Saturday, 5 September 2015

I saw it on TV, so it must be true

Who wants babies? I did. I definitely definitely did. But in my imaginings I'd sail through a perfect pregnancy having married in a haze of a full recovery, before passing on my DNA to a being who could feed and care for itself from the minute I couldn't handle it anymore. 

I blame the internet. I've never Googled so much in my life - and for so many seemingly disgusting search words. If you're of a nervous disposition, look away now; in fact, just stop thinking about babies or zygotes of any form altogether. But, I digress...

I was 31 when I found out in a very roundabout way that I had very little chance of ever conceiving naturally. Shit daytime TV is (was, now it's merely a shit memory) one of my (many) vices, and one that I'm vaguely glad I was indulging when one Zita West featured on 'This Morning'; for those of you reading from outside the UK, this is a magazine style show that was on every weekday morning for god knows how many years. They used to have a weather man who jumped around on a floating map of the UK, and who was relatively recently arrested and charged for sexual offences against minors... gawd love 'im. Ms West informed us viewers that we could do a simple blood test by post to find out roughly how large our egg reserves were, with a view to estimating how many years of fertility we could waste on mental illness before the situation became critical. 'Ooooh what a good idea for working women!' remarked the presenters before moving on to a phone app to cook an omelette, leaving those of us who'd just pinned all our hopes and dreams on a £95 phlebotomist's fee hanging.

Perfect! This was the tool every woman with a ticking clock, a non-career in the music business and a penchant for bad decision making needed. Oh yeah - I was ALL OVER IT. Now, I'm a sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kinda gal, and having only just settled in with a man after years of serial fucking up of relationships, I wasn't planning on making any babies imminently. This one was a keeper, and we all know what happens if you even so much as mention an egg before the end of year one right? Right. Now forget that last part. On a scale of good to bad, the test results I got back were the latter.

Whilst harbouring a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that perhaps it wouldn't be easy once I did decide the time was right, I also knew deep down that this was not a decision I'd be making after settling into a nice well-paid job, in the house with the picket fence, after the wedding of my dreams - circumstance would either force me into it, or it wouldn't be happening.

Fast forward a year; our house had burned down, we'd had a strangely accelerated courtship and spent time homeless, the usual stuff really. After a lot of deliberation, extreme sorrow-drowning, extreme hangovers and claiming of insurance that would invalidate our cover for life, we found ourselves variously staring down the barrel of a suitably lined petri dish. This blog post is my attempt at striking fear into the hearts of love's young dreamers everywhere, by sharing my ill-informed experience of what happened next. Don't ever say I didn't warn you.

IVF is a dish best served in a lab who don't have someone doing work experience with them on the  day you have your eggs wrestled reticent ovaries - and definitely not in a lab where someone who can't read the labels on the two bottles of pink solution is working on the day you go under the knife. This is the only excuse I can possibly fathom for what happened on the only day that really mattered for us; but strangely one that goes no way at all to making up for it. Let me give you a bit of background before I explain...

After a laborious few months of hormone injections, blood tests, and ultrasound scans of my aforementioned reticent ovaries, our first round hadn't produced any results at all. I was effectively barren, devoid of life, broken, paying the price for too much partying, etc, etc. Funnily enough, this is not a nice feeling, but funnier still, it wasn't an entirely unexpected position for me. I'd spent so many years trying not to get pregnant; stumbling around my twenties like a frightened rabbit (then a man-eating tigress), always leaping feet first into the next disaster. Child of a broken home, yadda yadda yadda, but I 'was young', apparently.

Now, fertility doctors are a quirky sort; ours gave us impassioned speeches about his own fertility woes, before simply typing our stats into an online calculator (available to the general public here) to find out if we'd ever reproduce. This same calculator was available freely on the clinic's website. Needless to say, I wasn't particularly impressed.

That whole story you tell children about the birds and the bees, the 'mummy and daddy have a special cuddle' thing? You don't get any of that. There's no romance. It's just SCIENCE. If you've ever watched 'The Big Bang Theory' you'll know that virtually no sex ever came from it. As if trying to conceive normally wasn't enough of a passion killer, this was the ultimate in libido murder.

Our first go didn't work. My dormant ovaries remained in hibernation and we were downgraded to IUI (where the sperm just gets squirted into the right place, in case an egg decides to turn up). The second go was where the trouble started. Using a different drug to stimulate my lazy ovaries had worked - a lowly 5 follicles that may or may not have contained eggs grew, and suddenly I was in a private hospital room we could barely afford, with a mini bar (because all surgery requires booze as a recovery aid, dahling!) and a room service menu, waiting to be plundered for gametes. Cue the work experience twat, who duly took my precious 5 eggs, went into the lab, probably just after lunch in the pub, and dolloped them into the wrong nurturing solution, because they couldn't tell the difference between the two bottles of pink stuff, even though they were labelled.

Ok, so I'm the first to admit that I've showed up to work hungover to hell, stinking as if the fermentation process were still happening in my organs; it probably was. BUT, I've never been responsible for people's actual babies. Their flesh and blood. Their hopes. Their dreams, their future generations... suffice to say, it's a big deal. Of the 5 good eggs, only 1 fertilised and the other 4 died. To say I was disappointed would be akin to saying Russell Brand is a bit of a flirt...

Two days later the call came to say we had an embryo, and that I had to drop everything and go (alone) to have it put back in. I was blissfully unaware of the previous night's events at this point, but from the urgency in the voice of the lab technician who called me, I figured out there was something afoot. Things were becoming a bit too real, science had done it's thing and I was about to stop trying not to get pregnant and willingly allow myself to get knocked up by a stranger in a room full of strangers with cameras, like some sort of MIT alumni gang-bang. Oh, the romance!

I arrived an hour later, and was called into a room with two uncomfortable looking medical professionals, one wearing a shower cap and a mask (perhaps to shield her from any possible onslaught of emotion, but a particularly bad choice of get up I thought) and the other grinning like some sort of wannabe game show host. It was then that it was finally explained to me, in terms that probably would've escaped me had I not had a more than full grasp of both the English language and the subtleties of body language, that some absolute twat who may or may not have ever worked in a lab before had in fact diminished my chances of conception by 60% overnight. Ever the pragmatist, I assuaged their guilt via the usual English politeness and apologetic pleasantries, and we ploughed on with the implantation.

I was shown my microscopic four-cell embryo on a screen - it looked, as expected, like frogspawn. I watched on as a tiny speck of light was injected into my uterus, feeling strangely numbed and unable to really enjoy what I had expected to be a moment of excitement and expectation. The deed was done, and this was definitely not some passionate exchange. Everyone in the room (yes, there were more than 2 people) was jollying me along, quipping about how 'it only takes one!' And seemingly attempting to distract from the presence of the enormous shitting elephant in the room. I left feeling I should be feeling, but not really feeling at all.

Two weeks later, I was a pregnant woman.

Thursday, 20 August 2015


As much as people who find a diet they can get away with like to evangelise, no one diet works the same way for everyone - except mine. If you don't eat, you die. As tested by millions of people unlucky enough not to be born in the Western world; this is the diet I'm currently trying out. I'm also keen to clarify here that I'm in no way trying to trivialise starvation, more to let you know that I know how ridiculous eating disorders may look from the outside - I get it. In many ways BPD and EDs are so similar they can't be prised apart. The black and white thinking - it's all or nothing - can make me either resist food altogether and get a tremendous sense of achievement, or eat all the food there is. That's why I don't keep junk food in the house anymore. Because I ate it all - as soon as I bought it.

There are those swimming about out there in the virtual dieting and 'lifestyle' world (certain bent-yellow-fruit-related ones and no, that's not a euphemism) who will swear that their way of eating is the only way. I would actually pray to a god I don't believe in for those people to only exist in the virtual world, but annoyingly they are real physical beings - although I suppose even if they were just virtual, isn't that where we all live our lives these days? As anyone with even a few synapses can deduce, they need to convince others not because they actually care about them, but because they need to keep convincing themselves. In the same way I continuously justify my endless food restrictions as 'healthy'. But no one can live healthily on just one type of food, unless they've been genetically coded to do so. We can live, sure, but then as my psychiatrist helpfully said: "The children starving in Africa are still alive". Well yes. Until they're not. 

My guess would be that in order to stay on the straight and narrow, people have to convince themselves beyond any doubt that what they're eating is right. Part of this is also attacking others who dare question the validity of their claims, and the more they need to cling to their diet life raft, the more viscious they are in attack mode. It's almost a sport just watching it all unfolding on YouTube, and reminding myself that had such a thing existed when I was 17 and joined a cult, I would've been doing the same thing myself. After all, there are some similarities between a deity and a banana when you think about it. I might even do it now, if only I could be bothered to spend all my free time making self-righteous videos to feed my ego (editor's note: not my body, ). You'd be surprised at the level of preparation that goes into making a meal of under 50 calories. There are a few people I've seen who personify the nature of eating disorders than those - right down to the dirty fingernails from all that digging.

Here's where things get complicated for the world of medicine - my psychiatrist thought I was a straightforward borderline personality disorder case. He had me all mapped out, so he thought. My eating habits were borne out of a desire to hurt myself, he said. I went along with this for a while, until it became pretty obvious that quitting my other target behaviours (the ones I genuinely wanted rid of) only led to the door being flung open for my 'ole buddy Ana to take hold: 

"Well, great going with all that DBT stuff lady - but now we've got that out of the way, time to really get somewhere!", she said, with a twinkle in her beady eye and a barbed spike in her manky little tail. Let's just say others' perceptions of me lacked the added dimension required to grasp how ridiculous it all really is. 

EDs are not taken very seriously in the over 20s - and there's precious little in the way of treatment, especially on the NHS. In essence, it's completely up to me to decide where I want to end up. My doctor expressed it so beautifully when he said: "You're choosing anorexia".

Disordered eating is more than likely to be for keeps for me, and I know that now. It doesn't matter how kamikaze it gets, because it's always there to hold on to. All I have to do is stay just above the 'critical' BMI, and I can do whatever I like. No doubt it'll hide behind other guises, she's a wizened old bitch is Ana. Us older ED's don't get the same fuss made over us - we know how to maintain it without raising suspicions, and boy if having an ED does anything it makes people watch you almost constantly. Analysing every pound. Part of the maintenance revolves around the perceptions of others, because people think that other people's weight is their business. Especially if you're low weight. In the same way we're all guilty of looking at an overweight friend and thinking "But I never see him eat?!", you might look at me and think "But I saw her eat at lunch!"

Saturday, 18 July 2015

I'm going down the garden to eat worms

There are few things I squirm about - yes, of course I'm very very anxious about many things, but squirming is just, well, different). One of these few things is arriving to visit family who I haven't seen for a few months. But normally such a joyous occasion, no? The perfect time to sit back and relax whilst your two year old toddler is engaged in grandparent-related activities, surely? Well, yes, probably - unless you're currently 0.2 of a BMI number above 'severe' anorexia, having been safely inside the (relatively) normal zone last time you saw them, that is.
Here I am, looking headless (but completely fine).

Oh, first world problems! Yes. Yes, I am aware that my perceived level of entitlement just hit the top of the scale. I would judge me too (whilst pretending not to, because y'know 'mental illness' and all that), but let me at least give you a little bit of an insight here. I've had issues with eating for over 20 years now, starting in school when bullying began and I wanted to disappear - quite literally. I began by throwing my lunch away at school when I was 13 - I would limit myself to just an apple during the school day. I didn't know anorexia was even a thing then, I just knew I wanted to make myself as small as possible and as a girl being brought up in a Western society I subconsciously always knew that being thin was better. The women in my life were always on diets, or talking about being on diets but I never heard any of the men even mention it. Of course I felt unsettled during my teens anyway, due to some major adjustments that included my mother marrying again and puberty of course, so of course the 'problem teenager' stars aligned and things began to go downhill fairly soon afterwards. I now wish I were closer to my step-siblings and I very much value my now good relationship with my step-father (minus the 'step' I suppose since my mother's death in 2004), who my son also loves and was always a stabilizing influence on both my mother and me. There were times when both she and I were in emotional overload, we even fought each other physically when the drama took hold and neither of us would budge.

I find it hard to even type this, but my latest round of anorexia began after my son was born and I was slightly overweight for the very first time in my life. During my IVF and pregnancy I had a reason - and one that involved the interests of someone outside (and for a while, inside) myself - to eat healthily and eat well. Let me also underline here that I know my child deserves a mother who is well, one who values her own health because of his, and one who would never endanger herself because she always kept this in mind. The reality for me though is that to get myself through the pitfalls of those early years, knowing that a small developing mind hungry for knowledge and dependent on his parents is looking to me to be the all-knowing guiding hand we all expect from our mothers. As I know I've probably discussed before (but obviously I'm not going to check because I can't be bothered), I have self-awareness, which I very much hope means he won't grow up with the same gremlins as I did. 

Here comes the line I hear time and time again - right now I'm terrified of weight gain and I get a sense of ultimate control and achievement from seeing that number on the scale drop. If that means I can be 'normal' at my job and have the mental energy to give my boy everything he needs from me - and I don't mean money, I mean nurture, love, a perfect role model, (someone who was born understanding all of these things...) oh, I forgot positive and validating emotional lessons! - then so be it. Because you can tell I'm the best and most emotional dependable role model any child could possibly have, right? I've always had to carefully tread a line with this and achieve a somewhat delicate balance somewhere equidistant between totally nuts and completely sane. 

When BPD is treated, the little nagging voice of anorexia can suddenly pipe up, and apparently those of us with this dual-diagnosis are few and far between, so often our doctors assume our history of EDs is just another part of the self-harming behaviours like cutting or sabotaging relationships. I actually feel incredibly mentally balanced at the moment, erring on the side of depressed/anxious, but emotionally not swinging between the extremes the way I do when BPD is kicking off. Mothers can't be that way and cope, it's just not a tenable situation at all. Unfortunately it's also really easy to get away with eating a lot less when you're working and child-rearing - you're just too busy frankly - and nobody really questions the weight loss after pregnancy because we're taught to expect women to fulfil the media's image of the new mum, springing back into shape.

Now, I'm sure some of you reading this will be thinking: "It's not fair to bring a child into a situation! The poor bastard will have both the genes and the batshit crazy influence to boot - just offering love isn't enough, he'll be bound to suffer!" and to you I'll say this: any one of us in this world could become mentally ill tomorrow. Really, it's true. But at least I know my batshit genes in advance, so I can build an environment where his emotions will be acknowledged and validated. I can guarantee you that I've spent way more time thinking about his emotions than most parents. I've worked my way up in a job that doesn't always reward me with satisfaction but does allow me to pay for a nice place to live, a nursery that works with parents and children to implement 'gentle parenting', which has taught me that time outs and punishments for children under three is pointless, because they, like me, are still immature in their emotional regulation - that bit of the brain isn't finished developing yet. I've had to learn how to regulate my emotions (it's still ongoing, as you might be able to tell), as if I were still a toddler. It's a bit like squeezing a balloon - when you poke your finger in one side, another bit pops out somewhere else. 

I have to choose anorexia over BPD, because I can't choose to be cured. I may have to live alongside both to one extent or another for the rest of my life. For now I'll just do what mothers the world over do, and just do whatever it is I need to do in order to be the best parent I can be. What I'm asking of everyone else is to accept that I accept that I may not ever reach that aspirational goal, and be ok with that. Because I am.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Please stop saying that

"Oh, she's got stress, she won't be back for a while". 

Ok, now wait a minute there - you're saying she's 'got' a very natural and necessary physiological reaction that we need in order to perform? Right. So we'll see her as usual tomorrow then?

"He's already had one nervous breakdown, now he's had another one!" Yeah, I heard he's in a padded cell licking the sweat off the walls in a straight jacket, kicking the potatoes from last night's dinner tray around like the National Lottery balls.

You have to love a good old colloquialism. Unfortunately, the fact that even many GPs don't use the right terminology doesn't do us any favours. 

I've been criticised for saying I don't think 'breakdown' is a useful term. It suggests that you're not in crisis (the more up to date version) unless you're totally lost the plot and are streaking through the town foaming at the mouth. Well, let's see here - my last big one was in 2007, when I was working in a substance misuse service, frontline, crack addicts coming in off the streets and faxes detailing the 30 year criminal history of some of the regulars forced to come in by probation. I'd begun keen and I loved the place, even though I wanted to work with the clients more. Everything was pretty ok, I had my own flat, a car, and a boyfriend. But I had one huge elephant in the room - I'd been addicted to prescription drugs for about 2 years by that point. Finally, after enduring a month of utter hell detoxing on my own with no benzos - bad, bad idea - I was clean. This was the perfect time then for my boyfriend to leave me. I totally lost myself. 

Without the usual crutch of codeine, and its soft cushion of warmth, I nose-dived into oblivion. 

What ingredients do you need to make a good old-fashioned breakdown?

1) Alcohol - check. Maybe 2-3 bottles of wine a night plus any spirit I could find.
2) Cocaine - check. 2 grams minimum.
3) Friends who you didn't really know, but you all did drugs and drank to excess - check
4) Plenty of male attention that tapped into your lack of self-worth and desperation to destroy yourself - check.
5) A stool with your name on it at the end of a bar where drugs were handed out like sherbet - check
6) A job where everyone else there had some level of mental illness - check.

I woke up in bed with strangers in places I didn't know. I gained consciousness whilst running through Whitechapel to escape a man who was chasing me. I cracked my head on the pavement falling down drunk in the road. I showed up at my ex's house, demanded alcohol and then sobbed until I was asked to leave. I was a total car crash. BUT - I still 'functioned'.

I sang in a choir, and during a concert in a cathedral I was in the toilet doing coke off a holy toilet seat. I showed up for work everyday, reeking of booze, still drunk and did drugs off a toilet seat reserved for the abstinent. I'd lost a lot of weight and at work I would only eat peas and gravy. I did another concert in St James's Palace and got so drunk I had to be taken home by a complete stranger, who stayed overnight but left before I woke up still in my clothes and late for work. I went for a night out with friends from work, fell over on the toilet floor and got covered in piss, then took another guy I barely knew home. In the morning I woke up with bruises and my full-length mirror lay smashed on the floor. I have no memory of anything, but that might be my brain's way of protecting me. 

That was definitely 'a breakdown', except it wasn't. I functioned, albeit with considerably less skill than normal. People at work probably thought I was just a bit late and weird about food, I told them I'd had flu when I was detoxing. I did my work, and got good reviews too. If any of them had seen me after 6pm though? They wouldn't have believed I could even show up.

My point is, saying to someone 'I had a nervous breakdown' isn't at all representative of what actually happened to me then. I didn't just stay in bed all day with the curtains closed. I still drove a car and typed emails that weren't just mental rants about pigeons, and the voices in my head. I used a debit card and wrote an entire album in my spare time even - that's more than I've done in the 2 years since giving birth. I was in crisis, of that there was no doubt. 

We all need stress - it makes us perform. But it's not a mental illness, yet doctors still put it on sick notes because it's more socially acceptable than depression or anxiety. The stress bell curve is usually somewhere in any mental health training for a reason, to show that it's a perfectly normal physiological response to certain factors, and because we need it to survive. But if it carries on for a long time and you fall off the end of that curve, that's when you're likely to experience some form of mental aberration. Worrying about whether you've met the criteria for a breakdown is the last thing you need by that point. 

"Oh, well that doesn't sound like a breakdown to me, my brother's girlfriend had one and it was totally different - she didn't leave the house for days! Has the doctor diagnosed stress?" 

Things are moving on, slowly but surely, and it's high time GPs stopped using these terms. Just like asylums, they should be consigned to the pages of history.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The truth is out there.

I didn't start writing this blog with any intention of holding back. As far as I was concerned, I needed to be completely transparent - people need to know the truth of mental illness and the pain it can put whole families through whilst being largely ignored by the powers that be. I've written things I could never admit in conversation, even with therapists and my best friends. Some of those things I had to write down to even admit to myself. And yet there are still things I hesitate to write down, because once I do, they're out there. They exist and I can't take them back. 

To write down some of what I'm about to, hurts. It hurts more than I can adequately express here, in any words. I'm ashamed of it, truly. It makes me want to hurt myself again, but it's also the very reason I won't. 

I chose motherhood, through a fog of uneasy decisions, IVF hormones and fighting my fears, and I carried my baby son for 9 months, knowing nothing except how much I wanted to meet him - but I had to not think about the reality of what was happening to me, because it was too terrifying. My body had changed from something I had complete control over, to something that was merely a vessel for another, far more worthy being than I. Even before I was pregnant I had deliberately gained weight to make conception more likely. I will never know if my disordered eating caused my infertility, but I stopped taking diet pills, I weaned myself off codeine and I knuckled down to be the best vessel I could possibly be. For a while this newfound 'freedom' around food felt good - I had a reason NOT to mentally tally up my calories for the day, and it felt almost bearable at least. 

I also had other even more engulfing feelings. These were the ones that I'd known were coming - I could see them forming into intangible shapes on the horizon years before - I knew this experience would illicit a thing so smothering even though I had no concept of what it would be. There are thousands of pieces of writing out there that discuss the nature and nurture of procreation, the twists and turns of a million pregnancies both typical and non, and the rocky road through the early years of accidental successes and unplanned malady of mind. Perhaps fewer choose to focus on the inner dialogue that both demands that you have a child because you'll leave nothing else behind in the world, yet tortures you with visions of another life like yours. The torture begins as soon as you understand that you're not like other people. When you become aware that the only common denominator in all these failed relationships (and those of the people around you), is you. How abusive would it be to knowingly pass on those bad genes to someone you will then love so much?

As soon as he was born, my mental health nosedived spectacularly. It marred those first few months that nobody is honest about anyway with black moods and dissociation. I contemplated suicide but I never told a soul because I was truly frightened that if anyone realised I wasn't meant to be a parent, they'd take my baby away. I've never found it very difficult to talk about my experiences, but when the second - and last - health visitor who came to the house asked me how my mood was, saying she'd 'seen my history' in my records, I just smiled and said: "Oh no - that was all years ago! I'm fine now". I even did it in a sing-songy voice, just to fully throw her off the scent.

Therapy just made it worse; we peeled the scab off and underneath, the tissue hadn't healed properly so it just ripped away the protective layer and reopened the wound. Then I had DBT, which I've talked about before, and it was like how it felt to be on ecstacy for the first time - a raw and emotional awakening - suddenly I had something to balance the melancholy.

My son is a lefty. He has the last remaining gene for limb preference passed from my mother into the grandson she never met, and as melodramatic as that is, it just matters to me. Of all the triggers of memories that will be enshrouded (in secret, because of course that was eleven years ago now and I shouldn't still hurt the way I do) in pain - and that prickly feeling you get in your face when you're flashing back through the memories of that day in a split second - this one is the most left of field. 

She wasn't your average lefty; she resisted the attempts of intolerant teachers to force her to use her non-dominant hand just because - well, conformity? - and she could even use 'normal' scissors, such was her determination to succeed. That particular genome gift is one that I got in spades, luckily. I live in my own special little (big) universe of course where difference is very, very cool. Here, you don't even get past the front door unless you're broken in some way. If nothing marks you out as unique, then I'm just not interested. Waifs and strays of the world, I feel you.

I know I felt many, many moments of joy during that time. But I didn't know what joy felt like so I didn't know how to feel it. 'Joy' comes out of parts of the brain that need to be regulated in order to work in the way they're supposed to, and for me that part is itself malfunctioning. It needs to be trained and medicated so that I can escape what had become a dragging undercurrent of anxiety. But so what if I need to take medication in order to enjoy these moments? I can now recognise joy, and better still feel joy, and I really like it. 

Saturday, 13 June 2015


Only recently was I made aware that people's perceptions of me are about as opposite of what I am as is humanly possible. Maybe I'm naive (I am) but I thought people could see past the chaotic exterior and just understand that I talk myself down at any opportunity. Either that or I'm fishing for compliments to try and cover up that I'm talking myself down - it's a duplicitous double bluff.

I used to think I was a confident, empowered woman. I used to also think a fish tank was speaking to me, along the lines of some sort of aquatic radio station. Neither were true. Well, at least nobody else said they heard the fish. Could be an aquatic easy listening format for the future of course. As it turned out, wearing PVC hotpants, a spiky goth dog collar, knee-high boots and styling myself as a Manga cartoon were all more about other people than about me. Just about everything in my life, aside from my beautiful little family (although there are questionable elements there too), is about control of some form or another, and I blissfully (ahem) thought I was immune from. Of course tied in along the way was the realisation that as a woman, even in the supposedly civilised and 'United' Kingdom, my popularity, talent, life opportunities, career and influence were directly and negatively affected by my gender. 

I find the very idea of gender thoroughly confusing - and by that I definitely don't mean that I don't understand what gender is - mind you I can only guess at imagining what being male feels like. What I don't understand is why so much appears to hang on it (yes, I too now have a mental image of a penis-shaped coat hook). I think this is something that is SO ingrained in the world that many women don't actually recognise it until later in life, maybe upon entering the world of work, you know, the bit when you get a real job and start trying to smash through that pesky glass ceiling. Suddenly you're managed and micro-managed by men. And Jesus H. Christ if you dare to point out that your work is as valuable as the man next to you (who incidentally gets paid over a third more than you) then you're being one of those godawful 'radical feminists'. How very dare you love, mouthy bitch. By now you're used to me saying 'I'll come back to this later'.

Somewhere in the mire of my late teens I got on stage (in the rock 'n' roll sense, no longer disguised as a choral singer) and as a result I began to define myself by how I looked. After a few years of bullying based on various apparently unlovable parts of my face, I was fairly easily led when it came to what people should aim to look like - that, plus I genuinely didn't have a clue about fashion - I'd bought myself a green corduroy jacket in my last year of school and wore it unashamedly. 'Buying things from charity shops' was a thing we did because we thought it was cool. It was, but not really until relatively recently. I imagine now teenaged girls go to shops like 'Forever 21' or some such, don't they? 

Anyway, I allowed my very lovely and probably well meaning, but equally very young and quite stupid and superficial (at the time) male band mates to mould me into Saffron-from-Republica-lite. I only knew one of their songs, and this level of un-coolness remained with me well into my twenties, much to the songwriter of the band's dismay. I was informed I couldn't name any of my real musical influences if asked, and instead I had to say Bjork, or some other anti-mainstream artist, rather than saying I listened to Vaughan Williams and liked a bit of Metallica. 

I'm still very affected by what I wear - shoes that make me taller, and coats I can swish dramatically as I stomp along are both things that I use to bolster my ego, mostly to complete strangers who are making their way around London as anonymously as I am. I want to be a ninja, a model, an 'artiste', a lesbian, an actor, a bitch, powerful, or just something - ANYTHING - other than I am. I have an ego just like anyone else, only mine is simultaneously huge and fragile. Not a good combination. I'm like an ostrich egg in a nursery school. I'm fine with admitting it too. The thing that bothers me most is that when 'it matters', i.e. when I'm playing the more professional and competent version of myself, I want people to believe (itself a questionable concept) that I am just that - professional and competent. Until recently I had no idea that wasn't the case. As most work places do, we have a laborious system for reviewing our performance that kicks in twice a year, and which is seemingly invented just to leave us all with even less time to actually DO the work we're writing about doing. I've tried to think that it matters, but I just don't. I went into the performance review period with virutally no concerns - I'd worked my arse off and achieved every objective I'd set out to achieve, plus more, but the feedback I got really pulled the rug out from under me.

"She should focus on trying to do the things she has already started, and not take on too much"

I read this and felt the familiar heat flushing my face as anger (virtually the only emotion I don't struggle to recognise) began to rise. That anyone would deem me incompetent hurts me deeply. In childhood, before puberty ruined everything, I judged my worth on how clever I was. I sat Mensa tests and entered poetry reading and acting competitions, I wanted to be the best at anything I did. I hate being out of control, and other people's perceptions are something frighteningly kamikaze to me.

Today I went to a conference, one specially tailored to those with disabilities. The idea was that we get coaching to give us confidence in our abilities, rather than focusing on our disability. Now, I wear my 'disabled' status with pride and I don't give a shiny shit if someone judges me for that. Why would I choose to label myself as something EVEN MORE STIGMATISED than 'disabled'? I need to be coached just to operate in the same dimension as everyone else. When one of your brain functions is 'disabled', everything is harder to do. I came away from the day feeling trapped in a job where I only get to use the things I'm good at for about 1% of the time. Such a fucking waste. I'm 35 and this is my third career. There was a lot of talk about perception; building your personal brand, influence, impact. All seemingly built around balancing emotional reactions to get good outcomes, and giving others the bits of you that makes their perception positive. Right, ok - so you're saying the one bit of my brain that's broken is the key to my success? Fuckanory. There are so many versions of me that I lose track of which one is coming next. I'm like my own personal covers band. 

Don't panic - there is a point to this post - the question is how does one reconcile the belief that others' perceptions shouldn't define us, whilst making them believe in us enough to respect and allow us to progress? I want to 'bring my whole self to work' but when I do that the whole perceptions thing kicks in.  

I want to change perceptions. Your perception is just that - yours. If you want me to prove myself just ask me. Look behind the scenes where the good stuff happens. You may hear me speak but you'll never know what happens in my head.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

You are not your behaviour.

"I repeat - you are not your behaviour"

Also imagine an RP BBC radio voice announcing this in the style of a documentary about World War 2.

This is something I've often said to people - and it's true. But there is some confusion here: many of us fall victim to thinking that we cannot change our behaviour, because it decides our identity (or our identity decides it) - it's down to our personality; it's 'who we are'.

For BPD, as with many other disorders, the sense of self is something of a confusing concept to begin with - or maybe that's just a universal thing - and I think this is because these behaviours can be all-consuming. If I manage to stop one, or in rare circumstances all, who am I left with? Is there even a me underneath all of this? So many layers I'm like an English spring wardrobe.

I've had BPD since I was 14 (or more likely from birth and just cemented a bit later on) so it's been shaping my behaviour for a very very long time (apparently age is something to be ashamed off despite it not being in anyway a choice, but I'm 35). I have no memory of a 'me' without it. But am I less 'me' because I no longer choose to harm myself in a way visible to others (whilst arguably continuing in ways that are more easily hidden)? Of course I'm bloody not. I'm stuck with me. For life. And beyond. Whatever the 'hell' that turns out to be.

Over the years I've had a lot of what are known as 'target behaviours'. At any one time I could be doing any of them, but always at least one. Taking drugs (including prescribed ones), drinking, promiscuous sex (although mainly due to being so drunk I have no memory of it - both dangerous and also questionable when it comes to consent...), restricting my diet, cutting myself, scratching holes in my scalp, having violent relationships, the list goes on. Just because I change these behaviours, it doesn't mean I'm changing myself. I'm still me, no matter how much I hate myself. As a teenager, I was given a weekly appointment with the nurse at my GP surgery, just so they could dress the cuts properly. This is actually one of the times I felt the NHS served me well. I wasn't made to feel like an attention seeker. The nurse dressed my wounds as she would've done for anyone else. She talked to me like a human being and that mattered to me. I never saw anything other than concern in her face. For anyone who questions harm reduction - I.e. Telling people how to self-harm as safely as possible rather than simply say 'stop doing that!' - think about that. One of the only perks of being thin at the same time was that I had a little less flesh to maim. 

Behaviour may be caused by something we can't control - this might be a developmental difference like autism, a cognitive difference like dyslexia or a mental illness. Sometimes this is true. If we've not had the opportunity to learn and hone skills that enable us to change our behaviour in spite of whatever impairment we have, then of course it'll be more or less impossible to modify behaviours produced as a result. For many there are no skills that will enable flawless interactions with the rest of the world. Neurodiversity accepts this and I'm a huge believer in acceptance of differences in the way people perceive the world. But with some intervention, some of us have the ability to learn to adapt our more harmful behaviours in order to make life easier for ourselves, and for others around us. We may not even need intervention - we might just learn through experience. Adapting how we behave does not mean we are changing the person we are. We'll likely still enjoy sport, and still hate Marmite. BUT The key question here is: Why the hell should we change?

I often hear people talk about their partner's expectations in a relationship, something like this: 

"You knew I smoked when we got together - why do you want me to change now?". 

Well, firstly let me just say if you're really defined by nicotine then frankly you probably should have sex a bit more, and if that means spending less time stinking of cigarettes well then 'suck it up' in a less nicotine smeared way. I'm an ex-smoker and therefore it's my duty to get all holier than thou when talking about smokers. Now I'm not for one moment imagining that my behaviours don't affect those close to me anymore. I'm fully aware that my rigidity when it comes to my diet is probably a) very annoying, and b) very dull. We don't go out for dinner anymore. We don't sit around the table and eat of an evening. I get very cross if someone eats my special 'safe foods'. But I'm at a point (I hope) where I can happily source those things for myself without expecting others to be always considering whether I will or won't join in. I do my own food shopping and everyone else can eat whatever they want. I'll even sit down for a social occasion and not eat without any wringing of hands, and it's not that it doesn't bother me, but that I know it's my problem. 

Back to the point in hand; Recently it was self-injury awareness day. I am aware. And because of me, my parents were also horribly aware. I can no longer ask my mother how it made her feel to see the result of my apparent hatred for my flesh, but I knew. I've not cut myself since 2004, the year she died. 11 years have gone by since I said goodbye to what had been my friend and coping mechanism, but had been turned against me by someone else who tried to control me because his own demons were controlling him. A sort of never ending control loop, if you will. So I changed that behaviour, but lo and behold, I'm still me. I will probably think of cutting myself on and off for the rest of my life. Of all the target behaviours I've had this one seemed the most immediate release. I'm attempting to use writing as an equally immediate tool, but it's not as easy to do. That's probably an unfathomable concept if you've never had the experience, so you'll just have to take my word for it. This literal and metaphorical release stuff is starting to become common knowledge now that we're beginning to talk more about mental health. 

I've just graduated - 'graduated'! Ha! - from an 18 week stint of therapy, where I learned a lot about why I've behaved the way I have since forever. It was both amazing and chilling to spend time with a group of other people who knew. They understood. We probably could've finished each other's sentences, such was the synergy between us all. Even though I've left the group, I still feel a huge sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of the people I met there. I found it heartbreaking to see two of them become inpatients again before they'd even finished the DBT course. I wanted to remove their pain but still the voice in the back of my head wanted to make it about me somehow - because I've never been a 'proper' patient - I've never been admitted and had my struggle confirmed. I'm fully aware of the ludicrousness of that statement, but as much as I want to make it untrue, it just isn't. Maybe it's because I'm expressing that I need to know what I am before I can start to fix me. I'm not fully ill, I'm never always fully ill.

Eating disorders are by nature competitive. There are angry souls littered across the Internet, refusing to 'share tips' with others, saying they don't want someone else to die if they help them out. What they really mean is that they don't want someone else to do it better than them. Of course nobody wants to admit it. We want to be the best at our behaviours. I once found out very unexpectedly that a friend of a friend (who I happened not to know very well at the time) was also a cutter, and she had a lot more scars than me. Up until then I genuinely had no idea that other people did it too, let alone that there might be someone else who actually did it more than me. That feeling of not being ill enough is the one thing that makes being ill unbearable. Having to go that step further just to prove how fucked up you are. 

Somewhere underneath all of the bullshit about harm reduction being 'not sharing tips' and about mental illness being about membership of some sort of special club that normal people aren't allowed to join, there's a need to just be honest about it. It's not wrong to feel you're competing with your fellow thin person. We'd be much better off stripping back the layers of rubbish and just saying it all - if it's all out there it's less inside our heads, and that must be good. 

My behaviours are not me. But I have to be me.