girl on fire

creativity, radical self-care, feminism, recovery.

“Everybody Worships. The Only Choice We Get Is What To Worship”

David Foster Wallace speaking at the 2005 Commencement Address of Kenyon College, USA. 

When I was a teenager, I was an atheist. I was the worst kind of teenager, and the worst kind of atheist – and what a natural Venn diagram that is! I was obnoxious, belligerent, arrogant, convinced of the total right-ness of every single thing I believed. I knew there was no God, just as I knew that anyone who used fake tan was a complete idiot, just as I knew that Morrissey was the greatest musician, nay, human being, known to mankind. It turns out I was massively wrong about all three.

I’m still not a religious woman. I don’t think I ever will be. I can’t foresee the future, but most religious institutions have an undercurrent of misogyny and homophobia that is, ahem, incompatible to my lifestyle. But just as today I am sure that fake tan has its uses for a pale gal wishing to go bare-legged in July, and that Morrissey can be a right tosspot, I am sure that there is a power greater than myself in this world. I know this because every day of my life I have been bent supine at the altar of one power or another. I did not realise this until I started to bend supine to a power that could actually embrace and fulfil all my needs. Until I gave all of myself to a power greater than myself through choice, I could not see that I had unconsciously given myself away every day. Even in the depths of my most belligerent atheism, I had worshipped profoundly.

In the depths of an eating disorder, I have worshipped food with the all devotion and fervour of a Catholic at the rosary. I have set aside other things to make room for my relationship with food. I set aside human concerns and became consumed (pun most definitely intended) by an almost religious ecstasy for the simple cycle of binge and purge. Food would rule my day. Waking early with a belly heavy from the prayers of the day before, I would force myself to forgo nourishment until a certain time of day so that I would know I was fully punished before my God. I would use this time of fasting and meditation to think on exactly the ways in which I had failed: I would meticulously count each calorie, I would confess them to the fridge door and make hideous promises I would never keep about how today I swear it will be different. My life was not my own. Food was my saviour and my sacrifice. I saw other people living a free life, and knew that total anxiety was not the normal reaction to a day without chocolate. The life I led was always on the edge of a great chasm, and to fill that chasm and block myself from the pain of feeling it, I used the great anaesthetic power of sugar. I learnt that if you eat enough chocolate quickly enough it is basically a mind-altering substance. I had mystical experiences in tubs of Ben and Jerry’s. I laughed at people who had fat days and worried about eating one KFC, these Pharisees in my temple who thought that one day of servitude could match the sacrifice I had made, the lifetime of potential I had lay down on the altar and burnt up like incense.

Like any good novice I believed that everything I gave up for my saviour would be repaid to me tenfold. Every meal I skipped, or family pack of Kettle Chips I gorged on brought me closer to divinity, closer to quieting the sense of gnawing unease that only chewing, swallowing, purging, rinsing would bring to an end. I did not realise I had made a fatal error in my calculations. I did not realise that my God did not love me back. I knew that I could miss out on dates with attractive people, shopping in the same places as my friends, feeling sexual, feeling full, feeling hungry. I did not know that I was not being given back something better. I did all of these things because I believed it would pay off. I believed that if I gave enough up it would be paid back in kind. That I would somehow be cleverer, brighter, happier than all of the people who did not live to serve as I did. And so I worshipped, and on many days I continue to do so. I make the same pledges at the fridge door. I tell myself I am doing better because I no longer purge. I convince myself that the heavy feeling in my stomach is contentment rather than a health condition brought on by my lifestyle.

This is why I need something better to worship: because what I have spent most of my life worshipping is going to kill me. My arteries will block up with my love for this God. My limbs will collapse under the weight of my fervour. But as any convert will tell you, changing your religion is hard work. When Charlotte changes her religion to Judaism in Sex and the City, she has one last Christmas tree to say goodbye to Christianity. She has a strength of will I don’t understand. I have one last ritual about every four days. But I do have a new higher power, who does not need to battle for supremacy, who just waits patiently til I am ready to give up mutilating myself in favour of starting to love myself. I’m glad it’s waiting patiently, because this will take a long time. It will take a long time for me to fully relinquish the practices I have adhered to so strongly for so long.

It will take years to undo the damage of years. I know that I may always look at food as something that can destroy as easily as it can nourish. I know that I cannot wake up one morning and unzip the body I am locked into like I used to dream about doing. But in the meantime, the power of the universe, the power of my best self, Love in all its many forms, whatever you want to call that force which sustains you and pushes you towards the life you are meant to have…that force, that power is within me, waiting for me to stop counting, stop promising, stop working so damn hard at feeding something that will kill me. I would like nothing more than to finish this post with a powerful declaration that I have been freed from this demon, that it is exorcised, but I cannot. I still dance this dance every day.

Today my hope and my strength is found in knowing that there is something greater, and that one day I will finally allow myself to only ever be nourished. That voice in my head that tells me the third chocolate bar is a great idea might never go away completely, but one day I trust I will be able to say ‘no’. As simply and as perfectly as that – no, thank you. It is against my religion.

 

 

Things That Don’t Quite Happen, And Things That Happen So Hard I Fall Over

On Thursday 9th October 2014, BBC Radio 5live’s Breakfast show hosted a phone-in asking for listeners’ opinions on whether convicted rapist Ched Evans should be permitted to rejoin professional football when he leaves prison in six weeks’ time. His case is currently under review and he has served two years of a five year sentence. The views given varied widely, but were mostly from men. I was riding in a taxi with a driver who listened to this show. And then something nearly happened. But not quite. 

I got out of the taxi and stood waiting for the bus that was the second leg of my journey to work. It was 9.45am. I did something I had never done before. I texted in to a radio show, letting them know my opinion. I didn’t add my name or where I was from, but I decided that I would give them the truth, my truth, and they could use it how they wanted. This is what I told them:

Seven years ago this month I was raped. If Evans wanted to continue being a professional footballer maybe he should have considered that before he raped somebody. He has received two years imprisonment for a crime that will have a lifelong effect on his target….For the FA to allow him to play would be for them to condone his actions and utterly disrespect and dehumanise a woman who will right now be trying to rebuild her life after a devastating event.

About fifteen minutes after I sent this, on the 14A to Tower Hill, I got a call from a withheld number. To be totally honest, I assumed it was United Utilities. I ignored it. I got a voicemail a couple of minutes later – now, I know that United Utilities don’t leave voicemails. I listened to it. A woman named Lucinda, a researcher for the BBC, had left me a message telling me I had a “valued perspective” and she wanted to talk to me further. She said other things which were as sweet and as gentle as you would want the response to that text message to be. I made the instant decision that I did not want to discuss this on the bus, and resolved to call her as soon as I got to work, knowing that the show would most likely be over by then, but utterly sure that speaking my truth had indeed set me free in some minor way. So I called the number she had left, and was told by someone not quite as sweet and gentle as Lucinda that they were off-air.  I wasn’t quite on the radio yesterday. By this point my body was bursting with adrenaline. I told someone in work what hadn’t quite happened, including that I am a survivor of rape.

In that funny way the universe has of dovetailing experiences that seem unconnected, I have been attending counselling for the issues surrounding my experience of rape for the last few weeks. Today was my fourth session. And I told my counsellor this little story, an amusing anecdote about missing being on the radio because the 14A has such a torturously long route. Yet she found something in my story that was quite remarkable. She didn’t say that to me straight away, but she drew me in, like she has this way of doing, forcing me to look closer and closer at individual parts of my story until I caught up with her.

“SURVIVOR. I said I am a survivor!”

I told someone – nay, I posted on FACEBOOK – that I am a survivor. I didn’t mean it in a general, Gloria Gaynor kind of way, you know, I’ve had bad boyfriends but I live to flirt another day kind of way. I am a survivor of rape. I am a survivor of rape.

This may or may not be a phrase you have heard before. This may or may not be a phrase that describes you. Whatever your relationship to this phrase is, I would ask that you, my treasured reader, humour me to expand a little on what it means to me. Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending.

Until very recently, my friends, I was a rape victim. This may be easier for those of you who haven’t experienced rape to understand. A terrible thing happened to me, which simultaneously crushed me under its weight and left me in emotional free fall. For a really long time. I will not describe the experience itself; I will talk about how it affected me as a person. I used to have a life built on simple truths. That red meant stop, green meant go. That smiling meant happy and frowning meant sad. And if you told somebody to stop, you had a perfect right to expect them to listen to you. Seven years ago this changed. I told somebody to stop and they did not listen. All of a sudden, no doesn’t mean no anymore. And just like that, as if by magic, the world falls apart under your feet. The best way I can describe it is probably to liken it to your house being burgled: someone being in there without your permission makes you feel unsafe in that place. That was how my body felt. Unsafe, insecure. I added other words to that list over time: dirty, shameful, abandoned. I felt like the ruins of an old house that had once been beautiful but was now falling apart, and had a sign on the door saying DANGER – DO NOT ENTER. I felt like the rock solid foundations of my life had exploded. Naomi Wolf discusses in her book “Vagina – A New Biography” that people who have experienced sexual violence are easier to push over – literally – than those who haven’t. I know in my body what this means. My core had disappeared and I felt like I could float away on the wind. I tried many things to ground me, to keep me whole and in one piece when everything seemed to be tearing apart. I put on a lot of weight, I tried to literally be heavier, and have more gravity, and be able to stick to the floor. I drank a lot. I spent a lot of time convincing myself of new truths, more complicated truths. That I was a bad person, that I had been punished in some way for some misdemeanour or other. This is what being a rape victim meant to me. To feel constantly like the ground I stand on shifts below me.

Being a survivor is different, though. I thought for a while that being a survivor would mean that I would get my rock solid foundation back. This hasn’t happened. I don’t think I’ll ever have a rock solid foundation again. But just for today I am totally okay with that, because what I have is more precious and harder-earned by far. That solid feeling, that core that was made of reinforced steel, today it feels like fire. I feel as if I have been burned but emerged purified and renewed. That fire, that I can almost feel when I put my hand on my tummy, is sometimes glowing embers that I neglect and worry over and poke at and think “I’m sure this used to be hotter, and brighter”. And some days, days like today, it is flames that shoot so far up my torso I am certain people can see them in my eyes. This is what happens to me when I have a really great conversation with someone, or when somebody pays me a compliment from their heart, or when I even think about writing. Those flames are dancing in my heart right now as I write this. In my manifesto for healing, more than a year ago now, I wrote that to heal you need to “feed the flames of your own magnificence”. I had no idea how true that would end up being for me. Every day I need to feed the flames of my magnificence. Fire can be destructive, but sometimes it can bring life and light and renewal and purity. And the certain belief that the shame of what happened does not belong to me. That shame is not mine but another’s. What I have today is pride, pride in surviving, pride in being the woman that I am, pride that I remain unafraid of openness and vulnerability and honesty, pride in my writing, pride in my love. I stand firm, ablaze with the truth that I have survived, I do survive, I will continue to survive.

 

There are so many people without whom this post would never have been possible, who have kept me alive til today, but right now there are four people I need to thank: my parents, for loving me consistently and fiercely through all of this and even when it must have been difficult to. Elloa Atkinson, for the best-timed message I’ve ever received. And of course, Lucinda, that gentle BBC researcher who gave me the courage to take more leaps of faith in 24 hours than I have in the past year. I’m going to tweet this to 5live and hope it finds her…

I’m Not Here To Save The World

I am here to save myself.
I am not a superhero.
I cannot do everything.
I give myself permission not to do everything.
I give myself permission not to be everyone.
It is okay to say no.
It is okay to go to bed instead of doing the three dishes that you feel guilty about.
It is okay to be a bit scruffy.
It is okay to go three weeks without makeup.
It is okay to eat things that don’t nourish you.
It is even more okay to eat things that do.
It is okay to have an eating disorder.
It is okay to be in recovery.
It is okay to find recovery a challenge.
It is okay to wake up in the morning, blast Beyoncé as loud as you can and decide that just for today you are the flawless queen of your life.
It is okay to wake up in the morning, blast Beyoncé as loud as you can and find you don’t have the energy to be a flawless queen.
It is okay to make mistakes.
IT IS OKAY TO MAKE MISTAKES.
It is okay to be snappy when you have PMT.
It is okay to feel like the sexiest woman in the world.
It is okay to feel like being sexy is really just way too much hassle.
It is okay to have hairy legs.
It is okay to shave your legs.
It is okay to forget to text your friends for a few days.
It is okay to text your friends every day.
It is okay to call someone you haven’t spoken to for a while and say “Hi! I miss you!”
It is okay to ignore other people’s opinions.
It is okay to judge the blog post you are writing as you are writing it.
It is okay to write a blog post that might not win a Pulitzer.
It is okay to think that you could probably win a Pulitzer if you wrote more.
It is okay that you don’t write more.
It is okay to not always be a feminist.
It is okay to not read the newspapers.
It is okay to read a trashy novel when your head is full to bursting. (I would recommend Valley of the Dolls)
It is okay to take two baths in a day if it means you feel better.
It is okay to be jealous of people.
It is okay to have desires.
It is okay to dream.
It is okay to look in the mirror and think “Yeah, I actually am a bit of alright really”
It is okay to flirt.
It is okay to want children.
It is okay to not want children.
It is okay to change your mind.
It is okay to sing loudly, off-key and with great joy.
It is okay to be a bit selfish.
It is okay to feel old at 24.
It is okay to feel young at 24.
It is still okay to make mistakes.
It is okay to procrastinate.
It is okay to cry.
It is okay to nap on the bus.
It is okay that your favourite hobby is thinking up PhD titles with killer puns in them.
It is okay that University Challenge is your idea of a good time.
It is okay to have a cup of tea.
It is okay that you wish you owned more sensible cardigans.
It is okay to be whoever the fuck you want to be.
It is okay to step up.
It is okay to give yourself permission.
It is okay to breathe.
It is safe.
It is permitted.
You – I – can do all of these things and more.
I can be funny or sad or productive or lazy or messy or tidy or glamourous or happy or weird or normal or introspective or extroverted.
The real, raw, terrifying truth is that I am just as worthy of love however many of these things I do or don’t do. The real, raw, terrifying truth is that in the entire universe there is only one of me, and I wasn’t made to conform or comfort. I was made to be. Sometimes being is a messy business and sometimes it is marvellous and often it is both. Just for today, til I go to sleep tonight, I have total freedom to be me. Whatever that means.

Others May Idle In A Retrogressive Groove

Words are not coming at the great speed they used to, and I don’t like it. 
Write about what you know, they say.
All I really know at the moment is writer’s block. Nobody’s written anything new and original about writer’s block in, oh, a couple of centuries maybe? But that’s okay. Tonight it is enough to tap at the keyboard and see something, anything, appear on the screen. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. It doesn’t even have to be finished. I just need to make something. I need something to show you all that I am here, that I still exist. No editing, no backspacing – well, okay, a little bit of backspacing – but no compulsive filtering this time. Just me, here, tapa-tapa-tapping. 

Pennies have been dropping all around me in the last twenty-four hours. That I really am doing okay – nowhere near as bad as I think. I have not been neglecting as many things as I think. I am really good at saying “I am not working or growing or moving or learning”. But let me tell you something: pain is growth. Pain is learning. I’ve had periods in my life where I felt spiritually and emotionally invincible and I learnt jack shit. I learn when my back is against the ropes and I have no other options but changing and growing and adapting. Keeping still is not an option. But here’s what is an option: keeping it in the now. Staying present. Being aware that this call in work that feels eternal will not last forever. Understanding that fear moves through my brain like storm clouds speeding across the night sky: in a few hours, nobody would ever guess what had occurred. It’s okay to be in pain: pain spurs me into action. If I am unhappy I must accept it or change it, and I am not too great at acceptance. So I change. 

Today in work I took my feet out of my shoes and pressed my bare soles to the wet grass outside and thought yes – I am with this earth and of this earth and in this beautiful ‘now’ place.

Tonight I put my hand on my friend’s shoulder and willed all the heat and love and energy in my body to pass through my palm straight to her heart. 

I don’t have to filter anymore, I can be real and raw and show up here, because realness and rawness are engaging and beautiful and scary in a way that makes me want to chase that feeling. So here I am: I am not a ‘great blog post’ machine and I never will be, but just for now, just right here tonight, it’s okay just to give my unfiltered thoughts. I can go back to expecting too much of myself anytime I like but tonight I am happy to be me. 

A Little Snippet

I used to get so drunk I could not feel anything: I did not even feel the glass cutting my feet when I took my shoes off in clubs. To a girl who has always felt like she wears her nerve endings outside her skin, that’s really something. I drank so much that I could wear dresses made mostly of zips and underwires and bare my shoulders to December air and never feel the tightness or the cold. I did funny things, sexy things, stupid things, shameful things, but I never felt any different. I never felt anything. I laughed and shed tears and shouted and kissed and sang but it was all the same to me. The mornings, dear God, in the mornings I felt everything, but the nights? They were mine. Making friends didn’t feel like anything; neither did losing them. All I felt was thirst. Get another round in, make mine a double, I used to want to drink enough to wipe the slate clean. I called it ‘clearing out the cobwebs’, though how that many cobwebs could build up in two days since my clear out remains a mystery to me. I experimented for a while with the best way to get to that clean serene state. The softly-softly approach of large glasses of wine just to cushion myself from harm, then suddenly the third bottle smacking me headlong into oblivion. I remember the gassy sicky feeling of trying to only drink beer because I wanted to be good, and feeling too aware of the fullness of my belly and shouting ohfuckit and buying shots. Spirits were the express route. Playing bartender and pouring the drinks for the girls coming round, swigging out of the bottle in the kitchen with my back turned and lighting a cigarette to cover my vodka breath, all the while making sure my glass held twice as much as theirs. Never overthinking it, just doing it. Days were for thinking, nights were for drinking.

Prompt Me 4: Barefaced.

This week’s prompt was a beautiful quote from Gabourey Sidibe. Iy inspired me to film a video with no makeup, which as you will tell from watching the video I found a fairly difficult experience. Go check out Elloa’s beautiful contribution at http://elloaatkinson.wordpress.com

Prompt Me 3: Thriving

So today is the day when our new Prompt Me videos go live. Between me starting a new job, and Christmas, this has taken a little longer than it usually would. I actually recorded this video on 15.12.2013. I was going to re-record it today but when I watched it I felt that the vulnerability and nerves and unguarded honesty is what makes Prompt Me good, so I figured I would stick with it. This video is basically a tribute to the gorgeous people who have supported me, but it is too short to really thank everyone.

Mum, Dad, Ceri, Claire Barlow, Jemma Barka, Clare Campbell, Elloa Atkinson, Jacquie & Chase Johnston-Lynch, Carla Hennessey, Billy & Mandi RIley, Kim Eaton, Mich, Yvonne Thwaite, Alison Havery, Alex Kershaw, Alex Dale, Sue Gillies, Sue Scullion, Shona Carmen Paisley, Raddy, Simon Dunwoodie, Terry McCoy, Hema Patel, Rhys Owens, Clare Donnelly, Ali Hodson, Linda Lewis, Kitty McRobert, Kate Russell, James West, Rebecca Odman Stonehouse, Emma Craven, Sara, Julia D’Arcy, Sian Witheridge, Karen, Stu Robinson, Maria Gornell, Cheryl Kirk, David Ryan, Jade Kenny, Catherine Mather.

Prompt Me: Walking as Authorship

Elloa Atkinson (http://elloaatkinson.wordpress.com) and I have started a vlogging project where we use a prompt to inspire a weekly conversation between us as loving friends separated by geography. This week’s is about the quote “Writing is one way of making the world our own, and walking is another.” by Geoff Nicholson, from “The Lost Art Of Walking”. I did a video about how I authored my recovery from depression and anxiety by trudging through the city centre of Liverpool feeling generally pretty confused.

Elloa made this beautiful video of the South Downs and her experiences of making the world her own: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iicyCa7u–g

Please watch, like, comment, subscribe and share your thoughts on this week’s prompt.

I’m already excited for next week!

Prompt Me: “Everybody needs a place”

Elloa and I are doing a new project where we make videos responding to prompts. This is my first one. I’m going to let this video speak for itself because I am scared..!

http://elloaatkinson.wordpress.com

more to come

If I am fertile ground
Then every time I write
I use up
All the nourishment I have absorbed

After every piece is done
I need to lie fallow
Wait a while
For inspiration to grow in me again

This is long, slow, sore
I feel stretched, distended
By the work
Of consuming the universe

If I am just a vessel
Then every time I write
I empty
Myself of all beauty

Wait for it again
To come without warning
Take me away
Give me words I haven’t earned.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.