Why Going Speed Dating Made Me Feel Like I Was In A Jane Austen Novel

I sat down to write this today because I went speed dating the other night (yes, really) and I thought it could be fun to write down the many, many, MANY thoughts I had about it.

But now that I’m sitting here, I genuinely don’t know where to start.

So I’ll start by setting the scene. I crashed into the basement bar in Clapham where this auspicious event was taking place, running late after leading sexual consent workshops at a university all afternoon (needless to say, I did not intimate to my students that I was going speed dating that evening). My friends were already there and had a white wine ready and waiting for me, because they’re nice like that. I stuffed my plastic folder full of powerpoint materials into my already overflowing handbag, swept my windblown hair off my face and collapsed into the booth, only to be told I had to go and sign in.

Duly chastened, I went to report my attendance and received my note card, which was reminiscent of a dance card from the Jane Austen-esque balls of the 19th century. I can fairly safely be relied on to bring Jane Austen into pretty much anything, but there were a lot of similarities between the lavish affairs thrown at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice, or at the famous dance halls of Bath in Northanger Abbey, and this particular evening in Clapham. More on this later.

The evening went as follows: the women stayed in their seats (which ran along the walls of the bar in a sort of L shape), and the men moved up one seat every four minutes. Which meant you had four minutes with each person – but at least 20 seconds was taken up at the start of each meeting with swapping “ID numbers” – something we were told we ABSOLUTELY HAD TO DO if we wanted to be in with ANY CHANCE OF EVER COMMUNICATING WITH THAT PERSON EVER AGAIN, EVER (I have no idea why, seeing as none of us otherwise used those deific ID numbers before, during or after the event. Weird.).

I’m not going to do an in-depth analysis of every person I met that night. For one thing, there were a lot of them, and for another thing it just wouldn’t be that interesting, seeing as they were all pretty normal. One thing I will say, though, is that there are a lot of brave people out there. Several of the guys I met had only recently moved to the UK and didn’t know anyone, so had signed up for this evening, on their own, purely to get out and meet people. Props to you, my friends; I wouldn’t have even set foot in that bar without two pals and at least three glasses of wine.

Speaking of the wine, that helped. I lost track of the amount of times I said, wearily, that “I’m a freelance journalist” in response to the dreaded “so what do you do?” – and so about two thirds (and two glasses) of the way in, I decided to mix it up. “Welcome to the fun corner!”, I bellowed at a poor, unsuspecting guy whose turn it was to make his way over to the three of us. “I don’t want to know what you do”, I stated brusquely to another one. “You can tell me instead what brings you to speed dating – and ‘because I’m single’ doesn’t count”. (That was a long four minutes.)

After the event, all guests were encouraged to stick around and “mingle”. And this was really the point where it got really Austenian. People who’d ticked the ‘Yes’ box for another person tentatively sought them out to “chat more” – much as one of the Bennet sisters might have tracked down a suitor who’d put his name on her dance card. All further interactions for us and our cohort were pursued purely on the basis of four minutes of rushed conversation that was on a strict time limit – much as I imagine Catherine Morland only had a few minutes of snatched conversation to go on when considering her initial feelings for Henry Tilney after one of the many Bath balls.

The next day, we had to upload our thoughts and feelings onto our online profiles, in the form of a ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Friend’ for each person we’d met. At 5pm, the results were published, and we were matched with people who’d similarly said ‘Yes’ to us. I felt a little as though the mastermind behind the whole operation was Emma Woodhouse, whose grand plan it is to match all her friends to those she deems most suitable.

Jane Austen quips aside, it was a fun evening. But I still need to do a lot more to get over my fear of dating (which was partly what the evening was in aid of in the first place). My only relationships – and even all my flings – have been with people I was already friends with, and so I’ve never really dated (I’m defining dating here as going on dates with someone not previously known to me, but am aware there are myriad other definitions!). It’s something I have a major mental block with, and that block in turn is something I am trying to shake. But for anyone who feels similarly: I recommend speed dating. It’s fun, it’s well-organised, and it really isn’t that scary. My only top tip would be to give yourself a new occupation for each person you meet, just to mix up the tedium of having to repeat your job title what feels like 100000000 times. I personally wish I’d said I was an astronaut at least once.

Oh, and drink all the wine.

In Praise Of Janice

The other night, I had Friends on in the background when I was cooking; more specifically, the one where Ross sleeps with Janice when he’s going through a particularly low ebb. It’s a really funny episode, but all I could think, as I chopped tomatoes and drizzled olive oil over slices of aubergine, was how unbelievably horrible all the ‘friends’ are to Janice. And not just in this one episode; the more I thought about it, the more I thought how they’re just horrible to her constantly.

Chandler is obviously the main culprit; he can’t seem to decide, throughout Season One and Two, whether he wants to be with her or not (he breaks up with her on New Year’s Eve, at a party he invited her to last minute out of desperation, because she’s annoying him. I mean…). Then he opts to tell her he’s moving to Yemen rather than – I don’t know, acting like an adult and just telling her he doesn’t want to be with her. But it’s not just Chandler. They all make fun of her, both to her face and behind her back, whenever she pops up in their lives. Joey points out that he finds her so annoying he wants to “rip his own arm off and throw it at her”.

And you know what? Janice is great. Obviously, she’s supposed to be irritating (that laugh and the iconic “Oh. My. God.” speak for themselves) but she’s a warm, caring, kind person who is full of generosity and love. She makes a huge effort to ingratiate herself with Chandler’s friends; when she hears what Joey said about her, she isn’t annoyed or upset. Instead, she maturely comes up with a solution for how the two of them can get along – out of love and respect for Chandler. Much later, when Monica and Chandler are engaged, Monica lies to Janice by saying she can’t come to the wedding because Chandler still has feelings for her. Janice kindly and considerately leaves the apartment straight away and – surprise surprise – doesn’t come to the wedding, even though she thinks of the bride and groom “as family”. Because she’s nice like that. She’s always overjoyed to see any of the ‘friends’, and she always has a smile on her face. Compare that with the eye-rolling side glances and looks of despair that they, in turn, come out with when they see her…who comes out the other side the better person?

I’m aware this is starting to sound like I genuinely believe Janice is a real person. In case anyone’s concerned, I’d like to point out here that I am fully aware that she – and the other ‘friends’ – are fictional. But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about people who are deemed “annoying” – it’s something that’s really starting to bother me.

Sure, the world is full of Janices. I know I can be (and definitely have been) a strong source of annoyance myself. But what I’m starting to realise for myself is that when someone’s annoying me, that often says more about me than it does about them. It’s annoying when someone’s too loud; when they don’t stop talking even when it’s clear you’re trying to concentrate; when someone talks incessantly about themselves; the list goes on. But what I’m trying to work out, personally, is: why is any of that stuff annoying to me at any given time? If a friend’s annoying me by being (e.g.) too loud, chances are I’m just generally feeling low in myself. And I’m really trying now to see [what I may view as] an overly loud person as a source of much-needed energy and joie-de-vivre, rather than as a source of annoyance.

Another one: if someone cannot resist talking about themselves and spinning everything I say back to their own experiences, then there must be a reason for that. And as their friend, it’s up to me to work out why that is, rather than sitting there chewing my tongue and thinking a.) how annoying it is that I haven’t been able to get a word in, and b.) how annoying they are for not showing any interest in me and my life. Because if I handle it like that, then aren’t I basically guilty of the same thing?

Obviously, sometimes people are just annoying. It happens to us all. Janice is Exhibit A: for all her good qualities, she’s still noticeably irritating. But what I’m starting to gradually notice is that people I can find “annoying” often embody most of Janice’s strong points. They tend to be warm, kind, happy people. Yes, maybe a particular person is talking too much (as far as I happen to be concerned) on a particular occasion when I’ve got other stuff going on. But at least they’re enthusiastic, with a zest for life and something to say. I’d rather that, by far, than someone who doesn’t show much interest in the world around them. And Nick Carraway’s father said it right, in The Great Gatsby: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had”.

So while I was feeling indignant on behalf of Janice the other night, I vowed to try harder, next time someone’s annoying me, to see their good traits; to see the ways in which they enrich my life, rather than the ways they impede on it. Because the Janices of this world are a million miles better than the Janines of this world (if you’re a true Friends fan, you’ll know exactly what I mean by that). And the Janices are pretty amazing humans in their own right.

And if that doesn’t work and someone’s really just pissing me off: at least I can say with certainty that I’ll never lie about moving to Yemen.

Shifting The Blame

Yep – I’ve resurrected this blog from the outer, most cobwebby corners of the internet to talk about an issue that is incredibly close to my heart.

Yesterday, I tweeted the following in aid of Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week: “If I choose to walk home by myself, at 3am, and I get sexually assaulted – THAT IS NOT MY FAULT. That is, and always will be, the fault of the perpetrator. Let’s use this week to combat victim blaming and myths surrounding sexual assault“.

My tweets don’t normally get more than five or six likes, at best. This one got 858 likes and 191 retweets (and counting). Clearly, then, this is an issue that speaks to a great many people.

Needless to say, I also received a fair amount of online abuse (never fear, they’re all blocked) – “stupid girl” was one of the kinder responses (the remainder of which I’m not going to dedicate valuable word space to here). The troll like comments in themselves don’t bother me; there are plenty of deeply unhappy people out there who will lash out at any woman speaking her mind on the internet, and I don’t take it personally. What bothered me were the people who engaged with me in a rational, level-headed way; but who fundamentally believe that I am wrong in thinking that it shouldn’t be my responsibility to protect myself from sexual assault.

A few people have asked – out of genuine curiosity – exactly what I meant by this tweet, and so I’ve decided to answer all the questions in one fell swoop here. (Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert. The below is all my personal opinion, based off reading I have done and sexual consent courses I have taken part in.)

Let me be clear: I am not – I repeat, not – suggesting that we should all run round in the darkest alleyways we can find in the early hours of the morning, scantily clad, courting rapists and sexual abusers. I am not suggesting that we should all deliberately put ourselves in known dangerous situations just because we believe it’s our right. I myself would never do what I laid out in my tweet (not only because of the risk of sexual assault; there are myriad other reasons why that is an unsafe course of action). That was not the point of the tweet.

The tweet was a metaphor that I used to illustrate the societal myths that are so prevalent; a hypothetical situation demonstrating the need for us to shift the blame from the survivor of sexual assault to the assaulter themselves. We live in a culture that – should a woman get assaulted in this way (and I’m using a woman as an example here purely because it relates more closely to my own personal experience) – will ask e.g. a.) what was she doing walking down a dark alleyway on her own at night? and b.) what was she wearing?. Those are the wrong questions. We should be asking how, when, where and why a sexual predator came to be assaulting this woman; not asking what she could have done to prevent it.

A lot of people latched onto my mention of the “short skirt” in the initial tweet. I should add here that very few sexual assaults occur as a result of sexual attraction on the perpetrator’s part. Sexual assault is about asserting power over another human being; consequently, it makes absolutely no difference as to whether a woman is wearing a tank top and a miniskirt, or a tracksuit and a woolly hat. Neither is likely to increase nor diminish her risk of being assaulted. I threw in the “short skirt” element to highlight a prescient societal myth surrounding sexual assault, and all the trolls who responded to that only proved my point (thanks guys – you did my work for me!). The power element makes the questions of “what was she wearing”, or “why was she wearing that”, or “what did she expect to happen in that outfit” totally irrelevant; and yet these are questions we continue to ask.

Another issue with the clothing aspect of it all is that it implies that on some level I should be making it easier for the perpetrators to resist assaulting me, by desisting in wearing provocative clothing. Again, this isn’t the case, because it’s so rarely to do with sexual attraction; and that aside, it is not on me to make their lives easier. It’s on them not to assault me. End of.

I also want to add that I am not denying the risk exists, or that we shouldn’t try to keep ourselves safe as we do in many other areas of life. I am just saying that it is not for me to attempt to eliminate the risk posed to me by sexual predators; it is on them to eliminate that risk by altering their behaviour. I can already hear many people asking (e.g.): “If you didn’t bother to lock your door one night, and then you got burgled, you’d have to take responsibility for that, right?“. This is a hugely valid point, and one that I struggled to answer for a long time. But my questions for you, in that case, are: a.) Would you place the same value on your personal possessions as you do on your body? and b.) Does the act of locking your door at night equate to the constant vigilance (and emotional energy) involved in weighing up the relative risks of getting a taxi vs. walking home, or of carrying your keys in your hand as a precaution, or of crossing to the other side of the street when you see a shadowy figure coming towards you? Does locking your door at night to prevent burglary limit your freedom – freedom of e.g. dressing how you want, or walking where you want? Because if not, they’re not comparable.

It should not be up to me to protect myself from sexual assault. It should be up to the assaulters not to assault me in the first place. Until we accept this, significant societal progress will never be achieved in terms of challenging rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse. 

I am always really happy to discuss this; it’s a nuanced, sensitive issue and there are a lot of elements I haven’t covered here (capacity and/or freedom to consent; the fact that the dark alleyway scenario isn’t even the most prescient, given that most assaults tend to occur between two people already known to each other, often in a bedroom; and the ever-present issue of alcohol, which is something people love to bring up when placing the blame on the survivor). I’m still learning, and I’m not suggesting I’m an authority. And if I’m fundamentally wrong about any of the above, I am absolutely more than happy to be made aware of that – the last thing I want to do is spread misinformation! The purpose of this blog post was to explain in a bit more detail where I was coming from when I initially tweeted. And there’s the added bonus of resurrecting this blog, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time!

I’m going to close with the words of Chanel Miller (the woman who was raped by Brock Turner in 2015) as taken from her powerhouse memoir, Know My Name (2019): “Women are raised to work with dexterity, to keep their nimble fingers ready, their minds alert. It is her job to know how to handle the stream of bombs, how to kindly decline giving her number, how to move a hand from the bottom of her jeans, to turn down a drink. When a woman is assaulted, one of the first questions people ask is, Did you say no? This question assumes that the answer was always yes, and that it is her job to revoke the agreement. To defuse the bomb she was given. But why are they allowed to touch us until we physically fight them off? Why is the door open until we have to slam it shut?”

A word about Love Island

I will start by saying that I love Love Island. It’s the perfect thing to wind down the day with, and it’s put together well enough that I somehow care deeply about every single contestant, and the fates of their turbulent love lives, while watching it – but then it ends, I go to bed and I don’t need to give it another thought. Minimal headspace and maximum enjoyment: like I said, perfect.

But last weekend, a friend asked me if anyone could ever pay me enough to go on Love Island, and my response was immediate, categorical and unconditional. No, no, and no again. Not because of the risks of sudden and meteoric fame and celebrity (although I certainly have no desire to enter into that sort of world – which is lucky, because it’s somewhat unlikely ever to happen); not because of the objectifying, offensive aspects of the show (although these are significant and outrageous – lack of diversity being one of the show’s most principal flaws, swiftly followed by numerous others); and not because of the insecurities I have about my physical appearance (although this is certainly enough of a factor to dissuade me from wanting to parade around in front of a camera for 10 weeks).

No – as someone who already struggles with anxiety and intermittent sleep problems, I honestly cannot imagine anything worse than being a contestant on that show.

For one thing, I find it hard enough to sleep sometimes in my own bed, when it’s pitch dark and totally quiet; I cannot imagine (and frankly don’t want to) how little I’d sleep whilst sharing a room with 14 other people, several of whom are getting up to all kinds of misdemeanours just feet away from me. And imagine the snoring!

Apparently they never know what time it is in there; that’s just one of many more things that would stress me out astronomically (I’m getting stressed just thinking about it…). I’d be fretting about sunburn, about drinking every night…the list is endless. Already, the idea of staying in a luxury villa, for free, with guaranteed fame and money whenever I leave, is causing me more stress than my A-levels did.

Then there’s the endless cycle of people-pleasing. I am a chronic people-pleaser. I will inevitably tell people whatever they want to hear, even if I know full well that I cannot do what they want. “I’m sure that’ll be just fine”, I’ll beam, while inwardly knowing there’s no way to achieve that impossible task. “Yes, sounds perfect!”, I’ll tap away enthusiastically on WhatsApp to my friend who’s just asked if I’m free next weekend, while simultaneously working out if I have in fact said yes to three other engagements that day. It’s something I’m working on; but on Love Island, as we have seen this season, it’s not really possible to please everyone – and that would put a hell of a strain on my mental well-being.

Take Lucy, for example. She thought she was getting along perfectly well with everyone – until the girls laid into her for not spending enough time with them, for not being enough of a “girl’s girl” (and honestly, what room is there for that kind of phrase in a world which is beginning – at last – to embrace gender fluidity? Marie-Claire Chappet wrote a brilliant piece on this for Glamour – well worth a read) and for not making enough of an effort. This was a situation that, understandably, saw Lucy in floods of tears more than once, and was one that I completely empathised with. “Just leave her alone”, I growled at Amy, as I watched her criticising Lucy for friendship choices that didn’t affect anyone negatively in any way – at least not until all the bitching started. Poor Lucy, through no fault of her own, now has to bend over backwards in order to maintain her friendships with the guys, prove that she does want to be friends with the girls, and try to find a romantic partner – which all sounds like something that would send me into a pretty major anxiety attack.

I think the worst thing of all, though, is the way the show is manipulated by producers to highlight the character flaws of even the nicest, kindest, warmest, most generous people (with the exception of Dani Dyer, who managed to get away unscathed last season). “We’re all good people”, said Curtis to the group, during a rousing speech one night when everyone was feeling particularly despondent. That’s right, Curtis. You are all good people. Everyone has at some point demonstrated an act of true kindness, thoughtfulness or integrity– whether it was Tommy behaving with dignity and respect when Lucy said she could envisage their friendship turning into something more, or Amber insisting that Lucy wake her up if she felt sad during the night. And what woman out there wasn’t inspired by Maura’s response to Tom’s comment (“It’ll be interesting to see if she’s all mouth”), and her outright refusal to entertain his attempts to gaslight her (see Caitlin Moran’s perfectly pitched piece on this)? “Why can’t a woman talk openly about enjoying sex in 2019?!”, she lamented. Why, Maura. Why indeed.

But the producers don’t want contestants to be kind, or thoughtful, or even “loyal”. They want them to provide drama, and unfortunately that comes from presenting the worst of humanity’s flaws for viewer’s entertainment. Tommy was kind to Lucy when they had their chat – but then he did exactly what she asked him not to do, and told everyone about it. Amber might be a steadfast friend, but the way she treats Michael is often rude, passive-aggressive and sometimes nasty. And Maura didn’t exactly get off to the best start – when she straddled her 28-year-old self on top of Tommy’s 20-year-old self and tried to kiss him even when he kept turning his face away, Ofcom received 486 complaints asking for her to be removed from the show.

And you know what? These people are only human. As Tom Peck says, “they are real, surprisingly fragile people”. They mess up, like each and every one of us messes up every day. They say things they don’t mean, and they do things they know they’ll regret. But their mistakes and human errors are broadcast to the nation, in the worst possible light and context, to create drama. And that’s what really does it for me. Because as someone who often feels mentally frail and afraid of the world around me, I would so much rather celebrate the good in people, rather than be a part of something that makes a point of showcasing the bad.

So no, you couldn’t pay me enough to audition for the show (and good thing too, because it’s not as though the producers are knocking on my door…!). Like the hypocrite I am, though, I will continue to watch it and enjoy it – because, like the contestants, I’m only human. Tommy and Molly to win, anyone?!

 

So: what’s next?

Last year, I was at a birthday dinner in central London. We were having a great time – laughing, talking, over-eating, etc. etc., when I was suddenly struck by a panic so arresting and all-consuming that I think I physically froze. Realistically no one else would have noticed, and it was probably only about five seconds or so before I shook it off and re-joined the conversation. To me, though, I was completely frozen in time, struck by a thought that absolutely terrified me. The thought was: what’s next? As in: literally, what’s next? None of us here knows what’s going to happen in the next five seconds. Or the next ten, or the next minute, or hour. I felt, for a brief moment, as though I’d cracked some kind of mass thought-barrier constructed by humankind. How is it that we all walk through life effectively blindfolded, metaphorically bouncing off the walls, with no idea what’s going to come at us next? How am I the only person, in this moment, who is scared by that? How are we this blasé about our own existence?
Needless to say, I’ve come to terms with this strange and sudden form of existential anxiety since then. Now, I find the unknown exciting (most of the time, anyway). But this brief episode made me realise that existential anxiety – something I’d never given true consideration to before – is truly frightening, and can extend to more aspects and phases of life than a bizarre, five-second invisible panic attack at a friend’s birthday.
I think it would be remiss not to mention the shudders, groans and the oft-repeated “don’t talk about it, I hate talking about it!” that often accompany large-scale existential conversations about the universe and the cosmos. “What is out there, really?”; “Where does the universe end? And what starts after that?” But I’m going to leave that particular form of existential anxiety there, a.) because I’m scaring myself, b.) because I’m really not qualified to be talking about physics and cosmology (if those are even the right words…? I have no clue. I need to learn to stop whilst I’m ahead.) and c.) because I think there are more everyday aspects of this type of anxiety that are a tad closer to home, and therefore significantly more relevant.
“Existential anxiety” is usually described as a form of anxiety that “focuses on the identity and meaning of the self”, or that “involves apprehension about the meaning of life and death”. I identify with both of these. I’ve certainly had thoughts such as: “I don’t know what kind of person I am”, and “I really don’t see how anything I do makes any difference if we’re all going to die anyway”. My ability to bat these thoughts away varies depending on whether or not I’ve consumed alcohol the night before, or where I’m at in my cycle. But those thoughts do pop up, and what I’ve come to realise is that it’s perfectly normal, especially at this particular stage in life.
I’m aware that being in your mid-twenties is not old – nowhere close. But there is a difference between early twenties and mid-twenties (other than the obvious difference of the actual numbers). It’s a difference that has suddenly crept up on me, and many of my friends, and it’s a difference that has certainly given me personally a jolt of a wake-up call. There was something about turning 25 that made me question my identity, my existence and my calling in life. “Age is just a number”: but societal conditioning tells us that by age 25 we should have it all figured out; jobs, partners, families, housing – everything. I don’t have it all figured out. I’m doing a Master’s and working part-time, and I have no idea which industry I will eventually enter, or even what I’ll be doing this time next year. I’m single. The thought of me owning property at any time in the next 10 years is ludicrous. And, subsequently, I panic. I panic that I don’t know where my life is going. I panic that I’m not contributing enough to society. I panic that I’m just messing around, wasting time, whilst my contemporaries are making their mark on the world and setting themselves up with financial and familial security (I should make clear here: I am not remotely implying that others in my position should have the same panic. No one deserves to panic in this way – we are all making an impact on the world with every breath we take. But that’s the thing with anxiety: it makes you apply strict and unforgiving rules to yourself that you would never apply to anyone else!).
But what I’m gradually beginning to learn is firstly that everyone feels like this, at one time or another – just as I feel that everyone is sorted except me, everyone else will have moments where they feel lost, or as though they’re being left behind – and secondly, that meaning does not come from a job, or a relationship, or owning property. These things are meaningful, of course they are – they are full of meaning and importance, and help to craft us into the people that we are. But they are not the only areas from which we can derive meaning in our lives. Ultimately, meaning can come from wherever the hell we want it to.
The most beautiful, honest and hopeful description of existential anxiety I’ve ever read was written by a friend of mine for Bustle, about how the book “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower” helped her restore meaning to her world after she became an atheist. “When I stopped believing in God after almost 20 years of being raised as a Christian, I lost a lot of things”, she writes. “I lost a sense of meaning or purpose to my life; I lost my feeling of unity with the world; I lost my infinity…Yeah, I wasn’t in a great place.” But then, she read “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower”, and this book – and one particular moment in it – helped her to restore meaning to her life. “Charlie’s infinite moment reminded me that I can connect with this world in a multitude of ways – not just in a church. It might be a song, or a stretch of road; it might be a night sky; it might be a friend laughing into the wind.”

I’m now over my limit of 1000 words yet again, so I’ll leave it there, on that beautiful quote. If you enjoyed this piece , please do follow the blog via email for weekly articles in your inbox every Tuesday!

Listening To Your Body

Recently, I’ve started to tune in to the conversation between my body and my brain. My body will tell my brain something, my brain will go, “Ok, yep, got it”, my body will respond with, “Great, thanks, glad we’re on the same page”, and so on.

Ok, it doesn’t quite happen exactly like that (and I’ve only just realised how weird that first paragraph comes across…) – but I have become firmly convinced that the body has a mind of its own, so to speak, and will make its feelings very clear when it needs you to change a habit or lifestyle.

Take alcohol, for example. Three years ago, I was able to drink (parents, stop reading here and skip to the next paragraph) a mixture of wine, mixers and shots in copious amounts on a night out, and turn up to work the next day – complaining of a hangover, obviously, feeling like crap, obviously – but more or less ok, able to laugh about it and get through the day. I’d like to make it clear here that a.) this was not a regular occurrence (although I definitely partied far too hard from the age of about 19 to 23) and b.) I’m not saying this to make myself sound fun or cool or any of that rubbish (I am really not remotely cool – more on this next week). I’m saying this to emphasize the change that has gone on in my body; a change that my brain has had to take serious note of. These days, two glasses of wine and I’ll wake up at 4am with that horrible sweaty (sorry), heart-pounding, “what did I do last night” feeling. Then all of the next day, I’ll feel the hangover – nothing out of control, but definitely there. If I drink more than this, I’m really in trouble. The hangover the next day is honestly unbearable, mentally and physically – I’ll feel as though I’ve been poisoned (which I have been, I suppose) and my thoughts go to such a dark place that I’m not even ready yet to discuss them on here. My sleep will be thrown off for the next week or so, I’ll feel sluggish and grumpy – it’s bad, basically.

So after ignoring these physical symptoms and learning the hard way that I just cannot drink anywhere near as much as I used to, I’ve decided to listen to my body. My body is begging me to stop drinking more than one or two glasses of wine (or the equivalent) a night. It’s basically saying, “Please, please stop doing this to me, I really, really cannot cope with this any more”. So I’ve decided, eventually, to listen. I’m probably not the best person to invite to a wine-tasting event – but I will be the first person to arrive at brunch the next day, hopefully feeling fresh and hungry rather than physically and emotionally broken.

It’s not just alcohol, though. I’ve realised this year that my whole lifestyle needs to change significantly in order to feel balanced, calm and ready to take on life in all its forms. If I journey back again to this time three years ago, I remember being out five or six evenings a week, drinking far too much, probably running on far too little sleep; but all of that being perfectly ok. I felt fine; I was loving life. Now, there’s been a dramatic shift. I now need my eight hours in order to function the next day (I often don’t get it, but that’s a separate issue). I don’t have the mental or physical energy to go out after work every day any more. That’s partly because I now work in a bookshop, which means being on my feet for 8.5 hours a day – but I also just can’t hack it any more.

This is all starting to sound a bit sad, so I should probably say at this point that this is a GOOD change. Now, I’ll be in four or five nights a week – and I LOVE it. I love going to bed at 10pm after a cosy night in, and feeling refreshed and relaxed the next day. I’ve started actually cooking, from scratch, which is something I never used to do before – and I love that, too. I fell back in love with reading last year, and now I love a night in reading my book. This is not to say that I’ve become a hermit, or that I don’t enjoy seeing my friends – I adore my friends, and I love catching up with them. But my body was sending me signals that something needed to change. Before, I’d frequently go out for drinks on a Tuesday and end up going to bed at 1am. Now, I love having friends over, cooking them dinner and being in bed by 10pm with a chamomile tea. Or I’ll meet friends for drinks and leave when I’m on a high, rather than when I’m exhausted.

Some people might call this self-care; I call it listening to what my body is asking me to do (or rather, not to do). Essentially, it’s the same thing – whichever way you look at it, I’m caring for my body in a way I wasn’t before – and it doesn’t really matter what label I give it.

I’m very much still working on this, and do not have it down to a fine art yet. Equally, obviously there are times when I need to force my body to do something it doesn’t want to do. Going to work, for example, when I’d rather be lying in. Going to a friend’s birthday even if I’m feeling a bit tired and run-down, because that’s what friends do. We all have to make an effort sometimes, and if we all just did or didn’t do exactly what we wanted or didn’t want to do, the world would be a very strange and disordered place.

But there’s a difference between getting on with important things when you’d rather be doing something else, and punishing your body by drinking unnecessary amounts, or filling up your week with plans that, while fun, will make you exhausted. I’m gradually starting to learn this, and I’m starting to learn that tuning into the signals my body is sending me is making me much happier and more alert than I was this time last year. I’m not as busy or social as I used to be; and thank god for that, because now I’m (hopefully) a lot more switched on and energised than I used to be, too.

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Insomnia is not a choice; so let’s be more sensitive in our discussions about it

Having taken some time away from this blog, this is the first piece I’ve written in quite some time! I was prompted to write it by something that’s been annoying me more and more recently, to the point where I’ve actually become completely fed up and convinced that something needs to change. I’m not normally a particularly angry person, but I am angry about this issue and have a lot to say about it! So without further ado…

I talk very openly about the fact that I suffer from intermittent insomnia. It comes in phases, but when I’m stuck in a bad phase, it completely takes over my life. Sleep deprivation has historically been used as a form of torture, and when I’m on my third or fourth day of only three or four hours’ sleep, I can completely understand why. My mental faculties start to diminish to the extent that I really can’t think straight any more, and my emotions become more and more volatile to the point where I can’t really be trusted to have any sort of sensible or pragmatic reaction to anything. I feel physically ill – my appetite completely deserts me – and I can’t stop shivering. The worst of it, though, is the compulsive worrying and fretting that accompanies a bad phase. I worry about what this lack of sleep is doing to my body and my brain. I reach a point where I dread going to bed, because lying there staring at the ceiling and counting down the hours until I need to get up is one of the most unpleasant experiences I frequently have to endure. And after a few nights – when I’ve reached the aforementioned ‘can’t think straight and am ridiculously over-emotional’ stage – I can’t shake the fear of: what if I just never sleep again?

All it normally takes is something to break the cycle, and then I’m back on track. But when I’m in a bad phase, my brain and my body are in a pretty bad place – as is the case for anyone struggling with sleep deprivation.

So when I log onto Medium and see an article headed “Why Lack Of Sleep Is So Bad For You” (I deliberately haven’t linked to this piece, for reasons I will explain), my blood really starts to boil. Why, you might ask? People can post what they want on Medium – that’s the beauty of it – and sleep is fascinating to many of us. Plus, the writer in question may genuinely want to help. They may be warning people off the unhealthy habit of burning the midnight oil, or regularly watching Netflix until 2am. But headlines like this – and I’ve been seeing more and more of them recently, this certainly isn’t the only culprit – really make me angry.

Firstly: this isn’t news. We all know lack of sleep is bad for you. You may as well put out an article entitled “Why Binge-Drinking Is Bad For You”, or “Why Not Eating Vegetables Can Have Negative Consequences”. But this isn’t even what really pisses me off about headlines like this (and to be fair, I didn’t actually read the piece – for all I know, the author could have discovered some radical sleep-science hitherto unknown to the human race). What really pisses me off is the scaremongering aspect of it. Because lack of sleep isn’t a choice. At least – it’s not a choice for people with chronic insomnia. It’s not a choice for junior doctors, who frequently work 18-hour days and can put in shifts of up to 72 hours in order to do their job. And it’s not a choice for people with severe anxiety, depression, OCD or any other form of mental health frailty that results in lying awake worrying or panicking. Binge-drinking or not eating vegetables: those are choices (at least – to a certain extent). They’re issues that, if you’re in the mental and financial position to do so, you can actually do something about. But I cannot, currently, do anything more than I am currently doing to manage my insomnia. I turn my phone off at around 7pm every night. I try to ensure my room is cooler than the rest of the house, and in total darkness. I do yoga, pilates and meditation. I don’t drink caffeine after midday, and I don’t eat to soon before going to bed. I have a routine, where possible. And yet I will still often lie awake for hours on end, night after night, fretting about the negative effects all this awake-time is having on my brain and body. And so when I see headlines like the one mentioned above, I feel a quiet swell of fury. I am doing everything I can, and I still worry about it constantly. And when my lack of sleep-addled brain sees yet more evidence that my worrying is justified (it’s not), that I’m right (I’m not), that what I’m going through is having irreparably negative consequences on my health (it isn’t) – well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how that makes me feel. In short: it exacerbates the problem. And if that’s the case for me, I’m prepared to bet that’s the case for many others who are experiencing the sleep-deprivation that I often experience.

So I think it’s time we changed the language, and thought about the effect that our words can have on people who are feeling vulnerable and fragile. Rather than the sensationalist, clickbait phrasing (which, as a budding journalist, I should hasten to add I do understand), we need to start talking about how we can help. Something like “Struggling with insomnia? Here’s how you can start to manage it”, for example. No, it may not be as catchy. But isn’t it better for lifestyle journalism to aim to make someone’s day a little bit better, rather than a little bit worse? Instead of listing all the negative aspects of a lifestyle element that many of us don’t know how to control, can’t we start looking at what can actually be done about it? The phrase “choose your words carefully” is bandied about a lot, but here I think it’s about as apt as they come. Words are powerful things; let’s start using them for the good.

Q&A: Lagom Mind

This week I interviewed Harry Rice and David Torkington, two members of the team behind the highly anticipated Lagom Mind: a unique mental health app that will equip users to safeguard their own mental health. In this ridiculously fast-paced, “information-overload” era, in which we’re all expected to be fully reachable 100% of the time, this app sounds to me like a hugely valuable resource for everyone! I chatted with Harry and David, both currently studying for PhDs, to hear a little more about the app’s conception as well as their personal opinions on the progress of the international mental health conversation. Read on below!

So how did you come to set up Lagom Mind?

Harry (CEO): Towards the end of my time at Durham, I was experiencing some mental health difficulties, which resulted in having to delay my exams, and I didn’t receive any joined-up help. I saw counsellors at Durham, but that wasn’t joined up with anything at home. I was placed on a long waiting list for my local GP, and the stuff I eventually got offered just wasn’t really appropriate; for example, I was offered online-based help but nothing face to face. I was feeling incredibly low and I was having suicidal thoughts most days; at which point it all reached a head and I was lucky enough to be able to see a private psychologist. This really helped, and Lagom actually stemmed from the techniques he taught me.
Once you start to read around it, you realise that there really is a big issue going on, and that a lot of your peers are actually going through similar things that you may not have known anything about. My psychologist told me his clientele were getting younger and younger, and that the methods he was using to help me weren’t really available in a good digital platform – which is when I started thinking about Lagom.

David (CPO): It was around May last year that Harry reached out to myself, and the other members of the team. We were immediately on board because we recognised these issues in many of our friends and in ourselves, and so we really did want to help and play our part. Harry also knew we had an understanding of programming, and so that was the start of it all really!

When you speak about the “issues”, are you referring here specifically to mental health issues among university students?

Harry: Yes, we are. But when we were thinking about it, we realised it does of course continue into the transition between university and work, and so on. Those issues don’t go away and, especially among our demographic, a lot of people go into high stress, high powered jobs. We were speaking to a few of these people, asking what sort of safeguarding is in place for them, and many responded saying things like [e.g.] they were working very long hours and that they just weren’t really coping. But that’s the corporate culture of today. If people can start being proactive with safeguarding their mental health at university then hopefully they’ll be able to take that with them into the working world, and that will start a culture change. Our philosophy is that if the people you’re employing are happier, then of course they’re going to be more productive and this will be of ultimate benefit to the company.

So what exactly is the app, and how does it work?

David: The app has three core features. The first is our unique selling point, and it’s called “Perspective”. It’s an implementation of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and it’s unique here because we focus on discussing why people are feeling good, and congratulating them for that, rather than on why you might be feeling bad (the traditional form of CBT). We believe that if you zoom in on negative emotions, there can be a tendency for people to ruminate on that too much, and so head further down the spiral.
The other two features are “Focus”, which is a mindfulness meditation that Harry has recorded and which is case-specific (e.g. students struggling with revision stress), and “Breathe”, which is a cathartic breathing animation. This is a visual metronome to help you with your breathing that you can whip out at any time, for any situation. “Focus” has a structure and is a guided meditation, whereas “Breathe” is purely visual.

What are your long-term plans for the app?

Harry: The difficult thing about apps like these is getting people to stick with them. CBT as an online version is known for being incredibly effective, but has a very high drop-out rate. We know these things work but it’s hard to keep going and stay motivated.

I know what you mean – I often think of meditation as being like antibiotics. We’re always told to keep taking antibiotics right up until the end of the course, even after we’ve started feeling better; and I know I’m the worst for doing a bit of meditation when I’m feeling bad and then thinking “Oh great, I feel better now, I’ll stop!”

Harry: Yes, exactly. These things don’t necessarily work when you’re in a crisis, and in fact that’s not really what they’re for.

David: Through using something like Lagom, you’re building resilience so that when something happens out of the blue, you’re equipped to deal with it.

Harry: But our ultimate aim is for the corporate side to fund the academic side.

David: We believe that students shouldn’t have to pay any kind of subscription. Of course universities have a responsibility for the welfare of their students, and so when the app is fully gamified, we’ll approach contacts we already have within universities with the goal being to have the university subsidise the app for the students – and this would be embedded into the welfare infrastructure they already have. The important thing is that it’s free for the students. But it doesn’t stop when you leave university – it’s a habit formed by practice, and so in theory, our subscribers would want to be able to use it as young professionals. So, eventually we’d like corporations to be using it, and, all being good, the corporate side will ultimately completely fund the academic side.

As we all know, there’s been huge progress in the last few years in terms of opening up the conversation around mental health. What are your opinions on this new era of mental health awareness? Do you feel as though enough is being done to increase awareness and support those who are suffering?

Harry: I don’t remember having any conversations about mental health at school, or even in my first two years at university, so obviously the current era is a brilliant thing as the first stage of – I don’t like the word, but – “stigma” is gradually coming down. I asked one of our podcast guests a similar question, and he’s International Rugby League; so five or six years ago you wouldn’t have thought he’s the kind of person who’d be talking about his mental health! But I guess the answer really is the fact that we’re talking on the phone right now about our experiences, which just wouldn’t have happened even a few years ago.
I’m not sure if enough is being done – there are still huge waiting times, there was a report this morning that said one in four young people with mental health issues get turned away. So there needs to be a transition from conversation into concrete action, and there needs to be a movement of people taking responsibility for their own mental health, safeguarding it so that it doesn’t reach a problem stage.

David: It wasn’t all going to change overnight. It’s a huge first step, but there is always more that can be done.

How do you envision the app fitting into this idea of moving forward past conversation into concrete action?

David: The app will hopefully provide the tool that people will be able to use to safeguard their own mental health. A really good qualifier that Harry mentioned earlier is that the app is not necessarily just for those who’ve already got a diagnosed condition, but for everyone, on a day-to-day basis, to care for their mental health. The conversational aspects (podcast and live events) will hopefully continue to improve the conversation around it.

Harry: It’s about enabling people to take autonomy over their own mental health. There will always, always be a necessary place in this for psychiatrists, GPs, etc., and that support needs to be available as well – but at our end of the spectrum, it’s about people taking control of their mental health and essentially preventing it from becoming a serious issue later down the line.

Do either of you have any final thoughts?

Harry: When you’re in a bad patch, you tend to think about how brilliant everyone else’s lives are, and how they all seem to be able to do anything they want – but as you grow with your own mental frailties, you realise that sometimes they can be a real blessing, and can completely change the way you view things. Having experienced it and come out the other side, I now know that when I walk into a room I’m most likely the strongest person in there.

If anyone wants to help test the app, you can email the team at info@lagommind.com. Otherwise, the aim is for the whole package to be available on both iPhone and Android in early 2019.

Enabled, not limited: how can we support those with mental health struggles without limiting their potential?

“Enabled, not limited”. I attended a mental health conference recently where this phrase was used, and it really stuck with me. My first thought was: of course. Of course we should all be striving every day to continue enabling people who suffer with mental health issues, rather than limiting them and thus making them feel incapable of achievement. My friends and family often say things like, “Are you sure you’ll be able to do that?”, or “But what if that sets off your anxiety?”. It always comes from a loving, supportive place but phrases like this, although well-meant, are fundamentally limiting.

And yet it’s when I get to roughly this point in my thinking that I start to question it all.

I am a passionate advocate of people with any mental health issue feeling empowered to do anything they set their mind to, rather than feeling as though they’re incapable, or that their anxiety might set them back, or that they’ll be judged, or discriminated against. No one should ever feel inhibited, limited or set back by any sort of mental health condition. And yet I just as firmly believe that no one with a mental health condition should ever feel pressured (by peers, colleagues, anyone) to do something they don’t feel they’re able to do. And so there emerges a slight dichotomy between these two approaches. How do we empower mental health sufferers to feel enabled, whilst also ensuring they don’t feel under any pressure to do something that will bring on difficult feelings or emotions? And how do we then remove pressure without inadvertently enforcing limits? As a sufferer of anxiety myself, I want to feel enabled to do anything I want to do without my anxiety setting me back – but I also don’t like being put under pressure to do things that I know will make my anxiety worse. But then again, I don’t want anything or anyone to make me feel limited by my anxiety. Hence, a conundrum. I may sound demanding, but isn’t this all anyone wants? Doesn’t everyone want to feel enabled, whether that’s by their family, their peers, their work or by their own sense of self-worth? Does anyone ever like being put under pressure to do something that may damage them? Does anyone ever want to feel limited, regardless of whether those limits are enforced by society or limits they’re enforcing on themselves?

I’m aware this is all coming across as more than a little convoluted (I’m currently typing this with an excitable puppy crawling all over my lap and trying to chew my fingers) and I’m asking a lot of questions here that I can’t answer. But essentially, I think we have to start with the word “enable”. What does “enable” really mean, in this context? Does it simply mean not discriminating against those experiencing mental health issues, e.g. in the workplace (in which case: while a positive step forward, is this really enough?), or does it mean actively encouraging those same people to push themselves out of their comfort zone, by saying things like “You can do it”, etc. (in which case: is this exerting undue – and possibly damaging – pressure?). This isn’t a hypothetical question; I’m genuinely asking, and would love to hear any thoughts people may have on this issue.

A lot of people reading this might think I’m over-complicating a very simple phrase, and maybe I am. But the thing is: mental health is complicated. The word “enable” will mean very different things to different people, with variables like the type of mental health issue, its severity, the strength of individual support networks and dozens of others.

I’m writing this not only with a puppy on my lap, but also with World Mental Health Day 2018 in mind (currently three days away). How can we use this day to keep making a difference? To keep shining a light on what it really means to suffer from a mental health issue? How can we help people feel enabled, without pressuring them into a dark or scary place – and how then can we subsequently leave pressure out of the equation without inadvertently creating limitations? I’m not asking these questions for a dramatic finish to this article; I really, genuinely want to hear any answers anyone may have. Because at the end of the day, we’ve got to keep talking about it – and when better to do that than the week of WMHD 2018?

Let’s Talk About Sleep

Everyone knows sleep is good for mental health. Go to any “Health and Wellbeing Tips”, “Anxiety Coping Strategies”, etc., and a good night’s sleep will always be at the top of the list alongside healthy diet, exercise, no caffeine/alcohol and all the other usual culprits.

I’ve experienced this first-hand in the last week or so. Last week, I didn’t get much sleep at all and my mental health was terrible. I mean really, really awful – I had my first full-blown panic attack (I thought I’d had them before; turns out I hadn’t!) and I just generally felt as though the world was ending. The last three nights, though, I’ve had plenty of sleep and I feel So. Much. Better. Not perfect, but 1000 times better than I did this time last week.

I know what a lot of people will be thinking in response to the above: we know sleep is important. We know we need it in order to function properly and (for any readers who are fellow sufferers of anxiety) in order to let the brain’s energy go into maintaining a calm, stable equilibrium rather than working to keep us awake, which means the anxiety demons are free to run riot with nothing to stop them.

But raise a [metaphorical] hand if you’re utterly sick of hearing how important sleep is, when it’s often something that’s so out of our control. I get selective insomnia, meaning that no matter how tired I may be, sometimes my body just refuses to let me sleep. I had this the other night – I was exhausted all day (from several nights of not sleeping well, ironically) and I had a full day of interviews in London. So by the time I got into bed, I was confident that surely, tonight, I’d fall asleep quickly and sleep well. Not so. Despite having spent the majority of the day struggling to stay awake, when I got into bed I was suddenly full of adrenaline and, no matter what I did, I just couldn’t seem to fall asleep.

For me, hearing how important sleep is for my mental health just makes it all worse. If I could ensure that I got eight hours sleep a night without fail, I would. But it’s just not always in my control and so hearing experts going on and on about how crucial sleep is to a balanced mental state just makes me stress even more. I lie awake at night, worrying not only about how tired I’m going to be the next day but also about how bad my anxiety will be. As you can imagine, not exactly ideal conditions for drifting off.

Last week especially, I actually felt incredibly angry at my body. I wanted to say, “I will do anything you want in order not to feel anxious. I’ll eat healthily, do plenty of exercise, stay away from alcohol and caffeine, go to yoga, use the Headspace app every day, stay off social media for a few days and anything else that might help. But beyond going to bed at a reasonable time, sleep is something I just can’t control – so can’t you just help me out a bit here?!”

So what’s the answer? Again, everyone already knows. Just stop worrying! Stop caring about whether you sleep well or not, stop fretting about lying awake – just stop thinking about it altogether, and you’ll be sure to drift off. All things that plenty of people have said to me many times…and my response has always been (as I’m sure will be the same for anyone reading this who struggles with the same thing): HELPFUL. (In case it wasn’t clear, that was sarcastic.)

“Just stop worrying about it” is never an answer for a worrier! So, accepting that the worry is there and that said worry will prevent you sleeping, what are the best steps to take? Firstly, without resorting to sleeping pills, there are a couple of things you can take to send the midnight adrenaline on its merry way. Camomile tea does help, to a certain extent – it has a (very mild) sedative effect and should help to calm the mind. Magnesium tablets are also great. They’re just a basic vitamin that you can buy in any Boots or health food store, but they do something to the nervous system that helps the body shut down for the night. I think it’s linked to the muscles…it helps the body release tension and persuades the muscles to relax, which then sends a message to the brain that you’re relaxed (or something along those lines…more info available on the packaging/online if my incredibly vague/possibly incorrect explanation isn’t very helpful!).

The above solutions don’t always work for me, though, in which case I’ve always found the best thing to do is just confront the fear head on, by asking: what’s the worst that can happen? Ok, I won’t sleep at all. I’ll be incredibly tired and possibly incredibly anxious as well – but at least I’ll know it’s linked to sleep. It’s amazing what your body can do when it comes to getting you through a difficult day, and knowing there’s a reason for any anxiety you’re experiencing (whether it’s linked to sleep, hormones, hangover or something else) is often the first step to feeling better!

Sleep is a wonderful, amazing thing – but it can also be a source of immense stress and frustration. To anyone struggling with a similar issue, my advice would be: stay away from articles/essays/books on how important sleep is for mental and physical health. In my experience, I have never, ever found them reassuring. Chances are you already know the fundamentals (as I’ve said above: yes, we know it’s important!) and any new information about all the negative effects lack of sleep can have on your brain and body will probably only make you worry more.