When I was 18, I had a boyfriend with pink hair. He was in a band, and lived in a magnolia-coloured bedsit that he’d wallpapered with Beatles posters and swirly portraits of Syd Barrett. I myself had purple hair, stayed over around five nights a week, and contributed nothing to the décor but coffee spillages.
Since neither of us was working, or had any money, I had assumed Valentine’s Day would go the way of the day before — me flicking through charity-shop Philip K Dick paperbacks, him noodling quietly on his guitar on the rug (18 was apparently my year of cliché), perhaps later, a Ginster’s pasty.
But instead we spent it at the VD clinic.
“The first sign that I was gaining weight came when I woke up one morning with a sudden pair of boobs. I’d always been flat-chested and boyish, running around in jeans with nary a bra or pair of heels to my name. Boobs were a new and exciting phenomenon; I didn’t actually realise I was eating more, I just assumed my Italian heritage was kicking in, and that I was finally Becoming A Woman. Eagerly I awaited the arrival of my childbearing hips, imagining myself stalking around moodily in a pencil skirt and balconette bra (all the Italians in my imagination are directed by Fellini).”
It’s 7.30am, the sun is still below the horizon, and I’m on my second lap of the park. I’m wearing neon pink running tights and a grim expression of zero tolerance. A dog-walker approaches. I nod at him and he visibly shrinks away from my INTENSE FOCUS.
You see, I am a woman on a mission. Coming up ahead is a hill, and this hill is my nemesis. Today, on this run, I am going to crush this hill. I am going to make this hill wish it had never been born. I am going to hit this hill, and hit it hard. I am going to… sort of rush at it all at once then stagger to a halt halfway up, wheezing like a punctured balloon - just like I did on my previous lap.
I am a bad runner. This is why I run early in the mornings - to hide my shame.
Three months ago, I was at the tail-end of a gruelling weight-loss plan which had followed a long, miserable battle with weight gain. I needed to get in shape and was bored of the strip-lit tyranny of the gym, so one afternoon I crammed myself into a pair of quilted fashion joggers, and hit the pavement. One hundred yards in I developed a stitch. Then my lungs seized up and my joggers started to slide down my bottom. By 500 yards I was limping along, gasping for breath, with a deep ache in my legs.
That’s when two things happened. A much better, more accomplished runner slipped past me - sleek and speedy, ponytail swinging - and a man crossed the road to laugh at me. My earphones blocked what he said, but he was pointing at me, smirking, and making running motions with his arms. In hindsight, he may have actually been trying to be encouraging, but to my mind he was directing the world’s attention to my ineptitude, purple face and wobbly belly. I scowled at him and went home.
After that I was too paranoid to run at lunchtime, and started heading out at 6am instead. But it worked - at that eye-wateringly early hour no one, save the occasional fox, was around to judge me, so I was able to concentrate on my technique. Liberated from self-consciousness I regulated my breathing, settled into a steady, sustainable pace and - unexpectedly - began to enjoy myself.
Beginning a run, for me, is always a bit crotchety and uncomfortable - like hauling armfuls of logs across uneven ground. But the more I ran, the easier it became to find my stride, and at that point my conscious brain would stop concentrating on running and poke around to see what it could think about in the back of my brain. I found myself, rather than lamenting leaving my bed (which is what I do most of the time), absently confronting emotional truths, solving problems, and having creative ideas - all while joggling ungracefully along sunlit streets at dawn.
Running gives me the sort of mental breathing space I rarely enjoy during my busy daily life - and have never experienced while huffing away on a cross-trainer. I also started appreciating my body for more than its capacity for cake (a lot) or how disappointing it still looked in a tube dress (a lot). Every week I was getting stronger and more flexible - and it wasn’t down to personal trainers or instructional DVDs. It was just me, in discount ASOS fashionwear, moving through the world a bit faster than I normally do.
This has given me the confidence run slightly later (7.15am) when, gasp, people were about. While people’s eyes may follow my progress, no one actually ever chases after me with a pitchfork. Even other runners have the decency not to look appalled when I flail past them, panting and puce-faced.
I am still a consummately awful runner. Just last weekend I ran a 5k, and I fell so far behind that a race volunteer kept squeaking “It’s all good!” whenever it looked as though I might keel over. Sometimes I go running with my boyfriend, who springs ahead of me like some muscular blond gazelle, then has to double back two or three times to meet me.
But I keep running - even though I have to cajole myself into it daily (and sometimes, if I’m within striking distance of my period, or I’ve read an article saying short women aren’t designed to run, I may fail), because I’m chasing what I think of as ‘the sweet spot’. That moment where running stops feeling painfully unnatural, and becomes a smooth, clear-headed, expansive experience of being a well-oiled machine skimming effortlessly over the surface of the Earth.
Obviously, because I’m so awful at running, I only experience the sweet spot for a nanosecond each time, but gradually that nanosecond is becoming a microsecond. Hopefully once I improve that will become a millisecond, then - maybe one day - a full second. That’s the dream. I only need one second of sweetness to start my day off just right.
When I was 21, I lived in the Home Counties with my mother, my step-father, and my slightly disappointing liberal arts qualification.
I enjoyed a busy social life and rarely spent a night at home, boasting an armada of toothbrushes in friends’ bathrooms right across the Thames Valley.
Though I didn’t have a steady job or any idea what to do with my life (my career plan of being discovered as a pre-pubescent literary wunderkind hadn’t panned out), I was in a bunch of self-conscious indie bands, and I did have really excellent Shakira-meets-David-Coverdale hair, so I figured I was happy.
One day, while I was out shopping with my mother, the shopping mall began vibrating imperceptibly around me. The halogen lights grew too bright and jarring, and everyone seemed to be staring at me. I’d felt a little sick in the car earlier, but had chalked that up to a recent bout of flu. Now, light-headed and self-conscious, I stumbled into Boots. Then the world started to spin and throb and my stomach swooped and pitched and cramped up.
My knees gave way in the maternity aisle. “Don’t let me shit myself,” I thought, then: “don’t let that be my last thought.” Then I passed out. When I came to, I hadn’t shat myself, but I was covered in breast pumps.
Ladies and gentlemen, my first panic attack.
The attacks came thick and fast after that, in any enclosed space outside my home – on the train to my boyfriend’s house; on the bus to my bar job. The world would pulse and warp, and a tremendous dam of nausea would build up inside me until I’d either faint, or be trapped inside a terrible vertiginous inertia.
When I came to – or couldn’t take it anymore – I’d phone whoever I was trying to see, lie unrepentantly, then hurry home to chain-smoke and drink sugary tea until I stopped shaking. And each time, the shakes would take longer to leave me.
In the same week, I was summarily fired from my bar job (probably a relief to anyone I’ve served a watery, headless pint), and diagnosed with severe panic disorder and agoraphobia.
“Those upsetting episodes you’re experiencing are panic attacks,” the doctor told me. “Your agoraphobia comes from fearing the attacks themselves, and avoiding the public places in which you might have them.”
I was prescribed SSRI antidepressants, but binned them almost immediately because they increased my anxiety. Weekly sessions with a psychologist didn’t help much, either. I’d generally faint on the way there and, when she asked where I learned to cope with difficult situations by withdrawing from them, I wouldn’t know what to tell her.
I’d think of my loving family; my public school education; the fact that I’d lived all over the world – and wouldn’t know what to say. That I might have been led here by my childhood (upheaval, bullying, and my father’s death) didn’t even cross my mind.
As far as I was concerned, this entire situation – the panic attacks, the therapy, the derailing of my life – was the trauma. It all felt completely external to me. It was like being repeatedly hit by a truck while the truck driver asked, “Why are you doing this to yourself?”
What really did help was:
1. Educating myself about panic attacks
They’re caused by adrenaline, not a suffocating all-encompassing evil! The human body generally can’t sustain one for over 30 minutes! If learn Jedi relaxation and breathing techniques for many months you do, stop them in their tracks you sometimes can.
2. Gradual exposure therapy
Leaving a situation while you’re still panicking can create a subconscious feedback of fear, and compound agoraphobia. Whereas staying in a situation until your fear level drops can start to turn the tide.
So, I had to go to the bus stop near my house, mark my panic level on a sheet numbered 1 - 9, then stay there. I did this every day until my panic level dropped below 7. Then I had to get on a bus, and do the same thing. Then go two bus stops. Then three, etc., until I had re-conquered the world.
And you know what? I did it.
It took me two years of standing around like a fucking lemon at bus stops, in shopping malls and on trains while the world thrummed around me and I tried not to throw up on it. Sometimes I fainted. Often, people stared. But I did it.
In that time my relationship ended, a lot of friendships fell away, I scraped by on incapacity benefit, and I lost two stone (12kg) because the act of facing my fears on a daily basis made me too constantly anxious to eat (irony).
Also, I learned the second movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata; hand-coded HTML; and that I really hate crime fiction. I wrote a humorous novel about pirates and, like a boss, accidentally deleted a humorous novel about pirates.
But I did it. I re-conquered the world in two years. As soon as I was able to commit to being somewhere three times a week without fainting, I got a part-time job at my local theatre. And I loved it.
Soon after that, though, my mother had a heart attack and needed my care for six months. Thankfully she made a full recovery, at which point I immediately relapsed. However, recovery wasn’t so awful the second time round – I started freelance writing rather than going back on incapacity benefit. I got a beautiful Welsh Springer Spaniel, took up running, and learned the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
In total it took me four years to recover from agoraphobia. I’m in my thirties now, and enough time has passed for me to see that – however I thought I was when I was 21 – I was really very far from okay. I was just so good at lying to myself that I didn’t realise how intolerable things had become. And, in spiriting me away from my old life and making me fight for a better one, agoraphobia actually did me a favour.
But it was horrible to endure. I’d never heard of agoraphobia before I had it, and the one thing I could have used during recovery was a success story. So now I’m thinking about writing a book about my experiences.
In the meantime I live and work in London, and travel far and wide without incident. I still have a tendency to withdraw from difficult situations, but I’m better at spotting when I do, and finding more honest ways to cope. Plus, although I have the occasional panic attack, I haven’t fainted in years.
My hair is still a bit David Coverdale, though.
Last Friday I was meant to go out to dinner at 7.30pm. At 7.29pm, my boyfriend was waiting in the living room, while I was still hopping round the bedroom, wielding my hair straighteners like an inept swordsman, wearing a single sock. The following exchange then took place. Him: ‘How long will you be?’. Me: ‘I dunno, about half a stone?’ Him: (Deafening, judgmental silence).
Because I am on a diet. And it is eating my brain.
I’m in my thirties.
According to advertising this places me exactly halfway between a) larking about on snowboards while moodily clutching over-sized perfume bottles (my twenties), and b) joylessly shushing people in libraries, resplendent in tweed and Vagisil (my forties/the beginning of Ghostbusters).
What I’m finding, though, is that I’m enjoying my thirties far more than I’ve enjoyed any other age. My self-belief isn’t towering, but I’ve generally never felt so solid and self-reliant as I do now.
So here are three reasons why I am fine with my thirties (and for balance, three reasons I’m not).
First, the positives:
1. Thirty isn’t the new twenty
Nor should it be. Look, I didn’t spend ten years pretending to learn how office equipment works – and mastering a culinary pinnacle two points higher than ‘toast’ – to be directly compared to someone whose childhood crush was someone who was famous three years ago.
Plus, who’d want to be twenty again? I was an idiot when I was twenty. I cut my own hair and liked acid jazz unironically. On the other hand, skincare products have evolved to the point where now, if I meet someone, I genuinely can’t tell if they’re in their twenties, thirties, or forties. Which bodes well for my face but, I fear, ill for my wallet.
2. Wallander – the acceptable face of crime fiction
Watching Kenneth Branagh stump dejectedly around the bleak Swedish coast, all gentle social horror and open-plan living, is like browsing the Ikea catalogue and petting a grumpy, politically-aware puppy at the same time. And Scandinavian crime dramas deliver satisfying whodunit thrills without the blue-rinse connotations of Midsomer Murders – because they’re edgy. I mean, Wallander swears and everything. It’s basically The Wire, but in an Arran jumper.
3. No more making do
No more sort-of-friends you see out of duty but who, for one reason or another, sap the living will out of you. No more unwashed, baggage-laden gentlemen with tortured souls and no spines. Less, generally, of the self-conscious sitting around and asking “why” and more of the just getting on and doing regardless.
No more discordant live gigs where the toilets look like crime scenes and you keep getting beer slopped down your top. I am, to quote Danny Glover, too old for this shit. If I want to see a band live I can just wait until the band members get older and inevitably start playing more civilised sit-down venues. I can do this. I’m in my thirties now. I play the long game.
What I don’t like about my thirties…
1. The gap between me and the elderly is closing
Although I still stoically shop at Top Shop, as the nights draw in even I hear the siren song of zip-up slipper-boots and mobility scooters. Also, policemen are getting younger, and have you seen teachers lately? In case you haven’t, let me assure you, they are all twelve.
2. I’ll never be a pop star
The nearest act I now have to a musical role model is Seasick Steve, which suggests that it may be time to face some uncomfortable truths about how many guitars I own.
3. I have no idea what the kids are saying
Or what they mean. I’ve only just got used to ‘hench’ and ‘nang’ and they went out of currency years ago. And what about ‘cray’? Is it a sort of bird?
Sometimes I feel a bit panicky about being in my thirties. I don’t feel old enough somehow, I’m still not that clear on who I am, or what I want, and occasionally I’ll worry that I may have unwittingly wasted the best years of my life already.
But then I remember:
a) what my mother said when I was fretting on my thirtieth birthday (“What do you know about your thirties? You’ve spent the last ten years being in your twenties”).
b) that I’m young enough to appreciate Azealia Banks, but old enough for ’212′ to remind me of ‘Do the Bartman’:
Here’s a secret: I don’t know what self-confidence is.
I’ve just about figured out that self-esteem doesn’t involve bowing ostentatiously to your reflection and purring “I ESTEEEEEEM you,” like a cartoon grand vizier, and that self-love isn’t about stalking yourself on Facebook.
Basically I fudge through life trying to not sweat the small stuff, and practice good emotional accounting. Frequently I fail.
And it seems so unfair that self-confidence, which you need to do almost ANYTHING – pancake flipping; romantic shenanigans; most things involving PowerPoint – is elusive, and yet someone just has to throw a heavy-lidded glance at your intended, or be better than you at something, and within milliseconds jealousy is effortlessly curdling your insides.
I get it. Look, I’m basically a female Danny Devito lookalike. Daily I castigate myself for not being some whip-smart, finger-snapping hybrid of Salma Hayek and Caitlin Moran, and I’m only about two feet tall. Believe me, I’m jealous of EVERYONE.
But it’s because I’m so practiced that I’ve developed coping strategies* for jealousy, especially:
Rivalry; your partner having fun with people who aren’t you; that weird morbid curiosity about your partner’s exes – where it’s like they’re cheating on you IN THE PAST, before they even met you, INSIDE YOUR HEAD.
That quick and competent colleague with really great taste in trousers who makes you feel like a bag of thumbs. A friend achieving one of YOUR dreams while all your congratulations turn to ashes in your mouth.
AMORPHOUS, ALL-ENCOMPASSING WHY-AM-I-THE-ONLY-PERSON-HERE-WITH-FOOD-DOWN-HER-FRONT-OH-GOD-IT’S-USELESS-I-MIGHT-AS-WELL-DIE JEALOUSY
Probably the hardest jealousy to describe, or suffer, and generally occurs when a more specific type of jealousy has gone unchecked. Or just because it’s Tuesday. For instance, I immediately become murderously jealous in Japanese restaurants if I am with someone who can use chopsticks without looking as though they’re pruning a hedge which is running away from them.
This is what I try to do*:
1: Identify it
Why does the size 6 woman on the next treadmill cause tiny infarctions of self-loathing in my heart? Why does someone’s published book make me want to shred my own intestines? Why does the mention of a boyfriend’s ex momentarily send me spiralling like James Stewart in Vertigo? Because I’m not a size 6; I haven’t published a book; and apparently I’m so insecure that I’m intimidated by someone from the past who WORE CLOGS and LIKED KULA SHAKER.
2. Isolate it
Now you’ve recognised what’s behind your jealousy, stop indulging it. Or it’ll bloat out and distort reality, and in three days someone will find you in a heap on the floor, wailing “but SHE has EYEBROWS”.
[Edit: I realise now that ‘just try not being jealous, yeah?’ isn’t particularly useful advice. However, what I try to do (once I’ve narrowed down what the jealousy is about) is focus on something positive about myself, or do something physical or something I enjoy. This helps my brain tick over the next part…]/
3. Learn from it
Perhaps you don’t want to be a size 6, or write a novel about an opossum called Jason. But you might want to be THAT SORT OF PERSON. You might not want to revive 1990s psychadelia, but if you feel something about your relationship doesn’t measure up to some perceived past ideal, look it straight in the eye.
Your jealousy is a message from yourself: “I WANT THIS”. So prioritise making it – or a version of it – happen. At the risk of quoting Rachel Weisz, YOU’RE WORTH IT.
4. Attack it with a BAZOOKA
Jealousy has served its purpose, so jettison it from your psyche. After all, it is a BITCH. Remember that time it made you feel bad about your innie bellybutton at school and you cried for a whole evening? KILL IT WITH FIRE.
5. Drink gin, dance around the house in your pants
Jealousy is reductive, destructive, and makes you feel hideous and nothingy. But today you BEAT IT, so celebrate! And, in case at any point you find yourself losing the faith, here is a picture of me riding a UNICORN and carrying a BAZOOKA:
Tattoo it to your HEART.
*This is by no means a comprehensive guide to beating jealousy – I am not a psychologist, a proctologist, a psychiatrist, podiatrist, life coach or megabus. I am just an Earth human and I’m just sharing what I do. What do you do?
**Jealousy, not lipstick/collar suspicion. I am not Joey Greco from Cheaters (unfortunately).
When I was 21 I thought I was fearless. I wasn’t, of course - say the word ‘spider’ to me and I’d run a mile. But, during my teens I’d done slightly odd things like hitchhiking to Glastonbury Festival, and running away to the USA for a summer. Now I was fresh out of university, flat-sharing with friends, and having the time of my life. Sure, I wasn’t completely confident of what I wanted to do work-wise and my income depended on bar work, but who wouldn’t be happy boasting a guitarist boyfriend, a mane of waist-length, pillarbox-red hair, and their very own not-that-terrible-actually band? Not me. Life was good.
Until, very suddenly and completely without warning, it wasn’t. One morning, I was aimlessly browsing in Boots when the ground tilted sharply beneath my feet. My palms flooded with sweat and I was struck by the kind of wooziness you may have felt if, and I don’t mean to be presumptuous here, you’ve ever drunk too much cheap cider and urgently needed to be sick in a hedge.
With my stomach threatening to explosively empty itself, I scanned the shop for the closest exit. But by that point, the world was see-sawing so violently that I crashed headfirst into the mother & baby aisle and blacked out. Other shoppers looked on in horror as, when I came to, I clambered out from under a large pile of breast pumps and legged it.
I’d never experienced anything like it before, so naturally, I assumed I had somehow contracted Ebola, or that the zombie apocalypse had hit. But, after a restorative cup of tea, I felt perfectly normal again. And as I was neither bleeding from my eyeballs nor craving human flesh, I decided it was just one of Those Things.
However, the next day I went funny again in the local newsagent.