Making a Death Plan

Monksilver Church, April 2010

I feel like people find it a little strange that I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want done with my body when I die. I’m 22, I’m in good health and while plenty of people in my family have potentially hereditary diseases and conditions, I can only think of one (fairly distant) relative who died young. I’m very lucky in that respect.

The only condition that comes close to being life-threatening for me is my mental health, and even that has been far more stable over the last year than ever before.

But things do happen. I could develop a fatal illness, or be hit by a car. And I think it’s important that my wishes are made known in case of such an occasion.

Being non-religious makes settling on a death plan both easier and more difficult. I don’t have any beliefs regarding the afterlife and what I’ll need there, what body parts are sacred, or what burial customs are and aren’t acceptable from a spiritual perspective. This means my options aren’t limited, which is neat. It also means I have less guidance on what I should be looking for, which is less neat.

Then there’s the financial aspect, of course. This is the factor I’ve put the least thought into for the simple reason that it’s significantly more depressing than thinking of death ever will be. I don’t have the sort of money to start thinking of saving for my funeral, or investing in life insurance. I can just about afford to pay my living rent right now, so I figure there’s no point in looking at finances for death until a little later in life. At the end of the day, my burial will be determined by my (or my family’s) finances at the time of my death, and I can only hope efforts will be made to get as close to my ideal burial as prices will allow. (I don’t want anything fancy anyway)

As far as I’m concerned, the question of organ donation is a no-brainer. When I’m dead, I won’t need my organs anymore – take them all. I’m intrigued by the amount of people who have no religious or spiritual beliefs but when asked about donation are willing to give everything but their eyes, or their heart. It’s a deeply personal decision, of course, and I fully respect their preferences. But I’m always curious to hear more about why they feel that way.

Regarding brain death: If a doctor says I’m not going to wake up, it’s pretty dang likely I’m not going to wake up. I want life support left on only long enough to keep my heart suitable for transplant. Once that’s no longer useful/necessary, I want it turned off.

Once any useful organs have been taken, it comes down to what should be done with the body.

I try hard to be logical here, and I know that there’s no real reason that I shouldn’t donate my body to science. It’s important that medical students have cadavers to work on. However, at this moment in time, I’m just… not comfortable with that, somehow?

I may well change my mind in time, but for now I’m only comfortable with organs being removed for transplant rather than dissection. (This, perhaps, is something else I should read about in greater detail.)

IMG_2781For a long time, I favoured cremation as my means of burial. I wanted my body cremated, and the ashes buried and marked subtly. The idea of my body being put in a box and left to decompose over an undisclosed period of time made me deeply uncomfortable, so I was happier with the concept of being put in an enclosed space only for long enough that my body would be turned to ash – a significantly shorter time period. I also viewed urns and other ash-containers as being less flashy and therefore simpler than and superior to the larger, clunkier coffin options.

Last month, however, I finally had the pleasure of reading Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity and have since been giving even more thought to the topic. As Doughty points out:

… after the 1,800-degree cremation process, the remaining bones are reduced to inorganic, basic carbon. With everything organic (including DNA) burned away, your sterile ashes are way past being useful to plants or trees. There are nutrients, but their combination is all wrong for plants, and don’t contribute to ecological cycles.

As a teenager, I saw information about the Bios Urn floating across my Tumblr feed and latched onto that notion, but Doughty also explains this idea isn’t quite as perfect as it sounds:

Bios Urn resembles a large McDonald’s cup filled with soil, a tree seed, and a place for cremated remains… Bios Urn charges $145 for one of their urns. The symbolism is beautiful. But symbolism does not make you part of the tree.

The disappointment (and mild outrage at myself for not realising this sooner) that I felt when I read this was unpleasant, but it was good because it made me realise what it was that mattered to me about my burial. I don’t believe in reincarnation or souls or anything like that, but I do like the idea of becoming a tree. And by this, I mean I want the nutrients that make up my body to return to the soil and provide nutrition for decomposers, then plants, then animals.

I realise that what I actually want is a natural burial – just me and a hole, no coffin, no smoke and no embalming. And research suggests that this is… potentially possible? There are no natural burial grounds in Northern Ireland, but there is one in the Republic. Being buried somewhere like Woodbrook Natural Burial Ground in Co. Wexford would allow my body to decompose like it’s meant to, and a tree can be planted on the grave.

Ideally, this plan won’t have to be executed for another 50+ years, but I get a strange satisfaction from knowing what I want done. I’m yet to take any steps like writing my Advance Directive, but making sure people around me know my wishes is better than nothing until I get around to that.


Revisited: Moments to Remember

BA Graduation, Summer 2016

Last time I covered moments to remember, I struggled to come up with three key moments from the previous 18 years. I settled on a couple of biggies:

  1. My parents’ divorce;
  2. Getting accepted into QUB;
  3. Meeting my first university flatmates.

I want to do a similar thing today – three important moments (different to the three previously covered) from my last 22 years.


1. Springtime in Second Class of Primary School. Lunchtime. This time I was in the front yard at school, after the grass had been taken out and replaced with tarmac. The school building was shaped like a square, with a smaller square sticking out of the front (this was the front door before the extension moved the entrance to the side of the school). I was in the corner to the right of this front entrance, which is where “stamps” was generally played, when it was allowed.

I was standing with my back to the corner, and behind me was my friend (perhaps more accurately described as a frenemy – she made my life a living hell at the best of times, and was my first experience of emotional bullying, but I was thrilled that she’d deemed me worthy of friendship so I chose to ignore that fact), Carly.

Facing us was David, a very angry boy from the class below mine. He was not trying to hit or kick me, but wasn’t making an effort *not* to kick me in his bid to hit Carly. I was standing in front of her, intentionally taking his beating so that he wouldn’t be able to hit my friend.

I think I reasoned that it made sense because she was less tough than me, but really I was probably trying to be the big man and score some sweet friend points.

When a teacher turned the corner and came across the scene, I remember thinking that we were saved, and that surely David would be in for it now. But the teacher just glanced at us, said “Can you three not at least try and play nicely?” and walked away in disgust.

Audio Daddio Wild West Episode. Left to Right: Niall and Rachel (guests) and myself (host).

2. 30th June 2016. Afternoon. The day of my BA graduation was ridiculously hectic, on account of my mother and sister being there. The one moment of vague celebration I found happened when my year group was called for a group photo. Even this was a minor disaster, though: even though the photo had been organised in advance by email, the majority of the year had managed to mistake a group photo of my friend group which turned into a much larger group photo in newspapers for the year group photo, and as a result missed the actual one.

Somehow, Niall (my boyfriend at the time, still my best friend) and I managed to be two of the select few who made it to the professional group photo. As the shot was about to be taken, I whispered to my friend Rachel to “smile like you have a future,” but my volume control has always been lacking at the best of times and the whole group ended up hearing and turning towards me, maybe 30% laughing and 70% looking confused and vaguely upset.

After the photo, Niall and I paused to talk to two of our lecturers, Stephen and Caroline. Stephen commented that we were a lovely couple and I got embarrassed. Caroline, who had previously said that it was highly unlikely I’d be able to graduate with a First, was being incredibly supportive and I got more embarrassed. Niall announced that I’d been given a scholarship to complete a masters and I got more embarrassed still, though I was secretly pleased that they knew about it now.

L to R: Me, Kieran, Nicole, Rachel.

3. 15th February 2017. Evening. Despite being more than halfway through a Master’s degree in reading and writing poetry, I had somehow never read to a crowd. This night, I went to Poetry & Pints, a local poetry event, having decided that I would change that. My brain seemed to be working against me, though: I hadn’t even signed up to read yet and already I was sweating buckets and shaking violently.

My main sources of anxiety were not the largish crowd I’d be reading to, but rather a selection of its members – respected PhD poets, my recent ex-boyfriend, the guy I fancied.  This was the hour of my reckoning.

But despite all of that, I did stand up and I did read. I was a shaky mess and skipped lines of my own poems. I was, by anyone’s standards, an awful and awkward stage presence. But I did it, and that’s kind of all that matters.

I’ve read at loads of poetry events since, and I’m still not very good at it. But I’ll get there… maybe!

Here’s to more memorable moments to come!


My First Year as Toby

Conor and I at Crawfordsburn Country Park
Conor and I at Crawfordsburn Country Park

On the 10th February 2017, I publicly came out as transgender and requested that the people around me address me as Toby from now on. Of all the things I’ve done in my life so far, nothing has been quite so terrifying. This was a real sort of dread-type fear, because I knew that there were more people out there that would reject me than accept me, and I knew that I was related to a good few of them.

There are a few things I still feel sad about as a result of that decision.

Dad, Eil and II regret that I didn’t come out to my sister, that she found out when I updated my Facebook status. My reasoning at the time was that I knew she wouldn’t have a problem with me being who I am, and that to a certain extent she probably already knew. But that doesn’t mean she should have had to find out on Facebook. More and more now, I think I had just run out of steam by the time I’d come out to both of my parents, my closest friends and my recent ex-boyfriend, and I wasn’t feeling another conversation of the same nature. I got lazy, and as a result I denied her a conversation that could have been really good for both of us. And to make matters worse, I allowed her to worry that maybe the reason I hadn’t told her directly was that I thought little enough of her that I believed she would have a problem with it. If I’d given my choice a second’s thought, I would have known that would have been the first conclusion she’d come to. But I didn’t, and I still feel bad about that.

And I feel frustrated that I can’t afford to change my name properly just yet, and that my resulting multitude of names is making university applications and other bureaucratic adventures a massive pain in the bottom.

And I feel sad that there are still people out there that know who and what I am, and know what that means, and still choose to call my by the wrong name and pronouns. Because I know I’m asking people to make an effort, and I hate asking that as much as you hate being asked that. And I don’t quite have the words to say every time that it’s feeling a lot like you don’t believe I’m worth the effort. And I don’t want to start believing that maybe you’re right, that I’m not worth it.

And I regret that I don’t have the words to explain why what I’m doing is necessary, acceptable, and maybe not entirely selfish.

But there are many more things that I’m happy about as a direct result of my social transition. I didn’t know that being honest about the person I am would have such a massive impact on who that person gets to be. I am growing and changing in the most wonderful ways, and the changes have been entirely mental and emotional.

I carry myself more confidently now, and have the confidence and energy to do things I couldn’t even consider previously. I can stand in front of crowds and talk almost comfortably, and I can read my own work with only a minimal amount of embarrassment (and really, it’s necessary for a poet to be at least a little bit embarrassed if they want to avoid becoming a complete dickhead). I’ve had work published in a surprising number of print and online publications, and have been rejected by many, many more publications, and each rejection just comes to me as permission to edit those pieces and submit them somewhere else. Before, I didn’t have the nerve to submit anything, because the rejection would have destroyed me.

Curtis and I in Elms, Thanksgiving 2016. Curtis was an RA that year!

And I have made so many exciting new friends, and I have made these friends because it turns out I’m one hell of a lot more likeable when I have a tiny sprinkling of self-esteem to allow me to actually interact fully. I had wonderful friends before, but it always felt like they were people who had somehow come to like me in spite of and not because of who I was (and that’s not to say that those friendships aren’t valuable: they are incredibly valuable. They just also happen to have been coloured entirely on my end by my self-obsessed self-loathing, and that has been entirely my problem even if I’ve sometimes projected it onto others).

And I’ve somehow ended up in this… really… great… relationship?? And that’s a fckn surprise.

That’s not to say I wasn’t capable of being in relationships before: I had one of each – one fuck-awful controlling bad jesus christ it was bad relationship and one completely wonderful relationship with someone who is still my best friend (which came with my very own Baby’s First Heartbreak but that’s just life like). But it’s sort of different now.

I spent my first week as an openly trans guy crying maybe 50% of my waking hours, and the reasons alternated between breakup blues, stress, terror, loneliness and more stress. But I do remember one day where I cried a serious amount over the fear that being trans would make it even more difficult to find someone who was willing to love me. Because trying to find a partner as someone with little-to-no interest in s e x (asexual? late bloomer? suffering the longterm effects of the Abby Vocational School’s lack of sex ed classes? Who knows!!) has been daunting from the moment my peers hit puberty and seemingly left me behind in that, but trying to find someone to be in a relationship with you despite having a number of incorrect and uncomfortable body parts is terrifying. In fact, it’s worse than terrifying, because terrifying implies that you don’t know what the outcome will be, while I was fairly convinced I knew what my outcome would be.

And like, spoiler alert, I was absolutely incorrect. And while I’m still able to justify the fear to myself, I was “out” for less than a week before I ended up in a relationship with someone who seems to actually sorta care about and maybe even fancy me?? Magic!

Bonus proof I was wrong: I know a heckload of trans and non binary people now. I can’t currently think of one who is single.

But you know, trans people are unloveable, obviously.

Revisited: Living with Grammar Nazis

Our attitudes toward language determine where language goes.

My attitude toward the English language hasn’t really changed all that much over the past number of years. I see it as something weird and flexible and interesting, something to play with. A good sentence can be like a mathematical problem. I know that languages change as time goes on, and I love that. I love being able to study Old English as if it’s an entirely different language. I love that the language has changed a lot even in the last century. Where would the fun be if things stayed the same?

The prescriptive approach, on the other hand, is based on notions of “correctness” in language. It decides what people should say, and distinguishes “good” language from “bad” language. This is where you’ll find your common-or-garden Grammar Nazis.

That’s why I despair when people feel the need to correct each other’s grammar. It’s rude, it’s unnecessary, and it steps in the way of the natural development of a language.

I wish I could say I’ve always held this standpoint. Unfortunately, I was a precocious git as a child and adolescent, and chose to express this by showing everyone how much smarter I was than them. (In my defence, my bookishness was all I really brought to the table at that stage and it was just exciting to be noteworthy in some way or other). I felt the need to correct everyone‘s spelling, grammar and general vocabulary, and looked down on those who didn’t hold these things to the same importance that I did.

It isn’t for me to say what the “right” way of looking at a language is. I know that there are two approaches, prescriptive and descriptive. I know that as far as my opinion goes, the descriptive approach is the only way to live. I also know that there loads of people who would disagree, many of whom are far more intelligent, educated and experienced than I am.

I think that what I like about the descriptive approach is that it’s realistic. Value is placed on what people say in real life, rather than what the rulebook says they should be saying. The ways in which people use language every day is magical. It’s constantly flowing and changing, incorporates puns and references and tradition. It’s a massive elastic mess and I adore it, that’s why I study it.

And prescriptivism has its own merits too, of course. It gives us rules and structures, helps us know how to use different types of language in different circumstances, makes it easier for people to learn foreign languages. But it also makes it easier for people to judge each other, as I did when I was younger, and to tell each other what they should be doing.

I also worry that those who hold “proper” English in too high esteem run the risk of falling into the trap of classism. After all, what’s the easiest way to mock people in classes below you? Do you mock them for their lower wages, their reduced access to healthcare and more limited opportunities, all of which are controlled by the greed of those in the higher classes? Or do you mock them for their grammar and general use of language, how it makes them sound stupid and lazy (after all, who in their right mind chooses to be poor)?

The thing is, there are some fairly common ways of phrasing a sentence that are ungrammatical but essential.

There are a lot of sentences out there that aren’t technically correct, but which couldn’t be phrased correctly without adding a string of unnecessary words. If I were to walk into your house right now and ask if your Aunt Susan was in, you could easily reply with the incorrect sentence “Suzie doesn’t be here” and I would understand what you were trying to communicate.

You could say “Suzie isn’t here“, but that doesn’t mean the same thing. “Suzie isn’t here just means that right now, Suzie isn’t in the same room as us. “Suzie doesn’t be here” has a more complex meaning than that.

“Suzie doesn’t be here” could more accurately be explained as: “My Aunt Susan may well have been here in the past, but she hasn’t been here recently. She does not spend time here right now.” Or you could say, “Suzie isn’t generally here” or “Suzie doesn’t tend to be here.” And all of those things would be correct, but they’re longer and a bit too formal for everyday usage. It’d be as easy to just suck it up and accept “Suzie doesn’t be here” as your final answer.

“Youse” is a word which I never really encountered until I moved to Northern Ireland, but it is one of which I have grown quite fond.

“Youse” is also another example of a term that isn’t there in “proper” English, but I wish it was. I wish our language had something like the French equivalent, vous. A word used to refer to you plural would be incredibly handy. As would a word for you that implies a certain amount of respect. I guess making these two words into one as the French have would be only economical – we only have so many letters.

I think that it is important for us to see little bits of language like this not as disgusting abominations, but as interesting and rather useful ways of playing with the language.

My only fear here is that my attraction to these little colloquialisms can never be objective. I grew up spending more time reading than talking to actual human beings, and as a result I talk like a book. I don’t really have any little words and phrases that aren’t used in standard English, and if I do I’ve only picked them up recently.

Maybe I only like things like youse and craic because they seem strange and exotic to me. And if this is the case, is my admiration of the words really any better than snobbish dismissal?

I guess this is something I need to think about a little more.

Audio Daddio: My Year on Radio

The year of 2015 – 2016 was an interesting one. It was the final year of my undergraduate, and I was deep in the clutches of medieval cultures and literature. I was in a relationship for the first time, having avoided that sort of thing since my deeply unpleasant experiences as a teenager. I had cut off all of my hair “for charity” (yes, it raised £500 odd for CRUK, but the real reason for the haircut wouldn’t come out for another year). And, perhaps most strangely of all, I was hosting a weekly radio show called Audio Daddio.

This wasn’t some big, network radio show of course. We were on Queen’s Radio and had a weekly following of maybe around 20 people, mostly the other presenter Kieran’s family and online friends. The show’s name, Audio Daddio, was a reference to a shared interest of ours, the Cartoon Network show “Steven Universe”:

Our show wasn’t wildly professional. We’d take it in turns to come up with a theme each week, and make a playlist to go with that theme. We did a bit of talking every couple of songs, but mostly it was just about playing the music we’d come across while doing our prep. The music was generally split pretty evenly between the best songs we could find and the most ridiculous songs we could find.

Audio Daddio Christmas Episode: Kieran and I with guests Rachel (bottom left) and Chantelle (top right).

I guess the reason me being on the radio (even in this tiny way) was exciting was that it’s not something anyone expected me to be capable of. I’ve always been very quiet and timid. As a child, I’d run in terror if anyone showed up at my house, even if it was someone I’d known my whole life. I was the kid who’d be paired up with the teacher on school trips while everyone else chose their best friend for the task.

By the time I was in secondary school, being “shy” was no longer an alright trait to have. I felt left behind in any sort of group work there was. At best, I was something of a mascot for the class. At worst, I was to be ridiculed and looked down on. In fourth year, I started learning sign language in a bid to never have to talk again. This didn’t work, of course. Teachers stopped asking me to answer questions in class.

The students in university were kinder, but I still carried that mascot sort of vibe with me wherever I went. I never got higher than 5/10 in class contribution marks – not because I wasn’t trying, but because I wasn’t talking.

Audio Daddio Wild West Episode. Left to Right: Niall and Rachel (guests) and myself (host).

You can imagine people’s surprise, then, when they learned I was presenting my own radio show. But I was doing it and, even more surprisingly, I was enjoying it.

I made friends I never would have met otherwise, and developed a whole new set of skills – everything from working recording equipment to public speaking. I think it’s probably one of the few extracurricular CV-boosting things I’ve done that I’ve actually benefitted from as a person rather than as a sheet of information.

Our show was not amazing. It was full of “umm”s and “ahh”s, and the jokes were likely far funnier to us than to any of our small following, but it really didn’t matter all that much. We were making something interesting to us, and I think that’s kind of neat.

If you’re in a university or school that has its own radio station, I really recommend pushing yourself to give it a go. It may sound like the least appealing thing on earth, but it’ll be worth it. (And if it isn’t for you, at least you can say that you tried!)

Revisited: Midweek Music (Too-Rye-Aye)

Considering I was only born in 1995, I guess it’s pretty odd that I grew up listening to music from bands like The Jags and Dexys Midnight Runners.

Back when I started this blog, I decided to do something called “Midweek Music” where I would make a playlist and write a little about it every Wednesday. While a lot has changed in my life since then, one thing that remains the same is my love of music. I figure it makes sense to continue this tradition, at least to a certain degree.

sufjan_stevens_-_illinoisThis week, I’ve mostly been listening to Sufjan Stevens’ two Christmas albums. They’re bright and wholesome, and they did a great job of getting me into a festive mood. Christmas, of course, is over now, so I’d best recommend another album – my go-to Sufjan album, Illinois.

Meanwhile, for my playlist, I want to do a little call-back to my older playlists. Here’s one prompted by Dexys Midnight Runners:

We Are Far Too Young and Clever

  1. Fall Out Boy – Young Volcanoes
  2. Dexys Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen
  3. The Killers – When You Were Young 
  4. The Boomtown Rats – Rat Trap 
  5. Steven Universe – Haven’t You Noticed (I’m a Star)” ft. Steven & Sadie 
  6. The Alarm – 68 Guns
  7. Grouplove – Ways to Go
  8. David Bowie – Oh! You Pretty Things
  9. fun. – We Are Young
  10. The Jam – Going Underground
  11. Sufjan Stevens – The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!

  12. The Dandy Warhols – Get Off
  13. Stornoway – Zorbing
  14. Talking Heads – Road to Nowhere
  15. Blind Pilot – I Buried A Bone 
  16. Blur – He Thought of Cars
  17. The Big Moon – Sucker
  18. David Bowie – Drive In Saturday
  19. Young the Giant – Cough Syrup
  20. Talking Heads – Blind
  21. Supergrass – Alright 
  22. The Style Council – Walls Come Tumbling Down
  23. Vampire Weekend – Diane Young 
  24. The Lambrettas – Da-A-A-Ance
  25. Sonny & The Sunsets – green blood

I’ve also put this together as an extended list on Spotify, here. Happy listening!


Meet the Malteasers

After my friendship-breakup, I needed to make some new friends. I ended up falling in with the people from my first year group project (some of whom had also come to boardgame night a few months prior to the drama. This ended up being a pretty great move. The group I ended up joining turned out to be some of the loveliest people I could ever home to meet, some of whom I am still incredibly close to and all of whom I still consider firm friends.

The group was fairly large, with 10-15 members, and everyone was utterly unique. The factor that seemed to tie everyone there together seemed to be that everyone was very kind, affectionate. Another factor seemed to be that a disproportionate amount of us fell somewhere on the queer spectrum.

Top L to R: Kieran, Alisha. Bottom L to R: Fionn, myself, Chantelle, Nicole, Jonathan. 

Kieran and I became firm friends fairly early on in my presence in the group. We shared a love of cartoons, bad jokes and worse memes. His housemate at the time was Fionn, and it took me some time to figure out that they were two different people as they both had English accents and I had never seen them in the same room.

Alisha was a member of my group project team back in first year, so she was one of my main links to the group. We’ve maintained a not-overly-emotional but highly appreciative friendship consistently ever since, and have many memories of terrible, terrible late night study sessions.

Chantelle used to host a radio show with Alisha, and continued to broadcast on her own until she graduated from university. She ended up getting Kieran and I onto Queen’s Radio for one sweet year. I’m pretty convinced she’s going to take over all forms of broadcast media at some stage.

L to R: Me, Kieran, Nicole, Rachel.

I had a crush on Rachel for the longest time, and our semi-flirtatious friendship was very much spurred on by the “shipping” of our friends. We fancied each other at separate times, which is unfortunate. That said, we’re both in our own happy relationships right now, so perhaps it’s for the best!

Rachel has told me she wanted to befriend me while I was still deep in the clutches of my friendship with Janet, but didn’t feel as though she was allowed to talk to me. That either speaks to the weirdness of that relationship, or to me being manipulative enough to rewrite other people’s memories of their own pasts. I sincerely hope it’s the former, I don’t want to be capable of manipulating anyone ever.

Kieran and Claire

Claire was another person I met early on in my time at Queen’s, but didn’t get to befriend fully until second year. By nature of Claire’s overwhelming goodness and need to make sure everyone is happy and fine (Claire is quite genuinely the best person I know, and likely the best I ever will know) she got me to join her quiz team in the first week of first year because I was sitting on my own. Claire is vegan, but not preachy about it. She adores all animals (especially cows) and as much as she’d no doubt like for everyone to adopt less cruel lifestyles is content to just do her part to make things better. She has approximately one million pets, all of whom adore her. She dropped out of our degree to take a course in speech and language therapy, because that would allow her to do more to help people. Claire is one of those people who should make you feel bad about yourself for being far inferior but somehow still transmits a vibe of being so in awe of everyone else that feeling bad is impossible. Claire makes people happy.

L to R: Chantelle, Niall, Kieran.

Niall is another friend I have had a crush on, but we actually ended up having a very nice relationship which is very unusual in the grand scheme of crushes. Right back at the start of our friendship, he took a trip to Canada with his family and had a pretty awful time because he doesn’t really get on with them at all. The bright side was that I had pretty bad insomnia at that time, and ended up being one of the only people he knew back in Belfast who would be awake when it was daytime in Canada. We got to know each other a lot better over the few weeks he was there. He then made the mistake of joking that he wished we were all over there with him, at which point I had the bright idea of photoshopping our friends into his holiday snaps. The results…

Sky face: Orla. Back row L to R: Nicole, Lydia, myself, Orla, Fionn. Front L to R: Rachel, Kieran, Claire.

After a year of dating we broke up back in January, and proceeded to have a few awkward months of me being very upset and him being very upset and then me being upset because I didn’t feel like he was justified in being upset having dumped me, and him being upset because I was being inconsiderate, and so on and so on. It turns out that when someone dumps you, it’s very easy to forget that that might be an upsetting experience for them too. Probably not as upsetting as being dumped, but still upsetting. I hope that if I get dumped again I can keep that in mind and be more supportive. The good news is that we’re back to being best buds by now, and are far closer than we were before we dated. Niall’s a good dude.

Orla is one of those fierce, powerful women who will take no shit from men and will protect all other females with her life. She also happens to be straight, which is just very unfortunate for her (and all women to be honest, because Orla is great). She was another member of my group project team back in first year, and has fairly consistently been one of my closest companions in the group. I don’t think I’d have ended up in the Malteasers group at all if it wasn’t for her.

There is so much more that I can say about this wonderful group of people, but I fear it would be of no interest to anyone other than myself. Instead, I just want to say how immensely grateful I am to these guys for giving me some of the best few years of my life. I may never get to know another group like them, so I look forward to keeping our friendships going for as long as possible.


Revisited: The Attack of the Brain Bees

Anxiety is a big, all-encompassing disorder whose symptoms can affect every single aspect of life.

I was not in a good way when I started my Undergraduate degree, and while I knew that this was the case I don’t think I actually knew how bad it was. I think a major reason I wasn’t able to pinpoint how bad it was was that I wasn’t allowing myself to. I was desperate to fit in, to be liked, to be able to start afresh, and I didn’t feel like I could do that if I owned up to having an anxiety disorder. Which sucks, but it’s kind of understandable.

On better days, the condition manifested itself as a quiet but consistent buzzing which was easy to hide but still made things difficult for me. These were days where I went through two or three t-shirts because my anxiety was causing me to sweat through them in the space of a few hours. Unsurprisingly, the embarrassment this caused did not help the situation.

Other days, the anxiety was still workable, but instead of a low constant buzz chose to exhibit itself in short, intense bursts of terror which took all of my concentration and made me shake violently. These days also brought long periods of sleeplessness, which caused an extreme tiredness which also made things much, much worse. Then there were the worst days, which saw me locked in my room for long hours throughout the day, because I was propped up against my bedroom wall crying.

There is a long list of anxiety symptoms. But because each body is somewhat chemically unique, anxiety affects each person differently. (

I don’t get anxiety attacks like this so much anymore, but they were the bane of my life for the longest time. I had been a very nervous person for as long as I could remember, so I think in my brain my inability to function properly was just the next stage of a somewhat defective personality trait. Note to self: This was not a personality trait. This was a mental illness. It is something that could have been treated. 

For me, during an anxiety attack, it feels like my head is full of bees (hence the title).

Of course, my symptoms tended to vary from attack to attack, but there were a few that were common to most instances. From the AnxietyCentre list, these included:

  • A feeling of impending doom, that something horrible is about to happen, that you are in grave danger;
  • An urge to escape, to get out, to run away from danger;
  • Choking sensation, tightening throat, it feels like your throat is closing;
  • Shooting pains in the chest, neck, shoulder, head, or face;
  • Hot or cold chills;
  • Burning skin;
  • A strong feeling of fear, foreboding.

The fact that I can react this dramatically to things like crowds and loud noises, things that most young people revel in, makes me feel incredibly weak.

As someone who likes to know exactly what’s going on around me at all times, the confusion and inability to get my thoughts into a clear, understandable line were the most stressful parts of an anxiety attack. My head would turn into something like a ball pool in a kid’s jungle gym, all full of wriggling things and bouncy things and unpleasant things that shouldn’t really be there at all (nothing is so distressing as finding a ham sandwich in the bottom of a ball pool as a child).

These attacks are not something I would ever wish on someone else.

I got confused, and it terrified me. Without a clear understanding of what was going on, my head would go into overdrive and the rest of me would follow. It became difficult to breathe. It would feel like I wasn’t in control of my own body, and that’s why I locked myself in my room. I didn’t want anyone to see me like that, all shaky and nose-bleedy and sweaty.

By the time I have calmed down, I’m covered in bruises, my skin stings and burns and my fingernails are bloody.

The worst part was that in the middle of the panic, I’d start clawing at my neck and arms to give me some other sensation to focus on. This meant that the anxiety attacks were something I had to carry with me everywhere, as they left lasting marks on my skin. I took to wearing long sleeves, and bandaging my elbows so that I couldn’t get to them if I did have another attack. I felt deeply ashamed.

I didn’t let anyone see me have an anxiety attack like this – not my friends, not my family, nobody. I felt embarrassed that the things everyone else my age seemed to love the most – drinking, loud music, crowds – were things I couldn’t even try to enjoy. So rather than admitting to having these fears and anxieties, I hid them. Any time I felt overwhelmed or scared, I did my best to escape the situation swiftly and silently.

When I was having all of these issues (4 years ago now), I knew what an anxiety attack was but had no idea how to deal with them. I’d been in counselling once, in my teens, when a teacher recommended that I go. But the therapist I’d been assigned had been less than useless. Having determined that my parents were separated, she latched onto that fact and refused to acknowledge any other potential issue. Everything had to, somehow, come back to my parents.

In reality, I was meeting her every week while going through a very abusive relationship. This never came up, and I didn’t have it in my to do anything more than *hint* at what was going on. When she didn’t pick up on those hints, I gave up. That’s as much my failing as anything else, but I did as much as I felt safe doing.

Since first year, I’ve been through four therapists – one for a little over a year, one for a few months and one for a few weeks. One therapist I only met for one session, because the clinic I’d been referred to was weird and strict and made me feel deeply uncomfortable. When I returned to the therapist who’d referred me, she was disappointed but admitted that she had heard very mixed reports of that particular organisation.

I can now comfortably say that I am living with clinical depression and PTSD, and that I’m doing much better with them than I once was. I’m still a very anxious person, but I don’t think I *have* anxiety. I think that’s one diagnosis that doesn’t quite make the list.

I still have days where I don’t feel like I can leave the house, or even my bedroom. I still have to be woken from flashback nightmares when my sweating and crying wakes my partner up. I’m still coated with scar tissue from my less pleasant days. But goddamn, in first year I was happier than I had ever been before, despite all of the anxiety. And now, I am doing even better than that. And that’s pretty cool, really.


On Abusive Friendships & Recurrence

I had other friends in my first few years of university, but there was one particular friend who pretty much held a monopoly on my time. I’m not going to use names in this post, so lets call them Janet. (Apologies to any Janets out there)

I met Janet in my first week at Queen’s. We’d both been given timetables with the wrong information, and found ourselves sitting in a random politics seminar instead of our introductory English in Transition seminar. We both got in trouble for this, which seems a little unfair as there was no way for us to know our timetables were wrong until it was too late. Our drastically different personalities meant we took this injustice very differently – I was a little upset and embarrassed, and didn’t talk in the module for the rest of the semester. She developed a real dislike of the tutor who scolded us and took every possible chance to create arguments with him. And somehow we ended up becoming firm friends.

Somehow it became my responsibility to make sure she was on time for every class, find all the right classrooms, alert her if we got any emails worth reading. It helped that we ended up in the same class group for every single module. When we were together, I became almost this sidekick-type character, gentle and silent except when it was necessary for me to make a joke or – as was growing increasingly common – summarise the week’s reading into a few sentences so she wouldn’t be in trouble for not doing the work. I figured it made sense – I did all the reading but didn’t have the confidence to actually make any points in class. It seemed fair that at least one person should benefit from my work.

By second semester, Janet was still my only friend on my course. We had to take this “skills” module basically designed to make our anti-capitalist degree appeal more to the neoliberalist university (the module has since been scrapped, but so has the School of English so there really aren’t any winners there). Much of the assessment for the module was based on group work, and Janet and I found ourselves at a table with the other groups who didn’t quite have enough people to complete a group project – one boy who seemed much happier to work on his own, and a group of three friends. One of the three friends was very organised, level-headed and a natural leader, and Janet automatically felt a massive competition grow between her and this girl. She decided that the other members of the group could be friends with us but we’d have to get rid of the leader, as they wouldn’t be able to get on. We completed the group work over the course of the semester, but Janet’s plan to edge the other girl out and secure friendship with the others never worked. She went back to only having me, and in return I could only have her.

That summer, I found myself without a home and became very good at my new hobby, drinking.

Sometimes she let me sleep on her kitchen floor. Once, she had me sleep in her bed with her boyfriend and herself, because she was fighting with her boyfriend and wanted to show that she liked me more than him. I got uncomfortable and slept on the floor under someone’s coat. I didn’t stay there much after that.

When university started again, I took to meeting her before class every morning in front of the main university building. I have a weird memory where I was running late one morning and passed my lecturer (Dr. Kelly, of whom I was terrified at that stage, for some reason) crossing the quad towards our meeting place. Seeing me, Dr. Kelly didn’t ask why I was walking in the opposite direction from the lecture, he just said “She’s waiting for you.”

There were a lot more incidents like that. We were known to be inseparable, though it was also pretty clear even to me that we had more of a master-and-pet relationship than that of friends. I’ve since found out that a few of the people who I now consider to be my closest friends wanted to talk to me sooner, but always felt like they weren’t allowed to talk to me with Janet there.

After a particularly stressful assignment season, I ended up building tentative friendships with some of the other students on my course. We planned a boardgames night for after assignment, and all the while I very much felt like I was going behind Janet’s back. Even once I’d invited her, it felt very much like I had betrayed her by talking to anyone else about it first.

On the night, she turned up late, stayed for an hour and then insisted I walk her home. Shortly after that, rumours started floating back to me.

Some months ago, I’d opened up to Janet about the sexual abuse I’d been through as a minor. I hadn’t ever spoken about it before, but she’d sensed that I was upset about something and got me drunk to get it out of me. I was embarrassed the next day, of course, but mostly felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I’d been keeping it a secret for so long, and it felt good to finally have someone I could trust with this part of my past.

Then, one night, I was walking one of Janet’s friends home from a night out. Janet had been out with us but had disappeared with her boyfriend, so that only two of us were left.

The friend, Áine, was explaining to me that she felt embarrassed about still being a virgin. I told her that it wasn’t something to be embarrassed about, and that if she wanted to have sex she would have it sooner or later, and that if she didn’t want to have it at all then that was fine too.

“That’s easy for you to say,” she said. “Janet told me you lost yours years ago.”

I didn’t know what to do at that point. I denied it. I hadn’t done anything consensually in my life. While I tried to be ~liberal~ and ~sex positive~, the truth was, I found that difficult given A) I hadn’t had any sex education in my life and only knew what I’d managed to find out from movies and B) any experience of sexuality I had had been incredibly unpleasant. I still feel bad for having such a shameful reaction to someone suggesting that I, an adult, had had sex. But at the same time, it’s not all that surprising.

And now other people knew too. And if one part of the group knew, the rest definitely knew as well. There are no private discussions in a group like that.

I texted Janet as soon as I got home, and she denied it instantly. She demanded an apology.

I told her that I was sorry if it wasn’t true, but that I could only go by what Áine had told me.

She told me that didn’t sound like an apology to her.

Then she broke up with me. Like, friend-broke-up.

I went into one of the worst depressions I can remember. Missed a week of lectures, missed work. I stayed in bed in a darkened room for most of that time.

The person who, by now, was my only friend had officially retired me as her lackey, and I didn’t know what to do.

The weird thing is, I had an almost identical friendship in primary school. That one got to the point where teachers would make worried phone calls to my mother, or make it a rule that I had to play football like I used to at least a few times per week, or sit me down and tell me about bullying. And for some reason, none of these things made me walk away.

Between these two manipulative friendships and one abusive relationships, it’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that I am the common denominator. That there’s some weird part of my personality that makes me seek out people who will hurt and control ultimately ruin me.

I know that if a friend told me this same thing, I’d tell them that’s ridiculous. But then, I haven’t watched my friends fall for the same thing over and over. They’re not the ones lowering themselves voluntarily into quicksand every couple of years. That’s me.

I don’t have a conclusion for this post. I can only hope that I’ve had enough CBT and grief counselling and regular counselling and pills and pep talks by now that I’ve worked the weird urge to be sad out of my system. Or that it was never in my system. Maybe it really isn’t my fault. Seems unlikely, though.

This has been a slightly heavy post so here is a photo of Baxter to make everything alright again.

Revisited: Meet the Oakfriends!

Well, Sunday evening is here again!

Good evening, all! It’s Sunday evening. Tomorrow, I go back to work after a weekend of applying for Doctoral funding (this took 2 days of constant head-bashing, so it’s kind of heartbreaking to have to go back to work having had no time to relax yet). Having revisited my first post on this blog, it’s time for me to do likewise for my second post. This post seemed to mostly talk about the people I lived with back in first year, so it might be interesting to see who I’m still relatively close with.

Sundays are always weird in student accommodation for weekenders like myself (weekenders being people that stay in accommodation over the weekend rather than travelling home).

When I lived in Elms, I was one of the few people I knew who didn’t go home at the weekend. Obviously, students who travelled from other countries didn’t generally bother travelling all the way home for the sake of two days, but these people made up the minority. We made up some sort of tiny club – internationals, students who’d found weekend jobs in Belfast, students who had nowhere better to be. I was in the latter of these categories, though the emails from QUB asking if I needed lessons in my first language may suggest otherwise.

So Sundays were sort of a day spent half enjoying what was left of the quiet weekend, half looking forward to the return of our other friends. They were also spent convincing ourselves and each other that we were just about to start doing work any minute now and never quite getting around to it, though I think that’s the case for all students, wherever they may be.

I live with 10 other people, but there are more people who live on different floors and pretty much live with us.

After a long day of waiting and not working, the rest of our flatmates would begin to return somewhere around 8pm. I lived in the First Floor of Oak 4 with 10 other people, along with people from other floors who sort of drifted in and out. Much to the despair of the campus security, our door was always open and friends were welcome to come and go as they pleased.

Living with so many people, especially after living alone with my mother for so long, was both a lot of fun and incredibly, incredibly exhausting. I think I was lucky with the group of people I was placed with, as I enjoyed Elms a lot more than the vast majority of people I have talked to. There seem to have been so many people who lived entirely out of their bedrooms and didn’t get along with anyone in their halls, and I don’t think I would have survived that.

Oak 4 seemed to move and flow from acting like a big happy family to living as a few clusters of bitchy friend groups and back again. There were a few weird power struggles, too, but nothing major that year. I’m still friends with a few people from Oak, but most of us seem to have lost touch to a certain extent, and some seem to downright loathe each other.

Christmas in the flat. Standing: Curtis and Philip. Left (front to back): In-Ho, Brian, Niamh, Herkmin, Minjung, Claire, Cillian, Francesca and I. Right (front to back): Andrew, Joe, Dan, Evan, Orla, Colum, Catherine, Ryan, Glynn and Rachel.

I didn’t live with Curtis in second year, but we lived together again in third year. He was a really important part of what turned out to be a pretty difficult final year, and I was lucky to have him. Curtis and I are still firm friends, though we don’t seem to get time to hang out all that often. He finished his first degree and graduated on the same day as me, and now he’s studying for his second degree, this time in medicine. That’s always been his plan, so I couldn’t be happier for him! Right now we bump into each other on the street and have these great conversations that can never last as long as they want to. I always leave these conversations promising to have him over for tea soon, and I always genuinely intend to follow through with this invitation. But I never do, because something always comes up, and then I forget, or I have a busy week at work and don’t have the energy to host guests. I’ll get around to making proper plans soon. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day right now.

Curtis and I in Elms, Thanksgiving 2016. Curtis was an RA that year!

Like Curtis, I lived with Philip in my final year of university, but we didn’t quite gel and I haven’t spoken to him since. From my perspective, he did and said some things that were unnecessarily cruel, but I’m sure I must have done something to provoke that. I’m working on identifying my flaws as much as possible right now, so that I don’t annoy anyone else so much again.

In-Ho and Minjung both moved back to Korea half way through my first year of university, and I haven’t seen them since (Korea is a long way away!) though I still hear from Minjung every now and then. I really hope that at some point either I’ll be able to travel over there or they’ll come back here to visit. Either way, I’d love to see them again, especially Minjung.

Last time I saw Niamh was last year in the McClay library, and she seemed to be dating Evan. I’m not sure if that’s still a thing, but they’re both lovely so I hope it’s worked out! I’ve seen Herkmin once or twice since the end of Elms, but we mostly just wave hello at each other. I haven’t seen him in about a year, so I’m not entirely sure if he’s still in Belfast at this stage.

To my knowledge, Claire and Cillian are still dating, as they have been since the very start of our stay in Elms. They always say hello when we pass on the street, but I haven’t hung out with them in about 2(?) years. I lived with Claire (and therefore Cillian) in second year, and Claire was generous enough to let a friend of mine take her room without paying rent when she wasn’t using it during the summer. She’s a good egg.

St Patrick’s Day. L to R: Colum, Curtis, Catherine, Shannon, Colum’s friend (?), Orla, Ryan and Rachel.

Francesca lived on the same street as us in second year, but I don’t think I’ve seen her since then. I haven’t seen Andrew, Joe or Dan since first year. I’ve bumped into Glynn once or twice but haven’t seen him much since then either. I lived with Orla in second year, but didn’t see her that much as she was always at Colum’s. When I saw one of them I saw both, and they were both lovely.

I bump into Catherine every now and then and we exchange hellos, but that’s pretty much always been the extent of our friendship. Back in first year we were two of the more quiet members of the household, and mostly only talked when drinking. I think that’s okay, though.

I haven’t seen Shannon since final year, on account of my falling out with Phil. That’s a big shame as I considered her one of my closest friends at the time, but she and Phil seem to still be very much together and I’m glad they’re both happy. They seem like a wonderful couple.

I only see Ryan very occasionally, but it’s always nice to see or hear from him. I hope we can go back to Kremlin soon for some delicious strawberry woo-woos – as far as I can tell, we live on the same street now!

Preparing for In-Ho’s birthday. Minjung, Curtis, Cathal and Brian.

Rachel put me up a lot of the time when I was between houses a few summers ago, and I’m forever thankful for that. I don’t get to see her that often as she has a boyfriend and a job and I think she’s back in uni now, but any time I see her it’s wonderful.

I passed Cathal on the street last week and we exchanged a speedy “hello”. I think that’s the first time I’d seen him since first year, or second year at the latest, but it was good to see him. Cathal was always one of those people I got along with in a strange way, in that I could never quite tell if he liked me or thought I was too strange to be likeable, but we could make jokes all the same. He’s a good dude.

Exploring the Interwebs! Michael, Shannon and I. (Snap taken by Curtis)

Brian lived in Cork for a year, but he’s still somehow one of the people I’ve seen the most of over the past couple of years. That’s because whenever I bump into him on the street, we almost always end up drinking coffee for an hour. Brian can turn anything into a social event, and I respect that. I hope I keep bumping into him and accidentally going for coffee.

These (and possibly some others) are the people who will most likely be mentioned in future posts, as these are the people that affect me most on a day-to-day basis.

I think Michael had a rough year after we all left Elms, especially after he graduated. I don’t see him around much anymore, but we always say hello and sometimes stop for a chat when we can. He’s grown his hair out and I think he has a girlfriend now. He’s also released an album, so that’s pretty cool.

It’s weird to think that all these people played such a major role in my life, and now I barely even know them to say hello. It’s weird to think that after this blog post, I’ll probably never have cause to write about some of them again. Things are just… pretty weird, I guess. But we all moved on to different lives. In my case, and I hope in most of their cases, it’s a better life filled with friends and love and stress and hope. I hope they’re all having a good year, and that they know how important they were to me.

In any case, it’s time for me to go to bed. Back to work tomorrow, back to washing dishes and interacting with people I didn’t know existed just a few years ago.

I hope you all have a great week.