Saturday, 11 March 2017

23 going on...

What do you do when you're 23, and you feel like you're getting old?

When you're genuinely upset because you couldn't complete yesterday's Evening Standard crossword, but then you completed the sudoku in record time and set the world to right. When your idea of a perfect Friday night is cooking a jambalya so hot that it'll destroy your mouth ulcer, and binge watching 5 hours of Broadchurch in your pyjamas. When you can't help but stop and look in the window of every estate agent you pass, and discuss house prices / home interiors / value for money with whoever is lucky enough to be with you. When all you want is some fresh herbs to make your kitchen look homely and rustic, but you killed your coriander...your peppermint...and there's bugs eating your basil. When you have no choice but to wear 2 pairs of socks everywhere otherwise you'll end up with chill blains. When it feels like everyone around you is getting married, having babies and buying houses and your main priority is investing in a garden trowel. When you need 8 hours sleep a night (every night). When you bought Fruit Polos to try and restore your youth, and half a packet gave you toothache for 3 days. When you look forward to a Monday evening watching The Martin Lewis Money Show, and dedicate time to researching mortgages you have no deposit to complement. When it's 10pm on a Saturday night and you're on your fifth cup of ginger tea, and twenty third game of Tetris.

We all spend such a long time wanting to grow up, to be older, to have more independence. Now, adulthood, age, impending maturity feels like it's coming at me at 100 miles an hour. And I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. One minute I was being told what to do, and when to do it and now someone expects me to understand my electricity meter and lifetime ISAs. In the last 5 months, we've seen 4 friends get engaged and start planning their weddings, and others house hunting. To buy. In London. A feat I never thought possible for anyone in their twenties, not being supported by millionaire parents or a hefty inheritance. I feel confident and happy in a job where I'm learning new things, but I'm ever more aware that this is the beginning of maybe another 45 years at work. In so many ways, everything feels like it's coming round so quickly, and there's no going back. In others, there feels as if there is many more years of adult, of weddings, and electricity meters, and feeling guilty for not buying organic veg ahead of me. 

And in the midst of this, it's easy to forget the ways in which you're still young; the ways in which you're getting a bit old, but not that old. Like the joy you get from having a slush puppy, or having Pom Bears as part of your packed lunch at work everyday. And how your metabolism is still on your side, and you eat quite a lot of cake and never really put on any weight. That it's still perfectly acceptable to wear a mini skirt for, at the very least, another 7 years. And that it's ok for you not to know things; for people to accept that you're quite new to this, and happily explain things to you. To have, comparably, very few responsibilities and to be able to go out when you want and do, budget dependent, what you want without having to ask your mum...or get a babysitter. And to get a Deliveroo because you're not doing Weight Watchers, or trying really hard to save for a house deposit/wedding/baby, but you're too tight to go out and fork out for restaurant drinks. 

Perhaps the best part of all is the fact this is a transition period of your life, and you have the opportunity to make of it what you want. Your Saturday can be spent playing Mario Kart on your Nintendo Switch and eating fishfingers, and your Sunday can be spent at an engagement party and making packed lunches and freezer meals for the week. You have the people around you to push you when you need it, to start saving for a deposit or go to the gym. But you're free enough to do it on your own terms, saving for your summer holiday first and timing your weekly gym date with your weekly dinner date (...because you're already out, so why not make the most of it?!) You don't have to pretend you want to go out clubbing anymore, because you could be too old for that, but you also get IDed everywhere you go (for alcohol, paracetemol, a Pritt stick) and you're reminded that it's only 5 years ago since you started having all these grown up privileges. By the time the UK Disneyland is built you might have a kid but, by then, we might have also developed an immortality drug and then there'll be no rush to properly grow up anyway. 

It's a funny old time, and especially when you look like a teenager, you're actually in your twenties, you have the lifestyle aspirations of someone middle aged, but share a lot of the same interests (and a bedtime) with pensioners. But I figure we're all making it up as we go along. For some of us, being an adult is a new promotion, an engagement ring, or buying a house. For others, it's buying nail scissors without getting IDed, keeping your peace lily alive for 3 years, and perfecting your jacket potato technique. Somewhere, sometime, they might intertwine - but until that time comes, I'll be here, trying to work out if I can get a G&T on Uber Eats, making an Instagram account for my adopted orangutan and planning my engagement party outfit for tomorrow. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Speaking out

In a week where we’ve had the national days of strawberries, the tooth fairy and tartar sauce (big days for us all, I know), I want to focus on two slightly more notable events: Mental Health at University Day and National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. For some, the two will be inherently related – and many of us will be able to relate to either one, be it through personal experience, or supporting a friends/family/colleagues/housemates. I’ve spoken about generalised anxiety and PTSD on my blog before, but perhaps not about how it can manifest itself, how it can be connected to other disorders – and I think that’s something that’s very individual.

My anxiety came after an accident, during a time of loneliness, total lack of direction and stress of impending university exams. It crept up on me when I wasn’t expecting it – having always been confident, independent, and never having had any problems with anxiety in my childhood or teenage years. I had a handful of panic attacks, and constant nausea. I felt on edge all the time, and I found it difficult to switch off, be by myself, or everyday tasks I’d never given much thought to. Whilst I would never claim to have had an eating disorder, my anxiety gradually became associated with control over food. I felt like I had to eat at certain times (i.e. at least an hour before I needed to leave the house), eat the same things, and became quite obsessive about the meals I felt were ‘safe’ to eat. In more recent times, I’ve been diagnosed with a dairy intolerance (and a slightly gluten intolerance), which I’m sure was tied up with it all – but the symptoms were hugely exacerbated by worry. If I had a big commitment the next day, I felt like I needed to eat something small and plain the night before; I hated eating outside the house; and going to a restaurant for a meal, where other people would notice if I didn’t eat much, and unsure how I would react to the foods, was my worst nightmare. I didn’t fear eating because I wanted to lose weight, or because I was unhappy with how I looked; I feared it for how it made me feel (or how I thought it did), and for how it had become a mechanism for control at a time when I felt entirely powerless over almost everything else.

This was during my second year of university: my dissertation proposal was due, I had two essays to finish (and both hands in huge bandages) and 6 exams to prepare for. And so I applied for some support from university: an extension on my essays, and some support from the psychological services. My extension was denied, and the psychological services replied to me a month later (in April) to tell me there would not be any availability for support until at least December. Luckily I was fortunate enough position, supported by friends and family, to find and finance support elsewhere (because my NHS 10 month waiting list was not sufficient either) – but not everyone is in that position, and there are plenty of people out there more desperate than I have ever been. I appreciate that the demand on university mental health services is greater than ever, but the absolute inability to provide services for people who actively seek them is, frankly, unacceptable. Where students are unable to get any support from their department, a place on an 8 month waiting list might just come too late. The only support I did receive (after 3 doctors letters, 2 visits to a university doctor and numerous emails to the UCL Student Disability services) was an allowance in my exams to ‘take a break’, have the timer stopped, if I needed to stand up and move from the damage my accident had caused to my back. Whilst better than nothing, I became acutely aware that physical symptoms were taken much more seriously than mental ones. Some students had permission to sit their exams away from their course mates, with me, in the ‘disabled unit’ – but this involved creating a group of students who suffered from panic attacks, and putting them all in a room together, creating the most uncomfortable and disruptive environment of tension, fear and absolute lack of understanding. The ‘support’ was SO tokenistic, and so inconsiderate, fundamentally failing to really deal with the individuals’ difficulties. And everyone put up with it, because there were no other options.

If no one ever talks about it, and if no one ever complains and campaigns for things to be better, they never will be. Some people are in a position to be the change – they’re ashamed, they’re embarrassed, they’re hiding – and we owe it to all those people, whose struggles we can identify, or at least empathise, with to drive the change they need. So whether you’ve ever called in sick with a migraine because you couldn’t admit to your boss that you were riddled with anxiety; repeatedly skipped your lectures because being in a busy room, unable to escape without drawing attention to yourself; or starved yourself, or binged, or used food as an unhealthy mechanism to deal with something owe it to yourself, your future self, to talk to someone about it – and to be supported in that journey. Today I can eat lunch at work without thinking about it, look forward to a meal out with friends, and experiment with new things without being petrified for days in advance. Mental health, psychological disorders...they don't come in boxes. It doesn't always matter what you 'have', but how you feel. Because changing how you feel will change your life. 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

February: At the Theatre

Living in one of the theatre capitals of the world, this would be the year that I would make the most of it. Be it watching a 5 minute snippet of new writing in a crowded cafĂ©, embracing amateur theatre, or treating myself to a seat at a West End show, London is bursting with opportunities to engage with the stage. My interest (and bank balance) in the last couple of years has been primarily afforded to musicals; I feel like if I’m going to pay £40 for a seat, I want to see a show. I want songs and dancing and an impressive set, and I want to leaving feeling warm and uplifted and singing catchy tunes for days after. Maybe it’s a new found maturity, or maybe it’s gradual disappointment with the superficiality of some musical theatre, that’s made sickly sweet ballads just too nauseating and pushed me back into the realms of cold, hard plays. And it’s been one of my most fulfilling months of theatre yet.

Ok, so there were songs in this one…recorded and performed…but it wasn’t actually a musical. Written and performed by two creative and funny women, I’ve had the privilege of seeing this play evolve over the last couple of months into the heart-warming and hilarious piece it is today. SPLIT is about the power of having, and being, a best friend, and the development of that relationship from your first day at secondary school, through your teenage years, to adulthood. It’s brilliance lies in its realism, and the ability of every girl (and some boys!) in the audience to say ‘yes! I remember that’ – be it a traumatic experience with tampons…or a boy, or the pill. Each scene change was complemented by a song that inevitably reminded you of your teenage years (Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson…you know the rest), which really complemented the comedy, maintaining an upbeat and involved audience throughout. I was massively impressed at what Emma & Tamar had managed to do in the evenings and weekends I’d just spent scrapbooking and binge watching Billions, and I can’t wait to see where they take it next. Keep your eyes peeled for the best comedy duo since Dick ‘n Dom in Da Bungalow.

T H E . G L A S S . M E N A G E R I E
love Tennessee Williams, and I’d never seen The Glass Menagerie. So when I found out that it was doing a 3 month stint at the Duke of York’s and it was being directed by John Tiffany, I got myself some tickets. The morning before we were due to see the play and Simon asked ‘is it going to be depressing, because I’m fed up of depressing stuff?’ I was worried. Williams is not exactly known for his feel-good uplifting work, but I used the words moving, thoughtful and challenging as a distraction. And actually, I was right. It was a beautiful performance, and a prime example of the way Tiffany captivates an audience so well. Cherry Jones played a fantastic ‘mother’ character, worrisome and vexatious, but well-meaning and with perfect comedic injection. Tom (Michael Esper) and Laura (Kate O’Flynn) have very different problems of their own, and wonderfully created a melting-pot of love, guilt, fear and loss in this suffocating space. What I love about Tennessee Williams is that, often, not very much happens in his plays – but that they’re about memory, and people, and relationships. The Glass Menagerie succeeds at creating and truly delving into characters through a seemingly simple, but moving and intricate story. It was the best piece of theatre I’ve seen in a long time, and would absolutely recommend you try and catch it before it ends in April.

T H E . K I T E . R U N N E R
I think I was about 14 when I first read The Kite Runner, and it’s always stuck with me as one of those books that really made me think and feel, and sparked my interest in literature set in the Middle East. It felt like one of those novels that would make a good play or film, and when its 11 week run in the West End was announced, I was excited to see it. And it wasn’t really what I expected – in some ways – but that’s not to discredit it. I can only describe it as a cross between a narrative and a play. Whilst there were extended periods of immersion, the story being played out in front of you, there was also a lot of telling, as though someone was narrating their life story to you. If I’m being brutally honest, I could have done with a bit more showing than telling; but it was an interesting adaptation, and perhaps emphasised the stark normalisation of abuse, war and separation in times and places not too distant from us. My memory of the story was blurry in places, and that definitely added to my enjoyment of the play. I knew what was going to happen without knowing exactly, and remained shocked and touched and disgusted by all the scenes and characters I was supposed to be. There is definitely value in not knowing with this story. The character development, and the acting, really was faultless, and I loved the decision not to include children in the play – rather using infantile language and movement to indicate the growing of the characters. The broken, yet unbreakable, friendship between Amir and Hassan was portrayed beautifully, and established a really interested platform from which to compare all the other relationships in the play. It’s not the most conventional piece of theatre, but in its understated interpretation lies it power, its charm and its horror. 
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