Abbey is freshly 40 and preparing to move back to Scotland with Barry the husband and Stanley that cat (after 17 years in London) so that they can share happy times with family. Abbey and her dad, Rikki, are writing and illustrating stories for children with life limiting illness, drawing on Abbey’s experience of having terminal breast cancer as well as her lifetime of working with children through drama. Abbey hopes to create stories in which children can recognise themselves and their medicalised lives but through fantastical, magical tales that will give light to darker moments.
A Letter to my 11 year old self
Dear Concorde (me),
No one is going to remember that type of aeroplane by 2017. No one will have called you that for YEARS, you’re not going to be defined by your big nose. Or your buck teeth. Or your long face. Or your fat arse. Or your cellulite.
You won’t be defined by any of those things because I’m giving you this letter with this almighty tip, the best tip you’ll ever get…
Be kind to yourself.
Don’t be your own worst bully, don’t call names at yourself in the mirror. Please don’t start because you’ll never stop, not until you realise you’ve wasted so much time and now your time’s nearly out.
Right now, you’re 11, you’re at the top of your game, about to be school sport’s champion, fabulous story writer, muscular, a dancer, a keen learner, honest (ish), confident, chatty, popular and a ribby tangle of big teeth and jagged bones.
The school is going to allow a book company to come and sell books to the class and without having to get parental permission you’re going to sign yourself up for some Judy Blume books. That’s when it’s going to start in earnest, the total preoccupation with being sexualised and alluring.
Don’t buy the books, or the Sweet Valley High ones, don’t instigate the BBP CLUB (Boys, Bras and Periods). Keep winning the races against the boys and giving them kiddy backs. You really don’t need to wear that bra you’ve been given by your older friend. Stop hoping the boys are going to notice it and don’t be thrilled when one of them does and gives it a ping.
Don’t see the other girls as competition. They are your sisters.
I’m not trying to deny your burgeoning adolescence, but please listen to me, don’t turn your back on that plucky pre-teen, she’s the better woman.
You are a better woman at 11 years old than I am at 40. Nearly 30 years of telling yourself that you’re not good enough takes its toll.
If becoming a woman is like emerging from a cocoon, you are the vibrant, bright green, juicy caterpillar and I emerged, a drag queen of a butterfly with antennae extensions and streaky tanned wings. I suspected I was a fat moth but I wanted to be a pretty butterfly so badly!
If someone bullies you everyday saying the same things over and over again, you’ll start to believe them, without question. So why didn’t I ever grow out of bullying myself? Why didn’t I stop judging myself as if I was a pubescent boy, obsessing over the biggest breasts and the prettiest face?
I feel such a fool for falling for the beauty myth that I told everyone else to be wary of!
When I got married (yes, that happens, but he’s Barry, not Morten Harket), I had fake hair added to my own, I had eyelash extensions, a padded bra, a corseted dress. Nothing natural was good enough. I wanted to look natural, but with the help of fake things. I wanted to be able to dance with abandon but I didn’t want my ankles to look fat, so I got heels. I battered my skin with an onslaught of sunbeds to get a tan, I got acrylic nails. I dieted, I got thinner.
Then, just a few months later, I got cancer.
Overnight, everything I’ve spent my adulthood cultivating, went.
My hair, that I’d always thought was my good feature (although not good enough for my wedding day), all fell out. Then ALL my hair, head to toe.
A childish, hairless landscape but with lumbering, adult curves and waves.
The eyebrows I’d thought were woeful and my long, thick eyelashes had enough of the insults and left too.
Without hair for coverage I noticed my vagina seemed to have acquired a ledge over the years. My face puffed up and I looked pale, undefined and ugly.
My breast was taken away, the good one that had always been bigger than the other one, “Not so smug now Mrs Left” said Mrs Right. All my very expensive and hugely padded bras were made permanently redundant, push-up only works when there’s something to push.
Lots of scars from complications. Radiotherapy tattoos, crispy, scorched skin.
Then keyhole surgery and my belly fell onto the mattress that night for the first time in my life and it’s never got back up.
An instant menopause and weird comfort eating has made things rub and chafe and I waddle.
But guess what? I don’t care.
I asked everyone to avoid putting photos of me getting married on social media because I suspected it would kill my happy memories of the day. When I got in from having my first head shave I put the photos on Facebook.
I presumed no one would find me attractive anymore so I didn’t care about trying.
I decided I didn’t want to medicalise my body any further and I didn’t have reconstruction on my breast.
I took myself right out of the running and I gave myself freedom and honesty for the first time in a very long time.
For one whole year as my body recovered from the acute treatment I rejoiced in the feeling of being alive and unburdened of the black cloud of regret and bitterness at not being good enough.
I had to be brave and face the world feeling completely naked and plucked. You haven’t started to build all those layers of self consciousness yet, so don’t!
I am sad for what I’ve lost, the body that I couldn’t tolerate before but that I’d love and cherish now. I miss flashing some cleavage, I miss squashing one breast up to the next.
I miss wearing necklines lower than my clavicle.
I miss being trussed up in ‘sexy’ underwear.
I miss my thick eyelashes that never grew back. I miss long hair.
I miss the body that was able to conceive.
I miss having no scars.
But I love being free from that need to be seen as attractive, sexy in particular.
I was so proud of myself for getting to this point, I planned how far my new outlook could take me in life.
Then after a year of the new me, the new me that reminds me of you, I found out that I’m not going to get the opportunity to make this more than just a test drive. The cancer is back but this time it means business.
But it’s not a waste, it’s a realisation and awakening that I’m so glad happened. I feel more fulfilled and open to happiness than I have done since I was you.
So please learn from my mistakes and be bold, like you are now.
Wear flat shiny shoes that can keep up with your strides into adulthood.
Let yourself off the hook, don’t sweat the small stuff. Be well, be healthy, be happy and be free.
It’s the hardest thing to do, but tell yourself you’re brilliant as you are and you’re more than good enough and then make sure that’s true. Live! Make me proud to be me.
If they call you Concorde then fly with it.
With all the love I have,
P.S. I should tell you, because I forced myself not to care, I now smile and pose for photos and I laugh at the bad ones and keep the good ones. Everyone around me is thrilled I want to record our moments together with a photo. I still see the things I didn’t like but I also see good things and I focus on those, instead of beating myself up. I’m no longer ashamed, I actually like what I see, a happy photo is always a good photo. A clever photo might be a pretty one but nothing can beat a happy one.
Abbey is currently writing books, which her dad is illustrating, for children with life limiting illnesses.
Until recently she has also been running children’s drama workshops in London: http://www.stripeysocksdrama.co.uk