Helen Purves All you need to know about Helen Purves. And, indeed, much more.

19May/160

On miscarriage: A response from my husband

This is James's side of the story (here's his Twitter account - he's funny and weird and I love him). For context, see my last post

It's weird that I don't actually remember the details of that day as strongly as perhaps I should. I have a vivid memory of the day before, as I'd been to see banger racing with one of my best friends.

I think the reason I remember it so well is that on the way home I told my friend that Helen and I were expecting, and of course he was over the moon for us.

The next day, the very next day, we had bad news.

I don't remember much after getting the phone call and leaving work, I don't remember getting lost in the hospital (I will not deny that it happened, such is my lot in life that I frequently get lost in heavily sign-posted places), I don't remember what I said to Helen and I don't remember what the doctors said to me. All I can really remember is the simple denial that this couldn't be happening to Helen and I. I just refused to believe it.

There was no finger-pointing of blame. I seem to recall one medical professional, be it doctor or nurse, saying that these things do happen a lot more often than we'd have thought, and even a mild cold or infection could be enough to cause a miscarriage.

I still didn't really believe it. We spent a few days together. Helen was very weak with the emotional and physical damage that had been done, and again I can't remember lots about what happened or what we talked about or even what we did. I just know that seemingly days later I was back in work, still shell shocked and still very much in denial that something like this could happen to us.

It seems trite, but bad things happen to good people. I try to be a good person but I know in my heart of hearts I'm just an okay person, but bad things happen to okay people as well as good things. I'd only just gotten round to the idea of being a dad and at once it was ripped from me, my fiancée was in a terrible place emotionally and I had to keep normality because that is how I cope (or keep myself from coping - that is a whole other story) and so I threw myself back into my two hour commute to and from work, and tried to give Helen a sturdy emotional platform to balance herself from.

All seemed well...

For about 12 days.

Baby conversations come up at work when you reach that certain age, and one arrived fully-formed right in front of my face.

"What would you call your first baby?"

I didn't burst out in tears or fly off in a rage, that's very much not who I am in any shade of mood. I did have to leave immediately though, and I spent 20 minutes sat on a toilet lid wondering why I hadn't properly cried or exorcized my feelings. I still don't know, but when I got home I broke down a little. We'd lost our baby and I finally felt it.

One of the thoughts that went round my head is - how sad should I be?

Looking at the facts and stats, Baby G wasn't thinking or feeling yet, we'd not had chance to really get invested in the pregnancy but we were so excited about it. Time doesn't really count here. I'm not saying it's the same as going full term, but it was about the most devasting news I'd ever had.

I wasn't even the main victim!

Helen took the brunt of this, and I could only imagine the thoughts going round her head. What right did I have to mope and feel sorry for myself? How dare I? Helen was suffering here, she needed me to be there, and I had to help first and foremost.

This point has come up time and time again. It is horrible for the guy here, but I know it's worse for the mother. It doesn't diminish your suffering to know this though, and I found that this thought weighed very heavy on my shoulders for a long time and there are a lot of conflicting things I've been told about it (ranging from "MTFU" to the expectation I would sit there sobbing), but I just tried to take it all on the chin and carry on. It was hard.

Helen wrote in her post about how she's dealt with it moving forward, and I think she's actually had a much more mature response to it than I have.

For those who aren't aware, Helen has a form of epilepsy that is almost manageable with medication, but not quite 100%. It means I'm generally on the alert when we're not together, especially if she's overly tired, stressed, hungry or on any other medication. Once or twice I've even had to leave work to take her home.

The amount of times her epilepsy has been a BIG serious issue I can count on one hand, but it's always there at the back of my mind. Since we lost Baby G and gained a Nutlet, the fear... no, that doesn't cover it, the terror I had of that happening again prevented me from fully getting around to pregnancy straight away, and until about four months down the line I was very wary of something going wrong.

Helen as well felt the concern. If we thought the baby wasn't kicking enough we'd go to the walk in. I'm not joking when I say we did this at least eight times during the course of the pregnancy before we bought ourselves a hand held heart beat monitor we could use to listen to Nutlet's heartbeat. That was a huge help for me.

Even at the point of birth, I was terrified. What if something went wrong? Could I go through this again? I couldn't stand to lose my wife and my child. Why is the baby taking so long to come out? Why are they needing to use forceps? Why isn't she crying?!

When she finally came out and started wailing, I actually broke down and wept. The feeling of joy I had goes beyond anything I've ever experienced: it was pure ecstasy, a moment of true joy.

I won't go into details of the next few months, but I will colour in around the edges.

I used to get up at night to make sure Nutlet was still breathing.

I still wake in the night in a blind panic that something has happened to her, have to check a video monitor and heart beat scanner to make sure she's okay.

I miss her in the daytime.

I don't want other people to hold her in case they drop or hurt her.

In general, I guard her like a wary dog, and have been incredibly reluctant to let her go away from Helen and I. I know it's silly, but the bleakness and depression that hit me when we lost baby G is always in the corner of my mind.

I would do anything to not feel that again.

Nutlet is a bonny lass, and I can often be overheard saying she looks like a goblin (she doesn't), or she's a trouble maker (she's not) or she stinks (she often does stink), but this is a way I show my affection for a little girl who is basically my whole world now.

I want her to be able to kick ass and make people laugh, like Amy Schumer crossed with Ronda Rousey. I want her to be smart and in control of her sexuality, like Marie Curie crossed with Beyoncé. I want her to be political and engaging, but also whimsical and fun, like Emmeline Pankhurst crossed with one of those kids you see running around with a bubble wand at a festival.

I hope she can be all of these things. I will help her become everything she wants. I would have done this for Baby G, but now Baby G stays in my memory and by my side, along with everyone else I've lost. It's not a big group, I hope it doesn't get much bigger.

You never really get over these things - you just find a way of keeping yourself busy, and hope that someone points out your crazy behaviour to you.

10May/161

On miscarriage

So, I had my little Nutlet (see last post) and she's over a year old, and all is good in the world.  I will perhaps write about her later but she doesn't belong in this post.

Her age constitutes an arbitrary deadline for me.  Now she is one, it is time for me to write about my miscarriage.

That arbitrary deadline says a lot about how my miscarriage has changed my mindset.  Basically, I didn't want to have to publicly deal with two dead babies.  I felt that at a year old, my successful baby would be past the risk of cot death and other illnesses and so I'd be "safe".

The story in short: it was my first pregnancy, and I was super excited.  We found out at about six weeks, and immediately told our parents - my parents over Skype (my dad cried) and my husband's parents in person.  I mention this because to announce it to my in-laws, we bought a little bib with "I love my Gran" emblazoned on it.  No, we didn't film it for YouTube etc - but she's always wanted to be called "Gran" as opposed to Granny/Nana etc and in fact the bib took some finding.  It was beautiful.  We were all so happy.  We nicknamed our little foetus Baby G.

Over subsequent weeks we told a couple of people about Baby G.  I think my best friend, my brother, but not many.  I knew I shouldn't be telling people until I'd passed the 12 week mark - everyone tells you that - but I was so excited.  James was too.

So, one day at work, I was putting up a load of stuff on the wall with my boss and somehow pregnancy came up and I just couldn't contain myself - I told her.  Just as I was telling her, I felt the need to go to the loo and when I did, there was blood.  A fair amount of blood.  Not loads, just some.  It was Baby G.

I was a shaking wreck.  I didn't know what to do with myself.  I instinctively headed to the sick room to try and contain my feelings but it was occupied with people having a meeting, so I hung around the printers praying nobody would need to print anything - shaking with fear, on the verge of serious tears.

Luckily someone senior in the meeting had seen me, and ordered everyone out and me in.  She was on the small list of people I'd told and I think the state of me told her everything she needed to know.  "The baby," was all I could say.  "The baby."

I should mention here that I'm pro-choice.  I always have been and always will be.  This foetus was in its extreme early stages.  I kept thinking about that.  That if I hadn't wanted this baby, it would have been a wholly expendable foetus to me.  It kept going through my mind.  What made this particular foetus a baby to me?  This little thing, this pip of flesh - what made it special?

I kept thinking I was a fool to nickname the foetus, the baby, Baby G.  I was a fool to love something that wasn't yet human.

I rang my husband - who at that time was my fiance, and many miles away.  I can't remember what I told him but I know I tried not to let him know my heart was breaking.  It would be a long drive for him.  I didn't want him to die too, from some crash caused by worrying about me.  Death was currently contained to the area between my legs.  I didn't want the condition spreading.

The walk down through my building, across the piazza and into a taxi was one of the most difficult of my life.  It seemed like I met everyone I'd ever worked with on the way, and all I could do was quiver and shake and cry, while feeling the blood coming out of me, while feeling the beginning of cramps coming in.

At hospital I was ushered through to the ultrasound waiting room area.  I had been told because my pregnancy was in such an early condition I'd need an internal scan, which means they stick a wand up you.  I was terrified.  Weirdly, I was terrified about cleanliness.  I kept going to the loo, seeing my pregnancy terminating in front of me, and trying to clean myself.  There's such a taboo around periods/feminine hygiene and I had no idea whether the operator would be male or female and actually it didn't matter because I just couldn't be dirty, I had to be clean - but was a cleaning my baby out of me?  Was it Baby G in my knickers the first time, or was that him, or was that him?

Every visit to the loo, I hunted for Baby G.  I'm glad, now, that nobody had told me I should have hung on to everything that came out of me.  That would have been the only thing that could have made it worse: having to cling on to my dead dreams, smeared across sanitary products.

It was awful.  There were so many happy couples that day, waiting to see the same person as me, who'd be taking home little black and white photos instead of stained knickers and heartbreak. I looked at them and tried not to let them see my pain.  I wanted them to feel the hope and happiness I'd felt - an hour ago.

Only the blandness and relative familiarity of the hospital kept me sane.  There's nothing like an NHS hospital to instill a stiff upper lip.  It worked.

It worked too much.  The lady who scanned me could tell I was going through a very private hell and she stayed calm and reserved.  It was too much for me.  Collapsing into a heap wasn't an option, somehow, so as she stuck the wand up inside me and told me there was no heartbeat, no foetus, no baby, just a "sack", all I had was sick humour.  "Oh well, just a foetus right, haha."  But no.  Not a foetus.  My baby.  Baby G.  Gone.

I was sent across the hospital to - and this still makes me cry, even now - the edge of a maternity ward.  Apparently this is extremely common.  At the time it made me want to die.  I felt like I was dying, in fact.  The cramps had set in.  I waited nearly three quarters of an hour to be seen, which is a long time when you're sitting alone in a waiting room hearing babies crying down the hallway and wondering if you'll ever have one, if you'll ever want to risk throwing your heart in the ring again.

Ringing James didn't help.  He was nearly there but he wasn't there and as I told him what had happened, as he navigated round the car park and got understandably lost down the endless, winding corridors of the hospital, it became real.  Every experience I repeated made it truer, as though I hadn't actually gone through any of it until I told him I did.

Of course, I knew what the nurse would tell me.  I knew by then.  James arrived and she had to tell the story again.

Then, of course, everyone who'd been told had to be un-told.  And I became so relieved there was hardly anyone to tell.  All the while, I hunted through the web trying to find similar experiences, anything - anything to validate my experience, anything even slightly similar.  Any account that matched mine.  There were none.  All there was, was stigma - or empty messages decrying stigma but with no content, no reasons, no story.

I became so happy that I hadn't released the news on Facebook that I began worrying on behalf of newly-pregnant friends.  "Are you sure you should be telling us all so early?" I said to one friend, who told us all at four weeks and one day.  She started a baby blog right away.  Six weeks later, she miscarried too.  I felt her pain so acutely, as she fell off the internet.

And that was when I realised that at some point, when I was ready, I should tell my story.  So here we are.

If you have just miscarried and find yourself here, know that you will not forget your baby.  They did not exist for nothing.  I'm not saying it will haunt you, exactly - I'm not saying it won't, though.  It is devastating.

At New Year's Eve, Baby G's due date, I thought of him and cried even as I held my eight month old baby in my arms.  Occasionally, the "I love my Gran" bib appeared, on Nutlet, and I secretly rage and silently cry for Baby G.  And if someone sees me, I look irrational, because perhaps they've never flushed their baby down their office toilet while someone does their makeup and chats to a friend in the mirror right outside your cubicle.

That bib has gone now, I think - if I could, I would have buried it to remember him by - the only possession he ever had.  Because you can't bury something that went round the U-bend over a year ago.  For me, it became a ridiculously powerful symbol of well-meaning insensitivity, of lack of understanding of my grief.  It became a bigger deal than it should have been.  I'm glad it's gone.

I suppose all I'm saying is, although you might feel alone, you're not.  Because although you might not find many accounts of miscarriage, or much support from friends or family (nobody I know, barring my long-deceased grandmother, had ever knowingly miscarried a baby), one in six known pregnancies end in miscarriage (NHS).  The vast majority of women conceive again.

James has pointed out there's no happy ending to this blog post - no "turnaround moment".  Well, there isn't.  The pain will soften over time, as with all bereavement.  This still affects me.  I still cry, occasionally.  For myself, and then for women who carry their baby much further along.  I had a relatively easy ride, physically and emotionally.  And now I have a baby.  I don't think about Baby G much any more.  Maybe one day I won't think of him at all.

Oh, and don't forget your partner by the way.  Nobody thinks about them.  I was the only person who asked how my husband was, who thought of the pain he must be feeling.  Poor James didn't have the rock solid confirmation of bloodied underwear.

It took him two weeks to begin to grieve, by which point everyone had stopped thinking of him and by which point he'd helped me through the worst of my pain.  Nobody talks about how hard that is.  He had nobody there for him at work when office chatter turned to babies.  Nobody.  Yet his loss was just as large as mine.  I grieved, then he grieved, and we've grieved together.

And now we tickle our baby and read her stories, because life must go on - it does go on.

10Nov/140

First comes love, then comes marriage…

Well, this will shock all of literally nobody but guess what?  I'm PREGNANT.  With child.  Knocked up.  Up the duff.  Here's Nutlet Gaskell (name is a work in progress) three weeks ago, when s/he was 11 weeks old.

Baby Nutlet - 11 week scan

Unfortunately this is only a photo of the scan print out, as they use a weird plasticky substance which apparently melts under heat and light (clearly they too saw my pale demeanor and thought, like many before them, "vampire").  Since baby scans make literally no sense to anyone except the prospective parents I will, for those still bothered enough to read, offer a brief description. Nutlet's head is the blob on the left; her (let's go with her, for why must foetuses always be male) body is the blob in the middle and the surrounding smaller blobs are arms and legs.

Now, I've thought long and hard about using my blog for this.  For a start, should I be posting on helenpurves.com when I'm now Mrs Helen Gaskell in my personal life (handy work-life balance, and children no longer laugh at my name)?  Won't my usual fairly cynical audience get really annoyed with vacuous baby news?  Worst of all, shouldn't blogs mentioning babies be designed in pastel colours, with cutesy stalk designs and bows and loads of Comic Sans-esque fonts?  Don't I need a lobotomy for this?

However, it does occur to me that there are several things going for re-invigorating this blog (NOT in pastels) and posting baby stuff on it. Three things, at least, and probably more.

Firstly, when I posted about my epilepsy people seemed to find it quite interesting, and not necessarily in a freak show sort of way.  Ditto with weight loss.  Hopefully readers of this blog will find they don't necessarily have had to also have experienced what I'm going through in order to be bothered reading it.  Hopefully I can avoid tackling the kind of minutiae that I loathe when I read (or mostly, don't read) proper baby blogs.

Secondly, I can't find a blog about what it's like to be fat and pregnant, or epileptic and pregnant, ANYWHERE.  I really have been looking but no, nothing - and I *know* there's more of us out there.

Thirdly and, I think, most importantly - my brain hasn't turned into the disgusting sloppy mush I expected it would.  I really thought that was a large risk, and I'll detail why in my next post - but in short, I had reasons to believe that on the moment of conception I would turn into some kind of moronic, brain dead Jeremy Kyle-watching waste of humanity who cared only for what is frankly a parasite feeding from my blood and bones and for nothing - NOTHING - else.

Anyway, ta da:  I'm pregnant.  Of course most of my readership already knows this, as prolific as I am on Twitter and Facebook - but now anyone who cares to know, knows.  Before I sign off, let me leave you with the same kind of thoughts I have plaguing my mind, and which perhaps I might tackle in more detail down the line...

  1. Is my career dead now?
  2. No really, is it dead?
  3. I mean seriously that's probably it, right?
  4. Am I going to be as crazy as my own mother will be?
  5. What if my baby has tentacles?
  6. What if she ends up being... ::shudder:: sporty?
  7. Will I have an epileptic seizure while I'm popping it out?
  8. On that note, how many more damn times is a neurologist going to remark upon how "amazing" my "incredible story" is?
  9. Will any of the many medical studies I'm now in pay out actual cash?
  10. Why don't people like me describing myself as knocked up?
  11. Seriously though, my career... over?

 

12Jun/145

A very modern love story

I've been thinking a lot lately about family mottoes. Not the heraldic type (mine is Clarior E Tenebris, "The brighter from previous obscurity", which I have handily tattooed onto my arm lest I ever forget it) but the type taught over and over again throughout childhood and passed down through generations without any thought.

Some (most?) parents teach their children not to speak to strangers; many an inquisitive child has learned that ignorance is bliss with the quick words "Because that's just the way it is".  My parents never taught me those things.  Instead, our everyday family mottoes were things like "You were born with common sense: use it" and "If you don't know, ask" (actually embroidered into a chair my mother upholstered for me).

AOL CD-ROM

Remember these? We had so many we used them as coasters

I think it was in part due to the fact my parents held close mottoes like these that, when the internet came to our house in 1996, instead of limiting my access my father quickly got a nearly unheard-of second phone line.  When I made a website to showcase my terrible teenaged poetry to strangers my father was proud of my technological prowess; when I made friends online who taught me to improve it my mother was impressed with my newfound communication skills (how times have changed!).

Never did they monitor me, or worry about my internet use: they trusted me to use my common sense, and my inquisitive mind.  Children today often have their access to the internet severely limited by tools like NetNanny.  I have heard of preteens having consoles, laptops and tablets temporarily and even permanently removed from them for speaking to strangers on the internet. This did not happen to me, even once.  I downloaded music and browsed forums and read and wrote blogs as much as I wanted, for as long as I wanted.

My mother and father never gave me internet-specific advice.  It never occurred to them, I think.  Why would I email naked pictures of myself to someone when I wouldn't think to give them to anyone offline?  Why would I say something hurtful online if I wouldn't say it at a party?  I was taught to use my common sense, and when I occasionally forgot to use it, I was burned by the consequences - as also happened more frequently offline.

Without judging the fear of modern parents - the internet was a different place when I found it - if my parents had not taken the tack they did I would not have my current job in technology and I would certainly not be getting married next month.

Oh yes - if you're wondering why I've neglected this blog, it's because I met a man.  Not just any man, either. The man.

Helen and James

Photo by Spike of Vapour Trail Photography (link in image)

When I heard my job was being relocated to Manchester - ooh, perhaps four years ago - I knew nothing about the place.  I did know, however, that I wanted to escape London - the smog and the smug.  So, channeling my mother's chair, I asked: I took to Twitter and found people.  My friend and colleague Matt had already relocated, and after meeting his internet-acquaintance John from Scotland for lunch a few times I was put in touch with Dan in Manchester and his wonderful wife.  I went to see Dan's band and met, amongst others, his bandmate Alex.  Through Alex I was introduced to James, known only to me as his username @big_poppa_g.

After just over a week and thousands - really, thousands - of text messages we finally met for drinks. Incidentally, we met in a public place and the whole of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Foursquare, including my closest friends, knew where we were as we tagged our way down Oxford Road's various bars and pubs.  When I saw his face as he slid into Cafe Nero like Tom Cruise from Risky Business I described it to Twitter while I went to the loo: over toilet breaks and trips to the bar I catalogued his blue eyes, his blonde hair and his taste in cocktails.  When I missed the last bus home ten hours later, the world knew it was because I had drunkenly kissed him in the middle of Piccadilly Gardens.

Six months later, after I went to America for a week, we knew we couldn't live apart.  Precisely a year after we listed our relationship on Facebook (the sign of a modern relationship I suppose) I impulsively asked him to marry me.  I was halfway through a disgraceful meal of sausages, chips and beans and he was doing the washing up.  It had been playing on my mind: I'm not religious but my father is a solicitor and taught me there are no such things as Common Law Marriage and that children of an unmarried couple might as well, legally, be fatherless.  Besides, I had loved the man since not long after I had met and loved his family and he had met and loved mine.

It came to me in a flash: why must I wait for James to gain the courage to ask, when we both know we want to get married?  Why must I wait for a "perfect moment"?  Why must I expect James to buy a ring, when generations of family rings were sitting in a dusty jewellery box somewhere?  I was born with common sense, and I used it.

In just two days we will be married.  My mother, who embroidered that chair for me, is now making my dress.  She's probably embroidering penises on it, because that's the kind of thing she does.  Many, many people I met online and now know as good friends in "real life" will come and eat and drink and dance with us and look at my dress penises.  Although for me, of course, the internet is my real life: life, but catalogued and documented.  Expect photos.

So, fine, teach children not to trust strangers they meet on the internet.  Teach them to be scared of sharing personal information and of giving their phone numbers to people they don't know.  Teach them to differentiate internet life and real life.  The thing is, you and they might never know what they would have gained had you taught them common sense, instead: had you taught them to ask, and to think.

21Jun/134

My latest hilarious/traumatic epileptic seizure

This blog post is going to be quite a downer.  Instead of waiting until my latest seizure becomes another funny story (like those captured in this article I wrote for BBC Ouch recently) I'd like to take a moment to capture the true horror of a complex partial epileptic seizure - for me and for those around me. I've thought about this and about the process through which I rationalise and try to cope with what happens to me long and hard, and I find it pretty interesting how my coping mechanisms put a spin on my experiences.

So, let's compare and contrast these two stories.

Story one: DRUGS!
So I had a complex partial while waiting at my bus stop on the way home, and must have decided in the midst of it all to walk home because I came to walking along a road close to my house.  I can't remember much but I sent a load of texts to my boyfriend and even spoke to him on the phone - when he asked where I was all I could say was "pavement".

It was one of my most classic seizures: a real blinder.  During my ramble home at least two funny things happened.  First I walked up to a drug dealer, gave him a flower and screamed "DRUGS!" in his face before calmly walking away.  Then a guy tried to mug me (never a good idea, since the time I lamped a mugger with my bicycle D-lock and drew blood) so I kicked his bike over and apparently screamed "DRUGS!" again.  Hey, it was dodgy, but I'm totally fine so it's going in the archive right next to the time I bought 34 pints of milk.

Story two: Confusion and exhaustion
My bus was half an hour late and I was tired, hungry and absolutely knackered - which triggered a complex partial seizure.  I'd tried ordering a taxi but there was a waiting time of over an hour: on reflection I should have waited.  Instead I came to an hour later, a short walk away from my house (having walked over three miles) with a painful arm and an incredibly grim post-ictal epilepsy hangover.  The first thing I got was a call from my boyfriend on my dying phone - I'd been texting him gibberish and was unable to describe my location coherently by phone so he was freaking out.

He was on his way up from his parents' house in Crewe, still in his pyjamas - he was so worried about me that he wasn't able to drive, so his dad drove him for the hour-long journey while he kept up contact with me on my mobile.  He made me take my medication, put me to bed and then had to leave.  Both of us cried (obviously he did so in an incredibly manly way).  I slept for sixteen hours, and was so exhausted that I had to take the next day off work - I could barely string a sentence together.  It took me two days to get back to my normal state of mind.

I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I walked on my own through an incredibly rough area of Manchester and that someone even attempted to mug me when I was, essentially completely vulnerable.  Anything could have happened to me.

Both of these stories are equally true.  I know which one I prefer, but on reflection it's important to remember the other one too.  There's nothing I can do about it, except try and get a taxi when I'm feeling ill, eat regularly and to try and make sure I always take my medication.

Epilepsy is very hard.  I find it worse to deal with than the depression I've had to deal with previously, because I can see that coming and at least retain my consciousness while I ride it out.  Also, people understand depression - even, to an extent, people who haven't experienced it.  During a complex partial seizure I completely lose control: I could be hit by a car, mugged, or much worse.  Even simple partials are terrifying: I see shapes, and experience emotions other people can only feel during the worst kind of LSD trips.

And when I tell people I have epilepsy, I don't see the instant comprehension in people's eyes that's there when describing depression: only fear and confusion.  There's so little understanding of what epilepsy really means.  Am I going to drop to the floor and start foaming at the mouth, or do I just doze off for a few brief seconds like small children with "petit mals" do before they grow out of it during puberty?  Neither.  The truth is - well, either more hilarious, or more traumatic than that.

10Jun/134

An open letter to Facebook regarding diversity

It's pretty hard (maybe impossible: I couldn't be bothered looking all that much) to find an email address for Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook.  Plus I have stuff and things to do.  Therefore, this is an open letter.  I imagine Mark is one of the half dozen or so readers I have on here (if you include the US government, which I do), so I have no doubt he'll read it.

Dear Mark Zuckerberg,

First of all, thanks for Facebook.  It may be a superb platform for advertisers to attempt to sell me wedding rings and baby clothes (much to the dismay of my boyfriend) but it's also a superb platform for me to create fatuous events, judge ex-school friends and mouth off about how much I hate Mondays/enjoy pastrami sandwiches/am addicted to Kellogg's cereal.Facebook adverts

However, as a disabled person, I have a major problem with your service.  I have been studying my friends list and am appalled to see that Facebook has major diversity issues.  Out of 291 friends, I found that:

- Only 18 are black, asian or of mixed race
- A mere 11 are disabled
- Only four are ginger
- The vast majority are middle class atheists
- Over half work in the web/broadcast industry, like me
- One friend is in actual fact a 2 year old dachshund
- According to their avatars, several have regressed back to infancy
- Many people are not friends but are in fact family

I find it reprehensible that so many of my Facebook friends are boring, white and comfortably-off - exactly like myself, in fact.  It is almost as though the list of people shown as "Friends" reflects my relatively sheltered upbringing in rural Lincolnshire and subsequent career in the media.  I look forward to the swift resolution of this issue.

Yours,

Helen Purves

4Jun/132

Dear Kellogg’s: I am running out of Krave

Recently I wrote a letter to Kellogg's about their tasty cereal Krave, expressing my concern about the deliciousness of their cereal and the negative effect it is/was having on my boyfriend.  Since my friends and family enjoyed my letter, I have decided to reproduce it here on my blog - and to share the response from Kellogg's.

Dear Kellogg’s,

I write in regard to your premium breakfast cereal, “Krave”. As you are no doubt already aware, this is currently the best premium breakfast cereal on the market. Because of this widely acknowledged truth, I recently purchased a box as a treat for my gentleman friend Mr. James Gaskell esq.

One would assume that this would be an uninteresting fact which is completely unworthy of a hand-written letter to yourselves, Kellogg’s (creator of Krave). However, it did not stop there. My boyfriend and I were so taken by the aptly-named breakfast cereal that we immediately ate the entire packet, and now crave the Krave to such an extent that between us we now eat several boxes a week. It is essentially akin to an addiction, but without the support network one could expect as an alcohol or drug addict.

Again, hardly worth of the effort and expense of writing to your company (although I do wish to express to you my pleasure at the deliciousness of your creation). After all, stamps are pretty expensive nowadays and I don’t even live near a post box. The thing is, a grave and severe problem has arisen as a direct result of the tastiness of your cereal.

As you are no doubt aware, our country (the UK, in case this is unclear) has recently been suffering from a most severe recession. Sadly, this has meant that I have not been able to stock up my dedicated Krave cupboard with as many boxes of your most delectable cereal as usual – in fact, my shelves are nearly completely bare.

It is even worse than it at first appears. As well as failing to provide adequate protection in the event of a zombie apocalypse (for I would wish to die with the taste of Krave upon my lips) I now also face the risk of the permanent departure of my boyfriend. He has been concerned about the low level of Krave in my house for some weeks now, and has mentioned that one of our mutual friends (let us call her Linda, for that is her name) is not only able to provide a constant flow of your beautiful cereal but has also got more junk in her trunk as a result. You can probably understand my distress at this news.

What makes this all the more tragic is that, living in Trafford as I do, I cycle to work past your factory twice a day. Every time I smell the wafting malty tones of your most delightful treats and come upon your swirly, dreamy, aspirational red logo I am reminded of my failure to earn enough money to adequately feed myself and my boyfriend.

So I write to you, dear Kellogg’s, in the desperate hope that you might find yourselves able to lower the RRP (Recommended Retail Price, I believe) of Krave. I know it is a lot to ask, but please, I beg of you: do not make me sink to purchasing the relatively vomit-inducing replicas created by your competitors. Not only would they stick in my throat, but they would be wet with my tears as a consequence of my boyfriend’s departure to that bitch Linda.

Yours in expectation,

Helen Purves

I got a response from Kellogg's, which I can't be bothered to write a transcript for [EDIT: Transcript below].  But in short, they openly admitted their perverse delight at my situation.  On the plus side, they did stump up £5 of vouchers for Krave which was pretty decent of them.

Transcript kindly provided by a friend:

Dear Miss Purves

Thank you for your hilarious letter about our delectable Kellogg's Krave.  It has been all round our team and given us all some laughs.  I'm absolutely delighted that you and your boyfriend enjoy them so much -- that's what we like to hear!

We're always pleased to get such positive feedback from our customers.  We find it very rewarding.  However, upon reading your letter we are most concerned to learn that the lack of Krave in your dedicated Krave cupboard is threatening to jeopardise your relationship.  This simply will not do!

I'd like to say thank you by sending you a £5.00 voucher so that you can enjoy some more Krave on us.  Should there be an imminent zombie apocalypse, we do hope that a stock of Kellogg's Krave will provide sufficient protection against the zombie invasion, not to mention save your relationship.

Unfortunately, now to return to a serious note, we are not in a position to reduce the recommended retail price and store managers have the right to exercise their own pricing policy.  we do hope you understand the lack of control we have over pricing of our products.

Thanks again for taking the time to write to us -- your letter really made us smile and made our day!  We hope you will enjoy our products for many years to come.

Your sincerely

[redacted]

Customer Services Representative

23May/131

The 4th Floor Pet Hamster Lobby

At work, we don't have any pets. We're not all trendy, and we're not based in Shoreditch, so no pets. However, my team doesn't just mindlessly run with the herd: we like to strive, almost constantly, for something better. Luckily, there are comments boxes in stationery hubs - as a result of much pressure from certain dedicated, forward-thinking and rather good looking elements within our department. So we set to work...
Please can we have a departmental pet? Preferably a hamster, although our second choice is a fish. It would be super-cute, and also the constant squeaking as it mindlessly trudges on its wheel all day would be a fitting metaphor for how we feel about our daily work. Thanks, The 4th Floor Pet Hamster Lobby.  P.S. Can we call it Mr Squeaky, please.

However, I'm afraid to say my department contains some extremely dastardly individuals...

Down with hamsters! We politely request a departmental pet, but hamsters are not acceptable. They bite, sulk and spontaneously die and this reflects poorly on the department as a whole. We request a house-rabbit, or a small dog named Winona. These will be trustworthy to roam around the floor, because they will be too short to reach the lift buttons. Thanks, The Pet Lobby of the 4th Floor

Don't worry though, we managed to get the last word.

We have got wind of a message to you from an organisation calling themselves "The Pet Lobby of the 4th Floor." Please disregard this. Hamsters are clearly a better option than rabbits or dogs as they are self-contained, quiet and require less attention from a vetinary practitioner. Furthermore, if our hamster Mr Squeaky "spontaneously" dies we shall know who to point the finger at. Yours, The 4th Floor Pet Hamster Lobby

It didn't end all that well though, despite everything.  Today we got an all-department email: no pet hamsters.  Oh well.  I have two cats at home anyway.

16Aug/123

Modern feminism, or: Up your froo-froo, Femfresh (no thanks to the ASA)

Femfresh poster: Woo Hoo for my Froo FrooI've never had much to do with hardcore feminism. Frankly, I've no need to. I'm paid as much as my male equivalents; I quite happily work in the tech industry attending events alongside groups of many men without fear of intimidation and have never felt that my gender has adversely affected my life at all.

Sure, men have tried to belittle me. But I have an automatic look that gets released on any idiot trying to pull the "look at the silly little woman who has no brain" gig. I I've to call it the Whatever Assumption You're Currently Making, Stop Making It Unless You Have No Fear For Your Personal Welfare look (it's close to my You Obviously Have No Particular Emotional Attachment Towards Your Genitalia look).

Despite spending a great deal of time with Misogynist Grampa, I was primarily brought up by my grandmother and mother - for Pratchett fans, my father fondly and accurately describes the latter as a cross between Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax. You don't mess with women in my family. We won't scream at you, or get violent (unless you're physically attacking us - in which case, watch yourself); you will be subjected to either sub-zero frostiness, wry and cutting wit, or overbearing politeness which suddenly makes you feel like a complete bastard. That's the aim, anyway.

As a result of my tendency to disperse uppity males much like Fairy Liquid dissolves bacon fat, I've not noticed enough inequality in my daily life to remember any of it. Most of the tropes I've encountered about women should act/look etc have come from other women. Therefore most of the "feminism" I comes across severely annoys me due to its illogical nature.

Women's magazines? They're commercial entities; if stupid idiots didn't buy them, they wouldn't exist. Girl Geeks? If you stopped infantilising yourselves and defining yourselves by your gender ("Boy Geeks", anyone?) by using pre-existing gender stereotypes in your marketing, like cupcakes, knitting and liberal sprayings of the colour pink, perhaps your male colleagues might take you more seriously. Crèches at conferences? Jesus Christ, get your bloody partner to hang on to the baby for a bit - if you decide to have children, then you (both of you) also automatically make the decision to make sacrifices for those children, whether you want to or not. And I'll believe your annoying spiel about your kid becoming an astronaut when I see it, as your child is statistically far more likely to become a smug, self-entitled douchebag like yourself.*

However, I draw the line at pure misinformation. That's why I loathe and despise Femfresh. Their range of "feminine hygiene" products are not only loathsomely packaged, but they're also 100% unnecessary and, according to your local GP, potentially harmful. Vaginas are self-cleaning. They only require regular washing with water. Introduction of foreign substances can cause horrible things: yeast infections like Thrush if you're lucky, and worse if you're not.

The whole thing - the fact they even exist - gets on my tits. With things like makeup and women's magazines, well, that's choice. But Femfresh going around miseducating women about an area everyone, male or female, tends to feel more insecure about than almost anything else is absolutely abhorrent. There is no need for these products. They are pointless. This is the kind of crap they dole out to women in America, with their constant gynaecology appointments and disposable douche bags (actual bags for actual douching of the inside of your body, as though something evil is living inside of you that must be expelled). This is Britain: we have the NHS here. We officially medically acknowledge the self-cleaning properties of elements of our bodies. This must not change.

And that's without even taking into consideration their obnoxious marketing. As a writer - and an adult - I take as much exception to being told my vagina is a "froo-froo" by an international cosmetics company as I do to the tech industry labelling me as a "girl".

I am a woman, and as such I have a vagina. If I choose to call myself otherwise then that's up to me: but don't attempt to prey on my physical and psychological vulnerabilities (or the vulnerabilities of others) in order to infantilise me purely on the basis of what genitals I got landed with in the childbirth lottery.

So, after seeing their horrendous adverts splashed on billboards and then checking out their even more obnoxious Facebook campaign, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. There were a very great many entertaining articles about the uproar at the time (see here, here, here and here for my favourites), but for once I wanted to go all the way: like others who complained, I needed to feel that something might actually come of all this outrage. Femfresh had gone too far.

I wrote a lengthy and extremely detailed account of every aspect of my issue with the advertising campaign, which unfortunately I didn't keep. Today, I received the following response which I will repeat in full (although the name and contact details at the end have been redacted).

Dear Ms Purves,

Thank you for contacting the ASA. I’m sorry to learn that this ad has caused you concern.

We assess the content of ads against our Code. Amongst other things, we take action if we feel that an ad is likely to provoke serious or widespread offence, to mislead or to cause significant harm. We have reviewed this ad in light of your complaint but I’m afraid that we do not have grounds for further action under our Code.

I should start by explaining that the ASA has no influence over the creative decisions taken by advertisers (or the agencies that work on their behalf) to use a particular character, situation or theme in their ad campaigns. We can only consider intervention when there is convincing evidence to suggest that our Codes are likely to have been breached; for example, when the content of an ad is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, poses a significant risk of causing harm, or is likely to materially mislead consumers about the product or service that is being advertised.

We contacted the advertiser in this instance (without revealing your identity) with a view to gaining a better understanding of the ad. They explained that the decision to use words such as “froo-froo” in this recent ad campaign, in place of the word “vagina”, was taken as a result of an extensive survey of women to establish their take on the subject being advertised. As a result of this survey, the advertiser established a trend in the use of euphemisms to describe intimate parts of the body, and they found that this was done in a light-hearted way between the women asked. The survey resulted in 189 different ‘names’ being given by the participants, of which the advertiser decided to choose six of the top ten for their ad campaign.

We appreciate the concerns that you have raised and that you find the ad distasteful, however we consider that in general terms the wider audience are likely to interpret these ads as being a light-hearted take on a personal and often sensitive subject rather than see them as being demeaning or derogatory towards women. Although we appreciate that ads concerning sanitary products will not appeal to everyone, and acknowledge that some consumers may find the content of these ads distasteful, we consider that the ads are unlikely to cause a degree of offence that would breach the Code.

We note that some perfumed products have a pH value that is different to that of the skin and can therefore cause irritation, especially in sensitive areas, and that Femfresh is designed to be an alternative to such products. The pH scale is a measure of how acid or alkaline something is. As we understand it, the product undergoes testing at independent laboratories, the results of which are reviewed by board-certified dermatologists and gynaecologists in accordance with relevant EU Directives. Dermatology is a branch of medicine dealing with the skin and its appendages (hair, sweat glands, etc) and Gynaecology obviously refers to the surgical specialty dealing with health of the female reproductive system. We consider that the product is designed to be sensitive and work with the natural makeup of skin in sensitive areas and in light of this, do not think the ad is likely to mislead people to their detriment. At present we have no reason to believe that the product is likely to cause harm and given the extensive testing that it undergoes, we do not consider that we have reason to challenge the advertiser further in relation to this point.

In any event, we have received confirmation from the advertiser that the ad that you have referred to is no longer appearing, and there are currently no plans to include similar statements in future ads. We’ve also become aware that the advertiser has removed their Facebook page.

I realise this may disappoint you, but thank you nonetheless for taking the time to contact us with your concerns. The ASA website, www.asa.org.uk, contains more information about the work we do.

Now, the nice bloke from the ASA makes the excellent point that the product has been well-tested and that advertising agencies can make the creative choices they like: I'm happy with that. This is a detailed, well written and comprehensive reply - even though I disagree with it. But what I'm really, really happy about is that Femfresh VOLUNTARILY withdrew their campaign (or at least let it end), and won't run a similar one again.

70s Australian Femfresh advert - 'When your body isn't discreet... you should be'But don't expect to see them completely vanish off the face of the earth. The thing is, Femfresh has actually been about for a while - check out this blog article showing loads of old FemFresh ads from the 70s.. My best friend, a district nurse, says that until now they've always marketed themselves at older women - who, due to issues with incontinence/mobility often actually do see the need for this kind of product. And now they've cornered that market, they obviously felt the need to try for another: insecure teens and young women. It's likely that the older women who make up the majority of Femfresh's current customers started using the disgusting gunk back in the olden days: and I think I can safely say that however beauty-obsessed and vapid young women currently are, they're obviously more savvy than those who fell for Femfresh's wiles back in the day.

See, this is much more of a victory than an anti-Femfresh ASA ruling would have been because instead of my adversary being unwillingly defeated they have independently decided, with their actual brains, that calling vaginas froo-froos is momentously stupid. They have realised that marketing products this way will not work. That's what makes this a truly sweet victory: because it wasn't a government body forcing Femfresh to stand down, but an acknowledgement by Femfresh themselves that humanity in general just won't put up with this crap. They looked at the volume of complaints, from intimidating bodies like the ASA as well as even more intimidating social media outrage (obviously something they misjudged horribly), and figured it wasn't worth it.

This is a victory for women: you might read celebrity gossip magazines and buy your female offspring Barbies, fellow vagina owners, but you do draw a line. And Femfresh were most decidedly on the wrong side of it.

*Oh, and a minor Twitter celeb/mother who should know better once told me I'm "just bitter, because nobody's ever loved me enough to want to give me a baby." Well, if that's the kind of idiot motherhood turns intelligent women into than I want none of it. However, given the violence of my own mother's reaction to this statement (and the "It's my human right to drag screaming babies to conferences/cinemas" argument) I'm fairly optimistic on this point.

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16Aug/120

What doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger

This week, students across the country are getting their A-Level results. I dare say the vast majority of them will feel the contents of that envelope will decide their destiny: certainly, for those attending university it's likely to confirm which city they're about to spend a week-long drunken bender in.

Ten years ago I thought my A-Levels results had ruined my life. A year after receiving them (in 2001) I had dropped out of teacher training college and was an office junior in my dad's law firm. My non-convulsive epilepsy wasn't diagnosed until after I finished uni, so in 2002 I also felt I was on the brink of madness.

Ten years ago, I was a failure: an embarrassment to my parents. And staring defiantly out of the big mess that was my life were my A-Level results: two Cs and two Ds. One of those Cs was in General Studies, too, and everyone knows General Studies doesn't count.

Eventually, though, in September, I ran out of angst and made a phone call which changed my life. I gathered together more courage than I had ever (or will ever) had and brazened my way into Lincoln University. An inept switchboard operator and mischievous senior lecturer meant an extra space was made for me on my Journalism degree and the rest is history: I turned it around. It was seriously hard work and I still feel like I'm a few years behind, but ten years later I have a great job, a house and two kittens who, as I write, are joyfully gambolling around my feet.

So, your A-Levels do not decide your future. You do. Want to work in the media, but failed your A-Levels? Go do hospital radio; blog, make videos and podcasts, and get a job to fund your way through vocational study. Do not give up - never give up.

During the last ten years or so I could have given up at any number of hurdles. The time I risked expulsion to state my case to the dean after unknowingly playing obscene music on a radio show that went out to my whole city, the time I couldn't get a job after my undergraduate degree and had to go live at home, the months I spent sending over three hundred CVs and personalised covering letters out after my Masters.

But, having been as low as I was in 2002, I wasn't prepared to go there again. So in a way, getting bad A-Level results had a positive influence on my life.

If you're reading this and aren't one of the beautiful teens who got photographed by the local paper jumping in the air with glee, spend a moment reflecting on this: no one single event decides your destiny. This is not a movie - it's your life. It's complicated. Embrace it.

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