The longest love I’ll ever know

All sorts of crap gets written about sisters.

Much of it is cliché. We don’t drink wine together, or post sister memes on each other’s Facebook walls. If you hurt me, she will not come after you with a bat.

If anything, any violence in our relationship is reserved exclusively for each other. After approximately 48 hours in each other’s company, we start to snipe and bitch. I’ve never been as vile to anybody in my entire life as I have been to her, with relatively little provocation.

And, like almost all younger siblings I know, I can be disparaging of her. Fortunately, she’s stoical enough not too react too much. And, hey: she can serve it out too.

I never felt less cool as a kid than when she appraised me, coldly, flicking her glancing up and down over my not-quite-there outfit, my sloppy drunkness, my childish tears.

Plus, she was a hot teenager, and I had a lot of male friends. If you have been in this situation (second only to having a hot Mum) you will feel my pain.

All in all, as kids, we annoyed each other. We had baths together for many years, shared a bed on hundreds of occasions, pinching and kicking and irritating. She once convinced me that a paedophile was somebody who weed on children. I once physically shoved her in the tumble dryer. (She’s quite small, mind).

Sometimes, I think she comes into my room and waltzes out, leaving the door open… just to spite me.

And yet. She’s the only person I can answer the phone to by shrieking ‘Jessica, no!’ and gain total, immediate comprehension. Humming a bar of ‘Cats the musical’ is enough to launch a 40 minute long kitchen dance production.

We once spent an entire Christmas hiding a Satsuma in each others bags/scarves/shoes, to the point where I tried to pull out my purse to pay for an eyebrow tint and came out with a handle of tiny, squished orange.

Ultimately: I love her, fundamentally and deeply. She is mine to criticise and defend, to bitch at and love bomb. I criticise her and make sarcastic comments, but if you were to join me I would turn that same, sharp tongue on you.

She is my sister. My sibling. And a sibling is, with any luck, the longest love any of us will ever know.

Are we alike? Not really. She is reserved where I am open, polished and chic where I am scrappy, analytical to my emotional. She was a natural athlete – a ballerina, a member of teams, somebody who wore a bib with a number on.

I hated teams, and sweating, and long-limbed girls in pleated skirts braying towards me on the hockey pitch. I write for a living; she’s dyslexic. She pronounces bath like it’s got an R in it. I do not. 

Even physically, we’re miles apart: fair and dark, tanned and pale. Somehow, despite being shorter than me, she has longer legs. This seems unfair, but I’m learning to live with it. (She’s also got bigger boobs, but small tits are in now, so I’m over that, too.)

(“But there’s something…” people say, screwing up their brows as they consider us, “Something in the shape of your face. Something in the mannerisms.” Well, go figure: 25 years and a shared gene pool has to count for something.)

She is tough and brave and determined. I endlessly admire her capacity for grit, for survival, wrapped as it is in a small, blonde and neatly manicured package. This is incidental, but she is also beautiful; I know without seeing that she will make a beautiful bride, a beautiful wife.

That’s why I’m writing, you see: to congratulate her, to honour her. She’s getting married. (Can words be an engagement present, Sophie, or is that cheating?)

She has a date, a venue, and a fiancé. She has, in me, a Maid of Honour. Most of all, she has love: the sort of love that we can and should hold up as an example. A model to aspire to.

Like me, he isn’t very much like her. He’s loud, talkative, hyperactive. He comes from a clan, full of noise and love and bustle. I suppose you could call him the brother I never particularly wanted but am now delighted to have. When the ripples of Dad’s death closed shut, he was left within the circle, and I can’t imagine life (or her) without him.  

To look at them together is to see what love should be like. It’s wonderful, and I’m so honoured to be part of their day.

So here’s to them. Here’s to love: the perfecting blending of two things which were fine by themselves, but are somehow more complete together. As I often do, I reach for the words, and find Julian Barnes has beaten me to them:

“You put together two people who have not been together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a faire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed.’

The world is certainly changed for us. It’s a strange thing, being a younger sibling. You’re always reaching, always trailing in their shadow. I can remember vividly thinking that whatever she did was the last word in cool – a Sienna Miller boho skirt, skinny jeans, dolly shoes.

I hated it as a child, but now I know a shadow is a cool, comfortable place to be. You can watch them strike out ahead and test the water.

And now she’s off again, the promise glinting on her finger. All that trailing along behind her – turns out it was practice, all along.

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3 Important love lessons from Love Island

Say what you will about reality TV, but I reckon Love Island has a lot to offer us. Eight whole weeks of memes and great office chat, for a start. But life in the villa also provides some fascinating and genuinely quite important lessons about love, life, toxic masculinity and how we view relationships in 2018.

I’m semi-ashamed to admit I easily churned out about 5000 words of draft copy for this blog; seriously, I’ve had to finalise it on a Saturday when there wasn’t any new fodder for me to comment on. I could write endlessly about the gender dynamics and attitudes at play in the villa. But nobody wants to read my Love Island dissertation, so for a start, I’ve whittled down this post to three things the villa can teach us about love and the dangers of toxic masculinity.

Love Island Lesson 1: A ‘bad boy’ usually makes for a ‘bad boyfriend’

Why do we persist in loving bad boys when the clue is quite literally in the name? I get it: they’re usually bloody attractive. Adam is a handsome rogue, you have to give him that.

I’ve done it. Your mates have done it. We’ve all bloody done it.

But WHY? Why is this a thing? I think we tell ourselves that we really mean: ‘I love cheeky guys, with good chat’. But in reality, on 9/10 occasions, this really equates to ‘I love people who treat me like shit, ghost me on WhatsApp, have a track record of cheating, and give me post-coital tristesse at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon.’

I know it’s a game show, so Adam theoretically has license to churn through women like I churn through Holland & Barrett raisin and cashew nut mix. But Adam has shown his stripes repeatedly; I’ll never get over his smirking arrogance despite Rosie’s visible distress. Another level of callous. But now, a week or two later, all seems forgotten? At any rate, the gals are still remarkably keen to crack on.

It’s a truly bizarre notion and it stinks of toxic masculinity. Because every time we knowingly decide to take a spin on a bad boy, we reinforce the notion that if you’re good looking enough, treating women like shit is okay. Granted, poor Kendall wasn’t to know. But Rosie really had the warning signs in front of her. And Zara? Oh, love: when somebody shows you who they are, believe them the first time. (Granted Darylle is yet to properly declare herself, but I’m not holding out much hope).

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Obviously. Credit: Love Island Twitter

And women aren’t the only ones at risk here. The notion of the desirable bad boy is just as damaging for men. It enables and encourages bad behaviour. How can men feel comfortable displaying softness and warmth and empathy, when we constantly reinforce the idea that being a dickhead is an attractive quality?

And look, I get it: it’s a game show. But Adam’s complete lack of remorse/empathy/human emotion for Rosie as she poured her heart out was terrifying, and it really worries me that people might still be looking at him and thinking: ‘yes, he’s a literal turd, but he’s very handsome, and I’d definitely still have a crack’. Gals (and guys), it’s a no from me. Bad boys make bad boyfriends at best. And at worst…

Lesson 2: Think he’s gaslighting you? He’s probably gaslighting you.

It’s okay for your partner to drive you crazy. I often infuriate mine, with my propensity for squirrelling hairbrushes under the covers and leaving jobs half finished.

What’s not okay is for your partner to make you feel crazy. If the person you’re with repeatedly makes you uncertain and confused about your version of events, it’s important to take time to question what’s going on.

Warning signs include: overtly making you feel jealous and then denying all knowledge; recounting conversations in a way that jars with your memory of events; twisting something you did say so you can’t technically claim innocence; and insisting that your intentions were different to what they were (“you were flirting with him!” “no, I just smiled at him for serving me dinner”). Bonus point for any “I just get jealous and angry because I love you so much” manipulation.

Serious red flags include feeling permanently more anxious than you used to, walking on eggshells, avoiding confrontation, and constantly feeling like you’ve done something wrong.

Obviously this happens on both sides. But it’s in many ways trickier for women, because accusations made by gaslighters are often reinforced by negative gender stereotypes—‘she’s crazy, she’s insecure, she’s embarrassing herself’.

Not only is this toxic masculinity at its finest, it’s also bloody difficult to spot, because it’s insidious and creeping. To make it worse, these unhealthy relationships often start in a whirl of romantic passion, so you’re left thinking: ‘but this person was so great to me—surely I’m imagining this?’ Gaslighters, as a rule, are charming. They’re often good looking, and charismatic, and completely oblivious to the noxiousness of their own behaviour.

Fortunately, with Love Island being televised, it’s much clearer that Adam is indeed trash. But for those of us who don’t have the privilege of round the clock camera crews, a simple bit of advice. If you’ve got a stage where you seriously wonder if you’re being gaslit: you probably are. Please, please, get out. This can so easily spiral into serious emotional abuse. I know too many women—strong, clever, beautiful women—who have been reduced a shell by this sort of behaviour. Compile some screenshots. Share them with loved ones. You are not alone. You are not insane.

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Credit: Buzzfeed

Lesson 3: Being a ‘nice guy’ doesn’t make you the ‘right guy’

Now let’s swing to the other end of the toxic masculinity pendulum. The nice guy. The spiritual guy. Lord forgive me, but I’ve fallen for this one before. Bad boys might be horrendous, but as least they’re obvious about it.

Let’s lay it down: virtually every single man I have ever met who makes a visible point of highlighting his own ‘niceness’ has had more than a hint of the ‘tremendous shit’ about him.

Seriously, this is just not something that genuinely kind people do. Kindness is always visible without overt reference. It announces itself quietly, as does true spirituality, arriving with a soft, unflappable aura of general loveliness. It’s just obvious. Decency is like… sticky toffee pudding. Not much too look at, but by god, you know it when you smell it.

And we’ve had two notable cases of nice-guy syndrome in the villa, albeit expressed quite differently. Presenting the defendants: Eyal and Alex. Whether you agree with me or not, I offer two pieces of evidence:

Alex: ‘I was ready to treat Ellie like a princess and she’s thrown it in my face’.

Eyal: ‘I didn’t expect everything I’d worked towards to be thrown in my face’.

Sorry: nope. I had so much material for this segment, but really it boils down to the above. WTF? I’m sorry, but you virtually never hear women saying this sort of shit. And I’m not here for it. Women are not coinstars. You cannot shove pennies of niceness into us and expect to get a paper bill of adoration (or for us to ‘do bits’) in return.

Where does this attitude come from? Maybe it’s the flip side of the bad boy problem. Are we inadvertently teaching our boys that some men are so awful to women, the act of being ‘nice’ merits romantic affection? This is a gross disservice to all genders, if true.

Because let’s be clear: having nice-guy syndrome doesn’t make you a bad person. I don’t seriously dislike Alex; I think he’s probably well intentioned and quite sweet in his bumbling way. And yes, being rejected is hard. (I do think Eyal is a toe, soz). But it can make you dangerous. My stomach dropped when I saw Alex’s reaction to Ellie parring him off.

Rejection can make your chin tremble with impending tears but it shouldn’t make your nostrils flare with rage.

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Credit: Love Island Twitter

TLDR: 3 lessons from the men of Love Island.

  • When somebody shows you who they are, believe them the first time. A bad-boy dickhead will always be a dickhead, and you really don’t deserve it.
  • When your partner makes you feel crazy, walk away. (Unless you are Beyonce, crazy in love, in which case, proceed.)
  • Nice guy ≠good guy. Approach with caution.

So there we have it: my three lessons on love from the villa. You may think be thinking: ‘this is a mental heath blog, what are you blathering on about?’ but I know categorically how ignoring these lessons can lead to the detriment of your mental health. Romantic love won’t fix your mental health, but by God it can destroy it.

And this is never truer than when some poisonous gender fuckery is at play. (I’m aware this is all very binary man/woman, by the way; that’s simple because I’m limiting this to the villa. I know it’s more complex.) Learning to recognise toxic masculinity and react appropriately is vital for your self-preservation. It’s the curly-haired hippy with a nasty streak when you don’t play ball with his chakras. It’s the gorgeous, dead-behind-the-eyes lothario. It’s the well-spoken Doctor whose nostrils twitch with anger when yet another girl fails to fancy him.

And it’s complicated, because these same men can be kind and funny and good. Silly and soft, sweet and shy, charming and charismatic and side-splittingly funny. We all exist on a spectrum, and we are all products of our society.

You might think this is just 1500 words of me ranting about the opposite sex, but it’s not. I certainly have my Angry Feminist™ badge, but I adore the opposite sex; I am fortunate to be surrounded by brilliant, decent men, so there’s no reason for me not to. The reason I want to call this shit out is because it benefits all of us to identify and cull these sorts of behaviours. We all stand to benefit from living and loving in a world without toxic masculinity.

So what can we do? We can call it out, when we see it. We can reject it, when we encounter it. We can do more to teach our men that we value them most when they’re decent and thoughtful and good. We can teach women that they never deserve to be spoken to like shit, manipulated into feeling insane, or made to feel obligated by the basic human quality of kindness.

It’s not much, and it’s just some silly lessons from a silly TV show. But it’s a start.

Sorry to go all ‘he’s just not that into you’, but as a closing note… Want to know the sign of a healthy, emotionally stable man?

If somebody really likes you they will make it fairly obvious, generally be quite decent to you, and then ask you to be their girl/boyfriend.

That’s it.

It’s that simple.

(Love you, Jani).

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Credit: Love Island Twitter

 

PS.

Girls, if you’re wondering how to remodel your attitudes toward men, and how you deserve to be treated, I present: Queen Laura.

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Credit: Love Island Twitter

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Loving Someone With Anxiety: Here’s To You

Whether you like it or not, Valentine’s Day is a time which prompts thoughts about love—and I’ve written a few posts this week about mental health and love, discussing the how love won’t fix your mental health, and the strange narrative of the ‘mentally ill girl’ being somehow alluring.

They’re both important topics, but something I’ve noticed is that these narratives all leave something out – how difficult it can be to love somebody with a mental health issue.

I often worry (go figure: I have anxiety) about how frustrating life can be for people who invest and love deeply in their mentally ill boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses. Loving someone with anxiety can be exhausting, and the people who do this deserve praise and acknowledgment for how relentlessly they love and support people who are not easy to love and support. They deserve (in this week of love and card sales) to be thanked.

I have someone to thank. Roxane Gay has a phrase that always pulls at my heartstrings: ‘my person’. I feel a particular affinity for this, because I often feel boyfriend is not the apt term for the person I split my rent with.

‘My person’ has known me for half our lifetime and can spot a cloud on my horizon almost before I can feel it. He supports me when I weep nonsensically, and leaves me be when I need to be alone. He makes my life better, caring for me even when I am difficult to care for. (I think I do the same for him, although he inevitably needs it less).

He’s also tough, and takes very little of the shit I could probably dole out were I more indulged. I know that I am loved, and this gives me the space to be honest about how I feel. He tells me I am beautiful but also reminds me it wouldn’t matter if I weren’t. He’s my best friend. Here’s to him.

And here’s to you, if you love and support somebody through their darkest days. Here’s to the patient and compassionate lovers. The ones who support and hold. The ones who live with the storms and the rollercoasters. If you have somebody who supports you through your mental health ups and downs, take a moment to thank them this week. We could probably do it without you—but we really wouldn’t want to.

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Loving A Mentally Ill Girl

There are all sorts of narratives about women, love and happiness, and we see them from our earliest days. A popular example is that love will fix you in the broken places or save you from the darkest days of your life (thanks, Disney). Thankfully, this myth is losing ground, and our public narratives increasingly contain strong and empowered individuals who learn to save themselves.

This is all good news. But another narrative has emerged in recent years, surrounding love and mental health—and it’s quite a worrying one.

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Not goals.

It’s a narrative about loving the mentally ill girl. I see it in TV and film. The mentally ill girl is almost a trope, and there’s a certain dark glamour in loving this girl (providing she’s skinny and tousle-haired—I’m looking at you, Skins). This girl is dark and fragile and sexy. A glittering star in a dark sky. She’s a project and a fantasy and she needs a good man to straighten her out, all at the same time.

I also see it in written articles from time to time, suggesting people with anxiety are the best ones to fall in love with. ‘Why loving a girl with anxiety will be the best thing you’ll do’, and so on. Because girls with anxiety are sensitive and empathetic and won’t ever walk out on you. Right.

I can’t help but worry when I see these titles like this. For one thing, it diminishes women’s experience of mental health issues, turning them into a sort of stock character. For another, this strikes me as a disturbing and dangerous attitude to love. I think it comes from a good place – a place of letting people with mental illnesses know that they are valid and worthy of love. But when I was in the grips of major depression and chronic anxiety, I was not a good person to love. By turns weepy and distant, I was never more selfish or less easy to be around than when in the grips of my illness.

This didn’t make me unworthy of love, but it certainly wasn’t a way of being that anyone should idolise. When I was very ill, I didn’t have the emotional capacity to look after myself—let alone be a good partner to somebody else. Worse yet, a certain type of person is drawn to this—someone who wants to ‘fix you’ and take the credit for it, and then have you be indebted.

This blog revolves around the fact I think there should be no shame in being mentally ill, so let me make it plain: I am not saying mentally ill people shouldn’t be loved, because of course they should. But I will stand up and argue that it isn’t helpful to suggest ‘loving the mentally ill girl’ is the best thing you can do. Not all anxious or depressed people become compassionate, loving, empathetic and loyal. Many compassionate, loving, empathetic and loyal people have never been mentally ill.

This attitude reduces women. It glamorous a horrendous experience. Worse still, it’s potentially dangerous for women. And that’s not okay.

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Why Love Won’t Fix Your Mental Health

Love is difficult to get right at the best of times, let alone when you’re in the midst of a mental health crisis. I’ve done all sorts of funny things when not quite in my right mind. I’ve made dubious and hurtful choices. I’ve broken up a good love and pursued a bad one.

But somehow, even when we know we should be by ourselves, love is hard to stay away from. It’s a story we’re told from the very beginning: love will make us better. Love will fix what is broken. It may even be our reward for struggling on through the enchanted forest and fighting a beast.

It won’t fix us, of course: romantic love is no better route for curing mental illness than alcohol or drugs, for all it mimics their mood-boosting effects.

It’s a tempting thought, though. Mental illness is exhausting. And being alone can be so very tiring, even when your health is well and good. Someone else’s arms can feel like the port in the storm.

And I don’t want to diminish the importance of love: you certainly can’t understate the support many people’s partners give them. I’ve written a post to thank these people. But it’s also important to remember that love won’t fix your mental health.

Because love, even a good love, can’t save you from your own mind. And whilst we’re at it: you can’t love somebody else into good mental health. You can do everything right and try to fight for it every way you can, but sometimes, the most important thing for your mental health—and your partners’—is to walk away.

And that’s a good love. A bad love can be downright dangerous for those with mental health issues, leaving people in a vulnerable state open to manipulation and abuse. Obviously, I’m not saying all mentally ill people should be single: if you have a supportive and loving partner, recovery can be much easier. But if your love is actively making your mental health worse, and you’re free to do so: leave. Life’s too short. There’s too much at stake.

Because whilst it’s scary to deal with your mental health alone, it could be the best skill you ever acquire. Something inside of you cannot be fixed by somebody else. Learn to sail your own ship and you can surmount any storm. Build the strength to go places by yourself, to sit in silence, to journey alone.

In the words of Jeanette Winterson: “In this life, you have to be your own hero. By that I mean you have to win whatever it is that matters to you by your own strength and in your own way.”

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