On this day, one year ago exactly I was on my way into work. I had just started my new job in an organisation that requires security at the entrances. I have an ID badge that allows me to go in and out of the building without being stopped.
On this particular March day it was cold and I was running late. I ran to the gate and flashed my badge at the man standing before me, whom I did not recognise, wearing a balaclava over most of his face and a hat pulled down so only his eyes were visible in his large frame.
I flashed my badge and tried to continue at my (admittedly unfit and quite slow) running pace.
An arm came out and stopped me.
“Excuse me, stop there, can I see that badge?”
I stopped and waited, slightly hopping from foot to foot, anxious to get in. I don’t know if you, reader, are a late person but I am. I am constantly battling the passing of time and losing. I am permanently overly optimistic about how much (or rather, how little) time something will take me and I am frequently anywhere from slightly to hugely annoyed with myself for not remembering that traffic lights, traffic, other people, bus stops and public transport problems exist. Oh and of course it takes more than 2 minutes to get to most places.
He held my badge, studied my face carefully and sternly, scrutinised my badge, stared at my face again and a minute later I realised who was standing in front of me – it was the head of security.
“Dude*,” I said (except I didn’t call him *dude, I called him by his name but you know, identity protection). ” What are you doing? You know who I am. You printed my badge.”
“Yeah I know,” he replied. “I just wanted to keep you here to look at you longer because you’re beautiful.”
“Ugh,” I snorted back. I snatched my badge back and quickly walked into work, now that I was allowed to, feeling my skin crawl from his eyes on me watching me walk away.
It bothered me all day. I got on with the business of learning new things about the company, my job, processes, people, politics…but in the back of my mind it nagged. I felt weirdly protective of myself, like a safe space had been violated. The thing is, I wasn’t sure what it was. It was that murky in-between territory. Was it banter? Flirting? He didn’t touch me. But he didn’t have to – I still felt my arms go up around me as if to hug myself.
I talked to a friend about it at lunch and that confirmed it for me – it wasn’t banter. It wasn’t flirting. It was unwarranted, uncalled for, unasked for, permission not requested or given, sexual harrassment.
Get yourself ready because it’s fun facts and statistics time!
1 in 3 American women experience sexual harrassment according to research performed by Cosmopolitan who surveyed 2,235 full-time and part-time female employees aged 18-34 and found that one in three women has experienced sexual harassment at work at some point their lives (OK I know Cosmo isn’t exactly the go-to reliable news source but a poll is a poll guys).
In the UK it’s not better.
“Researchers from the Trades Union Congress and the Everyday Sexism Project found that 52% of women had experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes. Among women and girls aged 16-24, the proportion reporting sexual harassment rose to 63%.” – The Guardian, 10.08.2016
So in other words the younger you are, the more naive, the more vulnerable, the less well-equipped you are to deal with something as intimidating as sexual harrassment from someone in authority, the more likely it is to happen to you if you dared to be a girl / woman / female and enter the workplace (or leave the house and walk on the street, but that’s a whole other issue with its own set of depressing statistics. One issue at a time guys.)
I went back to the office after lunch, this time with no hassle because a different person was on the door. That afternoon I had a meeting with one of my managers. We sat and after a few minutes I ummed and errred a bit and eventually said “I’m not sure what this is and I don’t want to get anyone in trouble if it’s nothing but…” and I told him.
He looked horrified, apologised profusely for the behaviour of the person in question and asked me to put it in writing along with 2 other incidents that had made me uncomfortable. Together they formed a picture of a person in a position of authority abusing his position to sexually harrass a young, female new employee. My manager took me seriously, took notes, apologised, assured me it was not in the ethos of the company and offered to walk me into the office for the rest of the week to ensure I felt safe.
I could not have had a better experience reporting this issue and I cannot stress enough how important it is that more women must come forward when things like this happen. I was lucky that it wasn’t someone in a managerial position who was my direct line manager. I was lucky that I had a safe person to report it to, who took me seriously. I was lucky that the organisation is an absolutely glowing example of how we can and should look after employees, treat them equally whatever their gender, sexual orientation or identification, race, background, health or abilities.
It turned out I had opened a can of worms. This person had bothered other young women who worked at this organisation and they started to come forward. Following a separate issue we happened to have a session from a human rights lawyer on employment law and rights in the workplace. We were told that when someone is harrassed and they report it, one of the key things that happens after as a result, is victimisation – further bullying after the harrassment.
My job was made harder. The man in question was so angry that I had reported him and he had been reprimanded. I had asked to remain anonymous but due to the specific nature of the problem and part of his warning in how he should be treating female employees, particularly me, it was unfortunately clear that I had reported him. He began to refuse legitimate requests that I made for things that I needed to do my job. He made it harder for me to do any part of my job that he could have an effect on and he became rude and unpleasant when I had to interact with him. Before I had wanted to avoid him in case he made me feel uncomfortable, now I dreaded every interaction with him.
Eventually, after I made a second complaint and other women in the office came forward with their own complaints against him, he “was reassigned” somewhere else and someone new came in. Things improved and the workplace felt safe again.
When I told a couple of people what happened they asked me why it wasn’t OK to call me beautiful, told me I was overreacting and said that it seems ridiculous that you can’t meet people at work any more.
This is what I said to them:
This is a man in a position of authority – he can, if he wants to, stop me coming into work but he shouldn’t without a valid reason. He can stop any person coming into the building if he feels they are a threat to the security of the people in the building. He stopped me coming in so he could look at me. So he could objectify me. So he could assert his authority over me. Because he thinks I’m beautiful. This is in my place of work, where I come to be professional and do my job. That’s not flattering, it’s controlling and it’s an abuse of his position. That’s not the same as asking me, asking if I want to go for a drink sometime because he’d like to get to know me better. Here’s how that conversation goes:
Him: Hey, I think you’re great and I’d like to get to know you better. Would you like to go for a drink?
Me: No thanks, I’m not really interested in you like that and I prefer to keep my work life professional.
For me, there’s no problem asking once and seeing if you get an answer that is positive, as long as you accept that the answer might be negative.
Calling me gorgeous, sexy or beautiful in my workplace reduces me to my physical appearance. And I might be all those things but calling me that where I work undermines my position as a professional and worse, it does so while hiding behind the guise of a compliment or banter, making it harder for me to complain when I feel uncomfortable.
I didn’t overreact. I spoke up when a situation was created to put me in a position of discomfort and take away my voice. I said something when I was made to feel small and vulnerable and I didn’t let the person actually make me feel those things. I made myself bigger and louder and as a result, other women felt they were able to as well. I took more bullying for it but it feels oddly worth it. I led by example, I didn’t back down and in doing so I gave other women permission to speak up for themselves too.
So on this day, International Women’s Day 2017 I ask my fellow awesome women to look after yourselves, look after each other and remember every time you stand up for yourself against something that is sexist and unfair, you smash the patriarchy a tiny bit more.
Today in the park I saw the man who raped me.
He was the first man who had sex with me. I don’t phrase it as the first man I had sex with because that makes me sound like I was an active participant and I wasn’t really. And on a warm September day more than 10 years after he raped me, he walked past me. He was with his dad – yep, weird to remember that he has a family and they knew him as a tiny child and his history extends so far beyond how I know him – and I was on my own and there he was. Just…there. He’s not even supposed to be in this country.
I don’t know if he saw me. We walked past each other as if we didn’t know each other, like ships that pass in the night. Or in this case, like boats that pass in the day. But we did know each other. We definitely did.
I’ve been listening to The Archers as they went through Helen and Rob’s trial dealing with domestic abuse. Despite the fact that it’s Helen on trial for the attempted murder of her husband Rob, during the court proceedings it comes out that he raped her on a regular basis. She talks about how she switched off and became numb in the end and something struck a chord. I know that feeling.
I remember being raped like an out of body experience. I don’t remember it happening to me – it’s more like I was hovering above watching as it happened. I remember the conversation and the instructions he gave but I don’t remember….
I remember it not hurting and being confused that it didn’t hurt because the first time is supposed to hurt isn’t it? Why didn’t it hurt? But I don’t remember how it actually felt.
I remember him commanding me to tell him I love him even though I didn’t.
I remember crying after and not knowing why.
I remember but I don’t remember.
He looks exactly the same. I don’t think I do. I don’t feel the same – I can’t possibly look it. I’ve grown outward and upward and inward and in all the directions a person can grow. I have expanded to fit myself in ways that I never thought I would.
Three thoughts went through my head as we walked past each other.
1 – No. That’s him. Why is he here?
2 – Thank God he didn’t see me.
3 – Nothing. I feel nothing.
And after the initial shock it was strangely liberating to know that 10.5 years on, walking past him I felt nothing.
And yet I know on a different day I might have felt something.
On neither of these days would I be able to talk to him. To look at him properly, hear his voice; speak to him without fury and pain and questions that I don’t believe he’d ever answer. I wouldn’t want to meet his eye. I wouldn’t want to try because I don’t believe he’d ever see that what he did was wrong. He remembers it differently. His story will never be, “I raped that 17 year old girl”.
And that’s such a big part of the problem.
One of the other things The Archers dealt with was the shame. The shame of admitting it happened. The thought of talking to my family about it fills me with terror and dread and an intense desire to hide or run away because I don’t want them to carry that knowledge around. I don’t want their picture of me to be this picture of me. It’s not shame for me but the thought of giving them that pain…I couldn’t look at them. They don’t need to be hurt like that. They can’t un-know it once they know.
I didn’t – couldn’t – tell anyone for 8 years because I didn’t acknowledge it myself. And just like Helen in The Archers, I knew it wasn’t right. I didn’t say anything to anyone about it. If I talked about losing my virginity I lied. I said it was when I was 18 over Christmas with the next guy I dated.
I suppose what I want to say is this:
It’s not ok. It is horrible and awful and violating. It’s not ok that it happened to me or to you or to anyone you know.
It’s not ok that I didn’t really know what it was. That I didn’t report it. That I didn’t even know what had happened to report. It’s not ok that when rape is shown on TV or in films it’s nearly always violent and angry and down a back alley. It’s not sneaky and manipulative and on your boyfriend’s bedroom floor. How can we recognise it in reality if we don’t know the most common forms it can take?
It’s not ok that there are men manipulating, taking and violating women. It’s not ok that people like Brock Turner aren’t being punished severely for this because they can swim really well guys so yeah it doesn’t matter how they treat women because whatever it’s just a woman right? Those people are making the world less safe for everyone. They’re doing a disservice to all the men who respectfully don’t go around raping women and then denying responsibility for it after the fact. They’re sullying your reputation and what it means to be a man. And what they’re doing to women is much, much worse.
But I’m ok.
And it’s ok that it took me a long time to acknowledge it.
It’s ok that I didn’t know how to talk about it, that I felt nothing for 8 years because I didn’t allow myself to think about it for that long.
It’s ok that I cry now when someone talks seriously about rape, fictionally, a book, an article, on the radio, in reality…anywhere really.
It’s ok that I find it hard to say that I was raped, that what happened to me was rape, that the man I saw in the park is the rapist who raped me. My mouth sort of gets stuck around the words and they stop in my throat and they choke me a bit but I feel like I have to force them out. It’s hard to say it out loud.
It’s ok that I feel a bit weird when someone talks about the statistics around rape and women because I slot myself into them and I don’t like it but I know I’m there. And there are so many of us. We are an ocean of faces. And those are just the ones on the surface – the ones you can see.
It’s ok that I felt nothing when I walked past him. It’s ok that on a different day I might have felt everything. Because I did my best and I’m always doing my best to deal with it. I’m lucky it doesn’t haunt me every day of my life. But it sneaks up on me and surprises me with its impact sometimes.
I went and sat on the grass in the sun for 45 minutes before I went back to work. Everything carried on as normal around me.
This boat is still afloat, sailing strong and beautiful. Today I am OK.
I often feel that I am a bit of a grinch when it comes to feminsim. I spend a lot of my time thinking that although things are progressing, they are not progressing well enough or fast enough for my liking. I have to remind myself on a regular basis that these things take time, more time than they should take, that I must be patient, that equality does not serve everyone’s agenda equally (even though I think those agendas are often terrible and don’t deserve to be served at all). So it is with a heavy sigh and a weary feeling that I write this piece.
Buzzfeed reported that Uber had an alarmingly high number of sexual assault and rape complaints registered, in an exposé written about internal data and customer safety. The numbers in the below quote from the article are disturbing and scary and no doubt lead to justified fears for female safety.
“In one screenshot, a search query for “sexual assault” returns 6,160 Uber customer support tickets. A search for “rape” returns 5,827 individual tickets. Other variations of the terms yield similarly high returns: A search for “assaulted” shows 3,524 tickets, while “sexually assaulted” returns 382 results.”
So far nothing seems too grinch-like from me right? Buckle up. I’m just getting started.
Michael Pelletz from Boston used to be an Uber driver and was so horrified by the notion that women wouldn’t be safe in Uber that he blew a massive whistle and started a nationwide investigation into each and every claim against drivers for sexual assault and rape.
He didn’t do that at all.
What he has done is created an app called Chariots for Women, a taxi service app that only women and boys under the age of 13 are allowed to use to ensure they get home safely, because all the drivers are female.
“What’s wrong with that?” I hear you wondering.
“I AM SO GLAD YOU ASKED LET ME TELL YOU,” I would reply if I weren’t imagining this exchange.
1 – Segregation is not the answer. If anything it may make the situation worse. What if I want to or have to or choose to use uber after Chariots for Women is available? What happens if I use uber, and I am assaulted or raped? There is suddenly a narrative created where it’s very easy to say “well, you could have used the ladies one where you wouldn’t have been raped.” Doesn’t that sound disturbingly similar to the classic victim blaming “Here are all the things you could do to not get raped” line of thought? By giving women the choice to use “the dangerous rapey Uber” or “the safe and friendly ladies only one” you put the onus on the women to choose and you condone the behaviour of the people who are raping. Because what is their punishment? Also can you just imagine if someone segregated cabs based on race? Or sexuality? How would we all react to that I wonder?
2- Women also commit crimes. Michael Peletz said that an incident where he thought a shady passenger might be about to pull a gun on him made him wonder if he’s this scared how a woman might feel. And in this Dose article, he is thanked. Why are we thanking him for assuming a man will handle a gun being pulled on him better than a woman? If someone pulls a gun on you while you’re driving, it doesn’t matter what your gender is, you’re probably screwed. It is sexist nonsense to think that a) a woman won’t ever carry a gun IN AMERICA WHERE YOUR GUN LAWS ARE LUDICROUS, and b) that a woman would be more afraid than a man finding out that a passenger has pulled out said gun. Sexist. Nonsense.
3 – Segregation is still not the answer. Taking women away from men wraps us in mystery, like placing us in a tower and calling us princesses. I am not mysterious and I do not want to be held apart from men as some kind of mystifying creature. I do not need to be shut away in a separate room / building / car and protected. I need people to be taught that they must treat women with respect. I need people to have better education on what it means to consent to sex. I need people to stop buying into a narrative where I am, and all women are a temptation that must be removed. I don’t need to be hidden. Women do not need to be removed so a man doesn’t rape us. Men need to control their urges and respect us more and so they don’t rape women. Don’t punish us and call it protection.
We still have such a long way to go with acknowledging women’s rights. In the UK, in Northern Ireland, where a woman can be prosecuted for having an abortion. Still. In 2016. We have a 25% pay gap. Still. In 2016. The latest NHS junior doctor contract has basically just decided to make it harder for women to become doctors or at the very least has ensured that sneaky pay gap won’t be going anywhere any time soon in the medical industry. And don’t even get me started on places like Saudi Arabia – where a woman may not drive, try on clothes in a store or apparently go into an un-segregated Starbucks herself to buy her coffee. Lest she be seen. Lest she be heard. Lest a man cannot control his urges and desires upon knowing a woman is behind a closed, locked door, removing clothes or upon hearing the dulcet tones of a female voice ordering a grande skinny mocha iced latte, extra cream, double blended. They’re right of course. That is just too sexually arousing. I wouldn’t know how to contain myself either.
I am so tired of feeling frustrated with a world that does not want to catch up. I am so tired of hearing stories of women who are pushed to the back, who are concealed, who are separated and segregated and told that we must not be seen because if we are, we’ll be in danger. And we’re supposed to be grateful. I’m supposed to be delighted by the fact that I can be separated from men and have my own special woman car service. Am I grateful? Am I fuck.
Stop punishing us for being women and start punishing the men who are perpetrating these crimes for being criminals. To draw the racial comparison again – if a white person beats the crap out of a black person, is the black person asked to stay indoors? Or hide? Or somehow make themselves look less black? No. Of course not. And yet with women….
There is no such thing as non-consensual sex. That is called rape. There is consensual sex and there is rape. Sexual assault is a crime. Rape is a crime. Stop telling the story that women are to blame by hiding us away. Giving us our own special app is not a gift – it’s a cop out that allows rapists to get away with raping. I am not a temptation that just needs to be removed. So can we just stop pretending that we’re doing something good every time we perpetuate the problem of sexual assault and rape being a socially acceptable crime that we pussy foot around and repeatedly don’t deal with?
Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969-1973 and there was a discussion in parliament about a number of rapes and sexual crimes occurring. There was a suggestion that a curfew should be enforced for women, that to keep them safe they should be indoors by nightfall. Golda Meir famously replied,
“But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.”
Stop punishing women for the crimes that men commit.
We place a lot of pressure on ourselves to be all sorts of things. The phrase “I should be…” resounds in our heads all too often. It took me a long time and the end of a terrible relationship to realise that I was not happy. I look back at my 22 year old self and I think about the things I would like to tell her. It’s not so much advice as reassurance and some warnings. I suppose it’s mostly a heads up on what to expect, to 22 year old Abi from 27 year old Abi.
Your hips will get wider.
Your arse will suddenly appear where previously little to no arse was. Do not be alarmed. It’s a good arse.
You won’t be able to do all nighters any more. You’ll think you can but you’ll get to anywhere between 1 and 4am and suddenly it won’t be worth it and all you’ll want is your bed.
It won’t be as easy to get back to sleep if you wake up early, regardless of the time you went to sleep. That one will annoy you. Loads.
You still won’t be tidy but you’ll be better than you were. It will continue to be a constant battle.
You won’t have to work in an office. I mean, you’ve aged 5 years but you’re not a totally different person. You’ll be resourceful and find work where you can to earn enough money to get by. You won’t be rich…yet.
You won’t be living all your dreams but you’ll be working towards them. You’ll know you’re going to keep doing that, slowly and steadily. It won’t stress you out that you’re not there yet.
You still won’t have grey hair nor will you be bald. You should probably stop worrying about going bald. It’s really very unlikely.
Gravity already affects your breasts. It’s going to keep doing that. Increasingly so. They’ll still be big. You won’t get a reduction. The great descent will continue. No one else will mind.
You’ll have different friends but they’ll be better and stronger friendships than you could ever have believed. They’ll be filled with laughter, support and love and the kind of acceptance you don’t yet know because you’re 22. They will be wonderful friendships with incredible people and they’ll be a testament to both you and the people you will choose to give parts of yourself to.
You will make better choices all round.
You will still sometimes make terrible choices. You’re not perfect. You never will be. But you’ll no longer be putting pressure on yourself to be perfect.
You won’t care what people think of you. You really won’t. You will feel so entirely liberated by that.
You’ll still be loud but it will be about things that matter. Mostly. Sometimes you’ll still just be loud.
You’ll be able to spend time alone and it won’t feel like you want to panic and run away from yourself.
In fact you’ll really like spending time alone. You’ll relish the peace, space and quiet.
You’ll find romantic trust and love much harder. It will scare you more.
You’ll exercise. Seriously. Believe it.
You’ll have had 3.5 years of therapy and it will have been one of the best decisions you ever made for yourself. You’ll still be going to regular sessions now. Because of it you’ll understand your own mental health much better and you’ll be more open and empathetic towards others.
You’ll have started to understand what it means to be kind to yourself. How to look after yourself and read the signs of when you’re trying to do too much or running from something you want to avoid dealing with.
You’ll be a massive, raging feminist, amongst other things.
You’ll want to help the world. A lot.
You’ll be more politically engaged and educated and interested in the world around you than you ever have been.
You’ll believe very strongly in adoption.
You’ll believe less strongly in religion.
You’ll still believe in God but how you define that God will have changed and probably will continue to change.
You’ll get to 27 and you’ll have never felt more sure of what you think and how to express it.
You’ll get to 27 and you’ll have never felt more beautiful or attractive or wanted, by friends or partners or colleagues – by people in general.
You’ll like yourself – your personality and your body – more than you could ever imagine at 22.
And even though you’ll know it won’t last forever because stuff just happens all the time, right now in this moment, at this age, you’ll be delighted by life.
22 year old Abi. It’s going to be ok. You’ll see. You’ll get there.
And when you do, you won’t believe how wonderful it feels.
You’ll get to 27 and you’ll be happier than you’ve ever been.
I work really hard.
I love some of what I do. I hate some of what I have to do. Every job has perks, every job has pitfalls. That is the nature of working to earn a living to be part of an imperfect world that functions on money.
I never quite earn enough money because nothing pays me very much. It is one of the pitfalls of the lifestyle I choose to live that my money often fluctuates. I concede that it might actually be more of a reflection on me and my total lack of money management. But unless someone wants to start giving me £70k / year to find out what happens when I have more cash, we’ll never know for sure. (Any takers / givers? No? Didn’t think so.)
We live in a society (capitalist, western) that tells us we must be awake at certain times, asleep at others. It is a world angled towards morning people and not great for night owls. We are told we must work in a certain way, at certain places, we must achieve certain things, even like particular foods and styles. We must conform to be acceptable in the eyes of society. And if that doesn’t work for you? You’d better be prepared to work twice as hard going against the grain.
I’m very lucky that I come from a privileged, middle class background. I have been allowed the time to find what it is that I can do to make myself happy. My parents have mostly been incredibly supportive and understanding during the horrendous periods when I’ve been looking for work.
I tried the more socially accepted route. I really did. I worked in an office for a few months as a temp and though some of the people were lovely and a very good friend of mine worked there too, I was miserable. I was unchallenged, I didn’t care about the work I was doing, I felt no connection to the lifestyle and the possibility of that repetitive drudgery stretching endlessly on in front of me became genuinely too much for me to bear. It made me so incredibly unhappy. I was late almost every morning. It didn’t help that it was winter and I was getting up in the dark, eating lunch inside and then leaving again in the dark. There were no windows where I was sitting. Some days I didn’t see daylight. For me, that is a perfect recipe for sinking into situational depression. And that is what happened.
I was offered another 6 months at the place in a different role. I accepted out of fear and desperation. In the new team, no one spoke to me on my first day. When I arrived, my desk was covered in fluff, dust and some human hair. There was still no daylight anywhere near me.
Unsurprisingly, I left in my first week of that position.
It was the best decision I could have made. I haven’t looked back.
Every so often I get tempted to look at office jobs. Jobs that offer me more money and stability than I have now. Jobs that have more career progression options than I have now. But really, “career progression” is just another way of saying “even more potential money and stability”. And those are actually not things I crave.
I’ve noticed a trend among the more conventional of my friends. Caveat: it is well meaning and I know it comes from a good and kind and thoughtful place in their hearts, but I find it incredibly frustrating. They’ll send me a job that has something vaguely related to something I maybe once did, or there might not even be that connection. Without fail it is low paid, or even unpaid internship level. Very, very occasionally it is something that I might legitimately be interested in. But usually it is something completely irrelevant to anything I’ve ever done.
It makes me feel like they see me and think I don’t work hard or don’t work at all.
It makes me feel like they don’t take me seriously, that they look at my life and think it’s a joke or something that needs fixing and that the obvious repair is a stable office job.
It makes me feel like they think childcare and writing and working at a theatre and part time teaching are not legitimate or valuable jobs at all, but are fillers “until she gets a proper job”. It makes me feel like they don’t care or don’t understand that I’ve found a way to balance happiness with the necessity of working. It feels like they want to take that away.
I’ve often thought about looking up completely random, low paid jobs to send back to them with the same accompanying message of “I saw this and thought you might be interested!”
Because their response would then be the same as mine: Why?
When you saw that job, what made you think that I, who have clearly made this choice to live my life in this way, would want to go back to a thing that made me so miserable? Why, when I have not one but FOUR JOBS would you think I’d want one that paid me even less than what I currently earn? Why at 26 years old do you think I’m going to intern for a company I don’t care about doing something I find meaningless? Why on earth do you think I’m worth so little? Do you really think I’m only capable of doing this? Do you know how insulting it is to receive a job suggestion that shows how little you think of me? Why do you see that thing and think of me?
I wonder if these are the same people who see two single human beings and think “Aha! A match!” And try to set them up with literally no regard for either person’s partner requirements. The virtue of being single is enough. Because no one could be happy being single. And no one could be happy outside of the 9am-6pm office life.
There are so many ways to choose to live. I’m not motivated by money. I don’t care about it. I use it because I have to. I earn it because I have to. There is value to it beyond the literal number on the note or coin – financial independence is a huge milestone in a person’s life. But it does not fuel or excite me. It does not make me feel like I’ve achieved something when I’ve earned money. I do not feel like my worth is measured by my bank balance. Far, far from it. I am still finding my way in this choice but in terms of how I choose to live, the thing that’s important to me is my happiness. It’s not as selfish as it sounds – I often achieve that happiness by doing things for other people, looking after them, doing worthy and good things with my time and money.
Sitting in an office strikes me as not worthy, not good and not worth my time or the pittance money I’d be paid. It doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t give me time to follow my passion of writing. It doesn’t allow me even basic things like the privilege of lots of daylight. I love the freedom I have. I manage my own time. And I’m not that far away from saving up a bit of cash, buying a ticket somewhere and going to see the world. I think the life I choose to live means I’m a few steps closer to being able to do that than if I worked in an office, if only because of the attitude that I have when it comes to my freedom. I have nothing tying me down. And I love it.
I often feel that my lifestyle is judged harshly by the more conventional people I know.
To those people I say this: I work incredibly hard. I work long days doing some things you could do and some things you couldn’t. I work with passion and enthusiasm and it is sometimes only bearable and other times downright joyful. I relish the difference and lack of routine between my days. I am never bored. A good friend of mine says “stay busy, stay happy” – I am busy. I am so very happy.
Yours is not the only way to live a life. Nor is mine. You might love your security or money or routine. That’s great for you. I love my life. I don’t judge you based on your motivation.
So please. Don’t judge me on mine.
So it’s my first day in Chicago. I’ve landed and already picked up a middle aged Welsh guy as my new best friend. I’ve not eaten enough, I’ve been awake for 21 hours and I’m jetlagged like nobody’s business. I needed something to keep me awake for the evening and after going for a walk, buying the standard toiletries I forgot to bring (toothpaste. It’s always toothpaste) I decided the only smart thing to do was to find an open mic night in the city that is home to some of the greatest comedy stages on earth.
I read an article in time out that listed the top 10 open mic nights and I went along. It was pretty quiet, nothing too fancy and seemed fine for what I wanted – something light enough to occupy my brain and stop me from falling asleep and waking up at 5am the next day.
I did my set and it was fine but a couple of people after me there was a woman called Bridget who seemed to be in her late 30s, maybe early 40s. She did a set that made me feel really uncomfortable. She stood up and I promise, verbatim she said
“I hate the Jews. Don’t you just hate the Jews? They just celebrated 70 years of the holocaust. IT HAPPENED 70 YEARS AGO WHY CAN’T YOU JUST GET OVER IT ALREADY? They don’t shut up about it. And 70 years ago they keep going on about how 6 million of them were killed or whatever – that was ages ago! You’d think there’d be more of them already!”
Now this didn’t get laughs and there was a feeling of awkwardness in the room and she eventually asked “What? Why aren’t you laughing? Is one of you Jewish or something?”
So I replied saying, “I am.”
And she stared at me and said “What? Are you offended?”
I opened my mouth and said, “I’m not offended but I am disgusted.”
And she faltered for a second and then told me to get over it.
I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not. A woman was literally standing there saying how much she hated me, my family, my friends, my community…an entire race of people. I don’t know if there is a right way to respond to that. On the one hand, she’s entitled to her opinions, free speech exists for a reason and whether I agree with her or not is irrelevant. That’s the beauty of the free world.
But I don’t think it is OK to stand on a stage and declare your baseless hatred for a group of people and then mock the greatest tragedy in their recent history. I don’t think that’s acceptable. And it’s not because it’s offensive.
I recently discussed this with an academic whom I greatly admire – being offended is a total waste of time. It doesn’t make you seem more intelligent and it’s not a valid argument in a conversation. To be honest, it feels a bit pompous, like hot air and ruffled feathers. You have the right to be offended, sure, but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a lazy way of articulating a feeling of affront. I feel like people say that something is offensive when what they really mean is they think it’s wrong but don’t want to take the time to explain why. Something offensive might be said because someone is ignorant and don’t know better, or because they want a reaction for attention or because they just don’t care about anyone else. But getting offended doesn’t teach that person anything.
Bridget disgusted me but she didn’t offend me. I didn’t sit there thinking, “Well I absolutely never, how dare she?”
I sat there thinking “I wonder if she realizes that what she’s saying isn’t acceptable? I wonder if she’s thought about whether anyone in the audience is Jewish? I wonder if she cares. I wonder why she thinks these things about people she doesn’t know.”
I don’t have a generalized opinion about any group. I don’t presume to think I can cast a judgment on anyone like that. It doesn’t feel right to me. I can’t make my brain think like that. But some people appear to be completely filled with baseless dislike and hatred and more than anything that saddens me. Imagine what life must be like viewed through those eyes.
I also found that I’ve learned something from this experience. I’ve always wondered what shock comedians like Frankie Boyle are trying to prove. He seems to hate everything and everyone. He makes jokes about anything. But really that’s it – he makes jokes. They’re carefully crafted and they poke fun at things but it’s really just fun. This woman had no craft behind what she was saying. She hadn’t structured her thoughts to say something funny. The only actual joke in there was that she’d said “celebrated” instead of “commemorated” about the holocaust. She must have been so pleased with herself to come up with something so entirely intellectual.
I’m very lucky. I have rarely felt like I am in the presence of anti-Semitism. But last night, for one of the few times in my life, I really felt it. I think we in the UK on the comedy scene are incredibly lucky and we don’t even know it. I truly believe that if someone in London got up and baselessly said they hated a specific religious group or a nationality, not in a character or with any real joke to make, they would be asked to leave the stage. The comperes I am lucky to know and have experienced wouldn’t let it happen. I’ve seen a lot of comedy in London and in Edinburgh and it really doesn’t seem to happen.
So thanks Bridget. Your anti-Semitism didn’t offend me. Your anti-Semitism made me appreciate how lucky I am, how good I have it, how excellent the people I’m surrounded by are, and what it is that Frankie Boyle does. I am not offended by you. I pity you.
Imagine being told by everyone you know that you’re not as popular as your sibling. That your sibling is better looking, cooler, more enigmatic and confident than you. Well of course they are – you’re uglier, slower, never got the girls or guys, never quite as witty or smart or fun. Nobody likes you as much.
This is not the blog post I thought I was going to write tonight. I sat down at my computer and had every intention of writing about Passover. I wanted to write about how easy it is to complain about things when we are stripped of our usual comforts, and how I was thinking that actually we should use this week to think about how lucky we are the other 51 weeks of the year, and not about how this week we’re slightly less satisfied.
But instead I sat down and wrote a post about how I’ve been feeling over the last few months. It must be the right time for me to have done this, because it just happened, without warning.
It was unplanned and is unedited and if self reflection isn’t your thing, then feel free to stop reading now and go and look at something about cats instead.
This may come as a surprise to some of you who may see me as a positive person, who see me as someone who laughs a lot and likes to make others laugh, who can be good natured and as someone who is full of energy. But the last few months have been very hard. I’ve found the winter we just had to be particularly challenging in a lot of ways. I found I wasn’t entirely able to get a grip on my emotions, and try as I might I simply could not pull myself up from where I felt I was – an incredibly low point.
I don’t exactly know what it was that I went through. I haven’t been diagnosed with depression and I don’t know if I’m feeling better now because I’ve come through a rough patch or because I’m in an up phase of mental well being and it’s just a cycle that works in peaks and troughs. I don’t know if I’ll sink again in a few weeks or if I’ll be fine for the next few months or years.
Here is what I do know:
I felt exhausted and miserable and lonely. I felt like I couldn’t tell people that I was really struggling. I felt like I was lost and no one would find me. I felt like I wanted desperately to ask for help but genuinely didn’t know how. I didn’t know what to ask for. I didn’t want to go out – I couldn’t, I didn’t have the energy – but I didn’t want to be alone. Nothing made me feel better. I kept crying and couldn’t remember what happy felt like. I felt paralysed by anxiety and fear and sadness but with no rational clue about what was making me feel any of these things. The energy that went into faking being OK was utterly draining and left me exhausted. I haven’t written a blog post for ages. This is probably why. I couldn’t sit down and do it. I didn’t have the brain power. It was taking every ounce of everything I had simply to get through work every day. I was going to bed at 8pm some nights and if I’d made arrangements that I actually kept to, it was a relief if they were cancelled and it was mostly too hard for me to stay very long at anything.
I don’t feel like that any more.
As I said, I don’t exactly know what made me start to feel better. I hit a very low point a few weeks ago and considered asking the doctor for antidepressants. After consulting with a therapist that I currently see on a weekly basis, it actually didn’t seem like the right decision after all. But I did consider it very seriously and would consider it again if it turns out that I’m heading in that downward direction again. I don’t want to feel like that again. If medication is going to help me retain a grip on things then I will happily take it.
I’m writing about this because I think a lot of people feel scared to tell others that they’re not OK. It’s not a stigma thing for me. It’s the fact that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I almost wished I could tell someone I had something concrete, a label, a name of an illness to give. I didn’t know what to even call it. I just felt awful all the time. And the voice in my head that does me nothing but damage told me that no one wants me around when I’m no fun. No one wants to talk to me when I’m sad. No one wants to hear the negativity that’s raging in my head. Why would anyone want that? “Your friends only want the positive, happy, energetic version of you that makes them smile,” it said. “No one wants you as you are.”
This is absolute bullshit. This is an unhealthy thing that gets into my head when I’m too scared to show vulnerability. This is an isolating thought process, built entirely on an image that I think other people have of me. It wasn’t for me, but it can be very dangerous to think like that. I’m not writing about this to have a pity party (though I’m sure some will read this and say “Ugh, that Abi – she is so self indulgent and she is such a massive over sharer” and those people are entitled to their opinions but respectfully, those people can also fuck right off).
I’m writing about this because I know that if I felt this way and felt so entirely alone during that time, maybe there’s someone else who feels like that too. Maybe there’s someone who also feels like they can’t talk to anyone about how they’re really feeling, who can feel the weight on their chest growing and the panic in their stomach rising and the sheer overwhelming size of everything pushing them down. Maybe there’s someone who just wants to know that they are not the only person who ever felt like that. I’m writing this to let them know that it is OK to talk about how they feel and that it is not as scary as you think it’s going to be once you start.
I’m very hard on myself. I don’t think I realised how hard I am on myself until the last few months. If something goes wrong, whether it’s within my control or not, I feel like it’s my failure. Once that happens, that damn little voice in my head tells me that means I am a failure. I’m an intelligent person and academically, I know that’s not true. I know that even though I have a bunch of “you should have…” sentences in my head, even though society’s bizarre levels of acceptable life progression dictates that I should have achieved certain things by the age of 26, these are not necessary truths of life. But that’s not how it feels in that moment.
I read a really good article recently that advised we shouldn’t compare our inside lives to other people’s outside lives. In other words, what we show on social media or tell our friends is not always true to what is going on inside our heads. So why assume that’s what everyone else is doing?
I thought about it and realised that I frequently look at my friends and think how together they have it, how happy they must be, how happy I would be if I had something like what they have.
I’m 26, I’m single, I don’t have a set career going, I have 2 degrees that seem to be predominantly useless when it comes to getting a job, I’m always broke because I live from payday to payday and although I know I want to be a writer, I don’t know exactly how I want to be a writer and I don’t push myself to put my work out there. At times that feels pretty pathetic and for the last few months I’ve felt ashamed of my life choices, of who I think I am.
I’m 26. That’s young.
I’m single – that means I’m free and unattached and only one step away from meeting someone that might be excellent. I’m always in a position to make new friends without complications and I can basically up sticks and travel whenever I want because I have no one else to think about in that regard. That’s not sad, that’s liberating.
I don’t have a set career going, but that’s because I’m pursuing my dream and that takes time. I want to be a writer and I haven’t sent loads of work out to people…yet. I still can. There’s nothing stopping me but me. I don’t push myself, but I can and will because I’ve realised that now. All I have to do is sit down and do it. It’s OK if I don’t immediately succeed. I highly respect those who have worked hard for their success and I would be honoured to one day be counted among their ranks.
I have 2 degrees because I love learning. I learned about books and theatre and those are things that make me happy and fulfilled my thirst for that knowledge. I then learned how to be a better writer and that might not immediately serve me well as a career move but it’s a step towards making me better at a craft that I not only love, but need. I would do another degree in something equally career-useless if it made me happy and if it was what I wanted to learn about.
I’m always broke…well let’s not run before we can walk. Maybe one day I’ll get better with money. But I might never be rich and that’s OK. Money isn’t what makes me happy. That’s not a bad thing. I fricking hate money! I don’t really want to be one of those people who is only motivated by money.
I still think a lot of my friends have an awful lot and are lucky. There is a part of me that envies my friends who are able to go to a stable, office job every day. My brain just doesn’t work like that and I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. But I don’t envy them their jobs. And I try very hard not to envy the happiness they have with a partner. It’s hard, because I want that and might not have it for years and there’s nothing more lonely than being the only single one in your group of friends, surrounded by the romantic happiness or contentment of others. But that’s OK. I’m slowly making my peace with that. Don’t get me wrong, feeling lonely is really shit. And sometimes it will get the better of me. But that’s OK too. Because I hope that I’ll win the majority of those little voice in my head battles.
It’s OK that I am not yet where I think I want to be. It’s OK that I’m not sure what I want or how to go and get it. It’s OK that I’m not sure what or who I want to commit to. It’s OK that I’m still building up the confidence to take risks and allow myself to be vulnerable in different areas of my life. All of these things that might feel like negatives are actually fine. I don’t need to keep justifying myself to the expectations of others. And neither do you. Conventions aren’t necessarily good things.
There may well be entire months in the future, like the last 3 months, where I am unable to see anything positive, where I sink and feel like I’m drowning, not because I don’t want to swim but because I can’t remember how. But right now I know that I am very lucky because my friends and family were incredibly patient with me. No one shouted at me for cancelling on them even at the last minute. No one abandoned me because I was sad. Even in moments where I was terrible company, the people that I love and trust stuck around. I don’t know why I think they won’t. I would do the same for them.
And that’s something that’s really important to remember – these are people that you love and trust, that in some cases you’ve loved and trusted for years. These are people who turn to you when they’re in crisis. If you are able to tell them that you’re in crisis, you absolutely should. I can’t guarantee it, because I don’t know your people, but I would bet all the money I have and triple the amount that I’m in debt (that is so much money guys, you don’t even know) that however you imagine them reacting, that’s not how it’s going to go down.
I received more love and compassion and kindness than I ever would have imagined and I am exceptionally grateful for that. The friends and family that allowed me to work through the last few months in my own time, with all the stumbling blocks and tears and difficulties…those are the people I want to keep around. Those are the people who make me feel very, very lucky.
So maybe this isn’t so far away from the post I wanted to write after all. OK, for this week of Passover I have to think about every stupid morsel that goes into my mouth (insert rude joke here) and I may feel full but I will feel entirely dissatisfied after almost every meal. Breakfast has to be some kind of magic trick every day and the toothpaste is weird so my teeth never feel properly clean and my God if you ever need to combat diarrhoea eat a couple of matzahs and you’ll be sorted for at least 3 days. Seriously, it’s like swallowing a cork. This week, what I don’t have is the food I like and I’m used to or the freedom to eat said food, even though this whole stupid festival is about having freedom in the first place.
But I do have a huge amount of other things and for those I am extremely grateful.
I hope that this wasn’t too preachy and that it encourages people to talk about things to someone if they feel as unbearably low as I did until about 2-3 weeks ago. If you can’t talk to a friend or family member there are lots of wonderful organisations that have freephone numbers and take calls at any hour of the day or night.
Chag kasher v’sameach (happy Passover) and happy Easter to all. If you don’t celebrate either of these, enjoy the days off work.
It’s not Mental Health Awareness week. It’s just January 24th 2015. It’s Saturday. Today is not significant.
I’m on the tube and it’s not very crowded. I move towards the middle bank of seats. As I get on, I hear a high pitched noise being emitted from the bank of seats to my left. I sit down. As I do, a man moves from that side to the seats on my right.
I look to my left to see who made the noise. I can’t tell. It could have been any of the 5 people there I can see. I get out my book. I hear the noise again.
I look. I can’t tell who it is.
We get to the next stop. Someone sits down near whoever is making the occasional strange noise.
Another person moves away from those seats.
Finally I see the guy making the noises. They vary from groaning and a sort of heaving sound to woops and shrieks. He’s youngish I think, curly brown hair, pale skin, kind of a big mouth, open face.
I get panic attacks on the tube. Almost every panic attack I’ve ever had has been on the underground. They feel completely random. Maybe they’re linked to stress levels but I can’t consciously tell. It’s horrific when it happens. I get sweaty and hot and I feel like I’m going to pass out or maybe die. My heart pumps faster, I shake, I can’t breathe. It’s like my whole body descends into mayhem for literally no discernible reason. And the fact that there’s no reason doesn’t make it better. It makes it worse. Because I want to rationalise it but I can’t. I can’t explain it to myself or anyone else.
And when I’ve had panic attacks, when I’m shaking and sweating and pale and clearly not ok, mostly no one says a word to me. Twice people have offered help. But one time I’d already fainted so I’m not sure it counts. And I’ve had significantly more than 2 panic attacks on the underground. But I’m not having one today.
So it’s Saturday and I’m on the tube and a third person has moved away from this guy and all I can think is that for every person who moves away from him, I want to move closer. I don’t know his mental state. I don’t know how much he comprehends of the people moving. Does he know they’re moving away from him? He might have Tourette’s and have perfect comprehension of what’s going on around him but find himself unbearably trapped behind tics and noises and overwhelming compulsions. Or he might have something much more serious than that and not have any idea that the people on the train are made so uncomfortable by his presence.
Why is it so uncomfortable? Why have we cultivated this culture where we run away from someone who is different, feeling tense and scared until we walk away to sit two blocks of seats down the carriage where we can breathe a sigh of relief?
I think about it and I wonder if I feel uncomfortable. I don’t think I do.
I think about the people I know who struggle with depression, anxiety, addiction, mania, anorexia, low self esteem…I think about what they look like when you can see those things manifesting themselves and I think about when you can’t. Arguably, that’s more sinister. Because you never really know if someone is OK or not. We have no idea what’s going on behind the faces of all those people we see every day. The ones we talk to and the ones we don’t. But mental illnesses and struggles are not contagious. Why are we so scared when we see them? What instinct is it that tells us to be afraid?
I wonder if it’s because they’re too different to how people see themselves. We are, as a species, notoriously afraid of things that are “other”. Or maybe it’s the opposite – maybe they’re too close and people are afraid that if they look they’ll recognise all too clearly what they see. Perhaps it’s too painful to admit that the guy we call crazy is only one bad day, one life step, one change away from where we are.
There are things that I really don’t like. I don’t like sick, for example. If you’re puking, I’m not going to hold your hair. A 3 year old kid I was looking after had his first ever puking experience from a stomach bug, and when I told my sister about it I said “I was really good and only leapt away from him twice.” She said she was proud, but only after she’d laughed at me. I know why I don’t like sick. It smells bad and it comes from inside you and I have a visceral reaction to it that makes me feel like I’m going to be sick too. Maybe fear of mental illness is the same as that? I don’t know.
It’s a bit more crowded now. I move a few seats closer. Just in case. But by the time I’ve moved through the people and sat down again I realise he’s gone.
I wish I’d had the conviction to move closer more quickly. I wish that I moved when the first person did, not after the third. I wish for him not to have anything too serious, but I also wish that he doesn’t know that he’s the reason people moved on the train.
I’m not afraid of other people’s problems when I’m OK. I’m afraid that there’ll be no one to help me when I’m struggling. I’m afraid of people turning away because I’m sad and can’t make myself be happy and they don’t want to see me when I’m feeling like that. I’m afraid of becoming disconnected from everyone because they’re scared of me. I’m scared of being the person people move away from and I’m terrified of not understanding why I’ve been left alone.
I hope that if I’m in a situation like this again that I can act with kindness, that I can look at the person, whatever his or her struggle, without staring but without seeing through them, like I’d look at any stranger. I hope that I can smile at them without it being forced or patronising. Like I’d smile at any stranger. I hope that I can manage not to define people by the struggles they face, internal or external. I wish, perhaps naïvely, for a society in which, when we see people struggling we move closer to them to help, motivated by compassion, not closing our eyes or running further away because we’re inexplicably afraid.