For far too long, I have worn my refusal to accept that I may need sleep/greens/rest as a badge of honour.
I come from a long line of women who just keep going. An army of Donald Trumps could arrive at their door, wielding wire coat hangers and Kellyanne Conway, and they’d simply just ask them to move out the way. There’s no self-pity or internal agony. There’s no “me time”. There’s just time. And you’ve got to make the most of it, so on you go.
And it works. For a while.
In my twenties, when those Sainsbury’s hybrid meal/soup things counted as a nutritious meal compared with the standard dinner of wine and crisps, I was still bouncing off the walls with energy and health. I was running around Brighton/Amsterdam/London with all the excitement of a puppy chasing her own tail. Sleep, nights in and looking after myself were not just undesirable, they actively stood in the way of all the adventures that I knew were round the corner. All I needed was enough clean knickers to get through the week (not always achievable, occasionally still challenging), enough glitter and just enough money to pay the rent. And I was OK. And I was. I mean, there was the month where I had tonsillitis, flu and norovirus, but other than that small blip where I lost half my body weight and was so sick a virus started attacking the nerves in my eye, I was completely and totally fine.
There I was on Friday morning, persisting with the line that I was fine, trying to put tights on with a week-long hacking cough, no voice and unwashed hair, as my boyfriend looked at me with part concern and part irritation: 'You are so bad at looking after yourself'
And that’s the problem with people like me: we’re fine. Fine, fine, fine, fine, FINE. Until, suddenly, we can’t breathe or move or see. Because we’re always fine. Because it’s never OK not to be fine.
And, broadly speaking, by "me" I mean "women". The women in my family are experts in being fine. Like my grandmother Kitty, from Bolton, who took her desperately ill baby to hospital ON A BUS because she couldn't afford to do anything else, or my grandmother Margaret, whose closest friends didn’t know she was dying of cancer because she put on her "best" voice when she was on the phone to them and said she was fine. These stories of near-brutal persistence are far from uncommon. I recently learnt that Margaret Sanger, the founder of what is now known as Planned Parenthood, was one of 11 children and her mother also had seven miscarriages. Her mother's persistence in falling pregnant cost her her life, dying at just 50, and sparking Sanger's lifelong campaign to give women contraception. The persistence of continuing to perform a function that was essentially killing herself, be it out of obligation or pleasure or both, was matched in equal rigour with Sanger's own persistent belief that no other women should face the same fate. Today, "persist" has become a key word in the post-Trump voice of female resistance, thanks to Elizabeth Warren. And so, it seems, we persist – we are fine – on all occasions: when we want to, when we feel the urgency to and when we have no choice but to.
So, there I was, last Friday morning, persisting with the line that I was fine, trying to put tights on with a week-long hacking cough, no voice and unwashed hair, as my boyfriend looked at me with part concern and part irritation: “You are so bad at looking after yourself.”
And, if I am really honest, it was only the rational part of my brain that knew that this was a bad thing. The other completely skewed, emotional fuckwittery part thought: "Thank you! You’ve recognised that I’m not weak, that I don’t feel sorry for myself, that I have the will of a tiger crossed with an ox and Kris Jenner. You have acknowledged that I have been hardwired to think about everyone first and me last, and I do at any cost. You have recognised I am tough and brave and all the things society tells me that I’m not. And, yes, I might be contradicting myself by suggesting I am both defying and confirming society’s will, but you do, at least, recognise that it’s a bloody minefield being a woman sometimes."
And, of course, I know, now I'm in my thirties, I still need more rest, to eat more healthily, to put my own health before the commitments I’ve made to others, once in a while. I know that self-care is not just a cynical industry, but an activist’s first pledge. How can you help anyone else, if you can’t stand up from the pain pulsating through your eyeball? (You can’t – trust me.) I know, rationally, that I need to cancel my diary and go back to bed and maybe run a bath.
But what I also know is that rational thought can never, ever compete with a feeling that's in your bones, implanted by society, lived out by the women you like the most.
And so I put on my tights and coughed a bit more and found myself on the train, heading into work, feeling fine.