The Descent into Hypocrisy and Confusion: Weight Loss, Internal Conflict, and Scuba Diving

Content note/tw: discussions of weight loss and stigma.

That’s it. I’m finally frustrated and cross enough to post about this. I’ve been putting it off. I’ve honestly tried to write this post – or a post that is very similar to it – about five times. The beginnings are in my blog draft folder (along with an awful lot of other things). The reason I never finish this post is because, while I have no trouble outlining the problem, I fall short when it comes to resolving the conflict.

I think it’s better to accept that resolution is just not going to happen.

Here are the bare facts:

Firstly, I am a big proponent of HAES (Health At Every Size). If you think this is a movement that promotes obesity, then you’ve missed the point. HAES is a movement that proposes the radical notion of getting “weight” out of the framework we use to think about health. It’s about thinking about health independent of weight. It’s about promoting healthy lifestyle choices – whatever that may be for the person in question! – like good exercise, quality nutrition, and let’s not forget, good mental health as well – and not caring what happens to weight throughout any process of change. If someone adopts healthier habits and starts to shrink? Goodo, whatever. If someone adopts healthier habits and all that happens is they become healthier? They became healthier! That’s a win.

There is literally nothing bad about saying “Let’s focus on healthy lifestyle habits, won’t that be excellent, and focus on testing whether people are getting healthier,” while leaving out the body-shaming bullshit.

This is my basic framework for thinking about these things. I’ve only adopted it in the last few years.

Secondly, I’m losing weight.

Deliberately.

Which is a little bit at odds with HAES.

Let’s backtrack.

At first, the weight loss wasn’t especially deliberate. I’d finally sucked up the gumption to look at my eating habits, because I wanted to be fitter and stronger. I wanted to be able to get more out of my workouts, and I was having trouble with energy levels. So I started tracking food and monitoring macros. This meant I started snacking on delicious treats a bit less, since I could now look at how much I was eating and think “Uhm, yes, Portuguese custard tarts are AMAZING, but perhaps I don’t need quite so many of them in my life. That pushes my sugars way too high.”

I started to shrink a little.

Then I cracked it about feeling sick after eating and, after what felt like a tonne of research and the blowing of my mind by various sources, I decided to try keto. This had the marvellous result that I no longer felt sick after eating! I had more energy! I started bouncing off the walls! I felt fed after a meal instead of simultaneously hungry, bloated and nauseated! What a glorious win!

The rate of weight loss increased markedly. I have a graph. It’s a little intimidating.

And now we get into the body image issues, and the background. I’ve always been on the chubby side, and as anyone who can make that claim knows, it can make life difficult and upsetting in a number of ways. It didn’t help that I was hypermobile (undiagnosed) and that high impact movement was literally painful all over my body, and that there was a physiological reason for me being hideously uncoordinated. It wasn’t until I got to my early twenties that I really made my peace with my body as it was, and decided to focus on just getting strong and fit instead, and screw everything else.

Discovering that people could actually be attracted to me – actual sexual interest! – made a big difference in how I saw myself. Suddenly being a wee bit chubs wasn’t the end of the world. Whoop!

Fast forward to my thirties, and here I am losing weight without effort (or at least, without trying to lose weight. I was tracking food and carbs and exercising a lot, but I was doing those things for other reasons). It was unprecedented. I’ve never crash dieted. I’ve never dieted. I avoided such behaviour on the grounds that being hungry is very unpleasant (saying that obviously as a person with the privilege of never having to worry where my next meal is coming from).

In fact, it’s not just unpleasant. It’s all-consuming. If I get a hunger crash, I can’t think about anything else. Need food. Need it now. And I can’t spend my life hungry – I have shit to do. I need to be able to think. It is literally my job. So sod that.

And I stand by that philosophy. Being hungry all the time is just nasty shit. No-one needs it. People should have access to the food they need, obviously, and people shouldn’t have to deny themselves food that they need for bullshit reasons.

But here I was again, somehow losing weight. And I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t uncomfortable. I wasn’t even peckish. It was all just happening. I think that part of the reason it was happening was because (1) keto promotes fat mobilisation, especially if your body might not normally be good at mobilising fats for energy, say if you are mildly insulin resistant (ooh, me! Me!) and (2) I’ve never crash dieted, and thus never yo-yo’d or put my body through the kind of deprivation that promotes a braking, screeching metabolism.

And what happened?

I got curious.

Big changes happen in my life when I get curious. That’s how I roll. “I wonder if I would be good at this?” “I wonder if this would be interesting?” “I wonder if that would solve the problem?” It generally starts with a bucketload of reading, but I’d already done that, and I refused to search for information on weight loss on the ground that the internet is, as a friend put it, a “big ol’ bucket o’ crazy” when it comes to all that shit.

And I thought, “I wonder how far I can push this?”

So, instead of setting my tracker and my macros to “maintenance” (under which regime I was, remember, already losing weight very slowly), I set it to a very modest caloric deficit.

There have been hiccups, certainly. There was the time when I got too sick or injured (can’t remember which) to exercise for a while, so I recalculated my macros for a person who sits on their butt recovering. That was fine. The problem was when I returned to intense working out, I forgot to recalculate, and for few days I was desperately tired, and I couldn’t work out why until eventually I got a sudden newsflash from my body that I was abruptly, out-of-nowhere, stupidly-hungry and if I didn’t find something to eat then I might have to chow down on the nearest co-worker (fortunately I located a Quest bar in my bag). I then recalculated my macros. Whoops.

There have been bonuses to this process. In particular, planning my food ahead of time has meant that we eat out less as a household, and save money (not heaps of money because we buy expensive ingredients, but a significant amount). It’s also hugely reduced my anxiety around food, because now I have a framework I can plan around, and as long as I can fulfil my requirements without having to run headlong into my disastrous sensory processing issues, I don’t have to worry about how or what I’m going to eat or whether people are going to judge me for not eating salad.

But what happened to my commitment to Sparkle Motion, here? I’m still keen on HAES, I still believe in Size Acceptance (which is a different thing). I still believe that people shouldn’t have bullshit diet advice flung into their face every thirty seconds, or be made to feel miserable and less than human because of the way they look or move or honestly anything other than being an actual asshole (I am totally down with stigmatising assholes). I still don’t believe that being smaller is necessarily healthier. I still believe that the stigma needs to go, and needs to die, and people need to learn to be compassionate and mind their own business.

And yet here I am, deliberately losing weight, because of curiosity.

Curiosity is how it started.

Then it became vanity.

I’ve never been slim. I wanted to know what it would be like to be slim. It’s not quite that, though; it would be more accurate to say that I work very hard on my muscular development, and I’m vain as a peacock and shallow as a puddle, and I want to be able to see those muscles. In order to be able to see those muscles that I work so hard on, I need to remove some of the padding that blocks them from view.

That’s a surrendering to the arbitrary common aesthetic. I’ve had our various socially constructed beauty standards drilled into my vulnerable little brain the same as everyone else has, and sometimes I’ve surrendered to it, and sometimes I’ve stood my ground, and I was surprised to realise I did want to cave a little.

There’s more.

I have a pretty good medical clinic nearby. I know most of the GPs there pretty well. They all know that I work out a lot and they know my basic health and they know how I eat (it’s all in my file), and we’re good.

Sometimes, though, you run out of a prescription and abruptly need a new one and for some reason you can’t go to your usual clinic – due to the timing, most likely. So you walk into the office of a GP you’ve never met before, and they try some bullshit like weighing you before prescribing you the fucking oral contraceptive pill.

A doctor should take your blood pressure (or be otherwise aware of your blood pressure) before prescribing you the Pill. This is a basic standard of care. That’s no problem. My blood pressure usually makes doctors smile (when I am very sick it is sometimes high, but more commonly it is low. Depends on the illness).

There is no reason – ever – to weigh someone for a Pill prescription. It is bullshit. So walking into the office of a doctor you don’t know to get a script for the Pill on the way to work because you lost track of when you were going to run out and then being told you need to lose weight? Not the best start to the day.

And I thought, “If I get my BMI down [literally an index of height/weight ratio and that is all], they’ll shut the hell up and I won’t have to deal with this crap.”

That’s what we call surrendering to stigma. And I started to wonder if, instead of just calling Crappy GP on their bullshit, I was somehow throwing my fat friends under the bus. This is where I feel conflicted.

I felt like I wasn’t standing up for them. And I felt like, by being vain and wanting to lose weight to show off muscles, I was saying that my fat friends couldn’t look pretty or fit or strong without losing weight. I don’t actually believe that. I actually do think my fat friends are pretty and in many cases do look fit and strong, and actually are pretty badass.

Where do I draw the line between what I want to do with my body and what message that sends to people who need support and backing?

There’s more.

15kgs down, with a BMI shifting from 27 (technically – sigh – overweight) to 22 (comfortably in the arbitrary land of “normal”, a magical word that solves all problems!), I’ve found there are significant pros and cons to this shrinking business.

In terms of pros, yes, it is nice that it is a bit easier to find pants that fit. It is not 100% easier, because apparently my waist hip ratio is still odd (my waist is apparently both smaller and higher than expected for my size/height relative to the position and width of my hips. This leads to some odd looking pants issues). It is nice that it is easier to find appropriate tops – although, once again, it is not 100% easier. My boob/shoulder-waist ratio is apparently as problematic as what happens with my hips, so button down shirts are still a no-no unless I get them tailored (which I have never done. One day I should try that out).

It is nice not to feel self conscious in more revealing clothing (by which I generally mean tank tops, anything which shows shoulders and upper arms – I always wore these things, but now I don’t have weird moments about it. I do not like sleeves. I feel they are an imposition on my person).

It is nice that the pretty bras are, once again, within my reach (depending on brand).

There has been a significant improvement in the health and stability of my joints. There’s this idea floating around that the less weight your joints have to carry around, the better, and there’s some truth in it, but it’s also vastly exaggerated in significance. Many fat people, for example, are very strong – they are carting around more weight, after all, and their muscle development reflects that. In particular, fat athletes might do extra work to strengthen the supporting muscles to increase the amount of high impact work their joints can take, just as non-fat athletes might also do.

As a hypermobile person, I already do shitloads of work stabilising and strengthening my supporting muscles, so it might be a bit of a furphy, but let’s not forget: I have a degenerative connective tissue disorder. It’s a mild to moderate presentation, but even so, I’m a very active person and my joints need all the help I can get. If losing the non-contributing insulation makes it easier for me to do what I need and want to do with my body, then sure, I’ll take advantage of that.

As for diving (the reason I started working out in the first place about eleven or twelve years ago), well, fat is positively buoyant. The more body fat you have, the more floaty you are. This means you need to wear more lead to weigh you down, and you need to walk around in that lead. It can be a very serious request you’re making of your body.

So, that pretty much covers the pros. Doctors not giving me crap – check. Sheer vanity (cringe) – check. Less stressed joints for high impact work – check. Less weight needed to dive – check. More clothing stores catering to my every whim but apparently forgetting that women have different shapes regardless of size – check.

So what about the cons? How could there be cons?

Spoiler: There are cons.

Firstly, there’s some weird identity issues. There was a very disorienting period when the first, very rapid weight loss was happening, where I didn’t quite recognise myself in the mirror. It wasn’t the “Hey there, slender hotty!” reaction you might be expecting. It was “Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my bathroom?!” It was discovering that my knees are actually bony as fuck and want to stab me in the night.

It was wondering how much I’d integrated “chubby and quirky” into my identity and worrying if I was going to be boring if I ended up “looking like everybody else.” Yes, it’s stupid. Yes, I shit you not, that thought actually passed through my mind. To be fair, think about how often body type seems to determine personality in any sitcom or TV drama you’ve watched, in books you’ve read. There’s a lot to be said about that which is beyond the scope of this essay, and I’ve internalised most of it.

It took a while for my anxiety about my new size to die down – a few weeks of feeling very odd, like a stranger in my own skin.

The con of feeling like a total hypocrite is still hanging about. That’s a worry.

The con of having a collection of beautiful dresses I’ve built up over the years that now hang off me like tent canvas – that’s upsetting. I buy cheap shirts, but save up for pretty, quality dresses for special occasions, and having these lovely garments no longer fit is actually upsetting. The same goes for various shirts, pants and skirts. Many of these items have been bequeathed to happier homes, but some I have surreptitiously kept aside. I’m not naïve enough to believe I’m going to stay this small, after all. The statistics are fairly clear. And if I do gain weight back, I still want to be able to wear my Lucksmiths shirt.

The con of having to buy new clothes – yeah. I’m still losing, so I’m a frequent visitor to Target, trying to find the cheapest jeans and shorts and shirts that will fit my person. This means navigating Target’s notoriously inconsistent vanity sizing, which also drives me bonkers (can you just make a 10 or an 8 mean the same thing NO MATTER WHERE I GO IN THE STORE?). This has played havoc with my credit card pay-off plan. I could go to secondhand stores, but I’m not as much of a fan of those as I used to be (I find them stressful for some reason. It’s weird. And some of my friends are really, really good at secondhand shopping and for some reason I suck at it).

The con of discovering that you can lose weight from your feet (what. the. Fuck?) and, alright, tightening a few buckles and laces on shoes here and there is not too bad, but if it keeps up, I’m going to have to replace some very expensive items. I wear orthotics. I don’t have the option of cheap shoes.

But the greatest con – the con that is pissing me off – the con that has me jokingly suggesting that I might as well just commence eating pizza and trying to get the extra body fat back on as quickly as I possibly can – is related to diving.

“But Kate!” you cry. “You just said that losing fat was good for diving, because you’re less buoyant!”

Yes, and that’s still true.

But I’m also fucking cold.

I can’t believe I never made this connection. For years I’ve looked at people who refuse to dive or snorkel in Melbourne because it is too cold for them year-round and thought “Huh. It doesn’t bother me. Oh well, everyone’s different,” and never worked out that most of them were very slender. They mostly – not all, but mostly – tended to be ectomorph body types. Not a lot of body fat on them. I look at the guys that tell me I’m soft for wearing a dry suit in Melbourne in winter and, okay, yes, they’re a bit more well-insulated than the average, as a general rule.

I wear a Lavacore (a thermal undergarment) underneath a 7mm neoprene semi-dry wetsuit. That’s the equivalent of 10mm insulation in total. I used to wear just the wetsuit when the water was about 14 degrees, and I was pretty comfortable. The first shock of the water took a moment to settle, but I tended to get through one hour dives at that temperature with little difficulty. I just didn’t feel very cold.

Obviously, when I started to wear the Lavacore, my tolerance got even better. How marvellous!

And I admit that, when I sold my faithful dry suit, this was some of my thinking. I hadn’t dived in Melbourne in winter in years – I’d always meant to, but somehow never got around to it – and thus hadn’t used my dry suit. A friend needed it for a course, and I felt I could certainly use the money, so I sold it to her. Besides, I was okay with my Lavacore and my 7mm wetsuit, so I didn’t really need it, did I?

And then, like an idiot, I went diving in Melbourne in winter.

It was 12 degrees.

My feet went numb in under five minutes.

Between dives, I walked to the toilet block, and because I couldn’t feel my feet, I broke my toe. I stubbed my toe on the gutter so hard that I broke it, and I barely noticed other than to think “Huh, that seems sort of painful. Oh well.” It wasn’t until I woke up the next morning to find it still throbbing that I decided to hobble down to emergency and get an X-ray. Avulsion fracture of the big toe.

Look, when I do things, I don’t do them by halves. This apparently includes toe-stubbing.

I recently went for a dive in 14 degree water. Again, wearing the Lavacore and the 7mm neoprene.

By the end of the second dive, I was shivering violently. I was cold enough that, if it hadn’t been a training dive (that you just have to get through) and a safe shore dive, I would have aborted the dive.

So what’s the lesson?

Fat keeps you warm. Fat is a fucking insulator. Fat is useful and don’t let anyone tell you different. When it comes to diving, I miss my fat. Fat is, sadly, really good at absorbing nitrogen, so the more fat you have, the more risk you have of decompression illness (dammit), and even so, I think the fat was a net win.

The other problem, of course, is that my Lavacore is now too big. It wrinkles up and presses into my skin under pressure. My wetsuit is also too big by about three sizes and I think the only reason I’ve been able to continue wearing it is because the Lavacore bulks it out. When your wetsuit is too big, not only does it not seal properly (meaning that, instead of just reheating the water once with your body heat – the way a semi-dry should work – you’re constantly reflushing it with cold water), but it obviously holds much more water relative to your body volume (meaning that it is much less efficient for your body to heat it).

So I’ve just lost weight to the point that I am now too small for eight hundred dollars worth of exposure gear – the gear that I wear in the summer.

And I’ve lost weight to the point that a new dry suit is rapidly becoming an absolute essential item, instead of a “nice-to-have” – and they tend to run about two thousand dollars.

So yes. Changes in weight and size are not minor things.

[Edit: since I wrote this post, I have bought a lovely new wetsuit and some new thermal gear to go under it. I have plans to buy a new dry suit before next winter. I suppose at least it’s tax-deductible, since I need it for work…]

Morning Coffee Feminism: I Don’t Know How To Wear Clothes

This post was inspired by two recent events (well, one was a recent reminder of much older events).

The most recent was my brother giving me a couple of photos he found at my mother’s place. They show me and my best friend (and my brother, in one shot, with a really cool hat), at what I presume is age eleven or so. We are rocking those early nineties denim jackets. She is wearing all pink. I am wearing a t-shirt and blue parachute-material pants. So cool. Much hip. Wow.

I love this photo for what it represents, but I also winced a little. You’re allowed to have no sense of fashion at eleven; I, however, took it too extremes.

I always tucked my shirts in. I did this until I reached high school and actually realised no-one else was doing it, and panicked. One of the reasons I did this was because I hated, hated, hated the feel of waistlines on my bare skin, and tucking the shirt in made a buffer. I now know this was probably due to some spectrummy (it’s a word, shh) sensory processing issues. My eventual solution was to wear jeans and other pants with more tolerable waistbands – the parachute material and a few others were too scratchy for me.

At the time, however, I not only tucked my shirt in, I pulled my pants up. Way up. So they would sit on my waist. Now, I’m quite comfortable in my body these days, which I wasn’t then (as a chubby eleven year old who was regularly picked on for said chubbiness), and while the chubbiness has more or less disappeared, the basic anatomical ratios have remained: I have tall hips. The distance between my crotch and my actual waistline is – according to the world of fashion – vast. For waistbands to sit on my hips, there’s a … wedgy … issue. This is why I don’t wear pants that aren’t jeans (except at gym). It just doesn’t work.

I was seriously bullied for this. I couldn’t understand why. I just wanted to be comfortable. Didn’t everyone want to be comfortable? That was all I cared about with clothes. I was bullied for wearing skivvies (again, not sure why – it was the early 90s, they weren’t uncommon). I was bullied for tucking my shirts in, for having a fringe, for pretty much any way I chose to prepare my body for public viewing. This basically meant that I absolutely hated my body by the time I was nine years old.

Let’s contrast this with another recent event.

I was out on a drinkies night with a few friends of mine, several months ago. I took the opportunity to get a bit femme, and a bit glam, because since I don’t feel obligated to do so, I really enjoy it from time to time.

“I must say,” said one friend, later in the evening after we had imbibed a few whiskey cocktails, “that is an amazing tit top.”

“Why thank you!” I replied, delightedly.

See, because I was only going out with women, and going out in a group of them, and I was good friends with all of them, I felt safe to wear a “tit top”. It’s one of my favourite tops. I love it. It is a bit dated now, made of chocolate brown lace with little flowers, and it has a tie-back (which is good for those of us who go out at the top and bottom of our torsos, and go in at the middle, and do not like to look like we are wearing sacks). I love the lace. I love the style. I love the tie-back (which also makes it easier to wear after significant weight loss).

But I have nearly donated it multiple times (and no, you can’t wear something under it, it completely ruins the style).

Because it is – so to speak – a “tit top.” Serious cleave. All the cleave for me. Select your bra carefully, it may be visible during the evening.

I used to not give a crap. I honestly thought it didn’t matter. Until I was wearing a similar top at work, and I bent over a map as I was discussing fieldwork with the older curators and I looked down and realised I could see my navel through my neckline (from my perspective, of course, at the top).

It all rushed through me. Self-awareness, horror, self-consciousness, embarrassment – nay, humiliation – a deep fear of unprofessionalism, and I not only never wore that top again at work – I only ever wore t-shirts and long-sleeved shirts at work. Ever. I suppose the awareness that it actually mattered had been creeping up on me for some time, but it just showered through me and overwhelmed me. Fortunately my work is one that is happy for scientists to roam around in jeans and t-shirts and that is my uniform.

I come to these realisations a lot later than most people. Years later. See reference to spectrummy issues. I get there in the end.

I keep thinking about that brown lace top. It’s lovely. I want to wear it more often. But I wouldn’t even wear it around some of my guy friends – they’ve probably grown out of it now, but years ago I vaguely recall a “where do I look?” issue, and I can’t forget that. I will go to great extremes to avoid having to be self-conscious around my people, because it is honestly exhausting.

I still remember deciding to be slightly modest, and wearing a singlet top (actually equally cleave-y) under another top, and having a female friend lean forward and whisper “Kate, your bra’s showing,” at which point I made a puzzled face, lifted up my overshirt and revealed that – lo and behold – it wasn’t a bra. It was another shirt. She went “Oh!” (well, that’s alright then) It was nonsensical. It’s like the difference between bikinis and bras. It’s all context, with no substance.

Maybe I’m revealing my own addiction to logic here, but I still don’t see why this matters. Embarrassment for me is about what other people think, not what I think. I don’t care if someone can see my bra strap (it’s pretty obvious I’m wearing one at all times – I’m a reasonably well-endowed lass and I wear fitted shirts). I don’t really care if there’s cleave happening. I care that I am comfortable and that I feel pretty (or athletic, or capable, or whatever adjective I have decided upon that day).

But again, as a spectrummy lass, I’ve learned that violating social norms is dangerous. The results can be horrifying – everything from bullying and social ostracisation to physical violence and being approached by arseholes on the street asking to see your breasts (yes. That happened, in response to another lovely dress I no longer wear. My response was pithy and less than eloquent. I may have suggested he go do something to himself that I am reasonably convinced is physically impossible, or at least quite challenging).

And no, what you wear does not actually affect the likelihood of sexual assault (if you don’t believe me, there are peer-reviewed papers on the topic. It makes literally no difference); but it does seem to affect people coming up to you and commenting on your body, and I don’t have a script for dealing with that (which is why I told Arsehold Number One to go fuck himself).

It’s a fucking warzone, people, trying to decide how to dress in the morning. I think most other women will know what I mean.

I wear jeans and t-shirts because they are comfortable, and because the fitted shirts make me feel pretty (especially sleek, soft, cottony material. It just makes me want to hug myself in happiness. I’m extremely tactile).

But mostly – literally the main reason I wear them – is because they get zero attention. No-one is going to give me shit. They are literally the most neutral option I can think of. It gets me off the hook and away from the male gaze. I don’t have to worry about violated social norms. I don’t have to worry about someone else’s cultural baggage. I don’t have to spend the morning wasting my limited supply of executive function trying to anticipate all the different people I will run into all day and what their expectations may be and how I am supposed to fit into that without getting attention I don’t want and don’t know how to deal with.

I love love love my “tit top”. But generally I will only wear it around my lady friends, who will appreciate it for what it is. Who will admire its prettiness, appreciate its construction, sigh over the romantic lace, and possibly – in a way that I do not find threatening – comment on how amazing my mammary glands look in it.

It’s never-ending, this war of clothing. I had a laparoscopy less than two weeks ago, which means that I have a healing incision in my navel. I can’t wear jeans. I wear mid-rise jeans, which means that when I sit down (and recovering from surgery, I sit down a fair bit), the belt and button press into said navel. It’s painful. So no jeans.

I had to go to Target two days after my surgery and buy skirts (only two skirts survived the Mighty Decluttering). It’s winter, so I also bought some footless tights. I hate being cold. I dug out my Nice Leather Boots (that I never wear), swapped my orthotics into them, and wore those, because hiking boots and runners (my usual winter footwear) do not work with skirts. Then, of course, I needed tops that matched the skirts. Given that I don’t actually like having unnecessary material against my skin, I hardly have any long-sleeved winter appropriate tops (I just wear jumpers and coats). So I bought two long-sleeved shirts.

Suddenly, I felt dressed up. Swishy black skirt. Tights. Boots. Classy stripey shirt ($8 well spent). So I ended up putting in fancy earrings and donning a necklace every morning.

This has been quite fun, but it’s meant that I think about clothes and presentation a lot more than I normally bother with, and it’s a little tiring. As I said, I have a limited supply of executive function to throw around each day, and I don’t want to have to use it on clothes.

I watch Husband roll out of bed, grab a pair of pants and a t-shirt, and consider that His Work Here Is Done. Some days he decides to get a bit fancy, and he wears one of his Nice Shirts (defined by the fact that I can’t put them in the tumble dryer, but to be fair, I suppose I do occasionally buy dishes that he can’t put in the dishwasher, so all is fair in love, war, and housework).

That’s it. Seriously. He cares about presentation (and has strong opinions on suits and appropriate interview wear), but he doesn’t have to think about whether someone is going to comment on his body based on what he does or does not show.

And I’m jealous.

I wish that clothes were irrelevant. I wish people could just wear what made them feel comfortable, or pretty, or sexy, or powerful, or fun. I wish it didn’t matter, outside of practicality (jeans are great lab wear for safety reasons). I wish no kid was ever mocked for pulling their pants up high over their shirt, no matter how silly it looked; I wish no woman would get approached by gigantic muscle bound terrifying guys on poorly lit streets and asked to expose her breasts; I certainly wish that things like the fucking burkini ban were unanimously seen as the ludicrous, patriarchal, wear-what-we-tell-you bullshit that they are. I wish that more people understood that a “bikini body” is simply a body that you put in a bikini. I wish that the male gaze weren’t a thing, that it wasn’t constantly assumed that you are wearing what you wear to appeal to men in some way.

Believe me, a huge number of men assume this and comment accordingly – dude, did I ask for your opinion? What made you think I give a crap what you think of my body? It is mine. It carries me around. It is literally none of your business what I put on it. Men that I know have commented to me – and yes, they’re being catty; blokey men are perfectly capable of being catty – about what other women are wearing, assuming I’ll agree with their snark, and I reply: “Oh! You’re right. When they chose their outfit this morning, they wore something that [name of male acquaintance] didn’t approve of! Clearly that’s what they should have been thinking of. Not what they, personally, wanted to wear. Is that what you’re suggesting?” And of course the absurdity of the situation is made clear.

Being the sort of person I am, neurologically speaking, I don’t like extra nuance in my social customs. I like things to be very blunt and straightforward, and I like things to be fair. I don’t feel like I should have to be responsible for where other people’s eyes go, but apparently I am. I don’t feel like it’s my job to fit into an increasingly narrow category of how I should look based on my sex, profession and the time of the fucking day, but apparently, it is.

And, finally, I don’t think it should be assumed that I am “advertising” or “showing off my tits to men” if I decide to wear a really pretty shirt that I love, based on the cut. Seriously, the only reason I think about the male gaze is to protect myself, and that is a giant can of bullshit.

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Edit: I am aware that the menfolk are rigidly policed on their clothing as well. That’s a thing, which also can involve beatings and death if norms are violated in an extreme manner in the wrong place (ie, around homicidal, homophobic, gender-policing arseholes, who sadly do not wear identifying signage). It really supports my main point though – men often have to dress for the Male Gaze as well. For some, they don’t really have to think about it. For others, it’s a horrible shitty imposition on their life and self-expression. And we’ve reached the edge of what I can probably say about it in broad strokes without actually being a dude.

This Keto Life: A Little Bit of Sweet

I go through phases where I bake a lot. It’s not because I have an extraordinary love of baking – I wish I did. It’s because I like baked goods, and I can’t just go out and buy baked goods that I can eat. If I want muffins, or cheesecake, or biscuits, I have to make them myself. There’s just no way around it.

I have a pantry stocked with almond meal, coconut flour, xanthan gum, arrowroot powder and all the accoutrements of a low-carb and wheat-free life. I do actually have sugar in my pantry, but that’s basically in case visitors want sugar in their coffee (never let it be said that I will not assist in the appropriate caffeination of guests).

I’m aware that, in terms of chemical precision, I do not lead a sugar-free life. Raspberries contain sugars. Many things contain very low level of sugars in some form, and naturally any carbohydrate I consume (digestible carbohydrate, that is) will get broken down into sugars eventually. Fructose, lactose, glucose, sucrose – they’re all around in low levels. I don’t get rid of them completely.

When a person gets into ketosis, however, and maintains it for a while – getting past the usual carb cravings and need for chocolate or biscuits or whatever a person’s particular sweet poison is – they generally notice a profound change in the way they taste things: they become more sensitive to sweet tastes.

Or, to put it another way, just about everything with an un-altered level of sugar (think biscuits, cakes, chocolates, lollies) tastes way too sweet. Nauseatingly sweet. I had a mouthful of regular Coke at one point; it tastes like someone had poured crude oil into a vat of syrup and then carbonated the lot. It was intolerable. It was nauseating. And this is from someone who occasionally drinks Diet Coke (mmm, aspartame. But more on that later).

I still craved biscuits and cakes, however, but when I sat down and thought about it carefully, I realised it wasn’t really the sweet taste I was craving – oh, I wanted a little bit of sweet, but mostly what I wanted was the textures. The crumbly, chewy texture of a really good choc chip cookie; the smooshy filling and crumbly base of a cheesecake; the flaky, fluffy choux pastry of an éclair; these are things I wanted. I wanted textures, with a little sweet, and the other associated flavours.

Enter: artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners get a lot of flack. They’re blamed for everything from cancer to migraines to gut flora disruptions to laxative effects, and to be fair, these associations are (with the exception of cancer) pretty airtight for people who have these responses.

I can announce that I’m looking forward to making a low-carb sugar-free raspberry cheesecake (it is amazing), and I’ve had the response “Ugh. Why would you want to?”

Uh… because then I can eat cheesecake without getting sick? Why, is this rocket science?

I can’t help but think this is how vegans feel when someone says “Ugh, vegan cake, why would you eat that?” Because they want to eat cake without consuming animal products? This is not a difficult question. Also, even though I am a person who consumes vast quantities of dairy, eggs and meat, I’ve had some pretty delicious vegan cakes.

As a side note here, can I ask that people not do that? If someone tells you they’re excited because they are having delicious vegan cake or low-carb protein cookies, can you just not act like it’s disgusting and awful and like you feel massively sorry for them? They’ve found tasty food they can eat. Just be happy for them. Be nice about it. Don’t be a douchebag.

These days, when I serve people slices of my low-carb sugar-free raspberry cheesecake (now that I’ve perfected it, that is; initially I made some hilarious mistakes and it tasted like bicarb soda and licorice. Ugh), they make happy noises; and if they didn’t know it contained stevia, I tell them, and they are flabbergasted. Well, if they had any preconceptions about stevia and non-sugar sweeteners, at any rate.

I’ve learned, over the last year or so (two years in November!), a little bit about artificial sweeteners and how to use them successfully, and which ones I, personally, can and cannot tolerate. I am a connoisseur of sweeteners. Allow me to share my (admittedly idiosyncratic) experience.

When it comes to sugar alcohols: I can’t tolerate maltitol. My gut says no. There is bloating. My belly puffs out like a white marshmallow. It looks like I am pregnant with a little maltitol baby. It is very uncomfortable. So no, even in small amounts, no maltitol for me. Sadly, this cuts out the majority of mass-produced low-carb sugar-free snacks – they all use maltitol. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s easy to work with. Maybe it’s cheap. It has – to me – a horrendous aftertaste. But some people tolerate it just fine. It has the highest glycaemic index of any artificial sweetener, which may be a concern for people attempting to maintain ketosis.

I can sort of tolerate xylitol. Xylitol (birch bark extract) is very popular among the keto and low-carb and I Quit Sugar crowd, as it’s a one-for-one swap. This is really quite convenient for baking purposes. It turns out that I am okay with xylitol in small quantities; not “chocolate mug cake” quantities. Don’t ask how I know. You don’t want to know how I know. But never again. Many people are good with xylitol, and it has a moderate GI response.

I can definitely tolerate stevia. Mind you, I did try liquid stevia for a while, and I am sad to say that I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. I can’t handle the backtaste. Instead, I use a powdered blend of stevia and erythritol (Natvia). Erythritol is generally not absorbed by the gut, so it has a fairly negligible impact on blood sugar, and although it has a slightly cold taste that some people are bothered by, I generally don’t get a stevia backtaste when I bake with it. Natvia is actually my baking sweetener of choice.

Sucralose – Splenda – is a funny one. I didn’t used to tolerate it well – it seemed to send my blood sugar up – but now it doesn’t? Perhaps I misunderstood what was going on? Who knows! Regardless, I’ve done a few tests, and I’m actually fine with it, to the point that I now carry around little Splenda tablets to add to tea when I’m out. I don’t add sugar to coffee, but when I have tea I really like a little bit of sweetener in it, and Splenda does the trick nicely. It doesn’t work well in coffee. Maybe that’s because I’m a coffee snob. It seems to add a weird tang to the coffee. Still – fine in tea.

Aspartame – oh, poor aspartame. Maligned. Shown to – apparently – cause cancer in rats in large quantities. Very large quantities. I’m really not sure where the science falls – up and down and back and forth. It’s bad for you. It’s not bad for you. It’s bad for rats. It’s only bad for small rats. What? Honestly, at this point, I don’t care. I seem to tolerate it well and don’t get headaches, so I drink it in Diet Coke when I have a craving. I can’t have a lot of it – mostly because, to me, it tastes too sweet (yes, it’s a sweetener. Shaddap).

The final sweetener I consume in any quantity is sorbitol, another sugar alcohol. It’s the key ingredient in my “No Sugar Added” Vanilla Ice Cream (Peters). It turns out I can tolerate the amount in a standard (50g) serve of the ice cream. If I go wild, and have a double serve (100g), the binge will have consequences. Unpleasant consequences, much like the xylitol.

This really covers most of them (I haven’t covered “acesulfame K” because even though I found out I consume it, I haven’t noticed any real pros/cons, and I forget what it’s in). Essentially, I don’t have the headache/migraine response to any of them, and mostly if my body objects, it objects in a gut-oriented sort of way, although occasionally it objects in a blood glucose insulin spike sort of way.

All of which are way better for me than consuming “pure, natural” sugar (“Why don’t you just have sugar?” “BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE BEING SICK, YOU KNOB.”). When it comes right down to it, I don’t give a crap how “natural” my food is. I care whether it will make me sick or not. Given that so many foods make me feel sick, that has to be my primary concern. Having found a diet that doesn’t make me sick, I’m pretty happy.

I do, however, have one extra tip for anyone embarking on the sugar-free baking journey: use less sweetener than the recipe calls for. If you’re keto-tastic, your palate has probably adjusted, and the last thing you want is to overwhelm it with sweet tastes you’re not used to. Also, a lot of these sweeteners do have some sort of backtaste, and you don’t want that to overwhelm the deliciousness of your cakes and biscuits!

Generally speaking, I use half to 2/3 the amount of sweetener the recipe calls for (if it’s an American recipe, it’s closer to half – you guys have one hell of a sweet tooth!). This can be a bit problematic if it’s a powdered sweetener and you’re also using it for bulk, but a bit of trial and error should resolve the issue.

Then, at the end of it all, you get the little indulgences that make it possible to live with a restrictive diet like keto – and you get a little bit of sweet.

Pro drugs! Drugs for me!

I am pro-drugs.

That’s right. All the “chemicals” (even water!) for me. All the unpronounceable names (spoiler: I can pronounce them. That was my favourite part of organic chemistry). All the warning labels. All the little pills.

Get them in mah belly.

(not literally. Some of them go into your blood vessels, or your muscle, and let’s be honest: the warning labels are not edible. Although I’m sure you could make a warning label out of icing. You could write “Toxic – Do Not Eat” in icing and that would be hilarious)

I’m not sure if this is an unusual stance. The rest of the world – or at least, those portions of the world with which I interact on a regular basis – seems to be outright anti-drug.

There are good reasons for this. Drug abuse is a real problem in the real world with real consequences and real awful crime and death and suffering. My custodial parent had (still has, by all reports, but we don’t speak) a substance abuse problem. It’s a fucking ugly thing to live with and to see, and she was functional. There was no vomiting or passing out. She paced herself. Like a pro. And it was still awful.

I’ve written another post about the anti-medication stance and how, since I am an evolutionary disaster, I interpret that stance as wanting me, personally, to be dead. This is coming from a slightly different angle.

This was inspired by the recent realisation that I have an interesting knee-jerk response when a friend has an even vaguely medical problem. I always want to help my people; I want to solve problems; I can step back and listen to a whinge if someone just wants a helpful ear, but my instinct – if someone is not feeling well – is to offer them drugs. Anti-histamines. Painkillers. Whatever I have on hand.

As it happens, I have a lot on hand.

I’m a walking pharmacy. A few months ago, the little snaplock bag in my backpack was stuffed with the following things:

  • paracetamol/acetominophen (for the U.S.ians out there)
  • ibuprofen
  • Voltaren (diclofenac)
  • Naprogesic (naproxen)
  • Telfast (fexofenadine – an anti-histamine)
  • Codral (cold and flu pills with pseudoephedrine)
  • Ibuprofen + codeine (over the counter – 10 mg codeine per tablet)
  • Paracetamol + codeine (over the counter – 8 mg codeine per tablet)
  • Panadeine Forte (prescription – 30 mg per tablet)

I also have a standing prescription for what I call “horse pill antibiotics” (Augmentin Duo Forte) in case of rapid abscess accumulation (and sometimes they come up fast), I keep Kwells (seasickness tablets) in the glove box (I don’t get seasick – they’re for dive buddies and Husband), and I have a stash of really good sleeping pills (two different kinds). My GPs trust me not to abuse any of these prescriptions or stashes, and I reward that trust by only taking these drugs when I think I really need them.

I actually don’t take most of these very often.

The hayfever (for which I take Telfast) only kicked in a few years ago. It turns out you can reach the ripe old age of thirty-two years with a sense of smug reilef that you don’t get hayfever, and then it can all fall apart in one bad pollen season. I usually only take the Telfast on high pollen days when I want to go for a run (my favourite running track has some lovely wattles planted nearby. Beautiful golden blooms like sunlight drifting down onto the track, such that everyone in a 50 yard radius swells up like a sponge).

The Voltaren, ibuprofen and Naprogesic have been kicked out of the stash as these belong to a class of drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and if you have Crohn’s, they can trigger a flare. I don’t have a solid diagnosis, so in theory I could take them, but I’d prefer to avoid it. The really frustrating thing is that they are really good for muscle pain (hypermobility) and period pain and general headaches. I do tend to wander around with Voltaren emulgel; external application is unlikely to cause me problems.

The plain paracetamol has been kicked out as it does basically nothing for me. If the pain is of the level and type that will be helped by paracetamol, I won’t feel it. I am not kidding. The only reasons for me to take paracetamol are (1) to amplify the effect of endone if I am in severe post-surgery pain or (2) to reduce a fever. In which case I am unlikely to be out and about, so I can just raid the bathroom cabinet – I don’t need it in my “walking pharmacy” stash.

But the Codral, Panadeine, Panadeine Forte and Telfast remain in my stash. If I do end up needing them, I tend to need them right now.

(as a side note, while I tend to offer people drugs, I don’t offer prescription drugs. I would never give someone Panadeine Forte unless they already have a prescription for it and have left theirs at home for some reason)

What all this means is that I am a self-medicator par excellence.

I am on regular SSRIs and the Pill as well. I don’t see antidepressants as a weakness; I see them as a great tool for preventing me taking a voluntary header from the third floor (they do not, however, do anything for my gallows humour, which continues to make people very uncomfortable). I take fish oil (for inflamed joints), multi-vitamins (long story), vitamin D, Metamucil and probiotics. All supplements have been recommended to me by medical professionals given my diet and weird digestive issues (and, in the case of Vitamin D, skin tone and the resulting tendency to avoid being out in the sun lest I burst into flames).

So it does hurt a little bit – just a little, even though perhaps it shouldn’t – when I see this constant message out and about in the world: “People take too many drugs. We should just have a good diet!” (kale will totally cure my autoimmune issues) and “I will beat this thing without medication because I am strong!” (because I am terribly weak for taking Zoloft?) and “People don’t face up to things these days, they just take drugs!” (I face up to agonising pain and then I take the drugs. In that order.)

Even Lily Allen – a pop artist for whom I do have a bit of respect – pissed me off with the lines “You’ve got a prescription, so that makes it legal / I find the excuses overwhelmingly feeble.” Well, fuck you, Allen. Fuck you in your self-righteous face. “Your daughter’s depressed / we’ll get her straight on the Prozac / he doesn’t know / she already takes crack.” Yeah, okay, that’s a possible contraindication right there – but are we saying that drug addicts don’t deserve to have their depression treated? I realise the issue is complicated, but fuck.

I am tired of hearing drugs and medications demonised. “Don’t take supplements, just eat a Healthy Well-Balanced Diet!” Well, brainiac, my digestive system can’t tolerate your well-balanced fucking diet, so I take supplements. That way I get to avoid agonising gut pain and I also get to not have a vitamin deficiency! So much win!

“You shouldn’t need drugs to be happy! Just meditate!” I am not certain this even deserves the kind of vicious response of which I am capable.

I’ve always felt this way, but it’s taken on a new spin recently.

The twist is this: pain.

I’ve had numerous surgeries for abscesses, and they always send me home with a stash of Panadeine Forte (see above). However, my pain tolerance is very high, and for whatever reason, I don’t have a lot of pain after those surgeries. The abscesses themselves are sources of agony. The surgery – if I can’t get an OR and end up having it under a local (there’s now enough scar tissue that this is no longer an option – I just stay in the hospital until an OR is available – but it used to be more of a toss-up, and I used to push for locals over generals) – is mind-meltingly painful. Post-surgery? No worries. Some discomfort, but mostly I’m fine.

So I ended up with high-dose codeine sitting in my drawer.

Every now and again – at first it was only a couple of times a year, but it’s more frequent these days – I would get agonising gut pain. Like being stabbed. It was bad enough to cause greying vision and falling over. My legs would collapse under me. On one memorable occasion, I’m reasonably sure that the only reason I didn’t pass out was because I was carrying a gel to be visualised, and goddamn if I was going to drop it and have to repeat an hour’s work when I was already in the lab at 8 pm. I am nothing if not bloody-minded.

It’s never been diagnosed (working on it). It’s not gallstones. It’s not kidney stones. It’s not any number of other things that have been checked. It just happens.

And, since I had them there, I took my Panadeine Forte for it. Codeine slows peristalsis (the muscular movements of your intestines, shifting partially digested stool around). This means that, not only do you experience the narcotic effect of pain relief, but, if your gut is the source of your pain, it will ease on a mechanical level. I felt horrendously guilty for using the prescription painkillers that had been prescribed for a different issue, but it was the only thing that helped. I would take them, and sleep for a couple of hours, and wake up feeling a lot better – sore on the inside, like my intestines were so much tenderised meat, and not wanting to eat much, but better.

That’s been the story of my Forte useage. In recent times, I would go to doctors and ask for a prescription, explaining with many disclaimers that I really only take it when I need it, because I was terrified of being labelled a drug-seeker. And that terror meant it took me much longer to be comfortable asking for what I needed.

Where did that terror come from?

Oh, that’s right. This demonisation of drugs, combined with having had a parent with a substance abuse problem.

In the not-too-distant past, before my chronic health issues blew up (the last couple of years), I could make a box of 20 last for over a year. I’ve actually had to throw out expired boxes. Even the most wary GP laughs when I explain how long a box would last me, and would then gently say that they’re not worried about my “drug-seeking” behaviour. This reassures me, but I still worry.

I’ve been reluctant to take them for a number of reasons. Firstly, the worry about addiction – I don’t have an addictive personality (I have an obsessive personality, but that’s not the same thing), but brain chemistry is brain chemistry, and chemical dependency is theoretically possible for everyone. Secondly, the fear of building up a tolerance: if these are the only readily accessible painkillers that work, I want them to actually work. I want my brain to gurgle and fall over when I take them.

Thirdly – and this is the interesting one of late – the issue of functionality. That much codeine makes me dopey and fuzzy. I am suffused with a sense of euphoric well-being, I think happily about how lucky I am to know the wonderful people that I do, and how nice my house is, and how pretty the forest is, and all this is quite pleasant. I also get sleepy.

Quite obviously, I can’t drive. I’m also not in a position to be able to write a paper or run an analysis. I certainly shouldn’t sign any paperwork in that state. I know that when I take the painkillers, I’m taking myself out of the usefulness stakes for a wee while.

This has changed recently.

I’ve noticed a very odd occurrence, recently, and it’s that – when the pain is severe enough – I actually concentrate better when full of codeine. I’ll recluntantly take my panadeine forte after much unhappy internal debate, feeling (however irrationally) like a failure for not being able to tough it out, expecting to have to work much harder mentally to get my work done, and I find that, hang on, now that I’m not in pain… I can stand up straight. I walk better. My muscle activation is better. Instead of being wonky, I walk in such a way that my physio and podiatrist would be hard-put to criticise my form. My core muscles do what they are supposed to. I can concentrate on what I am doing. Even though I am high on codeine.

This is because there is a point where chronic pain is so distracting, and so destructive, even though it’s not acute stabbing agony pain, that you can’t focus. You can’t get things done. You can’t move your body properly. I can actually be in this much pain for a while and not consciously notice, because of my wonky pain processing.

I am mesmerised by this realisation – that the pain is worse than I thought it was, and that sometimes I function better on prescription painkillers than off them. It is exactly the opposite of what I would expect. I’m finishing this blog post a few days after my surgery, and I’m currently on a full dose of forte, and it still hurts to sit up, but I’m able to converse, and concentrate, even though taking deep breaths is awful. I’m able to write, and structure sentences. I worry that this functionality is related to me building up a tolerance to codeine (and the fact that I’m still in pain might contribute to that conclusion), but it’s a strange eye-opener for me.

I don’t want to take the painkillers. I would rather not take them. It’s hard for me to admit I’m in pain, to admit that there is something about me that is so broken it hurts all the time. I have so many objections to taking them.

But that’s how it works for now. And all the fluffy, organic, natural-living, anti-“Pharma” rhetoric can’t take away my pain the way the pills can.

So I take them.

The Mighty DeCluttering Project and that KonMari book

I have had quite the obsession over the past few weeks.

I tend towards hyperfocus on projects – I work a lot better when I have one major task to focus on rather than several little tasks. This is one reason why I have to set aside specific times for “deal with emails and committee work” otherwise my current Super Project will just steamroller everything.

My obsession is decluttering. And reorganising. And tidying.

My obsession – to those not currently blessed with access to my excessively voluminous Facebook presence – may come as a surprise. I’m not generally a domestically inclined person. I like things to be nice and clean and organised – and food mess makes me gag – but I’m rarely willing to put in much effort to make that happen (except for cleaning up food mess, because of the gagging).

Partly due to my natural character, and partly due to my chronic illness / fatigue load, my response to an unmade bed is usually “Well, bugger” and falling into it face first; my response to a pile of clean laundry is generally “yup, it’ll fit” and shoving it into the drawer in whatever way manageable; and my response to clutter on my desk getting in my way is to open the nearest drawer and shovel it in. Life is too short to waste time being neat.

That has often been how I roll. Eventually the clutter and the crap and the chaos (ooh, alliteration!) builds up to a point where I crack. I can almost feel it happen. There’s a little snap in my brain, as of the high E string on an acoustic guitar snapping, a little “ting!” followed by whiplash and a sting on your hand and suddenly everything must be just so or so help me God I will fucking end you. And I go on a cleaning warpath, until my energy runs out, which is usually about six hours. Anything not tidied, organised, washed or thrown out after six (very intense) hours hits a “Meh” button.

Given this tendency, I seem to be the kind of person for whom the KonMari book (“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising” by Marie Kondo) was specifically written. Too lazy to maintain a complex environment to a high standard, but desperate to have a simple environment to deal with? That’s me. All me.

I admit I was skeptical at first as to how a book could teach me to tidy – isn’t that like teaching me to wash my hair? Who doesn’t know how to tidy? – but after recommendations from two very different friends, I caved.

Apparently, the answer to “Who doesn’t know how to tidy?” is “pretty much freaking everyone.” Apparently, there is a way to tidy your house that means you don’t have to do it over and over again – so you avoid “rebound”, as Ms Kondo refers to it.

The number of times Husband and I have rolled up our sleeves and sorted out our house, and then looked at it with sighs of satisfaction and declared determinedly that now we will keep it this way are uncounted. We both respond badly to mess. It makes us irritable and depressed and makes it hard to concentrate on any task at hand. We both have a habit of removing to a café or a library to work when our own space is disordered (or even if we just need a change of scene, to be honest, but in my case there is often a stylised “I am an artiste! I cannot work under zese conditions!” response).

And I’ve been slowly becoming aware over the past few years that we have too much crap. Way too much crap. Ludicrous amounts of crap for two people with no kids. We moved from a medium sized flat to a large-ish house with lots of storage to a much smaller house with almost no storage and in that time my Mum moved into a retirement village and suddenly I had to deal with all the crap I’d been stashing at her place and that process has wreaked some havoc upon us.

So what’s the basic secret of this KonMari decluttering method? What are the key features that prevent what the author refers to as “rebound” and what I refer to as “wait a minute, didn’t we tidy this two weeks ago”?

As near as I can tell, there are basically two broad issues (there are other details that I shall delight in writing about, but these are the take home messages).

  1. You have too much shit and you don’t even like most of it that much

KonMari does not phrase it this way. She is very polite. This is Kate-phrasing. This describes about thirty combined years of Kate-and-Husband shit, brought from various sharehouses over the years and acquired as gifts with good intentions and love or just somehow accumulating and breeding over time (three pocket knives? What are they, self-cloning?). This is study notes, conference programs, birthday cards, old essays, records, two record players (one defunct), old computer software and games (floppy discs, people. I’m not even kidding), soft toys, knick-knacks (“And the dust. OH THE DUST.”), worlds of excess clothing, manchester (how many towels?!), board games that we never play (some we fully intend to), DVDs from childhood, jewellery that I never wear, posters we will never put up (but in that process we have found some to set aside for framing).

In short, I have filled our car – a Subaru Forester, no less – five times with things to be taken to the charity shop (I like Parents Without Partners in our community) or the transfer station. This includes the passenger seat. I actually put a seatbelt around boxes, leaving only enough space for me to actually drive the car, and see out the side view windows. The seatbelt is there to prevent bags and boxes from toppling and also to prevent my safety conscious car from shouting at me to belt in my “passenger” (I call him “Mr Crap”).

I have found a local muso to take my Rolling Stone and Audio Tech magazines; Husband is certain he can find someone to enjoy the old Hyper magazines we have (they’re in excellent condition); and, after seeing what they go for, I plan to sell my N64 on eBay.

Basically, it’s impossible to keep a space tidy when it is full of shit. So we need to get rid of that excess shit. That turns out to be about 90% of the work. The “KonMari” method recommends focusing, not on deciding what to discard, but on deciding what to keep. The things you keep are supposed to “spark joy”. I feel this is a bit too specific, and ignores things that do not spark joy but which are necessary, otherwise our horrendous electric stove would be sitting on the nature strip, alongside two boxes of tampons and three bottles of insect repellent, but it’s basically a good principle. Due to cash flow issues combined with weight loss, I’ve also kept my really boring $5 t-shirts from Target, as I like to not be naked. These do not spark joy. They do spark non-nakedness and a lack of arrests for public exposure, which I suppose are joyful things in their own way.

  1. Your shit is disorganised and you don’t have a system

“Keep things with other similar things.” It doesn’t matter if it is annoying to get something out – you need to get it out, so you’re going to do that anyway, and you spend more time with it not being out, so it’s more important that the storage system actually works. Don’t go nuts on storage solutions – you won’t actually need most of them after the Mighty Decluttering.

One good example of the disorganisation is our kitchenware drawers and cupboards. We did throw out a good deal of it, but to my surprise, when actually stacked systematically (and it took me a bit of fidgeting and planning to come up with a system that fit the dimensions of our cupboards and categories of cookware), our pans and trays and tupperware and mini-appliances do actually fit in our cupboards. All it took was proper stacking and a good notion of what goes where.

The key here is that we have maintained this system for four weeks. Husband is in charge of the kitchen in our house, and he is not greatly inclined to spend ages stacking things (I can get quite stuck into it), and the kitchen is still really tidy. The kitchen. Still tidy. For four straight weeks. That’s a record for us. I feel a trophy is necessary, except that would be more clutter.

One other example is the bathroom cabinets. I would basically go through these once a year and reorganise all the medications and whatnot (I have trays in the drawers for this, because otherwise a pain-filled Kate cannot usefully tell a solicitous Husband where the codeine is, especially if one requests over the counter codeine and instead receives prescription codeine. Oh, that was fun. Also, I couldn’t drive anywhere for several hours), and they’d get messy again.

It turns out that, after a rapid whirlwind discard of expired and near-to-expiry things (cough lozenges. We always buy these and never finish the packet), it was much easier to reorganise. I also threw out a metric fuckton of makeup I never wear that had gone crumbly. I probably wear make up about four times a year. I really enjoy it, but only when I’m in the mood, so it’s not worth keeping more than foundation, a couple of lipsticks and a few shades of eyeliner.

I can even keep the drawers tidy. I fold clothes now – and not just in an immediate burst of enthusiasm, but consistently and when I’m not in the mood as well. I’ve maintained a clothes-folding habit. More on that later.

It seems to be about being realistic, about being honest with yourself – not “I might use it or wear it one day” or “it might come in handy”, but “okay, I’ve had this for how long and it has not been of any use to me at all.”

How I have departed from the KonMari method

I haven’t taken all of the book as gospel, although it is all basically good advice and even the parts I have ignored are supported by fairly compelling arguments (except possibly all the animism, but that’s adorable and I like the idea of it anyway).

One of the ways we departed from the method was that, instead of just doing all the discarding first and then tidying, we discarded and then reorganised what we kept as we went. This made things take a bit longer. Also, once things are tidy, you suddenly start to get more annoyed by remaining flaws in your house, so we’ve taken advantage of this deafening roar of motivation to fix things that have been irritating us: the fly screen window in the dining room has been busted ever since we adopted Abby (that correlation does imply causation; we witnessed it personally). I’ve now fixed it (embarrassingly, it took about five minutes and no equipment at all). The doorknob on the front door has been wobbly and loose and becoming increasingly likely to detach over the past year. Husband has now replaced it. Other doorknobs in the house have worn out their threads to the point that you can get trapped in various rooms. They have now been replaced. We even started dealing with car issues we’d been putting off – service for the Ford, wheel alignment and new tyres for the Subaru.

Basically, once we started putting our house in order, we started to feel the urge and the space to put the rest of our lives in order. This is actually exactly what KonMari predicts in her book, but we did it simultaneously with the decluttering.

Also: we didn’t discard CDs. We keep those as backups. We didn’t discard (many) books. I got rid of a few that I don’t feel emotionally attached to in their paper forms, which cleared up a shelf in my study (actually, desk space. I was using it as a “bottom shelf” but it made my desk feel very cramped and cluttered, so I’m pleased to have that space back), but the vast majority of books have been kept. They make us happy. I kept probably about a hundred times the memorabilia that you’re supposed to keep – because I found that handling it did “spark joy.” I have two plastic crates of memories that I genuinely enjoy going through. How often will I go through them? Probably not often, but I am delighted that they are there.

What I learned was that I know that. Previously I felt guilty and grumpy about having all that crap down in The Vault (the downstairs storage area). Now I feel good about it. That’s what I decided to keep, rather than just keeping it by default. I did get rid of about two thirds of it, but what I kept matters to me.

I don’t empty my bag out every day as KonMari recommends. I’m considering making it part of my routine, but as an absent-minded person I think it would be too easy to forget all the things I have to carry with me. Not just “keys, phone, wallet,” but extra things like medications, painkillers, salt for adding to water, sunglasses (prescription), handkerchief, thing for cleaning glasses, earbuds, pens, diary, Kindle or current paperback – all things I carry and actually use on a daily basis.

The thing is that, while KonMari recommends getting rid of most of your books (you already have the information, apparently) and various other things, she also acknowledges that different things bring different people joy, and if those things bring you joy, then by all means keep them! Just make sure you’re not keeping things out of habit: things that will not make you happy, that will just take up space.

Surprising Consequences of Decluttering

When tidying was described as “Life-Changing Magic”, my initial response was to make a loud raspberry noise. I am very mature that way. It’s cleaning, for God’s sake.

Except… it does seem to genuinely function as described. Having a streamlined space makes my brain feel more streamlined. I feel like I have more space in my head to think about my life. It’s hard to describe, but now when I walk into a tidy, organised bathroom, there’s a happy little sigh in the back of my head. The same with my study, with the kitchen, with the dining room. There’s a bit more of a struggle with the bedroom and lounge room – very “lived-in” spaces – but even they have been profoundly improved by the process.

The motivation to tidy up and organise other aspects of our lives has come as a surprise to Husband and myself. We didn’t expect to suddenly book in the car services we’d been putting off, or replace the broken door handles, or nail down the damaged boards on the back deck properly – those things just suddenly seemed worth doing and perfectly manageable. Some things are natural consequences – you cook more when your kitchen is clean – but others are genuinely surprising.

Another one is folding. I suddenly decided that I would try to fold clothes. KonMari said that “folding clothes can be fun!” and I thought immediately “What a load of horseshit!” but decided to give it a try anyway. I wouldn’t describe it as fun.

I would describe it as extremely mindful. When I lay out a piece of clothing, be it t-shirt, pair of socks, or jeans, and then work out how to fold it in and roll it up (I tend to roll things up), I am focusing solely on the feeling of the fabric in my hands, the colours and images on it, the neatness of it. Once it’s done, I place it in the drawer such that I can see all my t-shirts at once. No more rifling through a pile looking for that one black shirt with the design on it that I want that looks like the other black shirts I have without designs on them. It’s just there.

Instead of a frustrating task that I want to put off (mostly because of over-stuffed drawers that won’t close), I now look forwarding to folding and putting away laundry. I close down and just have a quiet sensory experience, just me and the fabric and the drawers. It won’t work that way for everyone, but for some of us, it might turn into a mindfulness exercise.

Another surprising consequence is that my resting heart rate has gone down about five bpm on average since I began this project. Some of that will be because I have such a specific ongoing project – I get stressed when I don’t know what I’m doing the next day, so ongoing projects are very good for me – but some of it is because I don’t have that constant itching at the back of my brain that says “you should tidy that. You should clean that. What’s that doing out? Where is that thing you were looking for? Why is that out where you tripped over it?” and so on.

I am happier with less stuff. This surprises me because I unashamedly like stuff. I like gadgets and books and pictures and memorabilia. These things make me feel comfortable and safe. It turns out that more was not better, and I have not only decluttered my house – I have decluttered my head.

It is immensely satisfying.

Now, onto the rest of the home improvements… (clean roof. Clean gutters. Clear back deck and paths. De-cobweb house. Re-do weatherproofing of house. New oven/stove unit. The list goes on).

 

Diagnosis Roulette: My Pain Vocabulary is Fundamentally Flawed

“So, based on what you’ve told me, I don’t think you’ll need a laparoscopy at this stage. We can revisit that later, if things get worse.”

As I sat in the office of my newly-referred ob/gyn, I felt a sense of relief. At this stage, I’d either recently had or was booked in for: emergency surgery to correct a problem (successful), day surgery to try and prevent that problem from recurring (successful so far), and a colonoscopy to see if we couldn’t find the ultimate cause of that problem (not successful. The mystery remains). I’d come to see this fellow because I’m 34 years old and I have three chronic illnesses and I’d like to have a kid at some point and I wanted to know whether there was anything in that combination of issues that was going to make the process tricky.

I really, at that stage, didn’t want another laparoscopy. I felt I was at capacity for anaesthetics. I didn’t want to recover from surgery, with little holes going through my abdominal wall, and not be able to work out or move around properly, or the massive three-week fatigue and depression that is my response to general anaesthetics.

“We can revisit that later.”

We are damn well going to revisit that.

I am going back to see this fellow on Tuesday to say that now I really, really want a laparoscopy. It’s not that I get off on abdominal wall perforation or passing out or being stuck in bed with a heat pack for a few days. It’s that I’m in pain. Almost constant pain.

And I wonder if that was true even then, but I didn’t acknowledge it, or know how to talk about it; or if the condition has actually progressed; or both.

The problem when talking about pain is, for me, multifaceted. I have numerous friends with chronic pain issues (mostly women or trans, just thinking off the top of my head, and this is relevant for reasons I’ll get to later), and I’m curious to get their input on this issue.

Firstly, as a redhead and a hypermobile person and a person who makes their comfy home on a certain spectrum I don’t talk about publicly very much, my pain processing is… wonky. I wrote about that here, but in a quick summary: I have both a high pain tolerance and a high pain threshold, and often I don’t notice I’m in pain until it gets bad enough to cause nausea or dizziness as a shock response. This is something my body does – I am convinced – to get my attention, because the usual methods haven’t worked (I anthropomorphise my physiology all the time. It keeps things interesting).

Basically, the signal gets lost in the static, and my body has all the symptoms of someone in pain as far as the autonomic nervous system is concerned: blood pressure, heart rate, hormonal fluctuations, etc. The only thing missing is the part where my brain tells me what’s going on. When I do get that signal, it’s kind of muted.

This does not mean I live some gloriously pain-free life. Far from it. I absolutely feel pain. I hate it, the way that most people do. I just don’t always feel it exactly when I’m supposed to or as intensely as I am supposed to. It also varies by the different kinds of pain; I am, as most redheads are, a little more sensitive to pain of the hot/cold variety (although, again, I suspect that hypermobility and ASD issues mute it a little). Acute stabbing ice-pick pain is usually sharp enough to cut through my static (so to speak). As for throbbing, cramping pain, or the burning pain I relate to leg-waxing (which I have not done much of, because blond leg hair gets you out of many feminist quandaries), well, these things don’t really get through properly. The pain of a broken bone, it turns out, falls into this category. Having fractured my finger and my big toe, I found the pain bad enough to distract and upset me (the finger was much worse; I felt nauseated), but not anywhere near as overwhelming as it apparently should have been. I couldn’t even tell the doctor exactly where it hurt when I broke my toe. I had to show him. My hand knew where the pain was. I could find it by touching it. The entire rest of my body was unable to articulate the sensation in any useful way.

So what does this have to do with my vocabulary of pain?

Well, this makes things really difficult in a diagnostic sense, since “where does it hurt?” and “how much?” are pretty basic first-stage questions to ask.

It also means that I can work through a great deal of pain without making a fuss. I do get fatigue from it. I do get grumpy. I do get distracted. Because of these symptoms, Husband often knows I am in serious pain before I know it myself. Then when he asks, I stop, think about it, listen to my body, and I sort of go dowsing for the pain signal. “Oh! There it is. Yes, I have an owie.”

Recently I got cross at Husband, because he was frustrated (on my behalf) by the amount of pain I was in. He kept describing it as “debilitating” and “crippling” and I kept wincing and getting upset, because my standard for “debilitating pain” is either passing out, throwing up, or the acute stabbing pain I described above. If it’s none of those things, it’s not that bad, and I feel that when he describes it that way, I must have been complaining too much or making a big fuss about nothing. This ties into another issue below – but all Husband is doing is describing the effects of the pain, which, essentially is: “I can get nothing done and can’t concentrate.”

But I’ve had a bit of an epiphany.

I was going to write an entirely different blog post this morning. I’m sitting outdoors at a café at Circular Quay, Sydney, on a beautiful sunny winter day, appreciating the bridge and the harbour. I live in Melbourne, and my trips to Sydney are few, and the train always goes past Circular Quay and I see the sun hitting the water and get incredibly wistful. Today I had time before my flight, so I got off the train and sauntered to a café.

I was reading blogs on my phone when I started shifting my body weight uncomfortably. Then wincing. Then taking slow deep breaths through the cramp. I think it was a full ten minutes before I stopped and realised how uncomfortable I really was, and made myself take painkillers (I have painkiller problems. I can’t take NSAIDS – ibuprofen, etc. – because I may probably have Crohn’s. Paracetamol itself does nothing for me. This leaves codeine, which makes me fuzzy, and which I don’t want to become dependent on, so I have to make myself take it with stern internal diatribes).

I couldn’t think. I couldn’t concentrate. I was trying to read a blog post about American history and its influence on current politics, and the entry kept swimming in front of my eyes. A few minutes ago I’d been following the implications pretty well. Then I was re-reading paragraphs over and over again to try and make the words make sense. Then I was just breathing through the pain slowly.

And then I realised that it hurt.

It is, to use Husband’s words, genuinely debilitating. It is stopping me from doing basic things that I want to do.

And that’s when I started to wonder if I really had been reporting pain honestly as far as my pain processing is concerned – or if I had been downplaying it. Not on purpose, certainly, but in that kind of instinctive way that women tend to do.

There have been quite a few surveys and studies that reveal the fact that women tend to go to the doctor more than men do, overall. Men tend to try to “tough out” illness and pain, and this usually has pretty disastrous consequences for their health. They end up missing the early intervention stage and ultimately have to take more time off work – and that’s the most benign outcome. While this data could be interpreted as saying that women overreact to illness, most medical professionals make it clear that the opposite is usually true: men tend to underreact, and this is easily linked to some fairly toxic tropes of masculinity and the pressures on men to present a stoic and invulnerable front. Admitting to illness, pain and injury is a vulnerability, a sort of fragility, and there are overwhelming social pressures on men to avoid it. I won’t even go into issues with mental illness stigma. Our male suicide rate is as nasty as it is for good reason.

But women have their own problems with underreporting. We’ll go to a doctor, often feeling guilty for taking their time up with our trivial problem, half-wondering if we shouldn’t just stay home and work through it, and not bother anyone, but you know, what if it gets worse? We should get it checked out now, to avoid trouble later.

Why this guilt and self-doubt? We aren’t subject to the same pressures of performing masculinity – but it turns out we are subject to something else.

We are subject to dismissal. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that, when women say that they’re in pain, and give a rating, doctors instinctively knock it down a couple of notches in their assessment. Not just male doctors, either. The overwhelming instinctive response to female pain is to dismiss it – our understanding of feminine identity is so intertwined with a notion of weakness and fragility that, even when we should know better (“we” meaning “even women” – I’m not a doctor. Well. Not a medical doctor…), we assume that pain is being overreported. We assume that the pain a woman worries about is pain that is not worth dealing with.

I’ve been there. When I was trying to get my mysterious pelvic pain diagnosed (turned out to be endometriosis), I got diagnosed with various things from sub-acute appendicitis to severe constipation. One doctor started to hint at mental illnesses, starting to ask if, well, was I under a lot of stress lately? And I started to wonder if basic PhD stress would cause breakthrough bleeding that I’d never had before, or stabbing pelvic pain, or for me to burst into tears in the middle of a Pap smear from agonising pain which had never ever happened before. I thought that probably that wasn’t the issue.

I switched to another doctor, and she did take me seriously, and thought maybe I had PID, so she sent me off to the Mercy, where an intern said that I absolutely did not have PID but had anyone told me about endometriosis?

That’s a total of four accomplished medical professionals to suggest a condition that is estimated to affect ten percent of women – a disease that is staggeringly under-diagnosed and takes an average of over a decade to get diagnosed, because no-one takes period pain seriously, because bitches be crazy and hysterical, am I right?

But let’s talk about what endometriosis pain actually is. Endometriosis is a condition wherein endometrial cells – the cells that normally line the uterus, and are shed monthly in a hideous glory of blood and inflammation and pain – start hanging around outside the uterus. They wander around the abdominal cavity and form lesions behind the uterus, on the small and large bowel, on the abdominal wall, and basically anywhere they turn up. They then get inflamed and bleed and cause immune responses and other issues. Inside your abdominal cavity.

Then, of course, the repeated attacks from the immune systems eventually cause scarring. When scars form, it’s a form of healing. When things heal, they seal up. They fuse. So your organs stick together in ways that they are not supposed to do, meaning that every time you move, they stretch and pull inside you. Your organs. Tugging at each other. On scar tissue. This is considered quite an advanced state of endo; not everyone has it; and it’s not required for pain.

But when you describe this sort of systemic breakdown, the response you get is usually not “Pfft, that doesn’t sound like it would hurt much” or “yeah but it’s totally natural and women have been doing it forever so why are they complaining.” It’s usually “HOLY FUCK, THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS? WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? GET THAT SHIT SORTED.”

If, of course, all you say is you get bad periods, you’re much more likely to get one of those first two responses. Especially from other women who don’t get “bad periods.”

The pain I’ve been getting is – at least I think – endometriosis pain. Curiously, there’s no correlation between the extent of endometrial lesions and the amount of pain. Women can have extraordinary organ fusion and no pain to speak of; or a couple of pathetic little lesions hanging about and crippling pain. This condition is not well understood at all. When I had my first laparoscopy, I had a few pathetic lesions myself, and pain that was consistent enough and unusual enough that I went through multiple doctors trying to figure out what was wrong.

So, to bring things back to my point: in spite of my determination not to do so, I instinctively underreport pain. I try to describe it by “I am stuck on the couch for multiple days.” I don’t mention the days where I can work through it – even though the only reason I can work through it is because of my messed up pain signalling. I don’t want to push it. I tentatively do push it. I say “Well, it’s pretty unpleasant. It’s not fun.” But I don’t push as hard as I should.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t know how to talk about pain. As a person with chronic illnesses that come with chronic pain (seriously, hypermobility – I usually just ache in my joints and my back, and that’s just normal, and I don’t pay attention to it), and as a woman who has been taught that her pain is irrelevant, and that she should never make a big fuss about her own problems – I don’t have the vocabulary. I don’t know how to understand it or think about it, and that’s ignoring the fact that I don’t even feel it properly half the time. We also don’t remember pain well. This is a perfectly sensible evolutionary strategy, but it means that if I’m not actually in pain at the time that I’m talking to a specialist (and you take what appointment you can get, so there’s every chance a chronic intermittent problem might be in abeyance by the time you get to see them), I have trouble coming to grips with how much pain I was in prior to the appointment, and thus would likely be in again later on.

And when I think about it, I come back to a conversation I had with a GP I didn’t know, at a walk-in clinic, where I’d turned up to ask for Panadeine Forte and my usual pill script that would actually work to manage my endo (up to a point). I explained about my history with endo and how hard it was to get a diagnosis, and the things I went through before anyone even suggested it; and his understandable instinctive response was to defend the medical profession with how hard it is to diagnose endo.

He’s right. It’s a diagnosis of exclusion. The only way to definitively diagnose it is with a laparoscopy, which is also a treatment.

And yet. Ten percent of women. He said “There are so many other things it could be!” and I asked if perhaps we shouldn’t suggest endometriosis after we’ve ruled out those things, instead of going straight to an assumption of mental illness – no, let’s call that what it is: hysteria.

He blinked a bit, agreed that made sense and then said, “But women don’t say they have painful periods. They don’t complain about it.”

Then I unloaded a bit. Politely, as I tend to do. I said, “We don’t know we have painful periods. You can’t compare pain from person to person. There’s no way to share that experience. You just have what you have, and since we’re told from the word go that it’s supposed to hurt a bit, that pain is normal, we just think that’s how it is supposed to work. Literally no-one has told us that it’s okay to complain, that you are not supposed to feel sick and exhausted or pass out or throw up or be unable to move. So no, we don’t say we have painful periods, because we don’t know, and even if we did know, no-one seems to care.”

After that, he asked me many questions about how endo felt, and what books I’d read on it, and said he was going to go away and read more about it, because he really didn’t know much about it. I recommended “Endometriosis for Dummies.” I am not joking.

So I guess, sometimes it is okay to unload and complain about pain.

Good to know. I just wish I knew how to do it more effectively.

 

 

Grief and Guilt

I have only ever lost one human that was close to me. It was pretty brutal. Six months from prognosis to death from terminal lung cancer. It was my first experience with serious human grief. I think I’ve been pretty fortunate that I’m 34 years old and that’s only happened to me once.

That was when I learned that grief didn’t follow the precise, linear pattern I had always been taught to expect by popular culture. I learned that when it hit, it hit hard, and everything stopped, and it was difficult to find your breath. I learned that there were good days, and in their own way, that was awful.

What I didn’t expect was the guilt. I expected some guilt, of course – I felt so guilty that I hadn’t visited more often, that I hadn’t made the time, that I’d taken so long to warm up to her in the first place (I actually take a lot of time to really get close to people. We’re talking years), that I spent more time being shy and wary in her presence than I had being open and genuine. I felt guilty that I didn’t know what to say. “So you’re going to die! Wow. That’s… really shit.” That sort of guilt, the guilt based on awkwardness and regret? It was dreadful but I sort of expected it.

The surprise was the guilt I felt about how I was feeling. On bad days, I felt guilty that I felt so bad. I hadn’t been close to her for a particularly long time; I barely visited; she wasn’t my wife or my mother; I felt like feeling such intense grief was unfair, like I was stealing the feeling somehow from people who had a real right to it. I felt like I was a fraud, an imposter wearing a cloak of pain.

On good days, I felt guilty that I didn’t feel worse. What sort of cold-hearted monster was I that I was able to go about my business, keep troubleshooting my constant PhD lab issues, keep going out with friends, when this monumental thing had happened? Surely, there was something wrong with me. Was I some sort of robot, lacking all human feeling?

It turns out that’s just how grief works.

Grief, of course, isn’t just restricted to the loss of beloved humans. The magnitude and intensity and impact is different with pets, but it’s still real grief. I’m going through this with Jabba, even though it’s only been two days, and of course the guilt takes a different shape. I should have picked a more aggressive chemo protocol, even though we couldn’t really afford it. I should have got the MRI sooner. I should have put him to sleep sooner rather than letting him suffer for three days in the hopes that the recommended shot would have helped him (vet staff were very surprised when it didn’t work. Apparently, it usually does). I should have spent more time with him before he got sick, rather than constantly juggling the demands of cats and dogs and work and family and friends and exercise. Again, that guilt? I was sort of prepared for it.

The guilt I wasn’t prepared for – again – was the guilt about how I was feeling – again. In bad moments, I feel guilty that I’m feeling such things for a cat. I adore my pets, and most of my friends are animal lovers, and no-one has dared to say to me or even imply that it’s just a cat. Most of the people in my life – whether close friends or online friends in forums – know what it’s like to connect with an animal. They get it. But I’ve internalised a lot of the bullshit about how people should feel, how they’re supposed to feel when things happen, and I feel guilty that the loss of a cat – an old, sick cat – is affecting my work output. My diet. My motivation to exercise and take care of myself. At the same time, and perversely, I feel guilty that I dare to feel grief when I spent so much time frustrated that he peed on my things, yowled for attention, kept me up at night demanding affection (as adorable as it was). I don’t deserve to work through grief when I didn’t appreciate him.

In good moments, again, I feel guilty that I’m coping. Because I’m a cold-hearted monster and I shouldn’t let him go so easily in those good moments.

I look back, and I’ve felt the same for the loss of my other pets. I felt guilty about our dogs, Meg and Max, who died when I was in high school and early uni, because I wasn’t there, and I didn’t spend enough time with them, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I felt guilty about my budgie, Bobby, who was only two years old when he died, because I was fourteen and I didn’t pay enough attention to him either.

Going back to the first time: I felt guilty about Baron, who died when I was seven years old. I didn’t recognise it at the time, the squirmy uncomfortable feeling when I thought about him, the fact that for over a year I cried whenever he was mentioned to the consternation of friends and family. But I did feel guilty. He had just always been there, this big black comforting shadow who followed me around in the yard and made sure I didn’t do anything I shouldn’t (he used to block my path to the fernery when I was too small to get down the steps safely, just by sitting there). I was a little kid, and I assumed he always would be there, until he wasn’t, and then I felt like I hadn’t got to say goodbye; and if I’d known that some day he wouldn’t be there, maybe I would have patted him more and thrown his ball for him more. I cried for over a year because I missed him, and because I wasn’t prepared for his death, and also because I didn’t have a name for the guilt that I felt and I didn’t know how to deal with it.

Grief isn’t even just about death.

Grief is about relationships, and the loss of them. We expect a certain amount of guilt in those situations, the feeling that we could have or should have done more (whether or not that’s rational or fair), so maybe we don’t analyse it quite as much, or feel so uncomfortable looking at it. But again, after I ended my first serious relationship (five years), I felt guilty. I didn’t have a right to be bawling my eyes out, feeling like my heart had been ripped out, because I was the one who ended it, and I ended it because I wasn’t in love any more. How dare I grieve the loss of a relationship! How dare I miss his friendship! How presumptuous of me! And then on good days, when I went out with friends and had a good time, I felt a little guilty then too – did this mean it hadn’t meant so much to me? That it wasn’t a big deal?

I feel guilty about my relationship with Abusive Parent (or lack thereof). I grieve for the relationship that it isn’t, the relationship that it should have been; I feel guilty that I haven’t tried harder, been more compassionate, cut more slack; I feel like a cold-hearted monster for drawing such a hard line in the sand to protect myself, for saying that “If you continue to hurt me, I won’t talk to you. Ever.”

Grief is a vicious thing, and it’s not at all linear, and it takes different forms. We have to wear it, and feel it, and work through little pieces of it, and in some cases it never completely goes away.

The guilt, though.

I think we need to knock that on the fucking head.