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Inner strength

When I was 16, the guy I loved said that whatever happened to him or to us, he would be okay because there was a little part, right at the centre of his heart, that was his and would always remain happy. I remember the conversation well. We were walking across a motorway bridge that went from my house to his. There was a low roar of traffic. I didn’t really understand what he was saying. The words made sense but the meaning – the felt meaning – was absent.

Nearly twenty years on and I finally understand what he was getting at. You only really have you, in this world, and you have to start and end with that. It’s not romantic or easy, can be interpreted as either a terrible or a wonderful thing, but –

There we go.

I have been reading a book about growing your inner strength. It seems to be a theme in my life at the moment. Sometimes I think this is ironic – after beating an eating disorder that no one thought I could beat, I must have inner strength by the bucket-load; sometimes I think this inner strength is an elusive quality that I will spend much of my life searching for. I care a lot about what people think and even more so about how I relate to the people who make up my world. I am acutely aware that they are at the centre of it and I do not wish to change that but –

According to this book (which to be fair I’m only about a tenth of the way through), inner strength is a combination of innate qualities and those which you can grow in yourself. It is made up of things like self-compassion, self-regulation, tolerance levels, security, optimism – things I have historically been poor at developing.

Apparently this is not a life sentence.

This is a relief although I am unsure as to how long it will actually take me to get there. I have known for a while that the brain moulds itself to the experiences that you are used to and therefore focus more on. That it contains tracks (once described to me as being like the course of skis down a mountain) that are shaped by these experiences and expectations, and it is obviously far easier to follow trodden paths than forge out on new ones –

But not impossible.

I am beginning to think that this inner strength and this core that was spoken of are one and the same. I guess that some people realise, at 16, that the relationship that they have with themselves is the starting place for everything else. I guess some people only realise that later on and have to work just that little bit harder to find it.

Country Life

A cockerel cut through the silence and woke me up this morning –

And so this is Kent. I hadn’t noticed that London was so noisy until I left it. Now the silence is more audible than the noise was. When I sit by the window, I can hear birds chirping to each other and every slight rustle seems to be amplified. Even the roaring trains that zoom along the side of our house don’t compare to the steady hum of London noise. Before we moved, I wondered it they would keep me awake: the noise has been strangely comforting so far.

I am not sure what to make of country life yet. Every time I walk up our drive, I can feel my face breaking into a smile and when I shut the door, I get the Englishman’s house is his castle thing – but it is also incredibly alien. A bit like being on holiday with no end date. A bit like stepping into a parallel world – yours and yet not yours.

It is funny how the places that we live in seem to have an impact on the relationship that we have with ourselves. In London, there are constant distractions. Feeling a bit fidgety? You have the whole City on your doorstep…. You don’t have to think about things – like supper or meeting people or trains home – until they happen. Life is fast and furious and you just get on with it.

The biggest thing that I am noticing about country life – in the two and a bit days that I have experienced it for – is that you have to be with yourself in a very different way. If that makes sense. That you can’t get lost in a whirlwind of activity or, indeed, define yourself by it. That you don’t have a glittering ocean of bars or restaurants or markets or clubs or theatres to choose from each day so that, pretty much whatever you’re doing will be fun. In a bizarre way, you have to make it happen for yourself more. You have to get used to being with yourself more.

London is a harder place to live in some ways; easier in many others.

And so this is a new adventure that is as much an exploration of me as it is of a whole new country and a whole different lifestyle. It’s probably overdue, if I’m honest, but I’m not sure which one is scarier – or more exciting.

Turnpike Lane

Tonight we are going for a Chinese. And so starts my week of last Turnpike Lane things. Fortunately, considering we’re soon to be leaving, Turnpike Lane doesn’t have quite as much to offer as some of the more salubrious parts of London, but it is still the end of an era, albeit a short one.

Other highlights include a rather spectacular Indian takeaway and a restaurant in an old chocolate factory with more melted candles in one room than you can possibly imagine and surprisingly tasty food. Nothing beats a hidden gem – discovered. There’s also a great roast at the nearby Salisbury, but I ticked that one off a few weeks ago, along with all the other Turnpike-Laners who were seeking a good old-fashioned Sunday lunch instead of a plate of mezze. Mezze. Nom. Maybe I should add that to the list too? I appreciate that it is a little food-heavy…

Alexandra Palace is pretty awesome, particularly on Summer evenings when you can watch the sun go down over the whole of London, and there are a couple of squirrel-filled parks that I might go and bid farewell to. There’s also a recreation ground that would have made the list if it wasn’t for the stagnant pond that means you have to hold your breath every time you lap round it –

Turnpike Lane has been a strange place to live, for me. Admittedly, the fact that some kids decided to seriously assault each other at 4am one morning, or that the road leading up to our road is perhaps the most vomited-upon street in North London has not massively enamoured me to the area –

And yet it has become home and I will miss it.

I will miss the purple carpets that we played poker for and I lost – by a hair. I will even miss the purple walls that have always made my partner smile and, more recently, have made me smile too. I will miss the living room that looks far more like a library than a living room should, and is now spilling over with books; the surprisingly tasteful terracotta kitchen walls and the disturbingly tasteless hanging man that you have to tug to turn on the bathroom light; the fireplace that I occasionally toast marshmallows on –

And I know that the new house will have these things in too, that we will again imprint memories into the walls and that the many books and photos and the wine-stained sofa will all come with us –

But it feels important to say goodbye too. To be a little bit sad about leaving and to make sure I capture the good bits before I go.

Some of the things I like….

I have been trying to find myself. Again. I wonder when the process of losing and having to find oneself again stops. Or if it does.

I had thought about dance classes or creative writing or just doing anything different and seeing if I could find myself there but a wise person pointed out that you are always taking you into any new situation. You have to start there.

The same wise person suggested that one of the ways of starting there might be to explore the things that I like. To notice what I am drawn too and what makes me feel good.

I have been trying to pay attention. These are some of the things that I know I like…

The feeling of the sun on my back.

Talking to people. Not small-talking but those conversations where you share things and ask questions and explore the world together.

Music and, particularly, music that is felt as much as it is heard.

Hugs. Giving and receiving.

Royal blue.

The blossom on the trees and the moment that you spot the first blossom. Crocuses and daffodils and purple tulips.

Books where the story is held in the words and the way that the words are strung together makes you shiver. Characters that come to life. Stories that live in your head as much as on the page.

London. The speed of the tubes. The Houses of Parliament at night. The background murmur of life. The pride of knowing all the bus routes. The roads and parks that have been trodden for decades. The permanency of the Thames, its strength.

Swimming. Particularly when no one else is there and that first moment when you push off from the side.

Homemade bread. Still warm. And with marmite dripping into it.

Roses and lychee martinis.

Laughing so hard that it hurts and you feel like you’re a giggling teenager again.

England and the English. The quirks (“I’m sorry” when someone bumps into you) that you only find over here. The rolling fields and the history that is written into the cities and into the countryside. Roast dinners and winter fires.

It feels like I could go on.

It is disturbingly easy to forget these things when you’re feeling lost. To overlook the things that make you feel good and are there, waiting, should you need something to pick-you up. Or something to ground you.

Spring

Spring is coming and the fog that was noticeably absent over winter has made an unexpected appearance. The world disappears overnight and it takes a while for it to come back again. When it breaks, the sun is warm, but it has been lingering. It could still snow yet but I hope it doesn’t. The crocuses have come out and the purple and yellow patches are cheering. It would be sad to see them crushed.

I had always associated spring with new beginnings. It takes less energy to wake up and the world looks different in the sunshine. It feels like a weight is lifted. I’m not sure I believe in new beginnings anymore. The past seems to stack up and becomes harder to break from. I know that sounds a little bleak. I do not mean it to sound so.

It is ironic that I am writing this at a time when I’m actually facing a new beginning. We’re moving to Kent in the next few weeks. I am leaving the shiny lights of London and a City that I have fallen in love with, after a few hiccups…

A new house, a new city (or, more accurately, spot in the middle of nowhere). It doesn’t get more beginning-like than that, really.

Maybe when the removal van draws up and I find myself unlocking a different front door and, then, stepping into a new hallway, I will feel differently – but at the moment it doesn’t feel like a new beginning. It is a new space but it is still me. Me, somewhere else. Me, wondering what I’ll find there.

Maybe I have reached a point where I no longer need wipe-the-slate clean fresh starts.

I’m not sure that I believe in new beginning anymore, but I do believe in something a bit slower and a bit more continuous. A kind of gradual growth that is not clearly delineated but ebbs and flows. That is initiated by new experiences and new realisations which do not make up beginnings, as such, but next steps that are built on the things that have come before them and make up a journey, the route of which remains a mystery until you’re treading it.

And maybe Spring is not so much about new beginnings as it is about hope and movement. Or maybe that can start at any time and it has been unhelpful for me to attempt to link it to Spring. Maybe Spring is more akin to the moments when you notice how much you have grown – or are reminded that you can.

The Shock of the Fall

I have just finished reading The Shock of the Fall. It did not take long and I did not want to put it down. It is one of those rare books where the story is carried in the words themselves – where it is not just what is being said that hits you but how it is being said. And it does hit you.

I seem to have read a spate of books about children dealing with disabilities or tragedies recently. Think Wonder or The Universe versus Alex Woods, to name a few. I don’t know whether the child perspective (and possibly the elderly perspective, if you look at the likes of The Hundred Year Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared) is a current literary trend, but there is something fascinating in the innocent (or the experienced) voice that they contain. I thought I would find such narrators patronizing or naïve. I haven’t.

The Shock of the Fall starts with a young narrator, a boy’s-eye take on the world, but it flits between the child’s experience and the teenager’s, so that the one becomes embedded in the other. Just more literally than it happens for most people. It is the story (spoilers) of a boy’s descent into madness, of tragic lives cut short – both literally and emotionally – and yet it is not a tragedy nor the glamourisation of one. It is impossible not to empathise with the narrator, and the precision of the language and the depiction of the story seem to take it beyond being merely a sad – or indeed happy – book.

Matt’s (the name the protagonist fictionally gives himself) madness is predictable and yet the description of it is not clichéd or empty or over-hyped or even over-simplified. Or not in my opinion and, having fought my own battles, I guess I’m in a relatively good position to say that. And while I have tended to avoid novels explicitly about mental health and whether the cause of Matt’s illness is entirely credible, The Shock of the Fall made me stop and think –

And there are several passages that I highlighted which said what I was thinking far better than I could:

“Mental illness turns people inwards. That’s what I reckon. It keeps us forever trapped by the pain of our own minds, in the same way that the pain of a broken leg or a cut thumb will grab your attention, holding it so tightly that your good leg or your good thumb seem to cease to exist”

And -

“We are selfish, my illness and I. We think only of ourselves. We shape the world around us into messages, into secret whispers spoken only for us.”

I have been wondering why it feels so important to share these passages. Empathy is a powerful motivator. I wanted to write these down, partly, because they resonated so sharply with me and I wanted to remember them. Because they seemed acutely and insightfully true. Because when I was ill, none of the things that I truly value now – relationships and friends and lovers and days in the sunshine – even featured and I didn’t notice, at the time, but I saw it in Matt’s world and it seemed to reflect my own old one. Are they relevant to any one else? I don’t know. Awareness is important but seems, to me, to have its limitation. Maybe it just feels important to appreciate those random lines that capture a human experience so well. Maybe if you’re fortunate never to experience madness, it’s worth knowing how lucky you are.

He also writes – “reading is a bit like hallucinating”- and I wanted to remember that too, because I hadn’t thought of reading in that way before but it seems so obvious now.

Thinking about social media

I work in social media. Several (and a bit) years ago, in an unusual show of optimism, I believed it would change the world. Twitter promised to break down walls: in a few hours of surfing, you could find people who were just like you and people who made you look at things in a completely different way. Geographical borders ceased to exist. Things moved faster. I met people that have – in a wonderful way – changed and enriched my life. The world seemed, simultaneously, to grow and shrink, and I did not feel quite so alone.

After the first few years, I retreated a little. Constant conversation is tiring and I ran out of things to say. My online world had helped to make my offline world fuller: I barely had time to keep up. And social media changed too, I think. Twitter seemed to grow so large that it lost its intimacy, for me; and, as the million different uses for social media emerged and evolved, it also seemed to get a lot noisier out there.

I moved, therefore, from the world of blogging and Twitter to Facebook. To a space that was full of familiar faces, that required a little less effort and was a little bit safer. Twitter became something that I dipped in and out of to keep in touch with what was going on, but in which I had no real place. There are only so many times that a piece of content can be shared and I am under no illusion that the minutiae of my daily life is interesting to anyone other than – or even – me.

Where as, before, the electric jolt of empathy that Twitter afforded – realising that you think and feel the same as other people do is immensely powerful – constantly amazed me, it gradually started to feel like I was talking into a vacuum or reading an endless stream of dramatic stories or anecdotes that were far funnier but also far more removed from anything going through my head.

So it goes.

More recently still, my feelings towards social media have become increasingly confused. Yes, I still believe that it has opened up the world and, yes, the speed and ease with which you can find out the latest headlines or stumble upon a fascinating article or keep in touch with people is something I value immensely, but -

It’s not the real world and, sometimes, it makes the real world harder.

There has been heaps of research into the effects that Facebook can have on self-esteem, numerous examples of people whose lives have been made or broken on social media. There has been far more rigorous and intellectual debate on the impact of social media than mine – and yet it has felt important to try and work out my own relationship with the medium.

This has not been as easy as I anticipated.

On one level, social media strikes me as a communications channel – your relationship with it depends on how you use it and what you want to get out of it, be that 25% off at Gap, the latest news served straight to your twitter feed or what your friends have been up to on a Saturday night.

On another level, it seems a far more powerful force in people’s lives. Its presence does not stop in an inbox. It is harder to switch off. It is harder to limit your relationship with it to your own personal actions when you’re currently faced with a window into other people’s lives. It evokes far more emotions, far more frequently, than things like emails or letters or even a phone call do.

Clearly, and as with so many things in life, the experience that you have of social media seems to depend – unsurprisingly – on your own state of mind at the time. If you’re feeling that your life isn’t going in the right direction, Facebook can offer as much confirmation of this as you look for; if it’s all bright and sunny, sharing this can be an additional bonus. Arguably, if you use social media to reach out to people, it can also be a way to pull you out of those grey moments – but this process can sometimes backfire when you spend hours talking over what’s going wrong in your life rather than getting on with things and trying to fix it -

And this is where my confusion comes into play. Because social media is not black and white, nor is it static. It is like an ongoing world that you can watch or participate in or ignore, filled with people that you do know or think you know or would like to know – or not know –

And it is hard for it to not be all-consuming. Hard not to let it be the thing that you check first thing in the morning or reach out to for validation or use as a scourge when you’re feeling low –

Or at least I find it so.

And so I suppose that it’s the very qualities that have made it so popular – the fact that it plays on our curiosity, our desire to know what is going on, our need to stay connected – which have, latterly, made it so difficult for me. Drawing a healthy line in these desires is difficult and, even if you decide to take a step back, the other people in your life are unlikely to.

So I have – very long-windedly – started to realise that you have to think about this relationship in order to make it work for you. You have to pause, sometimes, and consider what makes you feel good and what makes you feel bad, what is helpful, what is real –

What is real is especially important, I think, not just because the truth is sometimes harder to decipher online, but because life is absolutely for living – not for hiding from – and social media can help you go either way.

Thirty-Four

I am turning 34 tomorrow. Thirty-four. It sounds like a big age. I remember my mum turning 34 and, then, it seemed so far away that it was unimaginable.

33 has been a difficult age. After the excitement of re-entering the world in my late twenties, I found myself floundering, trying to make up for lost time but also discovering that, once time has gone, it is very difficult to get back. There has been a disconnect, therefore, between how old I have felt in my head and how old I have been in the world; and, however much people say that age is just a number, it doesn’t quite ring true.

By 34, you’d hope to be settled in your career. To know where your life was going. By 34, most people have a family and children and a proper grown-up home. By 34, you’d expect to know who you were and have gone through enough heartbreaks and holidays and jobs and homes to feel that you had a bit of life experience behind you.

It is hard not to feel these things.

Dwelling on them has not been helpful.

I have been thinking about how I can do things differently when I am 34, and it seems to come down to working out what I want the year to bring, rather than concentrating on what I think it should bring. To remembering that people grow at different speeds and, biological clocks and social pressures aside, if I keep the focus on how I want to grow in the coming year, that’s really all that matters.

So, when I am 34, I want to see bits of the world that I haven’t seen before. I want to find something that I love doing in my spare time again, and make a space for that. I want to shake off some of the insecurities that I’d hoped to have dropped by now but still find themselves clinging to me at unexpected times and just when I think I’m almost there. I want to lay down stronger foundations for the rest of my life, so that instead of just living for the moment, which is what I’ve been doing up until this point, I also live for a future – and believe that that future can happen.

And, when I am 34, I want to enjoy being young while I still am, because I know that I’m not over the hill quite yet, and there is only limited time left for Topshop mini skirts and a wrinkle-free face. I want to exercise and eat well and not smoke, and generally look after myself a little bit better because I am finally beginning to understand that it’s the things that you do now that help you to be where you want to be later on.

And, most of all I think, I want to be able to look back and say that 34 has been a good year. That I have spent the time well and that I wouldn’t have done anything differently – or at least that I have learnt something from the things that I would have done differently. That it is filled with people and laughter and hope, and that I spend it looking forwards rather than looking back.

Shrinking worlds

I have had a difficult few months. Winter seems to encourage introspection and the persistent rain has created a heaviness that is hard to break through.

I was talking to a friend recently and she pointed out that, over the past year, my world has become smaller. She was spot on. It takes energy to make your world bigger; it is scarily easy for it to shrink back again and for you to shrink back with it.

I have been thinking, consequently, about how to make my world bigger. About the places that I could go to literally and emotionally expand the horizons; about doing new things that mean my world is fuller; about meeting new people and how that can change everything.

It always seems to come back to people.

I am reading Anna Karenina at the moment. It is surprisingly addictive. I guess reading, itself, is another way to expand your world; but, in this case, it’s the intimate perspective on people that has got me gripped. I have always been fascinated by the fact that literature highlights the similarities between people over time. That you can immediately relate to the emotions of characters, even if the historical or geographical context is unfamiliar.

Anna Karenina is set in the entirely different world of Russian nobility and land-owners, and yet the emotional stories of the characters are so intricately explored and so un-nervingly familiar that it feels like a mirror is being held up and, every now and again, it is possible to see yourself in it. The nuances of the relationships, the negotiations that people have with themselves and with others, the rapidly changing emotions of the characters – all have resonated in a powerful and unexpected way, reminding me that we are all – and have always been – just trying to make sense of ourselves and of the world that we find ourselves in, and of our relationships with the people that we meet within it.

Perhaps, it is these emotional journeys, either undertaken on your own or with other people, that can also make your world bigger. But only if you are not afraid of going through them.

I have believed, for a long time, that people are why we are here. That it is the relationships that we have with people – whether those bring comfort or love or fun or interest or any number of different things – that make life so beautifully and, at times, so heart-wrenchingly precious. I had forgotten that, I think, because it is easy to get hung up on the things that are difficult or wrong with those relationships, and because it is hard to remember that the best relationships require a degree of empathy. This, I think, made my world shrink: you can’t only embrace half of what makes life.

And what I have been thinking about whilst reading Anna Karenina is that life is – and has been for generations and generations – made up of those relationships with other people. That they are immensely powerful. That they can be the most wonderful thing or the most tragic thing –

And while it is possible to get stuck in relationships that make your world shrink, it is always possible to find ones that make your world grow.

Smoking. Again

Once I reached the other side of the eating disorder and was finally in that blue sky phase that everyone talks about but it is impossible to believe in until you feel it yourself, I got knocked over by regret. 17 years, gone. A half life, half-lived under a permanent shadow. The knowledge that the other side did exist, both wonderful and devastating because I left it so late and it was waiting there all the time. When I think about how close I came to throwing it away, my stomach turns and it is hard to believe.

Smoking is similar.

I am furious that I have put myself in that position again.

For the past few months, I have been stuck. Back in a place where the focus of the day is lost because my attention is elsewhere. Back in a place where I know there must be another side and don’t quite have the courage to cross the line. Back with the knowledge that I am playing a risky game and yet there is a little voice egging me on and a huge voice telling me that I can’t do it.

Five years ago, I said I’d never smoke again. I guess that there is no such thing as never.

I have been going to the Allen Carr clinic. I thought I’d walk out unburdened and radiant. It hasn’t been like that. I have felt defeated and subdued. The logic has made perfect sense but I stopped trusting my ability to follow logic a long time ago.

I have been trying to draw parallels with my recovery in order to remove any illusions that I may be under and remind myself that there is sunshine on the other side.

In both cases, my head has been the enemy.

I’ve also been trying to remember that smoking is an addiction and chemicals are, in some ways, easier to fight. Four days out of my system and then, bang, my life belongs to me again.

I wonder why that feels so hard.