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.

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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

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.

Talking about it

I’m not sure of the etiquette of girl crushes, but I’m pretty sure the best way to go about them isn’t to get all star struck, buy the sex toy and then write about the guest post. Girlonthenet is probably utterly sick of me by now.

But the guest post is really interesting, and it ties in with stuff I’ve written about here before. I contemplated not writing about my views on it, because when someone writes something so beautifully honest and open about their own life, it’s probably best not to try and make it all about you.

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Untitled

I cannot explain how bad things are right now, but I’m going to try. As you’ve probably guessed already, this post isn’t about sex.

A number of bloggers I like and admire have written about the January Blues – that crappy, post-Christmas come down where the whole world seems a little greyer and it’s hard to find much to be joyful about. People have various ways of coping with this: write about it, see friends more often, be grateful for the little things. I should say here that I have been loyal as hell to the #100happydays project – but then, I’ve always had a fairly clear grasp of the little things that make me happy.

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Depressed, but no less horny …

In the post I wrote yesterday there was a quote which said:

Emotionally I feel I can get more stressed out and worked up about little things that aren’t significant.

The quote isn’t in any real context on the site I took it from, so I don’t know whether it’s linked to disability + depression, or just plain depression. But god, I know the feeling.

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Watching ‘The Undateables’ (kind of)

I should’ve known this was going to be a shit week. On Friday night, I left the office and promptly burst into tears because I’d missed a deadline and let the designer down (in my defence, the designer is *hot*). Then, I went to M&S and bought steak, which was the only thing I wanted for dinner – something which only happens when my body is screaming for iron. I got home and my period had started. Obviously.

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#100HappyDays

You might have heard of the #100HappyDays project. As soon as I started doing it, today, friends started popping out of the woodwork saying ‘Ooh, I read about that somewhere. It sounds cool.’ The basic premise is that, for 100 consecutive days you post a picture on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter of something that made you happy that day. If you manage to post all 100 pictures they send you a little book of them at the end, but that’s not really the point. The point is watching out for the little things that make you smile.

God knows I need it at the moment. I’ve blogged enough about depression recently, and what I intend to do to get better. When I first heard about #100HappyDays, I couldn’t really be bothered. But the bright yellow webpage made me happy (yes, seriously) and i realised that actually, I’ve always been pretty good at making sure I have those little moments of happiness in my life – I’ve just lost the ability to focus on them, that’s all.

So yeah, from now on, when I wear bright, lacy matching underwear I’ll be taking pictures (probably not that kind, though). I’ll be buying myself flowers, painting my nails, buying more books and wearing red lipstick. There’ll be photos of it all, but don’t worry if you find the whole thing a little bit too twee – they’ll be confined to my Instagram account.

If you do like the idea though, I’m curious: what are the little things that make you happy?