My teenage diaries, and thinking about Ireland

*Content warning – teenage sex, porn, abortion.*

This Bank Holiday weekend I’ve mostly been reading old diaries. It’s strange reading the voice of 15/16 year old me.

Reading them has coincidentally corresponded with the vote repealing the 8th amendment in Ireland. I followed that closely. It hit very close to home to hear people casually discussing the rights I should have. It reminds me that our rights are not for granted.

Almost a third of people in Ireland think that I shouldn’t be able to terminate a pregnancy if I am raped. That my daughter shouldn’t be able to. That someone else’s choice should be able to determine the rest of our lives.

I’ve seen very little talk online, in relation to the Irish referendum, about the culture young women grow up in. About how we are told, by pornography, by advertising, and by TV shows, that our worth lies in being able to make men want to have sex with us.

Nobody talks about that. And yet so many people will talk so casually about how we should be allowed to deal with the pregnancies that inevitably result from us fulfilling this role we are given.

I wasn’t prepared for the anxiety that would come with being a mother to a daughter. Since I was a teenager, the smartphone was invented. The widespread availability of porn is changing lives for our youngsters beyond that which we can imagine. I can look back and see how my own life was touched by it. But that was before the smartphone. What is life like for them now?

In porn, a woman is only as good as the appearance of her body and the sex acts she makes possible.

Every day, our young people have almost unlimited access to these videos on their phones, for free. Our daughters are sitting in classes with boys who will be watching a lot of these videos and some girls get asked for pictures of their own naked bodies. I am the first person to love my smartphone but I can’t imagine what this is doing to our young women (and also to our young men).

We leave our young woman growing up under this pressure, we don’t talk about it, we rarely prepare them, and then if they have an unplanned pregnancy, they are the ones who bear the weight. They are the ones whose bodies are marked and changed by termination, pregnancy and/or childbirth. They are the ones who carry judgment for abortion or an unplanned baby.

There is a lot of talk about consent these days. We all want sex to be consensual. But how consensual can it really be when boys are taught that real men are virile sexual conquestors, and girls are taught that sexy, desirable women say yes?

Requests for labiaplasty increased by 39% in 2016 in the US. Teenage girls who are not yet finished developing are being treated for rough sex injuries, for example, faecal incontinence.

But what about the internal damage? The damage of growing up to believe that you are only worth something if a man wants you? That if you aren’t having sex you are failing? And then of course, it’s your responsibility as a woman to make sure you are contracepted – of the 15 kinds of contraception listed on the NHS website, 13 are suitable for women and only 2 for men.

The message our young girls so often receive is: be sexy, be available, but also make sure your body is prevented from fulfilling it’s natural function.

I’m happy for the women of Ireland but THERE IS STILL SO MUCH TO BE DONE. It is not freedom when women are granted abortions to relieve them of the mistreatment of a patriarchal society. We need to make sure that all sex is freely and fully consensual and enjoyable.

It has upset me a lot, reading my diaries. It has answered a lot of questions. There’s a lot I don’t remember, so, it’s useful that I wrote it down. When I was 16, I spent a year at boarding school, and had a breakdown. I’d really forgotten how bad my mental health got that year. A whole breakdown, forgotten. Trauma does that to your brain.

Now I’m 32, I feel free to use my brain. I feel that I am worth so, so much more than my dress size or how many men find me attractive. I stopped dying my hair last year, as a symbol to myself of how far I have come. It’s important to me to reclaim my body.

But I guess I forgot, somewhere along the way, what I was reclaiming it from. So I’ll let my teenage self speak. These are some excerpts from my diary:

[After I had kissed someone I really liked]: “From the moment things started everything felt wrong, I knew it wasn’t right. He treated me like a whore, and it wasn’t fair.”

“The thing with [crush] is that he never wants to go out with girls, he just wants to treat them like whores.”

“It’s the law that girls should be less experienced than blokes. Sexist but true. I want to be with a bloke who knows what he’s doing.”

About Paris: “And the blokes. Really chatty. Perhaps they come on a bit strong – ‘Smiles’ wanted me to stay and learn ‘French’ with him! – but it’s flattering. I was glad [companion] was there, I felt safe. The barman was sweet – he stroked my face!”

“I feel so insecure about my face. I hate my moustache – I bleach it but it’s still really obvious in my mind’s eye. And my nose is too big and my skin bad. I’m confused coz when I look in the mirror I see me – not ugly really at all, not the prettiest girl in the world but not the most minging either. But I guess boys must be right. I wish I’d been born pretty, life would be so much easier.”

“I like being at a girls school because no one judges you on your attractiveness. Some of the ‘in’ girls here are so minging compared to Warnie [old school]. There they were all size 10 at most, here… Well [popular girl] is size 16, to name one. [Popular girl] is fairly hefty too. Sorry if I seem bitchy, I really don’t mean to be, I’m trying to point out that this should be the way all groups are. Here I can look people in the eye, lift my head up and expose my spotty face because I don’t feel the eyes of 100 blokes on me, thinking ‘she’s minging’.”

“[Male peer] said I was ugly last weekend. I know my face isn’t great. But why do boys feel the need to comment on girls unattractiveness? It’s so degrading. I wouldn’t dream of doing it to him. It’s not fair. I hate him.”

“Boys don’t need to prove themselves to anyone. And it pisses me off the way women are prized for beauty. It’s just something some women are born with. Most aren’t and are disadvantaged. I hate society.”

Underneath all my entries, particularly as time goes on, is a panicky feeling that I have ‘failed’ by ‘still’ being ‘a virgin’ at 16. I rarely write about anything beyond my appearance, boys, friends and my mood – despite having an English teacher for A level who was really excited by my promise.

I’ll finish with a poem I wrote a couple of years later:

“To look at me
And see more than an attractive girl:
The glass plated doll
With the suggestive eyes.

To listen to me
And hear more than the ego massage
The loving words trip so willingly
From the trusting mouth.

To talk with me
And hear my thoughts and ideals:
Rather than using this sounding board
For your self-trumpeted wisdom.

To spend time with me
And realise I am more than an accessory
A fully-functioning dancing doll
Yours upon request.”

#forourgirls #letsdobetter

My year of living transparently

Well, not really. But I’m trying.

See, one of the things I find about having been bullied – and my subsequent attempts to deal with that – is that my response has been to hide myself away: that loneliness becomes something I carry around with me, no matter how many people are there.

Here I have written about some of the paths I have taken in attempts to find healing.

———–

My first attempt to deal with the bullying was to move across the country and start over again, trying to build a new personality from scratch. That didn’t work so well. I had a lot more friends than I’d ever had before, but, I felt lonely inside. I didn’t know who I was or how to show people that or even that that was important.

I was trying to put a new personality on top of a traumatised one, and parts of the trauma would leak through. As time went on, it got harder and harder to maintain the new personality and more and more pain would break out. I’d not treat people well. I’d feel out of control. I drank a lot. I would lose my temper unexpectedly. My emotions were all over the place. I struggled to hold down a part time job.

Something that made things harder was meeting my first serious boyfriend. I thought a relationship would take my loneliness away, but I found that in a relationship, I was presented with a mirror to myself, and because I didn’t like myself, I couldn’t handle that. Trying to create intimacy and vulnerability – while also denying the person I am – was completely contradictory and a very confusing and all-consuming way to live.

One of the off shoots of my internal loneliness was the way I saw church. I started to go to church while in my previous relationship… I’d never been part of a church before and initially it struck me as a group of people who had shiny happy lives – lives I coveted. I felt so on the outside and I wasn’t sure how to integrate in a community, I’d never learnt those skills. I thought acceptance would come when I looked like those other people.

Thus, early on, I started to believe that part of being a Christian was looking shiny and happy. That was really damaging, because if God makes people, then accepting the person that He made and called beautiful – exactly as you are – is worship and faith in Him. I spent a lot of years as a Christian feeling not good enough and that I wasn’t a “proper” Christian until I looked shiny and happy and was a visible part of a church… But the irony was that I didn’t really ever feel part of a church until I had accepted myself in all my awkward beautiful glory (and, skipping ahead a bit, that started to come with my autism revelation – six weeks after I got baptised, three years ago).

Denying who I was caused a whole heap of trouble, and it caused me and others a lot of pain. And the upshot – the crisis point – of it was that I ended up losing some friends I held very dear. That hurt worse than the childhood rejection, because I not only had that rejection to deal with, but it also opened up all the underlying rejection I’d never dealt with. And also, because I’d tried everything in my power to stop it happening and yet it had still happened, I felt quite powerless – and like maybe I deserved to be on the outskirts of society.

In the long run it became a really good thing. Like ripping a plaster off. I needed to deal with all that pain but I was never going to get there on my own.

———–

So my next attempt was to hide myself away. I didn’t know how I could be me and be accepted socially, so I just hid away – in our first home, on the outskirts of a small town. I saw a counsellor; I walked the dog; I grew to have a mentoring friend, who I visited most weeks for a chat and to share our stories; and of course I had my husband. We also rented a room to a lovely person, who became an amazing friend… But aside from that, I couldn’t bear to open myself up to people. My circle was really small. We went to a church in another city, and it was really big, so I could be anonymous. I had control over my relationships, and I didn’t have to let anyone in further than I wanted. Even once I eventually started work again after my breakdown, I mainly kept to myself.

That period of my life was the start of empowerment. I decided not to seek friendships until I liked and accepted myself enough not to be defined by the acceptance of others. I knew I was lacking a core sense of self and that I could only move on once I’d found it. I enjoyed getting to know myself in that time; I enjoyed those long walks, just me and the dog. I had never before been able to be by myself and be content.

I didn’t really need to leave my little bunker of solitude… until we had our eldest. And suddenly, it didn’t work so well any more. Motherhood is infinitely easier with others alongside, and where once I had found it easier to deal with a hard time in solitude, with a child a lack of support made us both so much more vulnerable.

And there are other reasons it no longer worked so well… The environment I lived in was now the environment my children would grow up in. I didn’t want them to inherit my isolation and fear of the outside. I wanted to teach them how to engage with it. The minute my son was born, the house we lived in – from which I needed to get a bus to go to a playgroup – the house we started our marriage in, the house I recovered in, it suddenly became terribly impractical.

———–

And so, when my husband looked for a new job, we looked for somewhere attached to a thriving community. With playgroups, shops, and churches we could walk to. With good public transport. With lots of ways to meet people. A place where our children could grow up loved.

If you know where we live, you know how lucky we got. It couldn’t be better for that. And as we waited to move here, I sort of thought I would just be able to slot myself in. To go from a place where I felt very isolated – externally and internally – and just hit the ground running in a community.

I found it didn’t work like that.

For a start, when we moved I was all over the place with OCD.

But also it’s that, feeling unacceptable in myself was something I projected onto everything around me. Every decision I made in regards to parenting I felt exposed in. My son had some behavioural challenges and I took that very personally, I thought people wouldn’t want me around, I anticipated his rejection and withdrew us before I could feel any rejection. It’s still something I struggle with, I don’t with my daughter for some reason, I feel tougher, but with my son I feel very exposed. It’s important for me that people accept him, but I find it hard to pursue areas where he might be accepted. And I feel a bit shit about that, because I can see how it’s affected him.

But all things in time, all things in time. I have hope for the both of us yet.

It’s been gradual that I’ve been able to work at feeling accepted. We’ve been here almost 3.5 years now. After we’d been here six months, I realised I’m autistic, and that felt like the final and most important piece towards internal acceptance.

And then after eighteen months here, we started going to our church, my son started going to nursery, and then my daughter was born. All of these things brought more external links into our everyday lives. I’ve been much more confident getting out and about with my daughter. I don’t have that same feeling of being judged and unwanted that I carried when my son was born.

I’m really, really proud of all we’ve achieved here, in this place.

———–

And so, last year, not long after my daughter was born, I decided to stop relying on Facebook for socialisation. During my time living in solitude, and then after my son was born, the internet was an oasis and a life-sustaining resource which met many of my needs. I first of all started using a mental health support forum. I then stumbled across groups for other people with balanced translocations, experiencing similar fertility struggles to me. I used a large fertility forum online. I used mummy groups on Facebook, and after I realised I’m autistic, the first thing I did was join a Facebook group for women with aspergers.

These groups were so helpful. They helped me practise expressing myself in a way that felt safer. It initially felt scary, to join a group and reach out, but the more I did it, the more confident I found myself feeling, and the easier I expressed myself. And I found that, contrary to how I’d felt all my life, I had things to say that people found worth hearing. It also gave me a chance to notice things, like how easily I feel rejected, and how much I struggle to put myself forward. The moment I notice something, I can work on it. I found a great deal in those communities and they gave me more than I can adequately express.

But eventually I came to feel like they had become my safe place, which I was now ready and needed to move on from. It was sort of like they’d helped me build training wheels for life, and there comes a point when training wheels are holding you back. I was staying in my house and talking to people far away, when there was a community close to me I wanted to be involved in – and I wasn’t going to push myself into that community until I was uncomfortable enough to need to. I was itching to live more transparently, both in my community and online.

———–

So last year, I left all the Facebook groups I relied upon. I did it on a wing and a prayer and with a hope that I might find the void it left filled with some people I could see and touch. People my children could know, too. I did it feeling very vulnerable, leaving behind people I’d interacted with daily for years.

It’s fourteen months later now. I still feel a bit scared. I still feel very vulnerable. But the last year has been amazing. I have experienced life on a different level than I knew possible before. Opportunities have come to build relationships. People have shown us amazing love. I have felt hurt at times and am learning to navigate that – I know that if I want to open myself up to people it’s important to learn those skills.

The highs and lows have been pretty intense. I didn’t realise how vulnerable I would feel once my son started school locally. I see parents and children every day that we will probably know for the next seven years, and I didn’t realise how exposed and terrified I would feel with that. How personally I would take his failings, yet again. How I would relive everything I went through at school, over and over again.

But it’s ok. It’s going to be ok.

It’s amazing to have the opportunity to work this stuff out. I’m a firm believer that every cloud in my life can have a silver lining. Only when the pain comes out, can it be healed.

And it’s given me a passion. Having hidden myself away for so long, I don’t want to do that any more. At all. When I left my Facebook groups, I thought, I want to be able to share as openly on my Facebook timeline as I do in these closed spaces. And so I’ve worked at that. I find that with putting myself out there, there is a desensitization process. I start by feeling very vulnerable. But gradually, it gets better.

I used to feel extremely anxious about expressing myself on my Facebook page because it is so public. I would be really perfectionist and try to not share “too much”, and only things I knew would get a positive response. It started to feel less and less authentic as I uncovered more and more of who I really am. I admired people who could put it all out there. I know it’s not considered sensible by many. But to heck, when other people do that I feel safe – I feel like it’s ok to have imperfections.

On Facebook we’ve started to share other people’s words more and more. Other people’s self expression. In my early Facebook memories are just MY words, MY pictures, other people talking TO ME. But in recent years my memories have become more and more full of other people’s words – in memes, in articles, in videos. Where are our voices? Where is our truth? I like a good Facebook article or video and goodness knows I read and watch enough. But in all of those I wonder, where is the space for us?

So I started blogging and generally trying to share more on Facebook. Not telling other people how to live (as little as I can… the struggle is real!!). Not with the intent of making many followers. That must be so stressful. Just sharing my life. Open for criticism. With the aim of maybe encouraging a safer, less perfect feeling space on Facebook. It’s totally uncool to write a blog about your own life right? That’s why I have to do. I am very uncool, I do care about things intensely, I tend to be very transparent, and if I keep that hidden out of shame and a fear of rejection, then I will project out to others that it’s not ok for them to have those traits either.

I have a friend who writes poems on Facebook, it is a light in my life every time I read one. I have another friend who shares videos of herself talking about her faith. There are so many more, sharing themselves in different ways that are beautiful, on Facebook and not. I love these people, and I love the insight their words give me into their souls. It makes me feel like it’s ok to bare mine, too.

I do this quite a bit for myself, because it heals me massively to share myself positively. To know that any acceptance I feel is for the person I truly am. But it’s also to create a space where people don’t have to feel like I did, I hope. To be a person that people know they can be truly themselves with. I’ve had that from people – authenticity and openness – and it has helped me heal so much. So I try to create spaces that offer that back.

———–

I want to do more. I want to go into schools and talk about autism. I want to talk about bullying. I want to create spaces for people who are mentally ill, or who have experienced childhood trauma. I want to create spaces for new mums, where they can come and just be. At the moment, I want to do everything. I know that’s not possible, but, it feels very exciting to have so many dreams when I’ve always doubted myself so much. To feel I have a purpose.

I figure, who better to do these things than an autistic person? I am everything society thinks is weird, and if I can be ok with myself and project that, then hopefully other people can feel ok about their weirdnesses, too. I don’t know how much of this I can do, but I feel like, if I keep offering myself up to God, the ways forward are going to keep coming.

And after my year (ish) of living transparently (ish), and despite how uncomfortable it can be, and the rude and unwanted interruption of some very persistent OCD, I currently feel happier and less lonely than I ever have. So, I guess it was worth it…

Peace out.