Saturday, 28 November 2009

TALKING IT THROUGH...


At risk of sounding like a therapy junkie, I am currently halfway through my therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once a week, I spend an intense hour and a half attempting to put my many demons back into their box and get my life in order.

Unlike the hypnotherapy for my wasp problem, this is not a particular straightfoward task. I know what I want to achieve from the PTSD therapy, but since I have to do all the hard work myself without any helpful input from my subconscious, it is a much trickier path, especially since all the fears and anxieties my PTSD are more low level and insidious than the my fear of wasps. The former is constant, the latter is seasonal and while my answer to both is stay indoors away from the big bad world, it doesn't really help either problem.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a slippery customer to define. It tends to encompass a certain number of common symptoms, such as suffering nightmares and the day-time equivalent known as 'flashbacks', along with active avoidance of anything that exacerbates or 'triggers' symptoms and feelings and a sense of heightened danger and being 'on guard'. The severity and complexity of these symptoms can vary according to the type of trauma experienced, leaving a combat veteran and a rape victim with the same disorder, but on different pages.

PTSD also causes secondary problems that develop like ivy on the drainpipe of an old house. In my case these are depression, anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia. The sheer list of problems to be tackled in 12 weeks of therapy can be discouraging in itself, but it would be very fulfilling to tick off each of those things at the end of it. Unfortunately all these secondary problem make it more difficult to thwart the PTSD. They interfere with the attempt to consign the current feeling of flashbacks that make it feel like the trauma is happening to you again to regular normal memories that lurk in your mind, only to be recalled when you choose. It is the difference between keeping everything in a messy emotional heap that threatens to take over the table or storing it neatly in a filing cabinet to access when needed.

Sadly I have never been very good with random bits of paper and tend to accumulate piles on tables in my physical life, so I'm not entirely sure why it comes as such a shock to me that I haven't been able to tidy my emotions either. It's never particularly confidence inspiring to have to admit to yourself or others that you can't handle your own emotions and events in your life, especially when others have managed fine, but that has been the reality of the last few years of my life. I'm also my own greatest critic (in my mind I'm like one of those old school types with a super posh accent who frequents a members' club) so I find it hard to admit it's ok to find things tough.

It seemed like for the therapy to work, I was going to have to change a lot about myself as person as well as try to put the lid back on Pandora's Box. Unsurprisingly I was apprehensive about this, but it turns out that my therapy is more about being encouraged to look at things from another perspective rather than the rut I've got myself into over the past few years. It's surprisingly easy to do when someone else guides you and I'm getting a lot more from the sessions than I expected.

I have had CBT for these problems a few years previously, although without a formal diagnosis of PTSD. This is when I discovered that it's sometimes not about the therapy, but all about the therapist. If you don't trust them and feel like they will be your safety net in tough times, it's probably not worth even doing the therapy. My first CBT practitioner was not-so affectionately known in my house as Dr Dickhead. His helpful advice to someone as traumatised as myself was that I was paranoid about personal safety as so many women are, and that I was nervous around men not because 3 had attacked me in 1 year, but because my parents are divorced. Our sessions were shortlived to say the least.

My current therapist is calm, reassuring and encouraging. There is no sense of judgement, just a genuine feeling that she wants to help me resolve my issues. Plus she is available by email in between the sessions if anything gets too much which is a particular reassurance. I feel I can talk to her about even the weirdest things that arise in my sessions. It just goes to show that the NHS can get mental health services right if you give them long enough! All I need to do is keep up the hard work for the next 5 weeks...and hope I don't start to lapse into therapy speak before then!

Monday, 23 November 2009

FUR COAT...NOT TELLING ABOUT THE KNICKERS!




After yesterday's Observer Women article I feel I should confess. I have a guilty secret...I love real fur. In fact I happily wear real fur and I don't really care what other people think about my choice.

It's warm, it's cosy, I like the style it adds to my outfits and I don't see much difference between fur and leather. Both involve the not so palatable fact that an animal died to accessorize your wardrobe, and with the way that cows are mass produced these days and the cost of leather has plummeted, both involve a certain amount of cruelty.

Before you write me off as the bastard child of Cruella DeVil with an utter disregard for all animal life, believe me when I say I'm not condoning cruelty. I would like to see all livestock farming become kinder to the creatures and the workers.  I'm just not comfortable with the dichotomy that cows are OK to kill and ickle furry things aren't. I know there is a difference in that most cattle are raised for milk and meat, while animals for fur farming are generally only raised for the pelts, so it is intrinsically more wasteful, but I wonder how many people simply have a knee-jerk reaction that furry is their friend?

I also wonder how much of the reaction to even vintage fur is fashion in itself. From the 80s campaigns of Lynx to PETA today, it has become practically de rigeur for young nubile women to proclaim they "would rather go naked than wear fur" and appear scantily clad in the adverts that back this up. Sexualised human flesh has become acceptable, but animal skin is frowned upon. Obviously not everyone who dislikes fur is this easily swayed, but I wonder how much is simply going with the flow rather than strong opinions on the subject? Would they start to give a shit about how the milk in their cheese was farmed if celebrities started asking those questions whilst looking so glam?




I eat meat and dairy. Why should I be comfortable with these things, but not with wearing the packaging the animal came in? I do believe that no matter what part of the animal I eat or wear, I should try to be an ethical consumer and avoid giving my money to producers who wilfully mistreat animals or impact the environment unnecessarily.

I do this in part by wearing vintage fur, often pieces that are family heirlooms. I have a 1940s rabbit fur jacket that I have been wearing in cold weather for almost 6 years. It keeps me unbelievably toasty in cold weather and since it was bought cheaply on Ebay, it has kept me from modern mass farmed fur, which is poorly regulated and often plagued with rumour of unneeded cruelty. It has also deterred me from buying cheap, mass produced leather (or other winter coats) from stores like Primark, which may have been shipped all round the world, made by sweatshop workers and possibly created a toxic problem in its tanning.

I feel comfortable with vintage fur as lifestyle choice. I would be perfectly comfortable with contemporary fur if I could be sure of its provenance. The excellent Channel 4 documentary Kill it, Skin it, Wear it looks at the fur lover's dilemma in brutal detail.

I wouldn't criticise others for their choices, whether those be disposable fashion or haute couture even if I may disagree with them. I would appreciate the same and in return if someone is really upset by my wearing fur, I'll happily leave it at home that day. But I won't apologise for it.

I even promise not to be smug when I am almost uncomfortably warm at the bus stop on a windy winter's day in my fur coat. That might justify having red paint chucked over you...

Monday, 16 November 2009

SMASHIN' FASHION...



 As I may have mentioned I will be going on a date in the next week and on close scrutiny there is very little in my closet suitable for such an occasion, so I took it upon myself to hit the High Street in search of something with a certain je ne sais quoi...


I had quite the sartorial shock when I arrived in Oxford Street. I don't get out much so I must have missed the day it was state mandated that every garment in W1 must either be shimmery or extremely revealing. My tastes run more to simple, black, classic and understated. I sensed I may have to expand my horizons. I took a deep breath and selected a fabulous 20s esque fringed top from Warehouse for some flapper chic. None of the double digit sizes would zip up. Blaming a rogue fringe in the zipper, I backed away hastily and went in search of something less challenging to get in and out of.


This proved somewhat trickier than you'd imagine. I don't wear dresses. I am not a dress kind of girl. I rarely look sleek or chic in a dress, more like a sullen child primped and preened in her uncomfortable Sunday best. So of course the entire High Street is awash with dresses. Even the few tops I could find were long enough length to obviously be aspiring to being a dress. I lifted a few dresses only to be struck by how short and tight they all seemed to be. My mind boggled as to how average women wear them...I'm 5' 2 and the majority barely covered my mid thigh. Did I miss another memo where women stopped feeling the cold, never lift their arm above hip height and don't mind exposing naked flesh to seats on public transport?


Feeling immeasurably prim, I retreated to the petite department where theoretically things would be a more suitable length for my delicate sensibilities. I immediately spied several promising tops and made a beeline for them. A hovering sales assistan appeared as by magic, shot out an accusing hand and said 'these items are for petites madam' as I tried to pick one up. I informed her that at under 5' 3 this was kind of the point, she disagreed with my height and told me the top would be too short for my tummy. I'm not entirely sure what she meant by this, but I'm doubting it was a compliment. Fearing a hanger related tragedy in petites, I flounced off and went to H&M instead.


You don't expect customer service in Hennes, so I figured I was safe. But only from thinly veiled insults apparently, as every other sensibility was shocked to its core by the gratuitous ugliness of all their clothes. There were sequins on everything, jostling side by side with 80s-esque lamé and foil fabrics in shades of rainbow garishness and interspersed with fun fur. It looked as if Liberace and the Muppets had been hunted down and hung on the walls like camp taxidermy. It frightened me slightly.


But it's a big shop, surely I could find a fairly plain black top? After much rummaging, I found 3 tops that seemed to fit the bill. One even had a little bit of gold lurex to show how down with the young folk I am. All seemed well until I tried them on and realised I had missed another fashion diktat of the past while. All items of clothing that aren't specifically body-con must be empire line...


Being not very tall (despite what random strangers tell me) and blessed with a pair of ribs a grasshopper would envy, empire line is the least flattering style possible on me, despite my apple shape. Since my ribs are not the narrowest part of my torso and I have a bust, the gold lurex vest with a cunningly disguised waistband made me look like a Spacehopper dressed as Studio 54 for Halloween. The classic black tops made me look a good 6 or 7 months pregnant. I don't date enough to have any date outfits in my wardrobe, but even I know that turning up looking like you might be on the hunt for a new daddy for Little Johnny probably isn't the wisest move on a blind date.

Leaving Hennes didn't improve matters much. Every other store was crammed with similarly short, tight, gaudy garments often with equally eye popping price tags for what you get. Structured shoulders and cocoon skirts abounded screaming "I'll be so out of fashion in 3 months' when you looked carefully. Everything was so fucking sparkly Robert Pattinson could hide from even the most rabid Twihard in Topshop. Most clothes looked like they wanted to audition to be Cheryl Cole's outfit on the X Factor. There was a decided self consciously trendy air about everything.

Feeling frumpy, oddly shaped and mightily pissed off, I gave up and went for a drink instead. But if you're in your late 20s or early 30s and don't want to dress like Grazia magazine threw up on you, where the hell do you shop in the UK? Everything is so damned fashionable, but what if you want classic, stylish and flattering without looking like a dedicated follower of fashion? What's a girl to do?






Sunday, 15 November 2009

CRIKEY!


 You may have noticed that the name of Enid Blyton seems to be back in fashion somewhat of late with a new Noddy book and a BBC4 drama starring Helena Bonham Carter making an appearance along with countless articles in the broadsheets. With the exception of the Noddy book, few of these mentions of Enid Blyton are particularly positive. By all accounts, she was a nasty piece of work...


But to me she is the creator of some of my happiest childhood memories as I was an avid reader of her books. In fact the very first proper book I ever remember reading was her Tales of Toyland and Other Stories. It had a lilac hardback cover and set me on a life's love of reading (even if I remember nothing of the actual stories in it!)


Most Saturday mornings, my father would take my brother and me to a local charity bookshop and we would all rummage to our heart's content. I tended to come up with fistfuls of Blyton classics priced around 10p each and would come home with at least 5 pre-loved tales per week. Most of the rest of the weekend was spent curled up somewhere quietly absorbing a world of magical wonderment.


No one could say that Enid Blyton wrote high literature, but she did manage to write gripping books set in a delightfully hypnotic world where children had endless freedom and everything was always spiffing in the end. Growing up in 80s Belfast with its unpredictable political climate and simmering violence made the positively idyllic world of rural England seem utterly beguiling. I was vaguely aware that it was no longer the 1930s and many of the scenarios in her books no longer existed, but that didn't stop my enjoyment throughout the ages.

As a precocious 5 year clutching a compendium of her early tales for children that had belonged to my own mum when she was a child I somehow managed to resist the temptation to be a naughty little shit like Amelia Jane or the aptly named Naughiest Girl in the School. At 6 or 7 I spent a lot of time suggesting my parents give up their city lives so I could prance about the countryside like one of The Children of Cherry Tree Farm since my Wishing Chair didn't seem to work. At age 8 with my newly androgynous first name, I desperately wanted to be George from The Famous Five (but without the dog...)

I devoured far-fetched tales of groups of children who outwitted the adults to foil smugglers, kidnappers, espionage and corruption. Take a team of sharp witted children, add a dog/parrot/monkey as appropriate, include a slow witted local bobby on the beat and some wily criminals, make sure the children's guardians are conspiciously absent and you're good to go whether it was the Five Find Outers outwitting PC Goon, the Secret Seven foiling a plot to dye a racehorse in order to kidnap it or the Adventure children saving the Island of Gloom from copper thieves.

If I wanted variation from this tried and tested formula, I simply reached for one of her equally famous school stories and lapped up tales of midnight feasts, lacrosse sticks, straw boaters and jolly japes at the expense of Mam'zelle instead. How pedestrian my school seemed in comparison to Malory Towers or St Clare's without its own swimming pool hewn from rock or stables to board one's horse! I wanted to spend time with the impossibly adult sounding Darrell Rivers and O'Sullivan twins in glorious England where everyone was so proper and polite and rode a bicycle with a basket on the front. It never occurred to me that these were 11 year old girls sent away from home to a freezing stone edifice with only a tin of sardines for excitement...

It also never entered my slightly giddy head that there were other enormous flaws in these seemingly delightful books. Everyone was stunning privileged with the money to travel widely, pay for boarding school and keep large numbers of staff who seemingly raised the children in between baking a nice cherry cake. Poor people were seen as ragamuffins, crooks or gypsies. Children were called Fatty or Snubby after physical characteristics. People with learning disabilities were openly mocked or described as madmen. Americans were brash and loud. The Spanish were flighty and hotheaded. Other foreigners were suspect in myriad ways that were declared in the haughtily imperialist tones of one who approved of the colonies.

I cringe in horror when I think back to how black people were regarded in Enid Blyton's books. Despite growing up in an almost universally white country, I felt uncomfortable without really knowing why when I read about her living black characters. Between Enid Blyton and Robertson's jam I was utterly oblivious to golliwogs being anything other than a type of toy no one seemed to have anymore. I don't think I absorbed any of her bigotry or racism whilst in my liberal middle class 80s upbringing, but I would feel extremely embarrassed allowing a modern child to read such things and see what was once regarded as no big deal...

In fact despite how much I loved Enid Blyton's books, I'm not sure I could go back and re-read them with a more discerning adult eye due to the casual racism, astounding classism and (whisper this) the fairly mediocre calibre of writing. I think I might prefer to simply cast a nostalgic eye back over my own memories (often drunkenly with friends of a similar age and background) and revel in those instead of re-visiting the books themselves. Or I might take the risk and dip into the beautiful hardback copies of the Adventure series that still reside in my mum's house. Pity I'll have to find the secret passage to get at them!


Monday, 9 November 2009

LOVE'S YOUNG DREAM...



I attended a friend's wedding not so long again and it was a lovely day watching two people close to me declare their love to each other. It was also extremely trying to spend the day as the only single person in the entire room...

Every single conversation revolved around that special someone, usually before branching off to involve babies, career plans and mortgages that could happen because of that special someone. Not much mutual ground for a childless, single unemployed 30-something who rents.

I didn't feel too bad about the renting (especially after hearing the size of some people's mortgage payments), but despite normally feeling perfectly fine about being single I came away feeling disturbingly like a cross between Carrie Bradshaw and an Old Maid and promptly joined OKCupid.

I'm not quite sure what I expected, but seeing so many myriad people who had found love and security reminded even the cynical old me that such things aren't actually fantasy. With visions of greener grass online, I picked a perky screename, found a photo of me smiling and waited to see how things would pan out. Sadly no one online seemed to be on quite the same page...

Messages from bisexual men looking for other men filled my inbox. I removed the picture of me with a pixie cut. Interest from men in their 50s and 60s rolled in. I checked the 29-35 box so many times I developed RSI. Several people enquired after my spiritual needs. I prayed they would leave me alone.

Determined not to be one of those passive women who never seizes the day, I browsed the many men available and added a selection of handsome young things to my favourites list. I read their profiles carefully and messaged several. None bothered to reply. Yet for each interesting man I messaged, an entirely different slightly kinky, invariably creepy man would write to me. It was like a penpal scheme with trainee serial killers. After being told I looked like the kind of girl whose nipples would look good covered in blood, the grass online looked less like lush meadow and more like it had been the victim of a weedkiller accident.

I stopped checking my inbox with anything other than a sense of dread. What lunacy and bad spelling would each new day bring? But I persisted and finally started chatting with a guy who seems engaging and a good laugh. Faith in humanity has been restored. We're going on a first date this week. On Friday the 13th...so keep your fingers crossed for me!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

DRIVING ME NUTS...



Unlike most people my age, I cannot drive a car...but recently I have been toying with rectifying this. I flit between thinking this is the most independent thing I could do and gut wrenching anxiety at the thought of controlling a tonne of speeding metal, mixed with a splash of embarrassment that something others find so easy is beyond me.


I was heartened by the recent Guardian article by Hannah Pool describing her attempts to learn to drive aged 35. Older, cooler people with proper jobs also haven't grasped this seemingly basic skill and are willing to take to the crazed streets of London to learn. Surely I could do the same?