Stefanie Preissner: 'I've suffered more trauma at the hands of female friendships than I have from any man'
'I have definitely suffered more trauma at the hands of female friendships than I have from any man. Women are so clever and so capable of the greatest generosities and the greatest atrocities."
Stefanie Preissner is recounting how she came to be cyber-bullied at 26 by a gang of former school friends who froze her out for being too "stressful" and set up a Whatsapp to deliberately exclude her. Writing about your former bullies in a memoir in a small place like Ireland, where everyone relentlessly tracks each other, sounds like a terrible idea, but Preissner is unequivocal.
"I don't think that they would be particularly shocked," she says. "We were a group of girls - it was extremely dramatic. We were all involved in the drama."
Surreally for Preissner, because she was home in Mallow at the time, the fallout played out in her teenage bedroom. "I was thinking, 'This is horrific.' I remembered the feelings of being in school, when no one was talking to you and you're aware of how inconsequential and yet all-consuming it is. It's a devastating place to be."
"I could easily understand how a young brain could think, my whole world is ending, there is no one, there is nothing else, I'm done - and it was a really scary insight," Preissner says.
This episode is just one of the formative events chronicled with tenderness and much wit in her memoir, Why Can't Everything Just Stay The Same? It is a collection of personal essays that charts her childhood in Mallow; life as a PE-dodging teenager; the traumatic move to Dublin in her early 20s that inspired her hit one-woman show Solpadeine is my Boyfriend, and her frankly meteoric rise in the two years since her acclaimed TV show Can't Cope Won't Cope hit screens.
Change is something Preissner does not handle well and yet, along with weathering much personal upheaval, she has also changed radically herself.
"I don't do fickle friendships based on weekend plans," she says, "but when I was younger there were definitely people I'd never met sober; I had never met outside of an eating activity. I don't have those friendships anymore."
One of the biggest changes was to give up sugar two years ago and take up kickboxing. Having been overweight most of her life, the change in Preissner's appearance has been a strange journey. In a way, she says, it has made her far less confident in herself because it has been an uncomfortable uncovering of just how fickle the world is. At one point we discuss the time of Solpadeine and she quips: "Back when I was invisible".
It's a topic that Preissner hates to discuss. Her loathing for the topic is quite visceral. She, rightly, rails: "I am the only woman in the country to have a TV show with two strong female characters she created and wrote. Why are we talking about my body?" But to entirely ignore the ramifications of her appearance, of being a hot young woman in the public eye, is to ignore the toxic culture women are forced to engage with in order to be heard.
Economy of attractiveness
"First of all, I don't feel hot," Preissner is clearly discomfited. "But that's beside the point. It makes me sad. It makes me anxious, this economy of attractiveness. If that's my currency, then it's not going to mature well. That's investing in bad shares because it can only go one way, right?"
When I ask if she feels burdened by it, there is a long pause as Preissner considers.
"Burdened by it? No. A little bit icky? Yes. I feel that also I'm aware of it so I can use it. I never feel good when I use it. I struggled with a magazine cover that I did. I would go into Centra and see myself and think, 'Oh God! What am I doing? I'm buying rice cakes in a tracksuit and there I am! Wow I look great!' Because I spent two-and-a-half hours in make-up and your man is an amazing photographer. That dress cost four grand, like.
"People don't look like that. I'm just perpetuating something that I hate but also I get to do that now. It's so fucking complex. Is it a case of Harvey Norman? Once they're gone, they're gone! So get those sofas while they're still on sale," she finishes with a rueful laugh.
"Do you want to put me on the cover because that'll sell more magazines or do you actually want to hear what I have to say?" she wonders. For Preissner, to interact with the system is really the only option. It is accepting that purity of beliefs is futile if no one can hear your message, so she plays the game but always with a wry gaze, posting blooper shots from magazine shoots on her Instagram and generally not buying into the bullshit.
"The world is shallow and it's not just men. Actually very rarely, it's men. Men aren't buying those magazines. They're not created and constructed by men."
"It's extremely hard. Navigating the world as a woman now is like playing a game of Operation. I'm going to hit off something now, it's going to buzz and I'm going to have my fucking liver plucked out!"
"There's a band of feminists out there that I'm terrified of. I'm scared that I'm not wearing the right jumper; I'm not saying the right things; I'm not eating the right food. I like the feeling when my legs are shaved. Am I allowed to wear make-up? Or should I feel the heavy weight of the patriarchy on my eyelids? Surely feminism is about letting me do whatever the fuck I want? It's come back into the fucking Whatsapp bitches. 'Well if you want to be part of our gang...'" she adopts a priggish voice. "What? Can my uterus not just make me be part of your gang? Also, why do we have to be in gangs? It's fucked up."
"Everyone is just primed for offence now," Preissner is emphatic. "It's exhausting. I just want to be sound. Can we just understand that we're all trying? Maybe I don't want to shave my legs, maybe I do. Maybe they're my legs. Maybe I can do what I want with my body and it's no reflection on what you do with yours."
"It makes me so uncomfortable," she concludes, "the torture we put people under to abide. Just play along, just be good, just be inoffensive and play by the rules."
As Stefanie Preissner knows only too well, being vocal and a woman is a volatile position.
"I don't really get into Twitter," Preissner says. "I block a lot of people. Most of the issues are far too complex to pin my colours to the mast in 140 characters, so I don't. I won't get involved saying yes or no and I get a bit of flak over that because some people want things to be binary and they're not."
Preissner has given up pandering to others after trying for a long time to be all things to all people.
"Now, for me 'no' is a full sentence. 'Do you want to go for coffee?' 'No.' And the people in my life understand that. It means when I do say yes, I want to be there. I understand the power of true communication."
Changing her life dramatically from always being the extrovert in any given situation to getting up at 4.30am to work and quitting alcohol and sugar has brought home to Preissner how much time we spend obsessively monitoring the behaviour of those around us and using that to gauge our own failings and progress.
"Why does it matter what I'm putting into my body? Why are you so uncomfortable with the fact that you're drinking alcohol and I'm not? Why do my decisions, change your life?"
As with most things Preissner says, there's an uncomfortable truth in this statement - we do feel threatened by the behaviour of others, and in light of this it feels especially basic to ask why she quit drinking and embarked on a lifestyle that is bordering on monastic, bang in the middle of her 20s? Preissner says there was no "hoorah" moment exactly, but a gradual realisation that she has a problem with the concept of enough, of moderation.
"It just stopped being fun. It stopped being worth it," she says. "I struggle, in general, in my life with the concept of enough. It's a line in Solpadeine: 'I'm afraid I'll never be enough.' [I think it] when I have arguments with friends or get broken up with. Or my dad left when I was a kid and that's probably something to do with it. Although that's the sentence I always say: my dad left when I was a kid, but I don't really know what happened."
It would be easy to draw links between the absence of a parent, a question mark at the core of one's personal narrative, and a pathological need to fill a void. However, Preissner is dismissive of this psychology 101.
"When I was growing up some people didn't have pets and some people didn't have holiday homes and some people didn't have a dad, and I didn't have a dad," Preissner says. "The absence of a father was never a presence in my life and people who grew up with two parents never understand how insignificant that can be."
Preissner has an incredible ability to not wallow. There are elements of her biography that most would find seriously challenging, not least an incident she describes in her book of discovering she has a half-sister from her father's subsequent relationship. The episode is a truly modern narrative, a tale of a text, because how else would one learn of a half-sister these days?
In her late teens, she received a one-line message from her half-sister reaching out, though Preissner had, in fact, learned, rather cryptically, of her existence some years before, when she received a blank birthday card containing a photo of a little girl with the words 'your sister' on the back. In the book she describes quite starkly that "the biological sister didn't work out" but, in a very Preissner way, she sees this episode as what brought her closer to her friend Rachel who has become a sister to her.
Again when sympathy is proffered, Preissner rejects it, saying quite plainly: "It has completely made me who I am, but I didn't know any other way, so it's seemed so insignificant."
"Like, I don't know what do people do with their dads? What are dads for?" she muses, genuinely curious.
"I used to always joke: dads love me, except my own of course. I was really into humour as a defense mechanism; I don't really make those jokes anymore, they make other people uncomfortable."
"I love my mam ferociously. She is the reason that I'm like, 'I don't know what dads are for!' Because there was nothing that I never got to do. She's amazing." Preissner glows when speaking about the women who raised her.
"And my nana just seems remarkable. I see my nana all the time and she probably doesn't think about it as much as I do, but her death sits on the couch between us. And I am so terrified of it."
Two of the most striking chapters in the book deal with the subject of grief. Preissner lost a dear friend and this episode is truly heartbreaking, while her fears over her grandmother's death are poignant and funny in a balancing act of tone that only a writer with Preissner's chops could handle.
"People say, don't worry about it until it happens. OK, but it's going to happen, but some part of my animal brain is like, 'Nah it's not, she's going to be the one person who doesn't die and people are going to be taking parts of her bone marrow and saying Eileen Keary's still alive, she's got the secret. How is she doing this?'"
Preissner is smart and at times quite demanding company. She is rapid-fire in her responses which are considered and often hilarious, but suddenly she looks drawn as she reflects on this question of mortality - a question, as she said, most of us seem to be able to put out of our minds for the most part.
"I just wish I could back her up. I just don't know what that change in the world is going to look like and obviously I don't want to know," she sighs. "The future is scary, sometimes I think maybe I should get off sooner than everyone else."
A huge part of Preissner's book is concerned with this overarching angst around change and a longing for stability and order. So, one might wonder if this anxiety persists on a clinical level? Preissner is not convinced. She's not in therapy, nor on any medication, though several years ago she was diagnosed with depression.
"I was diagnosed with depression and I took antidepressants and I loved it. I loved that diagnosis. I had it in my back pocket for everything. 'I'm so depressed, I can't do this right now because I'm depressed.'"
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"Then I thought if I'm over-identifying with being depressed, if I'm the depressed girl and I get better, what am I then?"
"I stopped taking the medication. I stopped saying I'm depressed. I stopped saying I'm an anxious person. I feel like we've gotten to a really dangerous stage in society where we don't understand that mental health is a spectrum. And on any given day you can oscillate and vacillate up and down that spectrum and I do. But mental health is not depression and everyone has mental health like everyone has health. I don't think I have a disorder. I have a personality type. I'm sensitive and I'm an introvert and I'm only learning that now.
"I used to think that I was chronically unique, that I had terminal uniqueness. No one understood me, but if I've learned anything it's that I'm actually a fucking pumpkin-spice-latte-loving basic bitch like everyone else. And my experiences are completely relatable and I am not disordered. We all experience these things - let's all just de-escalate this whole fucking terminal uniqueness we have going on."
"I was probably misdiagnosed and it's one of my regrets that in speaking about depression the way that I used to, I undermined what the experience of depression is like for people who wake up in the morning and cannot get out of bed. And I think that this new culture we have of being like: I have anxiety; I have depression; is like, hang on a second, you not wanting to go to a house party or being afraid of people taking pictures of you not looking great [is not anxiety], you are doing a disservice to people who are crippled with depression. Depression is real but it is not as common as we think it is, because if what I experienced was depression then everyone else is overreacting and I know that's not the case."
Preissner has been saddled with the dreaded voice-of-a-generation title since her clever and acclaimed rhyming monologues made a case for millennials not being the entitled narcissists pundits have painted them. Preissner's first hit Solpadeine (still the most downloaded podcast on the RTE Radio Player) mapped a personal story of heartbreak and homesickness against a landscape of recession and national crisis.
Generation Snowflake has been accused of gross entitlement, privilege and self-obsession. Obviously countering these accusations with a memoir is always going to be problematic. "Writing a book about yourself is the most narcissistic thing you can do, absolutely," she laughs. One can already hear the curmudgeonly male presenter scoffing at the 'notions' of it all, but Preissner is ready to defend her generation.
"I don't understand this snowflake thing: no two are the same, the structure of them is extremely robust, they only form in intense weather conditions and are very beautiful. Grand, I'll be a snowflake!"
"I live between two generations. One of whom thought that hard work will get you everywhere and the other who have to make good decisions in order to fit into a workplace that has changed. We fell between those two stools. We are assiduously tracked by the media; we are constantly called weak; we have to contend with knowing that we are never going to be able to afford a home.
"The things that are in place to protect us, like social welfare, mortgages, pensions - they don't work anymore. So there's all those anxieties about stability coupled with the most turbulent time in our living history. This isn't about World War Three, this is about some radicalised person driving down Henry Street in a van and killing people. The world is dangerous and it is scary. It's not safe to be in the world. No one is standing up and saying, you're scared and rightly so. People are like, you're such a snowflake, get over yourself."
"Our generation is not cynical. If we see things off in society, we're going to call it out. Stop being racist and bigoted. We take on that stuff. And it's a lot to take on, but it's better than turning the other cheek. Cynicism is the last refuge of the embittered. It's what keeps people propping up bars at midday. Let me try and figure out a better way for the people who are coming behind me and wait for you to just wither off."
As far voices of generations go, Preissner has my vote. She's also got the backing of Channel 4 for her next TV project; her first book is poised to hit the bestseller's list and a feature film is in the works. And she's fun and funny as hell. Forget triple threat, she's got Carrie Fisher levels of talent. However, it has to be said her success clearly does not sit well with her, perhaps this is how we can manage to still like her well enough. And so back to the pesky problem of enough.
"I think enough is something to do with ambition and I think ambition is the worst thing you can be struck down with. I feel like my ambition has pushed happiness or contentment on to the horizon of success. I'm never going to be happy, I'm never going to be satisfied, it's never going to be enough. So stop chasing it, just do the next right thing.
"I try to stop in the moment. I held the book in my hands and I know I should be feeling something, but I'm not. If I heard someone else saying that I would've been like, 'feel some joy, you stupid f**kin . . .' So I try to feel joy though I also feel: Oh my God, what have I done?"
'Why Can't Everything Just Stay The Same?' by Stefanie Preissner, published by Hachette, is out now
Photography by Kip Carroll
Sunday Indo Life Magazine