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.

“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.