actually capable of feeling so wretched, of being unable to express himself or to shoulder the burdens of the world as well as his own.

A boy’s life is geared towards activity, towards being the winner in his own small world, before tackling the bigger one –

– without consideration for the fact that he might just want to curl up with a book, or in front of a computer. He might want to sit alone, quiet and still, to write in the same way as the poets he admires. He might want to vanish into a world of his own making, where he can feel and express emotions without being called a ‘wuss’ or a ‘gayboy.’

If a boy wants to prioritize deep thinking and emotions over actions, to wear the clothes and make-up and hair-styles that he’s seen his female peers wear, he faces bullying and assault, with negative commentary about his sexuality. Anything associated with “feminine” – whether it’s crying in public or dancing ballet, wearing pink or admitting to a shy and reticent nature – equates with “wrong” and “weak”. Boys are taught to stay separate from girls by their toys, their early interactions, and through the reactions of those around them.

“Nine-year-old Grayson Bruce had been told not to bring his My Little Pony bag to school in North Carolina because it was a trigger for the bullying he was experiencing, which has included punching, pushing and name-calling…
11-year-old Michael Morones, also of North Carolina, spoke about his recent suicide attempt, which has left him in a persistent vegetative state. The reasons for self-harm are always complicated, but Morones had experienced problems with bullying. He tried to kill himself the evening he told his mother: “‘I am so tired of people at school calling me gay because I like My Little Pony.'”

For girls who want to become engineers, mathematicians and scientists, the void starts with what is issued to them. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, believes that by limiting children with gender stereotypes, we’re setting ourselves up for “big economic problems.” At the start of her own engineering degree, 12% of her peers were women – 30 years later, that proportion is down to 8%.
“There are thousands of jobs going unfilled, and in addition a lot of our engineers are in their 50s and retiring in the next five years. At the same time we have the lowest proportion in Europe of women who are professional engineers.”

Play and child development psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer says that when it comes to careers, genuine interaction between the genders, and a wide range of skills-based play available for all, are the crucial elements.
“Nobody plays with Lego and learns how to build houses, but they might learn how to overlap bricks to create a stable structure. It’s more about confidence and familiarity than an actual skill set.”

But what about when our bodies begin to change – when hormones kick in, and it can feel like the world is going to end?
(My personal experience of puberty.)

In July this year, an Always sanitary hygiene advert sought to reclaim the phrase ‘like a girl.” When the women and boys participating were asked by film-maker Lauren Greenfield to run ‘like a girl’, silliness ensued – flailing arms and legs, in a display that reminded me of what we knew in school as ‘running like a Polly Pocket’: that tiny little model of a girl, all stiff hinged joints and awkward movements, used as an example of feminine aptitude for sports. It’s funny what comes back when faced with your own past, and someone else’s future.

The same question put to prepubescent girls showed the reality of their strength and determination.. They gave it everything they had. It’s a powerful and disturbing message. I had to watch it several times for the truth to sink in: that somewhere in adolescence, girls becoming women form perceptions about their bodies that are wholly negative, and based upon what society tells them is meant by ‘feminine’.

As the ever-quotable Tony Porter said – “If it would destroy [a 12-year-old boy] to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?”

And what happens to the girl-princess who remains tied up and tied down by a sense of her own vulnerability, waiting for someone to come to her rescue?

“Internalized sexism is defined as the involuntary belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society ARE TRUE. Girls and women, boys and men hear the sexist messages (lies and stereotypes) about women over their entire lifetimes. They hear that women are stupid, weak, passive, manipulative, with no capacity for intellectual pursuits or leadership.

There are two logical, predictable consequences of a lifetime of such messages. First, boys / men will grow to believe many of the messages, and treat women accordingly. They will be thoroughly indoctrinated into their role in sexism, protecting their male privilege by colluding with the perpetuation of sexism.

But there is a second logical consequence – the same messages also stick to girls and women, resulting in internalized sexism / internalized misogyny. Women and girls are taught to act out the lies and stereotypes, doubting themselves and other females (sometimes called “horizontal hostility.”) This is the way women collude with the perpetuation of sexism.

For the sexist system to be maintained and passed on to the next generation, we all must believe the messages (lies and stereotypes) to some degree, and collude with sexism by performing our assigned roles.” – Cultural Bridges to Justice, “Internalized Sexism / Internalized Misogyny.

Campaigns like #YesAllWomen focus on giving girls and women across the world a voice. In the aftermath of the Isla Vista murders, this tapped a narrative both complex and wholly depressing.

“The reason women mobilized so quickly after the shooting is because we recognized immediately the language and ideaology in Rodger’s videos and manifesto; the over-the-top sexual entitlement; the rage against women who ‘dared’ to reject him; the antiquated, but nonetheless terrifying, belief that women should not be in control of their own sexual choices.”

Inequality of pay, gender-discrimination in the workplace and the legal systems, inappropriate touching, abusive relatives, manipulative and domineering partners coercing victims into signing over bank details, gaslighting (where an abusive partner breaks down the victim’s emotional and mental reserves so they’re unable to trust their own perceptions and are thus more likely to stay in the relationship.) Rape culture and sexual entitlement – yes, even in the “nice guys”, the ones who “aren’t like the others”, and so feel that if they offer support to a girl, their natural payback is the right to Get Some.

“We live in an entitlement culture where guys think they need to be having sex with girls in order to be happy and fulfilled. That in a culture that constantly celebrates the narrative of guys trying hard, overcoming challenges, concocting clever ruses and automatically getting a woman thrown at them as a prize as a result, there will always be some guy who crosses the line into committing a violent crime to get what he “deserves,” or get vengeance for being denied it…

We are not the lovable nerdy protagonist who’s lovable because he’s the protagonist. We’re not guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick of our dreams as long as we work hard enough at it. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by “getting the girl” in the end. And when our clever ruses and schemes to “get girls” fail, it’s not because the girls are too stupid or too bitchy or too shallow to play by those unwritten rules we’ve absorbed.

It’s because other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species is ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers. And it means that the rest of us will always, on some fundamental level, be stupid and wrong when it comes to trying to understand the women we claim to love.” – Arthur Chu, “Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.

So yes, Mr Abbott – people who believe in “politically correct” gender equality, will continue to push for this in as many ways as possible. Those innocuous little threads can become big knots. From economics to mental health, the risks are there for future generations – we have to supply children with the skills and free will to achieve whatever they can, and the emotional support to think and feel whatever comes to them, without fear of peer pressure or recriminations.
Above all, we need to teach girls and boys to look out for each other.

If you’ve made it this far down – kudos.
For further reading:
Ten Practical Tips for raising an emotionally healthy boy
That’s for girls and that’s for boys
Negative stereotypes about boys hinder their academic achievement
How male sexual entitlement hurts everyone

Learning to be a woman

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of my own gender. Of what society believes is associated with it. Of the body I was born into. Not because I feel as though it was the wrong one, but because it represents how others see and treat me. Looking in a mirror, I don’t see a personality. I see tags, hooked on through personal experiences and continuous bombardment from (often conflicting) socio-cultural messages about what it means to be either gender. Laurie Penny puts it far better than I can:

“For forty thousand years of human history, biology divided men and women into different sex classes and rigid gender roles. Then, two or three generations ago – an eyeblink in the long dream of human history – technology moved forwards and allowed women to escape the constraints of reproductive biology just after movements across the world had succeeded in gaining them the right to be considered full citizens in law. That sexual revolution became a social revolution, and the shape of human relations was changed for ever…Women. Men. Boys and girls. The words don’t change but the resonance does, and what it means to call yourself one of those things in the twenty-first century is something very different from what it meant in the last century and what it will mean in the next. Being a woman, or being a man, requires effort, attention, the suppression of some parts of your personality and the exaggeration of others. When Simone de Beauvoir said that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ she was bang on, but I prefer Bette Davis in the film All About Eve, reminding us that ‘That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted.’” – Excerpted from “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution” by Laurie Penny.

I’d got used to telling myself that “women’s issues” didn’t concern me (bear with me on this one). The ongoing debates seemed way over my head, with women far more intelligent and informed writing thought-provoking blogs and articles and tweets. How could I possibly fit in? I’ll admit now, I’d also bought into the man-hating side of things, the strange self-love/loathing that seems to permeate certain discussions about women’s rights. Which is it – do you want to be men, against them, for them? In the end, I’d shut my ears to the noise.

Until this year, and then mostly through reading my Twitter feed. I’d had no idea, for example, that such terms as “male sexual entitlement” and “male privilege” existed (much less how these could be made relevant to my own life.) That’s the beauty of social networking. Information has a way of filtering down, through blog entries and articles friends’ personal accounts, hashtag memes like #YesAllWomen, until it’s not just describing someone else’s life –
It’s describing your own.

Turns out I hadn’t been so much disinterested in feminism, as afraid to confront the truth about my inbuilt beliefs, my place in the world, and relationships with people of both genders. There are days when I’ll wake up afraid, presenting a prickly spine and bad language to anyone of the opposite sex who so much as dares to glance my way. This sort of mentality helps no one, since it means I’m tarring male friends and strangers with the same loaded brush, giving no one a chance to prove themselves capable of treating me like an individual. What happened before shouldn’t define me today, but it’s easier said than done. When it happens over and again, with a different perpetrator each time, you start to wonder if things will ever change – or if indeed, it’s something inherently wrong with your own character and/or appearance.

Veronica Roth said in her book Divergent, that “becoming fearless isn’t the point. That’s impossible. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it.”

Well, here’s my fear. I look like a woman again. And I hate it; I hate being afraid.

I see a body that’s almost recovered from anorexia nervosa, with a healthy/sustainable weight for my age and height. It’s taken a long time to get here, and even longer to knuckle down and recognize what lies beyond the restriction/compulsive exercise symptoms, which took up much of my thinking. A lot of the reasons behind the illness can be traced to a need for routine in a rapidly-changing world; everything went to hell in 2001. But I’ve had to confront something else, not easily discussed even with close friends. I’m afraid of upsetting people, of saying something wrong, but the fact is, I can’t deny what’s been going on in my head for over a decade.

I feel vulnerable and soft as a woman, as I did post-hospital, when I’d been built back up from starvation levels. I went to the gym on the doctor’s recommendations, though it should have been more to do with rebuilding crucial bone structure than toughening up. I’ve used exercise to whittle myself into something androgynous; the message being ‘untouchable’, in the able-to-defend-myself sense. It was as much to do with self-denial and control over pain – feeling nothing – as reducing bodyweight. I thought it would make me safer, to appear and act less feminine.
Which just goes to show how long I’ve subconsciously bought into the idea that my gender is ‘vulnerable’ – and then, based mainly on experience.

When men in the gym stop what they’re doing to watch me exercise, I want to run away and hide. I can’t figure out if it’s to with my wearing shorts and a strappy top (because I get hot) or because – shock horror – a woman is lifting weights. I’m not putting on a display for anyone’s benefit. I’m trying to lay down crucial new bone minerals to ward off osteoporosis; I’m enjoying the rhythm of sets, and running because I love the feeling of freedom.

I’ve been the trophy girlfriend. The fuck-buddy. The little girl, the waif. Now I’m trying to find myself as a woman, while struggling to control a horrible rage that would burn each and every relationship I have to the ground, if I let it happen. It’d be too easy to isolate myself because of comments about my face and figure, as though these were commodities I happened to put on display.

My gender is reflected in the eyes of the men who at various points in my life, have felt it their right to use me for their own gains; to control my body and voice. To make me ashamed of my appearance and my mind, as though whatever I have grown into is an accessible right of others, and if I dare to refuse to play along then I’m causing trouble. Being naughty. An obnoxious cow. Huffy. Stuck up.
Those are just the words I can remember.

But you know what? I’m getting well anyway. I’m starting to eat according to what I want, not what calorific contents tell me will happen to my body. I’m trying to do things that I once shunned for being “girly”, in case they tore up my “don’t you touch me” image. I have to face up to my own beliefs, unknot them, and let them go; otherwise, I’m just part of the problem. With this new-found health, I’m able to think more clearly about all sorts of topics and issues. I can form opinions and move from one point to another, in a way that was denied to me before when it the rat-tunnels of an eating disorder. These advantages keep me going, when it seems that the sudden arrival of long-buried memories and emotions will eat me alive.

As Jarune Uwujaren puts it, “No one is ever owed sex – not when they’re nice, not when they’re domineering, not when they’re manipulative, not when they’re attractive, and definitely not just because they’re a man.” When men – some of whom I count as friends – have made me squirm with repeated comments about my physicality, it’s not just out of embarrassment, or the fear that they’ll do something about it – their words are leeching me of all hope that my intellectual abilities will ever be recognized and appreciated. I want to be remembered for my writing, for my opinions and ways of expressing myself; for my taste in music, or interest in graveyards and old musty books and geology. For any number of things that don’t include how my hair looks, or what film star I resemble, or what I’d be like in bed.

I want to look in the mirror and see a personality, not a body held together by perceptions of it. I know damn fine what will happen if I give in to that fear, and try to starve all the flesh off again, to feel “safe” and untouchable. Recovery from this eating disorder has been balanced between fear of what will happen to me if I don’t gain weight, and what might happen to me if I do. Which is just buying into the same bullshit that a female form = vulnerability. Availability.

So, why should my health be at risk because I’m terrified of looking like – no, being – a woman?
In the end, it’s only me losing out.

I know I don’t live in an adult body that’s grown and changed in its own right. I live in a diminished form of myself (slowly rebuilding), because I changed its course of growth, and subsequently, my future, based on fear of being myself, in as many ways as possible. I sent out a lot of mixed messages, and denied myself experiences. Whether it’s in a professional capacity or sexual advancement – just plain old fantasizing – I’ve felt myself to be “wrong”; that my wants and needs didn’t add up to what was expected of me as a girl/woman.

But if I want to be alone – to recharge my batteries, to read and write, to get on with things – I’m going to do it. Even if that makes me seem cold or aloof. I’m not about to play up to the ‘nice girl’ image, and no, I can’t be there for everyone. No woman should feel she must do all the running-around after people, and likewise, no man should feel he has to bear all of his problems alone, deny himself vulnerability. He should be just as capable of turning to male friends for support and comfort in difficult times, as female. But that’s a story for another blog.

Awareness is just part of recovery, of growing and learning how to be Yourself, without guilt. Without adherence to social/cultural/religious expectations, if these are going to cut off the light shining on as many facets of your personality as possible.

So I’ll post a couple more entries later, about challenging gender stereotypes/gaining equality, because it turns out I had more to say than I’d realised, and this was turning into a mammoth essay.

Cheers for reading.

A helping hand?

Almost two weeks ago, while scrolling through my Twitter feed on a Friday afternoon, I came upon the thought processes of a recently-added friend/follower. The words leapt off the screen and grabbed me. That’s the only way to describe it. I had been keeping an eye on her timeline, watching with growing concern as the images and language became ever more desperate. She had recently undergone an operation, and was in considerable pain; this, and bipolar disorder, made her feel vulnerable and frightened. Though she had support from real-time friends, her use of Twitter as an outlet for thoughts and emotions meant she had gained a network of followers – many of whom are in similar situations with regards to mental health – who were ready and willing, at any time, to talk back.

I must admit, I had little to say at first. When we suddenly arrive into each others lives on social media, it’s like dropping into a chapter midway through a text. Flipping backwards, to move forwards; reading what we can, to gain context. So I stayed silent and still for a bit, watching her tweets scurry through my feed. There didn’t seem much I could do, except offer Favourites by way of acknowledgement / agreement, and the occasional tweet in response to subjects that hit home. Things I could relate to.

That is, until the Friday afternoon when it became clear that her words might progress into actions. Without going into too much detail – a crisis point was hit, one I recognized and remembered all too well. The language, I’d heard it in my own mind once, circling like ravens.
I attempted suicide twice, in 2003. Both times, I “chickened out” – my words, then – and phoned for an ambulance.

(You could say that anorexia nervosa, which I’ve had since age 16, is also a form of slow suicide. It’s the long fall before the drop, but it has the “safety blanket” element of offering security and control to the sufferer. I didn’t want to die, with this illness. I just wanted to be strong. But when holding those packets of pills in my hands, I didn’t want to be here. At all.)

So when scrolling through my friend’s tweets, finding more and more references to death and ending it all and despair, I knew this wasn’t just a “bad day”, or black humour. I’d witnessed the downward trend, as had others who follow her, and we sought to keep her online by tweeting replies wherever and whenever possible. Just to keep her talking, and to offer advice and encouragement. She responded, and – though clearly disorientated and in pain – took the responsibility of asking for professional help. A brave move; she acknowledged to me at a later date (and I can’t tell you how grateful/glad I am that there was such a later date), “I have lots of very good friends. My issue is, and has always been, asking for the help I need.”

Sometimes, the hardest part about seeking help is letting go of the reins.

The Samaritans charity have launched a smart phone Twitter app, the Samaritans Radar, which is designed to alert its users to potential “red flag” tweets that have been gathered by an algorithm, and pushed to the app via words such as “tired of being alone”, “hate myself”, “depressed”, “help me” and “need someone to talk to.” Users receive an email alert, and the app asks whether such tweets are a cause for concern. The charity itself doesn’t get involved directly unless requested.

Reading about it this morning, I offered a cautious thumbs-up. The premise seemed sound. Who wouldn’t want to be alerted to a potential crisis, such as the one I witnessed? I’d rather know about friends’ anxieties, their blue-black moods, and be able to offer help wherever possible. The app comes with guidance on how to deal with potentially fragile situations – advice which, I must say, is fundamental in progressing the public narrative on mental health disorders. There’s always room to learn more, to do away with misconceptions and prejudice. Where better to do so than on social networking sites like Twitter, where the target audience (18-35 years old) spend much of their lives? Many of them, like me, use the platform as an outlet for thoughts and feelings which can’t be offloaded in real-time. Sometimes, that “shouting into the abyss” element is actually positive. I don’t really care if I get a response, though they’re welcome; and I admit, more often than not, my projections are via other’s words, in RTs. I still have a hard time articulating how I feel.

But – the fact is, I’ve chosen to do so, and others have the choice to look, to read, to reply, to ignore.

The app has proven to be divisive, with as many – if not more – Twitter users condemning as applauding it. Through the hashtag #SamaritansRadar, they are voicing their concerns and recommendations to the creators. While some agree that it is a good idea in theory, put into practise it could cause issues with invasions of privacy, the potential for retention of personal data; perhaps more crucially, there is no opt-out function for people having their tweets screened. There is no way of knowing if this is happening, as the app retains the privacy of the user.

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The backlash to this has produced quite a raw response, with Twitter users stating that they would have to lock down their profiles – making them Private – in order to keep projections of thoughts and feelings about mental health, within secure and comfortable boundaries. Considering these are the people who are feeling most vulnerable, it’s not a step forward in terms of social networking.

We all have days when the world is filtered through nightshade, or the white noise upstairs is louder and more disturbing than ever. For many users of social media, the only way to vent is to get the words out via a tweet – or a whole ream of them. In my case, I then sit back, rub my cheek and think “well, for fuck’sake,” and feel a bit better, and get on. Would I want to be offered help/advice? I probably wouldn’t turn it away if well-meaning. But that’s assuming all replies to Twitter users WOULD be well-meaning, which is the point of former Samaritans volunteer Emsy’s blog post: not all followers are followed back. They’re not all trusted friends, and there is the potential for abuse of the app, with stalkers using it to track a tweeter’s darkest moments. Which is a horrendous thought.

“The app itself is called the ‘Radar’ app, and even in the name gives connotations of being watched, being monitored. How likely are you to tweet about your mental health problems if you know some of your followers would be alerted every time you did? Do you know all your followers? Personally? Are they all friends? What if your stalker was a follower? How would you feel knowing your every 3am mental health crisis tweet was being flagged to people who really don’t have your best interests at heart, to put it mildly? In this respect, this app is dangerous. It is terrifying to think that anyone can monitor your tweets, especially the ones that disclose you may be very vulnerable at that time.”

Then there’s the misconception-factor. It’s got quite a scope. What if I, or anyone else for that matter, chose to use humour to detox a bad mood – would hyperbole, satire etc, be recognized by the app? Apparently not. This would be up to the human element on the receiving end, to filter out what was meant, and to act accordingly. Or not. I have a dear friend who blogs regularly, the sort of pitch-dark stuff that caused a former teacher to call him in for a chat about the state of his mental health. Said friend laughed it off – it was his way of venting, via twisting bramble words and noir humour. He’s normally quite a chipper character. What the app is saying to some people, is that to remain inconspicuous, they must smile.

Twitter is itself a microblogging site. Many users choose to divulge information about themselves, and while it could be argued that this is their own responsibility to monitor security levels, the fact is they retain the right to speak freely – without the feeling of being monitored.

If several people are all following each other, and someone is sending out multiple “red flag” tweets, will they then be piled in on by well-meaning but possibly intimidating attention, when in an distressed state? I know I get a little frazzled when several tweets/messages come in at once; trying to reply to them, I often just shut the phone down and go away for some quiet time, completely alone in my head.

Imagine trying to negotiate various tweets/messages from
people you might not even be following back, while trying to offload about things that won’t make it into real-time.

Which is the main fear of many Twitter users now. In putting their words out onto timelines, will there be a constant – silent – analysis? Paranoia is not something to be downplayed, here, or looked upon as a side-effect of the app. It is the very real state of mind for a lot of people, along with feelings of fear, anger, frustration, pain, confusion … numbness. As another friend put it this morning while discussing the app, “For me twitter is somewhere to vent – sometimes all you need is somewhere to be able to say something to get it out of your head and then it is gone. Though I know that’s not the case for everyone.”

This brings me back around to the crisis point of that Friday afternoon. Would I have preferred an app to locate the tweets of a friend which might have gone missing from my feed, given that it is now curated by an algorithm like Facebook? (I’ve noticed tweets going missing, only to appear at later times or to be located on friends’ own timelines.) Would I feel safer, knowing that her tweets could be pushed to me if something like this happened again?

I’d rather be a good friend, and try to keep consistency by checking in on her wellbeing – and that of others I care about – on a daily basis. Not when an app tells me to.

I’d also watch out for a recurring trend of negative thoughts with anyone I am following. While I’d like to think that friends could come to me if they felt they needed to offload, sometimes shouting into thin air is a very pleasant experience. Not everyone wants an intervention; and not everyone I am following, follows me back. It’s a delicate balance between Twittiquette and genuine concern. As I told a dear friend recently, we can only be there for so many people in our lives, on and offline.

It’s worth checking out the #SamaritansRadar trend to get a better idea of the current mood surrounding the app. While I do applaud the charity for its initiative – using social media to encourage people to reach out to each other (let’s face it, we spend much of our lives online) – the conception of the app seems a bit flawed. No opt-out function. Glossing over the fact that tweets in the public domain are still the personal data of the identified tweeter, as specified in data protection expert Jon Baines’ blog:

“A tweet from an identified tweeter is inescapably the personal data of that person, and, if it is, or appears to be, about the person’s physical or mental health, then it is sensitive personal data, afforded a higher level of protection under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). It would appear that Samaritans, as the legal person who determines the purposes for which, and the manner in which, the personal data are processed (i.e. they have produced an app which identifies a tweet on the basis of words, or sequences of words, and push it to another person) are acting as a data controller.”

And perhaps the most damaging: the breach of trust felt by some Twitter users, who are warning followers to identify themselves if they are using the app, so they can be blocked.

A sad state of affairs. Not the Samaritans’ intended outcome, I imagine. Perhaps with a pull-back and review of the app’s production, a resolution might be found – with tweeters encouraged to engage with each other over its use, rather than using it in secret to perpetrate already-present fears.

Updated (05/11/2014) to include: Change.org, petition to shut down the Samaritans radar Twitter app, by Adrian Short (@adrianshort).

Updated (14/11/2014) to include: Samaritans app removed, all data to be deleted.

…”Well, when exactly do you mean?”

Tomorrow, I am going to have a look around a room that will, should I be able to take it, cut my monthly outgoings by £200. This will allow me to do a number of things without feeling guilty, or having to drop something else: afford to eat things outside of the value range, buy the occasional bottle of rum, and keep up with the price hikes of over-the-counter/prescribed medication. My gym membership has, for the past four years of living in this city, remained static – a blessing, since the same can be said for my wage.

Even last year, the freeze didn’t bother me so much. I was still living with my partner, prices were lower. But circumstances change. I didn’t foresee depression and anxiety creeping back in – and thought I’d got off lightly – with the cost of living up, and not much else.

Today, tens of thousands of people have protested in London, Glasgow and Belfast about pay and austerity. My voice is among theirs, if only via tweets. When I first began working with my company in late 2010, the set rate seemed a golden egg; I was well over the basic minimum wage, and able to secure a flat with my then-partner.

Fast forward to late 2014, and I am single, happy to live independently, but currently selling off much of what I own to make ends meet. I’m still over the basic minimum wage, but below the Living one. There’s no place for sentiment when you need to keep the balance up; Ebay and Amazon are my new best friends. Apart from underwear, I haven’t bought any new clothes since last summer. This isn’t such a big deal, as I’d rather spend money supporting independent bookshops, second-hand vinyl stalls, and friends with crafty fingers and book-writing of their own.

I could jack in the gym membership, but for the security it offers. With anorexia nervosa and compulsive exercise disorder for the past fourteen years, I know what my boundaries are, and solitary “formal” exercise is still a stumbling block. I’m currently trying to keep serotonin levels high enough to feel enough like myself to warrant eating, while maintaining “sustainable” levels of activity. I can’t emphasize enough how important that balance is. In terms of therapy, I’d be required to shell out on bus fare to travel the distance to reach the next available psychiatric service specific to needs… which would also entail taking time off work.
The word “liability”, haunts my mind.

I could, as many people in my life have advised since I went back to work in 2005, post-hospital, find a “better” job. But I happen to like where I am. Let no one convince you that cleaning/maintenance is easy. In a police station, when you’re on your own and it’s pissing with rain outside, and the teams have been out on a search for a misper (missing person, to you), and they’re dragging back in all manner of mud and sludge and water… it can feel a bit like pushing a golf ball into a straw. But I get a kick out of it.

My colleagues are friends; more than this. They’re not called the Family for nothing. The midnight humour is often the only thing keeping me afloat, smiling, even if only on the inside. They’re no-nonsense, and accustomed to dealing with mental health issues; I don’t feel any awkwardness, having a chat with someone about the time spent as an inpatient, or long-ago suicidal tendencies. The thought of leaving this security knots up my stomach even more than the idea of having to face a cliquey office environment with faddy diets and gossip. Been there, done that. Nein, danke.

Working alone, I have all the time of a shift to burn off excess energy, stifling the gnawing demon in my head that demands a high-intensity day, while ticking over thoughts on writing, art, music … all the whimsical things that make me who I am.
I’m also spoilt rotten with rum and book tokens, nights out on the town, because they know damn fine what it’s like to work with the thin end of the stick, and collectively go out of their way to give me the chance to experience “normality”, away from mental illness and memories of this. In the last four years, I’ve woken up to the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around me and this eating disorder, and that it’s a very complex kaleidoscope, with plenty of grey. Things you can’t pick up in reading books and articles, watching TV.

But they can’t pay my wages directly. And to be honest, given what they have to put up with on a daily basis, I’ve got the easy job. That’s an obvious statement, but I thought I’d put it out there, in case anyone thought I was square with what these men and women in uniform – in every sector of the emergency services – do for our country.

Each year, the corridors echo that little bit more, the building flakes off more plaster and paint, and lights go out in more offices. The great-awful thing about cleaning in the Nick, is that I never run out of things to do, and take home nothing but knotted muscles and a feeling of satisfaction. I learned from a very good woman in 2005, who saw a kid with stubby hair and stick limbs, and still decided she’d make a decent apprentice for a private-hire cleaning company. It was just the two of us, and I learned as much about hygiene as I did the general upkeep of a building.
For now, my job description would overlap several sectors.

I’ve never looked back. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s work, and crucial to every part of society. Sure, there are some who don’t work up to standards – but as with anything, it’s what you bring to the day (or night.) I happen to be one of the lucky few who is still in full-time employment, given the rise of the zero-hour contract, particularly in this trade. The chances of finding anything remotely like what I have at the moment, are few.

There are many people going through it, across sectors, with some working up to three shifts just to get by, as with the Whitehall cleaners who campaigned this week outside HMRC, for a pay increase to the London Living Wage of £8.80.

“Iolanda said that she leaves her home at 4:30am and lives on the other side of London. She said that she gets back home at 11:30pm and earns £6.31 an hour. ‘I’m trying to do this for me and my friends. It’s too much.'”

I’m only offloading what has been on my mind for quite some time. I bury it, usually, under things that don’t concern me directly. But every now and then, a situation unfolds to drive the message home, that things can’t stay the way they are. I’m rather good at running from responsibilities, and have the ostrich-thing down to an art form. Writing about other worlds, I don’t need to focus on my own.

Until I’m balancing medication against drinks for friends, cosmetics, sanitary items, birthday and Christmas presents.
Until I can’t take a train journey to see family in the south.
Until I can’t take a holiday, because it would mean digging into reserves I don’t have.
Until anorexia prickles its cold little fingers into my head – “do you really need to eat that?” – whenever I look at my weekly collection of shopping receipts.
Until I’m starting to consider quitting the gym, which sets that pale thing in my head shrieking all over again.

With downsizing on the flat / selling off unnecessary items, I will hopefully have accumulated enough cash in the next couple of months, to go and see my family and old school friends. I’ve been promising to do so all year. A change of scene wouldn’t hurt. Maybe, in the new year, a walking holiday?

Let’s not get above ourselves.

Still. I’ll find time to get out and see people more, jumble up the habitual life, which – as secure as it feels – tends to act as an incubator for this bloody thing in my head. I might even be able to pull off a job-hop, if necessary. But I’d rather just get a bit of a wage increase, and stay with the people who make me feel like a person – a team player – rather than a shadow. I’d rather give back to them what I can, in tea ‘n coffee runs when the weather is terrible, and extra hours put in to make the poor old place as comfortable and functional as possible. In my own small way, I make a difference. But in the end, it might not even come down to choice.

Whatever happens, I’ll find a way to concentrate again, with financial and emotional reserves. To sleep, and visit art galleries in London, the theatre, attend gigs; wandering around among the things that colour up my mind. I’ll be able to write, and actually have things to say. Maybe even take up studies with the Open University, to challenge this hive-mind with politics and economics, history – even if it’s just for the additional knowledge to put thoughts and current events into context.

Hope this wasn’t too much of a whinge. I know I’m better off than many, and am grateful to still be well enough to work. But every now and then, I need to put things into perspective, and this is the only place I have to do so. It’s difficult to talk about, and I’ve hashed out enough arguments over work with the people who care (and some who don’t, but feel they have the right to an opinion anyway.) This isn’t the issue – I like the balance of fewer take-home responsibilities / time for writing (mostly), and have more than enough reasons to stay at the Nick while still needed.

But ambitions come with increasing awareness of the world, reflective of improved mental health and experience – they form a push-pull scenario in my head, with the last ties of mental illness. I didn’t expect to still be alive 14 years on, let alone in a position to consider actually grasping dreams in my hands.

Maybe I should race the economic recovery.

This writer’s life (holding a compass)

Who am I, as a writer?
Well, I couldn’t tell you that. I have no deep insight into anything beyond immediate experience – which I suppose you could say is true of many of us, I don’t know, I didn’t research it. I read enough to keep my brain fired and fried by turns, but it’s a constant process of catch-up, after over a decade of mental stagnation. Oh ja, I could tell you about the interior of various mental health institutions, and how it feels to see the lights of an ambulance bracket the walls, and the dialling-down spiral of knowing you have disappointed so many people who care about you, who you care for –

But who wants to read that sort of noir life, back and forth, time and again?

I could tell you about counting calories like grains of sand through the hourglass, and how it feels when your heels crack for pacing; what it means to know your grades are failing because you can’t keep up, juggling mental and physical duress –
That conflict doesn’t leave in a hurry, it’s why I have trouble with employment –

But again, how to spin that line to a sustainable cobweb?

I could tell you about the different types of cat coat, the ticked and the spotted, the swimming breeds, the docile v.s. the gregarious. I could go off on one about the many cat shows attended, with the surprising variety of stalls showcasing craft innovation (kitty alarm clock, anyone?) and the cages filled with pacing, bawling, squeaking, hiding, wide-eye denizens of another world that we’ll never know, because you cannot bottle smoke. Even caught behind the bars, those jungle eyes found me, and I wondered who was the real prisoner.

And I’ll tell you what colour your name is, and how to find it in a song; where to weave it into words that might spill over to poetic enjambment, a river-run of themes, time, love, relief, abandonment, chaotic self-delusion. Write what you know.
Know what you write?

So many little things, spun away into an endless world of tomorrows. So many signals replayed. Refrains. I often watch myself in writing and find a wire-grin: “She’s at it again, look – haven’t we seen that before?”

My short-term memory is shot to shit. Prolonged malnutrition tends to inhibit cognition, even years after some semblance of mental and physical health have been restored. I must read and reread what I know, what I thought I knew, until getting into debates and conversations and finding myself tits-up for details … And trying to write essays and articles, when the facts and the words were tucked safely behind my ears, a tapetum lucidum for the eye, but … What did I really want to say? Why will it not come? What is all of this white noise?

Somehow, the latter has grown louder of late.

As a child, I began and finished many things with incredible speed, usually through a lack of consistency than any kind of real talent. Some skills remain – I can move with the grace of a dancer, but to go en pointe is a skill I shall always lack, after quitting aged nine. That time at least, it was not my fault; an old injury. But such things come back to haunt us, and I have rarely completed anything in full since. My parents learned quickly, not to indulge my whimsical side – it is prone to grabbing onto new interests, passing flights of fancy like the gossamer-silk of a baby spider in flight. But we all must land eventually. Boredom is my lesser enemy; envy is the bete noir, my main failing, turning kind regards to spite and a small-minded pettiness. But I am only stringing myself up, losing time better spent elsewhere, and it is (thankfully) not applicable to everyone. Only those I fear to lose.

University – I quit after nine weeks. I blamed the relapse, the lack of coherency in the course. The truth is, I was afraid, as ever, of change. I bottled it, and let anorexia win, because the timetable was hectic and I was unable to engage in “behaviours”. So it goes that, in a slow process of erosion, I have tried many things over the years, and quit out of higher sense of duty to an illness that lives in my brain, subsidizing a life.

I have lose count of the opportunities walked away from, out of fear and self-destruction. God knows where I might be now, with a little more education and ten years of living something closer to a life, under my well-notched belt. A continuous conflict between what I would like to be, and how to get there (since childhood, this certainly predates the illness), with a short attention span and aversion to rules, but a desperate desire to know the world. To read its features and hear its people, and to stay still long enough to show that I actually give a damn.

But if I can recognize these things, why have I not made changes? Why continue to feed the monster?
When does an illness become a lifestyle?

So if you really want to know why I lack motivation and focus, why I do not put my (not inconsiderable) range of skills – shallow graves that they are – to better use, look no further than this.
I am a Tryer, rarely a Doer. Much of what I actually manage to achieve is down to sheer blind luck, and the kindness of strangers.

So, stumbling from one plus to a negative, one mood and one day to another year… that’s how you’ll find me, in late 2014, with as much focus as Pot Noodles and a chestful of hopes and a headful of fears, and a heart … made for lions. Because, with all of this out of the way, I am still proud. I danced ballet, and it welds steel to your bones, laces pearls into your hair.
I do not stop trying. Not because “they” or “it” will have won, but because I’ve nothing better to do. Incidentally, that is what brought me around to recovery.
There’s your motivational poster for the day.

Now I guess I’d better sleep. I’m supposed to be at work in about an hour. Sometimes, the words won’t wait, and it’s then that I know I’m a writer yet. Holding a compass.

Personal Preference

It seems a simple enough concept, doesn’t it? We avoid what we don’t like, and lean towards what we enjoy; what brings a positive aspect to our lives. Meeting up with friends; choosing food for a meal; picking up a book from the library, to read on the train to work.

OK, with regards to that last one – the job we have may not be the ideal choice, but that’s also a natural part of life. As adults, with responsibilities and an adherence to laws that state we can’t have everything we want, we know that there are times when the boring / painful / difficult choice, is the right one. Sometimes, there is a convoluted path towards the things we enjoy. But overall, especially with regards to the simple things in life, many of us can and do find ways of expressing our freedom of choice. I won’t go into the intricacies of different cultures and religions, here. That’s too much of a grey area for me to handle with any kind of aptness, and besides, it’s not what this blog post is about. I’d only make a hash of it, and inadvertently upset someone. This is a lot of the reason why my blogging, my writing in general, has fallen by the wayside lately; I’m just too afraid to open my mouth, to get the words down, with the freedom of previous years. For all that I sometimes wish to have a good mouth-off about something or another, the fact is I’d probably fudge the facts, having not researched enough. So.

I just get on with what I do know, for now.

Anyway. 8.30pm on Saturday last, saw me standing in the aisles at my local Tesco, desperately trying to strike a balance between cost effectiveness (e.g. How cheap can I go without eating flavoured water?) / a chronic eating disorder (anorexia nervosa) / my mother’s lamentations that I don’t vary my diet enough (I do tend to stick with the same things day in, day out, for the dual purpose of saving cash and staying “safe”, calorie-wise.) So basically, I’m resorting to canned goods over fresh, and anything on the value-side of products … with the added bonus of sticking to healthier options, while trying to introduce variation to a stick-in-the-mud diet, to stay topped up on the vitamins and minerals, and the energy for this blue-arsed fly routine that is life.

I know I’m not the only one forced to make these choices between eating healthily and eating at all – but when you throw an ED into the mix, it all becomes that much more shady. In the end, I threw in the towel, with no small amount of self-disgust, and wrote out a rant on Facebook; a status update which, in retrospect, was highly irresponsible of me, considering I have friends who have been through similar experiences with eating disorders on this platform, and would no doubt dislike having the reminder of it rubbed in their faces on a scroll through their timeline. It went something along the lines of wishing for food pills rather than having to make constant choices about food. I know I’d have been triggered / upset, reading something like this elsewhere. But that’s just me, I can’t speak for everyone.

Walking away from the store, I could only concentrate on how difficult all the decision-making was, and how angry / futile this made me feel. By the next morning, I viewed it with more of a cold dismay – there was more of the illness speaking through me, than has been apparent for quite some time. Or maybe I just choose to notice it now. Whatever the case, the fact remains that there ARE a damn sight more ways I can improve my situation … if I’ve got the guts to go about making actual changes.

I don’t stop to think about things like this too often. Those were the bad old days; now, I prefer to obsess over things like politics, kittens and writing. I’ve narrowed down the types of exercise I actually like to engage in, as opposed to what burns off the most calories. I drink what alcohol is appealing to my taste – a rare concession, but this is Captain Morgan Original Spiced rum we’re talking about, here.

(Mixed with diet coke, it’s the praline green triangles found in Quality Street packs.)

And maybe this has been the problem. My new therapist certainly seems to think so. It is her belief that, in burying my head in other activities over the years, I’ve managed to shutter-down in a comfortable / complacent state of slow progression towards recovery, while not actually addressing the underlying problems. Her point now, is to find out what makes me tick; to help me push against boundaries again, so this Thing will be kicked into touch for good.

One of her aims is something that my landlady happens to advocate, too – “living in the moment.” Well, I always thought I was fairly good at this, since it seems I almost *hear* Time passing these days, and am frantic to get as much done as possible –
Oh.

See?

So, we’re going over my life with a fine-toothed comb, defining what I Want to Do v.s. What I think I Should do. Like stripping woodbine from around an oak tree, we’re gradually pulling away the ingrained tendencies that I thought were personal characteristics – parts of me that I don’t particularly like, with beliefs and ideals that now ring hollow. This is a very destabilizing thing, like the end of a relationship – gazing around, you wonder which items belong to who? Flicking through your iPod, you try to find a song that is not relevant to the partner who has been as much a part of your life as breathing. You wonder if any books on the shelf, will not hold a reminder of them.
You wonder where the parts of yourself that are unequivocally You, have gone off to.

A similar project took place as part of group therapy place on one of the eating disorders wards. We were tasked with rediscovering our true selves – what did we like to do, which might compromise the illness and challenge its place in our lives? What were the activities we engaged in which, on reflection, were not so enjoyable after all, but felt mandatory to existence?
More to the point – who were the people we looked up to, respected, admired? What had our childhood lives focused on, which made us feel secure and happy?

At first, as ever, cloud-shadows made more sound while passing along the carpet, than the people huddled on the circle of chairs. After some prodding, there were the usual expressions of admiration for top athletes, an inclination for high-impact / energetic sports. One staff member – I remember her face and name so well, we nicknamed her The Sergeant – cocked a very deliberate eye at us all.
Nope. You’ve got to try harder than that.

Eventually, we did get some more credible answers from everyone, myself included. The trouble was getting past the guilt that snarls up the throat, when expressing a preference for something that is unconnected to the rigid routines that were at once unique to us when played out as symptoms, and wholly universal in terms of the disordered mindset of self-worth. Speaking to others who have recovered from, or are in recovery from anorexia, I’ve learned that the fear of “punishment” from the voice in the mind, is all too real. It got to the point where, at my lowest state of health, I did not dare write or speak a single bad word against the illness, or complain about how tired / ill I felt, in case It – whatever It was – sought revenge. Exercise and starvation were not a “punishment” for my body and mind – they were there to keep me safe from distracting emotions and thoughts.

Such is the way of the starved mind. Perspective is hard to come by, when wrapped up in tightening wires.

For my part, I defined exercise as fulfilling only in terms of how it made me feel worthy of being alive, with a valid reason to eat. When we broke past that, I finally admitted to an admiration of, and a desire to keep the grace that is synonymous with ballet, rather than how it might rid me of food.

When the question was put to me, Could you engage in a less vigorous activity, which holds the same amount of poise? – I fell silent.

Those who were at the stage of awareness which I live in now, were more open and original with their answers. Artists such as Van Gogh and Bernini were cited as important influences; pastimes that could be classified as being more “sedentary” than “active”, were given as methods of entertainment and relaxation. Listening to them, I found myself at once inspired and repulsed. It took me back to the old journals I have been keeping since age 11; filling each page nestled between the pretty tooled covers with the flux-flow of adolescence. Letters exchanged with classmates are stuck inside, kept safe in their envelopes, along with tablet-sized pictures from an afternoon spent wandering around the old Clay Pits of my home town, under a pewter sky and among dry-rattle grass, with the gang of peers who were my best friends and confidantes. Pressed flowers and leaves; swatches of fur, plucked from barbed wire fences, with identifying scrawls beside. It’s all there – the map of my childhood and teen years, done up in sensory pockets of memory. Needless to say, once I was out of therapy, I asked my mother to bring those journals up on her next visit. Poring over them brought back such a sense of Self – the person I once was – that when I cried, it felt like the release that had been waiting behind my eyes for some time.

But it is not healthy or beneficial, to stay stuck in the past. Had I tried to reclaim that youth without progressing forward, I wouldn’t be at this stage of life now – suddenly aware of new possibilities, new interests which, while influenced by the old, are sure to take me off on a myriad different paths.

There is a balance that must be found between body and mind – I’ve spent too long trying to separate one from the other, believing that I can push through shock, fear, illness and the like, to continue a workout even while dying inside. Such was the case in 2005, when a relative of mine was killed in a road traffic collision; when my mother sent the text, I was standing in the gym changing rooms with trainers laced on my feet, and a painful heart. I lasted all of two minutes on the treadmill, before breaking off in a cold sweat of mingling fear, self-disgust and the inexpressible sorrow of losing a loved one. That I could not finish the workout because of the latter, didn’t occur to me then. I just felt like a failure.
Perspective, huh.

*

I have suddenly woken to the realization that we are, undeniably, halfway through the year. Summer is here. Each time I lift my head from studying an article on my phone, or unplug my ears from whatever’s winding out of the iPod, it is to be hit with something akin to the wide-eyed amazement of a child on its first trip outdoors. Every sense has been triggered anew by what is growing and living outside; things appear refreshed and fulfilled, as though lifting themselves from the pages of a pop-up book. The golden bars of sunlight falling between sepia shadows of woodland, are almost solid; smells which long lay dormant throughout chill winter and muddy spring, now make a harlequin of the air.

I am all the more keenly aware of the kinetic world, for my absence from it for some time. As ever, this obsessive personality has had its way in taking me a bit too far down the road. In researching the wide world – its politics, its economics, its cultures and religions and all the lives that fit in between – I had somehow lost myself along the way. Looking around, I find the myriad tiny changes that have happened without my noticing them – the twins are a bit taller, the days are longer (while slipping quietly back downhill), the woodlands are full of tree shadows and glittering glades. I have missed those routes through the wilder places of the world – such is the way of an independent life spent as a perma-pedestrian, that I tend to walk everywhere to save money, and so spend a lot of time on the cobbled pavements and heavy-tang tarmac. This gets the dull chores and the shopping done … but it is a bit of a snorefest, and my phone holds a ream of worlds, waiting in literature and friendships formed through social media and a meeting of minds.

But in detaching myself all too often from where my body is, I’ve found stagnation when it comes to writing. I don’t know about you, but I can no more set out a scene that is lacking sensory angles, than I could live off a diet of paper and stick-lines. There is only so much we can glean from literature, from the language of others, before there is a need to experience such things for ourselves – to head out under a murderous sky, to know the rise of hair along our arms and the rise-fall of fear and anticipation in the chest, with the low chuckle of thunder. When the faces around us are little more than absent moons, who are we to draw characters from?

Then there is a need to to go outside of our comfort zones, to strike a match of creativity. Forcing the hand to march out line after line of words to fit some count or another, is a futile exercise when there is little emotional context to fall back on. The writing process itself becomes arduous.

In point of fact, this entry began in the stop-start manner that has come to define my writing process over the past few months. Where once the words were as oil over ice or a skein of geese thrumming home, they are now husky, rattling cough of an old man, the tottering steps of a newborn. I think I’ve become too aware of myself in writing, in the way an actress may be struck with stage-fright with the glare of lights in her eyes. In trying to remember her lines, to avoid fucking up, she forgets those lucid moments of presence that were found in front of the mirror and in rehearsals, alone and with others, awake and asleep, when the purest joy was knowing the merest trace of an expression would carry to the farthest members of the audience.

Is it possible to feel claustrophobic inside your own mind, while at the same time locked out of your own soul?

A child is singularly powerful in knowing its own wants and needs, its likes and dislikes. I like to observe this in my landlady’s twins. They are two of the most charming, intelligent and inquisitive children I have ever known, and I have great respect for their mother in raising them towards this yin/yang balance of personalities. While they are very close, they are not obsessed with one another; they can be apart, though prefer to keep within each other’s zones of awareness. But it is a wonderful thing to watch their very different preferences at work.

Winter moon can chase summer sun across the sky forever, and never truly know her face; summer sun may ask for the coolness of that crescent blue, and never really learn to bask in its shade. But still, they are in keeping with one another, and between them they share the world. While one will exert authority in a golden rise of temper and laughter, the other – with a curve of a smile and the quietest wit – will unpick the sibling’s fine points, until they are at odds with each other and in so subtle a manner that you would think a spider makes more noise upon its web.

Night and day, I like to call them. Into everything, and bringing a fresh perspective to each others’ lives through their different observations … and to mine. I had no real interest in children before meeting these two, but they are just small adults in waiting. Sometimes, one will say something to the other – or to the open air, the wide-eye sky – and it will make me stop and stand still, listening to the thrum of my heart and the wavering heat of the day, the lake-heart silt of evening.

I think they are old souls. I intend to learn from them – to become part of the “moment” that their mother speaks of, and my therapist is urging me to engage with by occasionally shutting off from the world, to be quiet and still, to come back from whatever country my mind has travelled to in reading a story or article. To live inside myself, without the distractions of radio and music, literature and technology. Language becomes the sifting of dust motes, the trail of reacting to a shift in the light and the air of a room. The heaviness of buddleia sprays, their thick liquorice smells and buzzing acquaintance of bees, are as chapters to read against a pastel sky.

It is no one else’s fault but mine, that what may begin as a pleasurable experience should turn into an inability to switch off. But switch off I must, from time to time, and disappear to regain that sense of Self; to know the various shades of Time, outside of a quick-scrolling platform of social media and reading material. There’s a need for us all to escape our own heads once in a while, or to be alone inside them. If nothing else, it will save me from any more bruises – a throwback to childhood, when walking home from school with my head in a book, saw me collide with as many lamp posts as brick walls. I’m fairly sure that anyone in possession of a mobile device, has been through this rather embarrassing / painful experience themselves.

So. As it is now a golden Sunday evening, and I have finally completed this overlong entry, I am going to bugger off outside for a walk, sans mobile and iPod. When all is said and done, we have enough responsibilities and expectations on our time, without putting pressure on ourselves to always Be Somewhere, Saying Something. In switching off, we come back refreshed, and with far more to say to the world and the page. We gain experience to fill out the words, and – in taking a step back – can assess the larger picture. All the small efforts of others, their words and actions which are done for our benefit, suddenly make a lot more sense.

Guten abend.