On the things that keep us down

[CW: discussion of violence against women]

It has been a very long week.

I don’t know if the world really gives a toss for the thoughts of one more furious woman, but where else am I to set them down? They are eating me from the inside and I would like to stop feeling consumed.

This weekend my body did what it seems, over the last couple of years, to have learned to do when it needs to tell me that I have had enough. It usually starts with a deep lower back/hip ache to one side, gnawing, impossible to stretch away – though I tried, stood in the vet’s car park, waiting for the cats to have their annual jabs inside. This is almost what passes for a trip out, now.

Then, back home, the cold and the shaking. Uncontrollable, full-body shakes, jaw slamming itself shut every so often (thankfully my tongue is intact, but it’s a close call). Rapid breathing, rapid heartbeat probably, but it is hard to tell because everything is moving, constant, and I have very little control over it. I try to do calming breaths as best I can, but it is a struggle.

This part lasts for up to an hour. My husband sits with me, covers me with blankets, tells me I’m doing OK. This is the part I’ve almost got used to now, after the fifth time in two years: I don’t feel panicked or confused, I just wait for it to stop.

Then, when it stops, the rough stuff starts. The exhaustion. Disturbed sleep, oscillating between heavy sweats and cold because my body has temporarily forgotten how to regulate its temperature properly. Muscle and joint aches everywhere. Deep, deep exhaustion. Staying awake is excruciating because my head, face and jaw hurt and painkillers only graze it, really. Sleeping to avoid it is hard because all of the above. This time it was about two days of that before I stopped wanting to rip my own head off. Last time it wiped me for nearly a week.

I think (and this is not a medical opinion – I had a run of tests in 2019 after three of these in shortish succession, and everything was A-OK, so no answers there) that what is happening is that I get overwhelmed, and for some reason my body throws out a ridiculous spike of adrenaline on top of what’s already buzzing around, and it’s too much to deal with physically so basically it short-circuits me for a while. Error. Malfunction. Alert. Alert.

And the bit that’s interesting to me is: how the hell do I never see this coming?

There are signs, of course, but only when I look backwards. Each time it’s happened I can point to a cluster of different things going on at the time which individually, I felt that I was coping OK with: maybe finding things hard going, but in a “well, sometimes things are just tough for a while, it’ll be OK” sort of a way. And yet altogether, somehow, unnoticed by me, those things coalesced into Too Much, tipped the scale so subtly and adroitly that I didn’t feel the change happening.

What was it this time?

If I am honest, I can no longer deal well with lockdown. It isn’t just the increasingly pressing need for other people – real, physical other people apart from the one I live with who has to put up with my nonsense every single day. It is also the loss of work; the future uncertainty about what work looks like for me now, and the difficulty of engaging with that; the feeling of being hemmed in, becalmed, desperate to see somewhere, anywhere else; the feeling that I should be quietly grateful for my privilege in being able to sit the whole thing out; the deep resentment that festers with obeying rules that, however necessary, are created by people who will happily trash any rule they like in order to line their friends’ pockets while people like my friends put themselves at risk and get a clap instead of proper remuneration.

That’s definitely part of it.

And then there was the news last week. Sarah Everard’s tragic and shocking murder, when simply walking home minding her own business, is the very worst kind of reminder that even without a lockdown to keep us contained, male violence and the apparent lack of will to seriously address it remains a dragging chain around the ankle of women and girls – and plenty of men too, even those who think it doesn’t affect them because they’re neither a victim nor a rapist so what are you implying?

I have been so angry. Filled with rage at the endless stories shared by women. Neverending lists of aggressions, the small to the utterly heinous, always the same shit, stinking heaps of it piled onto us over the years but how dare we wrinkle our noses? Just get on with it, why are you bitching about being covered in shit? I know other women who are quite happy being covered in shit, you’re just being difficult.

I’ve thought, unusually, about all the examples in my life. The ones I can remember at least, because we file a lot of the small ones away, knowing there is no point doing anything else. Women’s pain is not interesting enough. Take a look at all the International Women’s Day rhetoric if you need a reminder. We want our women Strong! Inspiring! Brave! None of the messy stuff, thanks, that takes effort to fix and we’ve better things to do. I’ve thought about how absolutely ludicrous it is that I should have to consider myself lucky that I’ve never been seriously sexually assaulted or raped.

Then there are the female celebrities obediently opining that we shouldn’t make men sad by saying they’re all terrible (we’re not, that’s a crass misrepresentation of the point), because it might harm their mental health. But it’s apparently OK for women’s mental health to suffer from lifetimes of socially-normalised misogyny. Cool, cool. Glad we cleared that up.

Perhaps it isn’t such a surprise that I never see it coming when the adrenaline takes over. We learn quickly as women. What many men think of us. How to be disarming to avoid a confrontation in which we know we’ll come off worse. How to keep our mouths shut. How to cope. Get on with it. Just cope. Cope. Cope.

And just now I’ve had enough of all that.

I don’t have answers, not even close. I have a pretty privileged existence as a white woman, I know that, and yet even I can ill afford the anger and frustration, because it makes me physically unwell even when I feel mentally OK.

Imagine what all this is doing to other women. Women you know. Talk to them. Listen. Understand. Make it better.