On male sexual consent

This isn’t my article to write. It might be unwelcome. But here we are.

Over the summer, I had a conversation with somebody that had quite a profound effect on me. I was with an old friend among some people we had just met, and we were gently drinking our way into the evening. Whether it was because we’d had the perfect amount to drink, or because there was something about the particular people who were present, people had begun to open up in one of those ways that rarely occurs among strangers. We got on to the topic of consent, via consent workshops, and the experience of our female friends at our respective universities with regards to sexual assault – how common a thing we felt it was, how important we felt it was to be vocal about it so that the people around us would feel firmly comfortable expressing themselves if it ever happened to them; how often rape and sexual assault occur among friends, as opposed to psychotic strangers in dark alleyways. After some time, one of the men I had just met said gently,

“I was raped.”

I looked at him to see whether he was being serious. I didn’t know whether to call him out on his bizarre and offensive sense of humour, or to look the other way.

“By a guy?” my friend replied.

“No, by a girl.”

There was a house party; there was a lot of alcohol. It was one of those nights where the liquor consumption had a bit of a domino effect; everyone went a bit harder than they usually would because home wasn’t far away, and they were somewhere warm with their friends. A really very fun night, by anyone’s standards. He drank a lot, had a lot of fun, and collapsed somewhere sound asleep. Only to wake up to the sight of himself having sex. Being had sex with. With someone he barely recognised, and certainly hadn’t intended to have sex with earlier on in the evening.

I didn’t understand. How could a man wake up to watch himself have sex – an act which required a certain amount of consent from his body; because to have sex as a man, you have to reach a certain level of arousal? And if he was aroused – surely that meant he gave consent in some way?

But then, thinking about it, I had read about women who had been raped, whose sense of shame spread from the fact that their bodies had physically responded to the unwanted touch of the other person, in a way that convinced them that, on some level, they had desired the abuse. They had the sense that their bodies had betrayed them. Because the feeling of sexual arousal is something we associate with being with someone we actually like.

I knew this well. I could well imagine the confusion, the desperation you would feel if your rapist used against you the fact that you responded, came, even, as evidence that you had consented to the act. What was wrong with you? Why did your body appear to welcome that violation, even as you yourself despised it?

Of course, of course it could be the same for boys. Why hadn’t it occurred to me? Why had none of my male friends shared this type of experience with me? Other people around the table, at this time, started to share stories of a similar nature. Often not their own; friends, friends of friends. This boy I had just met was very much not alone.

As girls, we are told that all men want sex, all the time, and with pretty much everyone. I have also always assumed that if a guy is hard, he wants to have sex. This is a dangerous mistake to make, and it stems from the fact that we do not hear stories about men who are raped by women, and we associate rape with the non-consensual penetration of one person by another, not with a person forcing another to penetrate them. There is a mainstream sense that men are less emotional about sex, that somehow they are not capable of experiencing the trauma women who are raped and sexually assaulted feel as a result of having their body commandeered for the purposes of another person who has no interest in their consent, never mind in their enjoyment.

The man I met hasn’t been able to look at women in the same way since. He often flashes back to the experience, and only feels free enough to express himself on the subject because he has a circle of exceptionally open and loving friends.

As girls, we need to understand that this is an issue, and to be aware that it is important to give as to receive consent. Women do rape men. We are told it is not physiologically possible. It is. Insofar as consent goes, as soon as we understand that physical sexual responses do not indicate psychological consent, the better.

Hormones and mood

This is a really interesting article about the menstrual cycle and mood. I experience a lot of the same things this woman describes: increased confidence and self esteem in the run up to ovulation; an association between high estrogen levels and high anxiety; decreased body image in the pre menstrual phase. If you feel like shit it can be *so* helpful to know where you are in your cycle. Worth a read x

3:13 AM

It’s 3:13 AM.

I am coming back to this blog after a long period of quiet, in which I posted links to musical performances and poems I liked but rarely my own writing. This is because the relationship I have with it is complex. It is something I have always wanted to exist, but it feels like a stranger created it, out of a seemingly boundless confidence. For weeks I was able to express my innermost thoughts with absolute faith that they were a reflection of how I truly felt at the time, with an absolute conviction in the worth of what I was contributing and the quality of its expression.

This sudden surge of confidence, the sudden spurt of writing about very personal experiences alarmed those closest to me (or the people close to me who could not square this sudden candour with the girl they knew.)  I had a sense that my creativity was suddenly flowering into shape, and the more I allowed it to, the bigger it would become. I lay awake at night for hours on end teeming with ideas; ideas about what I’d read, creative projects that occurred to me, images and resonances. I felt… overwhelmed, different, but also, I have to admit to myself, deeply happy. I rejoiced in feeling articulate, I rejoiced in feeling this surge of creativity, as if the most promising part of myself was suddenly making itself known.

Why? What caused this?

I wrote in detail about my experience with the contraceptive implant. This was the first piece of writing that engendered the blog, and in it I report a state of happiness and enhanced creativity, following a period in which I would cry almost constantly ~ a side effect from the contraceptive implant. I felt returned to my natural happiness, as the artificial hormones affecting my mood were removed from my body, which was gratefully returning to its normal state.

Or so I thought. I could not have known that the feelings of exceptional joy and a persistent creativity that seemed to want to express itself through me would last much longer than I expected, and be accompanied by an intellectual confidence of an extent that I had never before possessed. I remember being feverishly happy, absorbed in my writing and revision for my finals.

But some of the people closest to me were worried. Suddenly I had a huge drive to spend extended periods of time wrapped up in nature, pacing up and down the beach or dancing around in the sun in my local park for hours at a time. I lay awake very late into the night, and I had previously slept all the way through, dependably. I was, they tell me, irritable, rapid of speech, and distracted from my studies (I remember feeling that anything I read was more stimulating than usual; a paragraph of writing could set off a train of thought that would occupy me for hours, in which I would appear to be lost in thought, but certainly not studying, and at this point I had my finals coming up.)

To a certain person in my life who knows a lot about mental health, my behaviour looked an awful lot like a manic episode of someone suffering from bipolar disorder.

I struggle with this, so so much. In my head I was flowering, full of joy, full of love, especially. I felt like I could suddenly see this whole life behind things. Social situations were suddenly weighted with symbolism; I thought I could catch the currents, good and bad, that ran between people; I was hyperempathetic, physically picking up on and feeling the emotions of those around me. In particular, I had ideas about a relationship between sexuality and creativity, as expressed here and here. I began to think of acts of childbirth and sex as creative acts, thinking of the artistically creative and the sexually creative as inextricably linked. I began to think of anxiety/depression and creativity as completely opposed, since in my joy I felt creativity that a few earlier months of stress and worry had temporarily silenced or suppressed. I felt like my own body, newly liberated from progesterone, was flooded with two linked desires: to create and to nurture. It sounds so strange but I felt like my first pieces of writing were as children to me; I couldn’t accept any criticism for them, because they seemed to me simply too honest, too me, too much a part of me to be able to bear correction by another person. I felt a desperate need to look after those around me, which extended for weeks and weeks, bolstered by this hyperempathetic state. It was as if my body, confused, was trying to insist on motherhood, tell me I was ready, and in the absence of things to nurture would nurture pieces of writing into life, nurture everyone around me.

Although I was scared by the depth of emotion I was plunged into, by the lucidity with which I felt I suddenly saw the world, and alarmed in turn by the panic of those around me at my changed behaviour, in a way the most painful thing is how good I know I felt. I loved feeling the emotions of people around me, I felt it made me able to care for them more profoundly. The creative feeling, and the confidence, have since ebbed away, although I sense that they were a magnification of something within me that was already there. How could I be ill, if I felt so happy? If I felt completely in control, how could I have been as utterly, utterly wrong about this as those around me thought at the time?

Was I as ill as those around me thought? Perhaps not. Perhaps some kind of internal rudder was still keeping me safe, looking after me. Yes, I wrote and published a lot of things that I cannot imagine having had the confidence to publish. Yes, sometimes I could not sleep, sometimes the ideas overwhelmed me. The fact that the sweet and exciting feeling that I was finally unravelling and expressing the most promising part of myself could not only be purely down to a wild hormone imbalance within me, but could actually also be interpreted as the symptom of an illness is something I am still puzzling over, and upset and confused by. I suppose it comes down to a fear that once I could not trust that guardian voice inside my head, the voice that looks after me and tells me what to do, tells me how to interpret the world. Without confidence in that voice the world is terrifying.

It has now been months and months since this period, which came after I had the implant taken out in April last year, and lasted until May and perhaps June. Over the months I have developed an ambivalent relationship with this blog. In many ways I have rarely been prouder of anything, especially of the first piece, not only because many people wrote to me and told me they were grateful and it resonated with their experiences, but more because it expressed something I considered important in a way that felt true to me. It was utterly, utterly honest. But the blog symbolises this wild, honest, unabashed creativity that seemed very sudden to those close to me and caused them a lot of worry; this wasn’t so much for the content, but for the fact of its existence, spurred into existence by a physical, hormonal, change. The blog represents an unknown entity within me.

But I am holding onto the fact that I have wanted to write a blog forever, I have in fact written forever. I have diaries that stretch way back; some of the poems and pieces I put up were written before the blog’s inception. I have always written for myself, always loved writing for its ability to control and make sense of the world around me by putting it into words.

It’s 4:13 AM. An hour, an outpouring.

What am I pushing back to? I think fundamentally I want to come back to this, or at least to some form of creativity. I want to know that in a balanced, hormonally normal state I am still creative, I am still healthy, that the satisfaction of writing and sharing my writing with others doesn’t have to be confined to a period of my life that I am to this day mystified, terrified and fascinated by. If by some miracle you’re still here, or you ever have been here, thank you.

***

12/2/18

 

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Euphoria, creativity and anxiety: an update on how I’m doing

This is a repost of an early piece from my first blog. The original version can be accessed here.

As you might have been able to tell from the last article, ever since a couple of days of having the implant removed a week and a half ago I have been in a state of overwhelming euphoria. This took hold after one last weekend of crying and insecurity, beginning 3 days after it was removed.

 

How did it feel? I was sitting in a coffee shop with my little sister at 9am on a Monday happily getting absorbed in my revision. As my eyes scanned the pages of the book I was reading, (Barkan’s The Gods Made Flesh if there are any literature nerds reading this) I noticed that my attention to my work was absolute, and that every new idea about Ovid’s Metamorphoses this talented man had written filled me with wonder, respect, and joy. My uncharacteristically increased lucidity and complete and utter focus was something I really enjoyed. The implant had robbed me of my natural joy, I thought, and now I am back to myself.

 

I did feel myself. But myself intensified to the highest degree of Amelia I have ever experienced. I felt – feel – the most passionate about everything I love, the most excited to be in the world, the most loving, with the keenest appreciation of all the beauty in the world around me. Suddenly the wind playing in my hair and the pleasure of sitting, drinking coffee and exploring my intellectual responses seemed like an absolutely impossible gift.

 

Sound good? It was – is – fucking great. I wrote the first implant article that day, have written three since, and cannot spend five minutes without another idea for an article gently nudging me, asking to be realised.

 

That week and into this one that euphoria – or mania, as my mum called it – has stayed and continues to stay with me. The day after that I had a burning desire to head down to the park alone. I listened to this instinct and wandered the five minute walk by myself, and stepped into the park (Gladstone Park in Willesden Green if anyone feels inspired to have their own Solo Yolo. Credz to the amazing Lucy Cole for this phrase.) I was overwhelmed by awe at the colours in all their shades, the beauty and integrity of the trees, the way the sun clarified everything I saw and brought the essence of its beauty to the fore. I felt amazing.

 

I started to have some happy but pretty intense thoughts. For example, that every tree, flower, rock, bench, cloud, and bird was part of nature’s endless and endlessly regenerating work of art. I am in myself – we all are – living, breathing works of art, which we adorn with clothes, glitter, jewellery and tattoos in ways that feel true to us. I remembered Laura Marling saying at the Cambridge Union last year:

 

“I identify not as a Musician working in the Music Industry but as an Artist living on Planet Earth.”

 

At the time I loved this but suspected it was a bit wacko; suddenly I knew exactly what she meant. The urge to create was tremendous. Not only did the articles I had always written and wanted to share whisper their longing to be let out into the world, but I took careful photos of the most beautiful things available to me with my phone, made a very long and very hippie snapchat story (to everyone I have on Snapchat who isn’t reaaaaally one of my friends, you must think I’m fucking weird, and I’m not going to try and defend myself). Music helped bring out the beauty of nature: I was listening to Laura Marling’s new album Semper Femina, which to me reconciles a longing for love and intimacy with a desire to be free and retain one’s sense of self, combined with an adoration and respect for nature. Perfect. “Nothing matters more than love no nothing no no nothing no not nearly,” she sang as I danced, by myself, among the trees, reaching up with my hands to the sky, feeling a love in my heart that somehow had space not only for the people I am closest to but for the whole planet and every single sentient and non sentient being on it, who shared this experience with me.

 

I think my body was so happy it was finally able to make babies again that it made me create things, it filled me to the brim with the empathy for people, for Nature, that I would have needed to look after a tiny baby.

 

The desire to commune with nature remained. The gratitude for all of the love that surrounds me and all of the love my own heart has space for remained. But my sleep, usually regular (I go to bed at 11 and wake up at 7) came to me less and less easily. Ideas flared up in the early hours of the morning, aching to be expressed. Part of me continues to enjoy this euphoria, but most of me is glad that, as my fertility diminishes day by day, I am coming towards the end of this cycle.

 

This relief I am coming back down to Earth is heightened by the fact that yesterday I had an overwhelming and upsetting experience. Despite being on very little sleep – I wrote an article about happiness at about 6am – it seemed like the right thing for me to head down to my favourite café half an hour away from my house, and do some work. I have finals coming up, four exams upon which 100% of my degree rests. The impulse to study is huge. But as I sat in the cafe, the pleasure of hearing the chatter around me, the music the cafe was playing and the book I was reading became too much and I began to feel very anxious. My heart racing, I ran to the bathroom to have some space. But when I looked in the mirror my pupils were dilated to a terrifying degree.

 

I started to cry. I ran to two of my best friends, who were sitting with me, tried to hug them, and started hyperventilating. Their kind words, and their cuddles, kept me in the moment and saved me from the extreme of a panic attack. One of them called 111 and held my shaking hand while we waited for a response. Luckily we were a five minute walk from A and E.

 

Thank goodness, the doctor I spoke to told me I was fine, I wasn’t about to die, become psychotic, get over- or dehydrated. While I waited to see him, my friends sat with me and entertained me with ‘stories from their youth’; my dad left work and came to join us 20 minutes later. I don’t think there has ever been so much giggling in a hospital waiting room. I know I would have ultimately been ok if I’d had an anxiety attack by myself, but I am so grateful they were there, and so glad they looked after me as generously as they did. If somebody you love has anxiety, I would personally recommend listening to them wholly, and giving them what they need, be that water, cuddles, reassurance, silliness. Just demonstrate your love, really. Nothing is more soothing than that.

 

To underline what my fiery inner feminist is burning with as I write this: I never had problems with anxiety or depression before I went on the implant. It is a fucking disgrace that so many women suffer what I suffered and that pumping hormones into our precious bodies and brains is normalised to the extent that it is. The anger I feel when confronted by the vastness of the patriarchy to the extent that I feel I am now, to look this hideous systematised sexism in the face, is something I will express in greater detail on another day. But I will say – with the greatest caution, and the anxiety that I am being arrogant for attempting to universalise my experience -that in my experience the ultimate antidote to anxiety and depression is patience and generous, generous love. This needs to come first and foremost from yourself, and everyone has the strength in them to look after themselves, but it does make it a damn sight easier to cope if you are surrounded by the people you love.

 

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Gladstone Park, London, April 2017

Depression, anxiety and euphoria: what hormonal contraception did to me

I was always pretty much one of the only women and girls I knew who loved having a period. Well not having it per se, which could be far from ideal, but maybe the fact that it happened; my body had its own cycle, its own silent process of birth and regeneration, like the moon, or a tree. It made me feel like my physical substance was in some fundamental way connected to the world around me. The unfortunate attending possibility was of course, obviously, childbirth. And clearly, when one gets to a certain age, and is lucky enough to have sex sometimes, this becomes a mind-blowing and terrifying possibility. Like many people, the thought of having a baby at 21 fills me first overwhelmingly with bafflement and then, very quickly, with worry. I still sometimes cry when I’m hungry, and if there were two of us crying, what would I do?!

In short, at a certain point when these worries (temporarily) came scarily and rudely to a head I decided I needed to take on the responsibility of preventing pregnancy from happening. Or not even that; it was as much about relieving myself of the anxiety of potential pregnancy as the possibility itself.

So I got the contraceptive implant. This is a matchstick shaped device that sits in your arm and releases progestogen into your bloodstream, preventing you from having a child. (Don’t ask me how, I’m a Classicist.) I was told that I might bleed erratically for a while, but that this would settle down; I was told that I might experience minor mood swings, but that they too would settle down, within a few months. That night I had a dream that I was alone at my home in London when four or five female sixteen year old thieves broke in through the front door and seized everything in sight, in spite of my attempts to empathetically reason with them. With some tentativeness, (again, I’m a Classicist not a psychologist) I was initially and remain tempted to view the symbolism at work here as pointing up anxiety about an intrusion into my place of safety (the home often symbolises the body or the self in dreams) by an alien external force, which I would try and fail to reason with. At the time I dismissed the anxieties the dream was trying to communicate, and my subsequent experience seemed to confirm the impulse to reject it; for quite a long time after the implant was inserted I did feel completely myself, noticing no changes to my mood at all.

However I thought something was a bit weird when, five weeks later, I was sitting in my room waiting for my parents to arrive so they could take me out to lunch for my 21st birthday, listening to music and writing my diary (as one does) and little by little I was seized with emotion. My mum and dad loved me so much that they were coming to see me on my birthday! Even though I’m bad at tidying my room and I always always leave the lights on and occassionally I am rude! I felt the force of their love and the gratitude took physical root in my body; I dissolved into tears, and wrote them a letter thanking them for bringing me into the world. I was crying but it was a wonderful feeling. The more I wrote, the more I broke down into tears. When they arrived, they were touched but bemused. On some level, I do tentatively sense that I am more emotional than your average Joe, but it’s not like I cry every time they come round. I do often feel this way for a couple of days before my period starts though – aha! I thought. My period is coming despite the implant.

Only the feeling did not stop. But it did stop being cathartic, no longer representing a much-needed release, but over the next few days identifying itself as sadness, as worry, as anxiety, as fear, not as gratitude. The familiar PMS-feeling – endurable for its transience, even welcome sometimes as it was part of my body’s reassuring cycle – just would not go away. It lasted for about three weeks. In those three weeks I would cry pretty much every day, at no provocation or at the slightest provocation (the bare fact that I don’t currently hold a gym membership being the most laughable of my perceived crosses to bear.) For the first week I was okay; I clung on to the knowledge that underneath all the noise, I was happy; but it became harder and harder to persuade myself that I was crying every day for no reason at all. I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on all the faults and worries in my life and it took all my energy to separate the emotion I felt from the reality I knew was safe and happy. I worried that there were only so many times the people closest to me would be able to hold me while I cried without being able to do anything because the emotion came from a small plastic rod and not from any problems they could support me while I solved. Emotions are contagious. The most insecure part of me worriedly whispered that there would come a time when they would run out of the love or energy to be close to me. They had their own shit to deal with. I resented myself for even feeling like I needed looking after at all.

After a particularly bad episode involving one ‘seen’ Facebook messenger notification, two hours of physically uncontrollable sobbing, and an essay I could not write because crying was taking up all of my time, I decided to have the implant taken out. I called my GP, tentatively telling her I felt like what I was experiencing was ‘a bit of a mental health emergency’, and expecting her to give me an appointment in the next couple of days. I was told that as I had had sex in the last two weeks there was a risk of pregnancy if it was taken out, so I would have to wait another two weeks for any existing sperm to bugger off. Hearing this, my eyes filled (yes, you guessed it!) with tears. It seemed like the end of the world. As it turned out, due to the risk of pregnancy the only way my doctor would allow me to have it taken out quickly was if I allowed them to first fit my womb with the (blissfully hormone free) copper coil, which is immediately effective as contraception, and then have the implant taken out. I accepted this advice, and although the memory of having the coil placed inside my womb and the ensuing last day of being bed ridden with tears pouring down my face has been promptly filed away by my subconscious into the file titled ‘REPRESSED THINGS’, it is a choice I am proud I made. Three days after having the implant removed the clouds have cleared and I am happy again, with all the other great benefits that come with being happy: I am more self- confident, more creative, take a great deal of pleasure in my alone time, studying is a joy rather than a struggle, I am more lucid, more compassionate, the list goes on. I am so grateful for all these things. I am so grateful that it is gone.

The worst thing about the effect the implant had on me (which for the uninitiated contains the same hormones as the ‘mini’ or progestogen-only contraceptive pill) was that I risked becoming my own worst enemy. Increasingly I felt that I was no longer able to trust my own thoughts and feelings. Were my emotional reaction to things and corresponding behavioural responses rational? Every time an event made me cripplingly, cripplingly sad the sadness was accompanied by a quiet suspicion that I was blowing everything out of proportion. I was left with the alternatives of swallowing my feelings, which had served me badly in the past, or communicating them to the people I loved and risking scaring or overwhelming them. In my opinion, things get dangerous when you become alienated from the sad, scared, angry parts of yourself, because exasperated and exhausted you reject them, unable to give them your love, attention, and acceptance. I am incredibly lucky to know myself well enough to always have been able to hold on to the fact that the feelings weren’t mine, to have had this happen to me during a period of my life that I am positive I am happy, because during a tougher patch it would have been much harder to distinguish the ‘real’ sadness from the ‘synthetic’ sadness.

Because so many women use hormonal contraception and a large proportion of those women don’t suffer such debilitating side effects it is easy to feel like you are making a massive fuss about nothing, to assume that other women feel the same way as you do in their heads but you are too weak to deal with it, especially when the tone of every healthcare professional you speak to on the phone is coloured with skepticism even when the words themselves aren’t. If this sounds like you, have faith in your conviction that you aren’t making a big fuss about nothing, and if hormonal contraception is making you sad, don’t feel embarrassed or weak in making the decision to come off it. My doctor (who, for the record, is lovely and whom I don’t really blame) told me to wait six months for the side effects to subside. Six months – especially when those six months coincide with an already impossibly volatile Cambridge term – is a very, very long time. The burden of responsibility for contraception is, for now, entirely placed on women. I could wax lyrical about how fucking unfair this is, but instead I will say: it will be okay, you have every right to stop and put your mental health first, and the amount of time you choose to wait before implementing any decision to do so is entirely for you to determine, and not for anyone else.

Misogyny, arrogance, and private education

I hate to write a provocatively titled article, but I have felt strongly about this for a long time and I think today is the day to express my thoughts on this matter.

Let me lay my cards on the table at this point. I went to a mixed but male dominated fee paying school in North London for five years, before moving to a comprehensive sixth form. I am not going to pretend that I haven’t had an excellent education, gleaning benefits from both of these institutions. The private school I went to engendered in me a great deal of intellectual confidence, I had great teachers in the humanities who encouraged me and to whom I will always be grateful, and I was an exceptionally happy teenager.

This changed when I moved to a comprehensive sixth form. I moved not because my parents thought they would seem more edgy at parties if none of their daughters were attending a private school, but because they could no longer afford it. I was already on a bursary, and with the financial recession they decided that it would be better for us as a family if they sent me to an (excellent) state school instead. I have often looked back quite sadly on my time at sixth form; I felt excluded as a girl who had (a been to private school and (b not been at that state school (all girls up to sixth form) all the way through. The in-groups were impenetrable. When I went to a party with my old friends from private school a few months into sixth form one of the girls who had joined that school asked me why I left; when I didn’t give a sufficient reply, she asked me what I got in my GCSE’s. Yes she was drunk. But how dare she.

That said, I think I only think of it as an unhappy time because I had been so happy for the previous five years. In reality, I had very close friends, wonderful people who were dedicated to their work with a passion I had rarely observed at my private school and with whom I remain very close, and in reaction to the social isolation I felt I developed a love of my subjects (English, History, Latin and Ancient Greek) which sustained me.

At Cambridge however, I have often felt intellectually intimidated and undervalued not by my male friends but by male academics, who in order to be where they are at their age have more often than not attended private schools. In supervisions with male academics I have felt the attention focused disproportionately on my male counterparts, notwithstanding three notable exceptions, inspiring teachers whose praise and attention has developed my confidence and with it my intelligence. When I topped my year in my essay paper for part 1A I attributed it not to the originality of my writing but to some sort of administrative error. For most of second year I considered myself deserving of a couple of 2:ii’s I got in my supervision reports and I couldn’t really believe it when I got a two firsts out of the six exams I took at the end of that year. That said, the men who have underestimated me are lovely people. This is not about kindness. It is about institutionalised sexism.

My experiences have only limitedly affected my confidence, and pity is the last thing I am asking for. They are however symptomatic of a much wider problem.

After many conversations among my male and female friends, who have gone to private schools and state schools, I have begun to sense that private schools breed a certain type of self confidence which to a certain extent is healthy, but often passes over the threshold of confidence and turns into arrogance. This is an arrogance that has led a number of young men, a disproportionate number of whom have been privately educated, to abuse my female friends and friends of my female friends emotionally and sexually. Every time I come back to London there are more stories of rape, of sexual assault, of women being treated like pieces of meat in a way that I find both unimaginable because it is absolutely unheard of in the circles I move in at my college in Cambridge and violently upsetting. Is it a coincidence that the males violating the women around me have in almost every single case been to a private school? I am convinced that it is not.

To reiterate: I have absolutely no problem with people who attended private schools. I went to one myself, and many of them – male and female – are my best friends. But the culture of private schools/state schools is hugely damaging for this country in every respect: it perpetuates a disgraceful divide in wealth, it holds back the progress of feminism and gender equality, it fuels disproportional underrepresentation of women politically and culturally, and generally it breeds an absolutely grim lack of human empathy.

an elegy on loss

***

She wakes early, showers; plans her day. Granola, with berries. Tea. There is a lot to do. A lot for her brain to do. It’s oppressive. She works for ten minutes, lies on the bed. It shouldn’t be this hard. It shouldn’t be this hard. To escape she seizes the much-loved novel, escapes to Italy, a different time, a similar heart. Her mind is struggling to impose order on things; she hears the kindly voice that lulls her to sleep, tells her it’s okay, if she’s sad she can work tomorrow, it’ll pass, I promise, I promise it will pass. Her brain needs rest, anyway. Better to fall into the warm embrace of sleep. Sleep seems to her a respite. She hears another voice: the voice says that something inside her is broken, fundamentally, and it always has been, and she will never overcome it, because of it she is just too …. for this world. The voice taunts her for lying still. You don’t love your work, someone else would love it more than you, enjoy it, you’re supposed to be enjoying it, why aren’t you enjoying it, you’re an ungrateful brat. You have everything but you can’t see it. It’s not enough for you. You will fall behind and fail. No one will love you for who you are. There is something about you. Something broken, unattractive. Repellant. Fat, actually. You treat your body with no respect, no love.

How can I love myself when you’re whispering evil things to me all the time? How can I create anything when you cripple my attempts by laughing at them? It’s not your fault, says a third voice. It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose to be born, much less to be born like this, with this paralysing desire for love. You can’t change your nature. Everything has already happened. You’re a mound of cells. Wired to have babies and be lumbered with them, struggling to love them, no power over what they become, not really.

Come on. You’re better than this, you have a fine mind, an acute sensitivity to things, feelings, people, you write sensitively, you’re eyes are a gift to the world. You’re healthy and strong and robust. You have endured so much. It hasn’t been fair. You’ve done the best you can. All your decisions make perfect sense. You are a wonderfully supportive friend and sister. You have got here, you were smart enough to get here, you can do this, it’s fine that you didn’t feel up to it today, there are people who have never betrayed you. There will be someone who makes it all worthwhile, who sees your acute vulnerability and comes to know you and also to learn how unbelievably easy it is to make you ecstatically happy, and that will be the most fulfilling thing in the world for him, and he will value your mind and the depth of your love more than anything else in his life. It’s a dark world. Full of mystery and horror. People are the threads that shine us through. The things we can hold on to through whatever chance might throw at us. There are a lot of people depending on you. I – I love you more than anything. We’ve come so far. Lived, fully. You are a relentless force. There is so much more to live for. It will be a thousand times more than what you felt when he was a possibility, when some part of you always doubted it. And even more so with him. Your mind and body sense this, they are waiting, they know it is what you were made for. But there is no point in compromise, you know it will only bring you grief. These weeks and months being single are hard. You’re not built for them. But that doesn’t mean they’re a waste. They’re part of the big picture, they set up the contrasts, the dark moments are the shadow, there are still wonderful bright moments of light. How brilliant that the best is yet to come. All that can be done during this period is to do your best on a daily basis. Look after yourself. As best you can. You’re in the best position anyone could wish to be. But it’s also okay if you can’t feel that always. Taking things for granted is part of the human condition. I love you.

 

***

A.R.A

February 2016

On Mindfulness

I have sorta wanted to write an article about mindfulness ever since I did the university course in Michaelmas term of my second year, but I hesitate; this is mainly because mindfulness means different things to different people, and one of the greatest joys of it for me has been creating my own version of it, tailored to me, and exploring it on my own terms. So I am wary of prescribing what it is, and I am sure that there will be many things I have taken from mindfulness that other people haven’t, or that other people have picked up on but I haven’t. I am writing nonetheless because I think that it could do a lot of people a lot of good, really; it has done me a tremendous amount of good, and at this stage I feel the compulsion to share this goodness.

 

So what is mindfulness? At the heart of mindfulness for me is the practice of compassion. It starts with yourself. In a mindfulness meditation, you take the time to concentrate on all the physical sensations available to you, starting and ending with the feeling of the breath moving in and out of your body. You pay attention to the way it feels to be sat on the chair or lying on your bed, focusing on all the places your body makes contact with the bed or chair beneath you, and feeling the ground beneath your feet. This process is called ‘grounding’, because the practice of feeling the earth beneath you grounds you physically and mentally. Feet on the ground, bum on the chair you are safe, the earth holds you, and that physical security translates into mental security.

 

Grounding achieved, the idea is to continue focusing on the physical sensations available to you, as these ground you in the present. Of course, this is not the easiest thing in the world, and inevitably thoughts will arise, positive or negative, as they tend to do. The idea is to accept these thoughts as they arise, listen to them, and return to focusing on the breath when you can. The key is rather than getting frustrated with the lapse in attention you are wholly accepting of your tendency to get lost in thought, and respond by gently guiding your attention back to your breath and corporeal presence but only when you remember to.

 

One of the tenets of mindful practice is that thoughts and feelings are there to help you. Anger, sadness and anxiety exist not to just make you feel horrible but to highlight unmet needs, so that you are looking after yourself, body and soul, as well as possible. A useful image is to see these feelings as guests knocking on your door, whom during a meditation you take the time to lovingly welcome in, give a cup of tea, and listen to.

 

This is not an easy thing to do. Often our gut reaction is to reject sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. But by welcoming them and seeing them as things that exist to make us happy we can do ourselves a world of good.

 

One mindful practice that makes this easier is changing the way we think. Rather than thinking ‘I am sad’ we isolate the emotion within our psyche and think ‘part of me is sad’; this image is hugely helpful, because we are able to remember that the rest of us is available to embrace the sad part of us and give them the love and attention they need.

 

The more we are able to master the practice of self-compassion, the more we can feel compassion towards the people and things around us, starting of course with those closest to us who gain a great deal from our love and attention. With the ability to love ourselves generously comes the ability to love other people generously. Understanding your own needs gives you a great deal of insight into other people’s, and you are more able to respect other people’s needs and love them for exactly who they are, rather than just for the good things they bring to your life. During formal meditation, another tenet of mindful practice is to take a moment to think of those closest to you, hold awareness of them in your heart, and send love in their direction.

 

Having compassion for all other human beings is the next step. Sending love to those closest to you comes naturally; it is not as easy to extend love to everyone else in the world, but again, from empathising with your own needs comes the awareness that everyone on this planet has their own internal universe, their own worries and joys, and they are as deserving of love as yourself or your boyfriend or your best friend.

 

To make a slightly more questionable next step I would say the ultimate move is to extend your love to all the other living beings in this world, including the animals and the trees and the lakes and the mountains, respecting their own individual beauty and loving them for themselves, not for what they can do for you.

 

Not that loving things for what they can do for you is an impulse to be ashamed of. Shame gets in the way of compassion. Selfishness is a natural thing; it is about self preservation, really, and as such serves its purpose. Like every other emotional impulse, it is something to be accepted.

 

 

On Mindfulness

I have sorta wanted to write an article about mindfulness ever since I did the university course in Michaelmas term of my second year, but hesitate; this is mainly because mindfulness means different things to different people, and one of the greatest joys of it for me has been creating my own version of it, tailored to me, and exploring it on my own terms. So I am wary of prescribing what it is, and I am sure that there will be many things I have taken from mindfulness that other people haven’t, or that other people have picked up on but I haven’t. I am writing nonetheless because I think that it could do a lot of people a lot of good, really; it has done me a tremendous amount of good, and at this stage I feel the compulsion to share this goodness.

So what is mindfulness? At the heart of mindfulness for me is the practice of compassion. It starts with yourself. In a mindfulness meditation, you take the time to concentrate on all the physical sensations available to you, starting and ending with the feeling of the breath moving in and out of your body. You pay attention to the way it feels to be sat on the chair or lying on your bed, focusing on all the places your body makes contact with the bed or chair beneath you, and feeling the ground beneath your feet. This process is called ‘grounding’, because the practice of feeling the earth beneath you grounds you physically and mentally. Feet on the ground, bum on the chair you are safe, the earth holds you, and that physical security translates into mental security.

Grounding achieved, the idea is to continue focusing on the physical sensations available to you, as these ground you in the present. Of course, this is not the easiest thing in the world, and inevitably thoughts will arise, positive or negative, as they tend to do. The idea is to accept these thoughts as they arise, listen to them, and return to focusing on the breath when you can. The key is rather than getting frustrated with the lapse in attention you are wholly accepting of your tendency to get lost in thought, and respond by gently guiding your attention back to your breath and corporeal presence but only when you remember to.

One of the tenets of mindful practice is that thoughts and feelings are there to help you. Anger, sadness and anxiety exist not to just make you feel horrible but to highlight unmet needs, so that you are looking after yourself, body and soul, as well as possible. A useful image is to see these feelings as guests knocking on your door, whom during a meditation you take the time to lovingly welcome in, give a cup of tea, and listen to.

This is not an easy thing to do. Often our gut reaction is to reject sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. But by welcoming them and seeing them as things that exist to make us happy we can do ourselves a world of good.

One mindful practice that makes this easier is changing the way we think. Rather than thinking ‘I am sad’ we isolate the emotion within our psyche and think ‘part of me is sad’; this image is hugely helpful, because we are able to remember that the rest of us is available to embrace the sad parts of us and give them the love and attention they need.

The more we are able to master the practice of self-compassion, the more we can feel compassion towards the people and things around us, starting of course with those closest to us who gain a great deal from our love and attention. With the ability to love ourselves generously comes the ability to love other people generously. Understanding your own needs gives you a great deal of insight into other people’s, and you are more able to respect other people’s needs and love them for exactly who they are, rather than just for the good things they bring to your life. During formal meditation, another tenet of mindful practice is to take a moment to think of those closest to you, hold awareness of them in your heart, and send love in their direction.

Having compassion for all other human beings is the next step. Sending love to those closest to you comes naturally; it is not as easy to extend love to everyone else in the world, but again, from empathising with your own needs comes the awareness that everyone on this planet has their own internal universe, their own worries and joys, and they are as deserving of love as yourself or your boyfriend or your best friend.

To make a slightly more questionable next step I would say the ultimate move is to extend your love to all the other living beings in this world, including the animals and the trees and the lakes and the mountains, respecting their own individual beauty and loving them for themselves, not for what they can do for you.

Not that loving things for what they can do for you is an impulse to be ashamed of. Shame gets in the way of compassion. Selfishness is a natural thing; it is about self preservation, really, and as such serves its purpose. Like every other emotional impulse, it is something to be accepted.

me in sea (1)

Image credit: Hannah Chukwu

Yangshuo, Guilin, China, July 2016