Issue 6 : Shame

Roisin Agnew | Editor's Foreword

My favourite part of actor training was mask work. I’m not sure I fully understood how a mask could turn into a megaphone of expression by covering a person’s face, but some part of it was perfectly comprehensible to me the moment I encountered it.

The masks used are those plain white ones that sometimes appear in horror movies probably because of their eerie lack of human expression. Part of the reason I loved the class was because it was taught by a delicate gentleman called Jason who played the bodhran for us to warm up to and danced beautifully around the studio barefoot in spite of his prodigious corpulence.

He told us a story about how the young male lead on a film he was working on had put on the mask and frozen in his tracks. “I couldn’t do it. I felt shame.” The anecdote was supposed to illustrate the mask’s way of bringing emotions to the surface under the guise of hiding them. “And isn’t shame just the worst thing to experience in life,” he concluded. I nodded assent as I believed every single thing Jason said, I adored him, little thinking what that sentence might mean to a single overweight homosexual man in his fifties.

Society is defined by what it calls shameful. When I think of society in that quotation-marks-worthy way, I always end up thinking of Anna Karenina. A woman “shunned” by “society”, the drama and downfall that ensues. In Victorian literature and Greek tragedy shame feels like the sequel to hubris, the dish served after the fall from grace. There is no blind Oedipus or Emma Bovary clutching her arsenic bottle without shame. These days it feels it’s been transmuted to an ill-defined fuzzy constant mainly because of online life - it’s a stick to beat oneself up with, a way to play watchdog, a way to silence. It’s hard to unpack but even though the tragedies are on a different scale, the stakes are just as high.

The stories in Shame - shaming, shamed, and the shameless - have something in common  with mask work in that concealment and exposition work alongside each other to tell a story. Through tales of pissing the bed, asking for help, plastic surgery, malfunctioning dicks, and HIV we bring you shame and our lack thereof.

A PostScript

We’ve arrived at our sixth and final issue of Guts Magazine with Shame. I have feelings about it but I’ll keep it short.

I started Guts because I wanted to create something that put writers  and their personal experiences at its centre while making use of illustration. It had to be confessional writing because it was polarising, interesting, and ultimately accessible. Over the past two years we’ve worked with over 50 people, been part of events and festivals, won an award, thrown a few parties, and had a fair share of typos.

Guts has afforded me the creative freedom to make something that is wholly my own. Its aesthetic, its ridiculously oblique titles, its themes, its tone, its muddled introductions and personal essays. For two years it’s been my sandbox and friend when I wasn’t afforded the opportunities or creative outlets by life and other jobs. I’ve met some of my best friends through it, made sense of money, learnt where my abilities begin and end, learnt about paper weights and typefaces. But by far the biggest takeaway from Guts has been other people’s generosity. People gave it their time and best work for no remunerative reason, doing it for the love of the thing itself. I’m grateful to the writers who trusted Guts with often difficult and raw stories. It took on a life of its own powered by those who created it. A special thanks is owed to Steve McCarthy, Steve O’Connor, and Paddy Dunne who were there throughout.

We’ll be back in the spring. Maybe it’ll be a podcast, maybe a book, maybe a makeup vlog or a feminist porn channel. But Auf Wiedersehen for now. R


Issue 6 Illustrator: Rob Mirolo

Rob phones me. With the million forms of deflecting communication at his disposal he almost always goes for the old school human phone call. Along with his cultivated gloominess and love of black, his phone calls are what have cemented our friendship and status as kindred spirits. Rob is a tone poem of velvet, black clouds, nicotine stains, charcoal, and Robert Smith’s hair. Shame was the perfect theme for him who, in spite of saying he’s never experienced it properly, is full of dark thoughts and consequently very kind. For the issue we got Rob to break from his traditional palette of black, red, and white and the results are amazing. You may have caught his work at the last Damn Fine Print exhibition or for Beatyard festival or in his notebook as scribbles furiously next to you in a pub.

 

The year is 2041 and an Amazon drone has just dropped a shrink-wrapped package through the window of my gaff. I tip the courier-bot with a Bitcoin wand, unbox the parcel, and pair it up to wireless electricity. There is a single button (pink, triangular) protruding from its graphene shell, which I tap with my wizened old finger. The tiny device hums a four-note melody and a deep, tepidly friendly voice emerges from within.

"Thank you for purchasing Aide Memoire version 4.3. Get ready to scrapbook your memory. To get started, you'll need to switch your Braintooth to open mode."

I reach behind my ear and flick an implanted switch to turn my brain on for remote access.

"Do you grant Aide Memoire administrator access for this brain? We'll never share your data with third parties – that's our promise!"

I assent, and a progress wheel begins to pulse on the flat screen.

"Hold on just a tick,” the device speaks, now from within my brain. “I'm indexing your memories... I have found: 9595829283 memory fragments."

It's been a long life.

"Now, I'll begin filing your memories into playlists to make browsing easier for you."

When the Aide Memoire has finished curating my past, I navigate through the clips, clumped neatly into time, place and emotional boxsets. A folder marked BAD FEELS :( catches my attention – I'm feeling a bit morose today.

Swiping out a drop-down menu, I find a sub-folder marked GUILT, which cascades out into multi-terabyte collections: PARENTAL GUILT, DIETARY GUILT, GIRLFRIEND-RELATED GUILT, SECOND ORDER GUILT.

It makes for such grim, compelling viewing that I want more. I load up another folder: SHAME. 

Juicy.

Opening it up I'm disappointed. It's pretty fucking empty. I would feel ashamed at its emptiness, but then my lack of shame reflex is what has kept it bereft of files in the first place.

I am a man who makes the minimum order of chips so as to write stories alone at a bar table in Byron, spilling wasabi ketchup down my shirt-front before the hordes of first-date student couples­­­. I am a man who answers the door to Jehovah’s Witnesses in nought but boxers. And I was a boy who, when caught red-handed calling chat-lines on the house phone, insisted the babysitter leave me in peace. Shame has never come easy to me.

Apart from the time my dick broke.

I'm not talking about frenulum breve, the nightmarish rupturing of the banjo string from its drum (this has happened to me twice, and let me tell you there is no room in the conscious mind for any feeling other than sheer agony).

No – not that. Let's load up the memory.

On weekend nights, C would sneak me up the stairs of her family home while her parents slept (or, in hindsight, were quite prepared not to hear the creaks of our clumsy, sock-foot ballet up the wooden steps).

We will fast-forward through the sex we had on the night in question, but assume that it encompasses the standard acrobatics involved in late-teenage trysts. But the morning coupling is marsupial – eyes clamped shut to the grey light of Irish late spring glinting through the skylight, spooning like koalas.

Post-coitus, she rises and leaves for work as I sink back into a doze. Waking later – maybe 15 minutes, maybe two hours – I reach for my phone to find the time. Dead. The need to piss outrides the desire for yet more sleep, so I fish a pair of gaudily-patterned Topman jocks from the sea of duvet and wriggle into them.

Then the pain. A twinge like a sprained wrist shoots from dick to brain. Throwing off the sheets, I am confronted by my penis as never seen before, the head pulsating like an a sergeant-major in high dudgeon, the flaccid shaft turned the blue of the recently suffocated. It is the 8th Prince of Hell incarnate.

Christ Fuck.

I reach down to pull the foreskin forward, resulting only in more jabs of pain. Spit. Try spit. The spit achieves nothing. It's like salivating on a Pringles tin in order to squeeze a football through it.

Piss Christ Fuck.

The internet will know what to do. I shuffle along the bed to where C's laptop usually sits. Nothing but Nylon magazines and tights. I hobble about, underwear still cuffing my thighs for no good reason and digging through her desk drawers cop myself in a mirror: some grim spectre of Prince Albert, back to haunt the genitally mutilated.

Cursing and running through the troubleshoot manual in my head, one last idea occurs: get stiff again. But physical manipulation is out of the question. I look desperately to PJ Harvey glowering at me from a magazine cover and for the first time in my life wish it were Playboy instead of the NME. Perching back on the mattress, I breathe deep and try to project something pornographic on the wall of brain.

A flashback comes: in the Mater Hospital, a pretty doctor administers an anaesthetic jab tomy seven-year-old hand so that I might be circumcised. Faulty penises are part of the Gray pedigree, a family where circumcision is so commonplace we may well not be Gentile. I was to carry on the grand tradition.

On waking from catatonia, a nurse tells me the 'good news': there was no need to cut it. Instead, the surgeon stretched it out (the creepiness of which act thankfully lost on me), meaning that I'd have very little pain, but would have to dip my pecker in a basin of Savlon every night for a week.

Well thanks a lot, Mater Misericordiae. I am about to wind up back in your lobby with a gangrenous lump of meat for you to amputate.

For, short of stepping out onto the street and asking the first passerby if they could help me with my tumescent domepiece, 999 is clearly the only option left to me. I dig out my phone charger and will the screen to light up.

Am I really going to call an ambulance to solve an issue apparently born from my own anatomical ignorance? I think back to an episode of the Adrian Kennedy Phoneshow when a paramedic relayed the tale of a man who had become lodged inside his wife's ass, his amusement at the situation clearly overriding his Hippocratic responsibilities.

Tomorrow on the Phoneshow: the boy who doesn't know how to pull his own foreskin forward.

I imagine myself in the back of the ambulance with the FM104-listening paramedic snapping photos for a book of medical marvels as we weave up Dorset Street. I arrive at the hospital and am left, cross-legged, beside a man clutching a stab-wound in his chest. "What are you in for mate?" he asks, then cackles so hard at my reply a fountain of blood spurts out of his wound. "Stop! I'm in stitches!" In the emergency room, the sweet-faced doctor from 12 years earlier, remembering me, flicks my bulbous glans and tells me, injection in hand, that they'll have to amputate – though with a specimen this small it's hardly worth her while. I wake from castration to find a tabloid journalist waiting by my bedside to trial out headlines for the story of my calamity: “FORESKIN OR NOT FORESKIN?', 'COCK UP OF THE CENTURY?', 'Surely we can do something with FREE WILLY?

Shame is its own storyteller. In a state of hyperarousal, the prefrontal cortex parks the car and hands the keys over to the limbic system to run bloody riot. The first ink-drop of panic splatters out Homeric epics in an instant. If novels were written as quickly as the detailed scenarios that unfold in this heightened state, I would be the Stephen King of the malfunctioning penis.

I could text a friend instead. Vladimir maybe. No. I have to see this man at the Debs. We will stand side-by-side at the urinals and he will snigger while his piss streams onto the floor. My father – it is, after all, biologically his fault. But I haven't spoken to him in a year and I know my thirty-or-more cousins will hear about my woes within the hour. Girlfriend. She'll break up with me by phone, and I will, neutered, be left to find a new lover. Mum. She is not supposed to even be aware that I have a penis, and the very mention of it will result in a stroke.

And as this tapestry of tragedy unfurls, so does my foreskin. With a rush of blood to the (dick) head, I feel all the euphoria of Houdini breaking out of a milk can.

­The relief is short-lived. Almost immediately a black hole opens under the force of my own utter imbecility and swallows me whole. If it righted itself this easily, there could not, surely, have been anything else to blame but my own dopiness.

I make a pact with my remaining sliver of dignity to never speak of this episode again.

Until asked to write this article, my chode trauma had been buried deep in one of those subconscious boneyards, never to be disinterred. Resurrected pre-emptively, however, I decided to rehearse the tale on an unwitting friend. To my awe, I discovered that he too had his gear stick jammed in a similar disaster. Expecting to hear that he had dealt with this phallic emergency capably, it emerged that his, too, was marked by panic and perplexity.

I know now we were victim to a none-too-rare phenomenon called paraphimosis. In fact, I was quite fortunate that it fixed itself. My other options would have included on-the-spot circumcision, something called the 'Dundee technique' which involves the jabbing needles into the mickey until it wheezes out blood and pus, or a good old-fashioned gelding.

Amongst the WikiHow articles and MensHealth forum topics I combed through in anticipation of writing this piece, I discovered a (rather poncey) psychology paper on castration anxiety which reads thus: 'We note with surprise that castration anxiety is seldom discussed as a variation of shame even though it always involves shame dynamics. [Castration fear] has to do with the person's sense of self-worth and integrity... we need an 'object' to maintain our poise and sense of self.''

The author of this tract writes, of course, about castration in the metaphorical sense; it's not like a human being of any emotional complexity would build their entire sense of self-worth and integrity around their actual meat flute. That would just be shameful.

 

I was struck by Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, the 30ft tall sculpture of a spider that towers over the Guggenheim in Bilbao, selfishly guarding its abdominal clutch of marble-hewn eggs. I read in the brochure that Bourgeois intended this big, bronze monster as a tribute to mothers and motherhood.

I knew this was bollocks because, as a child, one of my many obsessions was spiders. Before I learned to package all the stuff I knew into the kind of A+ anecdotes for which I’m so rightly praised, I settled for simply following people around while I reeled off random facts: species of dinosaurs, collective nouns for animals, rare types of clouds, particularly snazzy prime numbers. And spiders. I knew loads about spiders, so I knew they were terrible mothers. No maternal instinct at all. Spider mams just fuck off and it’s left to the dad to collect, guard, and then lick their eggs into shape, cowering on whatever godforsaken leaf she left him on until they burst in their hundreds to crawl all over his pliant, furry body. This is, incidentally, a process which I refuse to believe even a spider wouldn’t find disgusting. 

I found myself saying some of this to my girlfriend like a crazy person. I had no idea where it was coming from. My eyes buzzed and my throat felt hot. I was possessed with a baffling sense of indignation that spider mams had been let off the hook by the whims of this deluded sculptress. There was a rage that came fully-formed from many years of telling people these specific spider mam facts as a child. 

Shortly afterwards I was seized by a deep embarrassment for my childhood self. Just like when you’re drifting off to sleep and your brain decides to catalogue a succession of the most mortifying things you’ve ever said in sequence, I couldn’t help imagining how I must have sucked the air out of the room when I said all this stuff, a motherless fact-merchant braying about maternal abandonment, utterly oblivious to how blatantly it reflected his own grief and sadness and anger. In that moment, I knew two things: firstly, there were still things I’d not emotionally grappled with in twenty years and, secondly, I was right about Louise Bourgeois and she still should have looked it up. 

Three weeks before my sixth birthday my mother Sheila died of breast cancer. She was 43. I was insulated from the worst of it by a big family and the spectacular resilience and graft of my dad, whose efforts to keep the whole thing going appear more and more God-like with each passing year. Being that I was only five, the solemnity and permanence of my mother’s death was lost on me. So much so, in fact, I spent her wake strolling about the place with sunny grace of a chipper little maître d, and my beaming, three-foot frame was spotted greeting mourners with a cheerful “Did you hear Mammy died?”. Days later, I’m told, I was asking when she would be back from being dead so I am at least content I was confused about the nature of dying itself, rather than actively delighted by her death.

The fact is everyone did hear that Mammy died. Her death left my dad to bring up eleven kids between the ages of two and seventeen. It’s a sob story so extravagantly tragic that his example stunned everyone we knew, us included, into slack-jawed admiration. They say that the pain of bereavement never leaves you. But it does get a lot easier if it’s all you’ve really known. I don’t know why I’ve struggled with the shame of this my entire life. I’ve never said it aloud, much less written it down, but I did not experience the same grief as so many of my friends because it happened when I was so young. My experience wasn’t even comparable to some of my older brothers and sisters. I owe this to the spectacular efforts of my family, but I still sometimes feel embarrassed when grieving friends approach me for advice, as if I could ever review the coping methods used so successfully by that chirpy little five year old, and draft them the same prescription. 

“Right, here’s my advice, are you taking this down? Step 1; be five years old”.   

Growing up, this story preceded us a little. I was occasionally told how devastating an example I proved for certain friends to live up to, a precautionary tale their parents would dispense round the dinner table. You’re lucky you have your mother, for God’s sake, poor critters over there I don’t know how it is they cope at all. 

It was worse being fussed over by mams in person, of course. They’d fidget and mumble and laugh at everything I said, some would buy me things for no reason. They’d ask about my dad, say how wonderful we all were, but in a tone that suggested it was simply miraculous we hadn’t beaten ourselves to death with lead pipes from all the grief. One friend’s mam was driving me home when she quietly said “you’re all great” while blessing herself with the sign of the cross, as if my family’s experience was itself contagious, an omen of death against which was needed specific, and ritualistic, protection right there and then. I was, in some sense, every parent’s nightmare, personified in a bookish lad hammering them with facts about Star Wars, or long division, and wondering, in between big greedy bites on the way back from football training, why I’d been bought an entire mid-journey selection box in the first place. 

Later on, I’d grow ashamed by the pity of others, and the slanders it implied about my settled and comfortable home life. At seven or eight, however, I’m fairly sure I rode that wave of attention like a piebald pony. 

For the first few years, I remember my teachers becoming nervy and sheepish when Mother’s Day came round. Nibbling on fingernails, fiddling with brooches, staring at me like some tea they’d gulped without checking if the milk was in date. For a week or so I’d be the unwilling recipient of weak smiles and tender shoulder pats from ordinarily taciturn figures, stern little women with Derry accents that could rust a bike, and all of them tiptoeing about me like a sad little ginger landmine. 

 

In truth, I didn’t give a full time fuck about Mother’s Day. It just wasn’t a thing I got upset about. I didn’t understand why I was supposed to. It just seemed so impersonal and silly, but I didn’t mind the fuss since it usually meant teachers would freeze while everyone else was getting high on maternal love, glue and finger paint, and the upshot was I’d get to read on my own.

When I was seven, however, I was actually made do something. It was the year that tubby little Kev Nash got so overzealous with the glitter that the only thing he gifted his mother that year was an evening under the desk lamp, digging sparkly gunk out of his chubby, weeping eyeballs. Aside from his whimpers there was no sound in the class, discounting the soft, slow snipping of those stumpy little scissors they give kids, the blue plastic ones with all the bite of a damp oven glove. 

It was to this soundtrack I remember sitting in the corner, tasked with writing down every memory I had of my mother. Straining from the effort, I wrote down ten. Ten clear memories. I never kept that list and, years later, realised with horror that the best I could manage was five. To this day, that’s the best I can manage. I’d not been paying attention and I’d deleted half of my mother from myself. The shame of this was a second bereavement. I sometimes wonder if my subsequent obsession with reading everything, knowing everything and broadcasting to everyone all of these wonderful everythings that I knew, was all about beating memory, about proving that I would never forget. The boy who knew everything couldn’t possibly have forgotten his own mother, so I would know everything. 

There’s a deep melancholy to that theory but, on the plus side, it does let me off the hook for a lot of embarrassing behavior as a child. One time I asked my uncle Frank if he knew what deciduous meant, so he humoured me by saying he didn’t. This was a cruel, cruel trap on my part, for I subsequently followed him around his own house making fun of him for his ignorance. There are dozens of stories like this from my childhood, so it would be really handy to blame that kind of thing on my bereavement. That being said, there’s still a good chance I was just a gormless dork whose mam died.

As I got older, I realised there were external memories that could fill the gaps I’d left, and having heard all the saintly tales of how wonderful she was – and she really was – I found that I delighted most in hearing the scant few negative stories I could wring out of those who knew Mammy best. I spent my adolescence seeking out those corners of family events where they would be uttered like blasphemies through boozy breath and glinted eye; of how she could be holier-than-thou, that she could never get jokes right, how she couldn’t write a story to save her life. Best of all was that beautiful evening I heard a family friend - in her glorious, mouth-bending, mid-Fermanagh twang – describe my mother’s singing voice as “sufficiently awful to disprove the existence of Gaww-id”. 

These days, telling old stories is a large percentage of what we do when we return home. We sit around Daddy’s huge kitchen table, which once contained us comfortably, back when our feet dangled inches from the floor. Back then, even at full stretch, our fingers wouldn’t reach its centre unless we leaned far enough forward that our chins pressed against its cold surface. These days we barely get round it at all. The whole thing creaks when we laugh. We do still fit, but if you need to nip to the toilet or grab another bottle from the garage, it’s often easier to escape by slipping underneath and through a hedge-tight bramble of shaking legs, than to inch past all those backs, pressed flat against the wall-seats lining either corner. 

Around that table no one finishes a sentence and we delight in each other’s mis-remembered notions, undigested memories, embarrassing acts from the past – recollections of her, of each other, ourselves. It’s there that the story of me at Mammy’s wake will go down a storm. Only I’ll be told I used a slightly different wording, or actually it was only for a few minutes, or no, it was way worse and I was leaping around the place in full song. 

When corrected, I’m sure I intend to change my internal records but those newer details rarely stick. We each long ago settled on our favourite tales, and each retelling grips them tighter to our tongues. We appreciate the preciousness of our own stock of memories, and perhaps there’s no harm in jealously guarding them, safe from anyone who’d take away whatever clutch we have left. Laughing in those wee small hours, we rinse away with wine our shame for all the silly stories that we tell ourselves.

Question 2 (a)

The feeling is not becoming to every age, but only to youth. For we think young people should be prone to the feeling of shame because they live by feeling and therefore commit many errors, but are restrained by shame. 

- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV

Discuss how a sensibility of shame is central to the works of two or more writers you have studied.

 

I hesitate to call this an essay. The term implies something heavyweight and insightful, though its meaning has lately been cheapened. An essay should never be a hot take or clickbait or self-indulgent, the kind of piece I occasionally write.

But perhaps I am being too hard on myself. My fear of looking stupid is matched only by my fear of looking pretentious. It has reached the point that I cannot go into bookshops anymore: Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street has become a stage for externalised angst. I don’t want to be seen taking anything off the shelves, in case other people judge me. The last time I was there I mispronounced ‘Meeee-chell Whell-beck’, then ran away. I now buy books almost exclusively on Kindle.

But perhaps I am thinking about this too much. You know that scene in the record shop in High Fidelity, where Jack Black shrieks at a customer? He tells them,“Don’t tell anybody you don’t have Blonde on Blonde. It’s going to be ok.” I’m afraid of that happening, but with books. I imagine the assistants will know me on sight as a heathen and a populist, and will judge me for the books I have not read. 

And there are so many of those. At Cambridge, the University Library is a sprawling 1930s thing built in a style Germaine Greer once described as “rationalist-fascist” in The Guardian. It is crowned with a looming, phallic tower, and new parts are added every year to accommodate more books. The library menaces freshers with the prospect of inexhaustible learning. You will never have read them all. You will never have read enough.

I had thought getting into Cambridge would give me confidence. This never happened. So I held on, believing that graduation would do the same. Finally I believed that getting a job, or getting writing published would do the trick. The glittering prizes never delivered. 

Instead I accumulated doubt. The course was one of ego battery, breaking your critical faculties in order to rebuild them like muscles. We’d write an essay every week, occasionally two, then argue their points with the supervisor (invariably an expert on something awe-inspiring and arcane - in first year I was taught by a lady who had spent years producing a 700-page tome on the semiotic value of Elizabethan fountains). The other students were reserved, intimidating. Many of them wore tweed, and those who did not, wore cord instead. They spoke in seminars with cool enunciation, which I now realise might have been meant to mask the accents of their hometowns. 

Neurosis was to be expected: we English students, the ‘Englings’, lived our subject as a way of life. This peaked during the Tragedy paper, where we were encouraged to view not only literature but everyday culture through the framework of epic tragedy. Football became a Nietzschean struggle. The trials of Oedipus were compared to getting blind drunk at the college bop(1). I began to dress in black like Hamlet, but approached my personal life like Ophelia. I fell in an out of love, became depressed, starved myself for a sense of control. Sweets to the sweet, aspartame to the artificially sweet.

Students of subjects like Natural Sciences, Economics or Land Economy(2) were being trained for life outside the bubble(3), but we were being trained for glorious obscurity. Reading should not be meant as a performance, but it was one. Pressured to argue and understand, we read not to enjoy books but so that we could talk about them later. 

There are memories of this time which make me cringe. Being chastised in a practical criticism class for assuming the poet was a ‘he’. Passing out drunk in a cupboard at the Union. Sitting in a supervision on The Birth of Tragedy with my tutor and one other student, Will, who I had hooked up with the week before. Will was the class favourite, and definitely seemed to understand Nietzsche, while I did not. The tutor asked me, “What is the will?”, and Will smirked from his armchair. I muttered, “The will… the Will… the will…”. 

A list of subjects I wrote about in essays but did not understand would include:

  • Ferdinand de Saussure
  • Most of Capitalism and Schizophrenia
  • Shakespeare’s Henriad, the four plays of which we were required to read in one week, and consequently none of which I remember 
  • Mimesis. This seems like an easy concept to grasp, but then you apply it and all your arguments fall apart....

I’m not being coy by pretending not to know (though I have done that in the past, sometimes to trap people, usually men, into patronising hubris)(4). I remember during those years giving up far too easily: turning in essays without formatting, turning up to supervisions without having read the text. In each case I’d decided I’d never be good, so why try?

But doubt is time-consuming. I remember contemplating the ordered horror of my inbox, staring at emails for hours unable to reply or even open them. At Cambridge emails are written with particular formality: some tutors are referred to by their first names, others by ‘Professor’, others by ‘Mr’ out of wilful self-effacement. Add to this the pressure of knowing how to sign off, and the correct way to explain “I’m sorry but I’ve not managed to read ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, though I have watched the Kenneth Branagh film from 1993, and found it dated, and kind of unbearable...

Finally, one of my supervisors decided to drop me, because I left it too long to reply. I messed up not out of failure, but out of fear of failure instead. 

Seneca wrote “It is pleasant at times to play the madman”.  By year two I concluded that I would never have the right answer, so I set about trolling the faculty instead. I aspired to adoxography, elaborate writing on trivial subjects, and wrote essays on Bald Britney and Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. I tried to annoy the librarians with deliberately strange book orders, including Pornocracy (Breillat, Catherine, 2006), Boys Boyz Bois (Harris, Keith, 2006), I Love Dick (Kraus, Chris, 1997) and a book about Lacan and Patricia Highsmith, the title of which I forget, but the cover of which had a photograph of two snails fucking.

Was it rebellion, or obnoxiousness, or a refusal to take myself seriously? Why couldn’t I see doubt as something human? Shame is an element of epic tragedy, one I took to heart. Shame for having got in, when I was so patently a fraud. Shame for not knowing, and not being brave enough to ask.

Imposter Syndrome is - fittingly - not really a clinical disorder, but is a collection of consistent symptoms. The term was coined in 1978, following a study by clinical psychologists Dr Pauline R Chance and Suzanne A Imes. They examined the feeling women often experience of being a ‘fraud’ after achieving success, and their pervasive fear of being exposed.

What lies behind this ‘syndrome’? Perhaps the shock of getting what we want. Will and I graduated with the same mark, in the end. But I refused to believe Cambridge students were mortal, and therefore refused to believe I was one of them. Later studies have shown Imposter Syndrome to affect men too, though personally I believe women have a greater tendency towards it. Pretension is a game for life, one dominated by men (5). It is hard to think of a woman ‘holding forth’, but it is easy to think of one ranting. 

On the Tragedy paper I argued that shame is a metatextual conceit, in that it allows characters to question to how they will be treated by history. But shame is not just for demigods like Medea and Ajax: shame is what makes these characters relatable. It’s a human trait, one which can be blown up to epic proportions.

Lately I have accepted shame as part of the process of learning: in order to improve we must first acknowledge where we fall short. Shame fades: it morphs into the memory of only having been very young. The past becomes a place where you belonged, while outsider syndrome moves on and attaches itself to the present. 

At a supervision near the end of my time at Cambridge, I arrived too early and found myself drinking tea with my supervisor, a sixty-something Chaucer scholar. He asked me how I was getting on, and I told him I still didn’t know what I was doing. He replied “Neither do I. I’m making it up as I go along.” 

This might not have been meant as advice, but it’s what I have chosen to take with me. There is no right answer: ask, and you shall receive only more questions. 

1.A twice-annual college disco, usually meriting the consumption of Bop Juice.

2. lol

3. A cast iron lamppost located on the bus route out of Cambridge called ‘Reality Checkpoint’ marks the divide between Cambridge and the outside world. Which side is ‘reality’ depends entirely on personal preference. This is an actual thing. Look it up on Google Maps.

4. I flirt by following a girl around a bookstore and insulting every book she picks up. Works every time.”-@GuyInYourMFA

5. “Never ought words to have outweighed deeds in this world, Agamemnon. No! … There are, it is true, clever persons, who have made a science of this, but their cleverness cannot last forever; a miserable end awaits them.” Euripides. Hecuba. Trans E.P. Coleridge. Ed. Whitney Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr. Random House. 1938. Print.

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I have shame filed away somewhere at the back of my brain and emotions and amn't I lucky. I've dealt with it, been through it, processed, and by some grace have come out the other end somewhat intact.   

I'm not saying I’ve never felt it, I have. At one stage in my life I weighed twenty stone. I ate my emotions and was deeply ashamed and mortified by the human I was and how I looked. Ending my own life crossed my mind a couple of times because I couldn’t cope with the humiliation I felt about and towards myself.  I couldn’t see the me from the trees. I hated who I was. I was lost. It took years of working on my mental health and myself to finally be able to be proud of who I was. I was lucky I had the support to see me through those darker days, lucky that I had the ability to talk to friends and professionals, lucky that I had access to those frameworks that helped me.  

Many aren’t so lucky. Many don’t have the ability to seek or access help. Many do and are turned away from our institutions because they don’t have the resources or ability to help those in their darkest times. Many live in shame and fear of themselves and what they are and what they might do. Many take their own lives.

In the past five years I have lost two dear friends to suicide. Two very different people from different circles of my life. 

It was a Sunday in June 2011. I was living with my friend Mo. She was in her early 60s, full of life and vibrant to her core. I had noticed a change in Mo. She became reclusive.  Her moods would swing. She was ashamed of growing old. You’re fabulous I would tell her. Her style, her chicness - she was a gem. She was troubled. In hindsight I knew that perhaps one day she would be gone, beyond the point of rescuing. That Sunday I came home she had hung herself. In the months and year after her death I felt so much shame that I hadn’t helped her enough, that I didn’t tell her to ring the Samaritans enough, that somehow her death was at my hands too. It took a long time for that shame to subside and for me to reconcile with how she took her life and how involved I was in her last days. That shame ate away at me. Her sister wrote to me and in that letter she said that this wasn’t my fault, that if one doesn’t face one’s own demons they will remain. Mo ended her life the only way she knew how, it was just a sad fact that she couldn’t see herself the way others did.

It is a shame that those in their darkest moments can’t see the hands that are reaching out to help them, but it’s also a shame that we can’t let them go and see that their only way to continue, albeit desperate, is to be on their way out.

To lose one friend to suicide is a misfortune but to lose two, now that’s a shame.

I’d known Sean since what feels like forever. I was barely out of the closet when I met him at The George. He was one of those humans you’ll never forget. Gentle, mannerly, and full of divilment. We meandered in and out of each other’s lives, bumping into each other out on the scene or in the streets. We always talked and laughed. Sean was a creative soul, so we were naturally drawn to working together. Sean was trans, he was female to male, and we often discussed body dysmorphia and image and being your true self. A journey that I was all too familiar with, battling with my weight and losing nine and a half stone. Battling myself and finding my true identity. We started working very closely and writing a play that delved into who we were, how we got there, and how happy we were with our journeys. Both of us embraced ourselves and our pasts. Sean at that time in his life was an advocate for trans visibility, he was outspoken and very proud. Sean was some man for one man.

Sean’s life took a u-turn two years ago. Something in his head went. He lost himself and his mental health went from under him. He was steeped in shame. This was not the Sean I knew, the Sean I loved. He wanted to disappear. Wanted to move away and never come back. He sought help and was turned away several times from the institutional doors he knocked on before finally getting a room on a ward.  

 

That summer we had planned to put our play into full production, but instead it was punctuated with visits to him in hospital. Bringing him writing materials, or bottles of diet coke. Talking with him, walking and hugging it out.  I am so glad to have told Sean I loved him many times over that summer because if I hadn’t, that would have been a real shame. 

Suicide, he told me, had crossed his mind. He knew I was well versed in the matter, and I knew he was serious. 

It was a Monday in April this year and there was a voice message on my phone. I knew immediately by the tone of the voice that something had happened. My head knew but my heart hoped that it wasn’t true. In the taxi on the way to the hospital his life flashed before my eyes. The things he’d done, the places he’d seen, his laugh, and those eyes. In the ICU department his body lay there being kept alive by tubes and machines, his brain was gone though. He had jumped into the river. I felt him there beside me, whispering in my ear that his pain was gone now too. 

Sean passed away a few days later surrounded by his friends and the endless love that we all felt for him.

He lived a full life and while we’re all still shocked at his sudden passing, he did it the only way knew how, his way.

As I left the funeral home with his death fresh on my lips from kissing his forehead one last time, I took a wrong turn and ended up past the Strawberry Beds and at a part of the Liffey I’d never ventured to before. I followed the flow out and down the quays all the way to the East Link Bridge where Sean took his last breaths. I pulled over to take a moment and remembered a conversation we’d had when I was visiting him in hospital two summers previously. He said, “I won’t do that to you again Vickey, I won’t.” I looked him in his bright blue eyes and asked him to not make promises he couldn’t keep. As much as he may or may not have realised it, I was there for him, I wasn’t going to judge any of his actions. 

I am so glad to have told Sean I loved him many times over that summer he spent in hospital, because if I hadn’t, that would have been a real shame. 

 

It’s 2005 in Cork. I’m 20 years old, technically a man. I live in a flat with two other technical men. We’re all Arts students of one form or another. If, for some reason, you’d asked me if I was a feminist, I‘d have said something along the lines of “Of course, how could you not be a feminist? I consider feminism to be the default.” I thought I was great.

It’s 2016 on Twitter. I’m 31 years old, married, mortgaged, with a serious job. If, for some reason, you asked me if I was a feminist I’d tie myself in knots trying to say that I was while also avoiding calling myself a Male Feminist because men are the worst and have somehow turned “supporting the equality of men and women” into a performance and a competition. Is that what I’m doing in this very essay? Well, it’s 1300 words that use feminism as a springboard to talk all about me and my male feelings so yes, I’m the worst.

Some college boys have done something terrible and misogynistic and it’s made the news.  I’ve just gone on a multi-tweet rant about how men need to call each other out and how we need to teach our young men about consent. (Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge that the phrase ‘multi-tweet rant’ is ridiculous and trivialises everything it touches. That’s what it was though.) My rant is getting positive attention. I’m glad that it’s resonating with people but I feel uneasy. I know that College Me, the 20 year old Arts student who considered himself a feminist, was far from perfect. If you could somehow strip the facts of College Me’s life of identifying information and show them to me I’d say very mean things. I’d call him a toxic idiot. I’d say he was lying to himself. Why then do I think I have a right to comment on any man’s behaviour when I know how stupid and uninformed I was as a young man? I want to delete the tweets and say, ’Sorry, I’m a terrible hypocrite. Never listen to anything I say, I have no moral authority’.

Here are the facts of College Me which are making me feel this way.

In 2005, I’m in my final semester of an English and Philosophy degree. The only novels by female authors that I’ve read in the three years of this course are Sense and Sensibility, Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, and Sula.  I’ve never voluntarily read a novel written by a woman. I don’t have an explicit prejudice against women authors, it just literally never occurs to me to read fiction written by women.  This goes unnoticed for at least another seven years. In my defence, I do voluntarily take a module about pre-20th Century Woman Philosophers because I realised no women had appeared in any of the other philosophy modules I’d done. So don’t hate me completely, the seeds of redemption were there.

However, part of the reason I hadn’t encountered any women philosophers was because I’d summarily dismissed the Gender Studies module as not for me. I’d also done this any time a lecturer had suggested engaging with a text from a feminist perspective in the English course. Resume your hate with renewed vigour.

The centrepiece of my 2005 sitting room, which I share with two other men, is five large posters of semi-naked women from FHM. We see no problem with this. We ask women who come to our house if this bothers them. We silently judge women who are bothered by it as not being ‘Cool Girls’. Cool Girls, our thinking goes, would be fine with five 4ft posters of semi-naked women staring down at them when they’re trying to watch TV.

That year FHM released a Girl A Day calendar. One of the three of us, I genuinely can’t remember which one, has the bright idea of sticking up each day from the calendar on the opposite wall. We make it as far as April before our commitment and Blu-Tac runs out. So that’s the two opposing walls of my house covered in images of semi-naked women. Do you hate me yet? I hate me.

The worst thing about 2005 Me though is that I always laughed along when a male friend told a story about a woman that was, in retrospect, shitty. I can’t tell any of those stories, they’re not mine to tell, but it’s the women from those stories whose names I never knew who rise up and remind me that I haven’t always been the good ally I like to think I am. 

I try to distance myself from that twenty-year old idiot because I am deeply ashamed of him, his naiveté, his certainty that he was one of the good ones.  I tell myself that I had a girlfriend the whole way through college who is now my wife so I never personally acted harmfully towards a woman. I’m not The Guy in any of the stories that women tell each other in solidarity; I’ve never been the one-night stand gone wrong, or that pest in your DMs, or the crazy ex.

I try to convince myself that I was a product of my times, that, if I’d had Twitter back then to show me the way, I’d have been fine.  The posters would have been burned, I’d have sat attentively in gender studies class while respectfully not dominating conversations, that I’d have called out my friends. This is a fantasy.

When I talk about feminism now, on Twitter mostly (opportunities to talk about rape culture and toxic masculinity happen rarely when you work in an office job), it’s a form of therapy. The primary motivation of course is to speak up, to be a male voice speaking to other men and saying “this isn’t ok” but the secondary audience of every tweet is the absolute fucking dope that was 20-year old me. He thought he was so smart but he wasn’t. Also, his breakfast every morning was a bottle of Lucozade and a Nutri-Grain bar. Every tweet brings me closer to cleansing myself of his mistakes. That’s my intention anyway. I know that that little scrote will always be in there waiting to take over again. I think about all the amazing women I’m lucky enough to call my friends now and how they’d have taken one look at my 2005 sitting room and backed the fuck out of there. And they’d have been right. And I think about my wife, and how lucky I am that she sat in that room and hated it and decided to stay with me anyway. 

I wonder how far away I need to get from my former self before I can talk about these things without feeling like a fraud. I wonder if it’s right to want to cut that part of my history away or if it’s necessary, a reminder that people can change and that it’s always worth speaking up because there’s always a receptive twenty-year old who hasn’t realised he’s not finished maturing yet.

Mostly though, I just think “SORRY” over and over to any woman who felt oppressed or belittled by any choices I made no matter how passive a player I was in their story. A blinking red light in the back of my psyche, informing everything I do. 

*blink*SORRY*blink*SORRY*blink*SORRY

 

The shame we feel for being vain puts us in conflict with ourselves. At once, we’re encouraged to look our best by people around us, then mocked when something doesn’t seem effortless. I go through waves of wearing and not wearing makeup, in fits of caring and not caring how I am seen and understood. It reaches the point of self-identification to the extent that I pencil-in my unusually fair eyebrows because it feels like otherwise my expressions won’t be visible. Plastic surgery and body modification are at an extreme end of this: looking “natural” is not only intrinsically good, but also empowering. Still, popular body modification is more accepted than cosmetic surgery, because it carries certain assumptions: rather than making a statement about individuality, it is taken to indicate insecurity and anxiety. It isn’t empowering – it’s weak. 

I only really remember that I had a nose job when someone brings up plastic surgery, and it’s inevitably brought up in a disparaging way. It was so minor that my boyfriend of two years didn’t even notice at the time, and only realised years after the fact when I mistakenly forwarded him an email. I later passed through a six-year relationship never bringing it up until the last year or so, so fed up that point of casual judgements. Surgery had no psychological significance to me at the time, but increasingly, every time it came up in conversation, I felt a twinge of irritation. Still, it was mixed with embarrassment and shame. Presumably I lacked the mental fortitude of others around me and must be frivolous and shallow. Something started to bend, eventually, when I realised how policed I felt as a result of this thoughtless parroting of what “being happy in your own body” meant to people. Society wanted me to be happy in my own body, but only if it was “natural”.

The sensation of shame involves a feeling of being a deviant in someone else’s moral compass: that there is an acceptable norm that you are outside of. It puts society above the individual. It implies a transgression but, maybe more importantly, it implies a choice – that you knew there was a better option, but went, knowing what you were doing, with another, perhaps easier, more selfish one. There is little room for body dysmorphia here. Societally sanctioned shame, particularly in Ireland, takes the illegal and makes it immoral, with institutions, organisations and individuals shaming women faced with the choice of having an abortion. 

When you are unhappy with your body, you either get over it, learn to live with it or do something about it. In the media I digested as a teenager, people deal with their body dysmorphia in dramatic ways – either harmful and with evident emotional or physical pain, or through some miraculous, overnight change. It is still radical, I think, to take ownership of your physical self and re envision it in whatever way you want. Maybe an early obsession with “The Little Mermaid” later accounted for my determination that change was within my power. 

The stories from your childhood, the ones that you tell friends and strangers and by which you define yourself, are significant in our era of digital traceability. Above a certain age bracket, childhood stories cannot be corroborated – especially arriving in Ireland as an outsider. The memories I held on to both for myself, and when people ask me about childhood, inevitably emphasised a social and physical awkwardness. Which is odd, because at the time I think it was something I wanted to get away from. A lot of bullying in school centered around the fact that I preferred staying indoors to read instead of going out to play, but I remember once being put in goal because, I was told, my freakishly giant nose could deflect incoming footballs. I stopped participating pretty quickly. 

It had never occurred to me that I could do something about this constant source of unease, until my parents mentioned how an aunt of mine had done so when she was in her twenties. We corresponded. She related her own anxieties and I mine, and over time the idea of surgery was normalised.

I visited the doctor, who photographed my profile and created a mock-up of what I wanted changed; a reduced bump, still aquiline, but less noticeable. I didn't want a straight nose, and I didn't want a tiny nose, I just wanted a face that didn't feel like it belonged to someone else. I was slight and bony, with a nose that had always felt and looked off-kilter, making my already bony face even more bird-like. I had it done just after my 18th birthday, in June 2006. Just as I was finishing school, right before I moved to Ireland: the perfect time to assume a new identity.

The bruising healed in a week or so, and after the doctor removed the padding the only discernible impact was slight sensitivity. I told most people that I'd gone on holiday.  I felt much the same in myself – just as awkward, but minus the dissolute belief that I was grotesque. And it was seemingly possible to achieve this modicum of comfort by being lucky enough to be able to pay a doctor to realign some cartilage. What had made the actual difference, though, was being able to change. It came at the same time as I was able to leave a country I'd never really liked and, for the first time, live somewhere that I'd chosen myself. I mostly lived on my own for that first year and the power was dizzying. 

I never mentioned it to anyone, because it didn't seem very important. I was aware of how other people saw cosmetic surgery, and I didn't want to be judged. I didn't identify with the archetypes strangers referred to when they talked about plastic surgery and I didn't see why they had the right to make this sort of judgement. At the time, I thought I was side-stepping their judgement and my shame by not being up-front, but looking back it was acquiescence, and tacit support of this framework of thinking that made me less honest with them and with myself.

More than men, I'd often clash with other women on the subject. They wouldn't be surprised when I was pro-having-whatever-the-fuck-drug-you-need when giving birth, but they would be taken aback when I took issue with their casual dismissal of cosmetic surgery and the people who chose it. Ultimately it felt like an association of female empowerment with authenticity, which enraged me. Later, when I became more open about having had plastic surgery, some people said that I "didn't seem like the type."

Being against my sister’s decision to also have cosmetic surgery helped me to question my own bias. More than this, it revealed how inadequately equipped we are to understand the scale of someone else’s hang-ups. I was determined to see her one way, and when she wanted to take agency over her own body I felt protective. It is disquieting, maybe, when someone you feel that close to reveals an interiority distinct from how you perceive them. Disquieting because you feel as if you’ve been seeing them as their own person, but really you’ve been looking at them as an extension of yourself.

Body modification can be empowering, allowing you to recreate yourself to align with how you conceive of yourself. Still, it gives people around you more obvious tools through which to categorise you, challenging the rigidity of the private and social self while ultimately reinforcing it. When you’re asked about your sexual or gender identity, it provides a framework of assumptions. Someone once said, in what I can only hope was a misguided attempt at providing support, that being queer was great because “it’s cooler than being gay”. No matter what you’re trying to express, definitions become categories for people who want to fetishize and consume you. At least when you continue questioning another person’s assumptions (and your own) you sacrifice certainty, but gain insight.

 

At just three weeks old, a bald eagle measures over one foot in height, while their beaks and claws are almost adult-size. At four weeks, they can stand independently and have a hand in mangling their own food. At six weeks, they expand almost to the size of their parents and at eight weeks, their appetite is ravenous, forcing their elders to embark on an endless expedition of hide and seek with their prey. Their first flight takes place at approximately thirteen weeks after hatching and they begin searching for their soulmate at four or five years of age. That trajectory of independence is frightening but I’m somewhat envious of it. 

I’m not perhaps envious of the idea of finding eternal love at the age of 5, but in my mid twenties there are many aspects of quotidian life in which I’m still dependent on the kindness of strangers and a far cry from the independence of a juvenile bald eagle.

A simple example is purchasing a cup of coffee. I enjoy a vanilla latte with skimmed milk and cream. Withhold your judgement. 

Taking that first sip of delicious caffeine is a must in the hours preceding dawn but attaining that moment of satisfaction can be difficult for me. A recent visit to a coffee shop began predictably but with the added morning rush and a frazzled barista. A lack of staff, whistling machines, and impatient commuters made for an atmosphere that was fraught with tension. I was next in the queue, I could almost taste my synthetically sweet beverage. 

“Next, please. I said, NEXT, please.” “Excuse me Miss, what’s your order?”

A hue of pink rose to the tips of my ears. He couldn’t see me! I tried to wave and alert him to my presence but the glass case of delicious pastries kept me from view. I looked to the woman beside me, her ears were equally pinkened. She coughed dramatically and inclined her head in a downward direction, hinting to the barista that I was standing below. He did not pick up on her inclined head and his belligerence swelled. After another angst-filled ten seconds, in a high-pitched tone, the woman announced, “There is a lady waiting to be served - below the height of the counter.”

Jaws dropped, mouths opened and closed like a fish’s, and eyes blinked at an alarming rate. Apologies were hiccupped. My natural reaction was to laugh, this wasn’t the first time something like this had occurred and honestly, the barista wasn’t at fault. Our physical environment is built to a set of standards that appeases the majority and those of us outside that percentile have to actively find ways to manipulate and meander through it, just to survive. 

I am a little person. I have Achondroplasia – a sporadic genetic mutation that results in the most common form of dwarfism. The average height someone with Achondroplasia attains is 131 or 123 centimeters, gender dependent. Approximately 1 in every 15,000 people are born with a restricted growth condition. According to the Central Statistics Office and some simple maths, there are just over 300 people who have similar challenges to me in Ireland, difficulties which are mostly entwined with the physical world in which we live. Relying on strangers in a public bathroom is probably the most uncomfortable aspect of my own narrative.   

 The necessity of yielding to nature’s urges has turned going to the bathroom into one of my greatest challenges. On entering an ordinary public bathroom, I can reach the toilet but the sink, the soap dispenser, the hand-dryer and most challenging, the lock on the cubicle door are all out of my reach. On entering an accessible bathroom, I can reach the sink, the soap dispenser, the hand-dryer and the lock on the door but the toilet is significantly higher and is unusable. Therefore, I use the regular bathroom more often and to compensate for the high lock on the door I bring a heavy bag or a jacket to the toilet and attempt to drape them explicitly over the boundary between the cubicle and the hand-washing area, in the hope that those waiting might recognise that someone is inside. That optimism is often shook when a stranger barges in and both of us harmonise ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry’ in an attempt to conceal our embarrassment. So, instead of using garments and accessories to barricade the entry, I now just solicit assistance out of strangers.

 When I was younger, I found it extremely difficult and the initial attempts at asking for help were painful. Explaining to a stranger that I needed them to take a stationary position outside the bathroom door like a bodyguard, was difficult to articulate and filled me with more notions than Beyoncé. These days I’ve perfected my elevator pitch and quickly ask a fellow bathroom-user to jam the door closed using a hand or foot. It is still somewhat wrought with tension but for the most part, people are immeasurably kind. 

Much of the rhetoric that surrounds people with disabilities is framed by the media as a narrative of triumph over adversity, success in spite of a genetic or cognitive difference but instead, I take the position that I am the person I have become because of my disability. I am sensitive and compassionate due to my innate understanding of being othered, I am skillful and creative because I am forced to view physical plains through a different lens and I am meticulous and organised because being unprepared could leave you without access to caffeine or a toilet. I am resilient. I am bold. I am inquisitive. 

 I am also shameless or at least, somewhat shameless. I abandoned the embarrassment that is intrinsically tied to asking questions and particularly, seeking help in my youth. The notion that articulating your lack of independence should be oppressive is something I actively repel. It works to my advantage. Harvesting a confidence and a vocabulary that gives me the opportunity to proposition strangers has resulted in some of my greatest achievements. It saw me sitting next to twice Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan, interviewing her about the importance of female friendship, it allowed me to question a broadcaster’s use of derogatory language and later receive a public apology and it gave me the courage to meet with prospective supervisors and apply to do a PhD.  

We do not all grow and mature at the same pace. We are not born with a skillset that merely has to be activated – we must labour and educate ourselves on how our culture, environment and social standing can be adapted to our needs and desires. 

I still find it challenging to tie up my hair and to walk down the street without being objectified by people staring and pointing, but having Achondroplasia has positively moulded and shaped my ethics, personality and consciousness in ways which I couldn’t even attempt to list. I wouldn’t change, even if I could leave the nest alongside a bald eagle. 

In Ireland we all know the difficult relationship we have with sex. Our bodies and desires tell us sex is a natural thing. Sexual health education tells us that we are tools for reproduction. Our parents rarely tell us anything. Male friends boast about their sex life to make themselves seem higher on the popularity totem pole. Our female friends hide their notches on a bedpost in fear of being slut shamed. Porn can make you feel inadequate and Irish society tells us that sex is something to be ashamed of. It’s no wonder things are fucked up.

I am also homosexual. These days we have full equality but there’s a huge swathe of society that is still put off by the idea of gay sex.

Now give a gay person HIV. 

I was 21 when I was diagnosed. I was fresh out of college and was going to work in conservation in Australia. Job waiting. Money saved. Life sorted. 

When the consultant turned in her chair and told me that my HIV test came back positive I felt nothing. I immediately asked if I could still go to Australia. The answer was no. I could not receive a residency visa because of my status. Then I asked would I survive? All I knew about HIV was AIDS. The image of the person living with AIDS was bright in my mind. Was I going to become that? I was reassured that the medications are so good these days that I would live a long and healthy life. 

They never said anything about quality of life though.

It wasn’t until I was in the car home from the hospital with my mam that it fully hit me.“I am the only 21 year-old living with HIV in Ireland. No one will want me now.” This feeling of being dirty was overpowering. I felt alone, unclean, and ashamed. 

 I have never heard HIV spoken about in an Irish context. I knew no one living with HIV. Did it even exist in Ireland? How did someone who was constantly in long-term relationships, was fresh out of college, and was about to achieve his dream, get this diagnosis? What became really clear to me then was this immense sense of Other. I’ll always be different. I will always be put in the face of judgement. Being gay was one thing. Being HIV positive was another. It is like being queer squared. Queer inception. A queer within a queer. 

At 21 I was a walking embodiment of the shame our society attributes towards sex. Saying people living with HIV are walking embodiments of shame may feel like a bold or dramatic statement. One only needs to live a day in the life of someone who is “poz” to understand the truth of this statement. 

HIV is probably one of the most manageable chronic conditions you can have if it’s caught early. The medication that’s available isn’t toxic, it’s easy to take (1 pill a day), and gives you a normal life span. Medically we are sorted. On top of that, once you take your medication everyday and get the HIV virus so low in your body – a term we call undetectable – studies show the chances of you passing on HIV (with or without condoms) is closer to an absolute 0! So we’re going to live long, healthy lives, and we aren’t infectious. 

Where is the problem? 

The problem arises every time you tell a potential boyfriend. You are constantly putting yourself in the face of judgement. 

Personally, I’ve always had this fifth date rule. No sex till the fifth date. That is also the date I tell them about my status.  I do this because I want people to see me as Robbie, not Robbie who has HIV. It may seem like a small distinction but it is massive. You’re not labelled as a virus. You are seen for who you are. Thankfully I’ve never had someone get up and leave when I told them my status. I did experience a relationship where I was seen only as a vector. We got along amazingly. It was all going great. Then the thoughts just couldn’t leave his mind. “What if I get it? Should we be having sex so much? Is this a longterm thing?”

Selfie.jpg

HIV can make you feel ashamed because sometimes people make you think that you are a vector, an infection. Every sexual act could potential give your loved one a virus you hate. The science says differently. In fact, it’s safer to be with someone who’s living with HIV and taking their medication every day, than sleeping around with people who are unaware of their status. Science tells us one thing – society tells us another.   

There is also this sentence that is thrown a lot in Irish HIV society - “Once you say it, you can never take it back.” I was told this countless times. There is truth in it. This is certainly a reality in Ireland. If you tell someone, they could tell other people, it can always get back to close family and friends. What does this advice tell us though? While it is practical in many ways it has also frustrated me to no end. It makes us ashamed of ourselves for having a manageable chronic condition that cannot be passed on. We don’t tell anyone because society will see us as ‘deviant’, ‘unclean’, ‘unfit parent’. If it gets out people will know your secret. 

“Once you say it, you can never take it back,” has influenced the lives of many people I know. 

A woman who has not told anyone, not her partner, child, friends, family, no one. She writes to me on a fake profile and we talk for hours. She’s been living with HIV for the past 15 years. A heterosexual man who’s been living with HIV for 10 years. His wife left him. He hasn’t dated another woman. He has only told his best mate. He doesn’t want to face rejection after his last marriage. He also doesn’t want to justify his sexuality to anyone. He is heterosexual and not bisexual. Heknows it shouldn’t matter but he fears it will be another reason for a woman to reject him.

The stories go on and on. 

One day I got a text from a very close friend of mine who’s living with HIV. My friend sent me a screenshot of a message he received from someone because of his status. The message was awful. I couldn’t comprehend how someone could be sent something so horrible. The message of hate was shrouded in fear and ignorance. 

I’d had enough. 

I decided I couldn’t go on being an idle spectator in a society that sees my friends and I as less. In that moment I made the decision to talk openly about my status and experiences and become an activist. Every time I heard people say stigmatising things it came from a place of ignorance about HIV and the anger I feel motivates me everyday.

Right now my vision is to reach zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths, and zero stigma and discrimination in my lifetime. We have the resources to end AIDS and stop new HIV infections but we can’t achieve these goals without addressing the stigma and discrimination. 

And It’s not all doom and gloom. The power of telling a story and giving a face to a statistic is amazing. I’ve seen so many people courageously admit their ignorance and apologise for how they perceived people living with HIV.

We need to start implementing change. What kind of society allows thousands of their citizens to live in shame and silence? It’s my wish for people not to be walking embodiments of shame but walking embodiments of freedom.

I remember the first time I felt shame. As a child the emotion of shame was alien to me. It's a complex emotion, one that needs a person to be self-aware and self-awareness is not a priority when the biggest problem in your life is paint turning brown when you mix all the colours together.

I'd recently moved to a small village in Westmeath from the metropolis of Mullingar. I’d invited a few girls from my new school as well as my best friend and her older sister from my old town, to the mother of all sleep-overs. I had marshmallows and hot chocolate as well as the Spice Girls’ unofficial biography fresh from the travelling school library. I learned so much that night. I learned Emma Bunton attended the same stage school as Denise Van Outen. I wondered if they were pals, what did they talk about while following their dreams? I also found out that allowing yourself to breathe 'down there' was not as common as I thought and that wearing knickers is generally considered appropriate sleep-over attire.

I understood at the time that this get-together was a big deal. I'd moved schools a few times before I was eight, this was not my first rodeo. However, because I'd moved around a lot I’dended up reading books and talking to my parents more often than socialising with children my own age. This sleep-over was going to be a level playing field. 

But I had a deep secret. I occasionally pissed the bed. I hadn't done it in a few years and it never phased me but somehow I knew just like wearing no knickers to bed this wouldn't wash in a group environment. So I emptied my bladder as much as I could before getting into the shared single bed with four other girls. As my eyes grew heavy I dreamed of Geri Halliwell's adventures in Turkey as a young woman before the Spice Girls.

Suddenly a hand shook me. My best friend's older sister loomed over me, her face in an expression ofdisgust as the piss ran cold down my leg and as my face heated up hotter than a blow torch. My chest felt like an airbag exploded inside and time slowed down as the liquid spread on the mattress like a horrible army invading a stricken country. 

Everyone looked at me. The party was ruined, my Spice Girls book was damp, and I wondered would I ever learn more about Mel C. There was no laughter, just shock, as mam bundled the sheets into the washing machine, commending her own foresight in not having removed the plastic protector. I stood there slightly damp, praying we'd have to move to Longford where no one would know me. I could begin again as a cool funny girl incapable of expelling any bodily fluid. I'd be a queen held on the dry shoulders of my peers. But I was here and would have to plough through, facing up to the horrible incident.

I still slightly blush while writing it.

Over time worse things have happened, but you never forget your first feelings of shame. My brain felt flooded with an emotion I've never felt before. It would happen again and again, but the results were the same. My friends stayed my friends and life didn't change much.

I barely feel shame anymore, after a few small doses in my life I'm inoculated.

You realise after a while that everyone has their own stuff to deal with and no one cares. Years ago I used to pour over the embarrassing stories section in teen magazines. They would have fun little blushing graphics and rate the embarrassment on a scale of ten, so that as a reader you could gauge where you belonged in the ‘scarlet scheme of things’. 

It was weird. I wondered did lads have this same fascination with embarrassing stories? I carried out a survey (a few of my friends). Yes they entertained themselves by sharing embarrassing stories but it was more jokes about the origin of nicknames and for the sake of a good story.

Meanwhile, girls had shame in a package to be bought and consumed in teen magazine format, telling tales of blood spotting and falling on a school tour. Reading the embarrassing stories was a way of making yourself feel better.  You may have called your maths teacher mammy that day, but at least you didn't leave a used tampon beside your crush like a hand grenade.

Now I see those ‘cringe’ sections of teen magazines as a disaster for young girls, a tool to keep shame a large part of girls’ lives. Originally those stories were a way to know that life continues after blowing snot on the school bus window and sure if you tell Mizz about it you might win a new Rimmel make-up set for your trouble. But in the end they did more harm than good, teaching girls that self-awareness they’d so far avoided and left unexplored.

But who told the lads not to experience shame? They had a jury of shit-head peers and they didn't have Lizzie Maguire making a tit of herself and overcoming her shame every episode. I would see fist fights at the back of the school that were essentially over shame, as if beating the crap out of each other would get their pride back. I think there would be a lot less violence if more people read confessional literature. Let's make every arms dealer slip in a few old copies of Just 17 with an AK-47, we may not all believe in the same god but at least we didn't sext our dad by accident.