Why being positive every day is one of the worst things I’ve ever done

Close up of a red parking meter which instead of the standard money amounts, says POSITIVE CHANGE.At the start of the year, I decided to recommend something new every day on my Tumblr. I started with the book I was reading at the time, and went on to talk up essays, songs, podcasts, films, and people whose writing I love. (You can see all my recommendations here.)

My reasons for doing this were simple. I wanted to force myself to be positive on social media, on a daily basis, instead of taking days off when I feel low, or worse, passive-aggressively grumping it up on Twitter and Facebook. I also wanted to have a daily commitment, like one of those people who publishes a bestselling book or gives up their job to write a blog and a movie about how they changed one small thing and became less self-obsessed and now here they are in a mansion by the sea feeling more fulfilled than they ever thought possible.

Also, and this is so embarrassing I didn’t even admit it to myself until a couple of weeks ago, I think I secretly hoped it would make my Tumblr stratospherically popular and people would be so impressed with my taste that I’d get a huge boost in Twitter followers and people who want me to write for them and my craven neediness would finally be satisfied.

That didn’t happen. When you have about a hundred people following you on Tumblr, your posts are really unlikely to go viral. And I’m not Beyoncé, so no-one was dying to know what my favourite movies are. And that’s OK. I’m not saying they should care. But I slowly realised that when I posted to little or no response, I felt bad about myself. I felt like an idiot. I felt exposed. And that was the other thing.

A short paragraph about why you like a certain thing isn’t a big deal. But do it every day, and it starts to feel like a confession. You have to dig deep to come up with things you like because it’s easy to forget when you put yourself on the spot like this. And it’s just you: there’s no layer of sarcasm or humour to hide behind. You’re not snarking on something, or saying “You know, I guess this is OK…” You’re being deeply, profoundly uncool by showing your enthusiasm.

And if someone sees that you love electric blankets, or a book Oprah’s been raving about for years, and think that makes you a dork or a naif or a complete snooze, you can’t take it back. (Yes, I am doing well with that “not caring what people think” thing, why do you ask?)

All of my earnest, unvarnished sentences made me feel self-conscious and stupid.

” I hope to never, ever go back to that awful world of freezing cold sheets and barely effective hot water bottles.”

“Martin Sheen has been my favourite so far, but they all have something to recommend them.”

“It’s a futile fist-shake at the increasingly entertainment-driven focus of news programming…”

Ew. Oof. Stop it.

Yet it took everything I had to type them. Being positive was like using a muscle that’s weak from lack of use: painful, unnatural. And all the time my inner critic was telling me, “No one cares what you think.” But I kept going, because I have a tendency to quit things. I quit ballet, tap dancing, disco dancing, ice skating, soap-collecting, vegetarianism, yoga, step aerobics, owning guinea pigs, Amnesty International, a different yoga class, learning to drive, university (twice) and several friendships. Probably the only things I’ve stuck to since I was a kid are breathing and watching TV.

You could be kind and say I’m a seeker but it would be more truthful to say that I’d rather lie on the sofa looking gormless than try to change my life. Deciding to be more positive felt like a hopeful decision. So I pushed myself to write posts when I didn’t feel like doing it, because that’s what consistency is about. You don’t have to feel good, you just have to do it. (It was almost exactly like training for a marathon.) But one day when I was pushing myself, at the end of the day when I was tired and needed to go to bed but was forcing myself to write a paragraph of soul-exposing bumpf that a couple of people might click on, the thought popped into my head: What are you doing this for, really?

That’s when I realised: approval. And also, distraction.

I have a lot of writing goals, but I’m really good at finding ways to not achieve them – and I don’t even know I’m doing it. Here I am, with limited years on the earth, an energy-sapping illness, and a long list of things I’m desperate to write, and I’m spending up to half an hour a day on a project that doesn’t get me any closer to finishing any of them.

This isn’t new. In the past, I’ve written things for blogs because people asked me to, got into worthless debates on forums, and, you know: social media. At the same time, I’ve told myself that I haven’t got time for the kind of writing that makes me feel fulfilled and like life has meaning, as wanky as that might sound. (That’s why this article made me do such a loud hollow laugh.)

I’ve been filling up my time with online busywork because I’m scared to try and fail, and a to-do list is a great defence. And also because putting my nose to the keyboard while I see writers I vaguely know being published in high-profile places can make me feel invisible, so dashing off an opinion about books/TV/movies lets people know I’m alive.

But ego and self-sabotage? Those are my reasons for keeping up this Tumblr? Yeah, that sounds logical and reasonable and worth giving up my deepest-held ambitions for. So I quit. And I feel bad thinking about how I started something and let it drop, again. ( I just want to be perfect and do everything, is that so much to ask?) But now I’ve got more time, so I can focus on what I really want to write. And I will. I WILL. I really hope I will.

Jealous, much?

Close-up photo of two gulls hovering close to the water. One has a chunk of bread in their beak, while the other looks on, surprised and horrified. A small caption says "Damn it."Can we all just admit there are moments when we’re filled with raging, bitter, foot-stomping, fist-curling, about-to-cry jealousy? Yes, technically I’m talking about envy, but jealousy sounds so much nastier, so much more base, so much more accurate.

Recently, I started counting how many people I’m jealous of. I had to stop when I got to 40, because I’m a grown woman and that’s ridiculous. But I’ve felt so jealous of people who have things I want NEED that I’ve wanted to punch something. I’ve burst into tears. I’ve felt like I was worthless. And I feel like it’s really not OK to admit it.

Like most socially awkward British people, I’m not great at spontaneously opening up about painful emotions, especially not in person. (This is why I like therapy: you can pay them to not judge you. Or to pretend not to judge you, either is fine.)

Mental illness is still hugely stigmatised, and there’s often a backlash against women who get angry or express any hint of negativity. But the way we treat jealousy seems unique. People will shut down conversations about it as if to acknowledge it would be bad luck, or maybe because it’s just too gross to talk about.

When I asked my Facebook friends about it, the comments I got all said pretty much the same thing: that it was an “unhelpful”, “useless” emotion. That surprised me, because aren’t all emotions about as useless as each other? I know my anger and sadness have never plunged a toilet or sent a thank you card. On the other hand, all emotions are equally helpful because they all do the same thing: let us know that something in our lives is (or isn’t — remember happiness?) out of balance. So why single out jealousy for the “ew, icky” treatment?

On xoJane, a site where women have written without censure on everything from obsessing over their boyfriend’s bottle of lube to abusing the morning-after pill, the one post that was punctuated by scolding remarks from the editor-in-chief was a piece I thought was funny, charming and honest about how challenging it can be when you’re trying to make your mark on the world and your ex-classmate is Lena Dunham.

People tell lies about jealousy. One of the most pervasive is “Their gain isn’t your loss.” And sure, I get that they’re just trying to be nice, to emphasise that good things can happen to all of us. But sometimes there’s only one of something, and someone else gets it. (Last year, I entered a column-writing contest. I didn’t get the gig. Someone else did. Their gain was my loss. That’s just how it is.)

Another related lie about jealousy is that anytime someone else gets what you wanted it’s because they worked much harder for it. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it isn’t. There are people with more successful careers than me for all kinds of reasons: some are more talented, some work harder, some are better-connected, some are just lucky. (I once snagged a columnist gig by virtue of being a decent writer who sent a pitch on a related topic at the right time. They seemed to like my work, but I was way unqualified.)

That’s why it can sting so much: life is unpredictable, people make decisions for all kinds of reasons, we’re not promised it will be fair or make sense. We’re not guaranteed any of the things we want. And society is structurally biased: set up to advantage those who don’t belong to marginalised groups, so it’s easier for white, young, male, cis, straight, non-disabled, upper middle-class, neurotypical people to progress. Anger, sadness and jealousy seem like logical responses.

I guess a lot of people find jealousy unpalatable because it feels like an accusation. As if wanting what someone else has means you think they’re not worthy of it. As if it makes you a bad person who wants bad things for other people.

But that’s not what it means at all. It just means you’re a human being, having a human emotion. I once read that an intense emotional response only lasts for 90 seconds. It might come in waves, but after each 90 seconds you’ll get a reprieve. Letting that happen is hard, but 90 seconds of jealousy has to be easier than shoving your feelings deep down so you can let resentment build up for decades.

Feeling terrible when someone has something great happen for them is a bummer, but it’s motivating, too. Once you’ve cried and eaten too much ice cream and moaned a bit, you can pull yourself up and figure out what you can do to get yourself some of what they have. I’ve heard of more than one author who was inspired all the way to publication by people who wrote books they hated. And I know people who’ve cleared their clutter, become fitter, and learned to drive, purely driven by a desire to not get left behind.

Sometimes great things happen for people that I don’t want to happen for me, and I feel pleased for them. Sometimes fabulous things happen for people that I’d like to happen for me, but I’m having a good day so I only feel inspired. Last week, I was filled with jealousy for a lovely person who is killing it in a field in which I have so far utterly failed to impress. I cried about it, then I tried to relax and remember I just have to not give up.

I’m not recommending wallowing in jealousy. In taking pleasure in the pain or talking about it non-stop, telling everyone you haven’t had a fair shot. I’m not recommending anything, really, except experiencing the emotions you have when you have them, instead of trying to rationalise them or pretend they don’t exist. So come on, join me! Be jealous. It’s awful. You’ll live.

Image via.

I’m mad as hell and I’m probably going to take it a bit more, if I’m honest

Close up on blazing orange and yellow fire.Well, people are shitheads.

The Guardian ran a blog post by a white man about why a photo of a white woman sitting on a chair made to look like a bound, near-naked black woman wasn’t racist, not even a little bit.

xoJane, a site I’ve written for and whose articles I’ve previously enjoyed, published a piece inviting readers to share stories about the “craziest” people they’ve ever met, i.e. people with severe mental illness. And readers responded in their hundreds because hahahahahahaha it’s so much funnier to laugh at people and perpetuate stereotypes than to have a smidgen of compassion.

Disabled women are twice as likely to be abused as able bodied women and on average earn 7p less per pound, yet many of the discussions I see and hear about intersectionality mention disability as an afterthought, if at all, and most high-profile feminists seem to be more consumed by banknotes and pubic hair than disability rights.

This stuff makes me so mad. I want to to have increasingly fraught discussions on Twitter or in comment sections, to shout, to scream, to SMASH SOMETHING, to… Oh.

If you’re angry all the time and it’s everyone else’s fault, what’s the one common denominator? Yeah. I’m the shithead.

I’m not saying that I’m wrong on any of these topics (heaven forbid), or that they’re not all worthy of my offense. And sometimes righteous, chest-thumping anger is the only way to be heard. This is not a post about how ladies need to calm down and sit quietly with their legs crossed at the ankle, crocheting pictures of cats. But for the sake of my mental health and my blood pressure, I might need to turn my boiling anger down to a simmer.

Because while the things that I’ve got worked up about might have changed, my tendency to get incredibly pissed off has been around for a while.

Here are some shithead things that I’ve done:

When I was about eight, I had an argument with my friend across the street because I’d brought her a stick of rock from my holiday, but she wanted my stick of rock, which was a different flavour. I really didn’t want to swap and thought she should be grateful for what she’d been given, so THWACK! I clocked her on the head with both sticks of rock. Hard.

When I was nine or 10, I had an argument with my mum and in a fit of frustration slammed one of the doors on the built-in wardrobe my dad had made for me so hard that it came off in my hand and I had to live with the shame and the cracked hinges for the next eight years.

When I was 22, I was staying with my long-term, long-distance boyfriend and he was upset because his grandad had died and I was upset because of depression, and he shouted something like, “It can’t always be about your illness!” and I was like, “I KNOW that!” (even though I really didn’t) and I threw a glass of red wine at his wardrobe and it spilled and smashed into tiny pieces and he always maintained that I was throwing it at his head which I very deliberately didn’t, but I’m still not sure that entitles me to any moral high ground.

Yeah, I might have an anger problem. (I feel like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman: “I was very angry with him.”) I managed to squash it down more and more as I got older, so much so that when I used to read about people getting incredibly pissed off I’d be utterly unable to relate to them, thinking, “Huh. I’m glad I don’t have an anger problem.” Which is probably the biggest sign that you do.

After I was diagnosed as clinically depressed a therapist told me, “Some people think depression is anger turned inward” and I scoffed, because me, angry? I was so numb I couldn’t relate to that emotion at all. Years later, when a man barged onto a tram as I was getting off and I was so overtaken by rage that I screamed, “THAT’S OK, DON’T MIND ME!” it was a sign that I’d made progress. But what I am so angry about?

Part of the problem is that I have a disabling physical illness that makes me exhausted all the time. Part of the problem is my blood sugar. Part of the problem is that women aren’t encouraged to express anger in our society so we tamp it down until it becomes explosive. The biggest problem, though, is that anger isn’t a real emotion.

In my experience, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s always stuff under it, stuff we don’t want to explore. And as off-putting as anger can be and as shaky and awful as it makes me feel, in many ways, it’s better than depression. It feels active instead of passive, there’s an energy to it.

But after every fit of anger I’ve ever had, I’ve burst into tears. When I get angry about social injustice and discrimination, it’s because I care about those issues, of course, but also because I feel unheard and overlooked and sad. Because I had to drop out of university and be ill for a decade and a half when I thought nothing unfortunate would ever happen to me. Because life isn’t fair and I never got over it.

That’s why anger management is such a crock: anger isn’t something that needs to be fought against and suppressed, it’s something that might actually be healed if you can get to the root of the problem. Much as John McEnroe or Charlie Sheen might want to punch me for saying so, they probably need a hug and a good cry more than they need “coping skills”.

When I told my current therapist how angry I’ve been feeling lately, she said it’s something I need to prioritise working on, not just because it feels so bad but because anger isn’t good for you, it turns out. She says it can hold illness and stress in place, like an aspic for dysfunction.

I have had rare times when I felt calm as I dealt with something that annoyed me — like when I got a lot of comments on a piece about abortion and was able to respond in a rational way. When that happened, I understood how great it was to feel not-attached to every bad thing, every internet thing.

Being able to be relaxed, even as you know that something is wrong, also allows you to escalate your attitude as needed, which is so much better than being constantly on the brink of such a fury that you could give yourself an embolism.

So I guess I’m going to be crying more in 2014, and hopefully being less of a shithead as a result.

A lesson in banking and calming the hell down, in which I come across brilliantly

Close-up on statue of man with head in hand, blue background..If you’re offended by people talking about money, you might want to look away now because I’m about to get into it. The idea that some topics aren’t “polite” so you should pretend that everything’s great while lugging around your secret shame is so British, and so alienating and stupid. But while I am sharing some stuff, I’m not looking for advice (ever) or handouts (right now).

I once had NLP which I hated because it’s basically paying someone to tell you everything you’re doing is wrong and just change the way you think, dummy. The practitioner was from Lancashire and the best thing about our appointments was that when I said something negative, she’d add in her thick accent, “At the mor-ment.” So: I don’t have much money… at the mor-ment.

I know, no one does — the economy stinks, Cameron wants everyone (except him and his pals) to live in a state of permanent austerity and who can afford to eat out every week anymore? But I seriously don’t have much money: no regular income, no money for clothes or shoes or holidays, no way I could move out of my mum’s and cover rent and utilities even if I did feel well enough to try.

While I am, y’know, a proper professional journalist, my health holds me back in a lot of ways. Unlike freelancers who do activities then write about them, or have meetings with clients then do copywriting for them, I need to do stuff that’s solely based at home, am limited in how many articles I can take on, need a rest most afternoons, and take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks off after a big deadline. Given that journalism involves putting yourself out there again and again without losing momentum, and given that I simply have less time and less energy than someone without a disabling illness, I’m not rolling in it. I’m not even tip-toeing in it.

But I am getting some work, and building some momentum, and was feeling more positive about my career than I had in a while when I got a letter from my bank in June saying that if I didn’t pay in £500 every month my account would be downgraded and I wouldn’t be able to receive text alerts about my balance, aka: the last thing I’d ever want. I was undaunted.

Then a month later, I got a letter saying that if I didn’t pay in £420 a month, the bank would remove my overdraft facility. Now I was daunted. I realise that’s less than half of most people’s salaries, but it’s a lot of money to me, less than I’m bringing in on a consistent basis. Some months I make more than that, other months… no. (Many months.)

I started to panic. I couldn’t stop crying and shaking and the thought of having to phone the bank to explain that I can’t pay in that amount because I have nowhere to get it from filled me with terror. That’s it, I told myself. I have to give up on the idea that I’ll ever get better, cut out stuff like yoga and rest that might actually help my health, and just devote all my time to trying to get work. I need work. I need all the work! Then I’d collapse into tears again.

A couple of days later, I tried writing to my bank to explain that I didn’t have the money and asking if they would give me a year to get my act together. I explained that I’m ill so haven’t been able to work as much as I’d like but that I’ve been bringing in more commissions in the last few months, and if they could give me a year, I probably would be earning that much. I printed out a copy of the spreadsheet I keep for tax returns (still have to do them even when you don’t pay ‘em). I poured my heart out about how hard it is to cope financially and emotionally when you have a long-term illness, how I’ve had to rely on benefits and my parents in the past, but am trying to become independent. I told them I joined the bank 23 years earlier and had been a loyal and reliable customer ever since, never going over my overdraft limit despite swathes of time when I had no money coming in at all. I told them I’m earning more now than I have in about five years, and it didn’t seem fair to penalise me. I said I know I’m not entitled to an overdraft but that I need one right now. PLEASE.

The reply I got to all of this was an impersonal note asking me to phone them. So, after procrastinating for about 28 hours, I finally did. And boy, was it a doozy.

When I look back on that call now, it’s like I dreamed it, except the sensations of regret and humiliation are all too real. The (unfortunate) woman who answered asked me —perfectly kindly— if I was having trouble meeting my financial commitments, and I was off. “That’s. The Thing.” I said, teeth gritted, everything tensed. “I’m. Not. I’m managing FINE, except now I have this letter saying that I have to pay in £420 a month for no apparent reason, or you’re going to take away my overdraft.” And that’s as calm as I got for the next forty minutes, as this (unfortunate) woman and I went back and forth, me becoming tearful, raging, and filled with panic, her becoming increasingly snappy and exasperated.

She told me that it’s “just a new policy” that people have to have 40% of their overdraft limit coming in in order to keep the overdraft, and that it’s a way to ensure customers don’t get in over their heads. (You know how making life more difficult for people makes it so much better?) I pointed out that the institution she was defending had made £9.2 billion in profit in the last six months and that my not meeting this arbitrary goal wouldn’t affect them in any way. I talked (oh lord) about all the places I’ve been published, and begged to be given a year’s leeway. She told me she couldn’t do that, that if I wasn’t earning enough, I wasn’t entitled to the overdraft, that when I signed up I was told they could take it away at any time.

I cried that by threatening me with that, she was condemning me to bankruptcy, which seems especially harsh considering I’m still within my overdraft and always have been. She said she wasn’t threatening me, just trying to give an overview of the situation and… I don’t know what else, because the rest of the conversation is accessible only to me in occasional flashbacks of shame, when I have to stop whatever I’m doing in order to shudder.

Finally, after what can only be described as hysteria on my part, she told me that they understand that not everyone can pay in £420 a month, at least not straight away, and that they really just wanted me to commit to paying in something. I said my earnings (and the willingness of publishers to pay) can be erratic so I didn’t know what I could commit to, and she was like, “How about £50?” And I was like, Oh.

Suddenly, way too belatedly, I realised that if that was all they wanted from me, there wasn’t a problem. I could do £50. And when I started to pick my way back through the conversation, I saw that about oh, 90% of it was completely unnecessary. Yes, it’s unfair that I got ill and that I don’t have a proper job and that global corporations don’t care about what’s best for individual customers because they just want to make money. But that’s how it is. And it doesn’t necessitate a meltdown, a panic attack, or an overwrought phone call.

Instead, I could have said: This is my situation, can we work out a solution? And everyone would have remained polite. I have all these feelings around being hard done by and never getting better and ending up on the street and banks being monstrous, so I was crying and worrying about being made bankrupt and not wanting to move into a homeless shelter because they don’t have Wi-Fi, when all that was happening was… essentially nothing.

For a few seconds, I saw what life might be like for people who just deal with what’s actually happening, instead of what they think is happening, and it was a revelation. The bank didn’t care about my sad stories, and that’s OK. That’s not their job. I’m the one who has to deal with all that. But maybe in future I could remember that I’ve always survived and kept going, instead of creating a drama out of thin air. At least when my call may be recorded for training purposes.

How do you change? (Yes, YOU. Seriously, HOW?)

Close up of pink piggy bank with red-handled hammer about to smash it.I’ve spent the last year trying to make some big changes in my life, and what I’ve learned is that I can’t stand change and am not very good at it. Which is a bit tricky when you want almost every aspect of your life to be different. Continue reading

I’m not going to care what anyone else thinks, and I mean it this time

Two men and a woman (all white) sit at a shiny conference table, deep in discussion. The word "Shh" appears in large black letters over the top of them. Well. It’s been a while. I kept meaning to blog, but as I picked up a little more work and tried to fit in other writing, and felt ill, and FINALLY started watching Mad Men… I didn’t. But lack of time is only part of the reason.

The other part is that I was a wimp.

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This is why I’m fat*

Close up of a small, fat gold Buddha statue on a shelf, some books behind him (titles not visible). *I’m using this as a judgement-free descriptor like “brunette”, not as an insult.

Dieting

Diets don’t work. I know this. But I still went on one a few years ago. It wasn’t to lose weight, which allowed me to feel superior — it was to detox from sugar in an attempt to improve my health. (I failed, which allowed me to feel inferior again.)

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What I think about when I think about thinking about thinking about having children

Close up of a crying baby, eye closed, mouth open in a wail..1. Kate Garraway wants me to crack on straight away, if not ten years ago. (And it is her business.)
2. I can’t have a baby right now. I’m not well enough, I don’t have any money, I’m technically homeless. And (minor detail) I don’t know anybody who could be the baby’s father.
3. I always said I didn’t want to have children. When I was 11, people just laughed. When I was 21, they told me I’d change my mind.
4. In my late twenties, I went from “Hell no” to “I don’t know” and seem to be stuck there. Sometimes having a child sounds like the most scary, boring, horrifying thing I could ever imagine. Sometimes it sounds… life-affirming and stuff.
5. OK, fine. I might have teared up at every stupid Evian babies ad I’ve ever seen. But I still think kittens are cuter.

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I need to be less movie-stupid: what should I watch?

Close up of old-fashioned red cinema ticket which says ADMIT ONE, on a blue background with a little popcorn at the edges of the photo.As I might have mentioned, I want to change almost everything about my life, from getting more work to having better health to becoming someone who doesn’t have to fight the urge to claw her face off in any social situation. I’d like to be “normal”.

But that doesn’t mean I only want to change big, scary important things. I want to try ridiculous/kooky/lighthearted potentially life-improving stuff, too. (If you have any suggestions, especially if they’re cheap, please email me.)

I also realise that there are a lot movies that I really, really, really should have seen. Continue reading

I’m giving up sugar by not giving up sugar yet, which actually makes sense (or it will in a minute)

Close up on candy hearts, including a green one saying "ALL MINE" in pink letters. For me, sugar makes life worth living. That’s ridiculous, but it’s also true. Sure, I like watching a TV show, going to the cinema, or spending time with friends and family. But if those things aren’t accompanied by chocolate, popcorn, or a good meal followed by ice cream, the world’s in black and white rather than technicolor.

As overdramatic as it might sound… this is addiction. You’re not going to find a sugar addict passed out in a nightclub doorway after a binge, or stealing televisions to pay for their Maltesers habit. And I get why an an alcoholic or drug addict might look at someone complaining about how they can never get enough Cadbury’s as a wimp with no self-control.

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