The Questions We’re Actually Embarrassed to Ask

A week or so ago, I got an email from Marie Claire. One of the articles it linked to was 15 Questions About Sex You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask.

There’s not much about sex I’m embarrassed to ask, and when I canvassed my Twitter followers, it seemed that the same was true for them. The questions we were actually avoiding were about beauty or personal grooming – things that society tells us we’re inherently supposed to know. How to get a genuinely smooth shave. Whether it’s normal for hair removal to be something you have to do to your arse, as well as your cunt. What exactly we’re supposed to do with products recommended by magazines and/or other women.

I’ll hazard a guess it’s not just beauty that we’re ashamed to talk openly about. For me personally, it’s less about grooming and more about health. Why do I occasionally bleed after sex? The muscles down my left side don’t work properly: does that mean if I squeeze my cunt around his cock when we’re fucking he feels it more on one side than the other? And, the one that really bothers me: will I ever be able to have children?

This isn’t just a paranoid fear born out of the anxieties that seem to plague a lot of my generation. Many of us have at least one friend who’s struggled to get pregnant. We share stories of not knowing when the hell our periods are due, not only because we have more important things in life to keep track of, but also because the pill, diet and stress all have a massive impact on our cycles. And to me, it always seems weird to rock up at the doctor’s just because something’s niggling at you at bit: I guess I feel a bit like this. Plus, I’d rather worry about stuff than have my fears confirmed. I know, I know…

It was my beautician who first caused those niggling worries to turn into something more concrete. My hair is dark, and if I don’t get it waxed, you can see it on my top lip. That’s normal, I figure, and so that, and my eyebrows, are just one of those things I regularly have to get sorted, in order to feel like a proper girl.

But as she spread hot wax onto my lip a year or so ago, the beautician said ‘Oh. You’ve got a few hairs on your chin, too. That’s often a sign of PCOS.’

She’s right. It is. Along with growing hairs around your nipples, weight gain (which did happen all of a sudden in my late twenties), and that weight sitting low and all up front, making you look like you’re in the early stages of pregnancy. In the last couple of years, three complete strangers have asked me, out of the blue, when I’m due. Ugh.

It’s not just that I prefer to bury my head in the sand, although there’s an element of that. It’s also that admitting to the above makes me feel less feminine, less attractive, things which are already exacerbated by my disability. PCOS can be controlled, with diet, drugs or surgery. It would make sense to find out for sure if that’s what’s really going on. Instead, I changed my beautician.

‘Could you translate this passage, please?’

December 2001. Two things occupy most of my thoughts:

1) Sex
2) My upcoming Cambridge interview.

The first of those has been bothering me for a couple of years by this point, ever since I learned how to make myself come. My desk has a mini shelf just next to my bed, and for some reason, because it’s low down I pretend my mum can’t see it, or rather, I pretend she can’t see the teetering pile of books on it. The pile that started off as mainly Mills & Boon ‘Blaze’ but now contains a couple of Nancy Friday titles, too – Men in Love and Women on Top, to be precise, because these are the raciest things sold in WH Smith and even though Amazon exists now and they’ll accept my Visa Electron, my mum will ask what I ordered, and I’m not good at lying.

My sexual fantasies are more fluid at this point than they’ve ever been since, with no sexual experience at all to go on – even my first kiss isn’t until January 2002 – and as I read about other people’s kinks I mentally flit from sex with other women, to BDSM, to rape fantasy, to anal. Everything seems possible.

My path through life hasn’t been dictated by my parents. Ever since they took me to look at a private school and I kicked off at the mention of Wednesday afternoons being dedicated to sport, they’ve pretty much left me to my own devices when it comes to studying. I have one frustrating conversation with my mum, when I’m choosing my AS subjects, which goes something like this:

Me: ‘I want to do AS French.’

Her: ‘Are you sure? Why don’t you choose something you’re definitely good at, like Chemistry?’

Me: ‘I’m doing French.’

This conversation could have been motivated by numerous factors. My mum, also a French graduate, never used it once she left university, and therefore doubts its usefulness – I want to point out that she picked children over a career, but I don’t. It could be that I’ve been consistently good at most academic subjects, whereas languages, which require confidence to speak in front of the class, have never been my thing. It could be that she knows I have a hopeless crush on the A-Level French teacher. She’s right about that one – it *is* what’s motivating me. But it pays off. Towards the end of Year 12, I get called to see the Head of Sixth Form.

‘What degree are you thinking of applying for?’ he asks. He’s barely 30, and he looks about 15. I don’t believe for a minute that he knows where my strengths lie.

‘Er, French?’

‘Great,’ comes the response. ‘And have you thought about Oxbridge?’

I haven’t. Oxbridge is for people who’ve dreamt of it all their life. I have Durham in mind. But he talks me round, and I pick Cambridge. My memory is that this is because it’s only 20 miles away and it’s not worth going all the way to Oxford for interview when I’m clearly not going to get in, but this seems ridiculous, looking back.

I remember what I wore, even now. Black trousers, purple fitted jumper with a cute keyhole neckline. We’re specifically asked not to wear suits. I wait outside the interview room and when the candidate before me comes out, she immediately has to knock and go back in, because she’s forgotten her scarf.

Shit, I think, you’ve fucked it. I think they’re looking for perfection, not absent-minded scarf forgetters.

The interview is a disaster. It’s one of the oldest and most prestigious colleges in the university, chosen because my Latin teacher once had a drink with someone who supervises there once in a blue moon. I didn’t go to the open day. I have no idea if it’s right for me.

They’ve made us sit a written exam beforehand, and now I know I don’t stand a chance in hell. I’m interviewing for French and beginner’s Italian, because you have to read two languages, but naively, I’m not for a second expecting questions on the latter.

More fool me. The first thing they do is hand me an A4 piece of paper with an extract from an Italian novel.

‘Could you translate this passage, please?’

I stumble through it. Fuck knows how. I can guess maybe 20% of the words, but the grammar is a mystery. I can’t give them the perfection they’re looking for.

And I’m right about that, in the end. I’m not what *they’re* looking for, but a month later I’m interviewed by a different college where I’m asked bizarrely easy questions like ‘Do you like Rome?’ They make me an offer.

They’re not looking for perfection, I realise, looking back. They’re looking for a spark. Which is a lesson I still have to learn about sex.

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One day I’ll learn to love you

You’re warm, and soft, and curvy. You have good bits, like tits and beautifully shaped fingernails. And today, I hate you.

And do I trust you? Ha, you must be kidding. Why would I trust you when you constantly let me down?

Take this week, for example. Every time I stand up, my left ankle tries to collapse. My right knee is tired of putting up with that shit – I know, because it aches so badly.

We don’t understand each other, you and I. The ankle thing, someone suggested, might be because you don’t like the cold. Oh. I *love* the cold. I didn’t know it caused your muscles to contract, made you tight and inflexible. At night now, that ankle gets a hot water bottle. Does that help? I wish I knew.

I tell my mum what I found out about you, too: that it’s not just that the left leg is shorter, it’s that the hip muscle has yanked it up and won’t let go.

‘What’s the point of knowing that,’ she says, ‘If you’re not going to do anything about it?’

But I don’t want to change you. I want to like you the way you are.

That’s not to say we don’t have good times. We just mainly have them alone. Just after Christmas, we went for a walk, and as usual, we set out later than we should – sundown, it turns out, isn’t at 5 p.m. in early January, it’s at 4. And so we’re under pressure. The walk is flat though, according to the book, so we’ll be fine, right?

I forgot about mud. It coats my boots, means there’s no friction between you and the ground. I force you to swing from branch to branch to get down the first bank, and they snap and you have to clutch and grasp for another. Over and over again. We survive. Just. And I’m proud of us.

There’s more mud, and water that slops over my boots, but we cope. Ultimately, it’s not you that brings the whole endeavour to an abrupt end, it’s me. I have plenty of ridiculous fears, but this one I think, is justified. Staring back at us, from the field which ‘has a stile in the corner diagonally opposite’ are three bulls. Uh uh. No way.

So together we try to scramble back down to the road. And we almost make it. We’re probably three steps from safety when you fail me and I land flat on my back in the mud. I could cry, but there’s no one to see my humiliation. So I forgive you and we set off along the road instead.

We get to a junction. Googlemaps seems to think we’ve gone the wrong way, and then my phone dies. Obviously.

There’s a grim looking hotel and I go in, and ask the guy on reception to call me a cab. And could he check they’ll take cards?

‘There’s a cash point in the petrol station,’ he says. Then: ‘I can’t call it unless you stay here. Sometimes people do runners.’

Yeah, he’s a cunt.

In the petrol station I ask a woman if she’s going the way I need to go. It’s only just over a mile, but it’s dark, I have no torch, no phone and there’s no pavement.

She’s not, but she points in the opposite direction. ‘You can get back that way, too. It’s quicker, and there’s a pavement.’

Thank fuck for that.

We drive home via Sainsbury’s. I want to buy you something nice for tea. I’m proud of you. And it even makes me laugh when, later, in the bath, the bits of twig floating on the surface confuse me until I realise that my hair is bloody full of them from when we were swinging tree to tree.

We’re ok, you and I. We just need to learn to love each other. To trust each other. And maybe, once we’ve done that, we can start to trust other people.

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‘The Theory of Everything’ or ‘Writing Disability’

‘Yeah, she liked it. She thought maybe it glossed over his disease a bit, but yeah, good.’

So said a friend about a friend of hers who’d already seen The Theory of Everything, the film about Stephen Hawking and his first marriage, when I told her I was going to see it at the weekend.

And you know what? I thought it was bloody good.

I think you’d be hard pressed not to like it, if Rom Coms are your thing (although, admittedly, there’s not that much Com). Eddie Redmayne is amazing as Hawking, Felicity Jones is perhaps even better as his wife, and well, it’s set in Cambridge, and when is Cambridge not beautiful? Certainly not when a huge budget has clearly been spent on giving it extra soft lighting and sparkle.

But the motor neurone disease needs that soft lighting and sparkle, right? To make it watchable?

Well, no, I don’t think it does, actually. And that’s exactly where the film triumphs.

If it glosses over the grim reality of the disease, and certainly my friend’s friend was not the only one to think it does, it glosses only over the physical side, not the psychological. Personally, I’m ok with that. I don’t want this post to become a debate about whether the primary purpose of showing more disability in books, films and the media in general is to ensure people with disabilities are sufficiently represented in those areas or to educate the wider population (although I’m happy to discuss this in the comments), but I do know that I don’t think the representation of physical pain/distress tells us much. What it’s important to show is the psychological damage that disability causes – the shame, the frustration, the anger – and without a doubt, The Theory of Everything doesn’t hold back here. It’s in the inability to match finger to thumb (I’ve been there), the inability to eat unassisted, the gradual triumph of the flight of stairs over the able-bodied man.

I don’t have motor neurone disease, or anything remotely that severe. I’ve never been told that my disability will cut my life short. I’m not in permanent, irreversible decline. But I do know what it’s like to watch your body let you down – for years mine steadily overcame its own issues – I was told I might not walk, and then I did, my limp became less pronounced, my left hand ceased to want to ball into a fist at all times – and then all of a sudden, it didn’t. I had hip pain, knee pain – neither of which I’d had before – and I was back in the MRI scanner for the first time in eighteen years. A day at a craft fair bizarrely threw my hips so out of sync I could barely walk. I had frequent neck ache, back ache and indigestion – caused, the physio said, by the fact that my rib cage was likely twisted because my right side was pulling too hard when compensating for my left. But I care less that people understand the physical issues than that they understand how I feel – why I’m scared, why I’m angry, why I’m ashamed. If I’d started life able-bodied? Yeah, I can’t even imagine…

But this isn’t the first thing I’ve watched about Stephen Hawking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s not that nice a guy. Sure, the film is based on his wife’s autobiography, and he left her for his nurse, so she was never going to paint him as a saint, but it’s such a relief to finally see something that shows you that someone can be hellish in spite of their disability, and that the physical difficulties just exacerbate the problems of excess pride, stubbornness and selfishness. I’m so, so tired of seeing disabled people described as role models, ‘inspirational,’ or worst of all ‘cute’ (yes, Channel 4, I’m looking at you) – they’re *people*, and as such they come with a full range of emotions, hopes, dreams, fears and faults.

It’s why, in a way, I think erotica is an interesting genre in which to write disability. i’ve touched briefly before on my belief that the best erotica delves into the psychology of its characters and I think the psychology of disability is fascinating – how do you develop sex positivity, body positivity, healthy relationships, when living in an ableist world that does its best to remind you, often, that you’re not *normal?* Too much focus, at the moment, is put on disability as difference, when really, it’s not – it’s often  just a magnifying glass on the physical insecurities that everyone suffers. As such, it deserves to be written not just for the sake of fair representation but because it highlights universal fears and concerns.

I have two concerns though, when it comes to writing disability, and the first is personal. I’m revising the first draft of my novel at the moment, and there’s no doubt the FMC is pretty much a carbon copy of me. I don’t regret that, because it’s important to me to see physical disability depicted in sex writing for all the reasons I’ve given above, and doubtless she’ll stay disabled right up the final draft, but ultimately I think as you mature as a writer you hope to move away from writing your own issues and insecurities, and I think this is an issue I’ll always be too close to to view it impartially. Nor do I think you have to have experienced disability to write it well. I have no issues with able-bodied people writing disability, provided they do their research properly, just as I hope that ‘cripping up’ (ugh) will never be widely seen as equivalent to ‘blacking up.’

My final concern, and my final point, for that matter, links back to disability as ‘cute.’ It’s not cute. It’s equally not sexy (which isn’t to say disabled people can’t be hot, just that that hotness is about the person, not their disability,) but judging by the way erotic romance is currently portraying mental health issues, you’d never know that. Take Sylvia Day’s Captivated by You as an example (and a longer post on this is coming soon.) The MMC (there’s no way I’m calling him the hero), Gideon Cross, has a history of being abused, and as such, some pretty severe MH problems. Can he be sexy nonetheless? Of course. Is he sexy because he’s ‘damaged?’ No, FFS.

Writing disability isn’t something that needs doing because it’s ‘cool.’ Physical disability and mental health issues aren’t having their fifteen minutes of fame, they’re the reality of the world we live in. We need to stop writing disability as a quirk that makes characters interesting and start writing interesting characters who also have a disability. And please, if you do, spare me the cute…

Monday morning, 2 a.m.

I look at the Sunday bus times and then realise it’s not Sunday at all.

It’s Monday morning. Shit.

I have to stop doing this. I have to stop chasing pleasure, be it sex, wine or an hour of quiet time to myself, at the expense of a good night’s sleep.

But god, it’s a hard habit to break. I’m braless and smudged, damp-eyed from yawning, but my mind still way too active to drift off.

I watch the dark motorway glide past as the coach slides through the night: devoid of life bar the occasional lorry or stretch of floodlit roadworks. This night-owl version of me reminds me of my younger self, writing through the night and pacing the corridor of my uni halls at 6 a.m. waiting for people to surface.

At home I’ll finally look in a mirror and be horrified by my birds-nest hair and tired skin. And then I’ll think, fuck it, he made me feel beautiful. The clock reads 2 a.m., at least, and my chances of being on time for work in the morning are pretty much zero.

I make a cup of tea and take it up to bed with a funsize Twix, because what good is sex if it’s not followed by food? And then I write it down, not the sex, not this time, but the little things that happened afterwards and made me realise I was happy.

It’s not a bad way to start the week.

We need to talk about suicide

On Sunday, a friend and I went to our first jump race meeting of the season. It was the perfect day for it: cool, a bit foggy, dry. We got there slightly late and just made the third race. I’d picked my horse, Sgt. Reckless, but there was something weird going on.

The ground, after two days of solid rain, was shitty, and horses were being pulled from the race left, right and centre. Place betting was abandoned: money was on for the win, or not at all. I’m cautious, so I don’t usually bet that way, but with my original choice no longer an option I stuck some cash on the favourite and hoped I’d make my stake back, at least.

It was pretty clear from early on that I wasn’t going to win, but hey, that’s life. And then, at the last, the horse that was trailing well behind the rest fell, badly – front legs collapsing, body crumpling in on top. I looked away. I can’t bear it when the horses get hurt. I saw them put the screens round on the video and yeah, I got a bit tearful. I really, really hate it when that happens.

Five long, long minutes passed. On the other side of the course, the fancy side, applause broke out. The horse staggered to its feet – just winded, not hurt. I cried more – I’m far from an animal lover but fuck, I’m fond of horses.

Someone explained to me, later in the week, that animals are really bad at handling pain and trauma. If a human breaks an arm or a leg, you put it in plaster and wait for it to heal. The human might be in shock, but they recover from that shock pretty easily. Animals don’t – if an animal goes into shock, it’s hard to save it.

So yeah, we’re resilient. And because we’re resilient, and we think we can cheat death, to an extent, we’re fucking terrified of it. Later the same day, I said, in passing, something along the lines of ‘And if that happens, I may as well top myself.’ I wasn’t being serious. My friend stared long and hard at the cigarette between her fingers. Long enough for the ash to tumble to the ground. ‘I wish you wouldn’t joke about killing yourself,’ she said, quietly.

We’re getting better at being open about depression and anxiety. We’re still fucking awful at talking about suicide. I know it’s not easy – I’d love to say that when friends of mine have been depressed that I’ve been there for them unconditionally, but I know that that’s not true. Because being there for someone with serious mental health issues is really bloody hard.

When I’m depressed, the last thing I want is for everything to become a huge deal. When I mentioned to a real life friend that I was planning to write this post, she asked why I couldn’t talk to her about it instead. She probably wouldn’t be able to give me a response there and then, she said – she’d need time to reflect and give a measured response. Which is great. That is undeniably being a great friend.

But to me, it’s like the ill-fated Samaritans’ Radar. It’s too much. I don’t want my every word on the subject noted and appraised for the likelihood that I’m a risk to myself. When I mentioned the suicide conversation to my therapist yesterday I saw her shuffle her notes, no doubt checking she had my GP’s details – something you have to hand over at the beginning of a course of therapy in case things reach that point. When I mentioned writing this to the boy, he too wasn’t sure it was a great idea.

When I google suicidal ideation (interestingly, people who admit to thinking about suicide aren’t necessarily high risk, but equally, it doesn’t mean that they’re not, as urban myth sometimes maintains) I love that the first thing that pops up is ‘Need help? In the United Kingdom, call 08457 90 90 90.’ That’s exactly where I do want the Samaritans – there if I need them, but not muscling in to find out if I do. I never found out what the key words for the radar were, but my Twitter followers aren’t friends, I don’t want them alerting every time I let off steam. I want to be able to use words like depressionanxiety, suicide, desperate and can’t do this anymore without worrying about what will happen if I do.

Without in any way wishing to suggest that anyone who says they feel suicidal means anything other than that, I think linguistically we don’t have the words to express the desperation associated with depression. I can’t carry on/do this anymore/keep going or I can’t face another day sound very, very much like the words of someone who’s contemplating ending things. They might be, but equally, they might not – there’s just no other easy way to express to people just how shit things feel.

I’m not suicidal at the moment. I know that because in my lowest moments my bed has more appeal than the river, or the railway line. I want to sleep, for a long time. I don’t want to die. But I can’t keep tramping down the desperation that bubbles up periodically inside me – I want to be able to tweet about freely. If people unfollow me, whether because it triggers them or because they’re not interested, that’s fine, but talking about it cannot be taboo.

In therapy for the last couple of weeks, the same theme keeps cropping up. ‘It’s ok to be angry,’ the therapist says, ‘It’s ok to feel hurt. And it’s hard not to lash out when you’re hurting.’ I cry, a lot. ‘I’m so, so sick of hurting the people I love, though,’ I say. ‘I’m the one who’s sick, why do I have to put them through it, too?’ I can’t do it – I can no longer be honest about how low I am with my parents, because I don’t want to see them crumble. Ditto for my friends. My sister. Twitter is a safe space to give voice to the worst of my feelings, to stop them drowning me, and if we accept that it can be helpful for people to use it that way maybe the dialogue will eventually be more helpful for everybody.

I hope so, anyway.

23:30

It’s 23:30 and I’m sat, naked, on the sofa, where I’ve been since he left. It doesn’t sound good, does it? I’m cold, now, but I wasn’t an hour ago – he’s hot in more ways than one – and at half ten I was dripping with a mixture of come, saliva and sweat. So yeah, I’m not as cosy as I could be, but I’m happier than I’ve been for a while.

The worst part isn’t once he’s gone, actually – it’s the ten minutes or so just before he does, when I don’t know what to do with him. Jumping him again is out of the question but I need as much of that physical touch as I can to tide me over until the next time.

We kiss, one last time – him fully clothed again, me not – and I think the cab driver can see us, perhaps. Ah well. He lets himself out and I mean to get up and load the dishwasher but I’m not quite ready to go back to reality just yet. Instead I finish my wine, then the last few mouthfuls of his, and pull the blanket that’s draped over the sofa around me for warmth.

An hour later, I finally, finally drag myself up the stairs. In my bedroom my ‘Let’s make out’ cushion has been tossed to one side, the way it always is whenever there’s been any actual making out going on. I step over my abandoned jeans, pick up my knickers – the ones I wore for all of an hour – and dump them in the laundry basket.

I ache now, a bit – I don’t remember what he did to my arm – whether it was teeth or fingers, but the muscle remembers it, certainly. When I catch sight of myself in the mirror I have what they really mean when they talk about bed head.

It’s a mess, and I don’t know what to do about it. Right now though, I don’t care. Right now I know I’ll sleep better than I have in days.

Love

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I inherited my rolling pin, its pale wood slick with the grease of years of rolling out scones, Eccles cakes, mince pies… Believe it or not, some cookware is meant to be that way: in the same way you’d season a wok, what I had was a baking tool that worked like a dream because of how often it had been used. I ruined it, though: my hands are too hot for pastry and I put it to work rolling sugarpaste instead. A handful of trips through the dishwasher to clean it of food colouring, and it’s as good as new – pale, clean wood that bears no trace of its heritage.

I tend to think I’ve been more shaped by the men in my life than the women. I’m a daddy’s girl par excellence: not only do I go to my father for affection and for advice; I mirror him in personality, too: that desperate desire to please that hides a deep-seated anxiety. Which was why, when I was in therapy a few years back, I astonished both myself and the therapist by bursting into tears when she asked about my maternal grandmother.

She died when I was eighteen, and on my gap year. I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye. I cried, as you do, but it had little concrete impact on my life: we didn’t live that close and I probably only saw her five or so times a year.

I didn’t see her much more often as a child either, but how those visits have stayed with me. These are my most vivid memories of childhood: bingo in the village hall on a Friday night, winning £5 and putting it towards Take That’s Everything Changes album, being allowed to play it, ad infinitum, in the kitchen, while she made dinner. And younger still: being left in the bath, the bathroom door ajar, while the Coronation Street theme tune leaked through from the lounge. A hot water bottle already in bed waiting for me, and a glass of hot milk on the nightstand – a skin forming where I didn’t drink it quick enough. Being tucked in so tightly I could barely breathe, and allowed to pick my bedtime reading material from a huge pile of Woman’s Weekly and Best magazines.

But more than anything, it was the cooking: butterfly cakes, coffee and walnut sponge, sweet and sour pork, rice pudding. She’d stand me on a chair and let me help, and I learnt to bake that way. When my gas hob died recently, my mum urged me to switch it for an induction one instead but I won’t – yes, new pans would be more expensive, but it’s more than that, the smell of a gas flame, the condensation on my kitchen windows – all of those things take me straight back to my grandma’s kitchen.

When she died, my granddad burnt a lot of her stuff in a fit of grief. I’d done well, on paper: my mum paid for her only diamonds to be reset into rings for me, her and my sister, but the only thing I really wanted was her recipe notebook, which went on the fire. I have the next best thing, I guess, the beautifully titled ‘Radiation cookbook’ filled with her notes and cuttings, but it’s not quite the same.

I always mean to put music on while I bake, but somehow I always forget, and I realised the other day that that’s because when I’m baking I can channel that immense love: it makes me feel closer to her, and more than that, to all the women in my family. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but I can find peace in flour, eggs, butter and sugar, almost without exception.

Last week I made a chocolate fudge cake for a bake sale at work – the proper 80s kind that’s all cocoa powder and no real chocolate. I topped it with Smarties, because hey, all the best cakes have Smarties.

I dropped it off at 10. At 11.30 a friend rang. ‘Your cake’s all gone,’ she said, ‘Already.’

‘Yeah, well,’ I said, ‘Everyone loves Smarties.’

That’s not what I was really thinking though. What I was really thinking was ‘Thanks, grandma. I love you.’

PS I owe thanks to two bloggers, Ella Dawson and Floraidh Clement, for the inspiration behind this one. Ella, for her post on what someone said ‘sounded a lot like happiness‘ and Floraidh for reminding me that yes, women are hot, but we love them for their ‘strength, wisdom and talents,’ too. Thanks guys! Also, a reminder that if you haven’t yet voted for your favourite post in my ‘Don’t read clickbait, read this instead’ competition, you can do so here. It’s too close to call currently, so it’s definitely worth doing!

Hell is other people

Another day, another helpful article on the top 10 things you can do to be happier. First things first: I don’t begrudge people sharing this stuff. If it helps you, great – and often there are one or two things in any such list that have worked for me personally. Clinical depression is unlikely to be solved by healthy eating, sunshine and exercise alone, but those things are all beneficial.

There’s actually only one point on the list that I didn’t think was universally true:

2. Connect with people

Our relationships with other people are the most important thing for our happiness. People with strong relationships are happier, healthier and live longer. Our close relationships with family and friends provide love, meaning, support and increase our feelings of self-worth. Our broader social networks bring a sense of belonging. So it’s vital that we take action to strengthen our relationships and make new connections.

Again, if I’d written this a while back, I’d have taken a much harder line. But I’m trying to be less defensive in general. Essentially, I don’t think that when I’m low other people are always beneficial – often I hit rock bottom precisely because I’ve over socialised and I’ve burnt myself out. When I’m in the full grip of constant panic attacks I have nothing to offer socially: socialising isn’t a distraction because I can’t focus on what the other person/people are saying: I need time to re-centre myself, steady my breathing and be present in the moment again. I can’t do that when there are people demanding my attention. But what was interesting was that when I voiced concern about the above on Twitter, a decent number of people replied saying ‘Me too.’

So, here are five points summarising my take on depression/anxiety and social interaction:

1. Not everyone finds socialising easy

Presumably the above means that on average ‘people with strong relationships are happier, healthier and live longer.’ Or perhaps they all are. How do you measure strong relationships anyway? Isn’t that pretty subjective? Either way, this isn’t quite as simple as it looks. Some people live miles from their family, others have problems making friends. I think all of us sit somewhere on the autism spectrum, and for those of us who are worried about that, or worried that they don’t have enough friends, or a partner, or are just plain lonely, being told to spend more time in other people’s company is yet another trigger. Introverts like me, who’ve spent months in therapy battling an inner belief that somehow it’s better to be extrovert, don’t respond well to the prescriptive ‘It’s always best to be around people’ tone of the above: sometimes it is; sometimes you do need space. If you can, try and learn which of the two you need more at any given time.

2. It’s normal that people want you to socialise

It’s hard to recognise it when you’re in the depths of despair, but the people who care about you just want you to get better. They also worry that you’re a risk to yourself, especially if their understanding of depression is limited. It’s natural then that they want you to be around other people: those people can keep an eye on you and make sure you’re not drinking too much/self harming/a danger to yourself. What they don’t always understand is that introverted depressives need that space for proper recovery: being around other people might be a distraction, but it’s an exhausting one and it doesn’t leave me with any resource to care for myself on a more basic level. If you’re worried about someone who’s depressed, check in with them, but respect their boundaries. If you’re depressed, check in with the people who care about you when you can – it means a lot to them.

3. Socialising in the age of social media is fucking hard work

One of the things that puts me off socialising is how flaky people are. The numbers for my thirtieth halved in the weeks running up to it – the only comfort is that I see it happening to other people too, so I guess it’s normal these days. Increasingly I only make plans with friends who I know are reliable – yes, it means the pool of people in my life has shrunk, but the others were contributing more to my anxiety than they were to anything positive. On a similar note, learn if you can to be honest with people about where you’re at: I have friends who I don’t want to cut out of my life completely, but who I just can’t cope with when I’m at my lowest ebb. I still need to learn to be honest with them about that ‘I can’t see you right now, but it’s nothing you’ve done, it’s just where my head’s at,’ rather than the cowardly and upsetting option that I tend to plump for at the moment: ceasing contact for large chunks of time with zero explanation.

4. The social interaction you want won’t necessarily be the social interaction you get

I know what kind of socialising boosts my mood – tea or a glass of wine with a trusted friend; creative activities like baking, writing or craft – more so with strangers than with my friends. I know what kind of socialising kills my mood – big groups of people in the pub, socialising that’s centred entirely around alcohol, house parties where I don’t know many people. Small talk…

The problem is that, in the UK at least, most people’s social lives are dominated by the latter, whether it be drinks with colleagues, weddings, or just a Saturday night out in town. There are many reasons for this, ranging from expense to geography to plain old following the status quo. Probably the most useful thing I’ve learnt in recent years is that it’s ok to turn that stuff down if it’s really not working for you – just make sure you arrange stuff that does work for you with people who make you feel safe, instead.

5. Try not to cut yourself off completely

Linked to the last point, chances are that even if you’re a fully-fledged introvert, you need some level of interaction to function healthily. I know now that I like to be around people, even if I’m not interacting with them – so it’s better for me to go and read in my local Starbuck’s than it is to sit and do it at home. Likewise, last time I had a bad break up, I went home to my parents and returned pretty much to my teenage state for a couple of days: they were around, providing background noise, someone to talk to if I wanted it and most importantly of all, affection, but they didn’t expect anything of me, and if I wanted to sit in my bedroom, listen to music and cry, they let me. I felt better so much quicker than I have done on occasions where I’ve withdrawn completely.

The flip side of this is that I still believe it’s a great idea to learn to be at ease with your own company: at home, in bars, in restaurants, overseas. I’ve lost that, temporarily, and it’s gutting to me, because it’s such a large chunk of what I recognise as me. There’s nothing wrong with doing things alone: last year I travelled alone to New York, where I was meeting friends. In the immigration queue at JFK I started chatting to a woman who was on her own. She’d flown to New York to celebrate her 40th on her own and you know what? I didn’t know why she was alone, whether by choice or circumstance, but I honestly didn’t feel sorry for her. I thought she was brave and admirable for doing what she wanted to do and not needing another person there to do it with her.

Relationships with other people are great, complete isolation is bad. Of those two things I am pretty certain. But dear media, if you’re reading, let’s see a bit of balance around the way we talk about happiness and social interaction. It’s a game of quality, not quantity, and all that really matters is that you work out what works best for you.

For me

When I write about anxiety or depression, I always feel like I must surely have said everything there is to say. Or that if I haven’t, someone else surely has. I don’t ever feel like that when I write about sex. Anyway, for various reasons people have reminded me that I write primarily for me, so even if I have said it before, I’m going to say it again.

As a teen I was emotionally self-indulgent. I was often unhappy, and even more often in floods of tears, but the latter especially felt cathartic. I could come home from a really shitty PE lesson, throw myself on my bed, turn my supercool CD player up loud (it had space for three discs, and rotated them automatically as each album finished) and cry until I felt, well, cried out. There was nothing lonely about the emotions I felt as a teenager: I knew I could cry for as long as I liked, but at the end there would always be hugs from my parents, or intelligent conversation, or dinner on the table. That stability was pretty much all I needed from life.

Looking back, my life has been scattered with depressive episodes. I was first diagnosed at 26, but I’d now blame depression and/or anxiety for my failure to start work on my third year dissertation until a fortnight before it had to be handed in, the endless run ins with my A-Level French teacher, my reluctance to learn to drive, the fact I still can’t ride a bike …

I could go on.

Anyway. In the last year or so, it’s been the anxiety that’s plagued me much more than the depression. Panic attacks have become increasingly frequent, and now that sense that I can’t breathe, the hairs on my arms standing on end, the air around me getting colder and colder, the pins and needles … well, I recognise them for what they are, which takes away some of their power.

Plus, anxiety is so much worse than depression, right? Depression is just, well, sadness. And I can handle sadness (not heartbreak though, that’s different.) Sadness can be fixed with chocolate and wine and hot baths and long walks and time alone. Sadness is like a prompt to take better care of yourself: to eat properly, to get some fresh air, some more sleep.

I almost embrace sadness. I need that reminder to take better care of myself: for some reason it doesn’t come that naturally. When I think about it as an abstract concept, I think about rain on the skylights, about being tucked up in bed, about having an excuse to read all day.

Maybe that is sadness. It’s certainly not depression. Depression is what came back about three weeks ago now. I often do my weekly food shop before therapy, but the supermarket shuts at eight, which leaves me with half an hour to kill before my session. Ironically, in recent weeks the therapist has been explaining to me that lateness is often attributed to not wanting to have the time to think about what you’re going to, about forcing yourself to panic about the journey, rather than the destination.

So I park up (depression definitely has an effect on parallel parking, too – my definition of ‘parallel’ has become more and more loose) and I sit in the car. And I tweet, or I read or I reply to emails. Or I used to. Now, I sit and I feel this crashing sense of despair that things will always be this shit, so what’s the point? What’s the point of anti-depressants or therapy, when life isn’t going to improve? Why won’t everything just stop? Why can’t I just go to bed and stay there?

In that sense, depression scares me much more than anxiety. Anxiety might stop me going to Eroticon, but it doesn’t stop me going to work. Depression gives me a massive case of the fuck-its, and the fuck-its are dangerous. I cry a lot in therapy, which makes the therapist nicer to me than she used to be (plus, we’ve moved to a warmer room – one with red chenille armchairs and an embroidered wall hanging) and I ball Kleenex after Kleenex in my fist. I’m a mess of snot and tears and mascara, and I’m not me.

People don’t understand why depression is tiring, but that’s why. It’s tiring not only because everything seems so pointless, but also because I’m in constant battle with myself. I’m not this person who doesn’t have any determination to achieve stuff: I have a good degree, a good job, some fucking self-respect, for god’s sake. And my ability to give a fuck about any of that stuff has totally gone. Except it hasn’t. I still do give a fuck about it and so I beat myself up: I’m doing a shit job at work, I’m not socialising enough, I’m a lazy cunt. And the more I think and act on those feelings the closer I circle to burn out.

One of the statements on the Anxiety and Depression scale is ‘I can enjoy a good book or radio or TV programme.’ Already my ability to watch TV calmly is shot at: I jump between TV screen, laptop and phone and I piece The Apprentice together bit by bit after the credits have rolled. So far, my ability to focus on reading remains, and with it, my ability to write. Those two matter, and so, apologies if you found this indulgent, but I needed to do it. For me.

PS I’m a bit loathe to recommend good reading on this issue, but if you’re looking for something that goes into the issues in more detail, I found Sally Brampton’s Shoot the Damn Dog to be an excellent read.

Charlie x