A million love songs

‘This track came on and I thought, “That’s not him. That’s not this kid I’ve just seen.”

“About that tape you gave me, what’s on it?”

‘I said, “It’s me…”

‘So I said “That Million Love Songs track, is that you singing?” He went, “Yeah.”

‘But who’s made all the music behind it?’

I said, “I do it all in my bedroom. It’s just me, the whole thing.”‘

Take That, For the Record

I went on a date earlier this week, and a hour or so in, my least favourite question came up.

‘When did your last relationship end?’

What do you say to that, at thirty-one, when you’ve never had a last relationship? 

When it comes to love and relationships, I’m pretty much still a teenager. I have no experience of making an actual relationship work, no knowledge of the compromises it involves or the communication it requires.

I worry about that a lot, as you’ll know if you’re a regular reader. I want children. I want, if I’m honest, to be loved. And although I don’t believe you can rely on someone else to fill the gaps in your self-esteem, but I want, need, someone to prove me wrong about every assumption I’ve made in my life regarding my disability and my spiky personality making me unlovable.

I’m a cynic, but I’m also a diehard romantic.

When I went to see Take That live, for like the hundredth time, in June, I was always intending to follow up with a blog post. I was going to write about the way my affection for the band has changed over the years: twenty-two years ago I would hole up in my room and play the lyrics I loved over and over again, notably the bit at the end of I Can Make It, where Mark Owen croons ‘I bel-ieve we can make love, forevvvver.’

These days when I hear that lyric, it makes me laugh. It makes me think ‘Ow, that would chafe,’ rather than ‘OMG, that’s so *romantic.* In general, many of the early tracks have meant less and less to me as I’ve got older. I still listen to them, for their nostalgic value, but (luckily) they don’t speak to me the way they did when I was a pre-teen.

So these days, I mainly listen to the more upbeat, newer stuff, as do most of my friends. Being a Take That fan is (honestly!) less about having a huge crush on Gary Barlow and more about the cheerfulness of familiar pop music, of something that feels safe, and familiar, and uplifting all at the same time. It’s about one of those rare moments when I go to gigs and am amazed by the way three guys can unite a room full of women.

But A Million Love Songs holds a special place in my heart. Written by Gary when he was sixteen, it smacks of a teenager’s view of love, but it’s lovely nonetheless. Last night, when it came on shuffle, I switched off the lights, sat on the floor with a glass of wine, and thought about what it means to me.

‘Close your eyes but don’t forget 
What you have heard 
A man who’s trying to say three words 
Words that make me scared’

That’s how I feel about the idea of love in a reciprocal, healthy relationship. I want it, but fear that I won’t find it, or that I’ll find it and it’ll all go tits up, properly holds me back.

There’s part of me, too, that feels I missed out. That giddy, childish, carefree early relationships passed me by and that now I have to take it all so much more seriously, because I have so many hopes and dreams invested in it.

Sometimes, that pressure makes me want to run in the opposite direction, to not give any more of myself to potential partners, to avoid hurt by avoiding hope. Sometimes I just need something that lets me be eleven again, with less fear, less worry.

And sometimes, just sometimes, I can make it feel like that’s true.

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On language learning and sex

On Thursday nights, every other week, I teach English to foreign workers. A few weeks back, with the rest of the class absorbed in a pretty basic exercise, I found myself perched on the desk of a Spanish student whose level of English is well above that of the average student in the lower-level group.

‘I thought we talked about this a few weeks ago,’ I said. ‘You were going to try the higher group, remember?’

This particular student is a real sweetheart. We’d talked previously about whether her grammar was good enough for her to move up a level – I was adament she was, her argument to the contrary was that she occasionally makes mistakes with her tenses. Of course, she could stay in the lower group – it doesn’t make a huge difference to me – but the more I thought about it, and I did think about it a lot, on my way home, the following morning, the more I realised that what makes me sad about it is that she’s letting her fear hold her back.

As soon as I decided I wanted to be good at French, I got good, pretty much. In class, at least. On a holiday to Australia aged 16 I took a grammar workbook which I realised later was aimed at university students. There were no explanations or examples, so I worked through it to the best of my ability, only to find that more often than not I was getting the answers wrong and I had no idea why. I couldn’t recognise how far I’d come in a couple of years, only that I wasn’t yet where I wanted to be.

And I made my life, and a lot of other people’s, an absolute misery.

For two years running, my best friend won the end-of-year French prize and it seemed so bloody unfair, even though, looking back, I can see exactly why that was the case. She was a meek, obedient, disciplined student, good across all four skills, while I, despite being the one with the offer of a place at Oxbridge and the one who spent all her free periods reading French novels, applied myself only to the things I was comfortable with, namely Reading, Writing and Listening. Not speaking. God, no.

It wasn’t all my fault. I had a filthy temper, which I could now tell you was born of anxiety, but at the time I, and everyone else, just assumed meant I was a stroppy, difficult bitch. My French teacher, with whom I thought I was desperately in love, believed that speaking skills were improved by filming class discussion or debating activities and then playing them back to us, so we could identify our errors. I know a bit about language teaching now, and it’s not a terrible method, but his major failing was not recognising just how much it didn’t work for me, and mixing it up a bit.

We had an agreement: I knew that what bothered me was seeing myself move on camera; the jerky movements that to me screamed ‘disability,’ so I sat out of shot. You could hear me, but not see me. And still I hated it. It made me cry, it made me shout, it made me anxious as fuck in the run up to lessons where I knew we’d be being filmed. I know now that disability has coloured my views about every aspect of my body – I don’t like seeing myself move, hearing my voice, still photos that I can’t control … the list goes on. I wish I’d been able to tell him that calmly.

I owe the change to my Cambridge interviewer, who recognised I was too young and too lacking in confidence to be able to handle the challenge of a Cambridge degree straight after leaving school. My gap year was obligatory. Learning to speak French was not. Not for them, at least, but my mum wouldn’t let me get away with just working my summer call centre job for another year.

And, to cut a long story short, in a bakery in Switzerland I really learned to speak French. I doubt, even when I was pretty much fluent, that I was ever grammatically perfect. But I was revelling in the language, really enjoying it in a well rounded manner for the first time ever. I got a job abroad because they needed someone to speak English with the tourists: I spent most of the Winter letting the Brits struggle on in pidgin French before switching to English once they’d reached maximum fluster.

I was so immersed in the language that when things went wrong ‘Putain!” was more instinctive than ‘Fuck!’ I delighted in the fact that the French for ‘pussy’ is ‘chatte’ and that I could drive my boss crazy by answering with a slangy, drawn-out ‘Ouais,’ rather than the crisp and polite ‘Oui, Madame’ that she expected. All stuff that I picked up by just throwing myself into the language, and not overthinking it.

I’d love to say that that was the last time I feared throwing myself in at the deep end, but of course, it wasn’t. I never worked in Italy, or found an equivalent way to immerse myself in the Italian language and as a result the Italian I picked up during my degree has pretty much wilted and died. And I certainly haven’t lost that fear when it comes to sex – even when I’m doing something I love, like giving head, I still worry that my technique could be better. There’s a balance to be achieved here somewhere: if I love the act despite my worries I’m not letting it hold me back. And technique, like grammar, has a place in sex, certainly, which is why I’m always sorely tempted to go and do this.

The girl that I teach moved herself into the higher group after we had that chat. I’m pleased for her, because I think she’ll be having more fun. And fuck, just like sex, when language is fun, it’s *really* fun.

To read more Wicked Wednesday, click below.

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*I realised halfway through this, that it’s kind of an extension of/development of the thoughts behind this post. That’s ok though, right?

An uneasy relationship with my blanket fort

I love my bed. I don’t iron my bedlinen, instead I use jersey cotton, which feels just like your comfiest T-shirt, in Summer, and flannel in Winter. Both create a snuggly, inviting heaven. I have the perfect number of pillows, books all over the place, and I sleep naked. I know how to make my bed somewhere I want to be.

And for the most part, I do want to be there. I go to bed too late, but I don’t struggle with insomnia once I’m in. I hit snooze again and again in the mornings. I lie in at weekends and I’ll take a two hour journey home in the early hours if it means I can sleep under my own duvet.

But depression and anxiety have made my relationship with it a little more complex. There’s lots of great writing out there about the impact of depression and associated medication on sex – Jilly Boyd and The Shingle Beach are both worth reading on the subject – and I’m not sure I can add anything else useful to the discussion, even if the Fluoxetine has undoubtedly diminished both my desire for and my ability to orgasm.

What I can tell you is that, when your bed becomes the place you retreat from the world, a place where you go when you’re at your absolute lowest, it makes it harder to also keep it somewhere you want to make yourself come. The blanket fort is a curse as much as it is a blessing – yes, I can go to bed at 20:40 on a weeknight and the softness of the sheets and the sheer relief at not having to face another minute of the day will make me feel better, but that comfort is short-lived. By 1 a.m. I’m invariably awake again. My body thinks it’s morning and the anxiety cranks back up as I lie there in damp sheets and try desperately to find a cool spot with my feet and to persuade my mind – still too sleepy and distracted to focus on anything useful like reading – to drift back off. It takes at least an hour, and when the alarm goes off in the morning, I’m no more rested than when I went to bed, despite having laid there for pretty much twelve hours.

The first time I was diagnosed with depression I read Sally Brampton’s Shoot the Damn Dog, which I would highly recommend to anyone suffering with mental health issues. I seem to remember her talking about spending her lowest points not in bed, but sitting on the bedroom floor, in the gap between bed and wardrobe. That makes sense to me: it smacks of lack of self care, for one thing (I’ve been known to come home from work, sit on the sofa in my coat and stare at a blank TV screen as the night plunges the room into darkness; on other occasions I cried hysterically while supporting myself against a doorframe. I wrote this, loosely inspired by that time.) But also, it captures the rapidness with which depression can side swipe you and the need to reduce the world to the smallest possible area when it does, in order to be able to breathe. If I get as far as my bed when I feel that shit, in some ways I’m doing well. But it doesn’t feel that way when I get up for work the following morning having spent nearly all my free time horizontal. At that point it feels like a failure.

Disabled characters: who do I really write them for?

A few months ago, I tweeted about the huge disparity in follower numbers between the @EverydaySexism and @EverydayAbleism Twitter accounts. And somebody random came back to me and said something like ‘Well, there are lots more women than there are disabled people.’

I accept that that’s true to an extent, but probably less so than you imagine. Factor in all the people with invisible disabilities, who tend to get ignored, and I bet the number shoots right up. Plus, it’s a pretty fucking limited view of who can care about these issues, isn’t it? Only women give a damn about sexism and only disabled people fight against ableism. And yeah, sometimes it feels like that. Which is a good enough reason, in my book, to pepper my erotica with my own experiences of disability. So that other people, able-bodied or otherwise, get it. That they see the challenges, the unexpected triggers, the psychological battles. I’d like to say ‘so they see that disability can be hot,’ but if I’m being totally honest, I often don’t care whether readers think what I write is hot or not – I just desperately want to share my own experiences.

I’m currently writing a short story featuring a disabled female character, with the intention of submitting it to an anthology. The character in question is freaked out by a physical challenge that would seem relatively insignificant to anyone able-bodied, but it’s a big deal to her. In this particular case, she overcomes her fear, but I don’t want that to be the narrative of every story about disability that I write. It’s just not realistic. But my biggest problem with this story is that she overcomes the fear with the help of a man, she doesn’t manage it all by herself. And in today’s climate of sex-positive, strong women, that feels like a failing.

The pressure I feel to write strong women, a pressure that causes writer’s block like nothing else, is equally applicable to characters with disabilities. In the story I’ve just had published in the For Book’s Sake anthology Tongue in Cheek, the (able-bodied) FMC cries during sex:

He’s losing me, and he knows it. Neither of us can gain enough purchase here on the cushions for him to up the tempo of his thrusts and re-centre me in the moment. So he takes me upstairs, and we fuck like we’re fucking, not kissing, and I give up the pretence completely and start to cry.

Until recently, I’d have found it hard to write a disabled character who cried during sex and not feel like I was perpetuating myths about disabled people being weak. But the truth is, if we write disabled people who are all happy and cool about their disabilities, who’ve dealt with all their issues, and are basically disabled only in a physical sense, we’re doing people who identify as disabled a massive disservice. I think the able-bodied world is often guilty of holding up as role models disabled people who’ve achieved way more than the majority of us could ever hope to – Paralympic athletes for example. While I find what they do hugely impressive, I can’t relate. Partly, it’s about finding it easier to relate to people whose condition is very similar to my own and whose strengths are similar too (Conservative MP Robert Halfon, for example, who mouths off about anything he feels strongly about). But it’s also about feeling immense pressure to be above average – I’ve done it in some areas of my life, and it frustrates me hugely that my body prevents me achieving what I’d like to physically. I want to write erotica that shows it’s ok to be weak, to be scared, to be angry. Because I think those are universal emotions – felt by able-bodied people as much as disabled people, men as much as women.

But universal though the emotions I’m writing may be, the writer’s block on the novel continues. Weak, scared and angry might be ok in a 3k short, but they’re pretty relentless in a full length piece. When I posted an extract on here, I got detailed feedback from several people who I like and whose opinion I trust. One pointed out that the female lead was clearly me, and that that was a risk – no one expects to get 100% positive feedback on a novel and I’d have to be prepared for readers to potentially criticise or dislike a character who is a barely veiled version of myself. And because she’s a barely veiled version of me, she spends the majority of the novel beating herself up. I’m not always sure I like her: how can I possibly expect readers to?

Perhaps readers won’t like her, but if the novel does get published, it should be a pretty good sign that some, at least, do. All my hang-ups when it comes to writing are not caused by other people’s opinions. They’re caused by my own. *I* worry that to turn to a man for support when I’m scared makes me weak. *I* worry that a heroine with a disability that she hasn’t fully come to terms with can never be sexy.

I write to make disability less scary. I write to reduce the stigma that surrounds it. I write to show that you can be disabled and still be sexy.

But right now, it’s not readers I’m trying to convince. It’s myself.

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.

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

On connecting and loneliness

If you only read for the hot posts, look away now.

When I set this blog up, I had no idea what it would turn into. My Twitter bio quite clearly says that I write about ‘sex and disability,’ but whenever I do, I feel slightly guilty, like I’m somehow letting down my readers. I lose followers, too. But I fully buy the argument that you should blog first and foremost for yourself, so this post, as you might expect of one written at 4am, is really a post for me. To help me make sense of things.

I have a friend who also has a medical issue that dates back to birth. In the last 5 years or so, she’s on occasion expressed frustration with doctors, saying that they never really understood her condition so what’s the point of expecting them to find long term solutions to pain and other problems that flare up. My answer has always been that things have changed since the early 80s. Doctors *do* have knowledge and solutions now that they didn’t have then.

What I didn’t realise was that that applies to me too. Naively, I thought that because I have a condition that affects 1 in a 1000, it was common enough that doctors understood it inside out, and always had.

That, of course, is not true. And it’s frustrating, given that I last saw a consultant at the age of ten. Since then, my only contact with medical professionals around the whole issue has been when something flares up. Knee and hip pain might get me referred for an MRI. It might get me onto a waiting list for a handful of sessions of NHS physio. I no longer get to talk to specialists about it.

Which means that occasionally, I stick whatever symptoms I’m having into google with ‘+ hemiplegia’ tacked on the end. ‘Depression + hemiplegia,’ ‘Anxiety + hemiplegia,’ that kind of thing. And HemiHelp, which is what that link above leads to, is a massively useful source of information.

Last night, I was talking to someone about why I feel so low, or, more specifically, why I feel so lonely. Part of the problem is that I feel like I don’t know how to connect with people – I have problems with small talk, bonding on a superficial level and making new friends. Sometimes, I said, it feels like I might be borderline autistic.

Well, she said, perhaps that’s true. Have you looked it up? So I did. And here’s what came back:

The answers to ‘does your child have associated conditions?’ were as individual as the children themselves. ‘Yes’ is the short answer, for 69% of parents. A majority of parents said that in addition to the visible physical effects of their hemiplegia, 67% of their children have learning difficulties, while 42% have epilepsy, 40% have visual impairments and 34% have speech impairments. Autistic Spectrum Disorder was also reported by a significant minority of parents (14%). Even more parents (86%) told us about other associated difficulties, with the main problem being irritability (61%). This is followed by attention span (59%), anxiety (55%), visio-spatial issues (50%), maths (49%), obsessiveness (44%) and reading (38%) (Parents’ survey: the findings. http://www.hemihelp.org.uk)

Ah. Suffice to say I think I have a fair few of those issues. Irritability? Definitely. Obsessiveness? Yes, that seems fairly accurate too. And the Visio-spatial issues and maths problems are also relevant.

So perhaps that’s why I have problems connecting. Perhaps that’s why I’m bossy, self-absorbed, selfish, and bad at friendship. It’s not a get out of jail card, but it helps to know there might be a reason for it.

Comparison is the thief of joy

Juniper, at The Cut of my Jib, makes me laugh. We were chatting yesterday and she sent me a message with this quote:

Comparison is the thief of joy.

‘That’s from Mumsnet,’ she explained, which was what amused me. I love the idea of her sitting there trawling Mumsnet for the perfect motivational quote. The original, according to the internet, is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. Hmmm… somehow Mumsnet actually seems a more probable source. Anyway, more on this later.

I woke up this morning with a sense of shame similar to that I feel when I wake up and *know* that I sent a whole bunch of ill-advised drunk texts the night before. And yet last night I drank less than half a glass of wine. What did I do?

I tweeted about being blindsided by depression.

For someone who overshares about her sex life on the Internet, I feel way more uneasy about talking about my mental health in this way. ‘Look at me!’ it seems to scream. ‘I’m sad! Love me! Love me! Love me!’

So why do I do it?

Because late at night, when you’re alone and it feels like no one quite gets it, it’s easier to share with a faceless crowd on Twitter than it is to tell a real person. Imagine I’d phoned my mum at gone midnight and said ‘Mum, I can’t stop crying. I’m terrified about the future. I don’t know how much longer I can carry on like this.’ What good does that do? All that means is that two people lie awake worrying, rather than just one.

But when I wake up the following morning, it makes me cringe. Telling complete strangers that you’re sitting, shaking, in floods of tears? How pathetic. And that, broadly, is how I feel about my mental health more widely.

I was brought up to believe that mental health issues were something that happened to other people. Other *weak* people. At dinner, when I was a teenager, my mum would occasionally mention a friend of hers: ‘P’s just been put on Prozac again. Seems like everyone’s on it these days, doesn’t it?’ The disapproval was clear.

By the time I was first diagnosed with depression, Prozac was out of fashion. Citalopram was, and still is, the antidepressant of choice. I didn’t start taking it without a fight – my mum’s disapproval was still ringing in my ears – and I’ve never told my parents about the 18 months I spent on it, despite ultimately being honest about therapy.

It felt like a failure.

A lot of what you read about depression tells you that sufferers don’t talk about their feelings, that they suffer in silence, withdrawing, cutting themselves off from the world. I can’t even do that bit right: I’m a noisy, hysterical, selfish depressive – ask me how I feel and there’s every chance I *will* tell you just how shit everything is, that I’ll cry, that I’ll make you so uncomfortable you’ll wish you’d never asked. Most people suffering from depression lose weight. Not me. I stop eating meals, sure, but the food, the fatty, unbalanced, unsatisfying food, continues to pass my lips. Too often.

I’m a failure.

I mean, I’m not, obviously. I have a job that I quite like and that I’m quite good at. I have a handful of friends I see regularly. I’m fucking a guy that I both like and fancy. My family love me. But even though I *know* those things (and I never forget them), in the dead of night, or on an idle Sunday afternoon, they sometimes cease to be true. It feels like no one cares, like I don’t matter, like I’ll never, ever love or be loved.

Of course, everyone else’s life is perfect. That guy my friend’s fucking? Well, he’ll probably fall in love with her and they’ll spend every weekend doing romantic, exciting stuff together and I’ll never see her. (Did I mention I’m
a bitch, as well as being ill?) My other friends live too far away, we’ll drift apart, lose touch. My parents? Well, you can see where that one’s going…

But essentially, this is where Juniper’s quote (hey, Teddy, was that your quote? Forget it, it’s Juniper’s now) comes back in. When I’m low, what makes that low spiral lower still is comparing myself to other people.

It feels like everyone else has plans, exciting plans, every single weekend. Never mind that I’ve already used up my holiday allowance for the year doing fun stuff, never mind that I no sooner get paid than I spunk my salary up the wall doing all kinds of interesting stuff, it still feels like I’m doing it wrong, and everyone else is doing it right. Of course, the boyfriend on the arm in the Facebook pictures doesn’t help…

But it isn’t that, is it, really? I’ve been single and content before now. Friends have had partners who’ve come and gone, and we haven’t lost touch. I’ve been *happy* now and then. No, the problem is that I’m sick…

But sick isn’t a comfort either. People deal with depression in different ways, some better than others, but even I don’t know if I’d rather you told me everything will be ok in the end, or whether you treated me like I’m the same as I ever was.

Last night, I cried until the early hours. I went to bed shattered and burnt out. I woke up this morning feeling much like the sky looks after a storm – my skin was puffy and pale and my stomach was still churning with anxiety, but the worst had passed. My sharp edges felt blunted, as though I were a softer, more approachable version of my usual self. I’m sure a few people will breathe a sigh of relief, reading that.

But I’m not me when I’m sick. I don’t recognise myself. Yes, I have sharp edges, yes I’m a handful. But I’m me. And I have sass.

I want my sass back.

Stop the ride … I want to get off

There’s a ride at EuroDisney called Star Tours – a Star Wars themed flight simulator, designed to make you feel like you’re on an out-of-control spaceship.

Aged 8, I did not like Star Tours. No sooner had I fastened my seatbelt than I got the feeling in the pit of my stomach that I really wasn’t going to enjoy the next five minutes. I nudged my dad.

‘Dad, I want to get off.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t get off. Look, nobody else is being silly and panicking like you are.’

Just at that moment, the doors slid open and three Japanese tourists stood up and left. The doors slid shut again, leaving me even more panicked than before.

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