Sunday, 27 February 2011

Give Up

(NB – the title of this blog is, in case you didn't know, a reference to the marvellous Postal Service album of the same name. Not only is that album beautiful, clever and well-crafted, but I think it deserves props alone for its stupendously miserable name.

Allow me an anecdote before we begin, if you will... I spent many long hours puzzling over the name of the album, loving it, but wondering if it might possibly have a double meaning which I was missing as it just seemed so unabashedly negative. Ben Gibbard, singer and genius lyricist of the Postal Service, is known for his love of words which have double meanings, so it seemed odd to me that the album title should only seem to mean one thing; a thing which, for me, brings Homer Simpson to mind – ‘You tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is… never try.’ It took a rather more positive person than I am to point out to me that it could also mean surrender, in a positive sense, as in surrender to the music. Try as I might, I would never have seen that more positive meaning by myself, which tells you just about all you need to know about me. That more positive meaning of 'give up' is not, however, the theme of this blog. You will be shocked to learn.)

(NB 2 – oh, and also, I now have Lost by Nine Inch Nails, a similarly cheery sentiment, stuck in my head. Gave up trying to figure it out, but my head got lost along the way… Come on! If you know it, sing along!)

The last 18 months have seen me give up a hell of a lot of things. Cigarettes. The Other Thing (forgive me for slight crypticness, reader, the walls have ears). Sex. Watching telly and being on my computer in bed. Alcohol. Wheat. And now, it seems like dairy might have to be next. I have withstood the previous six, but I fear the seventh might be the end of me. A life without cheese is surely no kind of life at all. Plus, I fear that if I have to give one more thing up, I will have to spend the rest of my life sitting still in my room and waiting to die.

I have given up smoking three times in my life now – three times of note, anyway. I started smoking when I was 15, for exactly the same reason, I imagine, that everyone starts smoking… to impress my friends. Of course, I would rather have died than admit that at the time. I had new friends, friends that were higher up the social strata than me, friends that, I felt, needed impressing. I had risen up from the ranks of the unremarkable to suddenly join the forces of the louder, more stylised, more in trouble kids, and I knew that I needed a stronger passport than just my encyclopaedic knowledge of Smiths lyrics to be properly accepted. Cigarettes seemed like the easiest way in.

I didn’t really like smoking at first – who does? It tasted like hot, dirty smoke. Obviously, in hindsight, since that’s what it is, but I suppose I, in my innocence, thought it would taste like mournful French movies and delicate Victorian poetry, not like the muck scraped from the bottom of a gutter. However, I choked my way through it and grimly clung on, until someone gave me my first menthol cigarette (I feel like those things should come from Fisher Price – My First Cigarette, they could be called, so lethal and kiddie and tempting that they are) and all my smoking-related woes sailed away on that cool, mountain stream.

Ahhh, Consulate cigarettes. Even now, after giving up attempt no. 3, the one that I hope will stick, I feel tempted when I see that packaging - which, fortunately, isn't very often. Those are MY cigarettes – if anyone else has a pack, it’s just because they’re holding them for me. Oh, the power of the brand… and I’m not talking about Russell, for once.

I smoked menthol cigarettes like they were going out of fashion for the next – blimey – six years, until I was in the third year at university, when my friend Petra and I gave up together, mid-way through the year. That lasted a year and a half, I think – a good long time, so that I felt that I would never go back.

The thing that made me go back in the end was getting a job and living in my own flat. I had spent so many years smoking out hanging out the window at my parents house, and waiting til I was round the corner before I lit up (how I *ever* thought I was fooling them, I really don’t know) that once I was living somewhere where I could smoke whenever I wanted without fear of reprisal, it made me want to smoke like crazy, even though I’d given up some 18 months before. So I gave it, and started again.

That lasted for a year, and then I gave up again… this time for seven long years.

I started smoking for the third and final time for the world’s most stupid reason – I’d heard that my old boyfriend had a new girlfriend (are we spotting a pattern, here, readers?) – he’d rung up to tell me, something boys seem to keep feeling the need to do to me (for future reference, boys – please don’t do this, no matter how well meaning you’re being, I’d so much prefer to hear it from someone else so I can cry and get mad and do all those things any human would do, rather than having to pretend it's fine cos I want to look cool in front of you… I mean, seriously)… so I decided that the surest way to show him that he’d lost out on the prize of a lifetime was to take up smoking again. Don’t ask me why, it wasn’t very logical.

I continued for about 4 or 5 months, I think, maybe longer, before realising that what had started as a joke was beginning to catch hold and I’d better get a handle on it before it all went wrong again, so I took myself in hand and gave up again. That was 18 months ago now, and this has been the easiest of the things I've given up. It’s a vile habit and one I don’t miss at all.

The next one was the Other Thing. I have waxed lyrical about that a few blogs ago, so I won't bore you all again. I'll just say that it's been nearly a year now and it's not a decision I've regretted for one moment since I made it. It hasn't meant that my life is perfect now - I certainly don't wake up every day with a six inch smile on my face - I don't think I'll ever do that, no matter how many things I give up and how much therapy I have - but when I think back to the way I used to have to struggle through the week, I'm pretty sure I'm never going to want to go back there. It hasn't been a fix for my life. I don't regret a moment of those times either. But it is a chapter of my life that is finished for now. There might be a sequel - there might not be. But as far as that whole saga goes, the taking part and the ducking out... I genuinely have no regrets. And there's not many areas of my life I can say that about.

So... sex. Again, I won't harp on. But the longer I'm being single, the less interested I'm finding myself in men. I am currently toying with a vague and curiously attractive fantasy that I'm going to stay celebate forever and become re-virginised, and life is going to become simple and easy and lovely, a bit like something out of Anne of Green Gables. Of course, it has only been a few months, I'm sure I'll tire of it pretty quickly. But seriously... the sulking, the whining, the needing to explain every little thing, the arguments, the pettiness, the heartache, the having to share your bed... who needs it? Currently, and happily... not me. I'll start missing the nicer things soon, but hopefully not for a good long while yet.

And while I take my hats off to the girls who can have sex outside of relationships, I'm really not a person that works for. I get waaaay too attached, waaaaaay too quick. I only need to lock eyes with someone before I'm thinking about china patterns and picking out a dress. I say this as a warning to any would-be interested men reading this (of which I'm sure there are thousands, natch); seriously. Leave me alone. I'm mental.

I think the most surprising thing I've given up, out of everything, is alcohol. I've been drunk on one occasion in 2011... which means I've only drunk alcohol on one occasion in 2011, cos everyone knows the only reason you'd ever drink booze is to get drunk... right? Right??

I stopped drinking to make my sleep better. And it's working. It's not always perfect, but I am sleeping so much better than I ever used to. And I was only trying to sleep better in order to make me less miserable, and - don't laugh - I actually think that's working too. Yes, I've spent a good portion of this month boo-hooing about The Couple That Shall Not Be Mentioned, but I think it would have been a whole hell of a lot worse if alcohol and - hence - a lack of sleep were still in the picture.

When I first stopped drinking, it was hard, I won't deny it. But even then, it was a lot less hard than I thought it would be. The first couple of social occasions I went to, I spent the week beforehand worrying about... but then only the first ten minutes of being there worrying. Once I was past those first ten minutes, it was easy. I think there are three tricks to not drinking: one, getting through that first ten minutes. Two, taking a really nice soft drink that you actually want to drink with you - I recommend an unusual fruit juice and a bottle of fizzy water to mix together. Three, knowing for yourself that this is what you want to do, and not worrying about what other people say. This third one is the hardest.

For me, the fact that I need to not drink in order to sleep - and this was bought home to me with a startlingly bright spotlight on the one occasion this year where I did drink, when I PINGED awake at 4am and lay in bed feeling anxious and hating myself until I finally got up some five hours later - makes it easier. There are times when I am tempted, but at the end of the day, I know that I would always (at the moment) rather sleep than get drunk. And plus, I can drive to places now, which is much nicer than getting the fecking bus or having to sleep (or not) on other people's uncomfortable sofas.

I only ever meant to give up for a month, but it's approaching two now (if you don't count that one night) and I'm not sure I'll ever go back. I'm going on holiday soon... I don't know what I'm going to do about that... but the rules are - there are no rules, as Chandler once said. So we'll see what transpires.

NB no. 3 - I do hope I'm not coming across as the kind of self-righteous prig you all want to beat to death upon reading this. I love drinking. I love to get drunk. I am deeply jealous of those of you out there who can drink and sleep. But I'm not one of those people, and I got so bored of lying awake feeling anxious and hating myself, something had to be done about it. At least now all my anxiety and self-hatred is confined to the daylight hours, where it's much more manageable, ho ho.

Giving up watching TV and surfing the net in bed is a Paul McKenna related thing. It has sucked - I have conquered it now. It's not massively interesting, so I shall only say this - I may even be getting rid of the massive telly in my bedroom and buying a zebra-print chaise longue to go in its place. Watch this space.

And so, to the ever-fashionable food intolerances which I seem to have suddenly acquired. You would think, that with giving every fun in the world ever up, I would be a blooming blossom of health, wouldn't you? Sadly, you would be wrong. Stomach aches have been the bain of my life for about a year now. Perhaps longer - in fact, when I properly think about it, almost certainly longer. What I am realising is that giving everything else up has given me a clear enough head to do that thing that hippies are always banging on about - listening to my body, maaaaan. Oh, the shame.

And what does my body seem to be telling me? That it really doesn't like wheat. Oh, the humanity! Couldn't my reward for this seeming preparation for nunnery be, I dunno, a Pulitzer, or a pony, or at the very least a plate of toast? No, even this last has been grabbed away from me. I'm not going to go into the exact details of what wheat seems to be doing to me, because it isn't really seemly. But I want it to stop. And so I am shopping in the Free From aisles now and suddenly feeling a lot more empathy for my several coeliac friends. It's a bloody good job I've given up drinking as, with wheat-free pasta being something crazy like £25 a packet, I wouldn't be able to afford any gin anyway.

The results have been almost depressingly instant. On stopping eating wheat, my stomach aches stopped like that - *clicks imaginary fingers*. Why, you might ask, is that depressing? Because it means I'm most probably right and am having to give up bread and crackers and biscuits and couscous and barley and even, I have just discovered, my beloved squash!

However, it really isn't so bad. Who cares about the crackers, I have been stoically telling myself, as long as I can have the cheese? I can put cheese on my hand and eat it right off that, like I am my own pony. Everyone wins! The crackers can live to fight another day - they're only a fancy plate anyway. But... the other day, I had a dinner which contained a large amount of cheese. I've not been eating a lot of cheese lately as I've been on a diet, trying to lose all the love-makes-you-fat directly followed by miserable-Christmas-alone weight I put on in 2010, but I was cooking for a friend and made something that involved some Philadelphia light. And oh GOD, the stomach ache it gave me was horrendously horrific, as a charming girl on Come Dine with Me recently said.

I had had no wheat in that meal, that day, that week. Nothing else was awry. I can only conclude it was the cheese.

Of course, I have been wrong before. I remember it clearly, it was a Tuesday. (Sorry, old joke, but I love it so.) And here's hoping I am wrong again. But only time will tell. And if I am right... well, I really might as well go sit still in my room and wait for death to take me.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Swimming in the Rain

Well, what a morning I’ve had! I’m not sure any close friends of mine who are reading this – or, indeed, anyone who has spoken to me for more than about 15 minutes – will quite believe that this blog is based in reality rather than being a slightly damp fairy tale, but let me assure you… every word is true. Well, actually, I can’t make that assurance as this is the first paragraph and I’ve not written every word yet – I may edit some bits out or exaggerate others for effect, a skill I have honed finely over 34 years on this planet and don’t see why I should give up now – but the bare bones of the story, at least, are true.

Last weekend my DJ life partner and I had a gig. As is my wont in these nunnery-like days, I left at around 1am as was way too tired to keep my eyes open much longer. However, in the brief time that I was there between finishing DJing and hurrying off home, I got chatting to a friend of mine – a guy I have known and thought very well of for some years, but never got to know that well. He happened to mention to me that he goes swimming in a lido near where we both live, and that it's heated.

I love swimming, and I love swimming outside, and I love heated things - and the all-new teetotal Johanna is all about the exercise, so I decided I wanted some of that action and messaged said fella to see if I could come with him some time. I was suggesting after work on a Saturday but, alas, due to the shortness of the days, the pool closes before I finish. So he suggested BEFORE work, and I figured, what the hell, I get up at 6.30 for yoga once a week, I'm good at getting up... why not?

However, last night was the worst night's sleep I've had in months, the worst I've had since I joined the Great Cult of McKenna. I listened to the CD one and a half times (I reached my hand out to get my drink half way through the first time and, in the newly pitch black bedroom, did what I keep doing now and knocked something off the bedside table onto the CD player, stopping the CD in its tracks... and so back to the beginning, sigh), read the book for a bit, tried to sleep some more and must eventually have succeeded, but woke up (by my calculations) about 4 hours later and didn't get back to sleep at all, but instead was afforded the joy of lying awake being unable to get the image of my ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend, currently on a charming little screensaver in my brain, out of my mind (you know the kind of thing... oh look, here they are, laughing at the things you two used to laugh at! Remember that cafe you thought was yours and his? Oh, it's theirs now. That look he used to give you? Yup, hers now... I'm not sure he could even pick you out of a line-up any more, etc etc, add your own little twist, they're endless, as I'm sure you well know). So that was a delightful way to pass a few hours. I kept trying to turn my brain to higher thoughts, but it turned out there aren't any higher thoughts at 4am and I just gave in in the end.

So I got up at 6.45 and went into the bathroom. Hmm, I thought to myself. What could that noise be? Sounds like loads of rifles going off... or loads of tap dancers... or someone popping a never-ending roll of bubble wrap... OH! It's armageddon, in the form of rain. Awesome!

I had a shower and got dressed, thinking perhaps it wasn't as bad as it sounded... but then after getting dressed stood, looking out the window, for really quite a while, as if hoping that the rain would respond to my Devil Stare and go away.

I'm not sure if I've ever explained my deep down, gut wrenching, misery inducing hatred - it's the only word that will do - of rain. I loathe it with a deadly loathing, and I think anyone who says they think otherwise needs their head examined. It makes everything soggy! And grey! And cold! And muddy! And SOGGY! It ruins festivals! And holidays! And otherwise perfectly decent Mondays! What other reasons do you need? Why on earth would you want to be wet and cold when you could be hot and dry? It's logic!

Of course, I know that, on an intellectual, Al Gore kinda level, the world needs rain, but if it could just always rain while I'm asleep and, since that's usually by about 9.30 these days, all the crazy people who say they like it can go jump in puddles all night long if they like, and then the sun can come back out when I wake up again. Sound good? Yes, thank you please!

Anyway, sorry, got distracted there for a moment. Of course, every logical fibre of my being was telling me to get back into bed and forget this crazy, madcap plan - after all, why go and swim in the rain when I could lie and torture myself with crazy jealous thoughts in my nice warm bed for hours instead? But... I didn't have the phone number of the lovely guy I was meeting. And to stand someone up at an ordinary time of day isn't something I could ever conceive of doing. To do so at 7.46am (the time we were meeting) would be unconscionable. So I girded my loins and set out in the rain.

Sadly, it turned out I had spent too long gazing out the window trying to commune with the sky through the power of my mind (oh, and posting on Facebook before I left the house, natch), and I missed the train by about 2 seconds. I must confess - standing on that train platform in the downpour, realising I was going to be late (which I hate nearly as much as rain) to go and swim in the rain, and that I had to sit in the rain, reading soggy PhD related papers cos I'm busy at the moment to observe my 'fun books are allowed at the weekend' plan, at 7.30am on a Saturday morning, when... well, I think I've made my point about this already, but when other people were in places I would much rather be... I did experience a bit of a low point. I said 'fuck' quite a bit and kicked things. Being a nice kind of person, I didn't want the rain to feel left out, so my face joined in.

However, time passed, as it inevitably does, and I got on the train and met my friend, who was fortunately still waiting for me and didn't mind me being late. Are we really doing this? I asked, indicating the rain. Of course, he said... it hadn't occured to him that we wouldn't.

And so, off we set, walking across the green towards the pool. I told him about how the last time I had gone swimming, there had been a fire alarm and I was made to go and stand outside on the street in my pants. He told me about a comedy night he had been to the night before in which one of the audience members delivered the ultimate heckle by attempting to start a fight with a comedian.

We arrived. I got changed, a little unable to believe I was really doing this. And then I went outside, and got into the pool... and do you know what...

It was pretty nice.

I've not gone completely crazy, don't worry - it would have been a hell of a lot nicer in the blazing sunshine, as every single thing in the world is... but it wasn't half bad. The water was heated, which helped a lot. But there was something so surreal about being outside, in hot water, with loads of other people, on such a cold and rainy morning, it felt like it must have been a dream. All the steam rising off the water helped with that - you literally couldn't see one end of the pool from the other.

I couldn't really feel the rain. At times I thought it must have stopped, but I could still see drops of it hitting the water and making those little circles in the water, like the rings of clay on a pottery wheel that are so innately pleasing.

The pool itself was charming. More of an actual swimming pool than the lake I was picturing, Hamsptead Heath style - and with pictures at either end of crazy English people standing in the snow, in their swimmers, which struck me as so fitting that I giggled each time I reached the end of the pool, usually meaning I inhaled a bunch of chlorinated water and ended up choking. Mmm, graceful.

There was something about being in that water while the rest of London slept all around us. No-one said much to each other, but it felt like we were all in a secret club. I will definitely be going back.

However, the rainy fun had to end some time, and eventually, I had to get out of the pool so that I wouldn't be late for work. You really are going to think I'm making this bit up, but I'm not... as I was getting out of the pool, a fire alarm started. I kid you not. Having learnt last time about hanging around hoping it wasn't real (and hence getting ushered out in my pants instead of having time to grab a towel), I made an immeadiate bolt for the changing rooms, where I managed to get dressed without burning to death. However, I apparently did miss a fight between a swimmer and a lifeguard, which I can't help feeling a little sad about. Clearly, though, fire alarms and fights follow me and my new friend around, so hopefully I'll get to watch the next one. Maybe if I'm lucky it'll be raining.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Trouble or loneliness?

So, dear reader, I am alone again, naturally.

(Notum bear-eh: I say alone, but really, that is pretty unfair on my lovely friends, who would never leave me alone. I am very lucky to have the best friends a girl could possibly ask for. Elaine, Millena, James, Kaye, Rachel, Jen, Rosch… I would be sunk without you lot, so props and mad skills and all of that stuff, and sorry that I’m always, always whinging.)

Bits of last year – because of true love - were the happiest of my life. Other bits were a horrendous, tangled web of romantic nonsense, which hurt my head, my heart and my stomach, and which have chewed me up and spat me out and left me stranded on the shore of misery like Kevin Costner at the beginning of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, minus the terrible accent. I had the most lovely, beautiful, wonderful, kind and sweet relationship of my life, which had to end for reasons that I know are good but which I’m still railing against on a daily basis.

I feel like I must be way too old for this kind of stuff now. Heartbreak suits teenagers, even 20-somethings can get away with it. I’m nearly 35 now, middle-aged by Biblical standards, and this look is getting a bit old. I fear I am becoming ridiculous. I can see some of my mates rolling their eyes at Johanna and her latest romantic escapade, fondly, to be sure, the way parents roll their eyes at errant teens who are freshly in love twice a week – but still it stings like lemon on a paper cut, and still it makes me wince. No-one wants to feel ridiculous.

See, the thing is, for most of my grown up life, I’ve wanted the thing that proper feminists aren’t supposed to want – the thing it seems shameful to admit. I’ve wanted to be in a relationship. Fuck it, let’s be honest… I’ve wanted to get married. I want my happy ever after. Don’t we all? (Really, that’s a genuine question – don’t we?) It’s not that I don’t feel complete without a man (she protests too much, perhaps). I have a life, I have a job, I have friends, I’m perfectly capable of ferrying myself home at the end of a night without wanting to slit my wrists from the loneliness. But when I am in a relationship that’s working, I am happier. I love having someone to share things with. I love getting messages from someone who makes me feel special. I love being able to spoil someone I love. Is that really so wrong? Do I have to give back my Cynthia Heimel books now?

But… of course… when I’m in a relationship that isn’t working – as all relationships inevitably don’t, after a while – that’s when I’m at my most miserable. Well, that, and when the relationships come crashing to an end. I hate feeling like my emotions can be controlled by other people that easily, and I hate feeling so trivial, that the main things that make me so miserable, or so happy, are affairs of the heart. Shouldn’t I have that aspect of my life under control, in some way at least, by now? Shouldn’t intellectual and political and charitable things play more of a leading role in my emotional life? But then, at the end of the day, what is more important than our connections with other people? Not much, really. So maybe I should stop beating myself up about it.

I’ve found myself wondering recently if it’s me. Do I set my standards too high with what I expect from relationships? I feel as if – apologies, ex-boyfriend – I am constantly being let down by men. And I like to think it’s pretty rare that a person feels let down by me. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think so. Relationships – and by that I mean with everyone, not just with men – are the most important thing in my life. That’s why I do everything I do, because, for all my Sartre-esque posturing, I love people and am fascinated by them and I want to understand them and be good to them. True, I’m terrified of talking to them when I don’t know them, and tend to turn that into a joke (a joke I take way too seriously) about how I don’t want to talk to people anyway cos they all suck… and that is a stumbling block, but still…

My interest in people is why I love psychology, it’s why I’m a counsellor, it’s why I work hard to be a good friend and to be welcoming on the board I post on, it’s why, when I’m in a relationship, I try to be the best girlfriend I could possibly be. I don’t understand why other people aren’t the same. Why other things seem more important to them. It baffles me and I keep not being able to believe it, no matter how many times I encounter it.

Sometimes I think I’m sane and it’s everyone else who is flaky and useless and sub-standard. And other times I think I’m most probably a scary, demanding bitch who people are lucky to have run screaming from. Perhaps what I want from a relationship doesn’t come from a place of generous sanity – perhaps it comes from insecurity and a desperate, pathetic need to make everyone – anyone - like me.

But then I always end up thinking – so what if I have got high standards? I really think I would rather be alone than have to compromise over the things that I think are basic decency and sense. I may change my mind about that at some point in the future, but for now, I’m comfortable with that. As Chandler once said to Monica – you may be high maintenance, but I like… maintaining you. Ok, so I’m currently maintaining myself (minds out the gutter, boys), but the fact remains that I don’t see high maintenance as the dirty words that others seem too. And – again with the protesting too much – I think I’m actually a lot more chilled than I may come across as being at times. Who knows.

I wrote a couple of big, posturing blogs last year about how I was going to take a year off men. And I really did mean it, though it didn’t work out that way – something I am very glad of. I’m wary of making another such promise as I’m in no rush to make myself look that daft again. But I do feel like something has changed in me, at least for the time being. I could not be less interested in men at the moment. My current life is jam-packed full, and safe, and quiet, and that is a real relief to me right now.

Things are ok, mostly. I go to uni and work on Mondays, I work on Tuesdays, I have uni Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I work Saturdays. I go to yoga Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I try to go to the gym once more than that every week. I might go out on a Saturday night, and I do my best to make sure I can spend Sundays on the sofa with my home girl. It’s quiet and nice and there’s no complications in my head. It’s a little boring at times, and there are quite a lot of evenings when I find myself crying, a lot. But at least it’s not hard emotional work.

So it seems that, as far as romance goes, there are two options: trouble, or loneliness. I’m not sure which is better; I’m not sure which is worse. For now, though, I am going to stay inside my house and lick my wounds. More updates as and when, I’m sure.