For When Lipstick Isn’t Enough, And Letting Go Isn’t Easy

I don’t like talking about the man I loved. I’m aware that I do, before too many people roll their eyes, but trust me, I don’t want to. It should be a purge, a verbal cleanse as once again I lather, rinse, repeat him out of my mind but it’s not. The opposite in fact. It is the most exquisite form of masochism, a double whammy punch of pain and self-loathing. On the one hand, you fan the grief, the sheer ache of missing, wanting, condemning, questioning and on the other is the needle of self-hatred, of exquisite contempt at your own weakness.

You should be better.

You should be stronger.

Your mind is too precious to keep recycling such old things, to keep killing brain cells with the sheer boredom of a subject you grew tired of long ago.

I have become obsessed by the fact that the average human has anywhere between 50,000-70,000 thoughts a day and that 98% of these are exactly the same as the day before. Trapped like hamsters in an interminable wheel, we spin yesterday’s waste into today’s preoccupations – fertilising anxieties and insecurities like roses, encouraging the blossom of wrinkles and tired eyes like marigolds instead of the weeds they are. I feel overcome with a sense of panicked futility and suffocating despair confronted with so much waste – so much creative, constructive, altruistic potential being lost to the mundane, stagnant and frankly, unnecessary.

And so I condemn my pettiness, castrate my lack of self control and resilience, promising to leap off the loop, to stop the spin and whirl of noxious negativity, to squirrel away towards the positive, the new and therapeutic. And then the wheel trundles on and I bundle along inside it,  stretching myself out and down to revel in this lonely bed of thorns, tossing and flailing to make absolutely sure every needle drinks its blossom of blood. I am so quick to give away and to give way. Worse, I am never sure if this wheel of negativity is driving me or if I’m driving the wheel.

The time has come to let go. To finally and fully cut the umbilical cord to the life I had, the things that were, and swim, scream, wail into the waking world of my future.

And I am struggling. I am struggling to accept myself, just as I am, without an apology, a justification, an explanation for my flaws. I am struggling with the fact I feel I NEED to apologise for my flaws – those collections of thingamabobs that make me human, make me, me.

Recently, it’s come to my attention that, although I have travelled so far in the past six months, I’ve been doing so with the help of a crutch. And that has been the ghost of my relationship. I have shielded myself with the addendum of being ‘just out of a relationship’. I have barricaded myself emotionally from others with the excuse of ‘heartbreak’ and severed any potential entanglements with the cliché of ‘being all over the place’, ‘not in the right mental space’, ’emotionally deceased’ etc etc. And while all of those things were very true, very normal and very healthy, lately I’ve realised their invalidity. Not only because they are no longer true but because they’ve become something more than excuses for me – they’ve become defensive barnacles of identity I’m somehow simultaneously clinging to and crouching under. I carved out a coffin of confinement for myself – of being an ex-girlfriend, of being heartbroken, of being the scorned but righteous lover – anything that protects me from being just a woman.

I love the word ‘just’. I have been ‘just’ out of a relationship for half a year now. The immediacy of it has long since evaporated, and ‘just’ is no longer an adjective but a delusion. But the truth is that I don’t know how to step into the world ‘just’ being me. I feel like a teenage cliché – some goth or emo (do those things still exist? Are those terms un-PC now?) who stopped believing in their persona long ago but can’t bring themselves to take the costume off because they are terrified of the naked shell living under it, the terrified being who doesn’t know how to stand alone and ordinary. I am the ardent Boyzone fan who stopped listening to their music decades ago but still can’t tear down the posters or throw out the t-shirt because they can’t bear the confrontation of bare walls that need to be repainted and redecorated with new evidence of identity, of assertive claim to interests and hobbies and commitments and life.

I stopped being heartbroken a long time ago but I can’t quite bring myself to take off the badge. I stopped being a girlfriend, stopped having a boyfriend and yet I still stutter over the ‘ex’, still can’t quite spit the word ‘single’ out.

Why? Because I am scared of what I will look like without it. When I am ‘just’ a girl, when I am just ordinary and normal, searching for something I’m not sure I’ll ever find. I am scared because lately I have taken up this notion of unworthiness, of complete and failing inadequacy. I feel empty, hollow – a blank wall in a damp house. I have taken to having fits of shame – a mental spasm that punctures any sense of confidence, pride, self-assurance. And lipstick just isn’t cutting it. And that act of letting go, of cutting the umbilical cord that is infected and gangrene rotten and tenuous at the best of times still seems impossible.

As anyone following me on Instagram knows, I had/have pneumonia. (I moan and seek attention, I’M SORRY.) I also have a kidney stone. I know, nothing says attractive like calcified minerals. And while medically, it’s abundantly clear that these conditions have sprung from obvious and identifiable environmental/lifestyle factors – I will not be allowed near a refugee camp again! – there is a part of me that feels this illness is emotional, a physical manifestation of my own mental landscape. There are many people who believe that different parts of the body and their various ailments are symbolic of a larger emotional problem. I am one of those people and whoop-dee-doo, just guess what my collection of conditions says about my emotional state?

Kidney stone: Lumps of undissolved anger.

Lungs/Pneumonia: Not feeling worthy of living life fully. Tired of life. Emotional wounds that are not allowed to heal.

That is not paraphrasing. That is certified science. And as I read those lines excerpted (very thoughtfully by an incredible friend) from a book that has no insight into my life, I gasped. Or at least I would have if I had been capable of breathing normally and not like an 86 year old who’d been smoking sixty a day for a million decades. Because it told me everything I already knew but couldn’t quite understand. This slow crumbling of my soul and resolve into these unrecognisable shards of self-doubt and insecurity. This slip’n’slide into the belief that the bad behaviour of another made me somehow deserving of it. This sinking – somewhere in between the ‘why has this happened’ and the ‘moving on’ – into the quicksand conclusion that I just wasn’t worth it. Whatever ‘it’ was – attention, love, respect, closure – I was unequivocally unequal. I couldn’t let myself fully heal, I couldn’t allow myself to completely let go because I had stopped believing in the person that would be left behind when I took away the shadow of my former relationship.

I had started to see myself as a series of ‘withouts’ instead of a constellation of ‘withs’.

I have practically stopped wearing make up. I brush mascara onto my lashes as I’m already running out the door, usually without a mirror. On a good day, I brush my hair. And while this began as an act of liberation – an unshackling from ridiculous societal constraints and conformity to a ludicrously unattainable ideal – lately it feels more like a submission to defeat. It doesn’t feel like an emancipation from insecurity, an unearthing of confidence in exactly who and how I am without the mirage and distraction of blushing smoke and mirrors. Instead, it feels like giving up.

The application of makeup requires two things: prolonged study of the self in a mirror and the belief that you are undertaking the creation of a work of art. The face is a blank canvas and on it you are drawing, shaping, enhancing a masterpiece. Ultimately, you believe, like any artist, that the end result will be something worthy of looking at, something to behold. I am incapable of engaging in either of these things. I look in the mirror to be confronted with a shell of something once bold and bright; a little, lost nobody of nondescript insignificance. Alternatively, sometimes I see anything but insignificance – I am lumps and fat and flab and shame, inhabiting too much space to bear looking at. I am not the blank canvas to paint beauty onto, I am the bare art gallery wall, waiting naked to be hidden and eclipsed by the masterpieces that hang around them.

This isn’t like me. I love creation in all its forms, I love the slick satisfaction of eyeliner, I love testing the lines and symmetries of my face, seeing how I can become at once more and less myself on any given day. And I’m confident. I love my body. I love that my anatomy mirrors my favourite foods – that the crescents of soft skin on my hips fold themselves like the croissants that birthed their existence, that my belly will always be just a little potato-esque. I do not recognise this girl that pinches and compares, despairs and detests. However I’ve felt about my appearance, I always believed in my worthiness as a person to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be appreciated for the sheer miracle of creation alone. Until now.

When I was in Greece, I met a very nice boy. He was quite lovely to look at and funny (unintentionally) and thoughtful. And for whatever bizarre reason, he was attracted to me. But when he asked to kiss me, I couldn’t believe it. I know that’s an idiom but I mean I genuinely couldn’t believe someone could see me in that way, want me in that way. I had been so content in thinking myself a circumstantial friend – someone who just happened to be there, a wallflower with good conversation, that the transition to woman, to available, interesting woman was incomprehensible to me. I suddenly was very aware of my hands. More accurately, this bizarre habit they had of creeping towards my face, covering as much of myself, hiding as much of my reality as was feasible when having an intimate conversation with somebody staring intently at you. I was so very terrified and embarrassed of being seen that I was turning fingers into an improvised burka: to be seen would be to be discovered as the fraud I surely was. Someone only pretending to be important, someone masquerading as interesting or intelligent or thoughtful. I was petrified this highly superior man (yup, definite low point on the esteem graph) would see the cracks in me and discover this unknowable, invisible thing I had decided I possessed that would ultimately make everyone abandon me as soon as they found it. I had decided, subconsciously, this was logical.

Why would I even begin to feel this way?

I’m afraid this is turning into some sort of cry for help, some mad prostration for attention or worse, pity. Trust me, it’s not. I am fine, I will be wonderful, life will fill again. It’s more that, since beginning this blog and being overwhelmed, overjoyed and overcome by the level of support and interest I have received from friends and strangers alike, I’ve realised that the thing I most admire, and the thing people most value, is honesty. The bravery of embracing vulnerability. I don’t like talking about the man I loved but the truth is others do. Not because they enjoy my pain or heartache (speaking in broad generalisations) but because nothing is more validating than someone voicing the same things we all think and feel but are often too tongue-tied to truly talk about or admit. AKA: a solid percentage of those daily hamster-wheel thoughts that some days seem to revolve around little else except how completely shit it is to feel like shit. And then, the ‘I’m an idiot’ thoughts because you’re powerless to stop yourself feeling like shit.

Today’s society demands perfection and despite this new movement of rebellion against it, everything I see that’s supposed to describe “reality” is still nothing more than practised imperfection, rehearsed fragility calculated and designed to inspire just the right amount of emotion, a smidge of true integrity. And the next instant it’s taken away, laughed, shrugged off, put down to a bad day and suppressed into isolation.

My heroine’s are the strong, incandescent women – the comedians, writers, activists, artists, mothers, waitresses who put their hands up and say, ‘It’s hard, I’m struggling’. Who are at once brilliant and strong and witty and yet who also are crippled with inadequacy, who suffer the same anxious loneliness that nips at all of our ankles occasionally. Nobody does it, nobody comes right out and says it. Not without a plethora of self-deprecating jokes and harried apologies so we don’t think they’re weak or sad or pathetic. Nothing is so two-dimensional.

I am often so completely lost in my life and so completely in love with it simultanesouly. I love and hate seasons instantaneously, I am liable to take either side of an argument depending on my mood and irritability levels, I call myself fat at the same time I look with wonder at this body that’s mine, that I’ve created, that tells the secret stories of all my joyful memories. I meant every word I said and yet that is not to say that every word is all the meaning I have in my life. It’s not even close.

And I just want someone out there to know, that even though the image I often project is in polar opposition to everything I’ve just written, these two realities can exist in tandem. Who I am on an Instagram account or at a dinner party or in a bar – those glimpses of joy and laughter and happiness and beer – are as much a part of my identity as the girl who came home so many nights to stare at her reflection in the mirror, incredulous that that being so alive with grief, that strange girl in bright clothes and mascara had survived the day, that her heart continued to beat and lungs continued to breathe. Most of all, I need to let myself know that I’m ok – better than ok. I struggle so much with accepting my flaws, I battle continuously with my consuming need for self-improvement in some vain thrust for perfection, that the act of letting go – or rather, of failing to let go – is never easy for me. I wear nostalgia like a blanket and self-deprecation is my ‘Princess and the Pea’ mattress.

Even now I’m struggling not to add an addendum to this, to make some facetious witticism so everything I’ve written doesn’t seem so earnest, so raw, so true. I’m actively battling with my keyboard not to go back to where I had the audacity to presume Greek man was attracted to me and justify it or apologise in some way. But I will not.

I will not continue to practice this art of self-deprecation, this act of self-harm (thank you, Hannah Gadsby) where I attempt to convince myself and you that I’m somehow not good enough, that I’m unworthy.

The buck stops here.

The lamentations end here.

The hope starts here.

Here. The place where we’ve been before – remember the wheel? – and will be again. The ok to the not ok to the wonderful to the blah.

But –

Autumn is coming. A new leaf, a turning tide, a rebirth as blossoms ripen to fruit. A time to harvest all that is precious and nurturing, a time to reap the fruits of our labours. And we have laboured.

We have ploughed fields of thought and habit and planted them anew with regenerative crops. We have foraged in the abyss for peace and purpose and found both. We have scaled mountains, careered off into ditches, lain flat and scuppered in damp valleys and risen again to face the sun. And so, even as I want to alleviate the painful truths of this piece, even as I am anticipating the messages of love and affirmation and pity that I do not need, I will not do that. I will not disown a single feeling. No more ‘justs’.

Instead, I will pick up my wicker basket, tuck the satin ribbons of my bonnet firmly under my chin (because of course in this fantasy I am a Jane Austen heroine) and wander once more amongst the wildflowers. I will single out the medicinal and the beautiful, filling my basket with the powers of both until I am once more full and overflowing with the ripest fruits, the sweetest blossoms. I will collect my stores to stave off any hunger, I will pick happiness like I pick daisies – greedy handfuls of deliciousness – and taste the zest and lush of sun-sweetened blackberries. And, when I am ready – and I think, finally, thousands of words later, I am ready – I will cut that cord. I cannot wait for that first breath. I’ve earned it, I deserve it.

It might just be the purest yet.

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