Keeping Empathy In Check

Last month, I discovered that June 9th is Empathy Day and today it is trending on Twitter, because we should all harness this inner empathy that we have, right? We should all be more in-tune with each other’s feelings and emotions, especially at the moment, right?

I am also seeing posts on social media about empathic overload, parasympathetic stress, and general exhaustion… and I’m feeling that too.

Being empathic is a funny beast. I believe that we all inherently are, to some level, empathic. But for some of us, especially those of us that fall at the more sensitive end of the spectrum, our levels of empathy can sometimes be a little too much to manage and can sometimes even feel more like a curse than a blessing. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that we need more kindness and understanding going forward, using the word ‘empathy’ as a way to propel us to this point seems a little too far, especially when those of us who are empathic can often feel overwhelmed or burnt out by it.

For a long time, a very long time, I kind of just took my own empathy as something that simply was. I am empathic, just as someone else might be classed as adventurous or studious. It was a personality trait that I had, I couldn’t exactly switch it off and so I just went about my business wearing my empathy on my sleeve. And so often I would feel so tired, I would feel heavy, I would feel sad with no apparent cause, or frustrated, or just very jumbled…

It has only been in the last couple of years that I have understood that I wasn’t only observing what other people around me were feeling and therefore sympathising with them, I was feeling it too, quite literally.

There was a moment when it clicked for me. I walked into a room where two people were having an argument without words. You know the type. There were no raised voices, there was no apparent anger at all, but you could hear it in the tone of voice, the words used… I entered that room and my mood changed, like flicking a switch, and I instantly felt my energy shift. I knew then that this sudden dip in my mood was not because of my own emotions. I had instantly, on walking into that room, absorbed some of the energy from either one or both of those people – and it was not comfortable. I couldn’t stay in there, this feeling did not belong in my body and I did not want it to be there.

After that moment, I began to notice more how my mood would shift around certain people and, perhaps even more importantly, I began to notice the energy of other people and how it impacted me. Most people have a pretty neutral energy I find, it’ll change depending on circumstance of course but on the whole, it makes things very straightforward. However, some people can have very powerful energy – and this isn’t always a good thing. It may all sound a little far fetched at this point, but I have met people before who have had very confusing and chaotic energy, these people are not bad to be around necessarily, but I find that I do become quite tired after spending time with them. I have also met a couple of people that have very dark energy, and these people I do find it hard to spend time around. Around people like this, I usually get a headache and a real heaviness in the back of my head. It will quite often feel like someone has pulled the rug from underneath me and I get the feeling that I would rather be anywhere else. It is not comfortable and it will usually leave me exhausted for days afterward.

I don’t know, at this point, whether this is an empath trait, a thing that most people feel, instinct, or just an off-shoot of being at the more sensitive end of the scale when it comes to my surroundings. But I do feel that how we pick up on and perceive other people’s energies does link into how just being close to or around someone can impact our mood, and to an extent, our own energy.

Is it any wonder then that, at the moment especially, there are people who feel completely exhausted and burnt-out, but with no apparent cause? In the first few weeks of this pandemic, I felt like I was just wiped out. I didn’t feel like I could settle to anything, my thoughts felt jumbled and I struggled to make decisions. I was suffering from empathic overload. The whole world was experiencing a form of collective trauma. Suddenly everything that everyone knew – our routines, how we shopped, what we did when we left our homes, our children’s schooling, our jobs – were all thrown up into the air. Overnight we had to adapt, we had to get our shit together so that we could, at the very crux of it, survive. Here in the UK, we saw how this virus was affecting Italy and Spain and we were told that we were a few weeks behind these horrifying death tolls, we knew that this unstoppable force was coming. We watched as people panic bought toilet rolls, as governments who should have been keeping us safe floundered amongst the panic. We worried about older relatives and friends and our jobs and what this all meant long term and we did it all whilst suddenly having to be alone with our thoughts, without the distraction of work and routine.

And then the shocking images of George Floyd being murdered, and the realisation that systematic racism exists even within our own homes. That no-one, even if you consider yourself to not be racist, is truly not racist. To witness and hear what generations of people have been through and to have to hold yourself and your own culture accountable for centuries of pain and hurt and torment and know that what you feel right now does not even compare in the slightest possible way to what millions of people feel every day, is really, really hard.

People are suffering everywhere right now. Watching the news is really hard, even scrolling through social media is hard because you want to be able to help in any small way you can but all you can feel is this pain, that doesn’t even fully belong to you. It is overwhelming, it has a physical effect on our bodies when our cortisol levels raise, and we can find ourselves trapped within the ‘fight or flight’ trauma response – and usually within one of the lesser-known variations of that; freeze.

That, to me, is my definition of empathy and recently I heard it summed up perfectly by Elizabeth Gilbert:

“Empathy is “You’re suffering, and now I’m suffering because you’re suffering.” So now we have two people suffering and nobody who can serve, and nobody who can be of help, and if you knew how your empathetic suffering actually makes you into another patient who needs assistance, you would be more willing to dip into compassion. And what underlies compassion is the virtual courage, the courage to be able to sit with and witness somebody else’s pain without inhabiting it yourself so much that you become another person who is suffering and now, there are no helpers.”

I do not want to be someone that freezes in the face of someone else’s pain, but there have been times throughout my life – including very recently – where that is what I have done. Many times over the past few weeks, I have thought back to this passage of text and this interview in general and tried to face things with compassion, rather than empathy. Because empathy can become so strong that it destabilises us and renders us useless in the face of someone else’s struggles. I do feel pain for others and I do feel very overwhelmed with everything that is going on in the world right now, but I do also have the power to step back from it. I have the power to limit my news intake and I have the power to choose what I read and when I read it.

We so often hear analogies along the lines of ‘you cannot save anyone else unless you put your own breathing apparatus on first’ and (whilst I disagree with the whole notion of ‘saving’ people) this is absolutely true. Because what good is all of this desire to help and be the light within someone else’s darkness, if you are suffering as much as they are to begin with?

It takes courage and it takes strength to hold your own behaviour up to the light and examine it. And I am not saying that empathy is ‘bad’ – I firmly believe that it is a good thing to be able to empathise with someone else and to be able to help them from a place of kinship and understanding. But there does become a point where it can become too much and we can become unstuck. Do it too often and too intensely and you end up exhausted, do it without even realising, repeatedly, and you end up with burnout. Do it with one person within a relationship and you end up on a codependency spiral where you reach the point of only being ok, if they are ok. Like anything – including the good in this life – it is good to keep in check and use in moderation.

And for everything else, there is compassion.

Suicide

It’s a horrible word, isn’t it?

Merriam Webster defines it as ‘the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally’ and It makes it sound so… benign. Like the choice is so easy, that it doesn’t come from a place of torment, pain and questioning.

Suicide is the only option left when every other conceivable idea becomes unbearable. Break that down – every. other. option.

Every single one, anything you can think of to make your life better, every realistic choice or possible decision, even if it seems far fetched. Talking to those you love and who love you, leaving your job, going into hermit mode for a while, selling your house and moving to the other side of the world, volunteering to help those in need, cutting off all of your hair, spending all of your savings on something ridiculous… I mean, if you are thinking of ending everything, these decisions don’t seem so extreme anymore.

But none of them will work. And you know why? Because they are all so overwhelming, they are all too much. Too much to think about, never mind do. Not that it would make a difference anyway – not when your depression doesn’t live in your workplace, or your home, or your hair.

Suicide comes when all other options have been exhausted or seem too overwhelming. It comes when the pain has become too heavy that you cannot carry it any longer. When you are locking yourself away in the bathroom and sobbing your heart out because you have done e v e r y t h i n g ‘right’; you’ve sought the help, taken the pills, gone to the therapy and it is still there. It comes when the pain of living seems worse than the pain of dying.

It isn’t a selfish act, it isn’t ‘attention seeking’, it isn’t something that is done to spite others. It’s not cowardice, it is not shameful to think about, it is not terrifying to talk about.

It is a symptom. A horrible, final symptom of a horrible, debilitating illness.

When suicide hits the headlines, we all talk about it. We all talk about the person, we all say what an awful shame and an awful shock it is. And it is a shock, it is always a shock. It’s a shock because we never think that they would do it – they who ‘didn’t seem depressed’, had spouse/children/a family/money/fame/a nice house/a good job/a bright future… but depression doesn’t live in your nice house. It lives within you, it’s in your mind, in your bones, it pumps its way around your body. It becomes all-consuming, deafening, insurmountable. It becomes something you feel that you need to escape from – but how do you escape from something that lives within you?

This writing is deliberately bleak, deliberately questioning – because that is what it feels like. I could tell you that there is help out there, that someone is always listening, that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I could urge you to talk to someone, to seek help and remind you that the good days will come again but you have to be here in order to see them. I could tell you that suicide isn’t, ever, the answer. And all of that would be true.

But that isn’t what it feels like.

There have been points where I have been suicidal, where I have just wanted to escape and switch the thoughts off. I have memories of things that I cannot bear to think about anymore, but that never stop replaying in my mind. I have felt hopeless, unbearably sad, a failure, weak, a letdown. I’ve convinced myself that once they get over their sadness people would be better off without me. But there are always two thoughts that stop me –

  1. Who would find me? My husband, my best friend… I couldn’t leave them with that. With the moments and hours and days after. They would move on eventually, I know that. But I couldn’t bear the thought of them questioning themselves and blaming themselves.
  2. Those moments between cause and effect. When its too late to take it back, when the result is inevitable but the thoughts still come.

I cling onto those reasons, literally for dear life at times.

And I know, things get better. It may be little glimmers of light that dance through leaves on a summer afternoon. It might be my husband’s laugh or my baby nephew’s grip around my finger. Its a hug from my best friend, or the smell of my mum’s kitchen. Hope comes in the wind that makes my hair dance upon the mountain top, or the icy cold water that licks at my feet on the shoreline.

If I was dead, these things would be gone.

Forever.

And forever is a long time.

So, please do talk. Please do reach out. It’s not easy – my god, I know it’s not easy. No-one expects it to make sense, because these things simply don’t. Stop trying to circle the square and cope with this on your own, please. Find meaning in the small things, find reasons not to in the harsh reality of what would really happen.

But please don’t die, not yet.

Safe Travels, Don’t Die

Thank you for reading.

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35 Things I Have Learnt at 35

35 Things I have leart at 35(1)

As we draw to the end of this decade, I have recently turned 35. I don’t know why 35 feels like such a huge leap from 34, but it wasn’t a milestone that I was thrilled to get to. Its the turning of time, another year gone – and it has been quite a year! I don’t feel particularly old, perhaps just a little like I have a lot left to do, more that I want to achieve. But, the start of a new decade and the passing of this birthday feels like a good time to sit back and take stock – and look at the things I have learnt up until this point. So, here goes…

1. Its ok to be quiet and introverted.

This has been quite the revelation over the past few years! I have always had it in the back of my mind that I was somehow ‘wrong’ for not being as loud or as gregarious as others. For not wanting to go out every weekend, for feeling tired and like I needed to have some alone time if I had been sociable. But recently, and really quite recently – only the last eighteen months or so, I have come to the conclusion that it is actually quite normal, and whilst I love the people in my life that are loud and outgoing, I also cherish the ones that are quiet and thoughtful, and I need to turn some of that same acceptance inwards.

2. Medication has its place.

All medication does, of course, but specifically medication for mental illness. I started taking medication in 2010 when my mental health first started to deteriorate and it did take a little while to find the correct medication and dose – but, once I had found it, I stabilised and I stayed on it until 2018 when I felt well enough to come off of it. For a few months, all was well but then external factors saw my mental health once again begin to slip and I decided to go back on to it. There is absolutely no shame in taking something that helps you and it doesn’t have to be forever, but sometimes we all need that helping hand – whether it is to ease anxiety, to sleep or simply to make things feel more manageable.

3. You don’t have to be thrilled with everything you create.

I love to write, and cook, and draw, and paint – but I tend not to do the latter two, why? Because I’m always worried that it won’t be ‘good enough’, or I’ll be disappointed in it. Part of me realises that art, in any form, is just an expression of emotion and it is all subjective. But the other part of me is somewhat of a perfectionist! I am still working on this one, but I hope that the realisation that what we create doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’ and that there is beauty in our flaws, helps me as I move into 2020 and I can once again get my canvases out.

4. It’s ok to say no.

FOMO is real! And so is the thought of ‘letting other people down’ – but occasionally we have to remind ourselves that actually, we come first. Opportunities will come again if they are meant to and if someone is truly a friend, they will understand that sometimes we don’t have the mental, physical or emotional capacity to say yes, and that is ok!

5. Social media is HARD.

The biggest struggle I have found whilst blogging is….. Twitter! And Instagram, and Facebook (the latter two I am terrible at keeping going). Before I launched my blog, I used social media like everyone else but I didn’t really give too much thought to it. Now, I use it less – because I am giving thought to it, usually ‘I need to do X,Y and Z’! Don’t get me wrong, there are huge benefits to social media, especially when it comes to getting your work out there, but I do find it incredibly tiring at times and overwhelming also, so I am trying to get into a healthy habit of having a set time to use it.

6. There is nothing wrong with liking what you like.

Whether it be a TV show, music, a certain author… I used to have playlists on Spotify that I would only listen to on ‘private mode’ for fear of being judged on my music choice if I suddenly wanted some Britney Spears or Aqua! But then I figured… you know what? I like prancing around my kitchen to cheesy 90’s pop sometimes, I find it relaxing to get in the bath and sing along to Mariah or Whitney and that’s not shameful, in fact, I figure most people do 🙂

7. Toxic people need to GO.

Sometimes it can be very hard to identify toxic people in your life, especially if you are a survivor of trauma or if you have a tendency to fall into unhealthy relationships. But my bullshit meter is getting stronger as I get older 😉 It’s not easy, sometimes you discover – with hindsight – how someone made you feel, and that it wasn’t healthy. But I am now trying to actively gauge how people make me feel, what my emotions are doing either before meeting them or after speaking to then and I am learning to trust my gut more.

8. The greatest thing you can do for other people is to hear them…

…and I mean, really hear them. You don’t have to fix them, you don’t even have to fully understand what they are going through – but if you can sit and be with them in their pain then that really does work wonders. All any of us want is to be heard and to not have our concerns brushed off as insignificant or silly. I feel that especially with anxiety, logic rarely comes into our fears and emotions and we can know that what we are experiencing doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense. Our minds are complex things and they will try and protect us in any way possible – but when we are in that space where we need protection, it is very often our child selves that are in control. All emotions are valid and all emotions have a root cause, sometimes it just takes sitting down with someone we know we can trust to talk it through in order to be able to unpick these things.

9. Nature is a wonderful healer.

We need medication at times, we need doctors, we need research and science and all of that – but nature also plays a huge, and wonderful, part in our wellbeing. From the plant-based food that we consume to the herbs and vitamins that support our health, to watching the cycle and the being of all things in nature as they die and are reborn, to just getting out and into it! I am a huge fan of walking to places and taking in the things I see along the way – even routes that you walk everyday change with the seasons and watching the seasons change is a magical experience in itself. It helps with mindfulness to be fully absorbed n your surroundings, even if it is in a town centre! But of course, the real magic for me is held within the woods, or on a windswept coastline. Sometimes I imagine the wind collecting up all my worries and carrying them out to sea, or the roots under my feet pulling me back down to earth and reminding me of my place in the great scheme of things which brings calm and stability. I could write about the wonders of nature all day, but I think this is already the longest paragraph so far 🙂

10. Trauma doesn’t just come from warzones.

For years, I dismissed the idea that I was a survivor of trauma. Years, decades even. What a preposterous idea that was – that a woman who was loved, who had a relatively comfortable life, who hadn’t been in a warzone or come from a broken home could be classed as having endured trauma. It was only last year, when I was seeing a wonderful therapist, that I realised that it wasn’t preposterous at all – and not only did he, in his medical opinion class what I went through as trauma, he classed it as complex trauma. A sustained and prolonged attack on my very being from a group of girls who would one day be my friends and the next be my attackers. How it shaped how I formed and maintained relationships as an adult. How I lived in a state of fear and anxiety for years whilst not wanting to be a burden. How my sense of self was still shaped by their words, how it had led to my ongoing feelings of being ‘too much’ and ‘too sensitive’, and I finally had answers as to why I second-guessed my own decisions constantly. C-PTSD: it is an acronym that still seems daunting, and one that means that in some ways I have a long way to go in recovery, but it is finally a name for something that has plagued me for so very long – and I no longer feel guilty for the pain that I feel.

11. Yoga is amazing.

There, that is the point… Yoga, is, amazing. Have a headache, a stiff neck, aching knees, period pain? Load up Youtube and type in Yoga for <insert ailment here> and there is a wholesome, calm, kind answer. Yes… ok, it’s not going to fix everything, we still need to have medications, therapy, self-awareness and all of that. But I can honestly say that yoga has helped my mental health and my fibromyalgia massively over the past year. I’m not flexible, I wobble in Warrior 1 at times! But having that half an hour to myself, where I know I am actively taking care of my body – even on the hardest of days – is a kindness and a safe space where I can let it all go.

12.‘You are not a bad person for the ways you tried to kill your sadness’.

Repeat this, as often as you need.

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13. Healthy food makes you feel good.

I know, its a fairly obvious one! But I am always amazed at how bad junk food can make me feel, almost instantaneously at times. It’s not always easy to notice if we are busy or unable to take care of ourselves as fully as we need to, and sometimes its really not all that achievable if money is tight and we are scrabbling together something from tins at the back of the cupboard and some wilting veg which lost its nutrient content long ago. Bulk cooking on good days and freezing it down for the harder ones is always a good shout, and sometimes I buy up the reduced veg in supermarkets and just make a load of soup!

14. People will always remember how you made them feel.

As humans, we tend to forget an awful lot – the little details of things, who said what, when exactly something happened and things like that, but when it comes to emotion, our connections are much stronger. It’s no surprise then that the impressions we make on other people, and those they make upon us, count.

15. Don’t put your tongue on the end of a battery.

No matter how much someone tells you is safe and won’t hurt. Even if that someone is your husband. Don’t do it.

16. People are infinitely interesting (and that includes you).

We all have stories, we all have experienced heartbreak, we all have dreams… I love talking to people and finding out what makes them tick. Years ago, I met a woman on the bus – she’s in her seventies, hair as white as snow and we got on so well that she came to my wedding! But the stories she tells me, of her parents, her grandparents and her great, great, greats have me itching for a pen and some paper. My Dad, a quiet and religious man has stories of road train driving in the outback of Australia, of being on the deck of a cruise ship in the eye of a hurricane and of being taught to drive race cars by Jack Brabham, if you know to ask. We all have so much tucked just below the surface! Ask the questions, ask about more than what someone watched on TV last night. We are all unique and interesting and yet we all think we’re so normal.

17. I am happiest when I’m wild.

When my hair isn’t done, when my clothes are comfortable, when I have no make-up on and I’m outdoors or with people that I can truly be myself around. Being corporate and perfectly manicured works for some people, but not for me. It doesn’t make me any better, or worse, than them. It just means I am not that type of person, and I’m finally learning that that’s ok.

18. Boundaries.

Boundaries are something I haven’t got a wonderful grasp on, yet. However, I am learning their importance – both to my emotional and my physical wellbeing. So many factors can lead to us saying ‘yes’ to things that a nanosecond later we wish we hadn’t agreed to, or getting ourselves into situations we long to escape from. Be it a fear of missing out, guilt, a sense of duty or that good old word: should. Also, I think when we have had a very low sense of our own self-worth, it does become something that we find we can bolster by being there for others or always being the one that people call on to help out. However, long term this is exhausting and basing our own self-worth on the needs of others leaves us in a very vulnerable place. I’m still working on it, but I am learning that sometimes it really is ok to say no or to take a little step back.

19. Pick your battles/stresses.

Is it going to matter tomorrow, or next week, or next month? As much as I feel that all emotions have their place, sometimes I catch myself getting upset over something that really does not matter in the scheme of things (i.e how my husband has loaded the dishwasher). Likewise, I know I have a tendency to fight for the underdog… but I’m beginning to learn that if it is going to cause me undue stress or something that is too high a price then it is time to take a step back and act at least a little with my head as well as my heart.

20. If you can change something that’s making you anxious, do it.

My therapist and I once spoke about the anxiety I felt over decision making – especially when it comes to food. I was telling him about a particular instance where we were going to get an Indian takeaway, but in the end, it became so stressful for me to choose between two dishes that we neglected the whole idea – and he looked at me and said ‘well, why not just get both?’ Now, obviously, this does not – and can not – apply to all things. But at that moment it felt like someone had flicked a switch, I could get both and the problem would be solved! Indian food freezes, after all, it’s just another meal. In fact, having both together made me realise how much I preferred one over the other. If the problem to an anxiety-inducing situation is easy – do it!

21. You can’t fix people, you can only love them.

Codependency… what a tricky little bugger that is! I learnt the hard way that you cannot fix people. Recovery and stability must be something that comes from within. I have written about it in more depth here and also here, but it is an ongoing process of realising that you can only do so much to help others.

21. You don’t have to have a reason for having something nice.

I am not financially well off, and I work very hard for the money I do earn. However sometimes it feels like that hard-earned cash then goes on the most mundane of things – food, vets bills, life insurance – blah blah blah. I think sometimes we forget that we are adults and if we want something nice, be it some tickets to a show, a bottle of nice wine, or a new top, we can actually treat ourselves and buy it. We are worthy of these things and it is ok to treat ourselves with the money that we have worked hard for.

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22. …but rewarding yourself is also important.

Sometimes you need something special though. It doesn’t have to be something bought, but we all do things in our day to day lives that are hard, anxiety-inducing, or that we agreed to three weeks ago and now our social engagement meter is in the red! Recognising achievements (even if they seem small or insignificant to others) is vital for our own self-worth and wellbeing. Be it a long soak in the bath, an hour extra in bed with a good book, a nice dinner or, really, whatever makes you feel good – we do need to reward ourselves for the things we do and the energy we put out into the world.

23. You cannot control the emotions of others.

Very much along the same vein as not being able to fix others, controlling the emotions of others is impossible. We are all complex little beings and what seems like a big deal to Person A may be completely insignificant to Person B. Our histories, our experiences, and even our genes play a huge part in our emotional reactions to things, and no-one can be expected to know the intricate details regarding the root cause of someone else’s response. To try and control how someone else feels would be like pouring water into a colander whilst expecting it to fill up and overflow. Control how you react to others, sure, but to expect someone to feel (or not feel) a certain way, because it is how you would react, is only going to cause frustration, from both parties.

24. It’s ok to be cross at those you love (still learning this one).

This is a tricky one for me. It’s based in guilt and also my fear of losing people and abandonment and it’s something that has been discussed a lot in my therapy sessions. But apparently, it’s ok to get angry and frustrated at those you love, it doesn’t mean that you don’t love them anymore

25. Positivity can be toxic.

I have written about this fairly recently. Positivity is wonderful, I think we can all appreciate that, but there does become a point where it stops being wonderful – and that point comes when it actively invalidates the very real emotions that someone is experiencing. We all get angry, upset, frustrated, lonely, jealous and have unkind thoughts about people at times – and you know what? That’s quite normal! We cannot be positive all the time, we need to address the difficult emotions and really feel them, not brush them under the carpet and ignore what they are trying to tell us or where they come from. This faux positivity can be hurtful and also quite dangerous and I am definitely not a fan of having it rammed down my throat by people who have never experienced the devastating lows of mental illness. Of course we would all love to be happy, shining beams of light 24/7, but in reality, that’s not possible and I feel that acknowledging that removes so much of the guilt of how ‘blessed’ and ‘grateful’ we all should be feeling. It’s ok to acknowledge that life can be a bit shit sometimes.

26. Online friendships can be as important and fulfilling as the friendships you have in ‘real’ life.

I have always – since the days of dial-up – talked to people online. As an introvert who can find face to face social situations exhausting at times, I have found that online friendships can be wonderful. When my mental illness was really at its worst, I struggled to leave my house, but the connections I had with friends online kept me going and even at times kept me safe. I still have some really good online friends – some I have gone on to meet in person, some I hope to one day and some I probably never will, but I still value them all as wonderful friends and I know that my life would be duller without them in it.

27. Rest days are essential…

…and they are a form of productivity in themselves. Allowing yourself some time to recharge and recuperate is not selfish. Sometimes we need that time today in order to be a better, more productive, less grouchy, more focused, less anxious person tomorrow.

28. The harder the therapy, the more effective it will be in the long run.

I have had various therapies over the years, including group therapy, CBT and CAT. But my most recent, the second round of 34 Cognitive Analytic Therapy sessions, was by far the hardest emotionally. We delved deep, deeper than I had gone before. We talked about the hard stuff, the stuff that was only now beginning to creep forward tentatively into the light of my consciousness. We talked about shameful coping mechanisms and the origins of my very worst fears. Some sessions we laughed like old friends and in others I sat and silently wept opposite him as he asked me ‘where I had gone’. However, within that room, I learnt so much about myself and so much about the reasons behind my behaviours. Throughout the course of 34 weeks I ended a codependent relationship, I started my blog, I endured a harrowing job and then found the confidence to leave. I dealt with my brother in laws cancer diagnosis and my fathers’ ill health. I discussed openly, for the first time, my dreams of being a mother and also the obstacles that stood in my way. I truly saw myself, for the first time – and as much as I would like to say it was an enlightening and revealing moment, it was also fucking terrifying. But, it helped me move forward. It helped me recognise my own strengths and it allowed me to deal and process and begin to leave things in the past. It gave me names for things that have plagued me for years and it gifted me with coping mechanisms, but most importantly it has allowed me to bloom, without fear, into the whole person I was so needlessly frightened of being.

29. Labels are effective and useful, but they don’t define you.

I used to be against labels, completely! How dare you define people with one word when we are all so magnificent in our individuality… yeah. I still believe it, to a point. But I now recognise that labels also have their uses. They help us to identify what is actually wrong with us and, especially with the case of mental illnesses, they help bring us comfort that its not ‘all in our heads’, that there is a medical and very valid reason for what we are going through. They also help when it comes to obtaining help and support and they help with opening up discussions about subjects that can be difficult to broach. I still don’t believe they are perfect, they can sometimes be so broad that they can prove ineffective in certain circumstances, and it can be very easy sometimes to define ourselves by the labels that are put upon us, when we are so much more than what they depict, but they do have their uses.

30. Inner child work is so important.

We all have one, that little being inside of us that holds onto our firmest beliefs about ourselves and the world around us – whether they be right or wrong. I ignored mine for a long time, and I am still guilty now of doing it at times. Meditation has helped me connect with her, but there have been times – especially during therapy – that she was so frightened and lost, that as an adult I didn’t know how to help her. I talk of ‘her’ like a separate entity, but of course she is not. She is at my core, she is the wise and quiet soul who drives my gut instinct, but also the flighty and nervous child self that makes me fear and lash out at times. Re-connecting is a tentative process, but in recognising where our fears and so many of our emotions come from I have realised how important it is to rebuild that bond and allow her voice to be heard.

31. I am stronger than I believe, and so are you.

To coin an overused phrase – we have survived all of our bad days up until now, and some of those have been days that we never thought we could get through. They may have exhausted us, they may have made us curl up into a ball and weep, they may have left us numb, angry, confused and heartbroken – but we survived them, and we are still here fighting.

32. It’s not a big deal to stop reading a book halfway through.

I’ve done it, I’ve plowed through unenjoyable pages because I have thought that its what I should do, especially with books that have received much critical acclaim. I have wondered why I haven’t ‘got’ it, I have come to the conclusion that in the next chapter it must all begin to make sense, but you know what? It never has. It doesn’t make you a bad person, an unintelligent person, or a weird* person to not get the ‘hype’. It doesn’t make you a terrible bookworm if you can’t finish a book. Life is too short – and there are so, so many amazing books out there, why waste time on one that isn’t fitting with you right now? You might come back to it in five years and love it, you might not, but reading is such a wonderful gift – spend it wisely, on books you adore.

33. * It’s ok to be weird.

Do whatever makes your little heart happy, seriously. A good friend once described me as ‘an eclectic mix of a Daphne du Maurier heroine, with a touch of Tank Girl and a healthy dose of Ray Mears thrown in for good measure’ – and if that isn’t a bizarre mix, then I don’t know what is. Your weirdness makes you interesting, it makes you unique and it will make you happier in the long run. Embrace it!

34. No-one is perfect.

No-one, not even if they appear to be. We all have our flaws, we all have our worries and our insecurities, we will all have upset someone at some point and made bad decisions. Everyone fucks up occasionally.

35. It gets better.

If it’s hard at the moment, if the tears won’t stop coming or the numbness is all-consuming. If you are stuck in a routine, or a job, or a relationship that is damaging your soul, then please take comfort in the fact that nothing lasts forever and even the darkest days come to an end. Sometimes we have to be so completely in darkness to see the tiniest glimmer of light – but with time, and patience, setbacks and sometimes a lot of hard work, I promise, it can get better x

Disclaimer: Whilst some of these points are points that I can now acknowledge and recognise, it doesn’t mean that they are always easy to put into practice. I’m working on many of them and trying to forgive myself when I don’t always succeed.

Thank you for reading.

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Happy Holidays… but why its ok if they’re not.

Autumn is a magical time of year. Everything turns golden, the heating comes on. People don’t look at you strangely for wearing big chunky boots with your pretty dresses… the best mornings are full of blue sky and steam that rises from inside your lungs when you breathe. You get to smell woodsmoke in the air, cook stews and casseroles to come home to. Leaves crunch under your feet or the mud squishes underneath your wellington boots as you meander through woodlands that smell of damp and earth and allow you to feel completely grounded and at one with nature.

It is also the prelude to December… I was born a week before Christmas and I normally look forward to that special week – full of family and friends, twinkling lights, good music (Smith & Burrows’s Christmas album will always be a favourite), amazing food and of course the presents, although I’ve always been much more of a giver in that respect. It’s wonderful…

Until it isn’t.

Until the tiredness snakes its way into your bones, or the kitchen gets too hot whilst you are cooking what feels like your eleventh thousand Christmas dinner. Your bank account is looking sorry for itself, you’ve forgotten to buy your husbands aunties cat a Christmas present (true story), you need to write a heap of cards for the neighbours or people at work, you need to have dinner with your extended family and you know that the noise of eating, the amount of food, the anxiety around getting it ‘just right’ and the feeling of being too full are all triggers to your own issues with food. Maybe you count on work as a distraction and routine to keep you sane and the thought of an enforced holiday scares you more than you would like to admit. Perhaps you are breaking bread with people that don’t understand your sexuality, maybe you would love to be spending your day with a loved one but can’t because you need to spend it with family who don’t understand. There is alcohol, so – much – alcohol, and that can be incredibly hard for so many reasons. It’s not an easy time. Last year I wrote on another platform about how we can never fully understand how hard Christmas can be for each other and this year I’m feeling the truth of that even more so. It could be the first Christmas without someone, or the last Christmas we know we’ll have someone with us. And it’s merry and jolly and bright because it’s Christmas… but in reality, it’s not at all jolly and bright… it’s hard, and it’s a struggle and that is ok.

It’s ok because it is ok not to be ok. It’s ok to find all of this too much – all of this preparation and buying stuff and thinking about food and making arrangements with people you haven’t spoken to for the last 11 months. It’s alright to go to a quiet place and just sit and do nothing, or to cry, or to scream into a pillow. It’s healthy to get the lead on the dog and whisk him out of the door faster than his paws can touch the ground because you just need to get out and away and breathe the fresh, cool air into your lungs for 10 minutes, by yourself, for yourself.

These few weeks are stressful. They are stressful for people who seem to have everything together and they are stressful for people that let us all know about it when they don’t. Most of us still have to do the everyday stuff – going to work, keeping ourselves healthy, care giving, paying bills, looking after kids – and then we have this big day looming on the horizon which everything has to be perfect for, which we need to be perfect for.

But we don’t. Not really.

Because it’s a day.

Just a day.

Take it hour by hour, remember to breathe. Meditate, go for a walk, sleep. Look after yourself and be considerate to those around you.

The season of goodwill to all men.

That includes yourself

❤️
Main image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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The Curse of Positivity

I should probably make one thing clear before I get into this post, I am not against positivity – not in the slightest. I believe that positivity is wonderful and can aid recovery, can undoubtedly make life more pleasurable and of course can make us more enjoyable people to be around. Despite the depression, I even think of myself as a generally positive person – my thoughts in this post aren’t about positivity per se, they are more about how positivity can sometimes feel forced, and pushed upon us…

Because I think we have all reached that point at times where positivity is really, really hard to muster. A bad day, week, month, year…  an amalgamation of events, a mental or physical illness, instances of inequality or discrimination. But still, we have this message pushed upon us by social media especially that we should be positive – because its ‘healthy’.

But… what if its not always the healthy option? What if our constant drive to put this positive front out to the rest of the world is actually damaging our wellness and our growth? We’ve all scrolled through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter looking at everyone else’s highlight reel, we’ve all come away feeling that little bit sadder, that little bit less accomplished.  

I came across a post during my scrolling on Facebook this morning which was a quote taken from Rachel Hollis’s bestselling book ‘Girl, Wash Your Face’

Now… my problem isn’t with Rachel Hollis, or her book. I haven’t read it so it would be unfair of me to pass any form of judgement on it. My problem is with the quote – a quote, which apparently comes near the end of the book and is taken (perhaps) out of context.

If you are reading this quote in the book, then you are someone who has chosen to read what Rachel has to say. You have been given time to grasp the approach of the book, you are perhaps already a fan of Rachel Hollis – maybe from this book itself, or perhaps you heard of her through her event planning company, lifestyle website, or the media company she runs with her husband. Maybe you’ve read one of her novels, own either of her cookbooks, been to one of her conferences or even attended one of her ‘getaway weekends’. The Rachel Hollis brand is huge and she evidently has a massive following of people that know who she is, what she stands for and also her approach to ‘wellness’.

However, if like me, you had to Google her…. then the quote is out of context. What this quote says, to someone unfamiliar with her tough love approach, is pull yourself together girl, stop dwelling on the past. Be positive, love yourself…

And this is something that I cannot get on board with.

Sure, that message is positive; it screams positivity and motivation. But what it doesn’t address is why these ‘positive’ things are not happening in the first place.

Lets break it down a little and see why reading a quote like this out of context can be so problematic…

‘Girl…’ – I get the impression that her target audience is middle class women, usually mothers. But can we take a moment to recognise that men also suffer with the issues that she is trying to address?

 ‘Get ahold of your life’ – how? Is it easy? It that something that people who don’t have a job because of a mental health condition can do? Is that something that someone who is being discriminated against because of their sexuality, race or gender can do? Is it something that a single working mum (or dad) can do when every penny goes on shelter and putting food in their childrens mouths? Is it something an addict can do? Or someone with a physical health condition? Or someone who is grieving? How about uh…. Someone who is processing trauma? Someone who has major anxiety and cannot go outside? Get ahold of your life – five words that are very easy to type, but that have different meanings, difficulties, connotations and shame attached to them, for so many people.

‘Stop medicating’ – I am giving her the benefit of the doubt here, I’m presuming she means ‘self-medicating’ rather than actual medication. But still, coming from a woman who wrote in her bestselling book that she would use vodka and Xanax to deal with stress when she was going through the fostering process, you’d think she’d perhaps have a little more compassion for people that do resort to coping mechanisms to get through. Two words, but they don’t delve into the complexities of addiction, they don’t offer any forgiveness for how we try and cope with our pain. They don’t encapsulate how hard it is to stop behaviours that have helped us in the past and that can be very easy to fall back to, even when we are ‘recovered’.

‘Stop hiding out, stop being afraid, stop giving away pieces of yourself’ – these are good snippets of advice, but they are delivered in such a simplistic way that they lose all meaning. Its safe to hide, especially if you have experienced trauma or discrimination – hiding becomes a learned and subconscious behaviour to some – including myself. And how could you contemplate just telling someone to ‘stop being afraid’? Fears and phobias are bad enough but if we are talking about being afraid of putting ourselves out there, of being seen, or taking huge steps forward and managing our own recovery – then that becomes something else entirely. As for giving away pieces of ourselves – sometimes that comes down to self-worth, to co-dependency, to being abused and to having to, because that’s how we have learnt to survive.

‘Stop saying you can’t do it. Stop the negative self-talk’ – So this part, is perhaps the only part that I do agree with. We are all so hard on ourselves and we do need to learn to talk to ourselves more gently, to be more forgiving to ourselves and to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, and – in fact – no-one is. Unfortunately, the compassion that we need to offer onto ourselves in order to begin to do this, is not really offered within this context.

‘Stop abusing your body’ – So, this is a very interesting one. I haven’t read Rachels book, but in preparation for this post I have read about Rachel and I have read snippets in order to gleam some sort of idea about the message she is trying to promote. This is a quote from her book:

“Humans were not made to be out of shape and severely overweight. You can choose to continue to abuse your body because it’s all you know […] but please stop making excuses for the why’s”

Rachel Hollis

It is also worth noting at this point, that Rachel Hollis does have posts on her Instagram about loving your body and your worth isn’t dependant on your appearance – which is wonderful and is a very important message. But unfortunately, she seems to be completely disregarding the fact that millions of people suffer with mental health issues which are directly linked to food. Some people undereat, some people overeat and some people do both – and these are all valid reasons for emotional distress. Anorexia is an abuse upon our bodies yes, but it is not a choice, it is not an excuse, it is a deep rooted and traumatising illness – and the same applies to binge eating and bulimia. Also, if we take it away from food for a moment and move onto exercise then can we at least recognise that the ability, time and often money to do so is a privilege not afforded to all.

‘Stop putting if off for tomorrow or Monday or next year’ – if you are tired, if you are unwell, if you are recovering then sometimes you need to put things off. Sure, don’t put them off forever, don’t put them off to the point of never doing them  – but again, it comes down to kindness. It comes down to recognising that something might just be a bit too much of a hurdle today, but tomorrow it might be easier. It is a difficult one, because sometimes we do need to do that hard stuff in order to move forward – but do it with kindness, do it whilst recognising your own limits and whilst also rewarding yourself for how far you’ve come! And that distance will be different for everyone – on some days getting out of bed and showered may seem like a hundred-mile trek, but recognise the power it took to do it, and forgive yourself if today you just can’t.

‘Stop crying about what happened…’ – No, don’t stop crying about what happened. This is perhaps the worst command in this entire list. Its ok to cry about what happened, its healthy to cry about what happened. Tears are healthy, addressing past issues and traumas and learning how to deal with them so that we can move on, is healthy. Never feel ashamed for crying, never feel ashamed for what happened to you and never feel ashamed for talking about it. We need to open up these places of safety, we need to get better at discovering why we sometimes do the things we do and why we react the way that we do to certain things. Brushing things under the carpet, painting on a mask of wellness and positivity and moving forwards is not going to help us find the root causes and is not going to help us address the issues that we need to move on from. Confide in friends you feel safe with, go to the therapy if you are able, take the medication if it helps makes things more bearable and cry when you need to cry – but please don’t ever feel ashamed or embarrassed to do so because you cannot skip these parts, you cannot ignore the past.

…and take control of what happens next’ The same rhetoric as ‘get ahold of your life’. We do have to take responsibility for ourselves at times, but it is important to recognise that these decisions can come much easier for some than for others. If you are being discriminated against, if you are poor, if you live in a rural community and don’t have good transport links, if you are in an abusive relationship, if you don’t have adequate healthcare or are on a long and never ending waiting list for help – then you can recognise that need to take responsibility as much as you want, but you cannot control what happens next.

The ‘tough love’ approach may work for some. It certainly work’s for Rachel’s devoted audience – but it doesn’t work for all. For some, it will feel judgemental, it will feel unkind and it will reinforce the belief that they have in themselves that they are not trying hard enough and that they are to blame – when so often, this isn’t the case.

Rachel Hollis has very successfully built a brand – and the brand is her. But to my knowledge, she doesn’t hold a medical degree, she does not have a background in mental health and before she founded Chic Events with her husband, her working life was spent at Miramax Studios. Rachel doesn’t know, or understand your individual pain, or your trauma. Her message is that of positivity and motivation and that is wonderful – unfortunately her message becomes skewed when her words are taken out of context and are read by people who haven’t bought into the lifestyle brand that she has created. If you cannot do the things you see in a quote all about positivity, that doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you have failed, and it doesn’t mean that your inability to do so is your fault.

It is ok to not be positive, it is ok to be sad or angry, or to feel pain, or to still be in the process of recovery. You do not need to brush yourself off and get on with it just because it’s the done thing, you are allowed to feel your feelings and to talk and cry and revisit the past in order to find ways of making your future bright. We do not all need to be shining beacons of positivity all the time – and we do not need to know where we are going or how we are going to get there.

Sometimes, all we need to do, is be kind.

And not only to others.



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World Mental Health Day

Last year, on World Mental Health Day, I was in the process of coming off of an anti-depressant that I had been on for eight years. I remember I woke up and scrolled through Facebook – the significance of the day dawning on me. The insightful and hopeful posts about talking, and sharing, and not giving in lighting up my screen. But I wasn’t a part of that, I didn’t have any hope or insight.

I posted something, a small paragraph about kindness and how it important it is – especially when it comes to giving it to ourselves and then I probably went back to sleep, or went and led in a hot bath, or cried… I don’t really remember.

This morning… I realised it was World Mental Health Day, again, as I was scrolling through Twitter in bed this morning. A lot has happened in the last year; I have had a course of Cognitive Analytical Therapy, I went back onto the medication I was trying to come off of, I’ve been able to put a name and a reason to some of my pain. I’ve stood up for myself, I quit a job that was making me miserable, I gained a new baby nephew, I lost my wonderful Great Aunt – and, I started this blog.

As a mental health blogger, there should be something insightful coming from my pages today, right? Yeah… probably. I thought about it all morning, I thought about it when I was exercising, when I was hanging the washing on the line. I thought about it whilst scrolling through Twitter and whilst in the shower. Nothing came to me, nothing but pressure.

But maybe that was because there are no beautiful and insightful words that will help when you are in the midst’s of depression, or feeling the effects of long-lasting and complex trauma. Maybe it’s because – like I found last year – if you are in that place, you can read them, but you can’t feel them.

When you are in that place, hope doesn’t apply because depression will snuff out any glimmer of hope before it can really shine. That’s what depression does. You begin to feel disconnected from it all, like you are not worthy of these words or this kindness, because that’s what depression does. You feel that you cannot go to any of those people who assure you that their door is open or they are willing to listen because you’d feel like a burden, or too sad, or guilty, or shameful… because that’s what depression does.

Depression is ugly, and dark. Its corrosive, sticky and toxic. Its complex, its deep rooted, it latches onto other mental and physical illnesses and makes them 10x worse, and 100x harder to fight. But it is also familiar. It lives within us and so it is at times scarily, and comfortingly familiar. Its twisted, its conniving… its not something we can sit here and write pretty words and breezy platitudes about. It’s a killer.

It can kill anyone, it’s not fussy. On the lunchtime news today I watched Lorraine Denman, the mother of the Team GB snowboarder Ellie Soutter talk about her daughters suicide last year. Ellie was 18, she was beautiful, talented, had a loving family and an amazingly bright future ahead of her – she showed no signs of being depressed, she was out with friends the night before….

Ellie Soutter
Photo credit: https://twitter.com/TeamGB

Depression doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care about hope, it doesn’t care about wealth, beauty, love or gender. It will latch on to anything remotely positive and twist it, swamp it with its darkness and its ugliness. It will take your words away, it will convince you that you are too much, too sad, too boring, too unworthy to get help or speak to those you love – and that love you – about what you are feeling. It will jumble your thoughts so that even if you could speak, you wouldn’t know how to make any of it make sense. It will make you so tired of fighting, so tired of having it within you that you will do anything to stop it.

But it doesn’t need to make sense. If you are able to talk to someone, it doesn’t need to come out in any order, it doesn’t have to come out well-described, or calmly, or like beautiful prose. It just needs to come out.

One thing that is important to remember, which I struggle to remember, is that when you do confide in someone – be it a friend, family member, spouse, boss, doctor… anyone – they are not in the same emotional space as you. They are not feeling what you are feeling. They may have their own mental health issues – but, if you are anything like me, it is always easier to hold someone else’s pain than it is your own. I have depression (amongst other things) but I would never want any of my friends to feel that they could not come to me, because I would much rather sit with them in their pain, than sit next to their hospital bed or their coffin.

So… this World Mental Health Day, lets still all vow to be there for each other, but lets also vow to stop treating Depression, PTSD, BPD, Anxiety, Addiction,Eating Disorders and the rest with platitudes. People don’t just suffer on one day, or one week, of the year. They aren’t just suffering when you see them ‘looking sad’, or when they are crying. People can be in emotional pain, even when they are smiling, even when they are holding down a job, or socialising, or recovering. They can still be suicidal when they are tipped to be an Olympic athlete with a bright future and the whole world ahead of them.

Let’s not forget that.

For Ellie x

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Rainy Day Rambles

I lay on the edge of the bed, my right arm lazily grazing the carpet. Slowly I closed one eye and my view changed, I could no longer see the ruffled-up duvet in front of my face. I opened it again and everything came back into view. I closed the other, with slightly more effort, and watched as the view shifted a little, just like an old slide projector.

It crossed my mind, briefly, that this is how the world works. Things shift and blur into reality and what we think we see. That without moving, even just barely breathing… our minds can alter our reality. My mind was tired and my body felt heavy. The amount of thoughts inside my cranium were literally weighing me down. If the mind is like the one-eyed trick, then surely, we can alter it?

In that instant I berated myself for thinking of it in such simple terms.

But I do this, simplify the complex. Yesterday I was so sad, unbearably sad at some points and I didn’t know why. My own voice in my own head was pointing out all the things that I should be grateful for without acknowledging the very fact that depression doesn’t need a reason. That’s a fact, that’s not a thought. My mind was ignoring the rational and instead choosing the option that made me feel guilt and shame which of course, made me feel worse. But then I guess that’s the poorly part, the defunct and damaged cells, the sticky black tar.

The friend that chirpily tells you that are so lucky, as she twists the knife in your back.

I haven’t been writing because I haven’t known how to put my feelings into words since therapy ended a little over a month ago. I haven’t wanted to write dismal posts about how I’m feeling, and yet I haven’t had the drive to read scientifically backed information about the things that your mind does when you are processing trauma in order to wrap it up in a neat little bow. I’ve seen things that I’ve thought would make great inspiration for poems, I’ve thought of whole, wonderfully, crafted paragraphs of prose whilst I’ve been starting into space – but when it comes to writing it down, the words haven’t flowed.

I need to write; writing for me is like a sifting my thoughts through thin white mesh – it sorts the jumbled from the rational and helps me to think clearly. Getting words out on to paper enables me to breathe again without the metaphorical hitch in the back of my throat – I can’t scream and rage, I struggle to cry since starting back on medication – how else can I get these feelings out?

I am angry… I am angry that I don’t have a job whilst the person that forced me out still collects his paycheck at the end of the month. I am angry at the state of politics in this country, that the medication that will keep my dog healthy will mean that we will have to be frugal with our money for as long as he lives. I am angry when I watch people I love being taken advantage of, I’m angry at people who claim to be Christians on Twitter post utter nonsense that not only attacks those that already live in the margins, but continues to shatter the concept of real Christianity, for myself and for anyone that reads their hate filled diatribe.

But I cannot get it out. I cannot express it without feeling shame, or without experiencing guilt.

I am sad that my words are once again failing me, that I can’t settle to read a book or that it takes me hours to write what would have taken me moments, because the words I need feel like they are caught up in the tar and I cannot pick them out without becoming exhausted.

I am frustrated that the first, honest, writing from me in weeks is one that is about how my depression is feeling right now, and not how it has felt in the past.

But maybe that’s what’s needed. An acknowledgement of how I truly feel, no pretty neat bows, no fancy words or scientific facts. Just someone admitting that right now, its all a bit hard and that sometimes we all feel a little lost.

Today, I need to be kind to myself. I’ll do some yoga, I’ll take a walk. I may even do some baking this afternoon. The rain is falling steadily outside, and it feels more autumnal than august should. My dog, with his medication working and fur coming back is snoring softly next to me, my husband will be home this evening and the first thing he will do is hold me. I have a roof over my head and food in the cupboards – and I am thankful, so thankful – but that doesn’t mean that my feelings and my depression aren’t valid. That doesn’t mean that I can berate myself for how I feel because it doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter mould of what I should be feeling in order to make others more comfortable.

And maybe the words will come, maybe the tar will snake back and the heaviness will lift and what will be left will be gleaming pathways with freshly uncovered words for me to play with, but its ok if that doesn’t happen today, or tomorrow, or even this week.

What matters is my breath, in this moment. It’s the things that make my days brighter – my dog, my husband, my friends and my family. It will be hearing the rain patter on my hood or umbrella when I venture out later, and how the flour and butter feel between my fingers as I gently rub them together to make something delicious. It’s the gentle reminders that I will give to myself that this passes, it always passes and the sun will come out again. That every time it happens I come out more battle worn, but always stronger… and that that strength on some days will help others get through days, just like this one.

Am I tying it up in a neat little bow?

Maybe.


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Learning to Swim

 Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash 

You told me that when I fell off the rails I would do it quietly and without fuss.

Slipping, hardly noticeable.

I knew what you were saying was right, I saw the worry behind your eyes at the realisation it had already begun. But I smiled, I told you not to be silly.

I feel it now. Your words ring true in my ears as I drink the wine that numbs the feelings, as I crave the words that give me the punishment. It’s all inside of me; my small body and fragile mind keep it contained in a safe and hardly manageable existence…

But I still see the way you look at me, the gaze that lingers too long and the arms that hold so tightly. You know it’s happening and you can’t stop it because I tell you I am fine.

I am drowning, but still I smile.

The Safety Trap

Image by: Max Nguyen on Unsplash

TW: Disordered eating, body image

I have read a lot of other people’s blog posts today, I have scrolled through Twitter, I have done some other work… and, I have procrastinated.

I have procrastinated because I know I have been putting this blog post off for a long, long time. But I know it is forming a sort of ‘block’ within my mind and therefore within my writing. It’s a subject that has been a bit of an issue for me as long as I can remember, but one that I have never fully grasped – I still don’t know if I am any closer to grasping it now, but I will try and explain it as best I can.

I do feel that with the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week being ‘Body Image’, it is a good time to broach the subject; I also had a chat with my therapist yesterday about how I could be suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD. So… the timing certainly feels right to broach this subject.

And the subject is…. *drumroll* Smallness.

More specifically, smallness and safety.

Growing up, I was a skinny kid. I don’t think I ever reached much above 7 stone until my mid to late teens. Think gangly legs and arms, long dark hair, big eyes, freckles. I never even really thought that much about my body – it was just there. Even throughout secondary school, throughout all of the bullying, my body didn’t really come into it. I never felt super confident, but I just didn’t give it that much thought. My weight increased slightly when I left school, but when I met my (now) husband, aged 19, he would later go on to comment that he sometimes thought he would break me I was so slim.

Fast forward a couple of years, I had moved down to Somerset. I was still slim, but I had this little belly… I used to do ab crunches, sit ups, things like that to try and get rid of it. I wasn’t large by any means, but I knew it was there. I worked full time in a care home though – my job was active, my mealtimes a little out of kilter with the ‘norm’. I could skip meals and be so busy that I wouldn’t even notice…

And then I went onto the pill injection, Depo Provera, injected into my bottom every three months.

And wow, my body changed. I wasn’t eating any more than normal, or being less active than normal but my hormones were all over the place and the weight crept on. With the weight, came the boobs. I went from being a 34C to a 36DD – the difference in my appearance was startling.

And I hated the boobs.

I would complain to my husband that they were too big, that I just wanted to make them smaller. I came off of the pill after a couple of years (I was also sliding into depression – but at the time, I just thought my hormones were out of whack) and although some of the weight came off, the boobs stayed. I would (much to my husband’s eye-rolls) wear minimiser bras, looser tops, clothes that were cut in such a way that my boobs weren’t really apparent…

And then, over the next few years, the depression crept in.

When it was finally diagnosed, I hadn’t been eating properly for months. My anxiety stole my appetite and my adrenaline was constantly working – so whatever I did manage to eat just got burnt up pretty quickly.  I wasn’t intentionally not eating, but even now if I am super stressed, I just cannot stomach food.

My weight plummeted, not to drastic levels, but within six months I probably lost a couple of stone. I dropped 3 dress sizes, I look back at pictures of that time now and I am all big eyes and tiny frame.

The boobs and the tummy though, they are still there.

My boobs never went. When I went and had my wedding dress fitted in 2017, I had been working out pretty consistently for over a year – the woman in the shop commented that I had an enviable figure, petite but with great boobs. I look back on some of our wedding pictures and I think my boobs look grotesque, I have picked some of those pictures apart so much that looking back through my wedding pictures is no longer an enjoyable experience for me. I have three or four that I am comfortable with, that’s it.

The majority of bras that I wear are ones designed to minimise, but I have no idea if or even really how they work. I wear a lot of scarves; I just hate any attention being drawn to that general area. Even typing this now though, I feel wrong somehow. I am a woman, I should relish my curves, I should be thankful that nature (and synthetic hormones) gave me boobs that some women dream about and pay thousands upon thousands on surgery to obtain. The thought that gets me the most though… is the guilt. I have healthy breasts, what on earth do I have to complain about?

It’s not just those though…

It’s my stomach, my nose, my hips and my teeth. It’s that my forehead is too big, my hair (dependent on length) is too long or too short, it’s too dark, or not dark enough. My eyes have too many wrinkles around them, I’m too tall (I’m 5’5”)…. There is not one single thing that I can look at and go, yeah, I really like that feature.

For years I thought I was being vain, I told myself off, told myself to stop being so ridiculous. But then my jeans would feel a little tighter, someone would take a picture from an unflattering angle, or a small comment would be made and my entire world would feel like it was crashing down around me. I knew, I know, that our bodies are just our shells – what we look like in the grand scheme of things really does not matter and we all are our own worst critics. But over the years I tried everything to make myself smaller; from exercising for hours on end every day, to diet and protein shakes, to various pills, teas and herbal remedies that promised to shift the pounds. I have beaten myself up for second portions and tried to bargain with myself that I will exercise it off in the morning. I have cried over my body and felt such disgust and shame that I wish I could just slice parts of it off. I have developed a phobia regarding eating in front of people I don’t know and I have got to the point where I cannot bear even the noise of my husband (or anyone) eating anything, not just the ‘crunch’ noise, but all of it.

I love food, but it has become such a source of anxiety for me that it terrifies me.

And I know that the anxiety comes from one simple fact – food will make me bigger if I don’t keep a tight control over it, and the last thing I want to be is that most feared of all things… big.

My logical brain knows that there is nothing at all wrong with being big, and I think that this is where my confusion over the whole subject comes from. I will talk about body positivity and how amazing the human body is until I’m blue in the face, I know how we need to fuel our bodies, I have studied nutrition, I find other women’s bodies beautiful – but I cannot apply any of that back to myself.

But I don’t think that this is a weight thing, or an image thing.

I think it’s a small thing.

A friend said to me yesterday, after therapy ‘ I wonder if you still have that image in your mind of you as a 14 year old girl’ and my response was ‘No, but I want the figure of that 14 year old girl’

I don’t want the boobs and the hips and the squishy bits – because people notice them. Men, notice them. I work on a reception desk and there are men that come in and I watch their eyes drop from my face to my chest as they talk to me. I have had men flirt with me because of (I’m pretty certain) my figure. All of this *motions wildly around my body* makes me noticeable. Even walking across town to my therapist’s office, I walk along some pretty busy roads and I hate it, it’s that feeling of being exposed and people in traffic jams or passenger in cars and lorries looking at me, judging me…

And I know, my logical brain once again knows, that they aren’t. I don’t sit as a passenger in a car and gawp at whoever I see walking down the road and even if I did notice them, I’m not going to judge them harshly in any way.

But my logical brain gets shouted down by all of the other voices so often that it’s shrunk.

Just like I want to do, all. the. time.

Last week I managed to fit two puzzle pieces together, after a long, long time of feeling confusion and guilt over all of this. I have always been noticed in a critical way; growing up we lived in a church building in a rough area of town – we were different and therefore we were noticed. If we went into our garden, kids would shout over the fences, when were back inside bricks would come through the windows and I would lie awake at night worrying that the next thing that came through the window or the letterbox would be on fire. Also, everyone at school knew where I lived so once again, I was noticed, and bullied.

It became much, much safer to hide.

So being small = being safe.

And my mind has run with that, it has embedded that into its very nature. I don’t want to be big size wise, I also don’t want to be loud, or too confident or have too much to say – because those things do not keep me small and therefore do not keep me safe. If I have talked passionately about something, if I have talked in front of more than a handful of people, if I have done something great and been celebrated for it – I am not safe because I have become bigger. I have taken up space, both literally and metaphorically and then the doubts not so much as creep in, but burst in. The negative self-talk gets louder, I replay conversations in my mind and of course I instinctively know what that person really meant when they said such and such, and that little sigh obviously indicated that they were bored and I talked too much about myself or I didn’t give the right response… and its horrible. Its really, really horrible…

Starting this blog for me was huge, because this is my voice. These are my thoughts, I am putting myself out there and when you put yourself out there… you get noticed. This goes against everything that I have concluded in my addled brain as being ‘safe’. It’s like I have this really strong desire for safety and hiding away – but I also have this exhibitionist streak running through me that almost wants to be noticed!  I don’t understand it, and I cannot pretend that I do – but there is a part of me that takes being noticed and almost likes it, twists it into something good. I hate that men sometimes flirt, but at least they have noticed me. I post a writing on my blog and feel really positive about it, or an IGTV video of a Facebook or Twitter status… but as soon as it’s out there I instantly want to delete it because people are noticing it, but I have chosen to put it out there in the first place.

I am constantly in turmoil with all of this…

It runs through my mind, it hides in the dark recesses; it toys with my emotions and my relationships. I put myself in situations where other people can make decisions for me because there are times when I don’t trust myself to make them myself – this can be as big as deciding when to start a family, or as small as what to choose for dinner. I let myself sometimes be unheard because I feel that what I had to say wasn’t all that important anyway. I finally, let go of a toxic friendship at the start of this year, but even that was one built upon dominance and gas lighting. However, the real battleground, is my body.

Because I do not have the figure I want. I am not as small petite as I would like (and let’s be honest, if I was 34 with a 14 year olds body then things would not be right, at all) I know that I am not big but the image I have of myself is so vastly different to the image I see of myself in photographs that I literally cannot bear it. My husband took a photograph of me the other day – we were out for a walk in the woods and as soon as I saw it, the panic set in – and it was panic. It wasn’t a ‘oh, I’ve perhaps put a couple of lb’s on’ it was a ‘I have to be smaller than this, I look like a whale, I feel  grotesque and like I have lost control and I need to be smaller now, right now, not after a couple of weeks or months watching of what I eat and exercising  regularly – but right. now.’

A few moments later, I took a selfie and I looked at my face and it looked so slim I saw a glimpse of that very poorly woman from 9 years ago looking back out at me. I do not know which picture to believe, but I am convinced that it is the first one. I have no idea what my body looks like – there are times when I obsessively try and find out a celebrities size and measurements so that I can ‘compare’. I don’t trust what I see in the mirror anymore, or when someone tells me I look nice, or what a photograph depicts. None of it feels either real, or true…

The woodland photograph incident was two days ago. I’m still feeling like that now – yesterday was an awful mental health day and today I have had to put my brave pants on and get myself to work, but those voices are still there. My body is aching because I worked out this morning when I was already exhausted, I have eaten because I know I need to, nuts and a cuppa soup and herbal tea. It’s not enough and I have a headache but I’m worrying about what we have planned for supper regardless…

I cannot carry on like this. But I don’t know how to change the way that my mind has developed in order to keep me safe. I cannot look at that picture from Tuesday and see someone who is kind, empathic, creative and worthy of love and affection. I look at that picture and I just feel panic, because that is not the image I have of me, in my mind.

And that doesn’t feel safe.

But then… not a lot does.

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So Unsexy

Image credit: Eric Nopanen @ Unsplash

Alanis Morisette – So Unsexy

I can feel so unsexy for someone so beautiful

Way back near the start of this round of therapy, we talked a little about self-esteem. He asked me what I liked about my body and my appearance and I puffed my cheeks out and thought, and thought… and, thought…

“Ok, what don’t you like?”

“Well, I don’t like my teeth, they aren’t straight. My nose is too big, as are my boobs, I really hate having boobs, and I know some women would kill for boobs, but I really wish they were smaller. My hair is either too bushy or too flat and I can never get it that shade of red that I would love to have it, I don’t really like my hips, I always feel too tall, I wish I was shorter…”

I paused…

“I suppose my eyes are ok? But my vision isn’t great…so I would change them for eyes that could, y’know, see. But then I like wearing glasses because they kind of hide my face a little, so I don’t really mind that…”

“You wish you were shorter?”

I nodded.

“You aren’t…tall. You’re what, 5’6?”

“5’5” I corrected him, that inch is very important – this comment was one we would return to over the following few weeks.

So unloved for someone so fine

I am fortunate in the people I have around me, I am well aware of that. I know that I am loved – on my good days; I can feel it, like static electricity almost. My husband loves me, as do my family and also my friends. I am told often, reminded daily.

On good days, this goes in.

On my bad days, depression wins. On my bad days, I am a nuisance, I am too… depressing! Too much. I’m too boring, I talk about myself more than I should, I’m terrible company, I’m too tired… I couldn’t possibly reach out because it would burden someone else with this heavy, leaden pain that I am feeling – and all of those people that love me, well, I love them back. I could not possibly inflict them with this, I could not bear for them to have to shoulder even one ounce of the pain that is so prevalent on those days. So I don’t text when I should, I don’t pick up the phone and very rarely do I try and fathom how all of these jumbled thoughts can make their way out of my mouth in coherent sentences.

It doesn’t mean I am unloved. It means depression tells me, hisses at me, whispers at me that the love that is there is too fragile to bear the weight of my burden, to bear the weight of its influence.

On my good days I know its lying. On my bad days, it wins.

I can feel so boring for someone so interesting

Tell me about your dreams… about your fears and your darkness. Tell me about what you hope to achieve and what keeps you awake at 2am. Tell me stories of your childhood, indulge me with tales of the things that make your heart beat faster and your spirit soar, for I will listen attentively, I will treat your words as precious gifts because for me that is what they are.

But ask me to reciprocate… am I worthy of that? To take up your time with ramblings about my views and hopes, fears and dreams. Won’t you get bored? Won’t you wish you had never asked? Will I see your eyes glaze over, or get the sense that you are simply waiting for your turn to speak?

Maybe, maybe not, but it’s safer to not find out. Isn’t it?

So ignorant for someone of sound mind

I didn’t get great grades. Bullying and my subsequent mental health issues meant that I only took two GCSE’s and I didn’t do brilliantly at those. I went back to uni four years ago, but my degree is unfinished…

I know, that it isn’t for lack of intelligence.

I know, that I can think logically and practically and I have read enough books and educational texts to know that there is no malfunctioning part of my brain that doesn’t process information. I know that I can participate in stimulating conversations and debates and if I am passionate about something then I can talk for hours, and argue my point very well…

But, again, that doubt.

Tiredness and fibro fog both make concentration hard at times. I can read an article and know that I haven’t absorbed a word; I can read the same paragraph two, three times and then have to read it out loud so that the words can filter into my brain. Sometimes, I simply can’t read – it’s too much, too stimulating. I forget things now more regularly than I once did; it is both frustrating and terrifying in equal measure how my brain will blur out words, conversations and pieces of information.

Last week, I was holding a stick and I wanted to tell my husband that it would make a good catapult. The word would not come, I could see it, I stood in our kitchen and (much to my husband’s entertainment) acted out in great detail how you use a catapult. I came up with the word I thought was the right one – yahtzee. (I mean, yahtzee?! What the actual…?) But no ‘catapult’, was gone. And yes – we all forget words, if this was a one off then I’d laugh it off, but it isn’t.

And that makes me doubt myself and how my mind is able to store and process information. It makes me Google things, simple things, just to double check. It makes me ask for confirmations of things via email so that I don’t forget and it makes me imagine that my brain is made of cotton wool and my thoughts and opinions must somehow be skewed by memory and therefore irrelevant or wrong.

Oh these little rejections how they disappear quickly

The moment I decide not to abandon me

I have to stick with it all. Stick with reminding myself that beauty is not all about how we look and that I am loved, that I am not boring and that I am intelligent – even if not conventionally so. I need to be there for myself, show up for myself each day and give myself those pep talks as freely as I give them to others. The strength that I need now can only come from within, and I cannot abandon that, or myself, anymore.

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