When I first moved into the flat, about three years ago, I had a relationship with the chap who sold it to me. About a month in, my mood dropped, and I told him I had a mental disorder. Bearing in mind that he’d told me about dropping out of university due to depression – I thought he might understand or empathise. In fact he muttered something about putting his own mental health first and promptly vanished. Telling my psychiatrist about this the following week, I remember crying:
“But we’ve been together a month, seeing each other practically every day,” I sob. “Surely, after a month it’s ok to mention my mental disorder?”
“Not until you’re engaged,” Mum says, in with me for the last few minutes of the appointment – Dr Josh likes to get a parental perspective on my mood and behaviour as well as my own opinion of how I am . “Reel him in first and then hit him with it, once he’s committed to you,” Mum says.
“I’d say not until the wedding night,” Dr Josh adds, chuckling, and they share a laugh at my expense.
And now I have not only my Bipolar 1 disorder not to mention but also my horrible cancer journey. So far I have ended up mentioning it a few times, and have been struck at how not-bothered these bright young things have been at terminal illness rearing it’s swollen, suppurating head in the room. They ask questions about my treatment, ask to see my Engelbert photos and are impressed by him, of course. They display no squeamishness and a bit of compassion. Part of me wonders whether that is because really they are only interested in “fun” and so are not thinking “so she can’t get pregnant for five years due to the hormone treatment and then…”
Still – I have been surprised about how not at all put off they have been by the extreme unsexiness of this illness of the elderly and dying. Despite the ghastly pink campaign image, breast cancer is quite revoltingly de-feminising, attacking all the feminine bits: bust, hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, shape. There are illnesses that might make their patients seem attractive: consumption or other ones in Victorian novels where the pure young girl coughs and wastes away to nothing, whilst still sporting long shiny hair and flushed cheeks – Helen Burns dying of is it typhoid in Jane Eyre or Beth dying of scarlet fever in Little Women. Whatever is wrong with the glamorous American heiress in The Wings of the Dove.
Breast cancer is the opposite of all this: hair falls out, cheeks are puffed up by steroids, weight balloons, chests and backs are hacked up and scarred.
“Maybe they’re attracted to your undoubted strength of character,” Mad Fat Runner says. As well as my editor, she’s one of my best friends in real life. And since becoming ill with breast cancer I certainly have seemed to others to have gained a patina of strength and bravery which is entirely inaccurate. I’m not strong or brave – I’m just trying to get on with an increasingly difficult life in the only way I can – by just keeping going. I remember once Robbie Williams was asked the secret of his success.
“I just kept turning up,” Robbie said, and that’s what I’m trying to do: just to keep turning up for dating and, by extension, for life.