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A Balkan journey

The Balkans has long held a unique kind of fascination for me. I’d spent some time in Croatia and Slovenia and had read alot about the region during my Masters, aswell as in various novels over the years. The region has a long and fascinating history, is culturally diverse, naturally beautiful, complex and compelling. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia and in particular in Bosnia is one of the first conflicts I remember seeing on TV (aside from Northern Ireland). I have vague memories of footage of people running across streets in Sarajevo, scaling down apartment buildings that were burning, pushing water containers through the snow in wheelbarrows. I remember the name Srebrenica being said over and over. 

 

I know that a country is informed by its past but seldom defined by it, so I was curious to visit Bosnia 25 years after the height of the conflict. I hadn’t done a massive amount of research. I knew I’d find it hard to get vegetarian food. I knew not to make sweeping generalisations, or dish out any hot takes about the conflict  Other than that, I had four books, two bags, and one of myself for company. 

 

Sarajevo sits between towering mountains, with the Miljacka river running through the middle. The city wears its history on its buildings. The Baščaršija is the old Ottoman part of the city and has its own distinct atmosphere. Coffee is served Turkish styles, worshippers and visitors gather around the Gazi Huzr Beg Mosque, and silversmiths still practice their craft down little winding alleys that now house mostly either souvenir shops or places serving cevapi and burek. The Baščaršija is also home to the world’s oldest public toilet – you learn something new every day!

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The Baščaršija in Sarajevo

The buildings from the Habsburg era are ornate and grand; the city hall, library and opera house being notable examples. The streets are wide and open in comparison to the winding maze of the Baščaršija, and feel much like the streets of Vienna or Budapest. As you move further out, the buildings start to feel like those found in many former Eastern Bloc countries; tall, grey, sparse. 

 

If you look in any detail at a building in Sarajevo, you will see signs of the war. In some cases this is bullet holes and visible shell damage. In other cases, it is bombed out buildings that have not been rebuilt, skeletal and eerie. Sarajevo feels like a city full of hope, a city with its face turned firmly to the sun, carrying its wounds proudly into the future. It is unique to walk around a city and feel like you are both fully in the shadows of its past and also looking down the path to its future.

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Bullet holes on an apartment building in Sarajevo

I was only in Sarajevo for two days but I was struck by how much the city has taken on board its traumatic past; there was nothing about Sarajevo that is trying to hide from where it has been. I’ve been to a few places like this – Berlin, Auschwitz, Bayeux, the slave forts in Ghana – but Sarajevo has really stayed with me in this way. It is something we are not good at in Ireland. We brush over enormous wounds from our history, wounds like the civil war, the famine, and the Magdalene laundries. 

 

The siege of Sarajevo lasted for nearly four years. At the start of the siege, there were approximately 435,000 people living in the city. By the end of the siege, over 10,000 civilians had been killed, including 1,601 children, 69 of whom were killed by sniper fire. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that everyone I saw who was my age and older had been teenagers during the siege. In a city that size, everyone must have lost someone. And then of course there was the hunger, the cold, the lack of water, the psychological trauma, the world turning its back. Sarajevo had long prided itself on being a city for everyone. There is a mosque, an Orthodox church, and a catholic cathedral within 500sqm area. 

 

Sarajevo was always a city that didn’t put much emphasis on national labels, where everyone lived alongside everyone else, and it had the highest rate of mixed marriages in the country. The city and her people did not want the war or what it represented. It was brought to them, raining down from the hills. Our guide on a walking tour was at pains to get across that there are no divisions in Sarajevo, that everyone mixes, everyone respects each other, that the city thrives on its unity. It made the loss and trauma of the conflict somehow more poignant, that the city was pulled into a crippling division it did not itself adhere to. 

 

Across the city there are subtle and poignant memorials. Sarajevo Roses are mortar holes that have been filed with red resin, marking a spot where a large number of civilians were killed. The one pictured here marks the place where 22 people were killed while queuing up for bread.  There is a plaque on a nearby wall listing their names – Serb names, Bosnian names, Croat names, side by side. In a park there is a memorial to all of the children killed during the siege, listing out their names and ages. Up a hill in the same park are rows of headstones, like you find all over the city, many of them bearing the same date. 

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Sarajevo roses

Our guide on the walking tour talked about what it is like to be a young person in Sarajevo. Wages are low, rents are high, and emigration is common. The aspiration of many young Sarajevans seems to be moving to Austria or Germany, something I can relate to having grown up in Ireland. Unemployment is rampant. She talked alot about how people with very little disposable income will still find a way to buy coffee, because it is the time when people sit and talk together. She explained the complex web of politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina (there are three prime ministers!). She talked about the nostalgia people have for Tito and for Yugoslavia (there was alot of Tito memorabilia everywhere), a time of prosperity, unity, and freedom of movement. We visited the spot where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, generally seen as the catalyst for the outbreak of World War 1. There is a simple plaque marking the spot just across from the Roman bridge at a junction where there was once a hotel. As she pointed out the route he took that morning and how events unfolded she said ‘Sarajevo, always at the crossroads of history’. 

 

I went to two museums about genocide and war crimes in Sarajevo. There was no attempt to hide the horrors, nor should there be. One of these museums is solely about Srebrenica. There is video testimony, written testimony, photos, personal items recovered from mass graves. There are accounts of the appalling apathy and negligence of the UN forces. In the second museum, there are letters written by people living within the besieged city, clothes that people died in, photo after photo of bodies exhumed from mass graves, photos of people being beaten, starved and killed, photos of people clustered together waiting to cross a road, weighing up the likelihood of sniper fire. In a glass cabinet, items recovered from a mass grave are on display; a watch, a passport, money, a child’s soother, a tiny shoe. The walls are covered with place names where hundreds of people were killed, sometimes burned alive, sometimes shot, place names that never made it into our media. There are endless accounts of rape. Because the war was so recent, there is alot of footage, photos and documented first hand accounts of what happened. There are stories of resilience and resistance, how people held their community together while their city fell around them. Stories of how the world turned its back and wrung its hands while people were starved, raped and systematically wiped out. 

 

It was overwhelming. I was physically shaking all over when I left, and I am in no way squeamish or naive about the suffering and horror of the world. I walked around trying to get a handle on my thoughts. These are times when solo travel is hard, not having someone to sit with, talk to, and remember that the world is not all darkness. I got a cheese and spinach burek and sat on a bench, watching the city come and go and was struck, as I so often am, at the sheer resilience of the human spirit.

 

I left the next day for Mostar. I took one of the old trams accros the city to the bus station (Sarajevo’s tram system is amazing). Buses in BiH are not late, but they’re also not on time. The system for getting tickets favours face to face cash transactions (card payments are generally a rarity) – people who had booked tickets online still had to queue up to pay the additional tax in cash. You pay to put your bag in the hold but there’s no indication of this anywhere; it might depend on how the conductor is feeling. One of the bus drivers was so grumpy it was nearly comical and the guy selling the tickets looked at me like my very existence was a general inconvenience to his life. I don’t subscribe to the idea that everyone needs to be friendly, especially not to tourists coz let’s face it, tourists can be kinda assholes. 

 

I realised that the travelling I have done around Africa and India has made me remarkably calm about journeys. I’ve accepted that it’s hard to tell what’s going on alot of the time, that things don’t always run to your own personal schedule, and that you always get there in the end. Some tourists frantically gesticulated at the driver (who could not have given fewer fucks if he tried) and pointed at their watches or bags or tickets. The bus will leave when it leaves, lads, and I suspect waving your ticket at Grumpy Grumperson won’t make it any other way.

 

Mostar is best know for it’s beautiful single arch stone bridge, Stari Most. The bridge was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and the lead architect Mimar Hayruddin, was apparently threatened with death if construction failed. He was so convinced that the construction would fail that he had planned his own funeral for the day the bridge was unveiled. 

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Stari Most

Hoardes of people descend on Mostar on day trips from Dubrovnik, cram themselves into the narrow streets of the old town, look at the bridge and then feck off back to Dubrovnik. 

Stari Most stood the test of time until it was destroyed through prolonged bombardment by Croat forces in November 1993. It was painstakingly rebuilt between 2001-2004. The single hump of the bridge rises to 24 metres above the river. The stones are worn and slippy from countless feet crossing it over the generations. Young men dive off the highest point, collecting money from tourists before and after – a kind of high-risk adrenaline heavy busking. Only well trained divers, most of whom are from the area, undertake this as it is a LONG way down. 

 

The bridge is impressive and the view from below back up to the old Turkish part of the town is really lovely. I got up early one morning and went to the bridge before the crowds arrived, and also got the full glare of the sunset on it in the evening. It is iconic and majestic, and pretty incredible that it was commissioned and built 500 years ago. But it is just a bridge. And the hoardes of people who only go to look at the bridge before scuttling back to their buses surely miss out on alot of Mostar’s story.

 

Walking from the bus station when I arrived,, I was struck by how many bombed out derelict buildings there were along the main road. There has been no repair other than what is needed to stop them collapsing. I followed google maps to where my apartment was marked, but kept turning back as it felt like there was nothing down that particular street except for bombed out buildings. A guy came out of a café to ask if I needed help (I clearly looked very lost). He escorted me down the road, and through an archway of what was once a fully intact building (see photo). Out the back were a small cluster of apartments. I literally never would have found it without his confidence that there are homes just behind these ruins.

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Entrance to my apartment in Mostar…it was through that archway to the right of the photo

Walking into town later, I passed a large abandoned building just across from my apartment – I’d say it was once apartments or offices. Looking inside, there was rubbish, furniture, rubble, the odd rusty item sticking out of the rubble. Reminders of a life once lived there. It seemed that the rebuilding efforts stopped abruptly at the edges of the touristy old town. That evening I started walking out to the old Partisans memorial, now abandoned and derelict, but it got dark before I made it that far and it didn’t feel wise to continue. Chances are it would be fine, but in a city that I’m not familiar with and that has areas that are so clearly neglected, my cautious side often wins out.Mostar is clearly still very divided. The Croats mainly live on one side of town, and the Bosniaks on another. There is one high school, but the Croat students have a different curriculum and schedule to the Bosniak students (I heard varying accounts of this but it seems there is certainly some sort of systematic segregation within the school). While in Sarajevo, the first thing people talked about was unity; in Mostar talk very quickly turned to division. I heard alot of visitors expressing disbelief at the concept of a segregated school, wondering why mistrust lingers after a conflict has ended; and while the divisions in Mostar were stark, they were not entirely surprising or alien to me. I know what it feels like when history and experience have taught you to fundamentally distrust a particular country or nation. Trust is not so easily won and long standing divisions not so easily overcome.

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I went on a tour that took in an old Ottoman village that is still largely intact and home to an artists collective, the beautiful Kravice waterfall, and Blagaj dervish house. This dervish house is built into the face of a cliff, and as such was the only religious house of any faith not to be damaged or destroyed during the conflict. Our guide was interesting and informative, but things started getting a bit weird when he had a go at two Catalans in the group about the movement for Catalan independence. Someone asked a question about the amount of Nazi grafitii visible, and he responded that all Croats were Nazis. He became increasingly wound up and was, let’s say, clearly not a fan of the Croats. He told us he had been 4 years old during the main bombardment of Mostar. It was hard to judge him for being angry and suspicious, and equally it was hard to see what kind of a pathway might lead beyond this mistrust and suspicion and anger when their roots run so deep on all sides. 

 

Sarajevo felt hopeful. Mostar felt tense.

 

I had got chatting to a Scottish guy on the tour and we had bonded over trying to figure out Brexit  (it was the day BoJo suspended parliament) and an interest in travel, so we went for a beer afterwards to try to unravel the complex web that is involved in any attempt to understand BiH history and politics. All I could think of was how utterly dysfunctional and despairing but wholly straightforward Irish politics is by comparison. 

 

The other notable thing about Mostar was that it was roasting. It was about 40 degrees both days; something to do with the limestone rocks in the cliffs holding the heat.. And I got mauled by mosquitoes while drinking beer by the river, to the point where I still have scars three months later. 

 

I had an experience in Mostar that is unique to solo travellers. It was tricky to find vegetarian food and I passed a place one night that was serving enormous platters of delicious looking vegetarian food. I asked for a table and the one hostess, who was in perpetual motion co-ordinating tables and taking orders, put me sitting on a stool to wait. She then seated 4 couples ahead of me. I started to get a bit uncomfortable, but figured she knew her own system. Eventually she pointed me towards a table….sitting with the most ridiculously good looking couple imaginable. They were very polite and smiley and I smiled back and then hid in my kindle while working my way through the mound of amazing food. When the couple left, the hostess gestured to another couple and said ‘you can sit with this lady here’. The girl in the couple looked at me,  looked at the hostess and shook her head with a look of visible distaste. Now, I’m sure she just wanted an intimate dinner with her boyfriend. But the look she gave me was like she thought she might catch The Single Plague off me. The hostess gave me a free beer and said ‘thank you for everything’. It was a weird walk home. 

 

It can be intimidating walking into a restaurant or bar on your own, especially when you don’t speak the language. Several times over the course of the holiday, I was told ‘you can’t sit there, you need a smaller table’, even though there are literally NEVER tables set for one. Several times I was moved to make space for couples. It generally doesn’t bother me, but every so often it would be nice not to have society be all ‘EWWWW LOOK AT HER ON HER OWN’ just because I want to have dinner. 

 

I went from Mostar to Kotor in Montenegro with the intention of spending time by the sea and not thinking about genocide for a bit. Montenegro is gorgeous, all dramatic cliffs and azure waters.The house I was staying in had its own swimming area outside the front door. I swam every day, drank Aperol spritz, climbed the old city walls, sat in many beautiful squares, read alot, went to the cat museum and avoided the mix of loved up couples and drunkenly over enthusiastic backpackers (Kotor is a bit of a party town) as best I could. Kotor is a stop for many cruise ships, some days there were three of them anchored in the bay. They spew out thousands of people onto the narrow, hot streets of the old town. They disrupt the marine life and they dominate the view of the bay. One evening I walked out of the historical loveliness of the old town to be met with the vista of an enormous cruise ship that had pulled right into the harbour. It dominated my entire line of vision. They blow their horns when they’re leaving, they are unsightly and its hard to see how they are anything other than environmentally disruptive. I may be turning into a grumpy auld wan, but I got increasingly annoyed at them as the days went on. 

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View from the entrance to the gaff in Kotor

The old city walls and fort crawl up above the old town and are generally very spectacular and cool. It costs €8 for entry and the climb is steep and sweaty. I started it at about 9.30am and it was still roasting. I’m not entirely sure what the €8 is for because it definitely wasn’t for bins. Pink plastic bags hung off the walls and were already overflowing with plastic bottles by 10am. As some of you may know, I have limited patience for avoidable single use plastic. There are fountains all over Kotor where you can fill  up your bottle. And there is nothing stopping you putting an empty bottle in your bag and bringing it to a proper bin later on. But people just dumped their empty bottles on the ground for someone else to clean up after them. In some cases, people just skipped the pretence of putting them near the plastic bags and just dropped them where they stood. I wrote previously about my feelings about mass tourism in Santorini, and Kotor definitely brought back those feelings. People can be real fucking entitled assholes (thank you for coming to my TED talk).

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Part of the old city walls and fort in Kotor, minus ten million plastic bottles

I feel like Bosnia and Montenegro taught me alot, about nationalism, trauma, healing, division, unity. Swimming in the sea every day was restorative and calming. Getting some actual sun was energising.  It was lovely to have time to read, to people watch, to drink wine at 3pm, to wander without any real purpose around beautiful old streets. But by day 7, I was getting bored with myself. Solo travel is great, but it can be lonely. I am passed going out of my way to strike up conversations with strangers. Being on my own for a week in Spain in April was glorious; I relished having that time to myself and being able to indulge in whatever I wanted to do in a given day, to do all the nerdy history things I wanted and structure my days around multiple meals and glasses of wine.  But by the end of 2 weeks, I was craving a bit of company. . So I was happy to come home, grateful for yet another opportunity to visit beautiful places, have the privilege of watching life unfold in another city and learn the infinite lessons about myself and the world that travel always provides. 

I am writing this now, months later, because something stopped me writing it at the time. I think that thing was loneliness; I didn’t want to see what might come out onto the page. So every day I would look at my notebook, and every day I would not write in it. And since coming home, every day I would want to write about this and no words would come.  And now the words are coming, as they always eventually do, imperfectly formed but very real and very much my own. 

 

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Leaning

A few months ago I was standing in the kitchen at work during an organisational wide meeting. It had been a hectic few weeks. I had come out of a particularly busy period in work and had been on the road alot. We had been evicted (for the second time in 15 months) and moved house within a 9 day window. A long standing former colleague had passed away tragically, and while I did not know her well, the atmosphere in work was heavy with grief and loss. My Mam had been in hospital for 10 days. 

I was tired, the kind of tired where my skin felt stretched too tight and my legs felt like they had lead weights hanging off them. 

I was overcome by the urge to just lean on someone.My whole body ached to just feel the support of another body. I side-eyed my colleague standing beside me and figured he might think it a bit odd if I just leaned my whole body weight on him..

So I stood there in my too-tight skin, and took the creeping question about when exactly I might have someone to lean on and packed it away in the box of feelings I keep somewhere in my chest.  

I remember walking home some days during the referendum campaign when I would be overwhelmed with exhaustion to the point where I wasn’t entirely sure if my legs would keep going. I’d look down at the footpath and want to lie down on it, to feel its solidity hold me up. More than once, I stopped and leaned against a wall for a few minutes. I don’t think that type of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, laced with stress and fear and a kind of frantic activity was in any way unique to me at that time.It would have been stressful and terrifying and exhausting any which way because it was a version of that for everyone. But I think there were days when coming home to a hug could have eased some of the rigid physical tension out of me. Hugs release endorphins, they are soothing, they tell us we are safe. There’s a reason why tiny babies love cuddles and what are we only grown up versions of our newborn selves. An intimate and trusted physical presence would not have made the campaign, or indeed its aftermath, less awful but it would have eased the weight a little.

Being single is tinged with a lacking in many ways; a lack of someone to wake up with, someone to go for autumn strolls with, someone to cook breakfast with, someone to call with good news or bad news, someone to watch the evening draw in with, someone to bring you tea in bed, someone to argue with over what to have for dinner. Being the only single person at a social event or work meeting or family event, smiling along to other peoples’ big life news, has become pretty normal but I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t also become pretty tired. 

The small things all add up. Wanting to be able to put my head on someone’s chest and know that I’m not alone. Having someone put their arm around my shoulders while I talk about whatever happened during my day. A familiar arm around my waist in the early morning. They may not seem like the biggest deal, but I certainly feel their absence.

There is an emotional, mental and practical undertow to an intimate and trusted physical presence.  Knowing that whatever is going on, they will listen and take your side and bring you tea. Knowing that no matter how terrible other people might think you are, there is one person who thinks you’re great. One person who will be your cheerleader and your critic. One person who will look after you if you’re sick. One person saying ‘It’s ok, I’m here’.

I’ve gotten pretty good at locking away the feelings that lurk in the darker, lonelier corners, I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping the lid on that box I keep somewhere in my chest. I don’t know if I can ever take those things out of the box. I don’t know if it’ll just be me, every morning, for the rest of my life. I don’t know if all the words and hopes and love I want to share will have to stay locked away. I don’t know if I will ever have someone to lean on when the weight feels heavy. So I make sure the lid stays on tight and try not to think about it too much.

And I’m supposed to ‘be fine’ on my own, embrace my freedom, cherish the little things, appreciate my wonderful pals, practice gratitude, make my own damn tea. And believe me, I do all of these things. But I still want someone to cuddle, I still want someone to share Sunday mornings with, I still want hugs, I still want to wake up with someone I care about, I still want to know I am someone’s priority, I still want a body to lean into when my own strength is failing me. And I want to be those things for someone else. Because I am human and that is how I am designed. 

This is what comes out now when I sit down to write. I guess we write what we know, what is real for us at a given time, we let little bits of ourselves out onto through our words. I can only write what is true for me, in the full knowledge that everyone’s truth is  different.  Owning your truth, whatever that may be, embracing your authenticity and your vulnerability can be a truly powerful and subversive thing. Telling a bunch of people on the internet that I had to convince myself not to randomly lean on a colleague shouldn’t feel hopeful – but it kinda does.

 

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I know it’s not me. So why isn’t it me?

A friend sent me a piece recently about how single women experience ambiguous grief – grieving the loss of something we do not have. Grieving the fact we will not have the children we hoped we would have, that we may not have the partner we hoped we would have, that, in fact, we may be all there is. It had never occurred to me before that part of what makes being single as I approach 40 more painful is that it involves not only the loss of people and relationships that were significant to me, but it means facing the loss of things I hoped I would have but do not, and may not ever, have. Children. A family. A shared home. Daily intimacy. 

This is alot to process. It is one thing to choose to be single, or to choose to not have children. It is entirely another to have those things happen to you by circumstance, be that biological or the general roulette of life. 

It is hard to be on an endless merrygoround of celebrating other peoples happiness. Engagements, house purchases, baby announcements on social media or over coffee, tea parties for colleagues celebrating one or all of those things. I am genuinely happy for each person individually, I wish only happy things for people in my life. But each one of these announcements is tinged with a ‘when is it my turn?’ voice in the back of my head. I smile and I hug people and I eat the cake and I ask about wedding, house and baby updates, and for the most part I am genuinely invested in these things. But there is an underlying pain of wondering what exactly has happened that means I am always the one doing the celebrating and never the one being celebrated. I know it’s not me. So why isn’t it me?

As single women, we often hear things like ‘but you’ve a great life, you’ve so much going on! You love your job, you’ve great friends! Focus on the positives!’. Yes, all of those things are true. But think for a minute. Maybe I have so much going on because I need to stay busy and occupy myself so I don’t get pulled into a spiral of sadness. Also, loving your job and having great friends are not things solely reserved for single people. You can love your job, have great friends, and still go home to a loving partner or family. And the greatest of jobs, even the greatest of friends, will not keep me company in my old age. 

Matchmaking of token single friends can become an obsessive, and often embarrassing, pursuit. It can feel at times like single lives are treated as some sort of gameshow.There may not be any malintent in this approach, and sure the grass is always greener, but it still stings. Think about it: ‘God I’ve LOVE to be single for a week! I’m so jealous you’re going away on your own, I’d LOVE a week to myself’.. My life is not something to fantasise about trying on and then hanging back up after a week; it’s my reality. The implicit understanding is that you would still go back to your partner or family after that week. We can all crave change and something different when we know it wouldn’t be permanent unless we want it to be. But I don’t get to hang it all back up after a week. I go away on my own, come home on my own and sleep on my own every night. I don’t have an Option B.  My reality, my loneliness, my ambiguous grief, while it may be invisible, is very real and at times very painful. 

The process of maintaining faith and hope, not giving up while also being realistic is very, very tiring. The process of wanting to meet someone you care about and being terrified of caring about someone again is very, very tiring. The knowing that you need to be vulnerable alongside the knowing that you’re not sure if you can take another round of hurt and rejection, is very, very tiring. These are all common things I hear from single friends; suffice to say we are all pretty exhausted!  We are also the targets of alot of ‘advice’ .This advice is often very conflicting: ‘You need to put yourself out there and manifest what you want/It’ll happen as soon as you’re not thinking about it/Once you chill out about it they will appear out of nowhere’. So by the time we have finished manifesting, putting in the leg work on soul destroying dating apps, holding onto our ever dwindling faith, focusing on ourselves, embracing the unknown, and not thinking about any of it we are probably so exhausted that all we want to do is watch Netflix in bed.

I have done alot of work on myself over the years and I am a pretty self aware person. I know my flaws, my triggers and my sore points. I have spent time and money going to therapy and investing in other things so that I can be the most authentic version of myself. As single people, we often hear things like ‘All that work paid off for me when I met so and so/Meeting so and so was my reward for all that work I did’. WOAH THERE!! For starters, relationships are not a reward or a prize. Sometimes they happen and sometimes they don’t. Setting them up as a reward implies that only the worthy win this prize, and that if we don’t have one, it is really our fault because we must be doing something wrong. Yeah sure we can feel lucky and grateful when we meet someone cool,  but no one person deserves that more than another person. There is not a hierarchy of deserving for love and happiness, especially not one that heaps the blame onto the single person for a perceived failure to ‘win’ a partner. If you’re lucky, you meet someone you love. If you’re really lucky, you meet someone you love who also sticks around so you get a decent shot at building a relationship (as Sharleen Spiterei would say, ‘Love and loving are two different things’). It’ll definitely have its ups and downs and tough spots, but if you’re lucky, you get to give it a try. It’s not a prize. It’s luck and circumstance.

I could also quite happily never again hear the sentiment ‘‘when you learn to love yourself and be happy on your own, that’s when you’ll meet someone’. The implication here being that 1) I don’t love myself and 2) that I am unhappy on my own – again the implication being that I am doing it wrong, and it’s my fault that I’m single as opposed to it being a case of luck (or bad luck). Let’s clear something up; I love and value myself, and so do all of my single friends. We have left people and relationships that weren’t right for us or that were straight up damaging, we have picked ourselves up and dealt with rejection, hurt and heartbreak over and over – we have done this BECAUSE we love ourselves (and because we are strong as fuck). We do not love ourselves any more or any less than someone in a couple just by virtue of being single.

I know what I have to offer, I know I’m a great (if imperfect due to being human and all) partner.  Me loving myself is not the problem. As for being happy on my own, it is quite possible to feel more than one thing at a time, to be happy on my own (something I’ve managed pretty well for several years now) and also to be lonely and sad at times. It is not a zero sum game. I can be content on my own while also wishing I was not on my own.  This ‘advice’ about my levels of happiness places the blame on me, and reinforces the idea that a relationship is a prize I will win when I finally do things right.  I cannot stress enough, no matter how good the intentions,  how corrosive this approach can be to single folk.

Being single is not always easy. Being in a relationship is not always easy. Being a parent is definitely not always easy. Nothing is perfect, nor is it meant to be. We are complex people navigating complex lives, complex feelings and complex situations. One thing I do know is that society is not designed for single people. Housing, socialising, holidays are all designed with two in mind. The more I think about it, the more the discourse directed at single people is laden with blame, with judgement, with criticism and with the ever present message that we are Doing It Wrong; not loving ourselves enough, not putting ourselves out there enough, being too desperate, being too needy, being too picky, being too unsettled on our own, being too comfortable on our own, threatening men with our ambition, threatening men with our feminism, not prioritising finding a partner, prioritising finding a partner too much, expecting too much, not expecting enough. I want to lie down just writing all of that, let alone absorbing it every day.

Thinking about the fact that I may not have children makes me sad so I generally don’t talk about it or think about it. So we’ll leave that one there. I am used to sleeping on my own, but the thoughts of always sleeping on my own is pretty terrifying. The thoughts of never waking up to  a familiar smile and cups of tea in bed is pretty devastating. Those things are my personal ambiguous grief. 

I like travelling on my own, but the idea that travelling on my own is becoming my normal makes me sad. I have amazing friends,  kind, smart, supportive, funny people in my life. I have an activist community that literally changed my life. But not being someone’s number one is hard.  Not having one person who you know is thinking about you and really, really gives a shit about you, who you can call in a crisis or a celebration, who will look after you when you’re sick and cook you dinner after a long day, who will tell you they love you and think you’re amazing – that’s hard.  Not having the big things – kids, a partner, a shared home – is hard, but not having the little things – shared meals, hugs, sleepy weekend mornings, thoughtful messages, someone to chat to about the minutiae of my day – is also really fucking hard. Feeling that I am carrying around all of this love that is going to waste is a very isolating feeling. I like to think I share it as wide as I can, and that I make some sort of positive mark in my communities, but there is a certain type of love that has nowhere to go. There are certain words that have no one to hear them, certain feelings that have no one to carry them. No matter how much I love and value myself, that, right there, is fucking hard. I’m not sure if that sense of lacking will ever get much easier. 

I am quite a physical and tactile person and I find the lack of physical contact that comes with being single very challenging (casual sex does nothing for me in this regard, if anything it makes it worse). When I’m tired or stressed or feeling anxious, I can feel very physically disconnected. In times of heightened anxiety, I feel fragile in my own skin, disembodied. I desperately want to be able to put my head on someone’s shoulder, to physically lean on someone, to hold on to someone else so I can ground myself again. Not having someone reminding me that they see me and all that I am, that they know me and love me, means I can at times lose sight of myself. Not having a constant, anchoring, reassuring presence makes it that bit easier to get lost at sea. I fundamentally know myself and who I am, I know I am kind, strong, interesting, smart and good company but not ever hearing these things said with love by someone else makes it that bit easier to forget them. I support myself and reassure myself over and over, but it’d be nice to have someone else to do it for a change. I am happy and content within myself, but it would be nice to share that happiness with someone for a change.

The feeling of the lack of a physical supportive presence is very profound for me. The best way I can sum it up is hand holding. When someone takes your hand, it doesn’t just say ‘I’m here’, it is also a reminder that you are there too. It is someone saying ‘I see you, you exist, you matter’. Someone taking your hand reminds you that they are there and that you are there too. That can be the most comforting thing in the world.

 

0

What does heartbreak really feel like?

Heartbreak is so damn personal. It feels different for every person, defined by our story, by how exposed our softer places are at a given time, by how it is delivered, by how often we feel it. It is a spectrum of grief, of hurt, of loss, of having to find our way back through the dark.

There is no one experience of heartbreak, but from talking to people who have felt it, the common theme seems to be that when you are in it, it feels like it will never end. It can feel like it is your new permanent state of being.  You know logically that it will get better, but you don’t really believe it.  It does pass, it does fade, it does get better, and you are still you at the end of it all. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt like hell at the time.

It is important to be able to talk about the difficult, complicated, messy, painful stuff. It is important to name it when we are hurt, to name what, or who, is hurting us. It is important that we don’t feel like we have to be all strong, all the time. And  it is so important that all of us, women and men, girls and boys, trans people, non-binary people, queer, straight, bi and gay people, are listened to and heard when we say that we are hurting. It is so important that all of our broken hearts are handled with care.

Being hurt and being vulnerable and being shaken is part of being human. It does not make us weak, it does not make us emotional or sensitive or irrational. It makes us real. It gives us integrity. It gives us strength. It makes us connected to all of our fellow humans who have ever felt the sting of heartbreak. Whoever we are, we all feel our own version of heartbreak.

So I wrote a thing a while ago about heartbreak. It’s not particularly fun. As usual, it doesn’t rhyme or have any structure. But it is real. And I hope that, just maybe,  it eases the weight for someone who is carrying their own heartbreak. Because sometimes knowing that others have felt it too can make that load a little lighter.  We are all strong and delicate in equal measure, and we are all doing great as our perfectly imperfect selves, dented hearts and all.

 

What does heartbreak really feel like?

Heartbreak is a cloud that settles around you,

Making hazy all the light

Heartbreak sighs through your bones

Filling all your empty places

Heartbreak is a physical pain,

Bending you to the point of breaking

 

Heartbreak is an empty bed and empty arms

Heartbreak is all the words that have no one to hear them

Heartbreak is all the love with no one to hold it

Heartbreak is all the dreams never shared

Heartbreak is all the hope never felt

Heartbreak is all the truth never spoken

Heartbreak is all the futures never lived

 

Heartbreak hollows you out

Leaves you rattling in your bones

Heartbreak is the biting wind

Carrying its bitter and broken promises

Heartbreak is the weight that drags behind you

 

Heartbreak is the smile you do not see

 

Heartbreak is less sparkle and more shadows

Heartbreak is the heavy weight of grief

Heartbreak sits on your lips

In all the words you cannot say

In all of the memories

That no longer have a place

 

Heartbreak asks over and over in restless sleep

How could you hurt me like this?

How could you leave me

Like it was

The easiest thing in the world

How could you break my heart

Like it was

The most trifling thing

 

Heartbreak is consuming

Heartbreak is exhausting

Heartbreak is cruel

Heartbreak is cold

Heartbreak is smothering

Heartbreak is angry

Heartbreak is desolate

Heartbreak is lonely

Heartbreak is fierce

 

Heartbreak leaves you bruised and leaves you tender

Heartbreak leaves you heavy and leaves you bitter

Heartbreak feels brittle at the edges

And hard at the centre

Heartbreak is most comfortable

In your already broken places

Heartbreaks leaves you begging in breathless gasps

Holding the final delicate threads together

 

Heartbreak makes you softer

Heartbreak makes you stronger

Heartbreak makes you careful

Heartbreak makes you wonder

Why you ever wanted to be the person

Who would show me

What heartbreak really feels like

 

 

 

0

Reflections of a 38 year old single woman

There’s a particular head tilt that single women in their late 30s are offered when we respond to the predictable ‘sooooo….anyone on the scene?’ question. It’s a unique mix of pity, sympathy and judgement. The advice that inevitably follows (‘But have you tried Tinder? Maybe you should take up tag rugby?) is laced with good intentions, no doubt, but also a thinly veiled contempt that you must be doing something wrong; not trying hard enough, not putting yourself ‘out there’, being too picky. You must somehow be dysfunctional to have reached this life stage, when everyone around you is marrying and settling down and starting families, and not have ‘found’ a partner. As if a partner is like a lost set of keys and if you just look a bit harder, you’ll find him/her between the couch cushions.  Maybe they’re secretly afraid you’ll start flinging cats at them, or start having wanton sex with the first man you see, or insist on sitting in the corner in your fluffy PJs eating Branston pickle from the jar. Because let’s face it, society views single women in our late 30s as a bit inconvenient, a bit undesirable, a bit wrong. Society does not like or trust single women, especially those whose fertile eggs are in daily decline. Just to be clear, society says single men in their late 30s are totally grand, they just haven’t been ‘tied down’ yet, and their sperm is still totally viable. Phew.

It’s important to break down the misconceptions and stereotypes around single women, to challenge the notion that singlehood=failure, or that singlehood=constant wild freedom and fulfilment. It’s important to talk about alternative support structures and communities that are not built solely around romantic love and couples. That’s what me and Katie aim to do on our podcast, No Men Live Here.

There are lots of positives to being single. You are the master of your own time, you do not owe anyone else your time, emotions or energy. You can watch what you want on Netflix, eat what you want, have all the bedclothes to yourself. You have more time for your friends, your hobbies, your passions. You can have as much casual sex as you want. But I think it’s also important to say that, from where I’m standing, being single is sometimes really fucking hard and really fucking lonely. It’s important to say that, just like relationships, sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard work.  It is sometimes but not always a choice.  Being a single woman is not easy and it only gets harder as you get older, and as with anything where society would love women to stay quiet, it’s important to just fucking say that without shame and without stigma.

I’ve been single for years on end at various points in my life. I don’t have an overly romanticised view of either relationships or singledom. I know that having a partner is no guarantee of support and kindness and excitement, and certainly no guarantee of eternal happiness. I also know that relationships are more often than not a matter of luck. They are not a prize to be won. Wanting a loving, supportive man in my life does not make me weak. It does not make me dependent. It does not make me a bad feminist. In fact, part of my strength and integrity as a single 38 year old women is saying that I believe that, when the pieces are right, life is better with two. So here we go. Baring my single soul.

There were days during the referendum campaign where I would have given anything to have a partner to call after a bad canvas, to have a hug waiting at the end of a stressful emotional day, to have someone to offload to. To have someone cook me dinner and check in about how I was doing. It would have been nice to have someone to share the load with on days when it felt particularly heavy. It would have been nice to be able to borrow someone elses strength sometimes. It would have been nice to have someone to lean on when others were leaning on me. In the days and weeks after the result, it would have been amazing to have a person to share those momentous feelings with. I was lucky enough to be able to share it with a community of activists who I love, admire and respect. But there was a twinge of a lacking that in the sea of hugs and tears, there wasn’t a hug waiting just for me.

Choosing to be single is a totally valid life decision, and one that needs to be valued and acknowledged much more. For me, given the choice, I would not be single at this stage in my life. Being single at 38 is an entirely different experience to being single at 28. Being single by choice and being single by circumstance are two different branches of the same tree.

I am surrounded by wonderful people, I have the most incredible, intelligent, funny, kind, driven, talented, passionate, thoughtful, ambitious, beautiful friends. Single or not, they look out for me and support me in ways I do my best to reciprocate. But it is still hard being single. It’s hard not having someone to message after something exciting happens in work. It’s hard not having someone to bring you Lemsip and tea and sympathy when you’re sick. It’s hard not having a hug waiting for you at the end of a long day. It’s hard not having someone to share photos with when you’re in a beautiful place. It’s hard not having one person who really, really, gives a shit about whether or not you’re ok.

It’s hard not having someone to share meals, holidays and life events with. It’s hard being the only single person at a social event. It’s hard celebrating other peoples’ happiness while ignoring the voice that whispers ‘but when is it my turn?’.

I don’t mind being single. I have everything I need, and most of the time I am quite content. I long ago decided that I would rather be single forever than compromise on what I want and deserve, than shrink and reduce myself to fit someone else’s mold.

I don’t want (or need) someone else to make me feel complete. I don’t want to look at someone and think ‘I couldn’t live without them’. I don’t want or expect a fairytale magical spontaneous self-sustaining happy ever after. I do want someone to value and appreciate me as my perfectly imperfect self, and want to hang out with my perfectly imperfect self every day. I do want to look at someone and think ‘life is better with this person around’ and know they think the same about me. I do want to build a loving, strong, supportive and sustainable partnership with someone who wants to build the same thing with me.

It’s hard coming home at the end of the day with a head full of words and no one to say them to. It’s hard carrying around a heart full of love and having no one to share it with. I think the bit I find hardest is going to sleep and waking up on my own day in, day out. I was going through notebooks a few days ago and found the below piece. I think I wrote it not long after the referendum, possibly after a disappointing online dating interaction. I guess it’s about hope, and faith and nostalgia and sadness and the places your mind sometimes goes when you’re sleeping alone. So I’ll finish by saying that no matter where you are standing right now, your perfectly imperfect self is enough and I hope that life is full and exciting and bright.

It’s ok to be happy and content being single, and it’s ok to be a little bit sad about it sometimes.

The Dark

As you climb into another empty bed,

You hold onto the memory, further away than last night,

Of breath at your neck and an arm around your waist

Of waking in the night, eager for them to come back to bed

Just so that you can be close to them in that space that is only yours

You hold on to the memory of sleepy morning kisses

And making plans for the day

Of hands in your hair and talking for endless hours

You hold on to the memory, blurry as it is,

Of the weight

And the warmth

And words mumbled in the dark

Of fingers interlocking

And cups of tea in bed

You hold onto the knowing

That once someone loved you

Once someone held you

Once someone wanted to start their day with no one but you

Once someone kissed you

And wanted you fiercely

You hold onto the memory, blurry and hazy now,

Of what it was like

To take someone’s hand in a nightmare

To smell them on your pillow

To sleep beside a warm body

And as you drift to sleep

You let go of the memories

And hold onto the knowing

That you will feel all of this again

And that the sun will surely rise again tomorrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

An Ode…..

 

 

IMG_0723-04-10-18-00-59It’s January 1st, 2019.  A whole new year lies ahead, a beautiful blank page waiting to be filled. I tend to wait until Imbolc (St. Brigid’s day) to set intentions for the year, but I find I have been doing alot of reflecting on 2018. For starters, it  was about 50 years long. It contained the highest highs, stress, anxiety, upset, joy, pride, love, new skills, new lessons, new countries, new friendships, new house, new job, new challenges.

This time last year, I set out into 2018 with the intention and commitment to do everything physically, mentally and emotionally possible to repeal the 8th amendment. All over Ireland, people were making similar resolutions. At that stage the outcome felt far from certain. But we did it; we did it through collective action, hard work, hard compromises, exhaustion, friendship, compassion, determination and grit. Getting to 66.4% was gruelling and bruising, but what that result means for the future of Ireland is a truly beautiful legacy.

I wrote this piece a few weeks ago. I wrote it partly as a reaction to frustration at the praising of politicians as the champions of the campaign, and the blanking out of the campaign as a grassroots women led movement. I wrote it partly out of wanting to pay tribute to the women I met and worked with over the past 2 years or so in ARC. As such I wrote it with the women of ARC in mind – yes, there were some brilliant men there aswell, but because they are so brilliant they are comfortable not trying to claim space from women – so yes, I talk about women in this piece because the people I was thinking about when I wrote this are (almost entirely but not exclusively) women.  I also wanted to pay tribute to the quiet, mundane, essential work, to the sheer scale of the work, to the support and solidarity, to the feeling that washed over me on the 25th and 26th of May. I wanted to pay tribute to the fact that so many people in so many ways did their absolute best.

Maybe it will make you think of people you organised with. Maybe your experience of the campaign was different but some of the sentiment may be similar. I wrote it with respect, admiration and love for the women I saw making huge sacrifices and compromises daily, working with skill, drive, commitment and determination, the women who held me together, the women who did their best and so much more. And, in ways, I wrote it for every person in every county who was part of the legacy that we left together in 2018.

I read it at the ARC Choicefest party a few weeks ago. I was a little bit drunk, a little bit emotional and very unsure about interrupting the celebration to read something. But I did. And it was lovely. So here we go.

Apparently and ode is ‘expressive of exalted or enthusiastic emotion’.

So let’s call this….

An Ode to ARC

We are the women who get shit done

We are marchers and shouters, demo holders and graphic designers

We are trainers, bucket shakers, merch packers, poster assemblers, placard makers,

We are live tweeters, minute takers, treasurers, banner stitchers, and spreadsheet keepers

We are the women who get shit done

We are the women who would not stay quiet

Who raised our voices over and over

Until 66.4% joined us in a collective roar

We stand on the shoulders of so many others

Who refused to compromise when they were told they were extreme and unreasonable and oh so shrill

Who always kept their eyes on the vision

Repeal the 8th

Free, safe, legal

We are who we are because of the women who met and who rallied and who said the word abortion when no one else thought they should

We are who we are

Because of the women who were the first to wear a repeal badge in their village

Who stood at stalls in the rain with handmade banners and flasks of tea

The women who shared their stories and spoke their truth

We are the women who drove the length and breadth of a county to leave no door unknocked

The kind of women who say ‘I’ll canvas Belmullet on my own if I have to’

 

2018 arrives and there are AGMs and EGMs, discussions and votes

There are canvas guides, canvas training, there are politicians saying words we NEVER thought they would say.

There are hundreds of unread whatsapp messages.

Then there is some snow, and then there is a date in May……

Annual leave and unpaid leave is booked, the rest of life starts of be put on hold,

And there are 67 days….66 days….plenty of time and no time at all.

Emails and phone calls, press conferences, branding, merch, fundraisers, media plans, countless jumpers, videos, regional launches, advice from the helpful men, pop up shops, crowd funds and holy fuck we just raised half a million euro and Sarah Mon is the most recognisable face in Ireland,

Boxes of leaflets waiting in the hallway, photo calls,  Parents for Yes, Farmers for Yes, Grandparents for Yes, Men for Yes, Midwives for Yes, Dogs for Yes…. meetings, and of course…..POSTERS….. a little blue van that visited every county, stickers, ad mobiles, badges flying out in their thousands, speech bubbles, postcards, count centre passes, and so much more that we did not see and will probably never know.

Pavements pounded and doors knocked, enthusiastic yeses, hard nos, difficult conversations, stories shared, knuckles bruised from old letter boxes, anxious tallies and debates ‘was that a silent yes, or a silent no?’

We turn our backs and we hold our heads high

We find a way to smile

And through gritted teeth we say ‘I can understand your concerns’

Though our hearts beat loudly – it’s my body, my choice

24/7 and sure who needs sleep because on the 25th of May we would know

That we could not have done more

And that we all did our best

 

Sleep has turned into someone you used to know

Replaced by the bubbling anxiety and the raw unspoken fear

‘What if we lose?’

And we fantasise about what we will do when it’s all over

Cook a meal

Read a book

Get the ride

Go on holidays

Have bodily autonomy

And know that we could not have done more

And that we all did our best

 

And we hold each other together with coffee and hugs and ‘how are you doing?’ and jellies that burn the surface of your tongue

With doughnuts and pints and bags of crisps for dinner

With solidarity, love, humour and sheer bloody grit

 

Standing in that booth, shaking all over

Oh fuck it, what if I vote no by mistake?

Take a deep breath and mark that X

Mark it for me, for you, for her, for all of us

Take a deep breath and hope it’s all been enough

And know, that we could not have done more

And that we all did our best

 

And to everyone who asks ‘how do you think it’ll go?’

‘Oh it’ll be close, if it goes our way maybe 55%’

And I’m buying my own hype and we’re all buying the hype and the red alert and I think

I’ll pass out when someone says the words exit poll

And I hold onto whoever is beside me surrounded by anxious, tired, hopeful faces

Then the words

Margin of victory for the Yes side ….

And the room explodes

With sobs of relief and pride and joy

Tight embraces and beaming smiles on tear stained faces

Hands covering mouths and voices shaking

We did it, we did it

And it was so close…….we nearly had that sex number….

 

The results pour in and the yeses pile higher

And the RDS is a sea of tears and hugs and bursting pride and Gráinne and Sarah being absolute rockstars and I’m fairly sure I have never cried so much and everyone is in love with everyone else

And there’s beer and dancing and exhausted happy faces and a weight has been lifted and the work is not over but fuck me we did it! And 66.4 is officially the best number ever and my body feels lighter

And though we are all broken I don’t think we’ve ever been stronger

 

We are the women this country has always sought to shame and silence

We are the echoes of the Madgdalenes and of Tuam

We are the women whose names you know and whose names you will never know

We are the women who travel

We are the women who bleed

We are the women who will not be quiet

And will not go away

Who will not apologise

For knowing our worth and knowing our power

 

We are fighters and survivors

We are mothers and we are lovers

We are strong and we are resilient

We are light and we are fire

We are fierce and we are kind

 

We are the change makers

We are the history shapers

We are the women

Who get shit done

 

 

You can hear this piece being read over footage of different marches and campaign activities at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9P_i5TgUiyA&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2k09GCRe7Td01e2CKBndDfVCsHYRm5iqdS29wwGQrP7PymmhpaxiGHIsM

 

 

0

When the shadows pass

I’ve always loved this time of year. Sunsets and sunrises are particularly vivid, trees are exploding in reds and gold. It’s like nature is having it’s last riotous hurrah before the darkness and cold air takes over.  As the evenings draw in, there is a sense of turning inwards, of settling in for the winter.

I was in Transylvania a few weeks ago, and was transfixed by how autumn was playing out in those unspoilt hills. Looking out from the deck of the retreat I was staying in, the mountains rolled away in front of me, layer after layer, a tapestry of green, red and orange. Everywhere around me, nature was changing, embracing the new season as it does year in and year out. Watching the early morning mist roll through the valleys against a soundtrack of cowbells and bird song, I had that sense of being in a place stripped back.

I decided to go on a retreat in order to re-ground myself after an intense and chaotic year. I needed to reconnect with my body and with myself. Being in the middle of nature is one thing that always works for me when I need to reconnect. There is something so grounding about being among mountains that have stood for countless years, of watching trees, plants and animals follow their seasonal cycles. Something as simple as noticing the beauty of a tree in full autumnal color can be enough to take me out of whatever thought spiral I might be in and recognise the wealth of beauty in the world, in others and in myself.

Someone once said to me that they saw me as a very embodied person, that I always seemed to be very much in my body. When I’m on a horse, all I can think about is me and the horse. It doesn’t matter what else is going on, I have to read and react to another sentient, powerful being. I have to adapt my body to theirs. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten off a horse and literally not been able to remember the forgotten thing that had been stressing me out all day. Yoga does something similar for me. On a practical level, if I don’t focus I’ll probably fall over. But more than that, it gives me a sense of appreciation for my body. I have to listen when my body tells me it’s challenged enough, or when it can stretch that bit more. I have to listen and adapt when it tells me that it’s tired and sore. I love the feeling of building up strength, of becoming more comfortable and braver, of marveling at what my body can do when I ask it. I get an endless kick out of discovering that parts of my body can touch each other that I never thought possible. I found it hard this year to create that space for myself. At a time when my body felt so under attack, I needed it to keep going on endless kilometers of canvasses, of dashing between work and the campaign office. And it carried me through it all, to the end, tired and battered and carrying the bruises of a grueling and personal campaign.

One evening I was watching the changing shades of the mountains as the sun was setting. I found myself thinking back to this time last year, when I was not in a good place with anxiety. Some days, I felt disembodied, like I was rattling around in my own skin, like parts of me were breaking away. During a particularly bad spell, I broke out in an unexplained rash that quickly spread all over my body. I was at home on my own, and, as you do in these situations, I convinced myself that I was dying. Katie was away and my other housemate would never go into someone else’s room, so I played out the scenario where I would eventually be found weeks later after the neighbours complained about the weird smell. I remember looking in the mirror in floods of tears wondering what the hell was happening. I touched the red welts that covered my arms and legs, trying to reassure myself that I was still there, trying to understand as my heart ricocheted around my chest.  Eventually I calmed down and sorted out a doctor, who after some perplexed questioning, told me it was stress related.

After months of anxiety, stress and heartache, this was my body telling me that something needed to change. It was my body telling me that it was exhausted. It took about a week for the rash to go away. It took far longer to get my anxiety under control. I felt alone, vulnerable, overwhelmed and lost. I carried a knot of dread in my stomach and chest. I went through most of last autumn with minimal appetite. I felt at sea in my own body. I wondered would it ever feel any different. I longed for a hug, for someone to anchor my body with their own, someone to hold onto when my own foundations felt so rocky. I wanted someone to say that they could still see me, someone to offer me their hand. But I knew I had to walk the road on my own, I knew I had to find my way back to myself, by myself. And it was by far one of the darkest and loneliest places I have ever been.

Looking out over those mountains, I remembered so vividly that a year ago, my body was full of shadows. There was only the dimmest light, the one that refuses to go out, the one that the people who really love you always see. It cast a stubborn glow among all those shadows and dark places that sat under my skin, that trailed behind my footsteps, that threw a shroud around my heart.

As I stood there watching the changing shades of oranges and reds, I realised that this was all a memory. The shadows had receded and the light had come in. Through all of those kilometers walked, through the solidarity and support of friends, through taking risks, through being part of a seismic positive change, I had found my way back into my body and back to myself. Without really noticing, parts of me that were broken had quietly grown back. In the process, I discovered new strength, new love, and new shades of myself.

A year ago, I was full of shadows. Now, I am full of light.