Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Heartbreak Admin

Today I received my decree absolute. I've never been married, this was the millennial's version; an email confirming that the deposit I'd paid on the flat I'd shared with my ex-partner of six years had been refunded.

The relationship ended seven months ago when I packed a rucksack and spent three weeks sobbing on friends' sofas before finding a tiny box room five minutes away from my (our) lovely little flat. A lot's happened since then. Life has gone on. But this notification, this cold scrap of legal data, served as a reminder that something has shifted. I've changed something. I've failed at something. I've lost something I'll never have again. A sixth of my life is gone and won't ever come back.

There was so much guilt, so much doubt, so much anger and self-loathing. There was some little relief, too, streaking through the tumult like angel rays. But aside from the grief – the terrible, corrosive grief that contaminated every aspect of every day and left me reeling (ever stuck your head in a fridge at work to hide a fresh batch of tears from your colleagues? Hello!), there was a nauseating amount of admin involved. Separating our belongings, working out how to get to work from my mate's place on the night bus, changing my address on bills and statements (this particularly tedious bit of ball-achery took me six months to complete). There was a steep cost too – removal vans to hire, greater commuting costs, a deposit and a month's rent in advance on my new place, as well as a month's final rent on my former home. It was dizzying and frightening and now I know, now I know why people stay in unhappy relationships and marriages. I've never been more grateful that I don't have children – I can't imagine doing all that whilst caring for a scared, confused and very sad small human. I myself felt scared, confused, sad and small - I called my parents constantly, unable to make the smallest decision without consulting them. My regression was met with infinite patience and relentless love. 

The deposit was the final thread connecting me to my ex – the refund signifies that he has now moved out of our home. We're not on speaking terms. That's not my decision, but one I respect. During our relationship my anxiety disorder manifested itself in worrying about him. Was he eating properly? Did he get to work safely? What if he got mugged on the way home? He worked in Camden, and during our relationship there was freak accident and a man was killed by a falling shop sign. I obsessed about it for weeks. During that time he sent me frequent texts to soothe and reassure me that he was alright. When the relationship ended my anxiety flared up like psoriasis but I had no outlet. I couldn’t ask him if he was alright because I knew that he wasn't. I knew he wasn't alright, and I knew that I was the reason he wasn't alright and I felt sick with guilt because I still loved him. I'd broken his heart but he was my best friend and I still loved him so much. My friends and family carried me through those frightful few weeks. They spoke soothing words and rubbed my back when I had panic attacks in the pub, after a couple of drinks unbridled the hurly-burly in my head. They didn't flinch when I sobbed and slobbered snot all over them like a deranged St. Bernard. They protected me when I was hurt, and they prevented me from hurting myself. I'm so, so grateful for their love. It saved me. And when I had zero self-esteem and such a low, low opinion of myself, knowing that I was loved by such wonderful people validated me, it made me realise I couldn't be a totally hopeless case.

I was very sad when my relationship ended. Sad, but not depressed. I didn't feel debilitated by sadness – it was imbued with relief that it was over, that we were both free to pursue what we really wanted from life. The truth is, I was a Bad Girlfriend. And I feel as though I'm unlikely to ever be a Good one. It seems to me that every relationship reaches a point where you have to choose between your partner, or yourself. And I choose myself.

It took a long time to acclimatise to my new (single) condition. My husband (we were never married, but I always called him that, even at the very beginning) was my compass, now I was adrift and I couldn't tell dry land from stormy sea. I started smoking again. Our relationship, my life's anchor, had been re-examined and reclassified and there's so much more to that than no longer sharing a roof. It's a rending of the soul. It hurts. It hurts. And to paraphrase a far greater Thomas than I, I did not go gentle. I raged, I raged against the dying of that light. The dying of that love. In the end I was exhausted from raging, from loving so much. I was so lonely. I was so lost, and I had lost so much. And it was time to leave.

It's been seven months now. The last three months have been an unexpectedly exciting, galvanising and fulfilling time, which wouldn't have happened were I still in that relationship (I can heartily recommend going viral as a displacement strategy if you want your mind taken off utter emotional devastation for a few months). It still makes me sad that I've lost my best friend, but I have more perspective now. I know, I've always known, that it was the right thing to do. The rest just takes time.

I still miss him, and the life we had together. Every time I have to catch a train, I have to walk past our old home. His car isn't parked outside any more, and there are new curtains and shiny new furniture in the back room (of course I still look, every time). Every time I pass, there's a faint but very distinct stagger in my belly. It's like walking into what Scots call a “thin place”, a place where there's a thin line dividing this world and the next. A haunted place. This place is a thin line dividing this world and one where we're still together, between the present and the past. It's a physical sensation – somewhere between lurch of vertigo and that shudder which prompts you to say “ooh, someone's just walked over my grave”. I always look. And I always feel it. But then I catch my train in my new present. In my new place. In my new world. It just takes time.

My Body: A Chronology

My school report says “Michelle is eight years old going on forty”. I'm a ponderous, cautious, old-headed kid who doesn't mix well with others my age. I live entirely in my own brain, in books, in stories. I've no interest in the kinetic world – I want to move as little as possible. I really want one of those reclining beds for old people that I've seen in adverts. I quite like the idea of being an invalid. Having a body seems like a very tedious bit of life admin. I discover that I'm fat when I'm nine years old. I am informed of the fact by a girl in my year:
“Michelle, I'd be lying if I said you weren't fat”.
It's so unfair. I don't like having a body. Other people don't like my having a body. So I begin to pretend I simply don't have one. I ignore it, try to disappear into the background as best I can, and keep my head down and buried in a book.
I fear and abhor physical exercise. I feel like a different species from every other girl in my year. The sporty girls, naturally, (one of whom has such body confidence that she wears a blue and yellow Adidas three-stripe two-piece to our swimming lessons, like Sporty Spice). Being that we're in rural Wales, there were also many, many girls who live on farms. Girls who can carry hay bails and fence posts. Girls who spend their weekends traversing acres of land to mend fences and tend to the livestock. Girls who complete the equivalent of one of those trendy tough mudder endurance challenges every weekend, summer and winter: staunch, stoic, strong, seeming unselfconcious girls, who seem to understand that their bodies are tools. Machines. Equipment.
I dodge school every Monday and Thursday for about two months. It doesn't feel like a lie when I tell my parents I have unbearable recurring stomach cramps – the anxiety is genuinely nauseating. The fear is carnal. The tears are real.
In hindsight, it's not as if I couldn't have performed the activity. I wasn't very fit, but I was young and otherwise healthy. My body was perfectly normal for a girl my age – in my mid-teens I was a size 10. And it wasn't the thought of engaging in physical exercise that terrified me. It was the thought of being watched and judged and found lacking. It didn't occur to me that everyone in the class would be too busy doing their own thing to watch and judge me. In my anxious and utterly self-obsessed teenage mind, I would be a target. I would be hurt, and in order to protect myself I had simply to omit that threat from my life by not engaging with it at all.
Really, I was still pretending I didn't have a body. It was easier than examining how I really about it. I disliked it intensely. I didn't like the way it looked when it moved. I didn't like the way it looked when it was still. When I dodged I'd sit at home and read and read and read until my brain was full as an egg.
I am through to the final round of auditions for a prestigious drama school. The audition is before a Shakespeare scholar – a man who knows every letter of every word Shakespeare has ever written (and quite a few that he may not have). I've chosen Cleopatra for my monologue because she is a Strong Woman (I have recently become a staunch supporter of Strong Women). I sit and watch Mr Scholar tear strips off participants who stand beautifully and speak beautifully, but aren't really engaged in the meaning of the words.
(It sounds obvious, but an actor really should understand the meaning of their lines. I auditioned for a Shakespeare play IN WELSH once where a boy recited the line “you kissed me once, on the lips” and pointed at his forehead).
I am abrim with anxiety, but I can't wait to perform for this man – I know that I know my shit better than anyone else in this room. I know THEIR speeches better than they do. I know I can withstand any interrogation about any editorial revisions (some classical works vary very slightly from edition to edition – a “thee” when there had been a “thou”, that kind of thing. This bastard had memorised every edition of every edition. But then, so have I. As I say, I know that I know my shit).
I know Cleopatra too, as best as a 19 year-old Welsh lass can. I know her pride. I know her churlishness. I know her sorrow. (I'm not saying I'm the lost Judi Dench of my generation. Although I could be. We'll never know. I'm just saying I worked hard.) I begin my audition. I keep my voice steady, my tone rich. I move around the space as I've been directed to by my drama teacher (“using the space” is VERY important in THE THEATRE), drawing imaginary pentagrams with my feet, keeping my mind's eye on the faithless Anthony, goading him, taunting him with (my)Cleopatra's beauty.
“Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brow's bent,
none our parts so poor but was a race of heaven...”
My breathe stops. His words are suspended in the air like icicles. It takes me a fraction of a second to compose myself, to ask cheerily “OK! What can I do to change that?”. I don't know how he responds. I just know the horror – the dry, inevitable horror – of having my fears confirmed. The thing is, he didn't say that my body IS ugly. It's not. Everything's in the right place, and everything works. I am MAKING it look ugly. I'm holding it wrong. Moving it wrong. Shaping it in a way which is aesthetically disagreeable. I am pretending to be the most beautiful woman who'd ever lived (can we agree not to examine that too closely, please?) and I'm failing because I can't even PRETEND to be the right kind of beautiful. And it didn't matter how well I know the play, how hard I've worked, it didn't matter that I'd lived with those stories in my heart and those words in my mouth for months. I'm not able to do what I yearn for because I didn't know how to make my body look beautiful.
P.S. I didn't go to drama school, but for a few years I remembered the names of those who did, and kept a very casual eye on how their careers were progressing. They're not up to much. So in a way, I win.
I start running after I experience a major depressive episode. I start running because I'm terrified. I've been bed-ridden for a week, crying because I was thirsty and I couldn't summon the energy to walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. I need a practical strategy to fix my brain. And I hate it. Leaving the flat feels like agony. I run for sixty seconds at a time, praying for respite. There are no endorphins, just numb relief when I'm finally allowed to go home and cry in the bath.
It took two belligerent, bloody-minded years for me to stop thinking of running as a chore. For the chorus of “this-is-BULLshit-this-is-BULLshit-this-is-BULLshit” to stop chugging through my head as I wheezed and panted around the neglected South London park. I ran for a few weeks at a time, then stopped because it was too hard or I was too lazy. I never put my trainers on without seething resentment weighing me down. A lot changed in that two years. I left a promising but unfulfilling career as an agent to make lattes and write. I went on holiday on my own. I joined Slimming World, and now I'm no longer lugging around an extra 15 pounds. When I started running again most recently, it felt different. It was no longer an endurance. I no longer prayed for respite. It no longer felt as though I was punishing my body. I was nurturing it. I felt good after running, and not just because of the smugness – the fabled endorphins finally turned up, making my nerves crackle and my breathe feel silky and cool in my lungs. It didn't hurt because I didn't push myself so hard I wouldn’t recover for two days. It felt like the opposite of helplessness and hopelessness. It felt like power.
I see toddlers in the park, roaring and rampaging and chasing squirrels and running with no destination and no impetus beyond “look there's a leaf I must dance with it and what happens if I stretch my hands up in the air and go BLAAAAARGH! This is fantastic I'm going to keep doing it BLAAAAAAARGH!!!” It's play. It's instinct. They are learning how to be human and part of that means grasping the mechanics of the vessel they're in. I must have done that once. But when you've spent 30 years avoiding exercise because you abhor it, it frightens you and you're terrible at it. it takes an enormous psychological shift to re-examine and overcome that fear. I've spent years telling myself I'm not defined by my body, in defiance of the signs and signifiers I'm bombarded with every day. The apparent primary goal of exercise is to get those abs – why should I want those abs? Why should I want to exercise? No thank YOU, cardiovascular health! Take your mental health benefits elsewhere! I'm not conforming to your body fascist beauty ideals!
I avoided exercise because moving my body meant admitting that I HAD a body, that I'd had one all along and that I'd been neglecting it. It's like checking your bank balance at the end of a decadent month, but when you haven't checked it for thirty years, and the balance is your life expectancy.
I try not to think about looking a particular way (a blatant lie – I'd love to have a flatter stomach and slimmer arms). But I think if I were the size and shape I am now and could run for an hour without stopping, I'd be delighted. I still grapple with the notion that I have to be good at running, that it's not enough to just DO it. Part of me still aspires to making my body look beautiful. To having grace. FINESSE. Of course what I really mean is that I wish I was more FEMININE in my movements. I want to be DAINTY. I wish to be a DELICATE WAIF-LIKE ETHEREAL FLOWER BUT I'M JUST NOT. I'm clumsy. I'm ungainly. I'm strong and I'm stoic, and it might take another two years but I'm going to finish the NHS couch25k podcast. It's meant to take nine weeks. So far it's taken me 140ish. Slow and steady and all that.
According to the amazing, AMAZING This Girl Can campaign, two million fewer women than men exercise regularly because they're concerned about the way they look. Two million women aren't enjoying the mental and physical health benefits of gentle exercise because they're afraid of their bodies. Our bodies are a tool. They're an integral part of our life experience. They're the connective tissue between our brains and our souls and all the wonderful things we have to enjoy in this world. If you neglect your body, you'll only ever live two-thirds of your life. For me, running is an act of self-love. It feeds my self esteem - it's a tangible demonstration that I care about myself enough to take an hour out of my day tending to something that belongs to me and only me. I'm currently working towards running 5k. I'd like to get to 10k eventually. No more. Stick your marathons up your arse. If I need to travel 26 miles I'll get a bus. 

Warm Fuzzies

Since it all kicked off, I've been overwhelmed by messages of support from all over the world. This is an extract from a beautiful email I received from a Turkish PE teacher (faithfully reproduced with his kind permission):
"Today i saw your letter in a news. Im shocked. I don't know when it happened. But it is so new in Turkey. Everybody feels sick about your flirt boy. Everybody already hate him. Cause of he hurts your feeling. There is a group of childs im helping them for their physical evolution. Some of them really overweight. And some of them really skinny. But they love eachother. And noone laughs the others body. In my country in school, in course or any organisation first lesson is loving our body and loving our friends. Today i regrouped the childs. We went to swimming. And none of them knows your case. I read them your and the other mans letter. They are just 10 - 15 years old. I think your letter  is a good letter to example them how this case hurts people. After a little discussion i saw them hug overweight friends. I really like this. They are maybe little people. But they have big hearth. And they understand what i mean."
We have to keep this conversation going, folks. We have to talk to our young people about their bodies and other people's, about all the ways a healthy, happy body can look. And they have to know that each body - fat, thin, healthy, unfit, whether it's full of burgers or bulgar wheat - deserves RESPECT. 
It starts with us. Together we can prevent body shaming and bullying, and promote health and happiness for everyone at any size. 
Thank you. 
Michelle x

Dear Maria, Hayley, Fatima, Asli, Beatriz, Cassandra, Meagan, and all the other young girls who've asked me for help.

(This letter was originally published by BDC Wire. Here's a fuller version). 
I've been overwhelmed by thousands of messages of support from all over the world after my recent blog post about my experience of body-shaming was viewed over 220,000 times worldwide. The messages that pluck most insistently at my conscience are those I receive from girls as young as 12. I have three nieces: an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 2-month-old. This is for them. 
Dear Maria, Dear Hayley, Dear Fatima, Asli, Beatriz, Cassandra, Meagan, and Katelyn. 
Dear Macie. Dear Phoebe. Dear Ava. 
Dear all of you. 
First of all, thank you so much for emailing me. It's a brave thing, to confide to a stranger that you're confused, or lonely, or unhappy. Sharing these concerns is the best way to get rid of them, but few people remember that (myself included). So again – thank you.
Secondly, just imagine we're chatting in a park, or at a bus stop, or at a birthday party. You see, in case you didn't know, I am in no way qualified to dispense advice to anyone. However, you took the time to write to me, so I will respond. If you really need to talk to someone proper, someone who knows how to help you if you need it, I've included some contacts at the end. 
Each of you ladies has written to me because you think you're “not normal”. Because you find it hard to make friends, or because you've never had a boyfriend and fear you never will because (exclusively because) of the way you look. You've written because you're afraid to take swimming lessons because of the bathing costumes. And you've asked me for advice on how to “make (your) body the kind that will attract boys.” 
You're writing to me (I think) because when a man tried to make me feel bad about my body, I responded with what I believe you refer to as a “mic-drop” moment. I told him off for imposing his views about my body upon me uninvited. I told him what it means when a man criticizes a woman's weight—it confirms the fear that every girl has (something that, sadly, your letters have confirmed): that it doesn't matter how funny you are, how clever, how kind, how loyal, how determined or adventurous or vibrant—if you're overweight, no one will ever fancy you. 
I am overweight. While this isn't ideal because it means I'm not at my best health-wise, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Your body should never, ever be a source of shame. Darling Girls: tuck these words into a pocket in your mind, so that you can pull them out and re-read them whenever you may need to. YOUR BODY SHOULD NEVER, EVER BE A SOURCE OF SHAME.  
You can decide you want to change your body for the better, as I have (I've lost 20 pounds by dramatically improving my diet and plan to lose 20 more). But taking care of your body doesn't mean you have to hurt it. It doesn't mean starving it, wearing it out, gorging that beautiful brain which you should be filling with books and art and driving lessons on identical, dead-eyed, alien images that insist that being white and skinny and never ever smiling is the only way for any woman to be of any worth.
Absolutely no good comes from hating your body. You must train yourself to love it. It is not an object, nor a commodity, nor is it a burden. It is not someone else's trophy. It's the only thing in this world that is yours and yours alone, and you only get one. FFS, girls (yes, I know the middle one means a swear word), love your body.
Sadly, there are people – rich, powerful people - who aim to make a lot of money from tricking you into thinking of your body as a source of shame. They'll tell you it's too big, too hairy, too pale, too dark, too muscly, or not muscly enough. There are individuals too, who will try to use this awful power to undermine you, to control and manipulate you. Do not let them. I hope that by starting an honest conversation with you now, you brave, smart girls, you'll have the tools to laugh at any and all attempts to undermine you. Challenge them. Outwit them. Show them your disdain for them. But above all, laugh at them. Then you'll have won. We ALL will have won.
Now, girls, I think I am going to give you a little advice, if I may. Find something you love and keep doing it. The world has so many beautiful, smart, enriching things to fill your head and your heart with: books and art and films, and activities like dancing, cooking, hiking, competitive spear fishing....
Try EVERYTHING. Start a band. Take photographs. Write a blog. Find out what you like and keep doing it.
In doing this, you'll meet people who share your passions. Some of those people will become your friends. A few may become something more, if that's what you both want. (I didn't have a proper boyfriend until I was 19—I know there's no point in me saying, "Don't worry about it," but please, don't worry about it.) 
One more thing: Absolutely no online dating until you're at least 25. I won't go into why. You're just going to have to trust me on this one.
Be smart and be kind, respect yourself and others, trust yourself, and take care of yourself, you clever, courageous girls. When I grow up, I want to be just like you.
Michelle xx 


Last week I was rejected by a man after one date for not being “a slip of a girl”. I threw together a blog responding to the horrible things he said before heading to the pub.
That blog has now been viewed 220K times.
I've gone from having 70 instagram followers to almost 27k.
I'm getting 1000s of messages from all over the world from women and men desperate to talk about their bodies, about shame, about bullying, and about recovery.
It's overwhelming, but incredibly galvanising. I've got my big-girl knick-knicks on, and my sturdy boots. My sleeves are rolled up and I'm ready to work to keep the conversation going.
*stands on a soapbox, clears throat*
1) Don't be a bad human. 
In particular in relation bodyshaming – a regrettably widely-used lexical term for the act of bullying and belittling someone due to their physical appearance. Too fat, too thin, too hairy, not hairy enough, too short, too tall......ENOUGH. I've been using the term a lot recently as I had to grab the nearest one to hand when it all kicked off (give me a break, I've never gone viral before). But I'm coming around to thinking it might be superfluous. "Bullying" is a perfectly acceptable term for this type of behaviour. As is "being a bumhole". But yeah, let's keep it PG. Let's keep it at “don't be a bad human”.
2a) It's fine to have a physical preference....
We all do. That's biology. It's great to fancy someone of a particular physical manifestation. And it's fine not to fancy someone regardless of how well put together they are. We all have our weaknesses (myself? I love a pretty face). However....
2b) It's not fine to make your physical preference someone else's problem.
Looking at a platonic friend and secretly thinking "if only they were taller / slimmer / hairier / younger...." is fine. It's a cruel biological trick, but hey, the species won't continue itself.
Did you spot the key word there?
When you tell someone "You're lovely! But I'd love it if you were taller / slimmer / hairier / younger....", you are making your (perhaps limited) physical preferences their problem. You are imposing your values on them, unsolicited. It's passive-aggressive. It's manipulative. At its worst, this behaviour is known as “negging” - a shamefull prevalent "dating strategy" (YUCK) which involves methodically chipping away at a person's self-esteem until they are utterly under your control. This behaviour is in breach of manifesto item 1. Don't do it.
3) Be honest with yourself and others about your body.
This is a tricky one. This one may hurt.
According to the NHS, one in four of us is overweight.
I am one of the four, being roughly 20 pounds overweight.
I've already lost 15, and am making good, slow, steady progress.
I want to be fitter and care for my body. I want to finish the NHS Couch25K podcast instead of giving up in the 5th week.But that's not to say that I don't love and enjoy my body right now. Here. Today.
I'm not ashamed of being overweight. I'm not embarrassed to share that I'm working to lose weight.
The feeling of shame in relation to weight is evident by the (well-meaning) messages I've received claiming I "can't be" overweight (well, my doctor says I am), I “don't look overweight” (I do, because I am) and in one bewildering instance, "fat is just a state of mind" (what?! No. It's really not).
We need to take the poison out of the statement "I'm overweight". That doesn't mean accepting being overweight as happy and healthy, it just means being unabashedly clear and honest a s/when you're moving towards change.
In order to cast out shame, w e need to start being honest about our bodies. P ost honest pics on your dating profiles, ladies and gents. I f you arrive and you're not the person your date thought you were, you're setting yourself up for rejection, because you have already sent the message that your true self isn't good enough.
Which brings me to manifesto item:
4) Before/After Culture is Evil.
You know the pictures I mean: the ones that reinforce the idea if you're overweight you must be depressed, reclusive, sexless, lonely and unattractive.
STANDARD AFTER PIC: Groomed. Glamorous. Gorgeous (with a hint of wistfulness for the lost years in Club Fatty-Boom-Batty).
My "before" pics are the swimsuit ones you might have seen online. They were taken on my 30th birthday to mark the occasion. In those picture I'm horribly hungover after a heavy night-before which involved my mates spoiling me rotten with delicious food and booze. On that day my gorgeous friend Zoe and I went to my favourite park, where we cackled like crones as she chased me around with a camera, yelling “STICK YOUR BUM OUT! STICK YOUR TITS OUT!” (to the bewilderment of many a dogwalker)
Yes. I'm overweight in those pictures. But did that make that day any less joyous? Less memorable? Less important? Hells No.
I don't know what my after shots will look like but if they're as fun as the before....? Mate. I can't wait. Nor should you.
Enjoy all the amazing things you can do with your body right now. Do things. Look at stuff. Talk to people. Walk around a bit. Use that joy as a propeller aimed at health and happiness.
Which brings me to my final point, and the nub of our campaign strategy – its title.
Healthy. Happy. Hot.
Aim for the first two. The third will take care of itself. 
Coming soon.