On the 8th June 2017

Hello, dearest readers!

I’m SO HAPPY. Finished my finals yesterday and stayed up all night watching the Tories being torn to pieces while drunk. I lost my phone, my debit card, and my student card, but it’s so hard to care after all this good news. Guess I’ll just stop calling people and buying things… I could wax lyrical about why this is great and what a triumph it feels like from my perspective, but words are not coming easily to my tender brain this evening so instead here’s a recording of music that never fails to bring me joy when I listen to it:

 

Without You for me is more about self reliance than co dependence, and it’s one of my favourite songs in the world. I hope you like it too.

 

***

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.

On the premature sexualisation of young women

I have a vivid memory of something someone said to me once that puzzled me, but didn’t particularly upset me at the time. I was in the queue for lunch at school with a few of my male friends when one of them described me as “sexually charged.”

I didn’t really understand. Sexually charged? What did that even mean? At 13 I was still at the age where I privately suspected sex was an elaborate joke made up by someone to confuse or amuse me. Unlike most of my male friends of that time, I did not watch porn (still don’t, for reasons that may become clear) because to be honest it just didn’t occur to me: my closest brush with observing The Act was probably watching Titanic, and seeing that sweaty hand up against that car window. I was not really sure what Rose and Jack were up to in there, but I knew it was fun, consensual, and an act of love. Whatever sex was, that’s what it would be like, I thought.

It is only now, as I look back at my teenage years growing up in a co-educational school where boys vastly outnumbered girls, that I see that a lot of the stuff that went on was fucking weird. In hindsight, thank goodness I didn’t really know what he meant. It would have disturbed me.

I think the tension here comes from something that is quite universal – think back to the Miley Cyrus debate. My friend looked at me, little thirteen year old beginning to grow towards the woman I am now, as all the boys saw all the girls in my year, and may have felt some kind of sexual or emotional response. He feels the response. It is new and strong and weird, and something that happens when he looks at me; is it not natural to assume that I am making him feel it?

Fair enough, at 13, the boys I knew were silly at worst and adorable at best really. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that he was projecting agency onto me for a sexual response I had (honestly) no idea he was feeling. I was being sexualised, and at this stage, I was not choosing to sexualise myself. Actually, I was just queuing for lunch and my mind was mostly occupied with the question of whether there were any muffins left.

I’m not going to pretend that I was particularly traumatised by this event. I have never had my sense of self seriously bruised by male violation, emotional or physical, and I took most of the creepy stuff boys said to me as a compliment. If anything, it was my ego that I needed to worry about; I got in trouble with my group of friends once for referring to the 14th person to ask me to “go out” with them as “Number 14.” I look back laughing but also slightly disturbed by the arrogance of my teenage self, so much crueller to these poor boys than I knew at the time – though it wasn’t so much because I didn’t like them and think they were lovely as the fact that I had no idea how to kiss and the thought of doing it wrong terrified me (I was privately convinced that mouths had to be designed purely for eating what if I’d just had loads of onion?!)

Don’t spare too many tears for unknowingly sexualised, unknowingly arrogant 13 year old Amelia. I was fine, I was exceptionally happy and fulfilled at the time. I mention this because it is part of a much wider problem.

When the Miley Cyrus video for Wrecking Ball came out I was torn. I was torn because I would secretly quite like to be having some fun on that swingy thing in her position; but in private, alone, probably. Surely Miley would really rather express her sexuality with those close to her, rather than share her nudity and her sexuality with the entire world?

In hindsight I see that it was wrong of me to ask that question, even gently. Because Miley had absolutely every right to express her sexuality in a way that felt true to her (even if she happened to be making a nice bunch of money in the same gesture.) I’m not gonna pretend I’m a Miley fan, but all those songs (I recall the lyric ‘it’s our party we can do what we want’) are about rebellion, about breaking away from the expectations placed on her by the trauma of having her childhood in the public eye.

We always overestimate the degree of agency musicians, and artists in the public eye, have. But this is disproportionately true when it comes to female musicians. If they choose to propagate a sexualised public image, it is all too easy to view them as either (a unwillingly sexualised victims of a sexist industry or (b unscrupulous temptresses selling their sexuality for money. This relates to that old virgin/whore binary that is so, so false and unhelpful for our understanding of female sexuality. I would imagine that in the vast majority of cases, from Miley to Birdy, the reality lies somewhere in between.

We need to stop being so quick either to label girls and women as either whore or virgin. Yes tossing women into one of these categories in our words and thoughts helps that classic insecurity about female sexuality and what women might do if men go to war for too long and the neighbour is sexy and cooks up an impeccable pumpkin soup for the winter. But it is a cipher, and should be recognised as such if we are going to fight the patriarchy and deconstruct the structures that oppress us.

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.

Come Home (Cardinal Pell)

Angry with the establishment? [Read: angry with the Tories?]

***

But your ethical hypocrisy
Your intellectual vacuity
And your arrogance don’t bother me as much
As the fact that you have turned out to be such
A goddamn coward

You’re a coward, Georgie
(You’re a coward, George)
Come and face the music, Georgie
(Face the music, George)

You owe it to the victims, Georgie
(You owe it, George)
Come and face the music, the music
Hallelujah, hallelujah