2019 – In a Fairly Large Nutshell

We are coming to the end of 2019. It has been a very long time since I sat down and wrote something for this blog. I have a bit of a problem at the moment with having too many ideas, getting overwhelmed, then not actually writing any of them. There are many part-written blog posts hanging out in the back end of this website. There are many part written pitches for feature ideas sat in my email outbox too, me not managing to send them because they aren’t perfect. But today, with some unexpected time on my hands, I’ve set myself a “writing day”, a day to do all of the things I’ve been meaning to (well, some of them, a day only has 24 hours, right?)

2019 has been a whirlwind for me. And that whirlwind has come with a lot of learning about who I am, now that I’ve finished my treatment for breast cancer and turned 30 and continued to survive.

I’ve learned again and again (because it never stays in my mind for long) that I am tougher than I think I am. That I am more resilient than I ever give myself credit for. I have been taught lessons that have made me convince myself I am a good person and a good friend. I have gone back to therapy, creating a safe place for myself once a month to talk about everything that lingers long after a cancer diagnosis, and to help me deal with the nasty voice in my head that tells me I am not enough. I have learned that I can trust myself. I can trust myself to keep going, even when I don’t feel like I can. I can trust myself to do what’s right for me, even if that means losing things in the process. And there are so many wonderful things that have happened this year, I want to run you through a few of them.

CoppaFeel! Himalayas Trek

Sometime around March, I missed a call from an unknown number. I was in the midst of teaching a Social Media Course (because I do that now) and when we got to lunch, I listened to the voicemail I’d been left. It was the one, the only, Giovanna Fletcher telling me I had been chosen to go on the CoppaFeel! 10th Anniversary Trek to the Himalayas. The truth is, as a trustee for the charity, it would have been pretty embarrassing for everyone if they hadn’t wanted me to go on the trek, but out of over 800 applications it was still pretty special to be chosen.

This led to a summer of trying to get my health up to a point where I felt I’d be able to face the massive challenge that lay ahead of me. We walked a lot. We visited some beautiful parts of Kent, saw some beautiful parts of the British Coast. I dragged my Dad out with us. We walked and walked and walked. And I fell in love with walking. I slept a lot after every walk too. Because my fatigue is still very real. But my little body and I did what we needed too and we kept walking. And sleeping. And walking. Then October rolled around.

In all honesty, I wasn’t ready for how transformational the trek was going to be. It was a total gamechanger. It gave me the realisation that I can do so much more than I tell myself I can. It showed me that I have strengths that I had forgotten about. It taught me that I am more than I tell myself I am. It taught me that I am more than enough. I am plenty. It gave me the gift of knowing that I can rely on myself, which after cancer, feels like a gargantuan-ly big deal.

The mountains were beautiful. The views were genuinely breathtaking (and not just because of the altitude). I cried, but less than I expected. I laughed, but more than I ever could have anticipated. We caught trains and planes and automobiles. We travelled for two days, trekked for four days. I had a mini nervous break down in front of the Taj Mahal out of sheer exhaustion.

My heart grew three sizes and I left a part of it in the mountains. We saw sunrise and sunset. We saw hail and heard thunder. We said namaste to the locals multiple times a day. We were snapped by people as we marched across paths at the end of their gardens. I wanted to be able to close my eyes and download everything I saw and did each day onto a hard-drive so that I never forget any of it. I will, of course, forget some bits. But there is so much I will hang onto forever. To have had one week like that in my life, well. I think I might just be the luckiest person in the world, you know. I felt like I experienced life so very richly those days I was in India. But I do love a British loo.

I could write a hundred thousand words about the trek. But I’ll stop here, for now.

Royal Parks Half

Sometimes, I do things and I wonder what the hell I was thinking. Signing up for the Royal Parks Half was one of those things where I literally have no idea what I was thinking. To paraphrase my dad, it seemed like a good idea at the time when I entered the Royal Parks ballot and “left it to the universe” to decide whether I should run a half marathon or not. Reader, the honest answer here is I should not have run a half marathon. But I did it. Well, I travelled the distance anyway. And with a massive boob on my back. But I would far rather trek for another four days than ever running 13.1 miles again.

I didn’t hate it. And I didn’t die. Which means I’m chalking it up as a win. But my chest has not been right since and the pain in my reconstructed breast in the immediate aftermath was nauseating. It gave me full on PTSD flashbacks to every surgery I had, complete with tears and stress and feeling totally and completely broken. It was not a pleasant place to be. And I do not want to go back there.

But the actual running of the half was quite something. Again, I was reminded how bloody minded and belligerent I can be when I want to be. I reminded myself that I am stubborn and determined. And I did it. Despite the fact that it took pretty much everything I had to do it. I did it. But I will not do it again. My legs carried me for 13.1 miles. My lungs breathed for me through every single step. My toenails stayed intact. My feet did not fall off. My heart grew a bit here too. And I did it all with a massive inflatable boob on my back. Cos I <3 CoppaFeel! Obviously.

AfterThoughts

I’ve found myself in a really privileged position over the last few months. There’s been a massive shift for me when it comes to my cancer story. And while I don’t know how long this shift will last (because I think a lot of it is mental and we all know how volatile our brains can be), it’s meant that I’ve moved positions a bit. I’m sort of no longer in the story. I’ve shifted to helping other people tell their stories. And I hugely want to empower those who have been floored by a cancer diagnosis in their 20’s and 30’s like I was.

So when Toby Peach (yes, that is his real name) asked me if I wanted to work on a podcast about cancer with him “because it turns out, you’re actually quite funny”, I jumped at the chance. And after lots of back and forth about what we wanted to do, we settled on AfterThoughts – a podcast not about us as presenters and our own cancer experiences but about the stories of others in their 20’s and 30’s.

We wanted to pass the mic and facilitate the telling of a number of stories about a number of themes. Toby works as a theatre maker and I’m a storyteller so it made sense for us to concentrate on stories, rather than interviews. We want the podcast to be about the humans who happen to get cancer. Not the cancer patients who happen to be humans. And we wanted to talk about what happens AFTER the diagnosis, because so often stories go back to the Doctor telling you the words “you have cancer” but for so many young people that’s only the beginning of something.

So, AfterThoughts. Coming 2020. I’m so excited for you to hear it.

Life, Lemons and Melons

HEY! Remember when I wrote a book? Yeah. It seems a bit like a distant memory but I was actually finishing off writing it this time last year and launched it in January 2019. I’ve sold about 500 copies which to be honest, I’m pretty surprised about.

I swing from being somewhat embarrassed about the book to being quite proud of the fact that I did it. I find comfort in the fact that Zadie Smith finds the idea of White Teeth almost embarrassing. If Zadie Smith can feel embarrassed, I’m allowed to too.

There’s something to be said for putting your heart into the pages of a book and then letting it out into the world that’s quite powerful and also completely terrifying. I put everything into that book. I was stripped back to the rawest version of myself. And I did it all without knowing if it was the right thing to do. Because I self-published, I didn’t have anyone telling me what made commercial sense. I had a brilliant team of people who helped me edit it and check it for spelling mistakes and grammar errors, but I didn’t have an editor to massage my ego and tell me I was doing the right thing. I was in total control and that was terrifying and liberating in equal measure.

After publication, I sent a copy to my brilliant agent and he once again tried to flog the idea to publishers. Once again, they loved the idea, they loved my writing, they loved my style. But. There was another But. The book had an ISBN which meant they wouldn’t republish it. So it stays as it is. An imperfect representation of my imperfect experience. But. There is always a but. I still wrote a book.

Mastectomy Tattoo

Within hours of being diagnosed in 2015, I knew that if I were to have a mastectomy, I wanted a mastectomy tattoo afterwards. Days after my surgery, I saved an image of a tattoo by David Allen (who I went on to meet earlier this year, he’s amazing and possibly one of the kindest men on the planet) on my phone.

But with all the surgeries I had, and the various states I saw my chest in, the idea of this tattoo became more and more important over time. My chest had been a battleground. I had looked at it and cried more times than I care to remember. I had seen it be ugly and broken and it had made me feel ugly and broken. When I think back to the iterations of my breast I saw between having my implant removed and having my reconstruction finished, when I think of the phases and the holes and the lack of healing, it breaks me a little bit.

But in April 2019, a few months shy of a year after finally being told I didn’t need any more surgeries, I found the brilliant Dom Holmes after reading an article about mastectomy tattoos on The Guardian and I instantly fell in love with her tattooing style. I met with her, she checked out my scar tissue, told me my surgeon had done a remarkable job and we booked in for a sitting. Three hours, plenty of chat and an abundance of brilliant music (as well as being all round ace, Dom has cracking music taste) later, I left her studio in East London with a piece of art where I used to look and see desolation.

I have seen so many ugly iterations of what was left behind and a tattoo is a way for me to deal with the many, many tears I shed over the breast that used to exist. The battle ground left behind by cancer has been turned into something beautiful. It sounds strange to mourn for a body part and to grieve for a body that let me down and a life that would be no better or worse than the life I have now, but grieve I did. Grieve I have. Grieve I do.
Getting this tattoo was a chance to take ownership of that experience and take some control back of my body. The feather represents my life as a writer which has only grown as a result of my cancer experience, and the process of moving forward, while the words underneath “to live would be an awfully big adventure” is a reminder to myself that even on the hard days, whatever life throws at us, there is adventure and joy to seek. And there is always hope. And if in doubt, there’s always Hook.

I finally feel like maybe, just maybe, I’m a step closer to healing. And this tattoo has been a massive part of this. How lucky I am to be alive and how grateful I am to keep trying to do the best I can every single day. Who knows how long the adventure will be. Who knows if cancer will make a comeback. But I’m going to keep trying my best forever.

I also decided that I am retiring from getting my norks out in the name of cancer. These last two campaigns I have been involved with have been so empowering. But I’m done with that now, I think. And it feels like there is power in drawing a line under that part of my life.

Work Life Balance

My work has taken a few interesting turns over the past few months. I still want to write more than I do it’s not easy to pay the bills just by writing. The way the industry is at the moment means there’s not an awful lot of money to be made. Some writers do it and do it incredibly well but it’s a tough time to be trying to make your name as a freelance writer (or that’s what I’ve found).

That’s not to say I’m not writing. I am. I recently landed myself a lovely monthly gig writing about mental health and cancer. I’m doing some copywriting for a really exciting project which aims to end violence against women and girls.

As I mentioned before, I’ve also started teaching too – training people in marketing, including everything from social media to content marketing and everything in between. I’ve found I really enjoy teaching and absolutely love the organisation I’m doing it for. Plus it’s nice to get out of the house pretty much every week. But I do miss writing as much as I was and I do intend to try and carve out more space for it in my life. I’ve been meaning to sit down and write something for such a long time. But I just haven’t had the headspace. So it’s nice that I have managed to do that today.

I’m also working on a piece of fiction too. I did a creative writing course through Curtis Brown Creative last year. While I haven’t given the piece, which is tentatively called The Final Act, as much time or energy as I perhaps should have in the months since finishing the course, it’s on my list of things to do. In fact, Toby, off of AfterThoughts fame has set me a deadline to write 1000 words of the story by 1st December. It feels nice to have a deadline to write to.

I have lots of plans for 2020, and I’m looking forward to putting these into action. I’m really keen to run more workshops and speak at more events, so I’m going to make a concerted effort to do more of both of these things. I’ve spoken at some brilliant events this year and have been on some excellent panels – hoping 2020 will bring more of this. Manifesting a spot at Stylist Live. We’ll see.

Swimming

Unsurprisingly, I’m still swimming in cold waters and am so looking forward to another winter of dwindling temperatures at Brockwell Lido. Not only that but Beckenham Place Park swimming lake opened in the summer and it has been glorious to swim there as the season progresses. On Saturday, I became their 100th winter member. Hooray!

When people ask me why I swim in cold water in the future, I’m just going to show them this by @JuliaMHawkins . Taken minutes after a 7.9 degree swim at Brockwell Lido on Wednesday last week when the water was warmer than the air temp. My favourite kind of lido day

So that’s 2019. I can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store….

4 Year Cancerversary

For once in my life, I don’t have much to say. But I wanted to share this picture from Sunday. I “celebrated” 4 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 26 by swimming 2.5km in the glorious River Cam. It was the best way to mark this weird and wonderful day.

I am, for the most part, incredibly happy to be alive. And moments like this make this world feel like such a magical and wonderful gift.

How LiveJournal Shaped my Life and Writing

The internet has revolutionised everything. The way we eat, the way we shop and the way we communicate have all changed with the advent of the internet. Completely changed too are the ways we socialise, the way we learn and the way we grow up. Gone are the days of kids needing to flick through an ancient, dusty encyclopedia to figure out what the difference is between arteries and veins. They can take a tiny computer out of their pocket and ask Google with but a few taps of a screen. The internet is the part of the human existence now from the day babies are born. But people like me, Millennials, if that’s what you want to call us, had a very different experience to the generations both before and after us.

I was born in 1988, the same year founding father Tim Berners Lee invented the world wide web. The two of us (that’s me and the internet, not me and TBL) have grown together and the internet was a huge part of my formative years. I got my first email address when I was about 11. I simulated AOL Live conversations on a word processor to persuade my mum I was ready to talk to strangers online. I put audio of me singing through a scratchy, low quality microphone on Myspace. I joined Facebook in my second year of sixth form and used it as a tool to share the mundane details of my life. Alice-May Purkiss is now seriously wondering why she felt the need to share what she had for dinner 12 years ago. Especially when it was just a bag of crisps.

But there was no other place that I felt more at home than on LiveJournal, where I hung out for many of my teenage years. Like most overly emotional pre-teens I was obsessed with the idea of a blogging platform. The fact that a space had been created through which I could share the unique and true depths of my complex and revolutionary feelings about the world in which I had found myself habiting, finally gave me a sense of purpose. It was like I had found my home. Yes. That was the style of every single post I ever wrote. Equally pretentious and preposterous, I positioned myself way, way above my station, like some modern day Sylvia Plath whose feelings were so over zealous they could not be contained in the vessel I called my body. But it was through those early ramblings that I found perhaps my most worthwhile skill, developed my writing and discovered what would eventually become a huge part of my life and career. But by god. There was an awful lot of honing involved.

I have always written but there’s no denying technology shaped the way I approached that. From my days of writing stories on my mother’s Fontwriter (somewhere in between a typewriter and a computer) not long after Tim Berners Lee had created the monster that would eventually become the internet, but before 4g, WiFi and Facebook was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, to deciding to pursue the written word as a branch of my career, words have made up a massive part of my existence. And LiveJournal was the seed from which the old twisted oak tree grew.

It started off fairly nondescript. My first blog was called – and I apologise in advance if this makes you sick in your mouth like it just did when I dredged it from the very depths of my memory –  Likkle Rainbow. God only knows why I thought “little” needed to be spelled with the saccharine sweet K’s rather than, you known, the usual t’s, but I did. This first blog was around the time our internet was charged at a penny a minute and only useable after 6pm. Unless Mum was on the phone to Grandma, obviously. So I squirreled away hours when I wasn’t playing on Neopets, pre-writing the “blogs” in notebooks or on the word processor of the very first iteration of iMac (you know, the green ones that were shaped like an actual eye) then relentlessly copied them from paper to screen when I could access the internet.

LiveJournal was social media for beginners. It was a lesson in curating content before anyone had even thought of the word “Instagram”. Even before MySpace, with its penchant for forcing you to shoehorn your friends into a hierarchy of “the top 8” then “the other peasants you didn’t care as much about”, there were some of us who were carefully curating our blog design aesthetic, choosing images that represented ourselves and writing words to accompany those elements.

In the mid-noughties, rather than selecting which filter looks best with which version of the selfie you took 736 times for Instagram, there was a band of “Journallers” who were choosing which Dollz icon represented them best. Do you remember Dollz? Small cartoon icons which, with some basic coding ability could be personalised to look exactly like you – but with enormous anime eyes, teeny tiny waists, and jeans slung sufficiently low that there’d definitely be a whisper of lady garden should a real person wear them. They were the online iteration of Barbie – so fatefully ill-proportioned, should they ever come to life, they’d be unable to stand or walk. Or, apparently, dress without revealing their pubic hair.

But, weird proportioning and wardrobe choices aside, my Dollz icon was my online personality and curating that online personality became something I did long before I knew it would become what it is today. I spent hours considering whether I wanted my Dollz icon to represent me accurately, or show off the person I wanted to be on my LiveJournal. The cool, sophisticated wordsmith I saw 13 year old me as, or the dorky, antisocial, slightly emo kid I was. You can guess which one I chose.

But beyond allowing me to show off my personality through my choice of cartoon icon, LiveJournal gave me a platform from which I could write all the things that were in my heart and in my mind. I don’t remember what I wrote on LikkleRainbow, but I believed that I had something important to say and LiveJournal allowed me to do that.

As my hormones went into overdrive as puberty hit, I decided I had outgrown LikkleRainbow. No longer was I a girl for whom K’s needed to replace T’s. At 14, I had matured. I was deeper now, I had loved and I had lost and I had experienced so much of the world I needed to change my online persona to represent it. And so OpenHeart was created. A place where I felt I could truly be the realest version of myself without fear of recrimination – where I could open my heart and let the world see in. To be honest, looking back, I think I find the memories of OpenHeart much more cringeworthy and distressing than the decision to spell little incorrectly, but at the time it was the sort of safe space I needed.

But it didn’t come without its issues. I’ve always found writing things down makes me understand them better. Even now, at the age of 30, if I can’t figure out what’s going on in my mind, writing it out makes it clearer. That’s why I decided to blog my way through my entire the 10 months of treatment when i was diagnosed with breast cancer at 26 in 2015. But I have more wherewithal now than I did when I was younger.

I wrote about bomb scares and fires in the toilets. I wrote about being called names for wearing the wrong type of jeans in early noughties Yorkshire, if you wore tight trousers you were a townie and that was, apparently, a bad thing). And I wrote about friendships. Or rather, the tempestuous relationships I had with the other girls in my year.

Before I get into this, I think it’s important that I specify I am a woman who is very not OK with conflict. I avoid it at every cost. I am far from violent, and it is very, very rare I get angry these days. But the same could not be said for 16 year old me who was dealing with a surge in hormones, an unexpected family loss that threw me for a loop and very confused feelings about boys who were paying attention to ugly me. I would never have acted on any of the things I wrote about in the anecdote I’m about to tell you, but I was sufficiently cross to write about them in a public space.

Like every teen girl, I struggled with friends. I was awkward and uncomfortable in myself and I often took it out on other people. When I was 16, circa 2004, I used my LiveJournal as an outlet to talk about my hurt feelings when the other girls at school talked about me. I remember telling someone about my very first tingly feelings for a boy, in confidence, and her betraying that confidence to some of the popular girls in school, who then teased me about it.

I turned to LiveJournal to rant about her betrayal and in the style of dramatics to which I was prone, I went all out. I pounded my feelings of treachery out through the keyboard, unthinking of the circumstances, unashamed of my uncontrolled emotions. I ranted about violence and fury, revenge and my despair. It was more than an overreaction. It was the online equivalent to flipping the dining table after dropping my fork on the floor. I wrote about punching her, about seeing her suffer, about watching her in the pain she had created for me. I went a bit Teen Hulk to be honest.

I never named names, but to anyone reading who knew the people in school, it was obvious who I was writing about. And I got pulled up on it. As far as I remember, there were no teachers involved, but I remember a friend emailing me to tell me she was worried about the things I had said. She’d had her own tempestuous relations with the girl who had “betrayed my trust” but, she told me, “she’d never even dreamed of doing the things I had written about”.

So I deleted the post.

And then, in the harsh light of day when I realised I had gone a little bit OTT and my angst had got out of control, I deleted LiveJournal. I put an end to the part of my life where I wrote about the trials and tribulations I experienced as a mid-teen school girl on the crux of adulthood. And I started writing in notebooks that I kept secret. My love affair with LiveJournal was over, but my love of writing was only just beginning.

So what did those few years of LiveJournalling teach me? Well, first up, reflecting on it for this essay has reminded me that curating our online lives isn’t a new thing. Actually, we were curating our lives long before the internet even existed. Think of any classic story – Mr Darcey was not what he seemed in Pride and Prejudice. The image Severus Snape showed the world was not who he really was. The stories we tell the outside world very rarely reflect what’s going on inside, but while it has it’s foibles, the internet has created a space where we CAN be authentic, if we choose to be. It’s become a place where people can talk openly about their mental health, their physical health. They can talk about things that are difficult. They can talk about grief and death and sickness and relationship woes. In fact, more people are doing this now than ever before. We don’t want to see perfect lives on Instagram anymore. We want to see realness. Authenticity. Honesty. Admittedly, we often want to see these along with perfectly curated imagery, but we’re getting there. Baby steps.

Secondly, my LiveJournal days taught me that having a place where you feel like you belong is a crucial part of growing up and is essential for helping to figure out the world we live in. It doesn’t have to be online – maybe the young people today belong in rowing clubs or book clubs or science clubs. But the reality is that these days, any communities that are being created for young people are probably going to have an element of being online. And d’you know what? That’s no bad thing. I made an internet friend on LiveJournal and, while we aren’t close, we still talk. We still follow each other on social media. I still like pictures of her son on Instagram. She still likes pictures of my tattoos. We share something pretty unique. She was the person I asked what Dollz were called when I couldn’t remember as I started researching this essay. Young people need to find their people and, as long as they’re safe and smart (and they’re often smarter than we give them credit for), it’s OK if that’s online.

This reminiscence has also reiterated to me what a tough place the internet can be. While I was LiveJournalling, I also experienced what would now be called cyber bullying. Hate-filled, name calling emails. Shitty texts to my Nokia 3310 that buzzed when I was playing Snake II. The internet was a difficult enough place to exist when I was a kid, so it must be even more difficult now with the 24/7 approach to communication that exists. So educating our young people on how to make the internet a safe and positive place to exist is essential. And the good thing is, those who are having kids now, grew up with the internet. They get it. It’s not as new to them as it was to my generation’s parents. But it’s important that we arm the future generations with the tools they need to make the internet work for them. To make it a good place to be. To only follow people who make you feel brave and strong and powerful. And to know when to turn it off and walk away if they need to.

As I sit writing this essay, I feel a bit sad that I deleted both of the LiveJournals I had in my youth. Because with their kitsch k’s and their excessive amount of oversharing, both shaped me a lot. They taught me a lot too and I’d love to spend an afternoon in my teenage brain, no matter how much it made me cringe. Because that girl, and how she was online, was a huge part of who I was and who I am now. And I suppose, whatever you think of the internet, the chance it has created for posterity is quite something. We’re going to be able to see so much that might have otherwise gone unremembered. Baby photos. Wedding moments. Thoughts from a moment in time.

I have a blog these days. Not a LiveJournal, though I checked recently and it still exists. I use WordPress now. But much like LiveJournal offered me a safe space to come to terms with the overwhelming emotions of being a teenager, this blog offered me a safe space to come to terms with what it was like to be diagnosed with breast cancer a decade later.

I’m still that same girl who needs to write things down to make sense of them. I’m still that same girl who probably has more feelings than she knows what to do with them. I’m still that same girl who probably shares too much online. But I’ve learned that I am in charge of my own narrative. I can share as much or as little of my story as I want. And I thank LiveJournal for teaching me that.

Things I’ve Learned Cold Water Swimming This Winter

I edge down the steps gingerly, taking my time to let the shock of the change in temperature ripple across my skin. The water folds over my feet, ankles, my shins, knees as I lower myself bit by bit, inch by inch, one step at a time. I pause for a moment when it reaches the mid-section of my thighs, to steady the ragged breath as it comes in and out. There’s an uncertainty to it, as if no matter how many times I do it, there will always be a moment of learning that comes with every visit. I walk slowly, submerging my body bit by bit, taking my time to notice the sensations as they change. There’s a pooling in my belly button under the neoprene of my swimming costume, the momentary shiver as the water rushes down my back and my hands rest on the surface, the cold edging under my neoprene gloves. I lower my chest, the sounds of the world around me distorting as I push my face through the pool’s icy surface, and I begin to swim.

And it is as if a switch has been flicked. As if the noise of the world around me and the noise inside my head has been dulled. There is a release. I escape. No longer am I wondering if I am enough. No longer do I question every movement, every thought. I am certain in myself. Certain of myself, certain of my ability to glide through the water, to propel myself for length after length, to control the breath as it enters my lungs, prickling with each expansion and contraction.

I have been swimming through the winter months at Brockwell Lido, one of London’s unheated, outdoor pools. If we’ve spoken over the last few months, I will have told you. If you follow me on social media, you will have seen every snap documenting the season. I have swum in the rain, I have swum while the wind has whipped around me, I have swum while the sun has glistened on the ends of my eyelashes. I have swum in water as cold as 4.8 degrees and as warm as 9.8 degrees (earlier today). The water has been different every time I have pulled on my swimming costume and made my way across to Herne Hill. I have been different every time I have pulled on my swimming costume and made my way across to Herne Hill. I have been sad and I have been desolate and I have been excited and I have been hopeful. I have been lost and I have been found and I have felt loved and I have felt lonely. But one thing has been constant. And that’s the awe I feel at my body’s ability to adapt and change to whatever is thrown at it and the appreciation I have for the quiet I feel in my chest when the cold water rushes across it.

It has been a strange few months. The book I have written now exists in the world and at the moment, I feel very little. I have no sense of pride in my achievement, and I am feeling little to no joy from completing this project. I have had flashes of delight and gratitude – when so many people gathered at the book launch, when I saw an advertisement for it on an enormous billboard that someone had offered me on a pro bono basis – but most of all, I have felt an overwhelming concern that it is not enough. That I am not enough. That I will never be enough. Enough for who, I have no idea. At the moment, I just feel nothing.

But in the pool, I’m forced to feel everything. Every milimeter of the skin that covers my organs and holds my blood inside fizzes with sensations. The feminine layers of subcutaneous fat that exist around my hips and on my bum become electrified. I’m brought right back to the very bones of what it means to be human – our bodies. I stop thinking about all the things I need to do, all the things I haven’t done, all the things I wish I could do. My tendency to berate myself harshly and unrelentingly does not exist in the pool. All that matters is my breath, the lengths, and knowing when I’ve had enough. When my body has reached it’s limits.

I have learned a lot about myself over the recent months and I have no doubt these learnings will continue. There’s something to be said for the resilience of our bodies, their ability to adapt and change regardless of what we put them through, whether it’s cancer treatment, or training for a half marathon, or having the wild idea to submerge your body in dwindling temperatures of water every week. Your body knows what you need. And it knows what to do in most situations. It’s the way we are designed. And that is marvellous and magnificent to me.

There’s a lot of chat about the idea that cold water swimming cures depression. I do not believe that it does. But I do believe that it can be a great tool to have in your arsenal should you and your brain regularly get into clashes with one another. If you already like to swim, you might find that the buzz you get from temperatures that drop and rise with the changing seasons helps you feel alive, reminds you what it is to be a human, which can be a useful thing to experience when the demons in your brain are telling you that you don’t deserve to exist. But to say that cold water swimming cures depression is, to me, about as helpful as telling someone to stop doing chemotherapy and just introduce broccoli to their diet. It minimises an enormous problem. Broccoli might be a great addition to your diet if you’re going through cancer treatment, but it is just that – an addition. It should never be used as a replacement for conventional treatments. The same goes for cold water swimming. It’s a tool that might give you some relief. It might keep the beasts at bay or it might not. I can’t tell you what it will do for you, all I can tell you is what it has done for me, and it has become as crucial for my mental welfare as my antidepressants, my CBT techniques and it’s become a key part of my mindfulness practice.

I love swimming. I love cold water swimming. It has kept me going through some really weird times this winter. But let’s not get carried away and start presenting it as a miracle cure. Let’s enjoy it for what it is and reap the benefits it rewards without asking it to do more than bring a bit of joy to the life of those who love it. A lifeline. A love affair. But not a cure.

(IN) Equality

Every 8th of March the same question is asked

“When did we celebrate International Men’s Day last?”

“It’s the 19th November” voices reply

But the questioners don’t notice, don’t bat an eye.

“Well we don’t make a song and dance” they say

“We don’t kick up a fuss in quite the same way

Why are you using your voices to make such a row?

Haven’t you heard there’s equality now?”

“Equality?” I think as I start raising my voice

Not when there are people who can’t help but rejoice

At a deftly created rape joke delivered with a smile

Because it’s all just banter isn’t it? Not vitriolic bile.

But then there are women being killed by their ex

Beaten and belittled because of their sex

Only six of the FTSE 100 have female CEO’s

And women who are raped “deserved it, those hoes”

Because their “skirts were too short” or they “got too drunk”

It’s their fault, isn’t it, not down to that punk

who took advantage, didn’t get consent

Thought he could do what he wanted without her assent

Yes we can vote, and yes we can thrive

As long as it’s in a way which doesn’t seem too contrived

“The PM’s a woman” the meninists decree

“And the Queen is a woman, so just leave things be”

But we “feminazi’s” can’t let things go

While the media picks out something else to show

Us we’re not perfect, not doing as we should

How skinnier is better and pretty is good

When trans women are told they’re not real women at all

And board members “belong in the kitchen chained with a ball”

As women are ejaculated on on the tube

As we’re felt up and catcalled and harassed by some dude.

“Equality?” I think as I start raising my voice

We are feminists, we do not have a choice

But to stand up for our sisters and others as well

Every woman we know who has been going through hell

While being battered and damaged and kicked and destroyed

raped and murdered and belittled by boys

Underpaid, overworked, judged and harassed

Nothing more than a pair of boobs and piece of ass

So every 8th of March when the same question is asked

“When did we celebrate International Men’s Day last?”

I’ll stand with my sisters, intersectionality first

And say we know #NotAllMen are the worst

But tell them we have a long way to go

That the patriarchy is still very much in full flow

We’ll stand our ground and fight for the day

When women and men are treated exactly the same way.

No Cure for Heartbreak

I have been watching a lot of Grey’s Anatomy recently. I discovered it was on Amazon Prime and I started watching it from the beginning. Some people say it’s depressing but in those early days, the dialogue was quick witted, sharp, moving and funny, while the storylines pushed the boundaries of medicine and beyond. You’d think given the amount of time I’ve spent in a hospital over the last three years, and given the fact that my own hospital gives me palpitations every time I visit, that I’d want nothing to do with a medical drama. Sometimes I don’t. But as with most things I find comfort in the familiar and the old storylines and well-worn characters offer me some kind of safe space. A space in which I can exist without my mind for a while. It’s chewing gum for the brain with a heart.

Obviously watching Greys, you see a lot of surgical scenes. You see amputated limbs and gore and loss and the medical terminology washes over you like a second language you’re almost fluent in. You hear talk of scalpels and defibrillators and “apis” and sutures. Sutures. That’s the one I have become fixated on of late.

When I had the tiny cyst removed from my left breast when I was 19, I remember asking them how many stitches they had used. There were eight of them, I think. I’d never had so much as a cut really, before then. Nothing more than a papercut. So I was fascinated by the idea that these little stitches had been put in my body to tie up the loose ends of my skin and help them knit back together. Now, obviously, I have had my fair share of sutures. I have been cut open and sewn back up eight times in the last three years. I have had little stitches over little holes and lots of bigger stitches over bigger holes. I have had the soluble type and the ones my surgeon has had to pull out and discard. I no longer know how many stitches they have put into me. I stopped asking that question once cancer was part of the equation.

But these sutures have helped my scars heal cleanly and tidily. The scar across my breast is hair thin at points – an absolute credit to the man behind the cutting and the teams behind the stitching. My chest is a battleground and the sutures were key in helping to rebuild the damage that cancer had left behind.

But there are a lot of other places I could do with some sutures. Some little stitches to help do-up the other scars that cancer has left behind. And the wounds that I leave behind on myself as a result of harsh words or criticisms or unreasonable expectations that I apply to my life. The places where I feel I am ripped open again and again – where the fear slips in and the heartache begins or where the old wounds are failing to scab over, but continue to come unstuck. There are so many parts of life that can be fixed with carefully applied medicine – sutures, or chemotherapy or radiotherapy or a hysterectomy or an appendectomy or a dose of antibiotics – but there are so many parts of life where you can’t apply a sterile dressing and walk away. Where the sutures will not hold. Where a surgery cannot remove the thing that is trying to kill you.

So what can we turn to when medicine isn’t enough? Today, I baked bread. I left the house. I had a shower and tried to wash all the negativity and bad feeling and tears and emptiness away. I tried to find my own sutures for the cuts and scrapes that life throws at us. It’s funny because the emotional turmoil of cancer doesn’t go away, long after the tumour has gone. If you’re lucky enough for the tumour to go. The emotional turmoil of cancer lingers longer than most people realise. Than I realise myself a lot of days. Sometimes I feel like I am moving forwards, sometimes I feel like I am no further ahead than I was the day my treatment finished. I am still in need of sutures, because the emotional and mental wounds that cancer left behind keep on reopening. They reopen with every surgery, every hospital appointment, every lump or bump or cough or ache. Every dose of bad news. Every loss.

The wounds are healing but they never get the chance to recover completely. Because life and death and everything in between happens and we are expected to buck up and carry on and keep getting up and keep going and be the best that we can be in this world so that our lives are not wasted. So that this chance we are given, this one life we have, can be the absolute best we can possibly make it.

No amount of sutures can heal the cuts that run much deeper than the skin and the tissue and go beyond the body. But we do the best we can.

We will get up every day and keep doing the best we can and hope that it is enough.

We do the best we can and hope that it is enough, because as of yet, there is no cure for heartbreak.

Getting to Know You

I wondered how long it would take me to get a reference to a musical into my breast cancer blogs. Answer: not very long. Thanks King and I.

I’m about to be quite frank about my new boob and breasts in general. If this is the sort of thing that gives you the heebie jeebies, you might want to look away now. Click that little X in the corner and be gone. Consider this fair warning.  This post is where my boobsaurus is going to come into play though – so you might want to stick around for the lols. For those of you who may be facing a breast cancer diagnosis and are considering your options, I had a single, nipple sparing mastectomy with immediate implant reconstruction. I considered having a flap, but unfortunately, the size of my breasts and the ares of body fat I had on me didn’t match up – so I didn’t really have the choice.

I’ve always had an interesting relationship with my boobs. I was one of the first girls to develop at school, and as a perpetual tom boy, I was pretty cross about it. Not only that, but within what felt like seconds, I’d gone from being one of the only girls in school with boobs, to being one of the few who had developed rather large jumper stretchers. As I got older, they just grew and grew and grew. And while I can’t say they were enormous, they seemed unreasonably big to me.

All through my teenage years, I never appreciated my breasticles. I tried to hide them at all costs. For a while, naively, I thought wearing a polar neck would help cover them up. Alas, i soon learned that that’s like trying to hide Mount Everest under a napkin – almost entirely futile. Just makes ’em look more obvious and that is NOT what you want as a large chested teen. Even when I got older, I was never especially happy with my rack. It was there but it made running uncomfortable. And gave me back pain from time to time. They were largely a pain in my arse. And I never really appreciated them. I’d never really thought about the fact that these two lady lumps on my chest were a huge part of my femininity. I know how stupid that sounds. But it had just never crossed my mind. I never thought about that until I faced losing one (or both – still TBC) of them because my body had decided to betray me with a collection of poisonous little cells.

For me, having a mastectomy was never as big a decision as I expected it would be. When I got my diagnosis, I remember thinking to myself that if I had the choice, I’d just get them to take the whole thing away. Reduce the risk of it returning, get rid of the whole thing. It was a no brainer. Medicine is as such now, I knew I’d get a realistic reconstruction I’d be happy with and as the swelling has settled, that’s definitely what I’ve found myself with. Looking in the mirror the first few times was hard. I was still covered in marker pen and the scars looked angry. My nipple was bruised to shit and I generally looked like my knocker had had an unfortunate accident. I still had the drains in. And it looked so alien. If I’d written this post two or three weeks ago, I think I would have been bemoaning the surgery. But time is a healer.

And over time, this all settled down. The more I was able to wash myself, the blue marker pen, a stark reminder of the day I was in the surgery, started to fade. The swelling reduced. I got to know the scars and I began to see them as a part of my story. A victory. As the swelling subsided, the boob with the implant looked more normal, more like the one I’d grown up with. I was lucky because the positioning of my cancer and the skill of my surgeon meant that I was able to keep my nipple – which I think helped with the mental healing process quite significantly. Because I think having a mastectomy is as much about the mental healing process as the physical healing process.

I’m five and a bit weeks post mastectomy now. While I know that there’s still a journey in front of me as my boobs change over time and as I find out if I’m BRCA positive and need to have the other one removed too, at this stage I’m pretty pleased with the job my extraordinarily talented surgeon has done. I know my breasts are a huge part of my femininity but I’m OK with them as they are for now. I don’t feel hugely feminine at the best of times and I suppose that’s probably helped with getting used to the change. I know this probably won’t last forever and I know some days I’ll be heartbroken when I look in the mirror and see what I have lost, but for now, I am content.

I saw a tshirt the other day that said “Yes – these are fake. The real ones tried to kill me” and it made me think of the day I decided to have my mastectomy. I remember Chris said to me “I just don’t want you to look back in the future and regret making this decision. I don’t want you to look back  and wish you’d just had a lumpectomy”. I replied “When I look at myself in the mirror in the future, I don’t think I’ll look at myself and see a boob job that I regret. I’ll look in the mirror and say “that was what I had to do to beat cancer”.”

My Grandma

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I won’t claim to have known my Grandma for a long time. In a life that spanned a wealth of experience, I knew her for only a fraction.

Growing up, we visited regularly and I was, inevitably, always pleased to see her. She was kind and caring, as all grandparents are supposed to be, but I knew very little of her than what I saw before me.

But it was just a few years ago that I got to know her properly. After I passed my driving test, I began to visit her regularly – taking her out for tea, bringing her over to the home I was making with my boyfriend, spending time with her, just the two of us.

And it was only then I realised what a remarkable woman she was. She talked openly about her childhood as she never had before, she told me stories about raising my mum (who was by all accounts a total horror) and her two sisters, we talked about musicals and the opera. We hunted high and low for a copy of Alfie Boe’s Les Miserables recording in HMV in Middlesbrough, leaving in our wake a rather smitten – with her, not me – alternative chap significantly less than half her age. We ate good food and we enjoyed, relished each other’s company.

She had a wicked sense of humour, a sharp wit and a brilliant mind. She was hilarious without knowing it sometimes, and I think I’ll always remember that look of glee and mischief in her eyes when she shared with me something she thought she probably ought not to. I think that’s a look many will have seen before.

Her love of music was infectious. Her passion for reading knew no boundaries. And her love for her daughters, grandchildren, great grand children, son in laws and cat was unstoppable. All consuming.

The last few months haven’t been a testament to my grandmothers life, but echo the silent struggle she’s carried with her through the years. Though I think we would all have liked her to pass quietly and comfortably in her arm chair, the last three months of struggle presented yet another side of my grandma to us all.

Someone said to me that they hope they can be as brave as she was in the face of such illness – and that’s exactly what she was. Brave. She fought with every inch of her for the last couple of months. And she was so strong and so incredibly brave. I’m proud that I knew her, and proud to say she was my grandma.

She was my Grandma first. But then, I think she became my friend.

I cannot say and I will not say
That she is dead, she is just away.
With a cheery smile and a wave of hand
She has wandered into an unknown land;
And left us dreaming how very fair
Its needs must be, since she lingers there.

The Trussell Trust – Challenge 22

On Saturday 9th November, Chris and I went to Sainsbury’s to do a shop but for a change, the grocery shop wasn’t for us. Armed with a list from the Trussell Trust we did a basic shop for things to take to Battersea Food Bank after I discovered that 13 million people in the UK live below the poverty line.

I’d set myself a budget of £15 for this donation, and I didn’t really know how far that would stretch, but it certainly went an incredibly long way. I ended up donating a heap of coffee, sugar, tinned puddings (an infinite amount of rice pudding), tinned meat, soup and a whole host of other non-perishable items. I was amazed how much food we managed to get for such a small amount of money.

After we’d been shopping, we jumped on the bus and headed to Battersea, an area of London I’ve never really been to before, and found ourselves at the Food Bank really quickly. When we arrived, we were greeted so warmly by one of the volunteers who was incredibly grateful for us taking the time and the money to drop by with a donation. She said, that someone donates something every week.

I was amazed how little time and money donating to the Trussell Trust took. It was literally an hour of my time and less than £15 to help provide a minimum of three days food to a family in need in Battersea. In the run up to Christmas and over what looks set to be a particularly cold winter, I really think this is an incredibly beneficial cause, and certainly one that I’ll be donating to again.

If you’re interested in donating, check out The Trussell Trust to find your nearest food bank or donate at Tesco stores nationwide on 29th and 30th November and 1st December. I don’t want this post to sound preachy (sorry if it does!) but this is such a simple way to give back to your community and I really think it’s worthwhile.

I’ll be donating to Battersea Foodbank again every few months for the forseeable, so feel free to send anything you can spare my way and I’ll deliver it next time I go.

The Return

It has been a very, very long time since I last blogged on alicemaypurkiss.wordpress.com. This is bad. But there’s been a lot going on.

Since I last posted, I finished my internship at Index on Censorship and began working, mainly as a blogger (amongst other things) at VoucherCodes.co.uk, working on their lifestyle magazine Most Wanted. I’ve been there for over a year and it has been a whirlwind of excitement and fun allowing me to regularly write about fashion and beauty on a platform which is widely read and enjoyed. I am finally doing what I love on a daily basis, but that sometimes means that other things slip by the wayside. So that’s my excuse for not getting my finger out and hitting this blog more regularly. (If you’re keen, you can see my content for MW here).

In the last few weeks though, a couple of other interesting things have happened. I’ve started a creative writing class to develop my writing skills more, and I’ve become a regular contributor to the amazing (and award winning!) London Beauty Queen. The combination of all of these things have inspired to bring this blog back to life. Watch this space. I’ll be back properly soon!