Category Archives: Introspection

The Tyranny of Clothing Sizes

I can’t remember how much, if anything, I’ve written about this. That is the problem with keeping a blog for 6 years that is primarily focused on your mental state. You think you have a break through and then, disturbingly, you look through your old pages and realise that you had the SAME break through at least 4 years ago and STILL NOTHING HAS CHANGED. It’s like a really long-form version of Groundhog Day.

But, I’ve done a quick scan of the related pages and can’t find anything similar, so I guess I’ll just dive on in.

So, look. I’m going to lay it out straight for you. From the age of 15 until around the age of 27, I had some pretty serious issues with food. I starved, binged, purged and choked down increasingly strange, unhealthy and quite frankly, disgusting, meals (plain carrot and celery sticks with an entire bottle of red wine, what could possibly go wrong?) in various patterns and variations for a good 12 years. My weight fluctuated up and down within a 26kg range. There were periods of stability when I would be able to buy clothes without worrying they wouldn’t fit in two months time and there were times when I was at risk of my arse breaking out of my jeans because I was too ashamed to buy a pair two sizes larger.

I don’t know really know what started it all. My justification has always been that I wanted to be an actress and actresses are skinny (yes, I should be using ‘actor’, but this is, I think, a particularly gendered problem. Not to say that men don’t get eating disorders, but the fact that I wanted to be an ‘actress’ and not an ‘actor’ is significant to me and this particular problem). And, to be honest, the times when I gave up on acting (or, at least, gave up on being a particular type of actor), were the times that I had the healthiest relationship to food over that 12 year period. But, the justification doesn’t quite hold up when I look back over the facts. I was 50kg at the age of 15, which, I knew, was the same weight as Jennifer Aniston (I used to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the weight of actresses. Oh, the wasted brain space). So, I was ostensibly the ‘perfect’ size, because Jennifer Aniston was my ideal. Not because I thought she was a great actress. But definitely because I thought she was successful and popular and we had the same name and that must mean something. In spite of this, my brain went, ‘you want to be an actress? Actresses are skinny. Actresses diet. You need to go on a diet. You should be extra skinny, just to be on the safe side. Be so skinny no one could ever call you fat. Have some skinny in reserve.’ My brain viewed losing weight in the same way that financial planners look at saving for retirement. The more the better.

financial-planner

‘See, the thing is, that if you lose weight, you’ll be skinnier. And the more weight you lose, the skinnier you’ll be! Great, right?’ found here

I didn’t know much about nutrition at that age. And, it’s hard to remember what I did or didn’t know at the time, because my brain has been stuffed to the brim with competing diet information and weight loss plans ever since. But, I think I was fairly ignorant of calories, fat, how your body reacts to hunger, how your body reacts to starvation, how much of anything you should have in one day – aside from some vague awareness of the food pyramid. I felt like it was going to be pretty easy. I would just stop eating. That was what I would do. Just, stop eating.

Of course, things weren’t actually that simple and hunger is awful and I didn’t want to argue with my Dad about not eating dinner and so what ended up happening was a starvation through the day and a binge at night. To my absolute horror, I started to put on weight. 10kgs in a year. Of course, there’s the possibility that I was going through puberty and I would have put on 10kgs even if I hadn’t screwed with my eating. But, to my mind, that year and those 10kgs were my fault. This was my (very public) shame to bear. It was my massive failure. If only I hadn’t been so stupid with my eating. If only I had stayed a size 8. If only I hadn’t done this to myself. My life would be so much better. Everything would have worked out. I’d be a successful actress. That guy I really liked would like me back. I’d be super impressive (not so clear on the details). Everyone would love me. If only, if only, if only. Surely the solution was another huge diet and to finally get back to 50kgs again.

Whenever I started talking about food or diets, one of my therapists would always say, ‘I don’t want to talk about food. I don’t want to talk about diets. What you’re feeling and the problems you’re having is nothing to do with food.’ It used to annoy me. I wanted to talk about food all the time. I wanted to talk about what a terrible person I was for eating two slices of cake instead of one (or none!) the night before. I wanted to talk about how anxious it had made me. I wanted to talk about my desire to throw it all up. I wanted to talk about my misery/triumph/anxiety that I hadn’t gotten it all out of me after I had thrown it all up. This all seemed like excellent fodder for therapy, why wouldn’t she let me talk about it? But, the point she was trying to make was that all the anxiety about being skinny was masking something else, something bigger and that was what she wanted to talk about. She didn’t want me to list calories, she wanted me to list anxieties.

A few years ago, I got pretty exhausted from being on a diet for the majority of my adult life. I happened to consider myself to be obscenely ‘large’ at the time and giving up on the dream of weight loss was less to do with giving myself a break (‘hey, you’re pretty great just the way you are’) and more to do with giving up on myself entirely (‘you’ve completely failed to achieve this one simple goal, why waste any more time on it, you’re clearly a loser’). Luckily, it has had kind of the same outcome. The diet obsession is gone and doesn’t seem to  be coming back anytime soon. I see my anxiety and self-hatred for what it is. That doesn’t mean I have much better control over it or am nicer to myself, but at least I don’t believe there’s a magic life reset button if I can just get back down to 50kgs.

magic-button-prew

If only it were that simple. Found here

But I find that my thinking still, often, goes down paths that I don’t want it to. Even though I haven’t had the desire to diet in a good 5 years, my brain retains some of the habits of the 12 years before it. Here are some of the ways I can’t seem to shake that disordered eating/thinking.

1) I’m still weirdly (and ashamedly) proud that I was anorexic

After the first year or two of disordered eating in my teen years, I went to Norway and developed fairly typical bulimia. Starving, then massive binges and then purges, sometimes two or three times in one day. And, amongst all that hideous turmoil, I was beating myself up because I was bulimic, not anorexic. I had lost the eating disorder lottery! If only I was a better person, then I would have been anorexic. I was such a second-rate human that even my eating disorder was second-rate!

I’ve since found out that is a common feeling amongst bulimics. So, you can imagine my delight when I finally hated myself enough to successfully starve myself for a good 6 – 7 months in a row. Hooray! Now I had the set!

I’m fully aware of how fucked up this thinking is and, I’m not suggesting I *should* be proud that I was anorexic. But there is still a tiny part of me that feels some kind of weird relief over the fact that I wasn’t *just* bulimic. I was anorexic too.

2) Clothes sizes are the worst

Worrying about clothing sizes was always the companion piece to worrying about food. Each size has a huge amount of emotional baggage. Of course, that’s the case for most women. It’s been pretty well established that women’s clothing sizes are fucked. Established in 1959, the Australian standard for clothes sizes was based on data from a 1926 study of women conducted by underwear manufacturer Berlei and some US Department of Commerce Standards. There were all sorts of problems with the way they got these measurements, starting with the fact that it was mainly poor, white women who were measured (potentially undersized because of starvation or poor nutrition) and that the measurements were primarily interested in bust size – they just assumed you had an hourglass shape underneath it.  So, we have a warped system to begin with and then clothing stores adjust their sizes according to how they want women to feel and how many of each size they sold in the previous year. So, if they see that more women are buying a size 12, then, hey presto! The year after, what was a size 12 is now a size 10, because women are more likely to buy a piece of clothing if they’re feeling better about themselves and what makes women feel better about themselves? That they’ve unexpectedly lost weight and a dress size. Which is fine, until you go into the next store and they have a different sizing system and suddenly you’re a size 14 and everything is terrible (please note that I’m not suggesting everything is actually terrible if you are a size 14. I’m saying this is how we’re trained to think and how the fashion industry views our bodies and I’m also saying that this lack of consistency amongst sizes is confusing and can be distressing if you’re already anxious about this kind of thing).

My relationship to clothes was almost as screwed up as my relationship to food. I would buy clothing that didn’t fit me so I would have something to aspire to – ‘if you just lose weight, you’ll be able to wear that beautiful dress that you love and have never worn’. I would keep pieces of clothing that I used to fit into (size 8s, small size 10s) and whenever I was feeling skinny (whenever I was feeling good about myself), I would take them out and try to squeeze into them and when it didn’t work I would resolve, again, to eat less and exercise more and be a better person. I would wear clothes that were too small for me for months because I could not deal with the fact that I had put on weight and besides which, I was definitely about to lose weight, as soon as this new diet/starvation routine started to work and I couldn’t bear to go into the store and buy something that actually fit me because it would have the wrong number in the label (size 14, size 12) and, besides, I’d be skinny in just a few weeks, honest, honest, and then I would have wasted all my money. I would buy clothing that was just slightly too small for me and choose to wear it even though it was uncomfortable and tell myself that the waistline already cutting into my stomach fat would remind me not to eat too much when I was out. It was a kind of exquisite torture.

My weight has slowly and naturally fell as my relationship to food has normalised. I’ve come back to a weight that seems natural to me, in that my body keeps returning to it over the years and it luckily corresponds to a clothes size I can bear. But I still have issues in clothing stores. I have to be in a pretty strong state of mind to buy a piece of clothing marked ‘Size 12’ or ‘Medium’. It doesn’t matter how much I like the piece of clothing, how comfortable it is, if I’m already feeling vulnerable that day, I will refuse to buy the clothing. I bought two pairs of jeans recently from Muji (which is what started this whole blog post in the first place). They had a sizing system that I had never seen before – inches, rather than 10, 12, 14 or Small, Medium, Large. It was the first time I was able to buy clothing based entirely on how they felt and how they looked, because I had no emotional connection to what size I wanted to be – it was so relieving. So freeing! Instead of going to the clothing racks with a feeling of rising panic and thinking, ‘Well, I should be a size 10′ and then seeing if I can squeeze into that size or not and then, if I can’t, refusing, point blank, to try the size up because if that fit, what would it possibly mean? Of course, now that I have an idea of what size I *should* be in Muji, if it ever changes… well, let’s just hope it never changes.

3) I’m supremely uninterested in your diet/weight loss/exercise/wellness routine or your anxiety around it

I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t care about you. It’s not that I’m not happy that you’re happy that you’ve found something that works for you. It’s simple self-preservation. I’ve read about, tried, and failed enough diets to fill a hundred lifetimes. If you convince me that you’ve finally found the golden ticket – the diet that works – you’ll just be leading me back down that 12 year old, well-trodden path of thinking that if I can just, somehow, get back to 50kgs, if I can just, somehow, reset my life to 15 years old again, everything would work out differently. I cannot allow myself to be interested in diets. I cannot allow myself to be interested in calorie counting, fat watching, gluten-free, lactose-free, coconut water, high-protein, low-carb, sugar free, 3 meals a day, 6 meals a day, the 5-2 program, only choc-chip muffins on a Sunday and blueberry ones every second Friday, whatever the hell it is that you’ve discovered. It might work for you. That doesn’t mean it works for me. Telling me about the diet and encouraging me to try it is akin to saying to a recovering drug addict that they can try just a taste of their old crutch and nothing bad will happen this time, this time everything will be a-ok.

On a related note, I struggle to react correctly to the fact that you’ve put on weight, or lost weight. I’m too busy telling myself it doesn’t matter and I don’t need to get worried. I don’t like to be told that I’ve lost weight. I know that sounds like a ‘nice’ thing to do, but it will only demonstrate that people judge bodies and, more specifically, that they see my body and they judge it too (even if it doesn’t matter to you, even if you wouldn’t think I was a bad person for putting on weight, you’ve still noticed that it’s gotten bigger or smaller). This will only serve to reawaken the part of my brain that thinks weight and diet are acceptable things to worry about. You might be worried about your weight for health reasons (though there’s plenty of evidence that maybe you shouldn’t be so worried), that’s completely fine and you do you. But I cannot listen to you worry about it.

I try to think in broad generalisations. ‘I’m going to try and eat more vegetables.’ ‘I’m going to try and find better protein sources than just cheese.’ ‘I’m going to try and drink a little less alcohol and a little more water.’ ‘I’m going to make sure I don’t eat the same thing, day in, day out.’ Broad generalisations are good for me, because when I come home exhausted one night and only want to eat cheese pizza with two ciders, I don’t freak the fuck out. Diets and wellness have rules. They have absolutes. Sugar is evil. Gluten is poison. I don’t care how ‘easy’ your particular rules are to follow, I will inevitably fail at some point and then the question becomes, what do I do to make up for this failure? How do I atone? I’m a terrible black and white thinker with tendencies towards catastrophizing, it’s never just, oops, I was so hungry that I ate three slices of bread instead of two, guess I’ll do better tomorrow, no, it’s the END OF THE GODDAMN WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.

end-world-newspaper

It doesn’t start with an earthquake, it starts with Jenny EATING A BISCUIT. Found here 

4) Hunger is very confusing to me

People with eating disorders are often disconnected from their bodies. You spend most of your life trying to ignore or distort the feelings that you are having, whether or not that’s hunger, anger, sadness, anxiety, love or something else. People recovering from eating disorders tend to have real difficulty knowing what, when and how much to eat. When you take away all the rules of what you should and shouldn’t eat and just say, ‘What would you like to eat?’ a person recovering from an eating disorder may not know. They may not know what a craving for a particular food feels like. They may not remember what hunger feels like, or what being full feels like.

I’m pretty good at figuring out what I like to eat these days. But I still, very often, miss the signs of hunger. Headaches, fatigue, anger, sadness, hyperactivity, being super jittery, all of these things mask my real and actual hunger. Alex will have to point out that he thinks I’m feeling hungry. I have to rely on someone else to point out that I’m hungry! This is ridiculous. Ridiculous! Happily, I do feel that every day I am getting better at noticing. On the flip side, if I work out that I’m hungry, if I get the rumbling in the stomach, there is absolutely nothing that anyone will be able to do to stop me from focusing entirely on the horrible sensation until it has been resolved.

5) I’m super bad at sharing

When I was counting calories obsessively, it was hugely important to me that I knew exactly how much food went into my mouth on a particular day. So, if people offered me a ‘taste’ of their food because I had expressed admiration of what it looked like (‘ooh, that looks yummy’), I would refuse Every. Single. Time. I did not know how many calories were in that taste. I couldn’t calculate the calories in 4 lentils, a cashew and a piece of sweet potato. Who did they think I was?

Conversely, if I was eating something and someone expressed a desire to taste it, panic would immediately grip my stomach. These are my calories! I have carefully counted them and arranged them into my day! I can’t give them my calories! I got very good at surviving on huge quantities of low-calorie food (which is why I once turned yellow from eating too much pumpkin and too many carrots), but if I had decided to indulge in 100 calories of salt and vinegar rice crackers, then I wanted Every. Last. Calorie. There was no guarantee I’d be allowing myself food later in the day or in the days to come. I had relented and given myself food at this point, so it should all be mine, mine, mine!

While I’m way better than I was, I still slip into this mindset when I’m very, very hungry. I essentially go into starvation mode and think that I’ll never be full, ever again, oh god, how will the hunger ever end. Do not ask me for some of my food at the start of a meal when I am in this mode. Wait until I’m halfway through and have realised I’ll never finish three vegetable samosas, two naan breads, a pile of rice and two curries all on my own. Then I’ll be happy to share.

roneating

Can’t talk. Eating. Found here

On a related note, do not ask me to order two meals with you and we can share. Do not suggest we split a slice of cake for dessert. Again, while this used to be about making sure I knew exactly how many calories I had consumed, these days it’s about the opposite. I do not want to share your rocket salad. If I want cake, I’m eating the whole thing. I goddamn hate Tapas, everyone uses it as an excuse to under eat. Don’t try and limit me to the number of calories that you want to eat so you feel like you’re not missing out. Even if that’s not what it’s about, that’s how I’ll feel. I’m going to choose exactly what I want to eat and I’m going to eat it all and no-one, least of all me, is going to judge me (unless, of course, it’s a situation like above and you’ll get half my meal halfway through)

6) Large meals are a massive comfort

My stomach still kind of doesn’t trust my brain. It’s not convinced that my brain won’t, some day soon, turn around and announce that it will be starving my stomach once again, in a new and exciting way that will be certain to work this time around.

Additionally, a lot of experts and sufferers of eating disorders equate food with love. A lot of people who don’t even have disordered eating equate food with love. It’s about caring for yourself, it’s also about indulging yourself. So, every time my stomach gets to eat, and gets to eat as much as it likes, that is a happy moment. That is a moment that tells me I am still feeling healthy, that I am still looking after myself. I cannot abide snacking. Forcing yourself to eat when you’re not hungry just so you can eat a smaller meal later on sounds far too much like a controlling diet to me. I like to wait until I’m certain I’m hungry and then just eat until I can’t eat anymore. That is comforting. That makes me feel happy and looked after and loved and not judged.

 

I was talking things over with a doctor recently and she pointed out that it’s fantastic that despite the stress of the past few years, I haven’t reverted back to old habits in the form of disordered eating. And she’s right. I don’t really know how it’s happened (oddly, it seems to have happened when I wasn’t looking, when I wasn’t focusing on it), but I do seem to have overcome the worst of it.

But, I am still surprised sometimes by the weird leftover thoughts from that period of time. They are quieter. They are less powerful, less sinister. But they are still there. I hope, some day, they might be gone entirely.

 

 

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Things I Worry About at 3am

  1. Is my hair falling out?
  2. What will I do if all my hair falls out?
  3. Oh god, I’ll be so ugly.
  4. I’ll have to buy a lot of colourful scarves.
  5. I don’t know how to tie scarves on my head!
  6. What if I learn how to tie colourful scarves on my head and people think that I’m doing it because of cultural appropriation and I’m trying to be cool.
  7. What if I get pregnant and then EVEN MORE of my hair falls out?
  8. What if I have a kid and they’re embarrassed because I don’t have any hair anymore?
  9. What if my hair is falling out because of something in the water?
  10. What if my hair is falling out because of something in the food?
  11. What if my hair is falling out because I have some kind of terrible disease?
  12. What if all my teeth fall out?
  13. What if I die?
  14. Oh god, I have to ring those people in Germany.
  15. Oh god, I don’t want to ring those people in Germany.
  16. Oh god, I’ll have to speak to those people in Germany in German because it’s only polite.
  17. Oh god, I can’t speak German.
  18. Why is German so complicated?
  19. Why do Germans have so many rules that I don’t understand?
  20. Why did I move to Germany?
  21. Why did I sign up to complicated, German contracts when I can’t understand German?
  22. How would I have lived in Germany if I didn’t sign up to complicated German contracts that I didn’t understand?
  23. Oh god, why did I move to Germany?
  24. I have no money.
  25. I can’t do anything ever because I have no money.
  26. I can’t even look for jobs because I don’t have that stupid letter from the Home Office to prove that I’m here legally, even though I’m definitely here legally.
  27. Even if I did have that letter, no-one is offering me any job interviews.
  28. Even if I got some job interviews, they probably wouldn’t hire me.
  29. I’ll probably only get some crappy, dead-end job with no prospects because I’m too old now to start a career.
  30. Oh god, what if I never have a job again.
  31. What if I never have a job ever again and then Brexit happens and the UK catches fire and we don’t have enough money to get back to Australia?
  32. What if we get back to Australia and I can’t find a job there either?
  33. What if we get back to Australia and there’s no water left by the time we get there?
  34. What if my Dad dies in a massive bushfire when I’m overseas?
  35. What if massive climate change occurs and so then planes no longer work and I can’t get to a ship and mobile phones no longer work and the postal service doesn’t exist and I’m stuck in the UK forever and my Dad is in Australia and my brother is in the USA and I never get to see either of them or talk to either of them ever again.
  36. What if A. dies?
  37. What if it’s my fault that A. dies because I didn’t look after him properly?
  38. What if people blame me for A. dying?
  39. What if people tell me I should have looked after A. better?
  40. What if A. dies and all my hair falls out and no-one ever loves me ever again.
  41. Oh god, why did I say that thing to that person today.
  42. Oh god, that person must hate me.
  43. Oh god, maybe I should write to them and tell them that I didn’t mean what I said and I know it was wrong.
  44. Oh god, what if I do that and then they’re really put off by my anxiety.
  45. Oh god, what if everyone is really put off by my anxiety.
  46. Oh god, what if those people want to offer me a job and I don’t know how to do that job.
  47. What if I get in on the first day and they know, straight away, that it was a mistake and then they tell me to leave.
  48. What if they hire me because I said I could do the job and then they get angry at me when they realise I can’t do that job?
  49. Why is my skin so itchy?
  50. Why can’t I stop scratching?
  51. Maybe I’ll scratch off all my skin.
  52. Maybe I’ll scratch off all my hair.
  53. Oh god, everything’s itchy, I can’t lie still because everything itches.
  54. It’s too warm under my blanket.
  55. It’s too cold without my blanket.
  56. My arms hurt lying in this position.
  57. My knees are too bony to lie in this position.
  58. Oh god, I’m feeling nauseous.
  59. Why am I feeling nauseous?
  60. Maybe I have food poisoning.
  61. Maybe I’m going to throw up.
  62. Maybe I’ll throw up all night.
  63. Maybe I’ll be sick tomorrow.
  64. Maybe I won’t be able to do that thing tomorrow that I said I’d do.
  65. Maybe I won’t be able to do that thing tomorrow that I wanted to do.
  66. Maybe I’m pregnant.
  67. OH GOD I DON’T WANT TO BE PREGNANT.
  68. Maybe I’ll have to have an abortion.
  69. Oh god, I don’t want to have an abortion.
  70. Oh god, I don’t want to pregnant.
  71. Oh god, it’s 5am and I’ve been awake for hours and I want to go to sleep.
  72. I think I’ve forgotten how to sleep.
  73. How does a person go to sleep?
  74. Oh god, I can’t lie still and I can’t keep my eyes closed and everything itches and everything’s too hot or too cold and I can’t stop moving and how does anyone do this, I’ve forgotten how to do this.
  75. Maybe I’m too anxious.
  76. Maybe I need to see a doctor.
  77. Maybe the doctor will put me on medications.
  78. OH GOD I DON’T WANT TO BE PUT ON MEDICATIONS.
  79. But does that mean I’m going to be anxious for the rest of my life?
  80. OH GOD I DON’T WANT TO BE ANXIOUS FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE
  81. I just want to sleep.
  82. How do people sleep?
  83. Is my hair falling out?

etc.

etc.

etc.

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Reasons I’ve used not to write

  • I can’t think of anything to write about, so there’s no point in trying
  • Nobody’s asked me to write anything
  • Nobody’s paying me to write anything
  • Nobody’s waiting for me to write anything
  • Nobody’s asked me to collaborate on anything
  • Everything that could be written has already been written
  • Even if I could take something that’s already been written and write about it in a new way, that new way has already been written
  • I’m not creative enough
  • I’m not hard working enough
  • I’m not smart enough
  • I’m not political enough
  • I’m not opinionated enough
  • I’m not thoughtful enough
  • I’m not funny enough
  • I’m not serious enough
  • I don’t read enough books
  • I don’t read enough poetry
  • I don’t listen to enough classical music
  • I don’t watch enough experimental video art
  • Sometimes I use the wrong words for things
  • I’m not Australian enough
  • I’m too Australian
  • I haven’t read Kafka
  • I haven’t read Faulkner
  • I haven’t read Joyce
  • I haven’t read [X]
  • I don’t understand Foucault
  • I watch too much on Netflix
  • I don’t watch enough on Netflix
  • I know too many internet memes
  • I don’t know enough internet memes
  • I don’t have a law degree
  • I don’t have a philosophy degree
  • I don’t have a literature degree
  • I didn’t start young enough
  • I haven’t been given any grants
  • I haven’t won any prizes
  • Ok, I won one prize, but that was ages ago, so it must have been a mistake
  • I don’t have a mission statement for my writing
  • I don’t know why I’m writing
  • I’m a middle class white girl and nobody needs to hear my opinion on anything
  • I’m a middle class white girl and can’t write anything that doesn’t directly involve middle class white girls
  • I’m a middle class white girl and it’s my job, at this point in history, to be quiet
  • There’s too much crap to read in the world anyway, I shouldn’t add more crap to the world’s ‘to read’ pile
  • If I do add more crap to the world’s ‘to read’ pile, then who will read all the crap that has already been written? I should just confine myself to reading other people’s crap and validating that
  •  If I start writing and it’s not immediately good enough to win a prize/be on the BBC/sell a million billion gazillion copies, then there is no point continuing
  • Somebody in the world has to be a grown-up and do all the things that nobody else wants to do. Like, filing.
  • If I write something, maybe people won’t like it
  • If I write something, maybe people will be offended by it
  • If I write something, maybe people won’t understand it
  • If I write something, maybe people will understand it too easily
  • If I write something, maybe people will be neutral about it
  • There are terrible terrible things happening in the world and how can I think about writing when there are such terrible terrible things happening in the world, what’s wrong with me, I should just sit here and think of the terrible terrible things happening forever
  • In 20 years time, the world will end through huge and horrible climate change, so there’s no point in writing anything anyway.

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Reading Deprivation

To fill up my spare hours and to save me from going crazy with the organisation of yet another country move (this is the 4th country move I’ve done in 6 years. Or the 6th city move in 6 years. I think I might need help), I am currently working my way through a book called ‘The Artist’s Way.’ It’s a book that’s meant to help ‘blocked creatives’ (I really, really, really have to work hard at not sneering at that phrase) get past whatever is getting in the way of them making work. There’s all sorts of activities that you do, but the most important are the ‘morning pages’ and the weekly artist’s date. The morning pages are three full pages of writing that you do in the morning time – you get out whatever crap is in your head, or stressing you out and write it down and try to work through it. It’s like a free-form, flow of consciousness diary, I guess. The artist’s date is just doing something every week that is just for you, whatever takes your fancy. So far, I have had an excursion to a falling-down 19th century sanatorium, bought silly stamps at the craft stall, painted ceramics and… this week’s has not yet happened.

I bought the book in Bandon, Ireland (5 moves ago) and started it then, but never made any headway. I think I read the first chapter. This time, I’m being really diligent. It helps that I’m not employed, I guess. Every Wednesday, I read my chapter and then I copy the weekly activities into a little exercise book that I decorated. And when I do my activity, I get a little owl stamp that says ‘Sehr Schön’ on it. I figured it would appeal to the obsessive compulsive child that I am, deep down in my heart. So far, it’s worked very well.

Anyway. The big activity for this week is called ‘Reading Deprivation’. When I first read the phrase, I thought it meant it was going to address the fact that I had been depriving myself of reading and we were going to fix it and I was going to read all the things.

read-all-the-things

ALL THE THINGS! Found here

Of course, it’s the opposite. You’re supposed to deprive yourself of reading all the things. In fact, you are banned, BANNED, from reading anything. ANYTHING.

As I read (ha!) through what I was supposed to do, a genuine feeling of dread crept up on me. How exactly was I supposed to do this? How was I supposed to get all the things done that I needed to get done without reading? The first thing I do every morning (and this is… sad, I grant you) is reach for my computer and check email and check Facebook. I’d like to blame the habit on being in a different country from my family and many friends, but, let’s be honest here. I’d probably do it if I’d never left Australia too.

I had lots of questions about the reading deprivation. Was I allowed to read signs? Recipes? Information on the back of drug packets? Every time I needed to look something up, did I need to get Alex to read it on my behalf and then tell me the salient points? What if he read it wrong? Could I read things that I, myself, had written? Or was I only allowed to write texts and emails and send them into the world with whatever predictive text had decided I wanted to say? Is everyone who ever sent an amusingly suggestive text with a strange predictive text word substitution all doing this reading deprivation activity?? The book did not answer these, or really any, of my questions. In fact, the book is quite vague on most of the details. The author tells us that she’s often called crazy for this particular exercise, there’s always someone who says they can’t do what she’s told them to do. And then they all end up doing it. But, but, but… HOW do they end up doing it? Not everyone is unemployed! How do teachers get away with not reading things for an entire work? Are you allowed to read things if you’re being paid to read them? Where does the ‘no reading’ ban end? What happens if I briefly glance over the toiletries in the shower and my brain accidentally comprehends the word ‘shampoo’? Did I read it? Is the exercise over then? Do I have to start again? Should I just walk through the world with my eyes closed for a week?

I’m beginning to think she left it deliberately vague so that you can make your own mind up about what really is essential reading and what you can do without. That’s my decision, anyway. So, I’ve come up with a few of my own rules. For example, the book was originally written in 1992 and the version I have was re-printed in 2002. So, well before communications were radically altered through social media and text message. So, in the end, I decided that I was allowed to continue reading basic communication texts – things that might have been, back in the day, a phone call – because otherwise life would get really difficult. I’ve also allowed myself to read things online for basic information. For example, Alex and I want to go kayaking tomorrow. I had to research where the kayak rental was. That involved reading websites and I decided that was ok.

You may have also noticed that I’m still updating Facebook. Well, I’m allowed to write. So, I figure, posting on Facebook is ok and responding to people commenting on my post is ok, but scrolling mindlessly through my News Feed is a definite no-no.

Even with these, fairly generous, rules in place, the no reading thing has been difficult and frustrating. It’s also been eye-opening. The amount of hours I spend on the computer just waiting for something to distract me, not even entertain me, just distract me, is kind of terrifying. I’ve gotten into a habit of having the computer open at all times, so that whenever I’m reading or watching something and there’s a reference I don’t get, or there’s a song that I recognise but can’t remember why, I immediately get on the computer to look it up. Sure, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. But, stopping doing it as made me realise how easily distracted I actually am. Sitting down and really focusing on something and committing to not being distracted is actually hard work. That’s why I love reading on the UBahn, or going to the cinema – it’s easier to not be distracted from a movie or a book when I’m not at home, with easy access to the internet. Somewhere down the line, I turned into those dogs from Up and didn’t even notice and also willingly participated in the transformation.

squirrel

Squirrel found here

It’s made me think about lots of things. And not all of them are anti-internet. Like, how did I get information before the internet? I was still a kid, so a lot of the time I just asked my Dad and he knew. I looked up things in our massive Oxford English Dictionary, which was fine for words and things, but not so much for people. I looked things up in my Dad’s old high school Encyclopaedia, but as it was from the 60s, most of the time I did it for laughs and to see people still referring to Russia as the U.S.S.R. There was a reference section of our high school library, where some librarian had carefully cut out newspaper or magazine articles and arranged them alphabetically by subject in horizontal files: Peron, Eva; Peron, Juan. I wonder what happened to all those files. That I now have access to the answer to almost any question I could possibly have is pretty amazing. That I mostly use it to find out what others films a familiar looking actor was in is possibly a waste. That I look up the information and then immediately forget it is probably unsurprising. That not being able to look up the answer to every random question that goes through my brain over the past few days hasn’t resulted in my brain exploding or the end of the world is also telling.

I’ve also discovered I have SO MUCH free time. I know I am currently unemployed, which certainly helps the free time. But, seriously. I can’t think of enough things to do during the day. I’ve actually written myself a list called, ‘Things I Like Doing’ so that if I get bored, I don’t panic and decide there is nothing else to do ever, ever, I’ll be bored forever. I’ve been saying a lot over the past few months that I ‘don’t know what I like anymore’. But part of it was that I just wasn’t bothering to think of things that I liked anymore. I’d come home from work tired and instead of going to the effort of thinking of something I might like to do, I would immediately open the computer and ‘zone out’ for an hour. Hour and a half. Two hours. It was boring. It was frustrating. It was numbing. But as long as things kept changing online there was at least distraction. There was at least something to do. I didn’t have to think too hard and come up with something I might actually like to spend my time doing.

My anxiety levels have also been through the roof over the past two years. I mean, I know, I’ve always been an anxious person. But, there’s been a steady increase over the last little while. And I think part of it has been this underlying feeling that I should always be ‘doing something.’ And, again, online, it is actually possible to always be doing ‘something’. It may or may not be worthwhile ‘something’, but it is, at least, a ‘something’. It might be watching a cat push a dog into a pool (that would be awesome, though, wouldn’t it?) or it might be an 8 page profile of Angela Merkel. But there’s always ‘something’ to do. I find myself going, ‘I’ll just read this and then I’m finished.’ ‘I’ll just watch this and then I’m finished.’ But it never ends, there’s always more clicks, there’s always more suggestions. What exactly did the cat video add to my life? It gave me a cheap laugh, I suppose and we do sometimes need cheap laughs. But if it ends in an hour long cycle of cheap laughs, it’s probably gone on too long. In the last two days, I have, twice, made myself a cup of tea, opened the doors of my balcony and stared at the sky for a good 45 minutes to an hour. I used to love doing things like that. But, I just kind of forgot about it. Because it seemed boring. Because it wasn’t ‘something’. Because it wasn’t as quickly diverting as jumping online.

The whole point of the ‘reading deprivation’ exercise is to stop filling yourself up with things that other people have written or created and start making space to write your own things. I didn’t think it would work. I didn’t think it would work that quickly. But, seriously. When you’ve suddenly got an entire empty afternoon stretching out in front of you and no ability to spend it staring at other people’s lives on Facebook, or even, getting out a new novel and devouring it hour after hour – why not write something? It doesn’t even have to be a good something. It just has to be a something. Because, no matter how relaxing it is to stare at the clouds for an hour, eventually you’re going to get bored. You’re going to get lonely. You’re going to start feeling some things and you’re going to want to deal with those things.

I do hate people who get all ‘holier than thou’, especially when it comes to the internet and mobile phones (ah, the irony of a video, telling you to look up from your mobile, packaged as clickbait), but the last few days have been a goddamn revelation. I knew I spent too much time online and I knew I hated it. But suddenly banning myself from being unproductively online has made me realise just how much time I spend there, how much I don’t enjoy it and all the things I could possibly be doing if I wasn’t on the goddamn internet. I’m not saying I want to go back to the days when I wasn’t able to find out what ‘AIDS’ was by looking in my dad’s 1960s schoolboy encyclopaedia. But, I’m also saying that I want to make sure that the things I do online are done with purpose, have an end point and are an asset to my broader life, instead of an endless cycle of sponsored clicks.

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Filed under Introspection, learning, Random, Theatre, Unemployment

What Do You Want?

One of the awkward parts of heading home over Christmas was the amount of times I had to answer the question, ‘So, are you still acting?’ Because I gave up so many months ago (though, really, if no-ones asking you to audition for anything and you’re not getting paid any actual money, is there anything you’re actually ‘giving up’, really?) and then wrote several blog posts about it and then put those blog posts on Facebook, I kind of assumed everyone would have gotten the message. I mean, obviously my family and friends have all subscribed to my blog and eagerly await each new post, which they then read in minute detail, taking notes so that they can later discuss me and my life choices at some kind of ‘Jenny blog’ reading group they have, right?

RIGHT?

Apparently that is not the case (do they not LOVE me???) Nothing like heading home to have to come face-to-face with a whole bunch of stuff you happily ignore in your fake, not-quite-adult, day-to-day Berlin life.

‘No, I’m not acting anymore.’

‘No, I’m not writing either.’

‘No, no theatre, none at all, absolutely no interest, but, anyways, HOW ARE YOU?’ (Mental note: must get better at effective conversation subject changes)

The next question then is, ‘Well, what are you going to do now?’

To which the response is, ‘I don’t know.’

And, then, inevitably, ‘Well, what do you WANT to do?’

To which the response still is, ‘I. DO. NOT. KNOW.’

Idon'tKnow

DON’T KNOW, DON’T KNOW, DON’T KNOW

This is a troubling answer to a lot of people. Who doesn’t know what they want?

(Side note: I often don’t know what I want, but usually it’s 8pm, I haven’t eaten since lunch and someone is attempting to figure out what restaurant to go to. At which point, my response is to cry until someone finds the largest possible plate of the nearest available food and gives it to me)

See, I knew what I wanted. For many years I knew what I wanted and that was to work in theatre and I didn’t know how that was going to happen, but that’s what I wanted and I was going to make it work. Somehow. Many people told me that was not what I wanted, or I that I shouldn’t want that, or that was a stupid thing to want, or a bad thing to want or blah blah blah and it turns out those many people were right. Kudos to them, I hope you all feel very proud of yourselves and wow, wouldn’t life have been swell if I’d listened to you all. No, really, I’m not bitter at you, I’m bitter at me.

ANYWAY, the main point is that after having given up on that one thing that I actually wanted, I literally am left with nothing else.

That’s rather melodramatic. Of course there are plenty of things that I could do, and, furthermore, have considered doing, but exactly how does one choose between them? When there is no strong feeling guiding you in any direction? My main criteria at the moment is, ‘must not choose wrong thing again,’ which I’m sure you can imagine is fairly crippling. I do have one other main criteria which is, ‘cannot work shitty, casual, low-paid, soulless work anymore’, which is also kind of ephemeral and all-encompassing and, in it’s own way limiting.

Despite my ridiculous amounts of fancy schooling, I am trained in nothing useful and nothing necessary.

And, to have people still asking me the same shitty question that got me into this mess (‘But, what do you WANT to do?’) is just the icing on the cake.

 

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Filed under Berlin, Employment, Introspection, Theatre, Unemployment

3 More Years in Berlin?

So today I got my sponsored work visa to stay in Germany. My youth working holiday visa finished at the start of September (because I am no longer a youth – I am 31 and old according to governments the world over) and the kindergarten that I work for offered to sponsor me so that I could continue working for them.

It was a strange moment when the woman at the Auslanderbehörde (Foreigner’s Registration Office) handed me my passport with the new visa inside. Not least of all because she decided to speak English to me, and I had been pretty certain, up to this point, that all German bureaucrats had to speak German to everyone at all times because they are:

a) working in Germany for the German government and

b) could mistranslate something and then give someone the wrong information and then get the government into a lot of trouble.

That’s a reasonable sounding rationale I made up in my head to explain why everyone in Berlin speaks perfect English except the people in bureaucracy, and especially the people who might need to actually speak a language other than German (for example, at the Foreigner’s Registration Office).

Nevertheless, the strangest thing about getting my visa today was opening up my passport and seeing that, as long as I kept working at the same kindergarten and did nothing else, I could stay in Germany until August 2018.

3 more years.

That seems like a really long time.

Of course, it’s not. The years are going by faster and faster these days (and yet, I still don’t seem to be able to get anything useful done – how did I ever have time to graduate high school and also watch daily episodes of Neighbours and The Simpsons?) and I even have friends with children older than 3 years (which is, incidentally, terrifying) and just next year we’ll have another Australian federal election (though it sometimes seems we have changes of government even more regularly…)

However, for the past 5 years, I’ve been living visa to visa and every time I’ve made a move, it’s for a limited amount of time, usually under 2 years. Ireland was meant to be a year and I stayed for a year and a bit. My UK visa was for 2 years and I stayed for just under that. My original German visa was for a year. And in between times, I’ve had all sorts of other plans that never came to fruition. At some point I was considering moving to Canada for a year. For a couple of months near the end of my UK visa I was coming to terms with the idea that I would have to move back to Australia and deciding what kind of life that was going to be. At the start of my Irish visa I was going to live and work in Cork for 6 months, then hike the whole island of Ireland and some of the UK and then travel home to Australia via the Trans-Mongolian railway (some day, my friends, some day).

This slightly nomadic existence hasn’t always seemed entirely of my own choosing. Once I started I was unable to stop. I collected countries and youth visas the way that children used to collect Pokemon. There was a strange compulsion to the country hopping. Sure there were always reasons for the next country (not least of all because the visa in the last one had run out), but at no point did it seem to enter my head that I could just stop. Go home. Be still and quiet and nest for a while. There was a time limit to the visas I was on (the 30 year limit), which perhaps created the whiff of desperation. There was also a reluctance to return to Australia once I’d gotten out here. Not because Australia is horrible, but because… Australia is far away. And once I’d gotten far away, it seemed like a lot of effort to go back. And to go back to… what, exactly? Yes, my family is there and friends still, but there wasn’t exactly a life that I left behind. I had no job, no career, no house, no pets. I knew I didn’t want to live in Sydney anymore, I probably didn’t want to move back to Newcastle, but there was nothing that said I had to come home. There seemed no reason to end the ‘adventure’.

With a 3 year visa in my hand, the nomadic existence seems to be at an end. I’m not exactly sad. But I’m also not exactly certain about the place that I’ve landed. I came mainly because another visa was at an end. For the first few months I resented being here and that coloured a lot of my initial impressions of the place. My lack of German makes working in a German environment hard – not because I can’t understand instructions or what’s going on around me. But because it makes me feel like a different person – a quiet one, an introspective one, a boring one, someone who sits on the edge of conversations and barely keeps up, instead of someone who actively, happily participates. I’m aware that I want to do *something else* but whether or not that *something else* (whatever it is) is possible in Germany without qualifications or proper German is also up for debate. The German government has opened it’s arms to me, warmly, strangely, unexpectedly, in a way that the Irish and British governments never did, would never do, and yet all I can say is, ‘uh…. I dunno… let me get back to you.’

Obviously just because I have a 3 year visa doesn’t mean I have to stay here. I’m not exactly certain if the constant moving is really at an end. Maybe A. and I will go back to Cambridge in a year (though we also said that a year ago when we first moved to Berlin). Maybe we will move back to Australia so that A. can get acquainted with the poisonous snakes and I can remember all the good things about my home. Maybe I’ll start writing racy historical bodice rippers for the self-publishing arm of Amazon and I can buy A. a run-down Irish castle, who knows? But wherever I end up, this new visa is the end of an era. The youth visas are over. From now on my choices of country will have to be more deliberate and more permanent.

I suppose there’s a comfort in that feeling of permanence, of stability, of knowing where you live and who you live there with and what that place is like, of knowing that things will happen at certain times in certain places, of knowing how to tip and how to buy a travel card, of where to get a good breakfast and where to get a good dinner, on knowing the exact phrasing and intonation on public transport announcements, on having supermarket preferences. The dull bits of life I got bored of in Australia are the things I am now most loathe to lose the next time (if there is a next time) that we move. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old. Or maybe it’s because I’ve worked out what I actually want. Or, maybe it just is what it is and there is no deeper meaning.

I went out looking for adventure and found my ordinary life.

Foreigner Registration Office in Berlin (seriously. This is the place where you go to get visas here. Can you picture this in Australia? Or the UK?)

Foreigner Registration Office in Berlin (seriously. This is the place where you go to get visas here. Can you picture this in Australia? Or the UK?)

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Filed under Introspection, travel

I will write, I will write, I will write….

I’m forcing myself to write today. There are lots of reasons not to write. I’ve been at work all day. I’ve just finished my German course. I’m writing in a café with a new person who I hardly know and it seems strange to sit here, ignoring her and instead delving ever deeper into what I think and how I feel.

Part of me wants to know why I have to write, exactly. I don’t really have a reason, except that I’d gotten into the habit. A. thinks it is good for me. I think there’s part of me that believes that too. It’s like eating your greens. You know there are good general reasons for eating vegetables, but if you were challenged to explain them you’d be at a bit of a loss (they keep regular? Stop you going blind? Make your hair curly? I can’t remember). At the moment, though, writing feels kind of torturous. And slightly embarrassing. It is slightly embarrassing that I keep a blog. If only I kept a diary. Diaries are honest. Diaries are sincere. Diaries are so much more serious for the fact that they contain mysterious unknowns. That people writing them don’t want you to see them – that must mean they’re good! Blogs are inherently performative. The minute you publish something online you are, on some level, begging for people’s interest and approval. Your writing changes according to the online audience you envision for yourself. I don’t know why I haven’t started a diary. I keep telling A. I’m only writing for myself from now on, no expectations, no unobtainable dreams, no pressure. But it’s a lie, because here I am, forcibly choking down my embarrassment, and not writing, but blogging. Clearly there’s still something of the performer about me that I can’t shake.

I don’t really have a set topic. I was going to write about homesickness. I was going to write about the strange way I feel homesick for the UK (desperately, desperately) but not for Australia. A. and I have started discussing the possibility of staying longer in Germany (more than a year) and whilst some days this is exciting (maybe we’ll build a mezzanine level guest bed in the living room! Maybe we’ll get a cat!) on other days I start to think of myself as some kind of sad economic exile on the level of the Irish during the potato famine (my self-pity really knows no bounds sometimes). ‘Even if I could get back to London, I could never afford to live there permanently. I could never afford a house where I would want to live. I could never afford to raise a family.’ Australia isn’t much better, I think, while mentally filling the gaps between my thoughts with sad fiddle music and Irish pipes. ‘Berlin is cheap,’ I tell myself, ‘you could make a life here.’ And that’s when the panic grips and I can’t sleep and even when I eventually do fall sleep all of my sleep is anxiety sleep featuring anxiety dreams in which I spend my time attempting to cover up murders committed by my close friends and family.

In some ways I feel like I’m currently in hibernation. Or, maybe it’s more like I’m in hiding. I feel like I’m still in recovery from some massive punches this year has landed. First, I got kicked out of the UK (so I knew that was coming from the moment I started on my 2-year-no-extension-visa, but that doesn’t mean it still didn’t hurt). Second, I suffered through… whatever the Edinburgh Fringe was this year. I’m still not entirely certain what that breakdown was. I do know that most of the stress and unhappiness I experienced was of my own devising. It’s not like the theatre industry collectively voted me off the island. I’m not well-known enough to even get on the ballot. I turned their collective indifference into a multi-spiked emotional torture ball and proceeded to beat myself with it day and night for not being good enough to warrant being noticed. The fact that I will willingly, obsessively, and compulsively persecute myself so enthusiastically because of particular dreams or goals worries me. That I would so completely believe in my own worthlessness because of other people’s indifference worries me. Which is why I am currently backing away slowly and quietly and going into hibernation for a while. Being in Berlin is good for this. I can completely wipe the slate clean. I can reinvent myself without anyone asking me what the hell I think I’m doing or who the hell do I think I am (‘I don’t know, I don’t know, can’t you tell me?’). It’s like being a recovering junkie – moving to some remote area so I don’t have to be around the people that will tempt me back into my old destructive ways. No bad fringe theatre! No workshops or ‘unmissable opportunities’ or competitions or auditions or commissions or whatever over crap. Just quietness.

I don’t know what I’ll do from here, or what I’ll do when I ‘come out of hiding’. I don’t know if I’ll ever come out of hiding. It feels safe here, in the quiet. Maybe I would like a cat. Maybe I would like a mezzanine level guest bed. To be honest, I’m beginning to think that the only interesting way to live your life these days is to be completely normal and everyday. You don’t travel around Ireland with a fridge and blog about it and then get a book deal and TV series. You get an ordinary job that involves filing and numbers. You have an ordinary family and you call your kids Mary and John. You have a completely expected life and you don’t tell anybody anything about ever, not even in Facebook status updates. That’s how to be special these days. Oh, imagine the things they’d imagine about you.

But, that’s just not possible for me, is it? Because, look at me here, blogging, and thinking I’m special.

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Filed under Germany, Introspection