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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Self love: more than masturbation

Self love. It’s a euphemism, a way of skirting around something that isn’t talked about in polite society, which isn’t really the way I do things. If it’s not something most people would talk about in polite society – sex, masturbation, writing erotica in your spare time – you can pretty much guarantee I’ll be doing it.

I’ve been lucky, I think, when it comes to masturbation – no one has ever tried to make me feel guilty about it, and the shelf crammed with erotica on public display by my bed is just a grown-up update on the pile I hid under Mills & Boon novels as a teen, and which my mum kindly turned a blind eye to.

I’m with Girl on the Net on wanking, though – it’s not something I indulge in in a sensual, lingering manner. I know what works for me and everything about the way I do it, from the toys I use to the times of day I pick – just as I’m on the cusp of sleep, at night, or when I’m already late for work in the morning, conspires to mean that I’m all about an orgasm in under five minutes – often it barely feels like engaging with my body at all.

And I’m okay with that. Sex positivity often suggests, with the best of intentions, I think, that women should understand their bodies – I’m thinking the hand mirror between the legs trick that teenage girls are sometimes told to try in order to be able to identify what’s ‘down there,’ and the assumption that, once you understand your body, liking it will naturally follow. Which is a nice idea, but not necessarily the reality.

Partly, I think what I struggle with is the separation of body and mind. We talk a lot about women’s bodies, and increasingly we acknowledge their minds in so far as women’s desires and fantasies are more recognised now than ever before, but I still think the conversation about self-love in the sense of being mentally healthy and at ease with ourselves has a long way to go.

Luxuries and indulgent products for women are often marketed as being something for use when we escape from the myriad demands put on our time, often by the people who care about us and who we care about – I’m thinking partners, children. Loneliness isn’t something that’s acknowledged (and yes, I see that it’s not an ideal way to sell products!) – women are painted as always trying to grab ten minutes ‘for themselves’ rather than watching the hours stretching out in front of them, filling their time with as many activities as they can, in order to distract themselves from the fact that something feels like it’s missing. Because it can’t just be me, can it?

I’ve mastered masturbation. I understand my body. My mind, not so much. Which is why, for me, self love is as much about learning to sit alone in a cinema and enjoy the experience as it is about wanking.

On red lips & falling out of love with my body

Being brave with make up is an odd one. When I originally started thinking about this post, I was intending to say that it’s perverse how, the more at ease I am in my own skin, the more tame my make up. But it’s not perverse; it’s complicated.

In my teens my skin was greasy, but even then, I escaped lightly compared to many of my schoolmates. My mum bought me a few Rimmel bits when I was ten and the fashion for Body Shop parties meant that make up quickly became part of my daily routine. Foundation, mascara, lipstick – we were allowed to wear it at school in those days, too.

I never felt I mastered make up, and I never experimented with it that much, but I liked playing with it, and I was interested in it, in a way I never was with clothes. Glitter gels, iridescent powder shadow (thanks, Miss Selfridge!), stick on hearts. It was tacky, and joyful, as fuck.

In recent years, the frequency with which I’ve worn make up has dropped dramatically. I rarely wear any at work, and the contents of my day-to-day make up bag (listed below), is pricey, but play-it-safe in the extreme.

Chanel Les Beiges Healthy Glow Foundation
Hourglass Ambient Lighting Powder
Benefit Roller Lash Mascara
Clarins Multibush
Tom Ford Lips & Boys Lipstick in Eric

It worries me that I’ve stopped wearing make up. Not necessarily because I think I ‘need’ it, although it does make me feel more confident, but because every day I get up too late to put any on, every day I go to work with wet hair and bare skin, I’m reminded of the following statement on the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale:

‘I have lost interest in my appearance.’

The scale requires you to rank how much each statement applies to you between 0-3, and I’m never quite sure what to do with that one, because although I do wear less make up and spend less time getting ready, I still buy new clothes, I still read a couple of beauty bloggers, I still spend money on new products. And that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

It’s bad because increasingly, I buy make up in the same way some people buy bags and shoes – because I’ve put on a stone and a half in four years, I’m uncomfortable in my body, I feel fat, and buying clothes is miserable. Make up always fits, but it’s also an excuse to not take a long, hard look at myself and the way I really feel about my body. It’s an excuse not to change.

But there’s a flip side, too. I already feel conspicuous, because of the disability, because of the weight – and so, for the first time in my life, I’m not afraid to choose cosmetics that will make me stand out. In the past couple of years, I’ve bought three *bright* red lip products – MAC Red, MAC Sweet Sakura and, this week, Lipstick Queen’s Seven Sins gloss in Anger. 

The name is not a coincidence. I am angry, mostly with myself. But on my lips, that anger is transformed into something vital, something kickass. One of the saddest conversations I had with a friend of mine – who is beautiful – was about lipstick.

‘I’d never wear red,’ she said. ‘I just want to blend in. I don’t want to be noticed.’

It’s her choice, obviously, but it’s not what I want for myself. I’m not convinced red lipstick suits me, or is flattering, but I also don’t care. I’ve been reading Ella Risbridger’s wonderful lipstick columns for The Pooland she talks often about liking shades of lipstick that might not suit her. And I think she’s right – it’s psychological, as much as anything else. It’s colour, in a world of beige.

Red is anger. It’s also love, passion, fire, heat. It’s brave and it’s unapologetic.

And right now, it’s what I need.

Dolphin

For Lent this year, I gave you up. It was Girl onthenet’s fault. She gave up her sex power tool, and I consigned you, my little AA powered clit stim, to the drawer for forty days and forty nights.

And I have to say, I didn’t really miss you, though I expected to. Staying in the guest room at a friend’s a week or two before Lent began I had a quiet, shuddering morning orgasm using my fingers only, something I hadn’t done for years and years. It made me remember that the sensations of a non-battery-driven climax are totally different – deeper, slower, more satisfying somehow.

Which is why you and I took a break. I committed not to no orgasms for that period, but to more – two a week, using only my fingers – and God, the reasons behind it were complicated. You were starting to scare me; I was worried I’d lost my ability to come in any reasonable timeframe without you, and that was why he couldn’t make me come either.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple, which was why I didn’t blog about that period right away. I didn’t miss you, because I didn’t miss coming – I was always too tired, too anxious, too indifferent. Me, the girl who used to always wank at least once a day, and often twice.

It was August that I realised something had changed. I was staying alone in a flat in the South of France and I was horny all the bloody time. I hadn’t felt like that for ages. I’d packed you and I ran down battery after battery that week. I felt triumphant, like I’d found myself again. My sex drive, which had been missing for months (presumably because of anxiety/depression) was finally back. And so, in black, airbrushed ink that smudged the first time I applied sun cream and had to be wiped straight off, I recreated something I’d last done at 20, when I was famed among uni friends for having a dolphin-shaped vibrator: I had sea creatures tattooed on my ankle.


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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.

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.

OK, Cupid, we’re done

I was talking to a friend the other day about New Year’s Resolutions. Her theory was that you should save them for Spring, because the desire for change is greater when the weather’s warmer and the whole world feels like it’s renewing itself. It’s not a bad theory, but  I’m even more in favour of an even gentler approach: that we put too much pressure on ourselves generally and resolutions should be avoided at all times. Life is pretty damn hard: be kind to yourself.

With that conversation in mind, as well as this blog post which I wrote a few weeks back, I spoke to another friend. I told her that my plan is (eventually!) to stop focusing on my short term pleasure/happiness, and instead to dedicate myself to the long game. She assumed, unsurprisingly, that by ‘the long game’ I meant finding a guy to settle down and have children with. I didn’t, actually, or at least, not entirely, I more meant that I want to find a calmer, more steady sense of contentment than the one I have now. Quite a few people have commented on my post about babies, saying that yes, it probably is best to call it quits on friends-with-benefits type relationships, and work harder at finding something more meaningful if that’s what I want in the long term. I agree, with the first part, at least, and so 2014 will be the year I stop sleeping with the boy. Honest.

‘Great,’ she said, ‘I’m sure you’ll meet someone fantastic, there are loads of great guys online.’ 

‘I’m going to stop internet dating, too.’

There was a pause. A long pause. Then she said ‘Well, I can understand why you’d want a break, but I’m sure you’ll feel more like it if you have a month off.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I mean it. I hate it, and I’m not doing it any more.’

We went back and forth like this for a while – her trying to persuade me that I’d feel better about it after some time off; me increasingly pissed off that she just didn’t seem to get what I was saying. Sure, OKCupid and Tinder can be fun; and can be flattering, but they also exhaust me and play havoc with my already fragile mental health.

Earlier this year, I had a few weeks of back and forth flirting with a guy on OKCupid. The conversation repeatedly came back to his desire that we should meet for drinks, and then get a hotel room and fuck each other senseless. The bit that made me wary was that we couldn’t just go back to his. When I mentioned it to a friend, she said ‘He’s married.’ And so I asked him outright. And sure enough, yes, he was. His wife though, apparently, was ‘fine with it,’ so I went along with it too, enjoying the flirting and the potential for some dirty, no-strings sex like I used to have. I was nervous, sure, but I had no intention of backing out. He, however, did – the night before we were supposed to meet.

That was my last serious interaction with anyone on the site. I still have an active profile, still reply to the odd message, but not really with the intention of it going anywhere – I genuinely hate the emotional ups and downs, as well as just how hard you have to work at the communication, all, it seems, with very little return. 

So, I plan to start 2014 by deleting both my OKCupid and Tinder profiles. Meeting someone is important to me, but feeling calm and emotionally stable is so much more so. I have much more to say about this blog post by Juniper, but suffice to say for the moment that the first few months of this year will be given over to rediscovering the state of solo contentment that she describes so beautifully. Maybe, eventually, I’ll rejoin one of what I consider to be the more serious dating sites – match.com or the like, but for now, I’m giving myself a break from boys.