Laugh As We Always Laughed

My mother once thought I was Davina McCall.

At the time, she was in hospital, and the TV must have been switched to Big Brother, or somesuch. She pointed at the TV and said, “That’s you, isn’t it?” And I laughed and said, “Yes!”

Our GP had diagnosed my mother with MID – multi-infarct (or vascular) dementia – which is a series of little strokes that make parts of your brain shut down. She would have moments of complete clarity interspersed with complete confusion. We’d only realised something was very wrong when her neighbours called to say that she’d called round in a confused state, but in hindsight the signs had been developing over a long period.

It is the hardest thing, to see this happen to a loved one. Particularly a mother who was a bright, intelligent woman. Her ‘eccentric’ ways, as she got older, were something I read as just a development of her personality, but in hindsight, they were small signs of what was to come. I remember her coming to visit me when I lived in Brighton in the ’90s, and how our roles had now switched. As we walked around, I had food and water in my bag for her, and ensured there was somewhere nice for her to sit down now and then.

I was embarrassed when two good friends spied us on the seafront, and I didn’t want them to speak to us. I knew my mother ‘wasn’t right’ but didn’t know how to deal with it. Then on the way home, she got off at the wrong coach stop and there were frantic messages between me and my siblings as to her whereabouts. She was found by National Express, sitting quietly at a coach stop, miles from her destination. I still feel sick about that moment. She shouldn’t have done that trip by her self, but at that time, I was still wondering why not.

When the diagnosis came – and let me tell you that getting your mother to the doctor to be tested for something she doesn’t know she has is a challenge – then it made it easier to deal with. It’s amazing what happens when a thing is named. When a thing is named it comes with a set of characteristics and a clear set of actions. She would have to go into hospital to be properly diagnosed, before being placed in appropriate care. We would have to take her there, leave her there. We would have to visit her and find her wearing someone else’s clothes…

You have to find a way through it. A way to cope. And the way we found, my sister, me and my mum, was a way to laugh at it. Together. Whether it was Davina McCall or the small white fluffy things she ‘saw’ blowing across her bedroom floor, we laughed at them together, sometimes until we cried. We found that correcting her only made her upset and more confused. But if you went along with the fantasy, magically the whole thing became easier.

Last night I went to see David Baddiel’s one-man show about his parents: his sex-obsessed late mother and his father who has dementia. His way of coping, he said, was to find the humour in it. In the fact that his mother copied him in to sexy emails to her lover, and that his dad called his loved one ‘c*nts’.

I found myself nodding and clapping as he spoke about how weird it was to hear your parent being asked by a doctor who the prime minister is (it’s the first question on the dementia test), how he found himself apologising to friends when his dad said something inappropriate, or his inner fear of being a victim of dementia himself.

Baddiel is of an age where perhaps you have more life experience to cope with it (53) but I was 31/32. No one of my acquaintance was dealing with anything like this, and I think that’s why I wanted to hide it away from them. They were all having babies and I was on my second parental decline. It was all out of sync and I wanted to hide in my south-coast life and ignore it. I’m ashamed to say that I hid in it for as long as I could. I kept my home visits to a limited number and a limited time. I counted the hours before I could escape south again. I know I’m not the only person to have done that but that doesn’t stop the guilt.

Recently there was a Twitter thread involving acts of kindness people had witnessed in their lives. Mine stands out clear and strong. During that time, my oldest friend, Coreen, visited my mother every Saturday, almost without fail. She dropped in to have a cup of tea and a chat. She must have seen my mother struggling, surrounded by ‘her things’ in one room. She understood, she didn’t judge, she was just present. She was more present than I was. I will never forget her kindness and I dedicate this post to her.

When my mother was taken into a home to be looked after, she thought it was a hotel. She talked about the other ‘guests’ and the staff as though she was on holiday. We played along. She ordered tea in her room and told us what she thought of the food in the ‘hotel’. We laughed together. She’d look at me as though she recognised me, then once again I was Davina. I could see the switch happen in her eyes.

Thank goodness for the laughter. Even before she became ill, I remember us all laughing together. At my mum’s habit of gently reaching out to touch the petals of a beautiful flower in a landscaped garden, only to see the whole thing collapse on the ground. And the time she accidentally tried to take £1000 out of an ATM in Southport because she couldn’t use the keyboard. And the classic: the time when she asked the waitress in a cafe in a boat on the North Wales coast, if she ‘had any waffles?’ but pronounced it to rhyme with ‘raffles’. She had put on her famous posh phone voice and we laughed about it years later.

We were used to laughing together and it made sense for us to do it later, when she was struggling the most. It’s a case of taking all the anxiety away – for all concerned. She was only in the home six weeks before she died. I’ve always thought it was because she had nothing to worry about any more. Other people were finally handling everything.

Baddiel ended by saying that his show was a kind of funeral speech for his mother – that her Jewish ‘Shiva’ didn’t allow for speeches, and on the day itself, everyone just shook his hand, wished him ‘long life’ and said what a ‘wonderful woman’ his mother was. In his show, he wanted to show the full extent of how ‘wonderful’ she was and it’s fairly warts-and-all. It’s darkly hilarious.

At my mother’s funeral, I stood up and said something, but it was a poem, and quite appropriate given the subject of this blog post. It’s Death Is Nothing At All, by Henry Scott Holland, and he says:

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me.

The more I look back on that time, and the years before them, the more I see and hear that laughter. I heard everyone in the theatre laughing last night, knowing that it came from a shared experience. I felt alone at the time it was happening but so many people experience it. It’s one of life’s great taboo subjects, but we are talking about it more and more, not only because of Theresa May’s ill-advised ‘dementia tax‘ or the threat of it looming over an ageing population.

I’ve toyed with writing about this subject for years now, not quite able to find a way into an intensely personal experience. It wasn’t until I saw Baddiel on stage last night that I found that way, and let me tell you that seeing a man ‘share’ as he does is simply incredible. We’re used to women doing it, but not men. He’s turned it into a comedy show, but really it’s a very funny, and tragic, live blog.

So I’m committing the laughter to the page and not hiding the darkness that comes along with it.

It’s time we talked about this.

 

Dedicated to: the NHS, Age UK (who were so helpful and reassuring when I phoned them out of my mind with worry), my wonderful friend, Coreen Ellis.

 

A Weight of One’s Own

I’ve already written a lot about body image, about embracing my own shape, eschewing dieting, and women’s relationships with food. Before a female-only dinner I went to recently, I joked on Twitter that there should be a Bechdel test for women’s dinners where at least two women talk about something else other than food while eating. It never happened. Someone turned up and promptly announced how many calories they’d burnt off at the gym and it was all over.

This policing of food intake, both by ourselves and by the media, drives me mad. It’s taken me forty-eight years to realise I don’t have to be thin to live a happy life, that I haven’t fallen into oblivion by stopping dieting. I have gained around 20lbs since my decade of dieting in my 30s, and have gone back up to the size I was before the dieting kicked in.

I honestly went into a panic as the scales showed a significant increase earlier this year. And yet every time I looked in the mirror, naked, I saw a body I liked. How can this be? I panicked myself into another low-carb diet. It didn’t work. The panic subsided and the body I liked was still there. Rounder around the tummy, thighs and upper arms, but it actually looked like the shape it was meant to be. Some clothes didn’t fit, some clothes fitted better. I filled out the bits that were meant to be filled out. This made me laugh with joy a few times, getting ready to go out.

I think my body is lovely. Am I allowed to say that? Damn right. For years I thought it was bloody disgusting and thank god that’s over. There are men (and women) who’ve only known me as post-dieting Lisa and they say such nice things about my body. I’ve had them call me things like ‘full-on woman’. They’ve commented on my shape, and called it ‘beautiful’, ‘sexy’ and ‘lovely’. I bask in it, because my Inner Voice is saying, ‘Really? At this size?’ and then just when I’m about to say it out loud, I tell IV to shut the hell up and say nothing.

I must have my ‘fat radar’ set to high frequency because I was rewatching Love Actually the other day as part of my annual Christmas TV viewing and suddenly realised how fat-shamey it was.

From the start, Bill Nighy constantly refers to his ‘fat manager’, Nathalie gets called ‘plumpy’ by her parents, Emma Thompson bemoans her ‘Pavarotti’ clothing, Aurelia chides Jamie for getting ‘chubby’ and her ‘Miss Dunkin’ Donuts’ sister calls her a ‘skinny moron’. The movie even ends with Hugh Grant saying ‘God, you weigh a lot’ to his new girlfriend, the aforementioned ‘Plumpy’.

Someone making this film had some issues, I’d say.

Why is flesh so fearsome? Why do the Overweight Haters think it’s ok to distribute Fat Cards to women on the London Underground? Why is the worst insult a rejected man on Tinder can throw at a woman is ‘ur fat and ugly anyway’? They know it strikes at the fear in the very centre of our being. Even now, if someone shouted ‘fat’ at me, even though I know I’m not, I’d carry around the curse of that for days, weeks after. I know I would.

And then… And then that bloody women’s health report. Even though it rightly acknowledges that obesity is a nationwide, non-gendered problem, and has a significant effect on women’s health, the media has grabbed the chance to say “Women: You Are Responsible For a National Crisis By Eating Too Much.” Here’s what the Department of Health’s Sally Davies actually says in her summary of the report:

Tackling obesity in the population as a whole has to be a national priority, in order to reduce the impact of related, non-communicable diseases on healthy life expectancy and health services.

But guess what? The Daily Fail lays all the responsibility of a national crisis, just before Xmas, on women’s eating. Not the Cumbrian floods, not the terrorist threat – women’s eating:

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And rather effectively, it’s sandwiched (no pun intended) between an advert for ‘lady petrol’ and two feminine ideals (one of whom has been told to lose weight in the past). It’s a classic, ‘enjoy this, but don’t actually imbibe it if you want to look like this’ schematic.

I’ve returned again and again to the great feminist work Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, first published in 1978, and been amazed at how relevant it still is today:

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As Orbach goes on to say, “selling body insecurity to women (and increasingly to men too) is a vicious phenomenon. It relies on the social practices that shape a girl’s growing up to make her receptive … they are discouraged from using their body strength to explore the world.”

I have made it a life principle to take up space in the world, to increase my body strength, and to explore as far and wide as I can. On my own. I know that my anti-diet approach to life comes from a response to being body-policed from a young age, and from hearing female friends and relatives comment on their weight and others’ all my life.

I am happy to know a number of younger women who’ve taken a similar ‘This Girl Can’ attitude to life. But I know a hell of a lot more who’ll be monitoring their food intake and not have the strength to climb a wall or run a 10k. But it’s ok, because they’re skinny.

I will say again and again, and if I had a daughter I’d say it every day, that it’s our right (I see it as a duty) to be in the world, to take up space, to be sexual, to get into all its corners. Shrinking ourselves, Alice-like, is not the way to do it.

If only I’d realised this thirty years ago.

Happy Christmas, ladies – eat, drink and be merry.

Go With The Flow

I’m going to talk about periods. If you’re rolling your eyes right now then maybe click or look away before I go any further.

*gives it a few seconds*

Periods are big news at the moment – firstly we had the woman who posted a picture of herself on Instagram in which you could clearly see a patch of blood. Instagram took the picture down and she reposted it. They took it down again, but later apologised for their ‘mistake’ and reinstated it. As Jessica Valenti pointed out, Instagram are only too happy to showcase bikini selfies but have banned breastfeeding shots. Similarly, women can be nearly naked, but if they dare to have body hair, they have to go.

Then just last week we had Donald Trump criticising Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, saying on CNN, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes … Blood coming out of her wherever.” It’s not new to have a man accuse a confident, vocal woman of being subject to ‘that time of the month’, especially if she’s questioning his motives, but it’s not something you usually hear from a man running for the US presidency. That comment probably lost him the race.

And yesterday we had the news that Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon in April while she had her period, but decided to run tampon-free in support of women in countries who have no access to sanitary protection. Interestingly, the incident wasn’t reported by anyone there at the time – maybe they thought she’d simply had a ‘mishap’.

And oh, the fear of that mishap. The leak. I remember the very real fear that it would happen at school. I started my periods while still at primary school and in the beginning, had to wear things (we called them ‘things’ in our house because the words ‘sanitary towels’ were just to awful to say out loud) that resembled single-sized duvets between my legs all day.

I remember my mother describing the onset of my periods as ‘something that happens to all women, even the Virgin Mary’. It wasn’t exactly a biology lesson but I was only nine and I was in a Catholic school. I remember my sister reaching her arm out of her bed to shake my hand: “Welcome to the club,” she said.

From being dropped off at school in the morning to going home at night I worried about leaking. If I sat down too long during lessons the worry would mean I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was how I could subtly spin my skirt around when I finally stood up just to check the back. At secondary school, my friends and I had a silent agreement that we’d check each other during those times. “Am I ok at the back?” I’d whisper through unmoving lips. They’d nod. I never leaked there, but I did in ballet class once, whilst wearing a light-blue leotard. I nearly died of shame when I realised later.

Managing this situation takes up a lot of time in women’s lives. If you’re a man, you won’t notice it because we are so practised at hiding it. If we think we might be in ‘danger’, we engineer a trip to the toilet; we stuff tampons up our sleeves or even down our boots if we have to, because the very worst thing we could do is let someone know that we have our period, even other women.

We manage the pain with timely painkillers and work out if we can manage an exercise class without worry. Don’t get me started on PE lessons at school and the showers. The opportunities for shame there are legion.

The worry lessens as we get older as we get more adept at managing periods and knowing what our bodies will do, or can handle, especially as our monthly cycles tend to become more regular. But those early days are fraught with unexpected or phantom start days, sudden rushes of ‘flow’ and not being near any facilities or painkillers for hours.

We even get up during the night to change our protection as eight hours is way too long to wait. We regularly ruin underwear if we don’t, which is why we have special ‘period pants’ that we don’t mind losing.

And then there are holidays. The all-important timing issue. Periods can be so erratic that you can change your holiday dates and still have to contend with the discomfort and inconvenience while you’re away. To a certain extent you can be that girl on a yacht in a Bodyform advert, but the reality is, her smile belies her ‘When will we reach a proper toilet so I can check my situation? Will this tampon last for a whole round-island trip? Did I make a mistake wearing white shorts?’ questions.

And finally, sex. There is nothing more frustrating than being ‘out of action’. Yes, there are some men who don’t mind, but there are even fewer women who think the same way (although maybe I’m wrong). Yes, there are other things you can do for entertainment, but it does rather take the shine off.

It is rather astonishing that something that affects all biological women is so gloriously taboo. The lengths we all go to avoid saying the actual word or admit that it’s happening are incredible. I’m still embarrassed buying tampons in Boots for god’s sake.

So I’m pleased that periods are finally in the news. It’s about time. At least this is blood spilt without harming anyone.

Much.

——————

Great piece on the Trump moment: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/10/menstruation-revolution-donald-trump-periods-stigma

Things I’d Tell My Daughter

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m childfree-by-choice, but as my life fills with young female friends, I find myself thinking about what I want to pass on to them – in a wise-woman way. I so enjoy their company and I love talking to them about how they navigate the world of work, relationships and, well, just being a young woman.

If I’d had a daughter when I was thirty, she would be eighteen now. So these are the things I’d like to say to her, and weirdly, lots of them are things my mother said to me, but I didn’t quite understand them at the time.

Be yourself

It sounds like a hackneyed phrase that all (good) mothers say to daughters as they walk into the world, but I mean just that. Be your own self. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by being a partner, a mother, or even having a stellar career. Just know that you have a choice in all of this. Define yourself by the life you choose to live, and by the people you choose to experience it with.

If in doubt, don’t

My mum used to say this all the time. But oh how true. If you have any doubts about a relationship you’re in, any at all, leave it. Don’t wait for ‘the day’ to come. It won’t and you’ll have lost valuable time. Never settle for something that doesn’t feel right or compromise your own sense of what is right to please a partner. Your gut will tell you that something is wrong – listen to it and take action.

Love your body

People started commenting on your body from a young age and it will be monitored by those around you (male and female) as you grow older. Look in the mirror and look into your own, makeup-free eyes before you monitor your own body. Make an agreement with yourself to see someone beautiful, strong and taking up space in the world. Never starve your body – eating properly makes you all of these things.

Look out for toxic people

Some of the people you choose to surround yourself with will make you feel good about yourself, others will do their damnedest to try and bring you down. These people are usually insecure and jealous of beautiful, strong, young women who are confident in the world. Surround yourself with the good ones, ditch the toxics. Don’t try and hold on to foul friendships – they will just bring you down. It’s ok to let friends – and family – go.

Be in the space

Take up space in the world. If you’re out walking, running or doing yoga in the park – take up the space. If you’re in the office in a meeting, let your voice take up the space. If you’re online and you feel strongly about something, let your words take up the space. Never flinch if people question why you are there, and they will – make your presence felt and your voice heard.

Be confident in your sexuality

Whatever your sexuality is, people will try and make you feel as though you have to hide it, that it is shameful, that you should not seek sexual pleasure just for its own sake. Do everything you want to do, safely and confidently. Do it and never wake up with regrets. The only regret you’ll have is that you never did it.

Compliment other women

Tell other women that they’re good at things. Things that don’t involve hair, makeup, losing weight or wearing a fab outfit. It will change their lives.

Don’t dread getting older

Don’t. Good things happen and they are unexpected. Your body and brain will have a way of coping with the transition that means you will discover each milestone isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. Older women are smart, beautiful and supportive of younger women. Don’t believe the myth that they’re not any of those things – it’s a lie constructed by society because older women are immensely powerful people.

Don’t lead a tick box life

Question everything. Never do anything just because everyone else is doing it. Feel the peer pressure and question it anyway. You can construct your own set of tick boxes that are different to other people’s. Don’t believe what others tell you about people, places or other cultures – find out for yourself.

Do things on your own

Even when you’re young, it’s important to commune with yourself, not just your friends. Do things on your own, such as going to the cinema, walking, going for coffee, even on holiday. You’ll never regret it.

Look out for controlling partners

Beware of signs that your partner is trying to control you. It can be oh so subtle, and before you know it, your life is completely in the control of another. If they make negative comments about your weight, what you’re wearing, or stop you seeing certain friends, the red flag is waving. Get out.

There are wonderful people out there

You’ll know the signs. They will be kind to you, your friends, their friends and their family. They will celebrate your successes and be there when things go wrong, without a sly smile on their faces. They will offer to connect you to people they know to help you in your career, and notably, women will help other women.

Say sorry

There will be times when you regret your behaviour, or saying something that has hurt someone else. Tell them you’re sorry and they will forgive you. If you don’t, the guilty feelings will just build inside of you and make you more likely to hurt someone again. We’re all flawed – think of apologising as a flaw release valve.

Have fun when you’re young

Don’t hide away from fun times. Work hard, play hard – get into all the corners that life is offering you. Make mistakes. If not, you will spend the rest of your life trying to make up for missed opportunities.

Ignore all of this and find out for yourself

Because I did when my mum told me.

Elizabeth Pamela Mary

It’s funny how the day that A-level results are out is the same day as my late mother’s birthday. Elizabeth Pamela Mary – ‘Pam’ – Edwards would have been 86 today.

It’s funny, because she was someone who was a teenager during the Second World War, who aced her School Certificate at the age of 14 in 1942 (it was meant to be taken at 16 and was like a set of GCSEs) but couldn’t carry on into further education because the War forced her into work.

As far as I’m aware from family lore, one of her jobs was as a telephonist in Hawker Siddeley, North Wales. Hawker was a founding member of British Aerospace and it made Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft that were instrumental in the Battle of Britain. Her telephone voice earned her the moniker ‘The Girl with the Dark-Brown Voice’. Or maybe it was just my dad that said that, I’m not sure.

Anyway, I grew up with a mother who was clever. By the time I knew her properly, she was a housewife who helped my father run his newsagents in our town, Holywell in North Wales. But my early memories of my mum include her racing through the hardest cryptic crosswords, doing my maths homework backwards to prove that the answer was right (!!!) and being annoyingly good at shouting out the answers to University Challenge or Mastermind before anyone else could.

Gah. She was good.

When it came to my O- and A-levels I struggled with the pressure. She never pushed me, never put me under any further pressure, because I put myself under enough and she could see that. I did well at O-level but fell down at A.

I don’t know what happened – I was getting good grades in coursework but tried too hard to learn everything by rote for the exams. I could practically recite Hamlet from memory, but it did me no good.

I needed to think for myself.

I then spent the next four years teaching ballet and tap in what is still an amazing dance school in North Wales – the Whitton Morris School of Dance. I forgot about academia as I plunged myself into technique and tutus, thinking I’d end up being an examiner for the British Ballet Organisation. My mum supported that path I’d decided to take, and I think she enjoyed having me at home.

But something switched in my brain in year three of that time. It seriously felt like a cog had inched round in my head, and the message was loud and clear – Go To University. I found a dance course at Roehampton, which I paired with English Lit because you had to choose something, and that was it.

But that wasn’t the whole story. I started to do much better than I thought I would in English essays. I remember phoning my mum from the halls of residence telling her that I’d got an A* for my first essay. Then another one. And another. She was so delighted, and I felt delighted that I could do what she hadn’t been able to do.

Back when I’d done dismally in my A-levels, my mum had told me that ‘there is always a time in your life that is right for studying, and it’s not necessarily when you’re at school’. How right she was. And when I got my first-class degree, majoring in English, I was on the phone to her straight away, and she was joyous.

And my career in publishing started back then when I started the Roehampton Arts Review magazine with a couple of friends. I caught the bug and never looked back.

I only ever look back at Elizabeth Pamela Mary and say, Mum – it’s all for you and it always will be.

Happy birthday.