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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