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

10May/163

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.

12Jun/147

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/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.

14Jun/121

Bullying: horrific, but not surprising

A few years ago I was walking through Hammersmith Park on my way home from work when a group of teenagers leapt out from behind a wall and started throwing shoe-sized lumps of solid ice at me. I don't know what reaction people might expect me to have had - maybe I should have screamed, or run, or something - but in real life I kept doing what I had previously been doing. I kept strolling along, listening to my iPod, looking straight ahead. It was only after several severe blows to the head - one of which I would later discover had left me bleeding - and I could hear them approaching me from behind that I reacted. I turned to face them, and very firmly told them to f**k off. They stared at me, stunned, and I turned again and strolled off. At home I rang the police then ordered takeaway and quietly poured myself a vodka.

The next day, my friends and colleagues were surprised by my reaction. As I said, maybe I should have screamed, or run. But neither of those things occurred to me. Why not? Well, I'm afraid to say I'm still used to it - to being pushed around, belittled, bullied. It still seems normal to me: it still seems to be what I feel I deserve.

I have no idea how old I was when I started to be bullied. After around ten years of it (from primary school right up until I was 16) I've blocked out most of my childhood. That could be my epilepsy or it could be intentional - it really depends whether you speak to my neurologist or one of the many school therapists or counsellors I have spoken to throughout the course of my life. All I know is that I was bullied very badly - physically and verbally - by a great many students and occasionally even by teachers. The former was easy to spot: you know you're being bullied when you're in a corner of the playground being called a pervert and having your head kicked in. The latter only became obvious after other students reported it to their parents, who told my mother. Teachers (and indeed adults in general) are more intelligent in their bullying. More passive-aggressive. One teacher would consistently put every student's work on the wall except mine, which would somehow get torn/dirtied: another gave me such horrific referrals to my next school that I was placed in remedial classes for every subject. Within months I was in the top set for nearly everything.Playing the piano at home

I went from school to school, sunk in a cloud of misery that I could share with nobody. I was silent, troubled, obsessed with death and pain. I came to expect scorn and derision from everyone: everywhere I turned I looked for hate. So, why?

Good question. There are and were reasons everywhere, but never good ones. I was bullied for being too tall, too plain, for not having trainers, for wearing old-fashioned clothes, for having brown bread and no crisps in my lunchbox, for giving the correct answer in lessons, for not knowing what a turkey twizzler is, for going to a cottage in West Ireland in my summer holidays as opposed to some resort somewhere. Once I was bullied because I'd read all the books on the "difficult" shelf of the school library.

Obviously I was bullied because of my surname, but the bullies were more imaginative than that. They sensed when it no longer affected me and looked elsewhere, and I learned to try and predict their behaviour so I could shape myself to their changing moods: so I could deflect their coarse, blunt words with sharp quick ones of my own.

Naturally, these years of watching my step, inspecting myself for and hiding undesirable/vulnerable elements of my life, this need to constantly shift my personality - all these things have made me an extremely cynical person. They've also left me easy to hurt, because even the most seasoned warrior can't station troops at every battlefront when faced with a lifelong war.

And that’s what it becomes, because when you've been bullied for so long you stop thinking about it: eventually, the bullies can and do win. You begin to believe them: as adults, people become better at hurting each other and bullying becomes more about terrorism than open war. If you're used to looking for attacks about, say, your personality, then you don't see the harm in “well-meant” digs about your appearance until it’s too late, and the poison has already been absorbed. The one thing you do learn, however, is to never show your cards; to never let your enemy know they're winning. So even when you know you're being hurt, you learn to accept yet harden yourself to it, and to fight - if it's worth fighting at all, that is - in other ways.

So, I imagine we can all agree that bullying sucks. It really sucks, yes? Yes. Pessimistic, I know, but it feels too late for me somehow. Because there’s a reason I'm writing this tonight, and not some other night. It was very windy in Manchester this evening, and during my cycle ride home my long skirt kept getting whipped up to my thighs by the wind. After abuse from blokes on the street and honks from idiots in cars, I broke down in angry tears and walked my heavy, Dutch-style bike home. On my way I was approached by two guys, one of whom tried to take my mobile off me.

Did I scream, or run away, or give him my bag and phone? No. I took my massive metal bike lock out of my bike’s basket and whacked him round the head with it (I checked with police - it's okay in self-defence), then embarked upon a lengthy and vitriolic attack on his - their - character. I unleashed every swear word I know, and they left me. I was angry, upset, annoyed. But I wasn't surprised. I don't think I'll ever be surprised that someone wants to hurt me. I expect it, and I even try to look for it. Because in my experience every and any close friend, every partner, ever family member who treats me well - they could turn on me in an instant. If they’re someone I really trust, then it’s because I am a bad person and I deserve it. Every relationship I build could fall at any moment.

However, for millions of children out there, it's not too late. Bullying is still a huge issue, but it’s now one we recognise - and one that schools monitor more closely. I can't wait to get hold of the landmark film Bully, which happily did end up getting through the MPAA ratings system as a PG-13 despite problems in America. Check out their website - and if you're feeling plump in the pocket at the moment, consider donating to an awareness charity like BeatBullying - or to the NSPCC, who fund ChildLine. Feel free to leave links to other such organisations in a comment.  Here's the trailer.

A note to parents, here. If your child is being bullied and they've told you, congratulate yourself: you're a good parent. Is your child not being bullied? Definitely not? Then ask yourself - is your child a bully? Because not one of the parents of the children who beat me up, who tortured me, who slung constant verbal abuse at me, ever believed their children would do such a thing. Not for a moment. They would look their awful, malicious, violent brats in the face and see only angels. Nobody is an angel. No child is an angel either. Children can be vicious. I have scars: mental and physical. Be careful what you teach your child. I don't have a child - but if I did, like my parents I would hang Dorothy Nolte's poem Children Learn What They Live in the hallway. To quote the last few lines:

If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith in himself and those about him…
If a child lives with friendliness, he learns the world is a nice place in which to live.
With what is your child living?

Here are some links to bullying resources, in case any of this strikes a chord with you.  I sincerely hope not.
BBC Schools: Understanding bullying
BBC Health: Bullying and teenagers
BeatBullying
ChildLine: Get some help
Red Balloon Learner Centres: For the recovery of bullied children

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26Mar/1217

It’s Epilepsy Awareness Day: Be aware of my Monster Munch obsession

Monster Munch. No, really.

Today (March 26th) is Epilepsy Awareness Day.  So are you aware of epilepsy?  Probably.  It's unlikely you're aware of mine, though, and for years I wasn't either.  I have simple and complex partial temporal lobe epilepsy: it's non-convulsive, meaning I don't do any of that falling-down shaky stuff that makes old people get itchy with spoons (don't do that, by the way.  No spoons.  Spoons break teeth. Here's what you should really do if someone's having a convulsive epileptic seizure).  In fact, I haven't even seen the frothing-at-the-mouth thing people tend to go on about.  I have the type of epilepsy they reckon Joan of Arc had - the type people have tended to interpret as religious visions.  They're not, of course.  But I wasn't diagnosed until I was 22, which meant that - because of not being aware of epilepsy - I had two options available to me.

Option 1: I was chosen by some higher power and should begin interpreting my out-of-body experiences (starting with strong feelings of deja vu, passing into visions and a wave of emotions, and then onto feeling like lightly toasted death for an hour or so) as visitations by God.

I was raised as a Christian (both Anglican and Catholic, but that's another story), but the idea that I, Helen Nina Elizabeth Purves, of Louth (Lincolnshire) had been hand-picked by Almighty God in order to relate His Message to the masses seemed far-fetched even to an extremely imaginative pre-teen like me.  As a result I decided to become an atheist, which leads me to my only other option at the time.

Option 2: I was insane, and should never tell anyone about what I was experiencing for fear they would shut me up in a lunatic asylum.  This, regrettably, was the option I went for.  I suspect that if I'd been gullible/cynical enough to plump for Option 1 I'd be significantly better off by now.  The market for human God-conduits is still pretty lucrative by all accounts.

As I result I hung on to my visions, deja-vus and heavy downers for years, terrified by the idea I'd be found out and end up being institutionalised.  Unfortunately this was a genuine option for non-convulsive epileptics right up until the end of the last century (in some countries, epileptic people were not even permitted to marry), and many older people are still suffering from years of invasive treatment and padded cells.  Like me, doctors and psychologists were not always fully aware of epilepsy.  I was counselled for depression, but even then I was too terrified to tell my therapists the real reason for my heavy downers: that I was sticking my head into another dimension.

Eventually, though, I chose a moment to cross a line.  At 22, after handing in in my 20,000 word dissertation and radio documentary to Nottingham Trent for assessment in the knowledge I was almost certainly guaranteed to get a good mark for my Masters in Radio Journalism, I decided I'd achieved enough in my life that I'd have good times to reflect upon when in my padded cell.  I took myself off to mHelen Purves cutting her crazy Epilepsy Cakey doctors, wrists ready-moisturised, to get myself cuffed and hauled away.  I genuinely believed I would be taken straight to an institution in a straitjacket.

Of course I wasn't, because if I had been it's extremely unlikely I'd be writing this.  Luckily for me Nottingham is the best place to be for people with epilepsy (the hospital there actually developed the MRI scanner): my doctor immediately referred me to Queens Medical Centre where I was and still am seen by my fantastic neuro Dr O'Donoghue.  I went through the tests within the space of a month, started medication almost immediately and my epilepsy awareness went through the roof.

For example, did you know that St. Valentine is actually the patron saint of epilepsy? February used to be real downer for me before I knew that (I'm chronically and notorious single).  This year I even baked and iced an enormous cake, and moaned on about epilepsy to everyone who came and ate it.  Epilepsy: a brilliant excuse for cake.  I even dyed the icing purple (the colour used by epilepsy charities), put Joan of Arc's flames up the sides and included oodles of buttercream and popping candy for the ultimate crazy epileptic sugar high.

 

To be perfectly honest, it sucks having epilepsy - it really does, and in so many ways that I could write an article a week for a year and still not cover it.  However, it can also be quite funny.  I have dozens of stories about things I have said or done when in the grip of complex partial seizures: during these I remain able to walk, talk and use my mobile phone, albeit extremely erratically, and have a tendency to go shopping.  Once it was 34 pints of milk, another time one of every colour and brand of washing up liquid in Tesco (aside from yellow - I would never buy yellow washing up liquid, even under the grip of an epileptic seizure).  Recently I have had a tendency to veer towards pickled onion Monster Munch - the image at the top is a photo I took during my last complex partial.  The accompanying text message, sent to my mate Agnes Guano (he of The Downstairs Lounge), read "Kj vghhhrdftgxffgrwffgg monst ker munches dghvtggf ets etted".

I hope you're more aware of epilepsy now.  Probably not: but if you see a tall girl with purple hair and glasses bulk-buying Monster Munch in Tesco whilst mumbling about tramps (example text message: "Tramp sit touch hit bite smell") please do make sure I don't walk in front of traffic.  Ta muchly.

Filed under: stuff i did 17 Comments
10Mar/123

Last night a DJ trolled my life

Everyone can remember their first time.  Me?  It was the summer of the year 2000.  I was 17, he was 18, and it was at my birthday party, in my parents' driveway.  I'll always remember Ewan: his long black hair, his trenchcoat, his squeaky voice.  The first person I met off the internet.  We exchanged greetings, stood around awkwardly, and then he pulled some random girl which meant I didn't have to speak to him.  Which suited me very well indeed, since in real life his voice was even squeakier than it had been over VoIP.

The last guy?  His accent was infinitely better. A DJ, from Detroit no less, and this time we turned it around: we did things back to front, as it were.  We met in a nightclub a few weeks ago, and since then we've become engaged.

Got a dirty mind?  Clean it.  This is all about the internet: because in my life, nearly everything is about the internet.

Back to the beginning.  My whole experience of the world changed as early as 1998, when my father got an AOL CD in the post.  It wasn't long afterwards that he got a second phone line, as I discovered Tripod, Geocities
and then, for two beautiful years, Napster.

In sixth form, I met a group of nerd-boys who showed me how to code my own websites using various free hosting and domain registration services.  I learned the web as it evolved: I coded frames, and then tables - and when the older ones inevitably left to study maths and science at Cambridge, they helpfully continued to teach me the beginnings of CSS over instant messaging service ICQ. One of them was friends with Ewan, and brought him to my parents' legendary summer party after we clicked through our shared love of heavy metal (oh, the shame).  At the party, we distinctly un-clicked, and I thought that would be that.

Of course, the world is a different place now.  Some of my oldest friends are now people I have come to know via the internet - and most of my newest friends too, through Twitter.  It's strange to think how lonely I would have felt, moving to Manchester, without the knowledge that I could occasionally go and impose myself upon Mof Gimmers and chums.

It was during one of these impositions that my beady eyes first alighted upon my new internet fiance, DJ Meph.  Those of you wishing to stalk him can do so at djmeph.net.  We spoke fairly briefly - just enough for me to work out he was worth following on Twitter.  The rest is history: in short, we are both epic trolls and have hoaxed our friends abominally.

Props to Daniel Pass for setting us up on Leap Day: I proposed while my prey was asleep, and when he awoke to find a stream of tweets about chloroform and canapes he was moved to make it Facebook Official.  I logged on that night, accepted his friend request and was immediately met with a maelstrom of congratulations on my new relationship status as it dawned upon me that I'd finally met someone as mischievous as myself.

His many friends were lured into dozens of comments, but mine (alas) are more experienced in the Ways of Helen.  I fended off streams of text messages with a standard reply, and sat back waiting for the news to spread to my mother.

During this deliciously agonising period I had time to reflect, as I have many times before, on the way we all of us rely so completely upon technology which as children we could never have dreamed of.  I remember the wonder my little brother and I experienced when rescued from a car crash by a business man with a gigantic car phone: nobody imagined that twenty years later I'd be casually using its great, great, great grandphone to announce my digital relationship to a man I was communicating with through a third cousin of the computerised typewriters the legal secretaries at my dad's office were using to type up conveyancing documents.

It's an interesting thought, and not one which can be covered in just one blog post.  It would be like trying to summarise my whole life in one ANSI-formatted TXT file opened in MS Notepad (which is, as it happens, what I am currently typing this into - old habits die hard).  But just imagine: if technology has changed so much about the way we live and communicate now, what will the world look like for our children?

Luckily for DJ Meph, internet babies have yet to be invented: but it can only be a matter of time.  The world saw its first internet marriage way back in 1996, and let's face it, stranger things really have happened: it's just that now they have, they're no longer strange...

While we all ponder this incredibly profound thought (and while DJ Meph gets his legal team together to pen the first official restraining order of what I'm sure will be a long and beautiful relationship) I'll leave you with the bloody awful song all of us have had nagging away at our brains since you read the title of this blog post.  Sorry for that, by the way.

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