2019 in Review

Yet again, I’ve managed to take an accidental two months off from even looking at this blog. No, once again, I have no legitimate explanation as to why I keep doing this; all I can really say in my defence is that although I love the festive season, it’s a lot of bloomin’ work. I have almost a whole turkey, half a pecan pie and fifteen pigs in blankets in my fridge as proof of this. And as for the pine needles matted into my dog’s fur and sprinkled around the house like confetti, I’m now just pretending not to notice. Still, it’s only once a year, eh? (Low key wish I’d done a Christmas with the Kranks and skipped it all though; joking…a bit).

Anyway, it’s been a pretty big year for me; although a year is a very long time when you really think about it so it’s not actually that surprising that I managed to cram a lot in. Still, I’ve been doing some reflecting, as we all seem to do at this time of year (though it’s mostly fuelled by Buck’s Fizz and a lack of anything better to do in the absence of anything worth watching on TV), and have compiled a list of the main life lessons I’ve learned this year, to pass on to you as a gift of wisom because I’m just nice like that.

Wedding Planning is like Childbirth

Okay so I haven’t actually ever given birth, so I can’t confirm this with ny real certainty, but if we can accept the premise that childbirth is painful and horrible while it’s happening but produces something lovely at the end, which is so lovely that the mother forgets all the pain, then this analogy works. My struggle with planning my wedding this year has been well documented, and whilst I think it’s really important to acknowledge that it can be quite a lonely and really challenging time and never dismissed as “one of those things” we must endure, the one piece of advice I would give to anyone in that scenario is that all the horrible bits are quickly forgotten. I would say this is the one piece of advice which I wish I had been given, but every married person I know told me this at the time, yet I just chose to ignore it whilst I was in the midst of a stress akin to the level of pain during the ‘crowning’ phase of birth. I genuinely thought that the damage done to relationships between myself and various family members and friends during the hard parts was irreprable, but that was honestly forgotten by about three seconds into the vows, and I was having normal conversations with said individuals within forty eight hours of getting married; as if the last ten months of absolute warfare had not happened at all. Trust me, just wade through that mud because it does get easier and all is forgotten.

Pretty much everyone has mental health issues of some kind

Mental health is one of those things that we talk about all the time on social media to try and “break the stigma”, which is great, but unfortunately I think sometimes it’s like the polar opposite to your address and phone number; something we’re happy to discuss with strangers on the internet but not our own family and friends. For various reasons which I won’t bore you with, I found myself in a position this year of needing some extra support to feel ‘okay’ again, and each time I mustered up the courage to try and explain it to a friend, colleague or family member; every time I was met with some variation of “oh yeah that happened to me too” or “oh that’s nothing, when I was in that position I…”. It could just be that I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are supportive, but even people I don’t know that well met this with the same response. Basically, if I’d known it was pretty much a normal, run of the mill thing to have those kinds of issues at some point in life, I wouldn’t have ignored it for so long and let it get worse; so don’t do that if you find yourself in that position at any point.

Smear tests are fine

I’m not even going to bother labouring that point. This year I hit the age bracket to be eligible for smear tests (when did the things you become eligible for on birthdays stop being fun? I’m guessing at 18). I wasn’t particularly nervous but honestly it was so uneventful in every single way that it’s barely worth mentioning, except to make the point that they’re not an issue at all and I don’t understand why some people turn it into one.

Eating healthily and exercising actually does work

Again, this sounds obvious, but like most people I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to instantly lose weight or tone up in some way through the next fad – I have a Nutribullet in the cupboard gathering dust to prove it. For various reasons, including a desire to not die at fifty if it can be helped, I started doing a mix of different exercise classes and eating a bit better on weekdays (weekends are junk food time; and that is a habit I will never be able to change); and quite unexpectedly became fitter and healthier. I don’t know when it exactly happened, I just sort of noticed one day that I could get up the stairs without stopping for breath and could fit into clothes a bit more easily. Whilst I realise that my variation of specific eating patterns and exercise routines would not be healthy or advisable for everyone, I’m just making the point that it is literally that simple. It takes a while yes, but there is no magic Joe Wicks-inspired, keto-ing or Nutribullet-ing formula; it’s pretty much just eating better and moving more. Who knew? Certainly not me.

If you’re not sure about eggs, put them in water

I’m not just mentioning this on account of my love of using prime numbers and therefore a desire to include five points, but also because this is a genuinely useful life hack I learned this year. My uncertainty about whether eggs are good to use always seems to occur on a Sunday before 10 a.m; specifically before the shops are open so I have no real other option than to use them. Well, unless I were to not have Sunday morning pancakes, which would be entirely ridiculous. But yes, fill a bowl with water and if the egg is off it will float to the top, if it’s fine it will stay at the bottom, and if it’s okay but not the freshest, it will stay at the bottom but stand up vertically. You’re welcome.


Bullet Journaling

“Mindfulness” is the buzz word at the moment. Actually it has been for a while, and I will happily raise my hands and confess to the fact that I am a sheep and follow the ‘mindfullness’ crowd by reposting motivational quotes about ‘making time for you’ and ‘being in the moment’ whenever I can; which is entirely hypocritical because my idea of savouring the moment is having a slightly slower walk back up the path after taking the bin out. Which, usually I just find tedious and an unnecessary waste of time after 0.5 seconds. I had an hour long, full body massage last week (not a typical Thursday afternoon for me, it was a post-wedding, mourning the loss of my Thomas Cook honeymoon treat), and even in a darkened room where the only sound is music specifically engineered to relax you, with someone physically relieving the tension in my body, I spent the hour thinking “am I relaxed enough yet?”. Ah, the perils of being an impatient, anxiety-ridden overthinker. However, despite being unable to achieve a state of even moderate relaxation without first receiving a general anaesthetic, I recently tried my hand at bullet journaling.

Bullet journals are something I have admired from afar for a while now, and by ‘afar’ I mean by looking at my Instagram feed and thinking “that’s too faffy and technical for me”, much like the satisfyingly organised homes and perfectly contoured make-up. I spent an embarrassingly long time researching which bullet journal to get before realising that they are all, essentially, just paper. Having said that, I’m not a monster so of course I spent money on a lovely smooth, pretty new notebook in which to do my bullet-journaling; along with some fun stickers because you’re never too old for stickers.

What I noticed about the more expensive, more technical bullet journals was that they were mostly segmented and had different prompts to help you think about what to write, but there are a lot of ways to manage this without spending a fortune. A lot of ‘fancier’ bullet journals are divided up by day, but that’s essentially just a desk planner or a weekly diary – readily available for less than a couple of quid if you look in the right place. I personally didn’t want to get into a weekly view, it felt too similar to planning my work schedule, and I like the idea of being able to close the page on each day – I haven’t re-read any of my previous entries, I just don’t find it beneficial or enjoyable. My journal came with some emjoi stickers (how very 2019), which I really liked, and prompted me to buy some specific ‘bullet journal stickers’ with little quotes and mantras on. To get the juices flowing, I start each day’s entry by choosing an emoji sticker and a quote which best fit that day, then using the written part to elaborate a bit on why. Even if my emoji for the day is the crying face because it’s been horrible, I’ll jot down a summary of why it was so horrible even if it’s just “busy day at work, am exhausted”. Something about putting it in that onto the paper and closing the page does, to my pleasant surprise, make me feel a bit lighter. It’s like that bit in Harry Potter when Dumbledore uses his wand to drag thoughts out of his head and put them in the water – who doesn’t love some de-cluttering?

The easiest counter-productivity traps to fall into with bullet journaling which would then put you off doing it again are to dwell too much on the negatives, and to write too much. I’ve managed to tackle both of those with some nifty tricks which were so useful I may have to consider copyright. First, although it’s perfectly fine and sometimes beneficial to write down negative things, for every negative point about my day I make myself write a “but”. For example, if I’ve had a difficult day at work I tend to follow it with “but, I did my best and that’s all that can be expected”. Ending on a positive definitely made me see the ‘point’ of bullet journaling, because writing a list of everything that was rubbish about your day is quite draining and just makes you feel worse. So, keep that little weighing scale of negatives and positives even.

Also, for someone like me who is a rambler (someone who talks a lot, not an old person who likes getting lost in the countryside), it’s very tempting to start writing War and Peace and listing every aspect and emotion of your day. To overcome that, I started being quite deliberate with the time slot I allocated for the journaling. While setting a timer seems like a nice idea, I personally would just stare at the timer and feel like I was taking an exam which would be totally counter-productive, but I’ve started using a limited time slot like waiting for the bath to run or for my dinner to cook – there’s a clear end point but it’s not a race against the clock. I did see someone else post online about how they like to see it as a challenge to write something that will summarise their day in thirty seconds, as if there was a trailer for the film version of that particular day in your life. That is also a fun and non-restrictive way to think about it; but sadly I’m from the North and talk really fast so could probably still get a feature length film out in thirty seconds.

So, after doing some research on bullet journaling, and from doing my own, I came to the conclusion that it is a genuinely useful and healthy habit to get into, but that it really needs to be bespoke to the person doing it. I’ve seen some journals online which have so many boxes, each demanding to be filled in with separate thoughts or ideas, or some which set targets for the week which, to me, just seems like a trap for self-induced guilt like New Year’s Resolutions. Although I started off by forcing myself to do this each day, it has quickly become a habit, and a useful one at that.

25 Lessons Learned in 25 Years

Now, obviously I’ve learned more than twenty five things in my twenty five years spent on this Earth; but I don’t think writing about how I learned to walk, drive or use a ‘big girl’ toilet would make very interesting reading. So, in honour of my twenty fifth journey around the sun, I decided to compile twenty five useful things which I have learned at some point in my life, in the hope that it might offer some assistance to your own. Although, if you’ve followed this blog for a while you will probably have gathered that my life is a hot mess and in no way an example of success or inner peace, so this may also serve as a useful guide of twenty five things to avoid doing, for fear of becoming like me.

  1.  Drink water.
    It sounds obvious, but it makes a huge difference to everything; skin, waistline, staves off the dreaded cystitis, wakes you up, and it’s free – what’s not to love?
  2. Take vitamins.
    Obviously consult a doctor before taking anything you aren’t completely sure is safe for you, but I swear by Zinc for making a cold recover quickly and taking Vitamin D every day last Winter gave me a new lease of life.
  3. Quality is more important than quantity when it comes to friends.
    I have probably four or five friends, and that’s it. No wide circle of acquaintances, no huge group chats, I simply can’t be bothered. All of my friends know how often I pee, where I would go if I needed to go off grid after killing someone and who I would invite to my fantasy dinner party. It is far more beneficial to have one genuine friend who has your back than fifteen who don’t.
  4. Have an exercise routine.
    Whatever that means to you; whether it’s walking the dog each night, swimming, going to a gym or doing yoga in your pants on the living room floor. I’ve had a variety of routines with varying levels of effort in the last few years, but there has always been one consistent theme – I have felt better physically and mentally when I have had some sort of exercise habit, regardless of its intensity.
  5. Good bras are worth investing in.
    I rarely replace my bras. I buy about four sturdy bras and keep them for about two years. It is worth paying the money up front, rather than buying fifteen Primark bras a month. Especially so with sports bras, because back pain is not fun. Life is too short to spend it with your boobs hanging round your knees and breaking your shoulders.
  6. Do the job which you enjoy the most, not that which pays the most.
    I have wasted too large a proportion of my life and happiness on horrible jobs which were everything I wanted on paper, but made me loathe the thought of getting up in the morning. I was at my happiest when I left that job for a significant pay cut to work somewhere that made me smile every day.
  7. Be with the partner who makes you laugh.
    Obviously other qualities are important to overall compatibility, but looks change, interests change, life changes; and I’ve found that the best way to get through the tough bits is to have someone with you who is on your level of humour.
  8. Read as often as you can.
    Even if it’s just a magazine or the odd newspaper article, reading something printed on paper is good for the imagination and healthier than looking at a screen. Unplug yourself from the Matrix once in a while and exercise that brain.
  9. Eat less meat.
    I’ve been pescatarian for four years now. Do I miss meat sometimes? Yes. Did I enjoy meat? Absolutely yes. But, my blood pressure is down, metabolism is up and the planet and the animals are thankful for it.
  10. Have a ‘treat yourself’ beauty splurge habit.
    When we feel good on the inside, it shows on the outside, and I think this goes both ways. When we feel confident in our appearance it affects everything positively, so whether it’s having a quick face pack at home or something more indulgent like a spa day, have something in reserve that you know will always make you feel fabulous. I always feel like I can conquer the world with a fresh manicure.
  11. Have a proper de-clutter at least once a year.
    I usually do two big de-clutters a year. I don’t even plan it in, it just consumes me at certain points. I’m currently basking in the after-glow of a good clear out, and feel more relaxed and centred for it. Plus, donating things to charity and recycling things properly is good karma all round.
  12. Invest time and money in making your home how you want it.
    You spend too much time at home to not feel totally comfortable in it. I wasted years in crappy flats which I never bothered to improve in any way because they were “only temporary”, but your home is your castle and feels much better to come home to when it reflects your personality.
  13. An extra spin and drain cycle on the washing machine makes an incredible difference to drying time.
    I thought this was common knowledge until about a fortnight ago when a colleague complained her washing was taking ages to dry and steaming her house up. It takes ten minutes after a normal cycle but means my washing is dry overnight. Simple choice.
  14. Use sun cream.
    Skin cancer is not a joke, even if you think you don’t burn. Most daily moisturisers have an SPF in now anyway, so you don’t have to think about it as much.
  15. Mental health is important.
    It’s possibly more important than physical health. I have experienced physical health problems as a result of mental health issues, between which I never connected the dots. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t experienced some form of mental ill-health in their life; I learned the hard way that it’s better to deal with it early on and not bury your head in the sand, because that doesn’t actually fix it.
  16. Look after your teeth.
    Dentist bills are not fun, and fillings are not fun. Avoid both by flossing every day and using an electric toothbrush.
  17. Don’t ever lie to fit in.
    I wasted a lot of time and energy doing that as a teenager, it is exhausting and attracts the wrong type of friends. Real friends don’t care if you don’t go to clubs every week and prefer to watch Teen Mom in your pyjamas – find your tribe because they’ll sit next to you doing the exact same thing.
  18. Before posting anything on social media, do the boss/grandma test.
    “Would I care if my boss/grandma saw this?” If the answer is yes, probably best said privately or not at all. It’s far too easy to spy on other people’s content now, and some people like to ‘grass’ other people up as we say in Sunderland. Employing this has definitely saved me from some awkward situations.
  19. Wash your hair as little as possible.
    Nobody can actually tell if your hair has that slightly greasy, in-between-wash feeling. I have managed to get my hair washing down to twice a week and yes, the lie-ins are worth it. Plus, it’s good for your hair and the great Jonathan Van Ness swears by it so that’s good enough for me.
  20. The world does not end if you go out without make up.
    I used to put foundation on to take the wheelie bin out or go to the petrol station. Then I joined a gym which is next to a supermarket and often pop in on my way to or from a workout. Guess what? Nobody is even looking at you because this is Britain and we all look at our phones/the floor when in public. Make up is expensive and a faff to put on, don’t waste it on five minute trips to the shops.
  21. It’s not a race.
    I wasted a lot of opportunities for happiness by comparing myself to other people who were ‘further ahead’ than me in terms of careers and relationships. We’re not all playing the same game, it’s like entering a race but looking at the person throwing a javelin – it isn’t like for like, it’s you vs you.
  22. End relationships which are not beneficial or productive.
    It sounds harsh, but sometimes, through nobody’s fault, relationships break down or stop serving a purpose. It’s wasteful to both parties to continue flogging it if it’s faded, whether that’s a partner, friend or even a family member.
  23. It’s okay to say no.
    Whether it’s a work commitment, social event or even to that little voice in your head who is telling you to feel guilty if you don’t get x, y or z done. I’m a Brit, I’m used to people pleasing and then complaining about it behind their backs. It’s far easier to just say no from the outset.
  24. Tampon applicators serve literally no purpose. 
    Other than polluting the planet and taking up extra space in your bag. I have never used one and do not see the point. It’s not a difficult target to miss, that’s all I’m saying.
  25. Take photos.
    We all hate that annoying friend who makes you stop and take photos every two seconds, but I have multiple photo albums which are ordered chronologically and I love looking back through them. I’m not saying take a photo every morning when you arrive at work, but when you spend quality time with loved ones, take a photo to commemorate it. I will always remember one specific occasion where I saw a group of close friends and we forgot to take any photos, I actually used the phrase “we’ll take some next time”, and one of those friends died a week later. Making memories is important, but it’s also important to capture them so you don’t forget when you look back.

Losing My Mojo

Disclaimer: this not an April Fool’s post.

I realised over the weekend that my last blog post was a month ago, now, I’m not egocentric enough to believe my followers are waiting with baited breath for my new posts, nor are they losing sleep over my welfare due to the recent lack of activity. However, I do feel a need to briefly apologise for my recent lack of attention to this blog, the reasons for which I will now go into – please have violins at the ready.

I’m just going to hold my hands up at this point and be honest in saying – I lost my mojo. I wasn’t actually going to write about this, I intended to just draw a veil over the last few weeks, pick up another book and review it like nothing had happened. But, I saw a tweet last week from Jill Mansell talking about how she lost her love of reading for about eight years and recently got it back. Anyone who’s even skim-read this blog will know that me losing my love of reading for eight years is extremely unlikely to happen, but, people responded to Jill with so many similar messages about losing their mojo for reading, as well as other things, and I was really quite surprised.

I am one of those people everyone hates, who seemingly crams 48 hours’ worth of activity into 24 – I work full time in a fairly demanding job, I’m planning my wedding, I read, I blog, I work out, I see all my friends and family, my house is always immaculate and I always have time to cook great meals from scratch. Sue me, I like to appear perfect, okay? Or so I did. Up until about three weeks ago I was spinning all of those plates perfectly; if anything, I was standing on one leg while spinning them all and making it look completely effortless. Like the proverbial duck, I was gliding along the water gracefully without anyone seeing the mad paddling of my legs underneath. But, like all people who attempt this and think they’re invincible, I made a mistake. I took my eye off one of the plates to focus more on another which was starting to drop. And what happened? Within about two days, they were all on the floor smashed to pieces, with me left standing like a lemon and feeling a bit sheepish. At that point, I didn’t want to pick any of them back up. I didn’t want to read, I didn’t want to blog, didn’t want to plan the wedding – for a few weeks it was a case of putting one foot in front of the other as best I could and trying not to cry in public (I failed at that, unsurprisingly).

Around that time, I saw someone on social media post that ridiculous Elizabeth Taylor quote which is always doing the rounds, about pouring a drink and putting lipstick on and acting like nothing is wrong. Well, I tried that, and even a large drink didn’t help. I know it absolutely wasn’t meant to be malicious, but seeing that quote just made me feel ten times worse. The plates were smashed so badly at that point that there was no way I could kick them under the sofa, put lipstick on and pretend like it never happened – all I could do was start gluing them back together and I just didn’t want to. So, what did I do? Nothing. I did nothing at all for about three weeks. I didn’t read, I didn’t write, I stopped bothering with the gym, I even sacked off wedding planning for a bit and I felt awful about it. I went to work obviously, I have a contractual obligation to do that, but I did little else. However, taking that time somehow allowed me to recharge and start formulating a plan to put the plates back together, and then once I’d managed to glue one back together, the others didn’t seem so bad.

So here I am, a month later, gluing the ‘writing’ plate back together. Thankfully this is the last plate to get back in the air, and it’s getting there. I have no reviews to post yet because I’m only just getting my reading mojo back, but, thanks to Jill Mansell, I know that’s alright. It’s slowly coming back, and eventually it will be back to where it was, and now I know that’s fine. Your patience is appreciated during this period of self pity.

International Women’s Day – Getting Over “The Fear”

I know most of you are here for my overly excitable book reviews, and this blog has become very literature-heavy of late, but I do on odd occasions have an opinion on something else. So, today I have decided to bestow upon my readers a piece of wisdom (I know, you’re so welcome for this); something which I thought about writing a while ago but never really got around to – and International Women’s Day felt like the perfect time to share this.

It’s a natural human instinct to be wary of other people. I think ever since we stopped needing to get together to tag team a woolly mammoth and cook it for a communal dinner in front of our caves, humans have been avoiding each other – at least in Britain anyway. Women in particular seem more programmed towards this. It’s drilled into us from a young age to be suspicious of other women. Mean Girls, Bridesmaids, even Sex and the City – popular culture warns us off other women like the road safety advert with the Hedgehogs from the 90’s. Other women are something to be feared and the culture of “I much prefer speaking to men, women bring too much drama” is drilled into teenage and even pre-teen girls; it’s definitely something to which I adhered during my school days, usually when I was on my third fight of the week with yet another ex best-friend.

Although I managed to maintain a solid group of female friends, I definitely carried this view into adulthood. ‘Other’ women are something to be viewed with fear and suspicion, this is a common value to which I adhered by pure avoidance of the enemy whenever possible, so when I moved to my current house and realised that the nearest affordable gym was a female-only, my heart sank. Gyms I’d used in the past were mixed and although women tended to stay together in the cardio section, safely avoiding the prying eyes of the sleeveless men on the weights bench on the rare occasions that they look up from their phones, I never felt there was any sense of unity in this. If anything it was the opposite, I was always very aware of the side eye glares between us all with undertones of “who is she trying to impress with those lashes?”; “is she really taking ANOTHER selfie” and “she is definitely judging my frayed, Primark leggings”. From the moment I joined this female-only hell, I would enter the building with my head down and earphones in, talk to no one and only looking up to ensure I didn’t accidentally walk near a complicated machine and feel an obligation to pretend to know how to operate it.

Eventually, when I realised my motivation was wearing out and I had no idea how to exercise effectively without proper supervision, I got up the confidence to sign up for a class. I reassured myself with the logic that classes are generally less busy than the communal gym since there’s a booking limit and I could hide in a back corner away from the scary women. After a few weeks of attending this class however, something weird started happening. Regular attendees started smiling at me. Eventually, they started talking to me. Scary muscly women at whom I’d previously spent my workout time glaring and thinking “I bet she’s so fit because she spends all her time at the gym due to having no friends and clearly thinks she’s fitter than everyone else”, would chat to me about the weather and joke about how confusing they found the class. And just like that, a penny dropped. Other women were probably just as scared of me as I was of them. Like my boyfriend always tries to say is true of spiders (even though it obviously isn’t because I would never feel confident enough to just chill in someone’s bath and give them the shock of their life when they tried to go in the shower).

So, having become woke to the fact that women aren’t actually that scary, I started going to more classes. Sometimes I even speak first now, and always chat to the newbies who come in and look at me with apprehension that suggests they believe I might literally bite them. Now, I will speak to women that I don’t know. I will ask for help in shops and chat more than the bare minimum that’s required, I chat to my neighbours, I compliment strangers in toilets (not in the actual cubicles, I haven’t gone full George Michael). What always surprises me when I do this is the look of genuine surprise on the recipient’s face. Why are we still so scared of each other? When women get together, wonderful things happen. Look at The Spice Girls, The Runaways, The Suffragettes. If we all stopped being so wary of each other just imagine what could happen. Not to be a total Pankurst about it but I definitely think this fear and suspicion between women comes from a seed planted by a man generations ago to protect themselves against total female world domination, because if we could get over this it would be like Girl Power x10000. We could lift each other’s confidence, we could take over, men would have no chance. And it would be amazing.

The ‘M’ Word

I always feel like I need to start my blog posts with some sort of justification as to why I’m talking about this particular topic ‘now’. I think it just provides a bit of context for the reader, but for this one I really have no reason as to why I felt like writing about it now – this is something that is in my head all the time. It has become a bit more prominent since I started planning my wedding, but really it’s something that’s always just ‘there’.

I lost my mam six years ago, when I was eighteen. I’d only turned eighteen a few weeks before actually, I had just finished my A Levels and had no idea where my life was going. And yes, it was horrendous. Or so I’m told it was, if I’m totally honest I think I’ve blocked most of it out without realising. People tell me things that I did or said around that time which I genuinely have no recollection of, it’s like I was under anesthetic and forgot it all as soon as I woke up. I still have no idea what happened in the 2012 Olympics which was going on at the time, even though I watched most of it.

“It will get easier” was very much the tag line of Summer 2012 for me, I heard it from everyone, and in hindsight I think it probably did. One memory I do have from that time was when I was at work, stood at the till waiting for a customer to need serving and looking out the window absent-mindedly, and I saw a family of presumably mum, dad, brother and the sister in her graduation outfit having coffee in the Costa opposite. I just became totally overcome with complete jealousy and anger. Although I was over the ‘worst’ of it – the funeral was done, we had got rid of most of her things that we didn’t need or want to keep, her bank accounts were closed and divided up and life was starting to settle in to a new ‘normal’, but the realisation that, whatever my graduation would turn out to be, it would never be that, absolutely broke me. In the end, I never attended my graduation for a lot of reasons, but the obvious mam-shaped hole that would be in every photograph was definitely a big factor.

I do sometimes regret not going to my graduation, and I always knew that if I got married I would be faced with the same dilemma. Initially, I never wanted to do the whole wedding gown, reception, photos and sit down meal palaver for the same reason, but ultimately reached the decision that even though my wedding and all the events leading up to it will never be what I wanted them to be, it’s stupid to spite myself of it altogether. But this is the thing that nobody ever warned me about. The initial shock of the immediate loss and my whole world changing is something that I was somewhat prepared for, but losing someone close to you is a life sentence. It’s a lifetime of frustration over something not being there when you wish it was, but also paradoxically of there being a big, fat elephant in the room that will not leave you alone. I never quite knew how to explain it to other people until I read Mara Wilson’s autobiography (yes, that girl from Matilda – it’s actually a great read I would strongly recommend it to anyone) and she hit the nail on the head:

“No one knows what to say to a child when a parent dies. In a best-case scenario, the child will know it’s okay for them to feel whatever they feel. But no one mentions how it will affect the rest of his or her life. No one told me I’d spend the rest of my life living with a ghost.”

That last sentence was, for me, like that moment when you finally understand a difficult maths problem in school. Suddenly, it all made sense. Sometimes it really feels like I have to live the rest of my life with my mam’s ghost stood next to me – people stare at it and you can see them wondering about it and wanting to ask, but never quite knowing how to phrase it. I’ve had multiple encounters of “and what’s your mam going to wear?”or “will your mam be getting her hair and make up done with you?” from totally innocent, well-meaning people throughout my wedding planning and I much prefer these interactions because then it gives me the window to explain. But when I went wedding dress and accessory shopping with my friends, a friend’s mam and one of my mam’s friends, I could tell people were wondering where my mam was in all of this. It happens every Christmas too, when the inevitable ‘and what are you doing on the day?’ questions start. Having to say ‘I’m cooking for me, my partner, my in-laws and my dad’ triggers a look of such bewilderment. It’s like having food stuck in your teeth after eating a really herby pasta – you’re not quite sure if the other person has noticed it, and the other person isn’t sure whether they want to make it uncomfortable by bringing it up.

Sadly, I don’t think there is ever going to be a resolution to this. Unless resurrection becomes possible, but even still I would then have to explain why she mysteriously disappeared for years, I’m going to have to spend my life being followed around by a shell of my mam and having to answer the awkward question of why I never seem to spend time with a mother. Hopefully, when I reach the age at which other people’s parents start to die off, there’ll be fewer questions. I think the main issue is me being twenty four and clearly not having a mother-daughter relationship of any kind which invites the curiosity. In summary, losing a parent too soon is absolutely awful, but the one thing I wish someone had prepared me for was the lifetime of awkward, sympathetic head tilts and confusion over why I appear to have a father but no mother. Whenever the topic does arise, it always seems to end up with me comforting the other person through their painful embarrassment at having triggered a conversation about death, an unpleasantness which Brits just don’t ever discuss. So if anyone knows of a polite way to say ‘no, my mother didn’t abandon me, she’s not in prison or on drugs she’s dead from a disease and not some dramatic suicide, and no don’t worry I’m not now going to break down in tears and make you feel uncomfortable’, then please let me know.

The C Word

So I was in Superdrug today just minding my own business, buying mouthwash and cotton wool (crazy spender, I know – treat yo self indeed), and I noticed they’ve started putting the Christmas gift sets out. Let’s get one thing out of the way right now, I fucking love Christmas. The earlier the better if you ask me, but I overheard some other customers giving it the old ‘bah, humbug – keep Christmas in December’ nonsense, and you know what? I feel like I need to stick up for Christmas now. Poor thing can’t turn up to the party a little bit early without getting told to go back to the North Pole until the first door on the Advent calendar is open. It’s okay, Christmas, Esther wants to hang out with you and you can cry on my shoulder when people are so mean about you.

Here’s the way I see it. Christmas, or December in general if you don’t personally observe Christmas as a holiday, is the reward for getting through the year. It’s like Friday nights, even if you have nothing special planned, that feeling starts building  the moment your alarm goes off and by 5 p.m. when you get in your car and start that journey home, you know that’s your time – your chance to relax and do whatever you want as a reward for getting through the week. December is a full month of ‘treat yo self’, whether you observe Christmas or not. It’s the only time of the year when it’s totally acceptable to gain weight, wear jumpers and leggings every day, meet up with friends and family you haven’t seen for ages and just  generally spoil yourself. Everyone is in such a good mood in the run-up to Christmas you can’t help but get caught up in it and no matter what you’ve done that particular year, you deserve that break. Personally, I’ve had an absolute shitter of a year so I cannot wait to laze around and do nothing from mid-November onwards. Once that John Lewis ad airs and people start saying “what the hell, it’s Christmas” I am done, don’t expect to find me doing anything more strenuous than slicing cheese to go with my crackers and stretching to put the star on top of the tree.

There is a lot of pressure around Christmas though and I totally understand that side of the argument. People spend money they don’t have buying things they don’t need to impress people they don’t really need to, and there’s such a focus on being with family/friends/a significant other that when you’re on your own it can feel like hand sanitiser over a papercut. I’ve been on that side of the coin; I lost my mum when I was a teenager and my sister moved abroad shortly after so the family Christmases I grew to know and love were taken away from me before I really got the chance to really appreciate them. Hell, one Christmas Eve I woke up to the news that one of my closest friends had been found dead the night before. I’ve spent many a Christmas morning in tears and have been known to spend Christmas Day eating frozen pizza and doing dissertation research, so I get it when people have personal reasons for finding Christmas hard and therefore feel bitter about it seemingly arriving earlier every year. However, to those people I ask – why are you stressing yourself out about it? Just because you might not be able to have the day exactly how you want it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it in your own way. How many people dream of getting married at the Plaza in a Vera Wang dress but still have a magical day in a hotel marquee wearing a high street dress and suit? Just because you might be without certain people or your life might not be exactly where you want it doesn’t mean you can’t veg out in front of Home Alone having some ‘you’ time with a sharing box of cheese and crackers.

December is the reward for getting through the arduous task of life for another 11 months, so stop being so bloody miserable and find a way to enjoy it. I’ve been on both sides of the Christmas debate, and the lesson I learned was that life is far too short and we work way too hard not to treat ourselves somehow, and who doesn’t love the feeling of being snuggled up in your PJs in front of a favourite childhood festive film with a box of chocolates, even if you are on your own. Me personally? I prefer it that way anyway!

Surviving University 101: Life Advice From a Boring Graduate

Well, now that results day is done and dusted, the crying has stopped and the gap yah wankers’ floral pants and sandals are touching ground Thailand, the rest of the UK’S eighteen year olds are starting that nervous excitement of preparing for uni. I remember it well, packing every item of clothing I owned (even if I hadn’t worn it in years), putting way too much thought and effort into how to make a toga out of a bedsheet, buying wall art for my new digs that would show off my unique personality and buying every textbook on the reading list even though, realistically, at least half of them would never be opened. It’s an exciting yet absolutely bloody terrifying time, well for an anxious introvert like me it definitely was more of the latter, and like most things in life I now look back and wonder what I was worried about – it’s over before you know it and everything always seems easier in hindsight. However, I did learn a few valuable lessons along the way and at the risk of sounding like a total grandma, there are a few things I wish I’d known before I started this chapter of my life so I thought now is the ideal time to share these really, isn’t it?

My university experience was far from typical – my family situation is unusual, my sister moved me into my halls and I had to work part time to support myself through my degree; plus the university I went to was fairly unusual – full of posh twats, had a practically medieval collegiate system and was mostly catered halls so the majority of my experiences there aren’t applicable to other people’s, but there are a few overall bits of advice that I wish someone had given me before I started.

Firstly – fresher’s week. You will spend weeks before starting university planning this; obsessing over the fancy dress nights, what everyone will be wearing and where the coolest people will be going. I essentially bought a whole new wardrobe for fresher’s and it was a total waste of money. Fresher’s is absolutely not a big deal and I wish someone had told me that. I went out every night of that week and boy did I pay for it, particularly as I didn’t particularly enjoy it. If you’re a party animal and love nights out that is absolutely fine, go crazy every night for the whole term if you want, but do not feel under pressure to do so. I forced myself to go out every night of fresher’s week because I was convinced that I’d be an outcast if I didn’t. By Halloween, I couldn’t tell you the name of anyone I met in fresher’s week; this is not the time where you meet your lifelong friends or new boyfriend, it’s a filler week and you meet random people who you’ll more than likely not see again. The meaningful friendships I made came from people on my course and in my corridor, so if you want to have a quiet night in front of Netflix during fresher’s, you go ahead because it won’t make a jot of difference. Nobody will notice.

While I’m on the subject of fresher’s week, you get absolutely bombarded with information in those first few days and it can feel a tad overwhelming and slightly irrelevant, but I would stress that it’s really important to know where the support services are because you more than likely won’t be told again. Even if you don’t need them at first, you never know what those three years will bring – so make sure you know where the academic support is in case you ever need an extension on work or you go through some adverse circumstances that need consideration for your grades; and familiarise yourself with the mental health services. Again, even if you start the year feeling totally fine, you never know what’s round the corner. University is a stressful period in itself, and life has an annoying tendency to get in the way – break ups, bereavements, financial problems; you never know what’s going to come your way in the next three years so it’s good to be prepared just in case.

Just as important as your mental health – your physical health. Fresher’s flu is very real, even if you don’t go out drinking at all. Uni halls are typically really unsanitary and people will have moved there from all over the country, and other parts of the world, bringing cold and flu strains that you’ve never been hit by. It’s not just a case of nursing your hangover to get by, I would strongly advise sanitising everything and keeping on top of your vitamins. I had one of the worst viral infections of my life in the winter of first year – catered halls and living practically on top of each other meant it was a breeding ground for germs. From that point on I kept my hands sanitised, my room thoroughly Flash-wiped and vitamin C and zinc became part of my daily routine – and my god did it help.

Once fresher’s is done, don’t piss away your first year. Yes, you only need 40% in that first year but you do get a full transcript when you graduate and it doesn’t look great if you have some thirds on there. Also, from my experience, the people who worked hard and took first year seriously then breezed through second and third year, or at least found it much easier than those who didn’t. Getting a routine down and knowing how you learn most effectively is so important, so get that done during the year that ultimately ‘doesn’t count’, and trust me you will not regret that when it comes to job hunting.

On the subject of job hunting, I know graduation and finding a ‘real’ job seem like they’re a world away, but trust me it will sneak up on you. I did some volunteer work while I was a student and it gave me such a leg up when that time came. Graduates are ruthless, the competition is fierce and honestly even if you get a first, you won’t be the only one going for that job. Voluntary work is usually really flexible, you can choose the hours you want and only do a couple of hours a fortnight if you’re really pushed for time, but those few hours here and there can be the difference between getting the job you want vs losing it to someone else. If you’re not sure where to look, do-it.org has a great list of opportunities available in different areas, and the university will more than likely have loads of projects you can get involved in so I would really strongly advise doing that, and not just for the last few weeks of third year when panic sets in – get into the habit of volunteering early on so you get a really good reference out of it if nothing else.

Finally, and probably most importantly, enjoy yourself! Have fun, live in the moment and try new things. I’m overly cautious and get really uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations or around new people so I definitely shut myself away more than was good for me at university. Yes, I still made some close friends for life, but honestly I regret not letting my hair down a bit more. Obviously it’s important to be safe, don’t be getting blackout drunk and passing out on the way home every night or having unprotected sex with strangers, but use this time to have fun and learn everything you can about the subject you’ve chosen. You won’t get to do it again and believe me, you’ll blink and it will all be over. Oh, and the freshman 15 is so real, but it happens to everyone so it’s really not that big of an issue.

Not to be Dramatic – But I think I’ve Found the Secret to Life

So it was A Level results day this week here in the UK, and it’s GCSE results next week which means we have a whole fortnight of celebrities tweeting variations of ‘it’s okay if you don’t get the results you hoped for, I failed x, y and z and I’m still happy/successful’. Personally, I find this so completely unhelpful and frankly hypocritical. With the exception of those two days, we spend the rest of the year beating ourselves, and other people, up for not being exactly where we should be in the life plans we’ve set out for ourselves. I definitely think this is getting worse with the whole ‘millenial’ culture of ‘oh Milennials are such snowflakes and don’t work for anything, when I was your age I worked 7 jobs and walked 25 miles to each of them and still had time to find a husband’, and you know what? It’s A, pissing me off and B, so completely and utterly inaccurate and not the case for anyone.

Here’s the thing, I don’t consider myself to be some wise, life affirming, philosophical guru, I got an A in AS Philosophy and even that was only because I memorised the textbook and regurgitated it word for word on the exam paper. But, and I don’t mean to be dramatic, I think I legitimately might have just discovered the single most useful bit of life advice ever; I mean, this is like the boolprop cheats in Sims, this is *the* hack, something more useful than the elastic bands in Spy Kids 2 (still not convinced they ever found 99 uses for those). Are you ready for your mind to be blown? Here it is. *Clears throat*:

If you are happy in an overall, all things considered, general sense, you are fine.

I’ll say it again for the people in the back:

If you are happy, you are fine.

“Thank you, Captain Obvious” I hear you say, but this is something that I went twenty four years of my life without realising. I spent three years at a really good university, the best university in the country for my subject area actually, and although there were pockets of happy times in there, I made some great lifelong friends, it was overall a very negative experience. The people who attend this university are generally not very nice, the culture is not very nice, and if the only thing ‘Eton’ means to you is a messy dessert, they will make it very clear that you are not welcome there. I finished that university with a first class degree, which I am exponentially proud of, but all people say to me is “oh my god you got a first from x, that’s amazing”. Is it? Was it worth needing counselling and feeling generally miserable for three years? In a word, “no”.

Fast forward 2 years, I’m on my second job out of university and my career is exactly on the path I want it to be, it’s all mapped out and everyone is telling me I’m amazing for doing what I do. But again, I am miserable. The job I was doing was very psychologically challenging; I had to accept some really quite disturbing things as normal, things that if they were portrayed in a film people would say “well that wouldn’t ever happen in real life”. And, great for the people who can handle that, seriously well done to you, but for me I didn’t like the person I had to become to be able to cope with doing that job. Also, the company I worked for was not right for me. There was a general bullying culture, immense pressure to do a difficult job with few resources and not enough staff, and people in my imminent team who were just generally not very nice at all. That’s about as far as I can politely go without really offending certain people, much as many of them 100% deserve it. It took me getting to a point of genuine mental breakdown and being unable to leave my house without having panic attacks that caused me to collapse, to realise that having my career in the ‘right’ place was just not worth it at all. You are not successful if you are coming home most days in tears and unable to sleep from the stress. It does not matter what your salary is or how much fantastic experience you are getting, if it’s affecting you negatively, that is counter-productive and you are actually unsuccessful.

Once I learned this, I realised it was applicable to basically everything. Not to go completely Charlotte York about this, but a question people often ask me is why I’m not married or engaged, because of the length of time I’ve been with my boyfriend. I’ll say it again, we are happy, ergo we are fine. I’m not saying it will never happen and I’m not a feminazi ‘men are the devil and marriage is oppressive’ type, but for now, things are completely fine. We are happy and, as they say, if it ain’t broke…

So here I am, at 24, working a fairly mundane job which I know is a beneath my degree and experience, unmarried despite being in a position where I easily could be; but here’s the plot twist, I AM HAPPY! For the first time in about a year I am, overall, happy more often than I am unhappy. Yes, things aren’t perfect, nothing ever is – I do sometimes get stressed at work or argue with my boyfriend or feel upset when something goes wrong, but on balance things are good. I honestly think this is the secret to life, and I’m not going to lie – I feel like I’ve found the Holy Grail. ‘Success’ is such an arbitrary term and you’re realistically never going to feel like you’ve achieved everything you meant to, so just stop stressing about it and do what you enjoy – I absolutely could’ve saved myself so much turmoil and mental distress if I’d known this earlier.