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.

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.

Mental Health in Cambridge

TW: mental health, depression, self-harm mention, anxiety, medication

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for a long time, and I’ve finally found the courage to do it. This is hard to write, but here we go: last summer, I was diagnosed with depression. Sitting in that GP surgery didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know. I suffered from depression as a teenager, and I knew the symptoms by heart. I recovered the first time when I was 16, and every year, on my birthday, I would close my eyes and thank a deity I don’t even believe in for giving me one more year free of the pain and the fear. I carry the scars from those years, both physical and mental. I prayed that I would never have to go back there. But I know how depression works, and I know that it is often a problem that affects people throughout their lives.

This time around, there was no obvious trigger: no family problems, no school bullies, no bodily insecurity. Maybe, if I had to guess, the stress of returning to Cambridge for my final year and the fear of finding a job when I graduate (a quest I am, incidentally, still on) proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

At first, it was mild depression. I had days when I functioned relatively normally. I had days when I struggled to get out of bed, but I usually managed it by midday. I was told to start exercising more rigorously, so I started running: I ran every time I felt sad, and it helped. I ran nearly every day, until a knee injury forced me to stop. Without my coping mechanism, my depression spiralled out of control. Daily activities became a nightmare. I would desperately struggle to drag myself out of bed every morning. Basic things like showering and cooking became insurmountable challenges. I missed nearly every single one of my lectures. I spent whole days sitting on my bed, staring at the wall in my bedroom. I cried constantly.

Still, I didn’t tell anyone outside of my close circle of friends and my boyfriend: not my college, not my family, not my crew. I was ashamed. I felt weak. When I was bullied as a teenager, I learnt how to defend myself, how to put up shields. It has served me well since, but it means that I find it hard to open up emotionally. When I told my two closest friends at home, it was through a letter: I physically couldn’t bring myself to tell them in person. When the holidays came, I worked as hard as I could to catch up. I started applying to job after job. I learned how much rejection can hurt, as one by one, every graduate scheme I had applied to rejected me.

I hit rock bottom in January. Away from my friends and boyfriend on a training camp in London, I lost my support network and I failed to cope. I was sharing a room with two other girls, and I couldn’t find time in the evenings to cry if I needed to. Instead, I walked the streets of Teddington, sobbing down the phone to my boyfriend. Between training sessions, I retreated to the women’s locker room and cried, wiping away my tears in time to go outside and cox another outing. When I came back to Cambridge, I was broken. One night, midnight, I felt the familiar urge to hurt myself, as I had all those years ago. Panicked, I ran downstairs and sat in my housemate’s room until the urge subsided. I knew I needed to get help.

Another GP, this time a sympathetic woman with kind eyes. She put me on anti-depressants for the first time in my life: and it felt like a failure. But I took them, desperate to stop feeling this way. The side effects were horrendous. I stopped sleeping for nearly a week: I would lie there, exhausted, knowing that I had to get up in the morning and work. I felt nauseous all of the time: one of my housemates introduced me to the wonders of peppermint tea, and brought it to me whenever the sickness hit too hard. The medication made me feel dizzy, and anxious, and afraid.

Yet, when the side effects passed, the depression did not. I was prepared for this: the GP had told me that it could take weeks for the pills to kick in fully. The crying didn’t stop. If anything, it got worse. I stopped eating, and it was only through the kindness of my boyfriend and friends that I didn’t starve most days. Waking up remained a huge struggle. I finally went to see my tutor: a new one, a woman I hadn’t met before. I sat in the office of this stranger, and I cried, and she sat there and awkwardly tried to console me. Later, she would take me around the fellow’s garden and point out the different trees, and the bees making honey. I went to see my DoS, and I sat through our appointment and didn’t say a word. It took the encouragement of a friend to take me back. She sat outside while I finally broke the news to my academic role model that I wasn’t coping. I finally – after over a month on the university waiting list – saw a counsellor.

My work suffered, of course: but here, a few emails from my DoS to the relevant supervisors exempted me from handing in any essays that I couldn’t cope with. My sport suffered; I would spend an hour crying in my room, and then dry my eyes and head to the boathouse. Any mistake during an outing made me panic, stressed and fearful, the new chemicals in my body introducing an anxiety I have never before experienced. More than once, I cried in the middle of an outing, hastily covering the microphone and hoping that my stroke seat hadn’t noticed. If he did, he never made me feel bad about it. Several times, my friends suggested that I leave my sport behind. But most days, it was the only thing that kept me going. Whether they knew it or not, those eight men became my support network through the worst of my depression. Even on the worst of my days, I found the energy to haul myself out of bed to go and meet them. I structured what little work I did around training with them. Most days, they managed to make me smile and laugh, even when no one else could.

Slowly, the depression started to lift: I would have good days again, in amongst the bad. I started to laugh again. I attended supervisions and lectures. I forced myself back into exercise, and baking, and all of the things that I love. By the time that exam term came around, I was roughly stable: not happy, by any stretch of the imagination, but functioning and able to revise.

Of course, this is not the end of the story. The medication I’m on still gives me severe anxiety: when I told my new GP about this, she asked me if my boyfriend was cheating on me (twice, in case my flat “…no” wasn’t enough for her) and then wrote me a prescription for two more months without enquiring further. A month ago, I put in a repeat prescription, only to be given 6 months of contraceptive instead (helpful, but not ideal when you’ve run out of sertraline and been told that the withdrawal symptoms make going on it look like a picnic.) That day, I cried outside Sainsbury’s for half an hour, while my boyfriend held me close and tried to shield me from curious passers by.

Throughout this, I have been lucky: I have been supported by my friends, my housemates, my old (and new) crew (whether they know it or not), and especially my boyfriend. Some days are hard: this morning was hard. On my bad days, I still struggle to get out of bed and feed myself. But on my good days, I laugh and cox and bake and hang out with my friends. On my really good days, I dance around my room singing aloud to Taylor Swift. My depression does not define me: it is a battle, but one that I will win.

If you’re struggling with any of the above, there are places that can help:

In Cambridge: your tutor, your DoS, your porters, the college nurse, the university counselling service, Student Minds

More generally: Samaritans, Depression Alliance, Mind

Taking a break in exam term

I have often thought, during the last three years of my degree, that the working culture at Cambridge is incredibly unhealthy. Perhaps it is to be expected when you put a group of highly intelligent students – who are often used to being top of the class at school – in the same place and then publicly rank them at the end of the year (a practise that, thankfully, Cambridge is soon to abandon). It is a culture in which long nights in the library are seen as the norm. Days off and weekends are a luxury seldom taken. Working 6 hour days in the holidays is not only encouraged, it’s expected: how else are you going to cover everything on the incredibly long reading lists? In my first year, I remember my DoS saying that I could maybe take Christmas day off, but certainly no more than that. I wasn’t entirely sure at the time that she was joking.

This is my final term at Cambridge, and my entire degree is riding on the three exams that I have coming up, and the dissertation I handed in several weeks ago. I spent the entire of my summer holidays working on that dissertation: I would sit, in my boyfriend’s back garden, ploughing through as many books as humanely possible. I knew that when I came back to Cambridge, devoting that kind of time to it would be impossible, and I was right. It put me in good stead for actually writing it, but it also meant that I barely took any time off over the summer.

My dissertation was handed in maybe a month ago: and since then, I have worked solid 7 hour days, balancing that with attending job interviews and coxing my rowing crew. In spite of my exams not finishing for another two weeks (thanks for that, politics department), there is an overbearing sense that I cannot afford to stop working. I must keep waking up early, I must keep spending hours each day in the library. So what if I’m tired, and unhappy, and my friends are finishing their exams and having a good time? If I stop, I will fail. This is why, on the way to job interviews, I have taken work and revised on the train, on the tube. This is why I went to a job interview yesterday morning, and was back revising again by 2pm.

The problem is, I am not working efficiently anymore. I am staring at facts, and numbers, and theories, and feeling increasingly unhappy and isolated. This morning, a good friend of mine came round for a cup of tea, and suggested that I take a day off. At first, I was adamant that I couldn’t. I had to keep working, how could I justify the time off, I would slip a class mark and then I would never get a job… but that’s not true. The truth is, I’m tired, I’m not motivated and I need some time to just be me. I am not being “lazy”, nor am I wrecking my chance of getting the degree I want. Sometimes, we need to take care of ourselves before we look at our academic commitments.

So, today I have been productive, but in my own way. I have:

  1. Picked up some stuff I needed from Superdrug
  2. Gone to Sainsbury’s and stocked up on food
  3. Baked brownies
  4. Sung along to Disney songs while making said brownies
  5. Done the mountain of washing up that has accumulated in the last few days
  6. Spent time with a friend
  7. Gone sculling with my crew
  8. Written this blog post

Perhaps tonight, I will get an early night. Perhaps I will practise some yoga. Perhaps – the most likely outcome – I will finally watch another episode of The Walking Dead, having left the show on a massive cliff hanger the last time I found a spare hour to watch it.

It might be exam term, but I urge any of you who still have exams and feel burned out: take some time out. Get outside. Look after yourself. You deserve to be happy, and it’s ok to prioritise that.

(P.S. and for anyone who wants the recipe for my kickass brownies, it’s below:)

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Ingredients:

200g dark chocolate – ideally good quality, but I use Sainsbury’s basics and it works fine

150g unsalted butter

100g milk, dark or white chocolate, to preference (I use white)

125g brown sugar

125g caster sugar

4 eggs

85g plain flour

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp cocoa powder (again, Sainsbury’s own brand is fine)

A pinch of salt

Method:

  1. Grease and line your tin, and set the oven to 170 degrees.
  1. Over a pan of simmering water, melt the dark chocolate and the butter in a heatproof bowl. When melted and combined, set aside to cool.
  1. Beat in the sugars and the vanilla extract.
  1. When fully combined, beat in the four eggs one at a time.

5.  Stir through the flour, cocoa powder and salt.

  1. Finally, roughly chop the white/milk/dark chocolate. Pour the brownie mix into the tin, top with the chopped chocolate, and bake for 20-25mins. It should have a slight wobble in the centre, but not too much. Wait to cool slightly, and then slice.