I’m heading to work, reaching the vast, empty square that I often amuse myself by walking across blind, eyes firmly closed behind my sunglasses, for as many steps as I dare, when I realise that there is no music in my headphones, and there hasn’t been for some time. Just a resounding silence. My life is no longer set to a soundtrack.
This is the first sign.
Once at work, the weird situation of not really having much to do – because my job should probably never have been created in the first place – is suddenly getting me down and stressing me out, instead of amusing me, as it had for the past two or three months. Now I’m doubting my own abilities, fearing every new task and filled with a nauseous dread when I think about the week when my colleague will be away and I’ll have to replace her. Imposter syndrome, flatlining self-confidence, retiring to the ladies’ toilet to rest my head between my thighs and breathe through occasional panic attacks…
These are the second set of signs.
Then there are the interactions with people I care about. Face to face is less of an issue, as I tend to bask in the presence of people I love, and also to drink alcohol when I’m socialising, both of which lift my mood. But WhatsApp, for example, the medium of choice for most of my phone-averse nearest and dearest, where banter has hitherto been fluid and easy and fun, has suddenly become a minefield for me. My wit feels dulled; my sparring sword blunted and rusty. Worse still, my reactions are off: I might take offence where none was intended, misunderstand the meaning of something ambiguous (but take it the worst possible way), or read volumes into a protracted silence.
Of course I’m self-aware enough to know that this is happening, so I am beating myself up about my own behaviour and try to address it by either staying offline altogether, to avoid causing harm (which makes people worry) or logging on and making attempts to sound normal.
This is the third sign.
There are other signs, I could go on, but… let’s face it, there is no sense in lying to myself any longer, I just need to admit this. I’m struggling, right now. No-one or nothing rational is to blame, and there is nothing to be gained in looking for a reason, a trigger, a fix.
It’s September: back to school, back to reality. But I’m not sure that summer’s end makes other people spend parts of each day feeling like their skin has been flayed and they want nothing more than to curl up into a tight little ball? The most convincing explanation I have is just that this is the flipside to shooting skyward – for no reason – back in May.
It’s costing me, every day, to wear a cheerful mask in front of my colleagues (who know nothing about my diagnosis), or to attempt to hide how I’m feeling from my children (my eldest does know, and worries, and asked me sternly yesterday whether I was taking my meds – I am).
Then there is the guy I’m seeing. It’s new. He met me when I was right at the apex of my curve. I suppose I’m a little afraid that he may like this new me less, or lack the patience to deal with some of her quirks and insecurities.
But experience has shown me that there is little I can do but wait for the worst of these feelings to pass, and pass they will. It’s not all day every day. It’s just some of the time. It peaks and troughs. It comes and goes. And the alternative is to be medicated to be the point of numbness. That I do not want.
So I’ll roll with this paranoid-melancholy-anxiety rollercoaster for now. If this is the price to pay for my fucking amazing summer, I have no regrets: it was worth it.
It began with a surreal visit to the family planning clinic.
When I called to make the appointment – because my bourgeois, avenue Montaigne gynecologist had gone on vacation for the whole summer, just when I really needed her assistance – it was explained to me that in order to see the doctors, I would first need to sit through a group session with four or five other women. An information exchange. Given my advanced age and the fact that I divulged on the phone that I’d test driven a number of different types of contraception over the years, the lady who took my details jokingly said that I could co-lead the session.
As I arrived last but one, and the doctor saw us in the order of arrival, I wound up spending an hour and a half around the table with a group of women of assorted ages, our number gradually decreasing, as two young girls emerged with bandaged arms (contraceptive implant, because they were worried about remembering to take their pill), and others ducked out to a nearby pharmacy to fetch their prescribed IUDs. I had my Mirena IUD in my bag, prescribed long ago and set aside, but still within its sell by date. I was determined to leave with it inside my womb.
During the long wait we touched on so many subjects that were alien to me. Apparently people approach family planning requesting Certificates of Virginity, even though this is completely illegal. The number of people asking for hymen reconstructions is on the rise. A young Muslim couple, for example, who’d been having sex but were about to tie the knot, wanted to get the surgery, at considerable cost, so that their families would be able to perform the requisite checks on the bride on their wedding night and avoid disgrace. An African girl present explained what this entailed. In addition to checking the sheets after intercourse – which I’d always assumed you could work around by buying a fake blood capsule from a joke shop if you were resourceful – said that the aunts of the brides would perform a thorough examination of the bride prior to the act.
“I can’t think of anything worse than getting fingered by my Aunts on my wedding night,” I retorted, provoking a collective intake of breath. Sometimes I say something in French – here “me faire doigter” – and then wonder whether I’ve been far more vulgar than I intended and have caused serious offence. But after a pause, came laughter. The atmosphere changed subtly after that. The ice was well and truly broken. Later, the conversation turned to female genital mutilation. I didn’t attempt make any jokes about that. My filter is defective, but I do have some limits.
When my turn finally came, two doctor’s pored over the documents I’d brought for context. They were conflicted about installing the device at all. All signs point categorically towards my womb being a dead zone. But better safe than sorry, I insisted. It would be a delicate procedure, obviously, because IUDs are best inserted when the cervix is open, when the woman is menstruating. But I was not bleeding, and may never bleed again.
Half an hour later, my legs splayed wide in stirrups, I was having some kind of undignified out-of-body experience, contemplating myself from the ceiling. My breathing was fast and shallow, something I half remembered learning in preparation for childbirth, and I was trying to tune out the scraping, poking, and prodding feelings happening deep inside me.
One Mirena had already been broken and discarded, and I’d heard murmurings that my cervix was “in spasm”. I imagined it clamped firmly closed, uncooperative. After all the waiting, after all this fucking discomfort, after ducking out of work at 4:30 pm, please oh please let them get this glorified fishhook inside me.
Finally, on the last attempt, there was an almighty pinchy grindy stabby feeling, which caused me to cry out, my eyes to water. Mirena had landed. The doctor performed an ultrasound to check the positioning, and prescribed another one for a few days later, as she had some doubts that even after all that, it was in correctly. I limped out of there, feeling victorious, but depleted. And in a great deal of pain.
Take ibuprofen, was their advice, for the cramps and the inflammation. Yeah, I thought to myself. People who take lithium – as I told you I do – are expressly forbidden to take ibuprofen. Call yourself a doctor? But thanks anyway. I’ll just ride it out.
As soon as I’d left the building, there was someone I really wanted to share my news with, but I couldn’t reach him.
I found that odd, because he knew about my appointment, and we had spoken just prior to it. I assumed he would want to know about the outcome. I came out at 7:16 pm and sent him some messages on whatsapp, our preferred means of communication, as we both have a preference for the written word. A little later, I left a phone message. Something I’ve never done before. There was no answer.
I was little worried, to be honest. Things with us are still in the early stages, and we’ve had our teething problems. I’m not always sure I can trust my instincts about when silence means something is amiss, or just that he is busy. He doesn’t like to feel a slave to his phone, and I don’t want to be perceived as pushy. But this was important news. Mirena was for us.
I had made plans to meet a friend in my local, so I went through with it, despite feeling tempted to curl up in bed with a hot water bottle. Maybe alcohol would help numb the pain, and I didn’t much feel like being alone.
After a couple of drinks, I went to the bathroom, and found blood on my underwear. Nothing abnormal given all that inept jabbing and digging, really, but it prompted me to send what could be construed as a dramatic message. I suppose drunken me was trying to provoke a reaction – to break his silence. What I wrote was perfectly understandable in context, or so I thought. It never occurred to me that I might worry, or scare.
My friend and I decided to get some Thai food and were seated at the rear of a long, narrow restaurant with shitty phone reception. My phone remained in my bag for the next hour.
Walking home, at around 11pm, I pulled out my phone and headphones to walk the 200m back to my house with a musical accompaniment, and found 17 missed WhatsApp messages and one missed call.
I’m not sure whether he thought I’d been butchered by the women at family planning and was bleeding out, or whether it was more about my bikini posts on this blog, and the possibility of self-harm. Maybe both? But when he couldn’t reach me, he had contacted the emergency services, and they’d told him there weren’t grounds to intervene, so he should take a taxi over to my place himself. And he does not live nearby.
Once he’d established that in fact I was okay, he turned back and went home. There was more to this situation; there was a reason for his silence; there were other things happening that week that were causing friction and upset. I understand why he did that, even though I obviously wish he hadn’t.
I curled up on my bed and howled into a pillow for a while. I was hurting, on the inside, because of my fucking bruised and battered cervix, and also because I was horrified by what had happened. I’d risked telling someone I liked a lot about all my most personal shit and it had caused him to freak out, to fear for my life. After just a few dates. That’s too much for any guy to handle. He would bolt. I did not want him to bolt.
I am a person who understands the power of words. I am more careful than most, when I wield them. But I realise now that just because I can joke about suicide with one friend, or because my daughter feels comfortable writing “DIE” in a text message to me, two years later, I will always have to be really attentive to how I use certain language. Particularly when I write it. And when the person is not there, live, to respond immediately, to clarify if there is any ambiguity.
I guess I will never really wash away the stain of what I nearly did. And I’ll always be perceived, in some way, as a liability.
I’ve dated a few boys recently. One of them had an unsettling effect on me, and I was caught off guard, both by the speed and intensity of my reactions and because, on paper, he wouldn’t fit the description of someone I would have expected to start falling for, should such a description exist.
It began with easy, natural banter over the okcupid chat, and whatsapp, followed by one of those electrical jolts that I’ve had maybe twice before when you meet for the first time and there is instant mutual attraction. The icing on the cake was some world class physical chemistry. And a real enjoyment of each other’s minds and company. He whatsapps me all the time and I love how he writes, how he communicates. I can be myself with him, unfiltered. This is new territory for me.
A half dozen dates in, we are still behaving like teenagers, kissing in bars, as excited to see each other the sixth time as the second. We spent a week apart while I was visiting family, and it was a special kind of hell. But we were in constant contact, and the craziness when we were reunited made it almost worth that interminable wait.
Now this part may sound weird to you, because it does to me: he is encouraging me to see other people. Just for one shot dates, mind you. He wants to remain my number one guy. For him, this is supposed to be about trying to be less possessive, or playing around with the idea of that.
Seeing other people feels off to me. It really does. A tiny, perverse part of me is tempted, because I’ve been playing the field lately, and there is no shortage of interested parties. Free time is not in short supply: my kids are away a lot over the summer and he is often busy, while I am antsy, and at a loose end. But the idea that someone who is supposedly so besotted with me wants to share me? I struggle to see that as a positive, however hard I’m trying.
If I go through with it, I think it will be more of an insurance policy than anything else. It will be about me trying to dampen down my feelings, for the avoidance of future hurt.
A vicious little voice in my head is telling me that maybe it’s really about keeping me at arm’s length; giving me an opportunity to find an “out”.
The slap came today, at an unexpected moment, on a related but tangential subject. He was quizzing me about a guy I’d been chatting to on okcupid, who is aged 28 to my 46.
We were sitting on the terrasse of a favourite café, in the sun, a cool beer in our hands. He wore sunglasses, so I couldn’t see the expression in his eyes. I had removed mine.
“You could just go for a drink with him when I’m out with my friends, nothing has to happen,” he said. I raised a sceptical eyebrow, then looked away, because I never can hold someone’s gaze when I’m broaching a difficult subject.
“With an age gap like that, he’s not meeting with me for conversation,” I countered. “I enjoyed flirting with him. The thrill of the chase is fun for me. But he will have certain expectations about how the evening is going to develop. I don’t know if I even want to meet him. Since we met, I haven’t wanted to date anyone else. I’m not even sure I can.”
I can’t recall his exact reply, but the words – or what I heard in the spaces between them – gave my brain whiplash. It was something to the tune of 28 not being much different to his own 35. The tone was lighthearted. But he might has well have slapped me across the face. It smarted. It left a print. The implication, the way I processed it in the moment, was that nothing could or would ever come of us, because I’m almost twelve years older than he is. It echoed something my mother had said, that I hadn’t wanted to hear.
My vision clouded, and all the sweet words I’d been feasting on the previous week – an ever present chatter in my head – faded in that instant. I laid my head on his shoulder, too close for him to see my pained expression, shut my eyes, took some deep breaths and concentrated on resisting the pull of the down elevator.
The idea that, as my daughter would say, “catching these feels” was ultimately futile, a one-way ticket to nowhere? In the moment, that felt like a far more bitter pill to swallow than any of my meds.
And yet the positives outweigh this to such an extent that I can’t conceive of walking away. I won’t. We are amazing together. He scrambles all my frequencies. And so I am determined to live in the moment, to have this, regardless of how fleeting it might be.
I’ve written here about being desperate to feel things, and I’ve got what I wished for, and then some. I’m willing to take a few risks.
If you let yourself catch feels, you have to accept that they might well slip through your fingers one day.
When I signed up to my first dating app, about six weeks ago, filling out the profile information caused no-end of soul searching.
My first problem was a practical one: I had no recent photos. My husband had left three years previously, and he was always the one who photographed me. My kids certainly don’t. They’re busy playing with Snapchat or TikTok or taking selfies. Sometimes I’m lurking in those selfies, but there is no way I’m using pictures of my kids on a dating site, even with their faces Sharpied into oblivion.
In recent months and years, when I looked in the bathroom mirror I saw myself – more often than not – through the callous, distorting lens of depression.
I would flee cameras at family gatherings. I would delete photos where I had been unwittingly caught. Looking back through Photos on my MacBook, searching for anything serviceable that could be used on OkCupid, it occurred to me that if something bad happened to me, my children would be left wanting. I’d obliterated all trace of myself. It was as if I hadn’t been around for three years. There was a complete absence of me.
The OKCupid profile has gone through several iterations, but I decided to combat the photo problem by captioning them to make it clear which ones were less than recent – using the same, hopefully witty, tone as elsewhere. Not taking the whole thing too seriously, but being honest all the same, which is more than can be said for many of the men posting less than fresh photos and passing them off as though they were taken yesterday.
I think the question above gave me the most pause. It was easier to say what I didn’t want, which has been both useful and not.
Saying I can’t or won’t have any more kids (the ovary police are undecided, but probably the former) was designed to filter out people who did want children. What it seems to have done is attract guys fifteen years younger than me who are wary of commitment with girls their own age. (Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining).
Stating that I wasn’t interested in being some extra-conjugal adventure (there are sites designed for that, why not use them?) hasn’t deterred the guys in relationships from contacting me, forming a bond online or offline, then confessing that they are in a relationship afterwards, when the damage is already done.
But that really only covers what I don’t want. What do I actually want?
I spent too long listening to the harpy voices in my head crowing that it was over for me, that part of my life. Who was going to want this fuckup, with her two kids from two different relationships? This hollowed out husk, who hadn’t had sex in almost three years and really hadn’t even missed it, because the medication and the sad had just de-activated everything. Under the clothes I was just a Barbie doll, with no genitalia.
I remember telling a good friend that I was worried I’d meet someone when I was one version of myself, then I’d withdraw, and hurt his feelings. Or I would be dating a guy, or guys, then suddenly lose the will to leave my apartment, and just delete my profile and disappear from circulation. These things could and may happen. But she said, fuck it, just do it anyway.
Of course, I didn’t realise it at the time, but the very fact that I signed up to OkCupid at all, was the first sign that my mood was improving, markedly, and so the whole endeavour has been much easier for me than I could have imagined. And over the past six weeks, as I moved on from there to bumble, to happn, and fiddled with my settings, I’ve had something of an epiphany.
I knew that I wasn’t looking for a relationship in a traditional sense – my kids and I don’t want a guy moving in or spending time with our family unit, which occupies fifty per cent of my time – and that has not changed.
I suspected that guys with kids of their own would understand my responsibilities and constraints but that conversely, coordinating our schedules so we could meet would be tough. That has also proved to be true.
What I didn’t realise, is that I was capable of enjoying more fleeting kinds of attachments. The French term is “rencontres éphémères“, which sounds much prettier than any English translation could render. No strings, but more than once. Non-monogamy. Girlfriend experience, but not girlfriend. Seeing someone, but not exclusively.
No-one I’ve encountered so far seems to be looking for anything serious, but then nothing ever starts out that way, does it? You start out with a date, with a night, with another night. We are all improvising.
I know what I don’t want, I still don’t know what I do want. But I feel more confident now that I’m going to enjoy the journey, until maybe I cross paths with a person I want something more with. Whatever that may be.