TW: Restriction, calorie-counting, negative body image, over-exercising
I come from a line of strong women. A line of women who looked patriarchal societal norms square in the face and simply said, “Move.” My grandmother drove fuel tanks around underneath fighter jets in the Second World War, much to the displeasure of her parents, who would have thought an admin role far more suitable for a young lady. My nan was a single mother working multiple jobs in the 1960s, when this way of living was not praised but frowned upon. My mother left school with no qualifications, but made her own income by qualifying as a swimming teacher after overcoming a fear of water, and later by qualifying as a Pilates teacher in her 50s. She once literally told the patriarchy to move when a man in a van insisted that she reverse to let him pass on a narrow lane. Her response was to turn off her engine, exit her vehicle and remind him that it was her right of way. He moved.
Consciously or unconsciously, I have emulated these women my entire life. I have my grandmother’s “Why not?” attitude, my nan’s resilience and independence, and my mother’s drive to succeed. Some of it comes from being the last of four children, and specifically the only daughter. There is a part of me that feels compelled to step into my mother’s shoes – to be the fort-holder, the keeper, the provider of that particular feminine strength without which we would crumble. As the youngest child by seven years, I had to develop a sense of independence and resilience. My three teenage brothers rarely had any interest in playing games with their six-year-old sister, so I learned to amuse myself. The age gaps also meant that my siblings were dealing with more serious problems and consequences while I was still muddling through my primary school woes. My parents, understandably, had bigger fish to fry than my sardine-sized childhood dramas, so I learned to sort things out for myself.
As an adult, this translates into me being the organiser, the reminder, the fixer-of-things-because-nobody-else-is-going-to-do-it. It is a role I fulfil subconsciously and at times, reluctantly. I feel a pressure to always be on top of things, to always be able to stand steady and weather the storm – to be, well, strong. The pressure is, in part, self-inflicted. I was always drawn to what Netflix now (patronisingly) calls ‘Films & TV With A Strong Female Lead’ long before this was a search category. I liked loud women, brash women, creative women, angry women, taking-care-of-everything women, running-the-show women and working-three-jobs women. I formulated an image of womanhood that is, in reality, completely exhausting and almost impossible to maintain. And yet, I continue to try.
It’s strange. When I was younger, even as recently as a few years ago, I thought that being this headstrong, iron-pumping, black-Doc-Martens-wearing kind of woman was an assertion of strength, an act of rebellion against the patriarchy. And it was, in a way – but I wasn’t doing it because I necessarily wanted to. I wasn’t doing it for me. Being blonde, petite and quietly-spoken – while carrying an enormous amount of privilege – has often caused people (men) to make sweeping assumptions about my character. That I’m unintelligent, don’t have any opinions and can’t talk about serious subjects. That I don’t like the great outdoors, can’t do a press-up and can’t play the drums. Which I can. When I was in my first band I used to get feedback (from men) that I wasn’t hitting my drums hard enough, so I started whacking the shit out of them (the drums, not the men, unfortunately). People often used to tell me that they liked my drumming because I “didn’t play like a girl” or I “actually hit hard”, which as a sixteen-year-old, I took as a compliment. (How hard you hit the drums in fact has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with carpal tunnel and RSI. Sure, it’s a style of playing that might look more eye-catching on stage, but it does not necessarily make you a superior drummer to someone who doesn’t batter her skins).
This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy playing the drums. Or boxing, or having a nose ring, or scowling at ladsladslads from afar, or any other number of Kat Stratford-esque things I did and still do now. I loved drumming in bands, but I shouldn’t have needed to play so ferociously in order to feel like a respected musician. There are times for hammering away on the snare and crushing the cymbals – but not constantly. It never felt quite right to me; it wasn’t my personal style. I love boxing and lifting weights, but I shouldn’t feel the need to engage in typically male-dominated activities solely to prove that I am a strong, resilient, can-do kind of woman. What about ballet? I have danced my entire life; I know how demanding it is. More to the point, why should I feel the need to constantly prove my strength – whatever that actually means – anyway?
I know part of this need – this obsession, almost – is unique to me and my upbringing. I was raised by a mother who never gave up, never complained, always had solutions and suggestions at the ready and kept everything going come hell or highwater. I feel that I am letting her down if I falter. And there was always a bit of “anything you can do, I can do better” going on between my brothers and I – as there usually is with all siblings. The initial reason I picked up drumsticks in the first place was because one of my brothers played and I didn’t see why I couldn’t too. But now more than ever, I feel the pressure to be strong – to be this kind of unwavering, independent icon of womanhood – coming from all directions. “Here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.” Social media is rife with it. We like and share images of those who are hustling and bustling, waking up at five AM, killing it at work and nailing a workout. I feel torn. I want to praise and encourage these achievers, to work hard and achieve more myself. But I also worry that this is neither helpful nor healthy. That talking about “strength” in this way alienates those who cannot or do not want to hustle. Why should we feel that we are worth more when we are achieving, when we are doing it all on our own – when we are, in other words, strong?
This idea of “strength” is impossible to maintain. I would certainly like to give the impression that I am always strong and never in need of any assistance, but it’s not true. I am often neither hustling nor bustling. I cannot seem to do anything finance or property-related (or getting-the-spider-out-of-my-bedroom-related) without asking my Dad for help first. I’d like you to think that I am perfectly fine and dandy living my independent life, but sometimes when someone at work asks me how I am, I want to pound my fists on my desk and howl because I miss my boyfriend and the long distance makes my chest ache. I make jokes about not wanting a lot of social interaction, but I am always the first one to follow up on unanswered messages and to-be-confirmed friend dates, because it is my veiled way of saying, “Hello? Are you still there for me?”
I know it’s fine to ask for help. I know it’s fine to miss people and to cry and to make a mess and to not always be able to solve everyone else’s problems and your own. But I am still learning this. I am still learning how to accept my softness. Still learning that it does not make me less – that it is the colour and texture that makes me who I am. That I do not have to keep proving myself or achieving more and more. That strength means whatever I feel it means and I can express it in my own way. I listened to an interview with Hayley Williams recently and she said it took her years to realise that she didn’t have to – and didn’t actually want to – dress or act like the guys in the scene. That it was okay to stand out and wear colourful make-up. And it is. It is okay to do things in your own way, to rewrite definitions of strength, to feel it some days and not others. We do not have to stand firm all the time. The world needs movement. I just need to remember that.
I don’t deal well with change. Not even so-called good change. There is always a what-if, a doubt, a hesitation, something to keep me pacing up and down until four in the morning. Change makes the water ripple for too long and I find it hard to keep swimming. The supposedly exciting new chapter of getting into my first-choice university at 18 was not exciting at all. In reality, the shift from quiet village-school life to raucous university life was a swirling pool of hell that triggered a nervous breakdown. By the time I finally settled into my new surroundings, it was halfway through second year and my university career was almost over.
The transition into the world of work was even harder. I’d done freelance writing and a few marketing internships during summer holidays, but these had all been through mutual contacts. Applying for my first full-time job was different. At university, I always received feedback on my assignments, so if I didn’t get the mark I’d hoped for, I at least understood why. As disappointed as I might have been, the feedback was always logical, and it was only ever about my academic work – it was never about me as a person. Job hunting, on the other hand, is deeply, crushingly personal. In my early application days, I either never heard back, or got rejected for reasons owing to my character, or reasons that simply didn’t make sense. “You’re not the right fit for the team,” “You seem a bit closed-off,” “Your interview task was actually better than the other candidate’s but they had more experience.” The first time I got rejected from an agency job after getting down to the final two candidates, I sat at the top of my parents’ staircase and cried for an hour. The two-sentence-long email simply stated that I “was not the kind of personality they were looking for.” The memory is burned into my brain.
And so began months of rejections. The pattern was always the same. I’d get down to the final two candidates and miss out right at the crucial stage – which was almost worse than not getting offered an interview at all. My self-esteem took a battering. I felt that everything about me was wrong somehow, so I kept trying to act out the person I thought everyone was looking for. By the time I eventually did secure my first job, I’d lost all my confidence and sense of self. I was exhausted before I’d even started.
The job was a paid internship in the music industry, which in hindsight was completely and utterly the wrong place for me. At the time, I felt so lucky to be there. I’d made it down to the final 25 interns from over 1,000 applicants. It was what the teenage version of me had always wanted. But the 21-year-old version of me wasn’t so sure. It was a gruelling year. It was exactly what I’d expected it to be, only I hadn’t expected I would find it so hard. I didn’t feel like I could say anything – I didn’t want it to come across like I was complaining, because I knew so many others would have jumped at the chance to take my place. Quitting didn’t feel like an option either. I needed to earn money, and, as damaging as it is for my mental health, quitting has never been in my nature. Nor is it in the nature of the music industry, I would learn. It is a work-hard-play-harder, sleep-when-you’re-dead kind of place. You work through everything. There are no excuses. Which is probably why maintaining your mental health in the music industry is extremely difficult.
People crying in the toilets and hyperventilating at their desks was a regular occurrence. Interns often came into the office at stupid hours of the morning to send new tracks to radio stations, and worked late at an event the same night. I worked with someone who became so mentally and physically unwell as a result of overworking that she took annual leave just to go to hospital and doctor’s appointments. Taking sick leave – or even just saying that you needed help with your workload – felt like committing a sin. Dark circles, red eyes and smudged mascara were just part of the record label aesthetic.
Managing your mental health in the music industry is challenging enough – when it’s your first job it’s even harder. The day-to-day work is one thing, but adjusting to office life can be what completely scrambles your brain on a bad day. It’s all the things that more experienced employees assume everyone automatically knows: where the IT department is, how to use the post room, what time it’s acceptable to leave on a Friday afternoon, how to fix a printer jam, what to say in an email to an important client who’s known for being particular. I spent the first week of my internship not knowing how to use the boiling water tap for tea, and I left late every day because I thought I wasn’t allowed to leave until my manager did. It sounds ridiculous to me now because I’ve been working in offices for four years, but at the time, I had no idea.
Then there’s the matter of your junior level. As an intern, I never wanted to bother anyone. I knew that I was entitled to take time off for illness and appointments, but I felt like I needed to earn my stripes before I asked. Those allowances seemed like privileges reserved for company veterans. Nothing I was experiencing felt serious enough for a chat with HR, and my managers were so busy that talking to them wasn’t an option either. Even if they’d had more time to spare, we didn’t have the sort of relationship where I’d have felt comfortable talking to them anyway.
On a warm summer day about nine months into my internship, I walked out of the office and kept walking until I reached the park. My heart was hammering so hard against my ribcage that I thought I might die. I couldn’t pick out a single coherent thought from my brain. It was sunny but everything was dark and tangled and too much. I felt mad. I do not remember the series of events that followed, but at some point later that week, my GP signed me off work for two weeks with unmanageable anxiety (GAD) and burnout. When I came back into the office a fortnight later, I felt like I’d done something terrible. Nobody spoke to me. People hovered awkwardly by my desk when they needed something. Clearly, I had disrupted the status quo and nobody thought it was rock and roll. I hadn’t gone about things the right way. But then, what would have been the right way? There was no formal process in place. There was an employee helpline, but what happens when that isn’t enough?
A lot of companies fundraise for mental health charities, and even train Mental Health First Aiders – which is a step in the right direction. But if there are no clear steps to follow when you need time off to take care of your mental health, none of these things are actually helpful. Most companies advise employees to talk to their line managers, but often that feels so intimidating and anxiety-inducing, it isn’t actually achievable. Especially when what your unfiltered brain wants to say is, “Hi – I keep thinking about putting my hand into my blender which is obviously a terrible idea because I need my hand for things and I don’t want to blend my hand but I keep thinking about it when I make my smoothies and I really do feel like someone is making scrambled eggs with my brain which is making it quite hard to do life in general let alone come up with creative ideas for this campaign so please can I possibly maybe not come into work for a bit while I work on thinking about not putting my hand into a blender? Thanks so much for your time.”
Now I’m in my third job after graduating, keeping my brain happy is a little more manageable. (It also helps enormously that I left the music industry behind). My responsibilities are much bigger than they used to be, but I’m more confident in my abilities and I know where my boundaries are. I take a lunch break. I leave on time. I don’t have work emails on my phone. If a project doesn’t get completed on time, nobody is going to get hurt. Mental health is worth more than a deadline.
I’m glad I have this mindset now, but it shouldn’t have taken me four years to get here. I worry about younger colleagues and graduates just starting out. We have made progress in the last ten years, but the mental health stigma is still huge, and attitudes in the workplace aren’t great. (Evidence: People saying that they are “so OCD” about their desk layout. Why is this still happening in 2020? OCD is not an adjective, it’s an anxiety disorder. If you don’t correct people when you hear things like this, you are part of the problem). We need more than work charity runs and employee helplines. We need clear steps to follow and mental health days written into all contracts. In the meantime, if you see someone having a bit of a day, ask if they’re okay – and ask twice. They might brush it off, but sometimes it helps just to know that someone sees you. We all need to look more closely. Nobody ever made a positive difference by not paying attention.
It is December 1997. I am two-and-a-half years old with honey blonde hair and the tenacity of a toddler, which I never lose. My Mum takes me to a baby ballet class at the village hall. I wear tiny red ballet shoes and frilly socks. 22 years later, I am still dancing.
I have been through a lot of different phases. I’ve been scene, emo, goth, indie, and everything in between. My hair has been black, blue, green, brown, red, bleach blonde and various other questionable shades that looked like pond water. My portfolio of interests has included everything from weightlifting and boxing to swing band and embroidery. But throughout all of this, I’ve always danced. I never left ballet, and it never left me.
Why was it ballet that stuck, and not something else? I tried out plenty of other hobbies, and I’ve done other styles of dance that came to me far more easily than ballet ever did. Physically, I am not made for ballet. I’m naturally inflexible and I build muscle easily on my thighs, which makes my lines look broken. My hips are inwardly rotated so I lack turnout, and my spine is twisted (scoliosis) so I never look entirely symmetrical. My body lends itself more readily to contemporary and commercial – both of which I love, but they’re not my first love.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when I fell in love with ballet. I just know that I don’t make sense without it. So much of who I am is ballet. It’s in the way I hold myself, the way I penché down to pick up a hairpin from the floor, the way I brush my teeth standing in relevé. It’s so deeply rooted in my physicality that it saved my body from becoming dangerously twisted. When I was 15, my contemporary teacher noticed that my ribcage looked slightly crooked during a floor sequence. I saw a spine specialist, and he said that if I hadn’t been doing ballet for my whole life, I would have needed major corrective spine surgery. I might not have been born with a natural ballerina’s body, but now, ballet is literally in my bones. It’s in the very essence of my being. I think I was born with a resilient streak, but ballet took that and turned it into the unyielding strength that makes me who I am.
Ballet is hard. The simple steps are harder than you think, and you spend a lot of time doing them. It’s not all double fouettés and grand jetés. There is no such thing as fudge-stepping or styling it out – there is a right and a wrong way to do things. A head inclined towards one foot instead of the other isn’t a nice way of making it your own, it’s just wrong. Your body has to morph into shapes that frankly, the human body isn’t designed to make. The only way to get there is to practice tirelessly. You don’t give up and you certainly never sit down. You repeat combinations over and over again until either you get it or your teacher tells you to stop. If there’s music playing, you’re dancing, my teacher used to say.
There is no place for apathy in ballet. It requires commitment, persistence, and a willingness to show up and give it everything you’ve got and a little something more. Try for a triple pirouette, even if you think you won’t land it. If you fall flat on your face, get up and finish with a smile. If your costume comes undone, keep dancing and ignore it. If you go wrong, own it. (Or as my current teacher puts it, Wrong and strong, ladies, wrong and strong). If you’re injured, come to class and do whatever you can, even if that’s only stretching and making notes. Just show up. And try.
Ballet instilled within me a kind of quiet determination – less an overt desire to triumph and more a stubborn refusal to concede. It was this mentality that got me through my first year of university, which went all kinds of wrong. I felt entirely disconnected from my body; I was walking around campus but I never felt my feet touch the ground. I had no friends, no emotions and no idea how to make anything better. My brain had been scrambled beyond recognition. But in all this, there was one thing that made perfect sense. Chassé pas de bourée, glissade, grand jeté. Développé á la seconde. Chaînés. Ballet. Of course. Going to ballet was not a decision I needed to make with my head. As my old teacher once said to our class, Even if your head falls off, you keep dancing. So I did. I put one hand on the barre and pliéd. I did bad pirouettes, average grand allegro and half-decent frappés. I showed up. I kept showing up. And slowly, I started to feel okay.
The order and discipline of class comforted me. It always has. I like knowing that I could turn up to a ballet class anywhere in the world and it would start with pliés and end with révérance. I like the feeling of pulling my hair back into a bun, taking off my fussy jewellery, putting on my leotard and placing my hand on the barre, purposefully, gracefully. I like the respectful quiet that fills a ballet studio, the unspoken understanding that this time we have carved out of our day is for ballet and ballet alone. It is surprising that I enjoy this disciplined environment, considering what I was like growing up. I wore black nail polish, played the drums in angry bands, got my nose pierced and spent my Friday evenings in the boxing ring. Even now, nothing has really changed. Outside of my Thursday evening ballet company rehearsals, I spend most of my time stomping around in Doc Martens, listening to shouty bands and reclaiming the free weights at my gym from sweaty men. I like to question things, push boundaries, live outside of the lines already drawn for me. My personality doesn’t exactly sound like it would get along with ballet.
Or does it? Ballet is about pushing boundaries. It’s about defying your own limits and constantly questioning what your body can do. It’s living a life outside of society’s prescribed norms – ignoring the kids at school who tease you for being a weird bunhead, choosing a quiet night at home with a foam roller instead of a boozy night out. The very art form that taught me discipline and control was the same one that taught me how to rebel. It gave me the inner confidence to choose the path less trodden, to say no firmly, to be bold and unapologetic about the decisions I make and the opinions I voice.
Bold. This is the word I associate most with ballet. Not floaty, frilly or pink. People usually picture tutus, soft hands and slow, dreamlike movements when they think of ballet. This is all part of it (yes, I have indeed danced in a pink tutu), but it doesn’t even begin to do ballet justice. I have never been particularly fond of this sweeping, adagio-focused choreography anyway. I’ve always preferred the more audacious kind: jumps, grand battement, strong arabesques and anything with a good dose of épaulement. I find this much easier than holding my leg up for hours on end while I try and sweep my arms around gracefully in an adagio style. Ballerinas might look like they’re floating around on stage, but I can assure you that they don’t feel like it. The slower the movement, the harder it is on your muscles. (I am still haunted by a centre exercise from my Grade 6 Cecchetti exam which involved The Slowest Grand Plié In The Universe, where we had to plié down for four counts and up for another four, then développé to second in eight counts to music that was about 45 BPM. My quadriceps have never stopped screaming). Ballet is about making very difficult things look very easy. You have to keep your face light, your upper body relaxed and open, while your legs are dying and your toes are bleeding. It is, after all, a performing art. You must do everything in your power to keep the grimaces off your face and the blood from seeping through your pointe shoes. Ballet is beauty and pain. Learning how to show one and conceal the other.
This is something else that has spilled over into my everyday life without me noticing. People tell me I’m hard to read, that I keep my cards close to my chest. I take it as a compliment. Can this sometimes be detrimental to my mental health? Yes, absolutely – as can many personality traits if at the extreme end of the scale. But this ability to maintain coolness and poise has helped me through a number of difficult situations. Tough work meetings, disrespectful comments, bad dates, awkward conversations. Whenever I am in need of a little strength and composure, I think of ballet. Roll the shoulders back and down, neck long, stomach pulled up, voice even. We are fine. We can do this.
Ballet is at my core. It’s in everything I am and everything I do. Our relationship has never been perfect – there was a time when I thought my body was not small enough, not symmetrical enough for ballet. My heart wasn’t in it for a while, and I stopped trying. But I couldn’t let ballet go, and it wouldn’t let me go. There are frappés in my feet, arabesque lines in my arms, and petit allegro combinations in my head. I am always in the wings, ready to dance at any moment. I may not have been built for ballet, but I was, undoubtedly, built by it.
It is Sunday evening. I am sitting on my bed wearing my Mum’s old plaid pyjama bottoms, a Green Day t-shirt from 1994 and cat socks with pink glittery trim. I have my hair piled up on top of my head in a ballerina bun, the universal sign for ‘I am home and have life admin to do’. Next to me is a list written hastily on a green post-it note that says things like ‘Claim back money for contact lenses’, ‘Book airport transfer’, and, for a reason I cannot remember, ‘Cornflour’. At the foot of my bed there is a semi-neat pile of library books, Boots vouchers and NHS letters, because I haven’t yet worked out where to store them (and probably won’t ever). Beside this pile is my pop-up washing basket, leaning dangerously far over to one side because I have stuffed it full of gym kit, towels and spare bed sheets.
This is life in my mid twenties. Everything is sort of fine. I am doing quite well. I am sailing along at a fairly steady pace, and sometimes, I actually remember to pluck my eyebrows and download the latest software updates. But there are tiny holes in my boat. I put things away in drawers but they keep spilling out again. I’m always busy but I never feel like I’ve achieved anything. I have a lot of conversations where I actually have no idea what I’m talking about. I never seem to have the right shoes for anything. Tiny holes. Just little ones. Not enough to make me sink, but enough to get my feet wet.
Is it just me wandering around in my soggy socks? I feel alone in it. Loneliness isn’t something anyone in their twenties ever really talks about, but it seeps in, from time to time. I don’t have a big group of friends, and I haven’t since primary school. I have a handful of close friends scattered around the place, but no group large enough to warrant booking a table in advance in London. For the most part, I’m content with my own company, and with having deeper connections with fewer people – but there’s a shamefulness to not having a group. It’s one of those little holes that I have to keep patching up and painting over. I feel I must have gone very wrong somewhere, because I seem to be the only 24-year-old who isn’t a part of any WhatsApp friend groups containing more than three other people. I’m happy with my small circle most of the time, but there are moments when I do feel like a bit of a failure. Especially living in a city where everyone else my age seems to be constantly gathering in big groups on Clapham Common, and organising Facebook events for 25th birthdays where 34 people are definitely going, 21 might go, and 9 have such busy social lives that they haven’t even seen the invitation yet.
The close friends I do have are enormously important to me. Nobody explains this to you when you are little and running around the playground playing tag with your pals – but maintaining friends as an adult takes time and effort, like all other relationships. And I do my best. I try to remember to check in on people when we haven’t spoken in a few weeks. I message them when I see something that reminds me of them. I suggest meeting up often, and sometimes I worry that I’m annoying because I’m always asking for diary dates. It’s hard. Minor but actually extremely major things like geography, logistics, time and money get in the way. And then of course there’s the number one thing, the thing that seems to be swallowing more and more of everyone’s time as we move further into our twenties: work.
Work is relentless, isn’t it? Five days a week, nine to five. (That is, if you are one of these lucky people who works a 35-hour week instead of the incredibly rude 37.5-hour week of most London jobs). After my first week of office work a few years ago, I had the same feeling that I did after my first day at school when I was four. Just when I thought it was all over, my parents broke the horrifying news to me that school was actually going to be a daily event for five days each week for the rest of my childhood. Essentially forever, in a four-year-old’s brain. Apart from the holidays, of course. As an adult you don’t get any free holidays. Nobody warns you about that. Not even Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. (The audacity!)
That said, after years of getting rejected, I’m happy that I finally managed to secure a job that I actually really enjoy. I get paid to write all day and I have absolutely nothing to do with data analysis or finance, which is excellent. But I still have this constant fear that someone’s going to find out I’m just a clueless weasel masquerading as a well-assembled adult. I hear words coming out of my mouth in meetings and struggle to keep up with what I’m saying. People nod along with me and keep sending me more work to do, which must be a good sign. But can anyone tell that it’s chaos inside my head? Does anybody know that I inhaled three bowls of cornflakes last night while I was waiting for my dinner to cook and then dropped my tray of aubergines on the floor? Can anyone see that I have a hole in the back of my tights? Do I actually look like I know what I’m doing?
I don’t think I do. At least, I certainly never feel it. I have a lot of clothes – far too many, probably, but I never feel properly put together. I certainly never feel like the kind of woman who can pick up the phone and say “Speaking!” when someone asks for her. I always end up looking like too much or not enough. I’m drawn to deep colours and different textures, and I seem to have a penchant for outfits that involve lots of tucking in and hoisting up and smoothing down. When you add to that my love for bold lipsticks and oddly-shaped earrings, everything feels too fussy, like an overloaded pavlova. I’m always envious of the chic women who glide onto the tube in the morning wearing shift-dresses and just a little mascara, but whenever I wear something simple, I feel like a tomato bobbing around in a fruit salad.
My outfit indecisions mean that I am horrible at packing. I swear I never used to be this bad at it, but recently I’ve been almost incapable of packing a weekend bag. Every time I pack, I somehow always end up slumped in a heap on top of my clothes, surrounded by hairbrushes and various charging wires, with nothing inside the actual bag. When I eventually get everything in the bag, it obviously never fits. This is usually because I have packed two woolly jumpers, six pairs of socks, and ten pairs of pants, because I’m always cold and you can never have enough spare pants. This overstuffed bag then opens up a whole new world of problems, because I realise that I can’t carry it halfway across London on the tube, and that arriving with something so unwieldy absolutely won’t make me look like a carefree and easygoing gal who can throw a few things in a holdall with absolutely no worries because I do, in fact, have a large amount of worries, and on top of this, if there is no space in the bag then there will be no room for my snacks. (A very big problem). Of course, the logical solution to this is to tip everything out of the bag and back onto my bedroom floor, go downstairs and have a large mug of tea (wine) and a (several) biscuit(s), then lie down in the packing mess I’ve created, eventually pack at 1.30 in the morning, turn up to my destination and wear the same pair of black jeans for the whole weekend.
Perhaps I will learn to pack when I turn into a proper adult. I am not sure when this will be – although there are signs of this happening. Last week I descaled my kettle with lemon juice which I specifically bought for this exact purpose, and went out of my way to go via Wilko on my commute home one evening to buy a loose-bottomed (don’t start) cake tin. I also recently bought 100% white cotton socks from M&S and got a custom-made Roman blind delivered to my office. If this doesn’t say adulthood, then frankly I don’t know what does. (The blind then sat in my room for six weeks because I couldn’t reach high enough to install it myself, and I almost knocked someone out with it when I had to carry it home on the tube in rush hour, but this is entirely besides the point).
I am hoping that I might eventually stop feeling like I’m scooping water out of a sinking boat, but the older I get the more buckets I seem to need. Constantly pretending that you are a competent adult and not, in fact, a bumbling mess who keeps their 85% dark chocolate in the drawer next to the mini screwdriver set they got from a Christmas cracker in 2012 is a full-time job. I have figured out a range of quite useful and completely useless things by this point, but there is an awful lot of blagging, fudge-stepping and Googling going on. (Most recent search item: what is a credit rating and how do I get one).
Navigating the chaos is hard. Things keep getting more and more complicated. Every day there seems to be a new pile of miscellaneous crap to sort out. My brain feels increasingly like a hash brown at the end of every week. And I don’t think it gets any easier. I think we just get better at making it look like everything is plain-sailing.
It was July of 2017 or thereabouts. London was melting in another heatwave and the office air conditioning had broken, which wasn’t helping anything. I was eight months into my dream internship in the music industry and it was even more ridiculous than I could ever have imagined. I had all manner of stories to tell from the past year, from running around the corner shops of Maida Vale trying to find Fiji water for a band who wouldn’t drink anything else, to sitting next to Oli Sykes in a cinema while eating a quinoa salad and drinking free whiskey. To anyone else, it sounded like I was having the time of my life.
But my every day reality was 127 unread emails, 13 missed calls on my personal phone, a desk covered in pink post-it notes that said things like ‘URGENT’, ‘CALL MANAGER’ and ‘SEND BEFORE 3PM TODAY’, and no concept of what a lunch break looked like. On this particular afternoon, I’d just been asked to do the impossible yet again: find a room for twelve people for a meeting in half an hour’s time (when all of the rooms in the building were already booked and no meetings could be moved). Compared to other things I’d been tasked with before, this was not an outrageous request – but it was one thing too many for my brain to handle that day. I couldn’t feel my face and my heart was hammering so hard against my ribcage that it felt like somebody was punching me repeatedly from the inside. ‘Feels’ was playing on the radio for the fifth time that day and it was clashing horribly with some indie electronic noises coming from the A&R room. I couldn’t pick one single coherent thought out of my head, couldn’t remember what day it was, and before I knew it I had walked out of the building, past Whole Foods on Kensington High Street and into a sweltering Hyde Park.
I laid down under a tree and stared at the cloudless blue sky. Anxiety had no business bothering me when the weather was this lovely. I rolled over onto my stomach and picked at the grass, imagining I was plucking the bad stuff out of my head. All I ended up doing was making myself sneeze. I must have done this for a while, because when I got back to the office my fingers were green and dirty. I remember scrubbing my hands in the sink until they were red raw. I don’t remember anything else from this day. I have probably blocked it out of my memory, because I imagine it didn’t end very well, considering I bailed mid-task. The next thing from this month that I remember is sitting in my GP’s office, with a cheap fan wafting hot air over my sticky thighs. She made lots of sympathetic “hmmm” noises and signed me off work for two weeks.
I felt like a failure. I spent the fortnight pottering around the garden at my parents’ house, baking raisin flapjacks and re-reading old books outside in the sunshine feeling shame. Everyone working in music is stressed and stretched beyond their limits; I had no reason to be hyperventilating in the work toilets and dissociating in label meetings. I was doing a job that thousands of people would have killed for, and things were going well for me. As everyone kept saying.
I returned to work gradually, on reduced hours. It was awkward and painful. People hovered by my desk silently when they wanted to ask me something. My phone stopped ringing. Nobody asked me anything that wasn’t strictly work related. I wasn’t involved in office jokes any more. I sloped around taking promo CDs to the post room and processing invoices from festival season wishing I’d just stayed away.
I was acutely aware I hadn’t handled things very well. I should have spoken up earlier, asked people not to call me on my personal phone after 7pm, or said that I needed time to walk around the block at lunch time each day. But firstly, I was at the bottom of the food chain in a very big, very fast-paced and very loud industry – I’d signed up for stress. I had no right to ask for peace and order. Secondly, this bout of anxiety was not something I saw coming. Mental health problems, in my experience, are not as simple as spraining your ankle, looking down and realising that it’s purple and puffy and concluding that you should ask to work from home for a few days. I was aware that I was under pressure, but the anxiety symptoms crept up on me so quietly that they’d dug their claws well into my skin before I felt any pain. By the time I realised that I had checked into room 303 at The Iffy Place, I was far too scrambled to handle anything in the proper way. I just had to get out of the chaos.
It shouldn’t have been uncomfortable to talk to my family and friends about this. I had taken an extended trip to The Iffy Place’s sister resort, The (Very) Bad Place, in 2013, when I had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, which almost resulted in me dropping out of university. This was no secret, and I’d always been open about my mental health from that point onwards. But it was the very fact that I’d had a bad bout of anxiety and depression before that made this time round so much harder to explain. I felt ashamed and silly. Hadn’t I beaten it? Wasn’t I stronger now?
Some people who have nervous breakdowns may have treatment, recover, and may never be visited by a mental health problem again in their lifetime. And good for them. But that wasn’t the case for me, and isn’t for a lot of people. I have an anxious brain. Sometimes it gnaws at me for days on end. Sometimes it doesn’t. I am not fixed, but I am not broken either.
I’ve shared my own writings about my anxious brain several times before, and every time I’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback. People have told me I’m brave and strong and an inspiration. And that’s very kind and nice of them to say. Really it is. But nobody called me brave when I cancelled dinner plans because I didn’t feel present in my own body. Nobody called me strong when I left halfway through a gig without saying goodbye because I felt the walls closing in on me. Nobody called me inspirational when I dug my nails so hard into my arm that it started bleeding.
Everybody wanted a reason for my for my anxiety, and more often than not I didn’t have one. I don’t have a list of triggers. I don’t particularly like big crowds or noisy clubs, but they don’t always make me have a panic attack. And on that, panic attacks don’t take the same form on every person, and not everyone with anxiety has panic attacks. (Some people have anxiety attacks, which are different to panic attacks, and can last for days or months). Anxiety is a big, umbrella term which encompasses several disorders, including Panic Disorder, OCD and PTSD among others. Anxiety is not just feeling worried, just as depression is not just feeling sad. I have been diagnosed with both anxiety and depression, but I don’t actually feel worried or sad that much, which often makes me feel like the things I experience aren’t valid. For me, the symptoms that affect me the most are:
- Depersonalisation and derealisation (I have depersonalisation constantly – it is a matter of how much or little I notice it)
- Brain fog
- Emotional detachment
- Intrusive thoughts
- Health anxiety
- Memory blanks
- Tingling fingers
- Numb face
- Heavy head feeling
- Heartbeat that feels too hard and too fast
The same mental illness can be experienced differently by everyone who is diagnosed with it, and there is no one treatment or way of helping someone that works in every case. Medication didn’t help me – it only exacerbated some of my symptoms – but I have friends who’ve really benefitted from it. I’ve seen some people be very comforted by a hug during a panic attack, but I personally don’t like anyone coming within a metre radius of me because it makes me feel trapped, no matter how well-meaning their intentions are. If five people sprain their knee playing football, you can be pretty sure they’ll all respond well to the RICE method, and recover at about the same rate. Mental health is as important as physical health, but it’s a completely different field to navigate. You can’t RICE someone’s brain.
The conversation around mental health is slowly improving, but we are well behind where we should be. Mental Health Awareness Week/Month/Day is great, but it’s not enough. Congratulate people for sharing their mental health struggles and successes this month by all means, but remember to check in on them next month too. Try to understand and offer support if someone cancels plans on you – I can guarantee they aren’t happy about doing it. Feel how you’re feeling and let others do the same. The bad and strange feelings will barge their way into your brain one way or another; it takes more energy to force them out. There isn’t always an obvious reason for feeling a certain way and there doesn’t have to be. You can feel sad watching your favourite band play at a festival with a beer in your hand. You can feel worried sunbathing on the most beautiful beach in Barbados. You can feel irritated sitting on a plush lounger at a spa in a fluffy white robe.
I won’t end this by saying that everything is fantastic now and that I have no iffy feelings at all. That’s the narrative everybody wants, but it isn’t real. I do mostly hang out in The Good Place. I’ve been spending most of my time there this year, after deciding to hold the door open to my life and let some good things walk in and some other bad things walk out. But sometimes things get sticky. I have been to The Bad Place and The Iffy Place, and I may visit there again. This is the way of life. Things happen. Brains are wonderful and complicated. I won’t always be fine. And that doesn’t make me a failure, it just makes me human.
I learned a lot of things during my time in education. How to hem a pair of trousers (very useful), how to tell you all about mes vacances à la plage (somewhat useful), how to find the value of x (not useful), and what Ferdinand de Saussure means by the signifier and the signified (not at all useful, unless you are trying to boggle someone’s brain, or woo a brooding literary type at a bar in Dalston – in which case this may be upgraded to somewhat useful, but you should probably work on your chat-up lines).
Nothing I learned, however, prepared me for the fact that I was going to get rejected. A lot.
This is partly due to my upbringing, and, perhaps, sheer luck. I’m from a small town and I went to small schools, so I succeeded at almost everything I tried (apart from getting onto the netball C team in Year Five, but it’s fine, I totally didn’t want to play anyway). I got the parts I went for at my dance school, I got into the bands I auditioned for (because there were only two near me that wanted anything to do with female drummer), I got the Sixth Form post of responsibility I interviewed for (Public Relations Officer, because do I really strike you as House Captain material?) and I got offers from all five universities that I applied for. This meant that I actually went through most of my life as a naïve optimist – which probably sounds unbelievable to everyone who knows me now as a definite realist, verging on a straight-up pessimist. I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than constantly let down.
My first inkling that the real world was not as kind as I thought it was came when I had to arrange my work experience week at age 15. I wanted to be a music journalist, so I sent off carefully written emails and samples of gig and album reviews to over 20 magazines and newspapers, only to receive nothing back, apart from one Postmaster notification telling me that my email couldn’t be delivered. This is probably the worst type of rejection, because it isn’t even really rejection, it’s just silence. Wondering. Overthinking. Did they all sit around and laugh at my email? Did they even read it? What did I say that was so wrong?
It got worse, obviously. After I graduated from university, I applied for an entry-level role at a creative agency. The money was peanuts, but this was besides the point. I had a contact there, so I thought my chances were, actually, fairly good. I got the interview, and it still remains one of the best interviews I’ve had to date. I had to do a task, which my interviewer loved, and told me I should “frame it and hang it up on a wall”. By the time the final stage interview came around, I was picturing myself at my desk there and had already planned out what gym I could join nearby.
It goes without saying that I didn’t get it. The other candidate had “more experience” and had “just edged it” over me. I read the rejection email (nobody has the guts to reject you over the phone), sat down at the top of my staircase and cried. I am not a crier, but this had caught me off-guard. My first grown-up world rejection had a real sting to it, and it took a while for my skin to stop burning. I was upset I hadn’t got the job, but mostly I was crying tears of anger. I was angry at myself for having hope, for letting myself believe that I could have actually succeeded. Lesson learned: never get your hopes up.
More rejections followed like dominoes. I went for an unpaid internship, did a phone interview, a task and two face-to-face interviews, and never heard anything back. Not even a blanket rejection email. After weeks of calling the HR contact for any sort of answer, I gave up. Soon after, I applied for another internship and interviewed over Skype while I was on holiday. They sent me a task to do – which involved writing a month-long social plan for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat for two different accounts, five Facebook ads, three scripts for YouTube content, two marketing emails and a presentation of one of my own campaign ideas. I spent nearly three whole days of my holiday working on it, because I really, really wanted this job – and because this was all the time they’d given me to complete it. They finally got back to me a week later than they’d promised, only to tell me that regretfully, I hadn’t got the internship because although my task had been better than the other candidate’s, she had more experience.
This became a common theme in my rejections, to the point where it was almost comical. My tasks would get positive feedback from my interviewers, and often they’d tell me that my work was the best out of the bunch, but time and time again they’d go with another candidate who had more experience. Surely, you could work this out within the first two minutes of comparing our CVs, and save everybody a load of time and effort?
My favourite job rejection story is from an entry-level role that combined knowledge of fitness, nutrition and marketing. I have a Gym Instructor qualification, Biology A Level, and had over a year’s experience in marketing by this point, so I thought I had a pretty good marriage of skills. The first interview lasted for – no exaggeration – two hours and forty five minutes. After two hours, I tried politely to ask to leave, because it was nearing 9.30pm and I had to catch a train home – but my interviewer was the most talkative and insistent person I’ve ever met, so I was going absolutely nowhere. She said, word for word, that she “loved the way [my] brain worked” and that I was “just what [she’d] been looking for”.
A couple of days later, I had a second face-to-face interview with her business partner, then a Skype interview with another team member based in San Francisco. I did a copywriting task, which took in total about 6 hours to complete, and then met my original interviewer again to go through my work. She said I’d done the task in the exact way she wanted, and we even talked about what projects I’d be working on in the role, and what copywriting courses she’d like to send me on. A week went by after this, then two weeks, and I’d still heard nothing, despite her telling me that they needed someone to start as soon as possible. I called the recruiter who’d got me the first interview, and I emailed my interviewer directly because she’d told me I was welcome to contact her with any questions. Almost three weeks later, the recruiter sent me a one-sentence-long email to say that I hadn’t been successful. I called her to ask why and to ask for feedback, but she dodged my calls and I never heard anything from her or the company ever again.
People will tell you not to take job rejections personally, but a lot of the time it is personal. Some things I’ve heard over recent years include:
“You’re well qualified for the role, but we just couldn’t see you fitting into team.”
“We’re looking for somebody a bit more outgoing.”
“We just didn’t feel that your personality came through in the interview.”
I had a particularly uncomfortable interview a couple of years ago. There was a long pause after my one of my answers, during which the interviewer looked me up and down with a face that was a mixture of disappointment and irritation.
“You’re not coming across as particularly friendly, Lizzie,” she said.
“Oh.” I looked around for a shovel to dig myself a hole with. “Sorry. I’m just a bit nervous.”
She frowned. “Yes, well. We are looking for a certain type of person, just so you know.”
Evidently, I wasn’t it.
You can read all the philosophical quotes you want about things happening for a reason and windows opening when doors close, but the truth of the matter is: rejection hurts. Literally. I read somewhere recently that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. Romantically speaking, I did figure out how to deal with this fairly early on. This was no thanks to the heinous teen girl magazines I devoured, whose only discernible objectives were teaching you how to look pretty and how to trap a man (which is a rather screwed-up thing to be teaching a fourteen-year-old, but this is a topic for another time). According to these, boys liked girls to approach them directly and do the asking out, because it showed confidence. Naturally, I followed this advice several times in my teenage years, and every time ended up getting rejected and looking like a monumental prat. (In my experience, the boys were far meaner than the mean girls ever were). The only way to stop this embarrassment from repeating itself was of course to never approach boys again, and to hope that the good old sticky eyes would do the talking. I am pleased to report a 0% success rate with this method.
By now I know that not everybody you fancy is going to fancy you back – and this is fine. A little inconvenient, yes, but… fine. (I do look a bit like a hamster from certain angles and this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so sure, I get it, thank u next). Getting rejected on your personality, however, is a whole different kind of painful. Especially when it’s not by someone you’re trying to date, but potential friends. It happened a lot when I was looking for house-shares a while ago, and now again that I’m looking for a new place. I know that I’m not a just-add-water friend, or the type that bounds into a room and immediately brightens up the whole place (you have no idea how much I wish I was) – but it’s pretty bloody difficult to come across as fun but not too fun, clean but not Monica Geller clean, friendly but not needy, interesting but not weird, to ask the necessary practical questions but not too many otherwise you’ll seem boring, and actually look around properly – all in the space of less than fifteen minutes. I’ve been rejected from places for all manner of reasons: too young, too old, too female, too busy in the evenings, not busy enough, too quiet, too vegetarian, not enough of a tequila fan, too much of a baking fan, the list goes on. Whatever the reason is, what people are essentially saying is that they just don’t want you around. It’s a hard pill to swallow no matter how you look at it.
You’d think that rejection would get easier but it never does. The stakes only get higher and life gets more and more complicated. I’ve learned how to drag myself up off the floor and dust myself down fairly quickly, but I feel more battered and bruised every time. I just get better at making it look like I’m fine.
I think a lot of us are good at this. The unspoken rules of our rose-tinted world mean that we have to be. Faking it til you make it is a useful skill, but the reality is that not everybody is doing as well as you think they are, and the best of us are spending a lot of time getting doors slammed in our faces. And you know what? It sucks.
I have a problem with starting things. My brain is cluttered with half-chewed thoughts and burgeoning ideas which I never do anything with because I’m scared that they’re actually all terrible. If I don’t start, I’ll never have to find out.
That’s why I didn’t start this blog for a really long time. I had the idea and promptly sat on it, until it stilled and eventually went quiet. Not only did I fear it would be crap, but also irrelevant. And pointless. Why would you want to read this, when there are approximately 7,529,431 other blogs out there which are already fully fledged and written by people who actually have some kind of social status? What do I have to say that hasn’t been said already?
I don’t know. I don’t have a particular speciality. I like fitness but I’m not all about it. I like food. I like talking about mental health. I dance. I tried to write poetry for a bit. I wrote for some music magazines. I played in bands. I used to work in the music industry. I kind of still do. (I like to take on that identity sometimes, when I feel like I need to turn myself up a bit louder. Does that make me a fake? Maybe).
The brand I am trying to sell to you, I guess, is me. This is a terrifying concept that I think is wildly stupid, because I have no fame, position of authority or particular talent, or any compelling reason for being worthy of your time. I’m a hard sell. I’m a small introvert who is constantly told to speak up more in meetings, loves cleaning but hates tidying, still collects shells on the beach, says hello to cats in the street and was once described by a therapist as ‘cold and intimidating’. (Said therapist had made me a cup of tea a few minutes prior to this diagnosis and had committed the atrocity of putting the milk in first, so I personally would like to replace ‘cold and intimidating’ with ‘absolutely fucking horrified’, but who am I to make judgments about my own character?) I am still trying to work out what on earth I am doing, and most of the time I feel, quite frankly, like I am flying by the seat of my pants.
I know a lot of people feel like this. I know nothing and nobody is an overnight success. First drafts are called first drafts for a reason, you rarely get things right the first time round and perfection doesn’t really exist. I know all of this. But it’s hard to believe, when we’re bombarded every day with pictures of poreless faces and meticulously arranged living rooms with no cat hairs on the sofas. I work in marketing and I see new brands appearing out of nowhere all the time with their shiny new logos and three perfectly tone-of-voiced product points. A just-add-customer-equation.
The problem is that our world doesn’t allow us the space to mess up. There’s barely enough room to have a slight misfire or put something out there that’s still rough around the edges. And why would you, when you can delete the 47 selfies you didn’t like, and only post the one where the light fell on your face just right? I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. The perfectionist in me has gone into overdrive and I’m struggling to find the brake. I’m a classic overachiever with outrageously high self-expectations and I hate sharing anything that I’m not 135% happy with. I barely use Twitter any more because I keep typing out tweets and backspacing my words into nothingness, afraid they’re not witty enough. I’ve always considered writing to be a strength of mine, but ironically it’s this exact thing that makes it so difficult. One of my creative writing tutors at university once told me that ‘not everything you create will be a masterpiece, and that is fine’. We could probably all do with remembering this.
I intended to start writing when I felt I was more. More wise, more interesting, more sure of myself. But I never seem to be more. I never seem to be exactly where I want to be. I’m always too far one way or the other, missing things by inches and never saying quite the right thing. Life has been strange and sad recently and the universe appears not to be on my side. My brain has been gnawing at me with sharper teeth than usual, and things started writing themselves in my head.
So, here I am, forging out on my own and creating something that is most definitely not perfect and far from a masterpiece. And this, I think, is fine.