Him before me: my thoughts on ‘Me Before You’

*contains spoilers*

It could be a coincidence. It could be merely fluke that three weeks ago I walked into a cinema showing Me Before You relatively relaxed, calm and at ease with myself and left it shattered and tearful; descending within days into a depression so sudden and severe I’m still struggling to drag myself out of bed in the morning; my desire to live completely sapped.

I should clarify: I don’t blame Jojo Moyes’ now world-famous story for my recent mental health crisis. I do blame it for forcing me to confront hard truths about how I see disability and love, in a way that I’m not wholly comfortable with a book about disability written by an able-bodied author doing.

When I spoke at Eroticon back in May, I said that I didn’t think writing disability should be the preserve of the disabled, and I think I still agree with that. I also read out this quote, from Susie Day: “If yours is the first time a reader has met a fictional someone “like them”, it’s almost inevitable that you will disappoint.” And oh my, how Me Before You  has disappointed the disabled community.

The conversation around the book has been too lengthy and too nuanced for me to replicate all of the arguments here. At the risk of massively oversimplifying, most of the backlash has come from the fact that Will, the book’s protagonist, tells his carer, Lou, to ‘Live Boldly,’ just before he travels to Dignitas to end his own life. The implication? That ‘living boldly’ is something only the able-bodied are entitled to. If you are interested in the various commentary from the disabled community, Kim Sauder has an excellent round-up post here.

I recognise why the book is problematic based on the above, and yet, at my lowest, I fall very much into the ‘some people actually feel that way,’ camp, which, you know what? Makes me feel guilty as fuck.

I’m a firm believer that the relationship between how you feel about your body and your level of (dis)ability is not linear. That is to say: there will be some people who are para- or quadriplegic and feel every day that life is worth living, just as there will be some of us who, in comparison, look essentially ablebodied, but struggle hugely to accept our bodies the way they are.

So going in to Me Before You, knowing in advance how it ended (thanks, mum!), I thought I’d be able to handle it. I thought I was personally far more able to deal with the reaction to disability that I share than I would be with a plot line that essentially saw a man whose condition left him suicidal saved by the love of a good woman.

Oh, how wrong was I?

Books are funny things. Stories are strange. In real life, we want to believe we’re rational, sophisticated creatures who won’t be satisfied with a trite, neat little ending that goes against how we see things play out in the real world (or I do, anyway). And yet, when it comes down to it, a book which doesn’t follow the conventions laid down over centuries of literature can be strangely unsettling. When I said I was planning on ending my own novel, which is about a relationship between two people who are clearly terrible for each other, with the woman leaving and realising that she’s just fine on her own, someone in my writing group warned (rightly, I think): ‘People are going to be disappointed, you know. They’re going to expect a happily ever after.’

I scorn the happily ever after. Or, more accurately, it makes me uneasy. Do I think #liveboldly should be confined to the ablebodied? No, but that’s easy for me to say, when I’m fundamentally independent despite my disability: I live alone, I travel, I drive, I work. Do I think #happilyeverafter, in a romantic sense, is the preserve of the able? I’m afraid I do, yes. I don’t expect to find someone who’ll love me in spite of the disability.

So I needed Me Before You to tell me otherwise. I needed it, there in that popcorn-scented, slightly grubby Vue, to promise that I could find love, and not only that I could find it, but that it would be enough for me to forgive myself, to find peace. And it let me down.

Will finds love. He falls in love with Lou. Lou falls in love with him. But for Will, it’s not quite enough: it’s not the powerful, executive, highly-sexed, action-sport-heavy life he led before the accident that caused his quadriplegia, and he picks the assisted-suicide route anyway. It broke my heart.

What did I want Me Before You to be, on a personal level? Did I want it to represent me, and the way I see the world? I don’t know. Maybe. But I think more than that, I wanted it to lie to me. I wanted it to tell me that love could save me. Because unless he’s out there, and he can love me first, how the hell am I supposed to do the same?

 

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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.

Wicked Wednesday: Crumpled

She’s lying in the surf, unexpectedly. Or perhaps not so unexpectedly.

This has happened many times before. One minute, she’s negotiating her way across steeply banked rocks into the shallows, the next she’s an untidy heap in the water. Usually, it’s a particularly vicious wave that takes her down; today a small child on an inflatable has crashed into her legs and toppled her.

And the whole time, he’s standing there, watching.

It’s moved fast. They’ve only been together three months, and the holiday’s been planned for two. Summer was a bad time for it to start – she’s more vulnerable from June to September.

It sounds ridiculous when she thinks of it that way, but it’s true. On their first date, he suggested a walk. She was glad he saw that as an option, but fuck, she agonised over shoes for hours. Flat sandals make her tired, and wedges are too much of a risk. Trainers would make the most sense, but she knows they do her no favours. She’s seen people who’ve never batted an eyelid when she’s wearing sturdy boots look down curiously when she’s wearing trainers. They make her ankle lazy. She wears the wedges. She’s nothing if not stubborn.

On the beach, he helps her up; holds her hand as they move into deeper water. She wishes she could tell him some of this stuff.

Every time she falls, she tries to think of crumpled things that she loves. There are lots. Slept-in beds, still warm. The Sunday papers, read from cover to cover over a lazy breakfast, or a few days later, screwed up tighter and nestled into a pile of kindling, waiting for someone to strike a match. Sweet wrappers. A surprise £20 note in the pocket of her jeans. Crunchy, orange leaves in autumn.

The holiday ends, as does the summer. Shortly after, he moves in, and adds new crumpledness to her life. His shirts on the ironing pile. Condoms wrapped in screwed up tissue in the bathroom bin. And a receipt that she finds in the hallway one morning when she’s tidying. There’s something written on the back, and she flattens it carefully so she can make out the words. In his sloping, squished up handwriting, he has written

Will you marry me?

Marry me?

I love you.

Any of those would do.

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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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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!

Shoop Shoop

Sometimes, conversations on Twitter rumble on in the background for so long, I forget what the original point was. This was one such conversation and I had to actually go back and retrace it to its roots. Turns out I started it. Colin Firth: would he be good in bed?

Most of Twitter said no. ‘He’d take it *way* too seriously, ‘ seemed to be the most common concern. And from there it spiralled into a conversation about what makes us assume a man will be good in bed. Dancing appeared on the list, as did ‘quiet confidence.’ But kissing? Kissing came up again and again and again.

I make no secret of the fact that that’s a long held belief of mine. Potential partners have lived and died (not literally) by their kiss.

Way back when I was seventeen or so, there was a guy in a nightclub. He may well not have been attractive, but the Smirnoff Ice  had been flowing and when he approached me on the dance floor it didn’t take much to persuade me to snog him.

‘Who was that guy?’ one friend asked, as we stumbled home. ‘He looked like he’d fallen from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.’

Harsh.

But fuck me, he could kiss.

I think he was only the second guy I’d ever kissed, in fact. He was the first to show me that good kissing (and ok, ok, a well-placed thigh between my legs) can make me wet faster than anything else. Kissing makes me want to both rush headlong into full on sex and delay full on sex for as long as possible so that we can just keep on kissing.

Cher had it wrong, sadly. You can’t tell if he loves you so from his kiss – like it or not, that is in the way he acts. God knows good kissers can make you feel like it’s love, though: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to friends, ‘But how can he kiss like that and not *mean it?*’

With sex, I think if you asked me to rank positions by preference, I could do it pretty easily. Missionary, WoT, Doggy. If you asked me to list my preferences regarding kissing, I’d struggle. Those butterfly-soft kisses all over my face when his cock is deep inside me? The ones that are so punishing they bruise? The first one of the evening, when, for a few moments at least, I get to stop worrying about when I’ll next see him and just get to enjoy it?

How on earth could you ever choose between any of those?

On the four words it’s really hard to hear…

The Internet is filled with thousands and thousands of posts about casual sex, friends with benefits, fuck buddies, sex friends – whatever you want to call them. Most of them, or the ones written by people who aren’t sex bloggers and therefore have a tendency to be somewhat less sex positive than you might hope, take a cautionary line, especially if they’re aimed at women. Have casual sex if you must, with the same person multiple times if you’re *really* *really* sure you can handle that, but essentially, be aware that heartbreak is inevitable.

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about casual sex for a while – largely with reference to Bryony Gordon’s book The Wrong Knickers where she said that no woman really enjoys casual sex. I haven’t read it in full yet, so that post will have to wait, but I do, as you’ll know if you read this blog regularly, have plenty to say on the subject of friends with benefits.

I’m trying to be a bit more upbeat about my current life choices than I was in the early days of the blog, which in practice means I try and write fewer posts beating myself up for caring about him and berating him for not doing the decent thing and ending things for me. That’s what happens in public, anyway…

But truth be told, no matter how many sex positive blog posts I write, no matter how much I love the bruises, the kissing, the fucking, the having my comfort zone constantly challenged, the reality is that, for me at least, a long term friends with benefits arrangement is emotionally bloody hard work.

I care about him. A lot. Certainly a lot more than I should. And I’m not good at hiding these things, so he knows that, obviously. Largely he knows that because of how often I turn on him and call him a cunt.

If you’d asked me 6 months ago, what I wanted most from the arrangement, I’d have said that, sex aside, honesty was the essential. If I asked him a question, I didn’t want him to lie, I wanted to know the truth, no matter how much it might hurt me.

I stand by that, because I think it’s the right approach to take, the grown up one, certainly. But fuck me, it’s harder in practice. We’ve fallen foul of it a couple of times, but there are four words in particular that kill me:

‘I don’t love you.’

You took the words right out of my –

I hate women who don’t know how to be on their own. You know the ones – the girls who say, ‘God, I don’t know how you cope with being single!’ when their longest period of being out of a relationship is 2 weeks, or, worse still, the ones who say, ‘Oh, I love being single,’ when really, they never are.

But often I think strong feelings like that towards a particular group of people are born out of something uncomfortable that that group reflects back at you. It’s similar, in a way, to what I was getting at when I wrote this.

I’ve been single literally my whole life. It makes me uneasy when, on shows like ‘Take me out,’ girls say ‘I’ve been single for 3 years,’ and everyone gasps. Because if I talked about being single in terms of years, what would I say? When do you start counting? From birth? Sixteen? After uni?

I’ve been single my whole life, but I’ve never truly been without a man. Since my teens I’ve slipped effortlessly from one infatuation to another. The thought of being truly alone, without even a crush to provide that rush of emotions, that sense of being alive, scares me.

In the past I’ve used the word ‘love’ pretty indiscriminately to describe how I felt about those crushes. I grew up in a family where the word is used freely – I tell my parents and sister that I love them pretty much every time we speak – partly through force of habit, partly because it’s true, and I want them to know it.

It’s not a word I’m afraid of, essentially. But when the boy said, during an argument, something along the lines of ‘I was talking to a friend about this and in her view the problem is … that you’re in love with me and I’m not in love with you,’ it really jarred. It felt like a cheap shot, and I told him so.

The bit that bothers me isn’t the bit you’d perhaps expect. He doesn’t love me, I know that, and so it doesn’t come as a particular surprise to hear him say it. Sure, it stings a bit, because no one likes to hear stuff like that, but that’s all.

Being told that I love him, though? That I’m much less comfortable with. While I’m aware that if you read this blog regularly you might well have come to that conclusion, I’m still uncomfortable with someone else telling him that that’s how I feel. ‘I love you,’ is a pretty powerful phrase and I felt like they were my words to choose to say or not to say, as and when I felt ready.

I don’t feel ready. In this relationship (or whatever you want to call it) I can’t imagine I ever will be. Not that I haven’t conjured up its spirit on occasion: a few weeks back I was having drinks with a friend and she challenged my claim that I’m happy enough with the way things stand.

‘You don’t get it though,’ I countered, ‘I love him.’

She smiled sadly. ‘I don’t think you do,’ she said. ‘You talk about him like he’s the enemy or a battle to be fought and won. That’s not love.’

And you know what? She’s right. If you love someone, there shouldn’t be that much conflict, with yourself or with them. Despite what Hollywood would have us believe, loving someone doesn’t mean having to fight for them, or waging a constant battle against incompatibility. Of course, it is possible to love someone and for it not to come up roses, but if that really is how you feel, what should be coming across is affection, not aggression.

The other thing I think you realise as you get older is that love should be less about you than it is about the other person. Yes, that’s trite. Yes, it’s cliché, but it is essentially true. Most of what I get from him is still about me, selfish though that is – it’s about my sexual confidence, my thrills, my needs. If I’m brutally honest, my attitude to his needs is more often than not that if he doesn’t like what he’s getting from me, he should end it and get it elsewhere. Because I’m compromising so heavily on the open relationship side, I tend to think that all other compromises should be his.

I’ve never been a big fan of the line ‘You have to love yourself before somebody else can love you,’ – hey, we’ve all fallen for people with flaws – but I do think it’s easier to love someone else if you already love yourself. If you believe in what they see in you, it’s easier to look outwards and focus on them. If you don’t, love is just a line you’re feeding yourself to keep fear and loneliness at bay, and that can’t be healthy.

With all that said, I’d be gutted if, when it ends, I, or anyone else who knows about us, writes the whole thing off as pointless because we didn’t love each other. I think society still has a tendency to gloss over situations that don’t fit a standard narrative – especially the media. It’s bullshit. Love isn’t the only thing that can change you; it’s not the only thing you can learn from. It’s just one potential happy ending in amongst a whole heap of others.

Introvert

My parents are planning to move house, so my mum has been sorting through all their old stuff. This has brought up a couple of things I want to blog about, the first of which is introversion.

In amongst her uni work, my mum found a note from my dad from when they first started dating. She’d gone to the bar to get drinks and he’d vanished and left a note on the table saying ‘Have gone to do some work. See you later x’

My mum told me about this because she found it funny: my dad was renowned for doing absolutely no work at uni, and was very nearly kicked out. He hadn’t excused himself because he planned to work at all, she thought, he’d excused himself because there were too many people in the bar, and it was making him anxious.

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This too shall pass

Mentally, I sometimes think I never left my old job. When I come back to visit, so much is still the same – my Charlie & Lola mug is still in the cupboard, I’m still not brave enough to carry a round of tea up the stairs and there’s still a note on the biscuit tin that says ‘Reminder: gingers must be segregated.’

I *loved* that job – it was my first job after uni, and I got to play with words and make stuff in a way that my job now, working in ‘real’ publishing, just doesn’t allow. My colleagues were genuinely close friends (hence why I’m visiting this weekend), and the drive in every morning was through some of the UK’s most beautiful countryside.

So, why did I leave? Yep, you guessed it: because of a boy.

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