Three years

The first time I remember meeting you, what stuck with me wasn’t your soft brown eyes. It wasn’t your bright grin, or your strong arms, or your wide shoulders. What struck me was the ridiculous hat you were wearing. It was, not to be too blunt, utterly awful. I left you there in that house party, and I went out clubbing, and I brought someone home, and I didn’t spare you another thought. Months went past, and I didn’t think of you.

And yet, we kept on running in to each other. I was indifferent; you’ve told me since that you were captivated. I found out you lived on the other side of Oxford from me, and in my flippant excitement, insisted that we exchange numbers. It would be a long summer. It would be nice to have some extra company. And that set us on a path of museum visits, late night texts, rock climbing, breaking in to Oxford colleges, dinner with friends, and finally, that house party, where my friend laughingly, drunkenly, suggested that I kiss you and I, finally, did. It would be weeks before I gave in and started dating you (“we’re just friends” became a favourite refrain.) It would take months before I finally started to fall in love with you. It’s taken me three years to finally understand that you’re not going anywhere.

People often say that their partner is their better half. It’s a playful comment, an affectionate nickname. In my case, it’s true. You complement me in a way that I never thought possible. Where I am angry, you are calm. Where I judge, you are tolerant. Where I scowl, you laugh. We go to parties, and I will rant about what a cow that girl was we met, while you sip a cider and calmly say you thought she was quite nice. You are soft and sweet where I can be harsh and cold. You wear your heart on your sleeve, openly and bravely, and persevere with me when I close up and push you away and refuse to talk about my emotions. I am a better person for being with you. I am a better person for knowing you.

I like to think I’ve made you a better person too. You were quieter when we met, less sure of yourself. Some of that isn’t down to me. It’s down to you growing as a person, down to your friends and your learning and your travelling. You were an awkward boy when we met, and now I see a confident man. We were at a party a few months ago. I was talking to a friend of a friend of a friend, someone who mercifully had a job like me and wasn’t another student at a party flooded with medics. I turned to get another drink, and you were there, dancing in the middle of the kitchen with a guy I vaguely recognised as being at your new university. You looked so happy, a smile splitting your face, and I felt a rush of pride and happiness that you were – are – mine.

The last three years are peppered with those happy little moments. They’re not big moments. I once read a post from one of my favourite bloggers, in which she says that love isn’t the big things, its counting pennies. I think we’ve done a lot of counting pennies together. A lot of nights sitting in the library. A lot of evenings cooking dinner with each other. You nagging me to tidy my room, and me throwing a wet towel at your face in response. Texting each other every day, keeping up with the minutiae of what you’re learning in medical school, while I bore you with that I’ve done in the office that day. We can spend hours together, not saying a word, engrossed in our own little worlds, until someone gets up to put the kettle on and drops a passing kiss on the other’s shoulder as they walk by.

You are, more than anything, my partner. You’ve put up with a lot from me. My broken wrist: you came to my room several times a day to help me dress, cook, wash up, and once, memorably, to shave my legs. My depression: you were my rock, there to stroke my hair and kiss the tears away and make me eat when I forgot. I hope that when you broke your collarbone I was half as supportive to you as you’ve been to me.

I am so proud to be your girlfriend. You are one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. You always manage to put a smile on my face. You even make me laugh when I’m crying sometimes, and then you laugh yourself and tell me I’m making my wibble face (whatever that means.) You are gorgeous, all long lines and lean muscles (and I’ll stop there because this is a public blog.) You are smart, and I sit in quiet awe as you revise for your exams with your flatmates, talking through drug names and physical examinations and viruses. You are kind. I love the life we have together, how you slot so effortlessly in to my life in Kingston. I love visiting you in Islington, the warm domesticity of cooking dinner for your flatmates. At first, I thought it was the house there that felt like home. It wasn’t. It was you.

So, my darling, there you have it. I am sorry that I never quite find the words to tell you how much I love you. I am sorry that I am blunt and sarcastic, that I hide how I feel and push you away when it gets hard. You inspire me to be different, to open my heart and say what you know, what I’ve told you, but don’t hear enough: I love you.

Failure

CN: sex, pain, mention of medical conditions

I’m curled on my side, my body hunched and small in the foetal position. I can feel him behind me, hovering an inch away from my back, but he knows better than to touch me. Every inch of me feels wrong, my skin feels too tight, and there’s a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m such an idiot. I thought this time would be different.

It never is.

I wrote a month ago about the pain I’ve been getting in my abdomen. That’s hard enough to talk about – how do you drop “oh yes, I missed work on Monday because I was in A&E with agonising stomach cramps that so far remain unexplained” into polite conversation? I’ve had some scans now; they’ve found nothing, which means that I’m clear of something like ovarian cysts, and I’ve taken a strong course of antibiotics, so if it was anything like PID, that would have been cleared up. The stomach pains are becoming more infrequent, and my period passed this month without pain out of the ordinary. The pains in my stomach are going, but I know that I’m not better. Not by a long shot.

The first time it happened, we were in my room at Cambridge. It was second year; my door didn’t have a lock; and my roommate could have come in at any moment. Classic student sex, rushed in between studying and essays and being caught. I remember the pain building and building, not wanting to say anything, and then crying uncontrollably after he was done, while my partner held me close and apologised over and over again.

We thought it was a fluke, a one off, a dodgy position. We wrote it off, and for a while, everything went back to normal. And then it happened again. And again. And again. Infrequent enough that I barely paid it any attention, thinking that maybe we were just rushing and needed to slow down. It got slowly worse. There would be nights when having sex would leave me in agony for hours afterwards, sitting in a hot bath to relieve the pain and brushing away my partner’s apologies. It stopped being “something that happens every now and again.” It started to happen more often. Soon, it was nearly every time we had sex. Then, it was unusual when it didn’t hurt. Now, I can’t remember when it last didn’t hurt.

As a culture, we’re obsessed with sex. We listen to songs with racy lyrics, we watch music videos with scantily clad women, porn is more watched than ever, TV shows like Love Island put sex in our living room, every night of the week. We love to talk about it, who did what with whom. Games of truth or dare and never have I ever, giggling as you reveal that one night stand you had in college. When we’re having it, it’s great. Sex is exciting, fun, something to laugh over with your friends in the pub while you hold your partner’s hand under the table and give them that look that means later.

On a more personal level, I love sex. I’m usually the loudest in the pub, making my friends blush and shush me. I spent my first year at Cambridge bringing home as many men as I could. I’ve reviewed sex toys for online blogs, and written erotica, and defended watching pornography at the Cambridge Union, and written academic essays promoting female masturbation. I love talking about sex.

It’s just so much harder to talk about when it’s going wrong.

So I put off saying anything to anyone. I hid it from my closest friends. I hid it from my partner. I would tuck my face into his neck, grit my teeth, and then smile at him afterwards, huddling in to his chest and trying to ignore the ache between my legs. I avoided going to see a doctor for so long. When I went, a middle aged woman with a quiet smile examined me, ran tests, told me that there was nothing wrong with me. She was kind, but I felt like a failure.

In Kingston, I met with my new GP. I ran through my prescriptions, that I would need to be set up with my contraceptive and my anti-depressants (thankfully, I’m no longer taking the latter) and then, at the end, I mustered all of my courage, and said in a small voice “when I have sex, it hurts. Like, it really hurts. It’s been happening for over a year.” And that GP smiled at me, and told me that it didn’t matter. I left, humiliated.

Six months later, the stomach pains bought it all back in to focus. Sitting in A&E, the doctor asked me if I had any other symptoms of endometriosis. I hesitated, and then I told her. Now, I’m being investigated at Kingston hospital for any physical issues that might be causing this, and going to see a specialist at St Mary’s in Paddington to see if its an emotional issue.

It’s hell, that’s what it is. I know that I should brush it aside. It doesn’t make me less attractive or less of a woman. Sex involves more than penetrative sex. My partner loves me, and he would never leave me over this.

But I do feel less attractive. I feel less comfortable in my own skin. Sex is more than penetrative, but I would like that to at least be an option. And as much as he loves me, why wouldn’t he walk away? There are plenty of women out there without this problem. He’s a great guy; he’d find someone else.

Every time it happens, I die a little more inside. We talk about it, agree that we just won’t do that, we’ll do everything else. And we do, and its great, and then I go and fucking ruin it by suggesting that we try it. Just once more. I’m ready. It will be fine. And then searing pain rips through me, and I find myself curled up crying, again. I’m such an idiot.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written, because I feel like a failure.

I sent the first draft of this to my partner to read. “You’re not a failure, and I’m not going to leave you, and I love you.” He’s right, of course. We’re a team. We’ll deal with this like we deal with everything. Together. Next tests are in September, so we’ll know more then.

It might not be. It might.

I stand in front of the mirror, my hands pressed lightly to my stomach. My hands are cold; the skin of my stomach is warm to the touch. I run my fingers lightly over the curve and swell, over the light hairs and the freckles and the indent of my belly button. My hands trail lower, to the sharp bone of my hip and there, just there. I inhale sharply as I press down. That shouldn’t be there. That shouldn’t hurt. And for the first time, I’m afraid.

Multiple trips to a&e. Doctors running their hands down my sides. Nurses with sympathetic eyes. Long waits in sterile rooms, my boyfriend clutching at my hand. They don’t know what it is. They said I need a scan. They say it could be nothing. Or it could be everything. I watch their eyes widen as I tell them it runs in the family. It might not be that. But it might be.

If it is, my insides will attack themselves. Tissue will grow where it should not. Every month, that tissue will shed with the lining of my womb. I will lie in agony as my body tears itself apart. It scars, every month. Those scars build up. Left to its own devices, my body will become a prison of pain and scars and infertility.

Do you know what I’m talking about? It affects around 1.5 million women and girls in the UK. 10% of women worldwide are estimated to have it, but the figures are likely to be much higher.

My mum has it. My sister has it. It runs in families.

I look down at my stomach again, stroke the skin. I close my eyes, and I hope. My body is my rock. It’s mine, my solace, my fortitude. It is not the most beautiful, not flawless or perfect. It is perfectly imperfect. It is scarred and ridged and mine. And it has been my fortress, my hide away from the world. Even in my darkest moments, the nights I have looked in to the mirror and seen nothing but fat and ugly, it has always been strong. And now it turns out that that strength might be an illusion.

I’ve never wanted children. It’s true that I don’t especially like children, but that’s not the reason why. When I imagine my life, when I fantasise about who I might be and where I might go, it is wild and varied. My career spans across reckless possibilities. My mind fills with the food I would like to taste, the baking I want to achieve. I picture the man I want to be holding my hand. Sometimes, there’s no man at all. I picture mundane things like the kitchen units in my dream home, friends growing older and getting married, my little sister having her first child. I imagine the places I want to visit, where the climates are hot and animals I have only seen in zoos roam freely. Never. Never in any of those dreams, have I ever seen children, my children, held in my arms. Not once. I don’t picture it. I don’t dream of it.

Infertility doesn’t scare me. What scares me is the thought of a body that is beyond my control, that hurts indiscriminately and cannot be cured, only slowed.

I’ve got a scan in two weeks. I hold the hospital letter in my fist, let my other hand drop again to my belly. It might be. It might not be. We’ll have to wait and see.

I can and I will

CN: Sexism, use of the c-word, workplace sexism

“You’re just not a leader.”

“I went to a better university than you.”

“Women just aren’t suited to that kind of thing.”

“Why is the Chief Executive meeting with you – isn’t that a massive waste of his time?”

“I think you’re a vicious cunt.”

Well, I think you mean nothing.

You want to tear me down? Fine. Try. You will fail. I don’t need your validation. I don’t want it. It means nothing to me.

You’re not special. The world is full of insecure men unable to keep up with the world as it changes around them. If you are a woman, you will spend your life fighting against their assumptions, their prejudices. You will spend a lifetime being called “darling” in the office. You will spend a lifetime being catcalled in the street, and groped in bars, and abused by men who are not worth the dirt under your shoes. Think about it. Think about all the men who have tried to tear you down, to tell you that you are worthless. Or, almost worse; that you’re not quite good enough, not quite what they were looking for. We all know what they mean.

We don’t talk about it, far too often. We carry these silent burdens. We shrug it off. What does it matter that someone senior to you at work slipped his arm around your waist at that Christmas function? It was just a joke when that man hit on you at the end of a meeting. You shouldn’t be offended when someone mistakes you for a waitress at a work event (bitch I’m running this thing.)

Fuck that. We have been silent for too long. Next time a man looks at you and finds you wanting, you laugh right in his face. It’s far too easy to let those assumptions slither in. They are poison, creeping through the veins of every woman. You are enough. You are smart. You are beautiful. Your hips are gorgeous. Your smile is contagious. You got that job because you earned it. You can lead. You can follow. You can do, and be, whatever the hell you want to be, because this is 2017 and we will not be held down.

There will always be people to tell you that you can’t do that, you can’t achieve everything you want them to. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that they’re wrong. I’ll say it again: you are enough. Have that confidence in yourself. Whenever I come up against comments like the ones at the top of this post, I take a deep breath, and I list myself.

I am smart. I am ambitious. I am driven. I work hard. I am loved. I can do whatever I want to do.

And then I remember this, and I feel again the solidarity of thousands of women who have held themselves back because they didn’t believe in themselves. We are enough.

“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

CN: body image, weight loss, potentially triggering comments, mention of actual weights

I wrote a while ago about body image. I had just gotten to a point – finally, after so many years – of being happy with the way I looked. I wrote that I would ignore the weight on the scales, and I would focus on loving my body for what it is; flawed and human and beautiful. Nearly a year later, that ideal is under threat.

Moving to London, I joined a new rowing club. It’s easily the best decision I’ve made since coming here. My new girls are funny and smart and kind, and getting to know them, becoming their cox, has been a pleasure. It’s given me somewhere to go when the days at work seem too long, somewhere to focus and forget how much I miss Cambridge, how much I miss my friends, how much I long to see my boyfriend. A bad day at work can be worked out in the gym with them, lifting half of what they do. It can be alleviated squatting behind them on the ergs, watching their splits drop and willing them on with everything that I have. The best times are when we’re on the water, and it’s still and calm and I can feel myself slipping back into that place I loved at Cambridge, where the world is a puzzle and your voice, your words, provide the solution. When there is nothing else in the world but the rhythm of the rowers, and everything else melts away. It’s why I love racing so much; in that moment, we are one.

We have a new coach. He’s eccentric, and constantly grumpy, and also, I suspect, slightly brilliant. I enjoy coxing under him; it’s stressful, but he reminds me of my DoS at Cambridge, a woman I admired above all others. Compliments are rare; criticism is swift; and you can feel yourself becoming better the more time you spend with them. It’s not a picnic. More than once, I’ve sat in the boat on the edge of tears, as my coach tears into me and I feel, more than anything, that I’ve let my girls down. But then he says “good job today, Sarah”, and suddenly it’s all worth it. He’s clever like that.

The first time we met, he took one look at me, his eyes pausing on my long legs, my strong thighs, the curve of my hips.

“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

It was not the last comment he would make on my weight in the months that followed.

“How much weight can you lose and how fast?”

“You’ll need to cut down”

“Do you even fit into the boat?”

“See her? She’s a real size for a cox”

“You probably weigh as much as me!”

“We’ll need to run that muscle and fat off of you”

“You need to take responsibility for your own weight.”

“We need to get you down to an acceptable weight.”

I’m big for a cox. I’m tall, always have been, and with my long legs comes extra weight. The minimum weight for a women’s cox is 50kg. The minimum weight for a men’s cox is 55kg. I am currently sitting at around 60kg. The whole point of the minimums is to stop coaches forcing their coxes to lose an unhealthy amount of weight, as going below that results in the cox having to carry weights into the boat and so any advantage is lost. 50kg for me is not possible; my coach accepts that, even if he’s not thrilled at the idea. But 55kg is certainly within reach, and that’s what he wants me to get down to.

I’ve never tried to lose weight as an adult woman. My body has changed so much over the years, gaining and losing weight, and it’s now settled into where it’s meant to be. Where it’s happy being. This is the me that runs and lifts weights and does yoga and climbs. This is the me that dances around the kitchen and spoons my boyfriend late at night and wiggles into skinny jeans and buys tiny crop tops from charity shops. If I wanted to, I could tell my coach to bugger off, tell him that I love myself and I won’t change for anyone.

But I know that I have it in me to lose that weight. I’m competitive; I want the best boat I can get, and there are smaller coxes in my way. More than anything, I know it would help my girls. The trouble is, how do you love yourself when you’re constantly weighing yourself? When every mouthful you eat has to be analysed? When you find yourself hating yourself a little bit more every day? When a glance into the mirror isn’t “damn girl, you look hot today” but “fuck, I knew I shouldn’t have had that sandwich for lunch”?

I don’t have the answer. I need to take this slow and steady. I need to lose weight doing the things I love; I need to run, faster, and lift (if not anything too heavy) and climb, and stretch. I need to cook, healthy meals from scratch. I need to dance around that kitchen, and then I need to snuggle on to the sofa and watch a movie with a glass of wine. And if, it the end of everything, I can’t get to 55kg, I need to be the best damn cox I can be. I reckon that’s more important than an extra 2kg any day.

Moving on and letting go

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference at Warwick University. It was generally good fun; I met lots of new people, I got drunk in the Warwick students’ union, I ate some great food and I got to feel like a proper grownup with an (admittedly small) expenses account. I was there for the induction to the graduate scheme I’m on, so it was mostly introductions and admin. Some of it was useful. Some of it, to be brutally honest, felt like a waste of time. But there was one talk that really, really struck a chord with me. The speaker was telling us about opening a new chapter in our lives. His basic premise was that you can love what you’re doing, you can be having the time of your life, but you can still miss what you’ve lost. You can live in the moment, you can love your moment, and yet you can still mourn what you’ve left behind.

I’m enjoying my life. I live in a beautiful part of London. I see my boyfriend regularly, and I’ve met up with old friends from Cambridge since being here. I’ve joined a new rowing club, and I’m already a cox for the top women’s squad. My work is interesting and varied, and I have colleagues who are helpful and friendly. I’ve started to make friends, some of whom I’ve trusted enough to confide my mental health struggles to. I still exercise here, and I love to run alongside the river, just as I did in Cambridge. And that, right there, is the crux of the issue.

Cambridge was, is, still is, the love of my life. I come from a small town. I grew up, with friends, but always feeling on the edge, never feeling accepted. I was bullied and lonely in that small town. The scars littering my body can attest to that. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that university was like Hogwarts for smart people. I clung to that. I clung to the idea that I could escape my conservative hometown, I could find somewhere where I would be happy and safe, and I wouldn’t be afraid anymore. I never imagined something as good as Cambridge.

It had its flaws; I’m not going to deny that. But to me, for the first time in my life, I felt completely at home. The cobbled streets felt like a dream, something I had imagined and woke to find was real. The towering spires of the colleges welcomed me, even as they intimidated me. I walked across the courts of St John’s, and felt, deeply, a sense of belonging. Over the vacations, I ached for those strong walls. I was homesick for the swooping arches, the regimented grass, the uneven wooden stairs of third court and the painted roses of second court. I longed for the beauty and the warmth and the comfort.

I built a life for myself. I met my boyfriend there, and some of my happiest memories with him take place within Cambridge. Running to his college in the rain, throwing paint at each other in Lent term, study breaks in the middle of exam term, late nights huddled under sheets. I met some of my closest friends there. I met my housemates from the last year, who are funny and smart and gorgeous. I miss them more than they can know. I miss coming home to them, the kitchen windows steamed up and every available chair crowded with friends and strangers alike. There was always someone new to meet, something new to do. But, at the end of the night, there were always people to sit quietly with, friends to hold your hand and tell you it would be ok. I miss that.

I see Cambridge everywhere I go. I see the college in the beauty of the council chamber. I see the river when I walk into town. But it is a pale imitation. The council cannot match the splendour of John’s. The river is so wide, bereft of the swoops and curves that taught me how to cox. I see the red oars of Kingston, and I feel longing for the red oars of Maggie. I see my boyfriend, at the weekends; when my work and his hospital rounds allow it. No more running to Fitz in the middle of the night, desperate to see him, thinking 15 minutes was too long to go before I could be with him. Now, it’s an hour and a half across London to be in his arms. Friends are scattered across the country; even some of the ones in London feel as thought they could be a thousand miles away. I saw two of my housemates last week, and I almost cried when I met them at Waterloo station. They felt like home.

This makes it sound like all I do is miss Cambridge, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Kingston is amazing. I love so much about it, and I’m doing so many amazing things that I never imagined when I was still a student. Every time I think about Cambridge, I try and remember that lecture at Warwick. I can be happy here, I can build a new life and live it to the full; but I can still look back and mourn.

Fear

CN: Sexual harassment, flashing, sexism, threat, mention of sexual assault, mention of potential rape

I love horror movies. Some of my favourite films and TV shows – Scream, Silence of the Lambs, The Walking Dead, Hannibal, Martyrs – belong to the genre. Some of them, I love for their complexity and their intrigue, like Hannibal and Silence of the Lambs. Some, like Scream, I love for guessing who the killer is. Some I love just for the gore, something thought provoking and shocking (and trust me, I’ve never seen anything as shocking as Martyrs. Saw eat your heart out.) Most of the time, though, I’m just looking to be scared. Like many people, I find it fun, sitting in the dark, not sure who will live and who will die. It’s harmless, and you know (however much it might seem like a serial killer is lurking in your closet as you lie in bed that night) that you’re safe.

Today, I wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t a movie, and it wasn’t fun.

It was early morning, and I was walking to my new boat club, excited, nervous, still a little sleepy. I’ve been planning to join for a while, and today was meant to be my first outing with the top women’s squad. The walk from my home is relatively long – about half an hour – but I was entertaining myself by playing on my phone, looking around as the sun rose over the river. The last part of my walk took me through a park, only for maybe the final five minutes. The park was dark, not well lit, and it was pretty much empty. Still, I kept walking. I was worried I was going to be late for my first session. I was concentrating on my phone, when I sensed someone near to me.

I glanced up, and there was a man, standing just a few feet away from me on the same path. The first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a black balaclava that covered his entire face, leaving only crude holes for his lips and eyes. I was taken aback, and I kept walking. Then, I glanced over again, nervous now, and I saw that he had dropped his trousers. He had dropped his trousers, and he was masturbating himself. And he was looking right at me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I could do. All I knew was that I had to get away, as fast as I could, without antagonising him. I quickened my pace, but kept it at a walk. I lowered my eyes to my phone. I toyed with calling my mother or boyfriend but decided that I didn’t want the man to hear the sound of my voice. I didn’t want to look back. I couldn’t hear footsteps behind me, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I felt sick and embarrassed and suddenly, painfully, aware of how vulnerable I was. My boyfriend wasn’t expecting me back for hours, and no one at the club had my number. If that man had decided to attack me, I would have been entirely vulnerable. As I neared the end of the park, I saw the lights of the boat club, heard the familiar whir of ergs. I dared a glance behind me; the man was nowhere to be seen. I entered the boat club; I met my new crew; I coxed an outing; and I helped the women put their boat away; and I smiled and laughed and said I would see them tomorrow. I walked home, and it was only as I crossed that path in the park again that I remembered what had happened. It was daylight, late morning, the park was busy and full of people, families and children and women. I was still scared.

I was scared as I walked home, and through the park near to my house, and when my boyfriend and I went in to town later in the day to go food shopping. This is a fear that every woman knows. The fact that I could brush aside what happened this morning so easily is evidence of that. I am used to that fear, when I walk home alone at night, or I see men in public and no one else is around. I feel it when a man’s eyes linger on me in public. I felt it, 16, when a boy I had gone on a date with held me down and rubbed himself against me, and I lay there, scared and not sure how to react. I knew then what I know now; that the power was in his hands, that I was vulnerable, and that if he chose to hurt me, there’s no guarantee that I could defend myself. We as women carry these scars, we carry this fear.

I called the police when I got home. I talked to a sympathetic woman, who took down the details of what had happened and tried to comfort me. I am walking that same route tomorrow morning. And I’m scared. But I know that I want to go cox another outing, I want to make new friends and commit myself to my sport all over again. I’ll just have my phone out and ready to call for help. Just in case.