Dear 18 Year Old Self

Dear Laura,

You are eighteen and it should be the most exciting time of your life. Unfortunately, right now, you are finding life hard. You are in chronic pain and you don’t know why and you’re spending a lot of time in and out of hospital. But you’re going to get through it and it will make you even stronger (we love a cliche). You think that your A Levels are going to destroy you. Spoiler: they don’t. You won’t enjoy them, you might even cry during them but you’re going to get through them and you’re going to go to university and start the best three years of your life.

Don’t take life for granted and don’t waste time on the wrong people. You will meet the wrong people and part of life is learning lessons from the bad times. Don’t hold on to anger, resentment or jealousy because it will take over. Try not to put your self last, even though doing the opposite seems completely unnatural to you. The things that bother you now will not bother you in the future, trust me on that one!

Hold your good friends tight. The friends you value now won’t necessarily be in your life in the future, but know your self worth and know that it is okay to move on. Laugh and cry with your friends, stay up late and drink bottles of wine. Don’t pressure yourself into going clubbing because it really isn’t as great as people make out.

Believe in yourself! Know your own worth and what you can offer. Don’t be silenced by people who are louder and more confident than you. Try not to compared yourself to other people, everyone is walking their own path and there’s no point comparing your step one to their step five. You’ll get there, in your own way.

Learn how to be independent. Don’t rely on other people for your survival, be happy on your own and be happy with other people.

Dating the wrong people is not a mistake, but staying with them, because you feel that you have to, is. Be your own person and don’t change because a man wants you to. You will make mistakes, in relationships, in life, with decisions but you will learn from those mistakes. Mistakes are okay. Self talk, problem solve and don’t regret what went wrong. It went wrong for a reason.

Asking for help is okay. There will always be people there who are willing to help you. This is your time to learn, but that doesn’t have to be done alone. There isn’t an age limit on success, now is the time to explore, live your life, make decisions (good and bad) and don’t beat yourself up if it goes wrong.

Make memories. Take photos.

Stand up for yourself.

Risk it.

Find and enjoy whatever it is that makes you happy.

Respect yourself and respect others.

Save money and don’t spend all your student loan in one go when you get to university. You’ll be thankful for this when you’re not poor and hungry.

Your mum is [nearly always] right. She will tell you things that you don’t want to hear and she will nag you until the point that you want to explode but she does it because she loves you and cares for you. Never forget that and try and listen to what she says, she is the person that loves you the most and will not turn her back on you.

Also, always drink some water before bed after a night out. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.

You’ve got this,

Laura x

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Emily McDowell

 

 

Volunteers’ Week 2020

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The first week of June marks Volunteers’ Week across the UK, a week to say thank you to volunteers for giving up their time and celebrating work which is done by volunteers. I have been volunteering off and since since I was 15 and I personally think that it is one of the most rewarding things that you can do. You’re able to contribute time and skills to help people, often who are vulnerable, as well as gaining new experiences and opportunities, whilst making a huge difference. Not only that, but at some of the toughest times in my life, I have been able to hold on to the fact that I volunteer: it has given me a purpose and something to focus on when everything seemed impossible hard and has also forced me to think about something other than my wonky body or spiralling mental health. Put simply, I genuinely think that volunteering has saved my life.

As a teenager, I volunteered with Barnardo’s, a children’s charity, before being offered a paid position as a play and support worker. It gave me an escape from the reality of exams, applying to university and instead gave me confidence, new friendships and an escape. It was really tough at times, I was working with disabled children and young people, frequently people who were the same age as me and I was having to do intimate personal care, amongst other things. I very quickly learnt the importance of dignity and putting aside disability and treating service users like “normal” people. Most of my friends worked in retail, but I knew that retail wasn’t the job that I wanted to do. I would go to work and be having to restrain children for their own safety, if they became violent, I would have handfuls of my hair pulled out, I was urinated on and had sperm wiped in my hair (I wish I was joking) and I was dealing with medications and tube feeding and complex health conditions like it was nothing. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life, other than being really interested in working with people and this job was my first paddling into the world of supporting young people with additional needs and I loved it.

I stayed in this, now paid, role for six years, working around university and living 200 miles away and gave as many hours as was possible in holidays. It’s only now that I look back, ten years on, do I realise how vital this volunteering position was. When I started, I was deep in the grief process, after losing a friend to suicide. I was struggling with my own health and being bumped around different hospital departments to try and figure out what was happening and I was unhappy at school due to the pressure of exams. My confidence was low but I was welcomed with open arms by a fantastic team of people: little did I know that my initial enquiry about volunteering would see the dark clouds above me start to fade away and bring new light into my life. Not only had I made a difference to people’s lives, I had also made lots of new friends and built my own confidence as well.

Fast forward to September 2018 and I started volunteering with Girl Guiding. In January 2018 I had been offered my dream job, working in children’s social care, but my declining physical health meant that I had to turn it down and instead forge a life on universal credit because I was too ill to work. I sent an enquiry to Girl Guiding to see if there was any volunteering that I could do. Initially this was purely because I was thinking about my CV and was forward planning for when I would be returning to work. The atmosphere in Girl Guiding has made it one of the best places I’ve worked. Everyone is awesome, and I don’t say that lightly.  Everybody goes into Girl Guiding with their own story and reasons for volunteering but one thing is certain, you cannot beat the passion and positivity from everyone you meet. The two hours when I was helping to run a Rainbow group (five to seven year old girls) quickly became the highlight of my week. It gave me my smile back when I felt very lost and without a purpose.

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Girl Guiding Killamarsh

My health deteriorated further over 2019 and I had a few months away from volunteering when I was in hospital. I remember being so anxious about returning and potentially having to face difficult questions. But yet again, I was welcomed with open arms and unwavering support. I didn’t face any stigma or discrimination, maybe because the other leaders had their own stuff to contend with too, I don’t know. It makes such a difference working with people who have a shared understanding, there was a mutual respect that we all had stuff going on in our private lives and sometimes we talked about it whilst always focusing on making the sessions as fun as possible for the girls. The diversity of the role means that even if you’re having a bad week, there is still a role for you. You can be sat dealing with the admin side of running a group or be actively playing with the girls and having fun with them.

Without a doubt, choosing to start volunteering as a teenager was one of the best decisions that I could have made. Continuing to volunteer throughout my twenties proved to me such a strong protective factor in my life that I now can’t imagine my life without volunteering in some respect. So whilst volunteers’ week is about saying thank you to volunteers, it seems only right to say “thank you” to all the people who saw the potential in me and allowed me to volunteer in the first place. You’ve made my life better because of it.

This Is Not Consent

Unless you’ve been living under a rock over the past few weeks then you will have heard about how a girl’s underwear was used as evidence in court, during a rape case. In the trial, the defence lawyer told the jury “you have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”

The 27-year-old man was found not guilty of rape shortly afterwards.

This case then led to a series of protests about how wearing a certain type of underwear does not equal giving consent.

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As a teenager, I was sexually assaulted. If you want all the explicit details about what happened, then you’re in the wrong place, because this is not the place to share them. I find it hard to speak openly about what happened, I have spent years blaming myself and analysing events, trying to work out how it happened and what I could have done differently.

But here’s the thing: I did not consent and just to make it really clear, my underwear did not consent on my behalf. When I was at university, someone said to me that I needed to consider how my behaviour and actions and what I was wearing will have encouraged him. That broke me and it was confirmation of everything that I had tormented myself with. However, I’m now at a point whereby I can recognise that my clothing did not play a part in what happened, I was wearing jeans and a jumper and even if I had been wearing a short skirt or a top showing my cleavage, that would not have been consent either.

Likewise, I know that my behaviour did nothing to encourage him. But again, had I been performing a strip tease and then changed my mind and firmly said “no” my behaviour still wouldn’t be consent.

I was not drunk. I had not been taking drugs. I was stone cold sober, fully aware of my surroundings and I was not wearing a thong. Using the argument that someone is wearing a thong and is therefore consenting completely bypasses the fact that you can’t see a person’s underwear until their clothing has been removed.

Some people would like to think sexual assault is just a result of miscommunication, especially if the victim has some tie to the perpetrator and believe the perpetrator to be incapable of doing such a thing. Let’s put it very simply: unless a person clearly says “yes” to any form of sexual contact then you can’t assume and go ahead with sexual acts.

Likewise, asking a person if they were under the influence of alcohol doesn’t then mean that the assault was justified. By asking if someone was drunk, you’re asking if they were openly making themselves more vulnerable and therefore “asking for it.”

Anyone who has experienced a sexual assault knows how damaging victim blaming can be. Being asked what you were wearing or how you were behaving or even worse, why you didn’t fight back is so harmful. Only last month, women in London were being warned not to wear headphones or use mobile phones because of a number of sexual assaults. Yes, you need to be aware of your personal safety, regardless of gender and sexuality, but the only people who are responsible for sexual assaults are the perpetrators. Headphones don’t rape women, nor do their outfits or undwear or dark streets or clubs or alcohol and drugs or parties.

Don’t get me wrong, the people are carry out sexual assaults are in a minority and it is not a case of all men are bad. Women can also be perpetrators but we don’t see men being warned against wearing headphones. The reason that rape culture remains such as issues in the 21st century is because rape is still prevalent and sexual violence is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture: a women’s underwear being used as evidence in court is a perfect example of this. Women’s rights and safety are being disregarded by the very people who are meant to protect.

Women’s rights are human rights, and the blame has got to be shifted from women who suffer sexualised violence  or assaults to men who inflict it upon them. People are told that they wouldn’t have been attacked on the street if they weren’t walking alone, almost as if it was an inevitable event. That isn’t okay.

In the years since I was sexually assaulted, I have swung from blaming myself to being able to acknowledge that it was not my fault and then back again. Sometimes I feel utterly repulsed by myself, other times I feel repulsed by him. I’ve spent years in counselling and therapy, trying to come to terms with what happened. I can talk about the facts, but not the emotional side of events. But the thing is: I did not say yes and fundamentally, that was not respected.

The Problem With Love Island

I love Love Island. I love the drama, the stupid comments, the recouplings, the challenges full of innuendos. I love almost everything about it. But this has got me thinking. As someone who identifies as being a feminist, does watching Love Island make me any less of a feminist or a bad feminist?

As with all reality television programmes, there has been criticism and controversy over Love Island and we are only four weeks in. Perhaps the biggest or most talked about controversy this year has been the behaviour of Adam, which has sparked warnings from domestic abuse and women’s charities about abusive behaviour and the signs of emotional abuse. Women’s Aid wants viewers to recognise unhealthy behaviour in relationships and to “speak out” against “domestic abuse”.

For people who don’t follow Love Island as avidly as I do, I’ll briefly explain: Adam entered the villa after the main coupling up show at the beginning of the series. He was initially coupled up with Kendall, but dumped Kendall for Rosie, who he then dumped for Zara. Both Kendall and Rosie have now been dumped from the villa due to Adam ditching them at recoupling. Adam also had a brief dalliance with Megan. So, in the space of roughly two and a half weeks, Adam has made his way through four women. Rosie literally slayed Adam over his behaviour towards her, stating that he didn’t like being ignored or like how he was behaving towards her. Adam responded by telling Rosie that she was childish and that he didn’t need to reassure her. It’s hard to portray why his behaviour was wrong, in words, but he actively laughed in her face when she talked about her insecurities and has manipulated situations after betraying the trust of various women in the villa.

But is Adam’s behaviour really a sign of emotional abuse or is he just behaving like a lad? Some people have spoken out, saying exactly that: that he is a lad in a villa/reality show with loads of girls in bikinis and can do what he wants and who he wants. Other people have called Rosie out, saying that she is an embarrassment to women and needs to grow a backbone.

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The simple fact is though, that if you are in a relationship and your partner starts to question your memory of events, trivialising your thoughts or feelings, or turns things around to blame you, it can be part of pattern of gaslighting and emotional abuse.

The level of control that Adam has over women in the villa is concerning and if he was to behave this way outside of an artificially maintained environment, then my personal view is that he needs to take a look at himself and his attitude towards women. Whilst Love Island is, ultimately, a game show, messing with people’s feelings in such an extreme way is not okay and gives a worrying message to viewers. It isn’t okay to gaslight someone, it isn’t okay to manipulate someone’s thoughts or feelings and it isn’t okay to belittle someone’s thoughts of feelings.

But my criticism of Love Island doesn’t end at Adam’s behaviour towards women in the villa. Something that was apparent even before the series started, when the line up was released was the lack of body diversity amongst the contestants. The men are all ripped and full of muscular six packs, clearly having spent hours and hours down the gym. The exception to this has been Alex, who works as an A&E doctor, and therefore doesn’t have the time to spend hours in the gym every day. Don’t get me wrong, he is still muscular but not to the same extent as the other men in the villa and he didn’t enter already sporting a glowing tan. Maybe this is why his coupling up process has been slower compared to other men in the villa or maybe it’s because he can withstand a conversation about Brexit, without worrying that we will lose all the trees and he doesn’t need to ask what an ear lobe is.

The lack of body diversity is apparent in the women as well. They entered the villa bronzed and toned, with no love handles when wearing bikinis and no obvious body “flaws”. If we are going to talk about stereotypical perfection, those women come pretty close. As someone who has struggled with body dismophia for years and years, watching Love Island can make me feel pretty crap about myself. I’m not tall with long legs, I don’t feel comfortable strutting around in minimal clothing and my body has more scars and flaws than I really want to think about and acknowledge. The women are all so very slim and have very few curves between them. In fact, the words of quippy contestant Niall, the girls look “like Instagram”, with criticism lamenting the distinct lack of body fat between them.

It would have been an perfect moment to show that love isn’t just about looks and that being beautiful doesn’t mean a body packed with muscles, being toned and having no space. However, now on series three and the casting remains an encouragement of a one-dimensional view on beauty and body types. Some people are slim. Some people are tall. Some people who have naturally flawless skin, but that isn’t a accurate representation of society and is teaching a poor message to more easily influenced younger viewers, who are being taught that beauty means tall, slim, legs up to their ears and hair down to their waist.

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The average woman in the UK in 2017 was a size 16 with a 34 inch waist and 36DD breasts. Whist the girls in the Love Island villa might have the latter of magazine perfect breasts, why is there not more representation when it comes to the former? Why, when the average body size is a 16, are the five women picked to enter the villa at the start of the series, all four dress sizes smaller than this and not representative of the average woman in the UK?

Don’t get me wrong, the women in Love Island are beautiful, each in their own ways. That I don’t dispute, but so are the hundreds of thousands of other body types that aren’t being represented on the show.

 

 

If you want more information about the warning signs of emotional abuse, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline or Women’s Aid. Man Kind is a service for men, experiencing domestic abuse.

“I’m 24 and I’ve got everything to live for”

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So today I am 24 years old (or at least it’s today at the time of writing this). It’s been a tough couple of weeks and I’ve found the whole birthday thing hard to get my head around: I don’t feel like celebrating or worthy of attention/love/kindness however the rational part of me knows that I have some really really wonderful people in my life and it is okay that they care for me and want to acknowledge the day.

I think I’m probably at the age now where I need to accept that I am a proper adult. No more kidding about. I can’t go on nights out anymore and drink copious amounts, mixed with sourz shots and be okay the next day. I have rent and bills to pay. People keep asking me when I’m going the Settle Down and get married and provide my mother with grandchild. Children where I work with weren’t alive for the millennium and think that I’m old. One child went as far as asking me if freezers were around when I was a child.

But what is the reality?

I definitely don’t have my life sorted. Having children and getting married couldn’t be further from my mind. I want to pack a bag and go traveling, not be changing nappies. I have crap sleep anyway so I could do without adding a child to the mix. There’s so much pressure to confirm with society’s norms, sure I want to marry and have children but not yet. I need to sort my own shit out before I try and parent a child. And that isn’t selfish, it’s honesty.

I have no idea what I want to do with my life. At all. I had planned on returning to university and had a conditional place at the University of Oxford, to do a masters degree but for various reasons, this has fallen through. I’m annoyed but it isn’t the end of the world because I wasn’t 100% sure it was the right thing to do. I love my current job, but it isn’t a forever job. My mum likes to talk to me about life goals, I would rather talk about literally anything else.

What have I learnt in my 24 years of living?

It’s okay to not have everything sorted. I’m fine with saying that a lot of things in my life aren’t sorted, I don’t know when they will be sorted and I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. I’m a pro at bullshitting my way through situations.

Asking for help shows bravery, not weakness. No one can ever be expected to always do things alone. I can’t change a car tyre and probably never will be able to. Sometimes I’m not well enough to look after myself and whilst admitting that can be scary, it is the best thing to do. I can cope very well in the crisis when it involves other people but I am awful at dealing with my own because…well…I just don’t deal with them. On the same note, the NHS is fantastic.

I’m not always going to be right. But I do hate being wrong.

Sometimes, you just need to laugh at a situation.

Not everyone will have your best interests at heart. Some people are nasty and aren’t worth your time. That includes boys/men who use you for sex, girls who are two faced and bitchy and random people who pass judgement.

You will get your heartbroken but you will get through it.

Green eyeliner is not okay.

The internet is a blessing and a curse. I have met some of the most amazing people through the internet. I’ve also met some compete wankers.

You will learn a lot more from a book than you will from watching Eastenders/Hollyoaks/Coronation Street. Unless it’s written by Katie Price.

Death is inevitable and grieving is a slow and very personal process.

Listening to my body is not a bad thing. When it hurts I need to take note and stop pushing it to the extremes.

Exam results do not define you but your experiences in school are foundation blocks to your future.

You won’t find answers at the bottom of a wine bottle (or gin) and searching for answers there will probably end in tears and hanging your head over the toilet. But we’ve all been there.

You can’t choose family so be grateful for family members who aren’t morons.

Sometimes, the only thing to do is to chill the fuck out and remember that eventually, things will fall into place and it will be okay.

Think before you type

I’ve wanted to write a blog post on cyber-bullying for a while, but it’s something I am wary about posting about, partly because it is personal to me, but also because it’s a different topic to what I normally write about. Cyber-bullying is, however, becoming more and more common.

Cyber-bullying can refer to any method of bullying via social media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc) or by text message. It can cause lasting harm to victims and can be relentless. My experiences are by no means the most severe that people can experience; I received some nasty messages on Twitter and Facebook, but the result was deleting my Twitter account and locking down on the security on my Facebook account. The messages included threats, about beating me up as well as sharing personal information about me on an anonymous Tumblr account. The whole thing made me feel really unsafe. I was paranoid about them actually turning up at my house, to the point that I was jumping out of my skin at the passing shadows of cars or neighbours. My friends tried to reassure me but it had little impact. The fear went on for weeks and only diminished when I moved house (planned, not because of the bullying!).

I’m old enough to shrug off messages calling me a bitch or a slag, but I know that can be a lot harder for someone in their early teens. Ten years ago when I was in secondary school, cyber bullying did exist but not in the way it does now. Facebook was only just taking off, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat didn’t exist so the cyber power was minimal. Once you left school, in the majority of cases, the bullying stopped. Sure people still exchanged some bitchy text messages or emails, but there wasn’t the all angled attack which young people experience now.

In 2015, research by Teen Safe showed that approximately 87% of teenagers have witnessed cyber-bullying, with roughly a third saying that they have personal experience of cyber-bullying. There isn’t an escape and that can massively impact on the well-being of young people, to the point that they are being diagnosed with anxiety and depression. But they aren’t the only effects, young people have reported that cyber-bullying can negatively impact their social lives and self esteem. My role in work means that I often have to deal with cyber-bullying and the after-effects, including self harm and thoughts of suicide.

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The 24/7 nature of cyber-bullying means that information shared on social media can go viral very quickly and the ways in which it can be done vary and change, to include harassment, impersonation, cyber stalking,exclusion and denigration (where fake information about a personal is shared). Despite this, there isn’t a legal definition of cyber-bullying within UK law. That said, there are ways of seeking help and support within the UK justice system which can be applied to cases of cyberbullying and online harassment:

  • Protection from Harassment Act 1997
  • Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
  • Malicious Communications Act 1988
  • Communications Act 2003
  • Breach of the Peace (Scotland)
  • Defamation Act 2013

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It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t send inflammatory messages online or by text message and as an adult, it’s easy for me to use the old line of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything”, but I get that people feel more confident in saying something online instead of saying it directly to someone’s face. Being a keyboard warrior isn’t going to resolve problems, unfortunately it’s likely to escalate a problem; messages can be misunderstood and more people can get involved, without other people knowing.

You can respond to cyber-bullying by reporting messages to the internet service provider (ISP) if the bullying happened online. Tell someone you trust and report serious bullying, such as physical or sexual threats, to the police as soon as possible; having the messages to show the police is crucial so ensure that the messages aren’t deleted, but block the perpetrator. Avoid responding to the messages, as this can lead to you being in trouble as well.

With further education and information, I can only hope that cyber-bullying will become less prevalent for teenagers, because there are some really shocking statistics. Try to use the internet and mobile phones carefully and think before you type!