Project HeatherED

Live your happiest, healthiest, and emotionally wealthiest life

Month: July 2018

My ProjectHeatherED Manifesto Post (or why I believe mental health matters and my motivations behind this blog)

Last night I went to bed listening to Simon Sinek‘s “Start With Why” on Audible.  He quite literally spoke to me and rather than winding down for sleep, I stayed up past midnight writing this post.

It’s inspired me to create this manifesto; a manifesto being defined as “a public declaration of policy and aims.”

By openly sharing my “why” I hope to make clear to you, dear reader, what it is about mental health that really matters to me. Why I feel so passionately about Project HeatherED, and what’s kept me consistently publishing these past six months.

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Why Becoming Better is the Heart of Project HeatherED 

A Mental Health Manifesto

I believe we are more than our mental health.

I believe as human beings we are inherently worthy.

Our value is no more tied to our physical bodies than it is to our state of mind.

Instead, I believe that what matters most is our emotional intelligence. Being Open-minded and open-hearted, if we’re willing to learn – to improve, expand, and grow – then there’s always hope of becoming better.

I believe that it’s important to explore ways we can become happier; to maximise our mental wellness.

I believe we deserve better than a mediocre mental existence.

I believe that our dreams are not determined by any diagnosis.

We can have anxiety and be amazing.

We can feel depressed and, deep down, still dream of a happier future.

We can fight to control our our dangerous desires – be they food or fitness, drugs or drink – and also fight to feel truly free.

I believe a healthy mind is linked to having a healthy body, but that doesn’t always look how we’d expect.

I believe that a perfect body is one in which we feel at home.

I believe we can learn to feel truly beautiful; to become comfortable in our skin, to overcome our mental, physical, and emotional barriers to having a positive body image.

I believe that we can overcome our fears of being judged by others.

I believe that by daring to be fully ourselves – by being vulnerable – we can become better at self-acceptance.

I believe it’s possible to get to where what we think matters, first and foremost; where what others think doesn’t matter so much after all.

I believe in self-determination; in making informed choices.

I believe that we can choose to take control and manage our mental wellness.

I believe that how we manage our mental health is a personal decision; that we deserve respect, whatever we decide.

I believe that medication can play an important role in helping us feel better.

I also believe in taking responsibility for our own recovery; for our happiness.

I believe we each have our own definition of success. Knowing what we want, we can then design our own blueprint for the life we wish to lead.

I believe we choose the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, our lives and the world we live in. We have the ability to rewrite it at any moment, making it better, brighter, and more beautiful.

I believe that we can help each other to become more.

I believe that by working together, we grow in confidence, increase our emotional fitness, and our psychological resilience.

As we learn more about ourselves and how our minds work, I believe we’re becoming better, each and every day.

This statement is a work-in-progress. Still, as of this moment, I’ve given it my best shot. I think it goes some way to explain why I’m driven to contribute to the conversation around mental health.

My manifesto is also a declaration of how I strive to live my own life; how I aim to value myself and others. I do so imperfectly, of course. I regularly fall short of my own ambitious standards and that’s okay.

I, too, am a work-in-progress. My manifesto makes room for mistakes. I hope it explains why I’m driven to invest so much time and energy in this project, and why it matters so much to me.

As I’ve already said, I truly believe we can become better.

 

The Confidence 101 Post (or what we can do right now to build self-belief)

Having  self-confidence has to be one of the most – if not the most – commonly-cited challenges to living our best lives. Courses and classes abound on the subject, yet it continues to be an issue for even the smartest, most successful among us.

Inevitably, it’s harder still to believe in ourselves when we’ve got mental health issues. On top of the usual challenges that thrown at us in the course of the average day, we’ve got bonus bullsh*t echoing around in our heads.

I mean, we only need look at this dictionary definition of self-confidence to see where our problems begin if we’re also conscious of managing our mental health:IMG_3231

Self-confidence: “[a] feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgement

Sounds great – an ideal state of being  – but feeling self-confident is the complete opposite experience of anyone who’s ever contended with depression and anxiety. For me, when I’m in the former mindset, I search the recesses of my mind to find proof-positive of my failings. In the latter, I can’t even think about the future without feeling utterly petrified.

Whichever way I turn I’m mentally tying myself up in knots, setting into motion a vicious cycle of self-criticism and doubt, chipping away at what little confidence I had in the first place.

I’ve been musing on this and here’s my two-penneth, for what it’s worth.

What we need is to build a base level of self-belief that’ll carry us through those days when we’re just wrecked with worry. From my experience, mental health doesn’t deteriorate overnight; it creeps up, worming its way insidiously into my mind until I’m no longer certain of what’s me, and what’s it working through me.

Hence I’m proposing we pursue a slowly-slowly-catchy-monkey approach to creating genuine confidence.

I’ve come up with a plan, people! Let me explain.

My theory is that if we embed a few healthy habits into our regular routine, we’ll become more resilient and better able to handle situations where our confidence is challenged. We’ll be building our emotional strength and will have that “bounce-back-ability” to overcome whatever barriers to self-belief are put in our way.

So here’s a few simple strategies that have helped me to become more confident and start to reverse the spin on the vicious cycle of poor self-esteem. I hope they’ll do the same for you, too.

HeatherED’s Three Things to Start Building Self-Belief

#1: Make decisions up-front.

IMG_3396In my experience I’ve found that my confidence grows the more I experience success. Hence this first strategy is all about creating enough head space for us to learn how to handle moments of self-doubt. As is the case with taking good care of our bodies, it requires time and energy to establish a healthy emotional fitness regime.

Our brains are literal thinking machines.  We humans do a lot of this thinking malarky. Adults apparently make around 35,000 decisions each day, and the more decisions we have to make, the quicker we reach what’s called “decision fatigue”; explained in the New York Times as “the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making.” It seems even thinking about thinking’s pretty exhausting.

This got me thinking: how can we free our minds from minutiae that doesn’t matter? I suggest that we front-load our decision-making. How, exactly? Well, by making as many choices in advance as possible, minimising how often we need make choices, and reducing repeat decision-making. This way we’re saving time and energy that we can instead invest in the more important stuff of life.

Ways I’ve reduced decision fatigue include pre-planning packed lunches, advance booking gym classes, and sticking to my morning routine. I find that when I’m mentally “wobbly” my conviction in my own capability wavers and I become stuck in indecision.

Sometimes, when we’re in this mentally dubious place, dithering over daft decisions, then it makes most sense just to rip off the plaster and choose something – anything – and move on. Ironically, it’s only in the choosing that we can get out of a sticky spot and move forward.  In life there’s often no “right” decision. By not deciding,  we’re just wasting what little energy we do have on stuff that really doesn’t matter.

#2: Get grateful.

If you’re reading this then you likely already know how I feel about gratitude. Read any of my TWIG (“This Week I’m Grateful”) posts and you’ll soon get the picture. IMG_3239

Starting a daily gratitude practice sounds cheesy, I know. For anyone uncomfortable with the idea of navel-gazing, this is going to be a bit of a hard-sell. However I cannot state strongly enough the positive impact this one strategy has had on improving my own confidence. 

As a result of getting grateful – actively looking for all those things I already have to be thankful for, and consciously stating this for myself – I’m happier, healthier, and emotionally more fulfilled. It’s not magic; it’s simply self-awareness and showing appreciation for what I have, in the here-and-now.

Self-awareness and self-esteem are intrinsically linked, so this is where a regular gratitude practise can help build confidence. The better we know ourselves, the more compassion we’re likely to find for ourselves when we fall upon hard times.

How you go about this can be tailored to the individual. I started by writing lists in my journal – in classic self-help style, jotting down three things I felt thankful for about that day. Gratitude made its way into my Tony Robbins’-inspired priming ritual on the walk to work, becoming a habitual practice. These days, anyone who follows me on Facebook (hint, hint!) gets to see me share my daily gratitudes.

However you choose to do it, the more you find to be grateful for, the more confident you’ll likely feel. It has cumulative impact, lifting mood incrementally. As we see ourselves living happier lives, we rack up the positive achievements which ultimately boosts our self-belief.

#3 Be a copy-cat.

When my mental health isn’t in its finest shape, I can’t trust myself to know which way is up, let alone feel confident enough to make important decisions. Rather than forcing myself to try, if all else fails then I’ll turn instead to someone I do trust and instead copy them.

If in doubt, I role model it out!

(Ack! So cheesy I made myself cringe!)

I’ve followed this “fake it ’till you make it” strategy for building self-belief before, particularly in recovery from disordered eating. I lost touch with what “normal” eating even looked like, so I’d watch those around me and quite literally copy them.

The “someone” we choose to imitate matters a lot with this strategy. It’s got to be a trusted friend, partner, or family member. Someone whose judgement you believe to be reasonable, rational, and whose approach to life is generally balanced and healthy, particularly in relation to whatever issue we’re looking to address.

IMG_3395Looking around me to see whose attitude to food most resembled that I wished to have myself, I chose to emulate my little sister, C. That Summer, if she was having baked potato with beans and cheese for dinner, then so would I. If it was okay for her to say yes to an ice cream on a day out, then I accepted it might be okay for me, too. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in my case it meant more than that. It was a way of becoming better and building confidence in myself and my body again.

Deferring to someone else in this way is a short-term strategy to self-confidence. Still, in my experience it’s been really helpful to pull myself out of a mental rut. I might have heard the playground taunt of “copy-cat, copy-cat, sitting on the doormat” in the back of my mind, but it helped right my path and restored at least some of my self-belief around food.

And that’s it. In sum, we can become more confident by applying the following simple strategies:

  1. Make decisions up-front.
  2. Get grateful.
  3. Be a copy-cat.

Having practiced this stuff, I know it works for me but there’s always more to learn. I’m looking to grow in this area, too, so I’d love to hear from you:

What helps you become better at building self-confidence?

What are some of your strategies for strengthening self-belief? 

Share your thoughts with me in the comments.

The Nineteenth TWIG Post (or why it having good friends and happy cats matters more than a flat stomach)

After much debate I’ve decided to go on hiatus from the gym. This has come as a bit of a shock – especially to me! For over four years now I’ve been regularly attending classes, reliably turning up, rain or shine (or snow) at least three times a week. But over these last few months I’ve skipped several sessions, too tired to be bothered.

fullsizeoutput_596I’ve lost my workout mojo.

With nothing specifically sparking this change of heart, my immediate worry went straight to my mind. As anyone who’s ever experienced depression will appreciate, that’s one place I never wish to return to, if I can help it. Still, I don’t think I’ve felt particularly down about anything of late. On the contrary, I’m more enthusiastic about life than ever: I’ve several exciting projects on the go, we’re about to conclude our house sale, and we’re enjoying our first long, sunny Summer in the new garden.

So why this sudden turnaround?

Why does the thought of a workout leave me feeling… well, meh?

Okay, so I have to point out the elephant in the room here: me. C would be really cross if he heard me be so self-flagellating, and I don’t actually mean it, but I’m acutely aware of having gained a few pounds. I can’t deny it when I look in the mirror, even if it’s only really noticeable to those closest to me.

Gaining weight obviously doesn’t make me feel great about myself – but neither has it brought me down in the way I’d have expected. My self-worth being tied so closely to my body image for pretty much my whole life, this apathy feels weird. I don’t care as much as I think I should and I have to admit – it’s unnerved me.

Overwhelmed by this gym guilt, I reached out to my colleague, M, to enquire whether she’d be attending class this week. Since my house is en-route to hers, she’s kindly been giving me a lift home and we’ve become friendly. Moaning about my lack of motivation, I learnt my fitness pal is actually recovering from an injury. After telling my tragic tale I felt myself blush, embarrassed to be making a massive fuss over nothing. After all, I wasn’t the one who was hurt, was I?

Well, actually yes; I was hurting. The difference being that my mind was the specific cause of my pain.

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Emotional pain can be as acute as anything we feel physically.

Both reside within our bodies.

Whilst our capacity to feel physical pain is limited (admittedly, it can get pretty physically painful), our minds have no depth of darkness to which they cannot sink. 

Empathising with my mental health worries, M suggested I consider taking time out from workouts. A break might help me figure out my feelings about fitness; build a better relationship between body and mind. Whilst we agreed a regular routine benefits an anxious mind like mine, it’s sometimes healthy to step back and reassess things.

There’s no rule that says I have to do, or be, anything – let alone “make up” for my lack of interest in exercise just now. At least, none other than those self-imposed rules we use to hold ourselves up to impossible standards of perfection.

M suggested getting rid of guilt by thinking about how I’d prefer to spend my time. What matters most to me? A flat stomach or having fun with favourite fluffs? Given the brevity of their time on this planet, wouldn’t I rather spend more of it playing with my feline friends?

When I look at it this way, I’d much rather cuddle my cats than spend an evening sweating in a stuffy studio. Decision made, I cancelled my class, breathed a sigh of relief, and planned to head home.

Before I logged out for the day, M suggested we catch up over coffee and immediately booked a time in our calendars. As it’s me who usually has to make plans with friends, it felt good for someone to invite me out for a chance. I’d been feeling so bad, this small kindness actually brought tears to my eyes – despite my medication making crying a challenge!

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I’m touched and tremendously thankful that someone has seen my vulnerability, recognised my pain, and still wants to befriend me. 

Even talking about making new friends feels a bit uncomfortable. In our modern Western society it seems we’re conditioned to feel embarrassed about our having needs. Yet it’s in our nature to need human connection.

What’s more, as adults we meet fewer new people in general so making friends becomes even harder. Hence whilst I’m sure social anxiety will creep in when it comes time for that coffee, I’m thankful for the chance to  get to know my new friend.

This Week I’m Grateful For:

*The velvety texture of C’s hair when it’s just been cut. Running my hand the wrong way up the back of his head, it feels soft and spiky against my skin. For the next week it’ll look that bit too short, but it’ll feel fantastic. C has what he himself describes as Chinese hair: straight, dark and ridiculously dense. Unlike the majority of his peers, C’s got a full head of hair. – something for which we’re both grateful!

*Still another new dress from the Fat Face sale. It was meant to be two dresses, but it looks like perhaps my credit card has been saved by the other selling out. Oh, and a cardigan. You never know when I might need one.

*A mid-week Paperchase binge. Aware I’m nervous about the impending office move, my colleague K asked if I fancied a trip to town to treat ourselves to some new stationery.

She returned with lunch boxes for her little girl, whereas I came back with a whole new organisational system (in co-ordinated pastel shades, of course).

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My former desk buddies have returned home after seven years.

Given this chance to change my work space, I’m re-decorating. Going for more grown-up vibes, I plan to update my vision board.  To help me manage my mental health at work (where it inevitably sometimes gets stressful), I created my board to remind me of all that I have in life which brings me happiness.

I’ll be working on this for the next few weeks, collecting new inspirational quotes and images, and updated photos of all those whom I love. Next weekend it’s my nephew G’s first birthday, so I’ll take new photos with him, my sisters, and maybe even C. Our nieces will soon be moving into their new Sheffield home (it’s even got a treehouse!), so I’ll be able to add their pictures to the pile.

I have to admit, it’s kind of exciting, which leads me perfectly onto my next thanksgiving.

*Coming into work of a morning and finding postcards left  on my desk. Turning them over, I found a message from K bestowing positivity, love, and luck for our move. I’m so lucky to work with such kind-hearted people, and it’s times like this when I’m reminded to be thankful for my job.

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I found these on my keyboard. I think I can re-home them on my vision board. 🙂

*Building confidence in my business skills. Taking advice from those further down the road success, I put myself “out there” and offered my help for free. Volunteering to read, review, and feed back on other women’s work has taught me so much about my own strengths.

Creating anything of value takes confidence; something I sometimes admittedly lack. However helping other women make their businesses better actually helps me – and myideas – feel more worthy. It reminds me of the point of pursuing my passions and gives me hope that I’m moving in a positive direction.

*Being brave, I switched on my webcam for my first “Fizzle Friday”. I was anxious about asking my early-stage questions, given that most participants in these weekly coaching sessions are so much further ahead in creating their businesses.

Yet I need not have worried. Not only did Corbett reassure me that I’m on the right path,   but combining his comments with others’ feedback will help me make constructive, positive progress in the coming weeks.

*Freshly-squeezed orange juice. It’s impossible to ignore its delicious scent when walking into our local grocers. I have to admit – it’s incredible! I can’t recall when I last drank anything this good. We’ll definitely be keeping our refillable bottle to go back for more.

*Guido’s chocolate flapjacks. How the topping stays Nutella-like runny – never going hard – I don’t know. Honestly, I’m not sure I want to know! Still, they’re totally treacly and utterly umptious. Served in tiny fairy cake cases, they’re slipped into a paper bag, the flapjacks’ sheer stickiness turns it transparent.

*Magazines as my weekend treat. Ever since I can remember this has been one of my most favourite pleasures. Popping open the plastic, I love to smell their glossy pages packed with promise before anyone else has touched them. Odd, but true, I’m afraid.

*An extra day off this week. Whilst I’d prefer proper holidays with C, his lack of leave means I’m taking some time off work alone. Still, I’m feeling rather smug about having several extra-long weekends over these Summer months.

*C and I have booked our September staycation in Seahouses, Northumberland once again. Wearing waterproofs to wander across the sand to Bamburgh Castle, browsing the shelves at Barter Books, and cosying up in a pub sharing a bag of crisps: These activities may sound rather dull but for us, it’s one of our happy places.

*An unexpected visit from a rather smiley, sticky little boy, and his equally messy mother. My sister and my nephew, baby G, came for lunch today. I’m definitely biased, but I’m 100% convinced that G is the happiest, loveliest child in the Universe.

x

The Eighteenth TWIG Post (or how I’m happy despite having felt unwell this week)

I’m trying something a little different with my TWIG post this week.

I think I’ve been trying to do too much.

So rather than overloading you, I’m simply getting grateful. Instead I’ll share another story around becoming better in a separate post. I hope you’ll join me then, but in the meanwhile here goes…

IMG_3340This Week I’m Grateful for:

*Working with people who care about me.

Kindness is under-rated in our society, and yet it makes a massive difference to our quality of life. My anxiety now rarely shows its face at work (which is a gratitude in-and-of itself). However on the odd occasion it makes an appearance – like this past week – I’m thankful to have colleagues who make the effort to understand and accommodate my “quirks”.

Mental health issues are something even those of us with them struggle to comprehend. For people who haven’t personally experienced mental illness – and there are more of us than one might think – it must be hard to imagine. Not able to totally trust your mind to tell you the truth is, well, a mind-bending concept. It’s also pretty scary – to the point where many people choose to deny its existence rather than have to face the fact that, as Clare Eastham states so well in her book, “We’re all mad here”.

Fortunately for me, I have colleagues who try to understand. They care enough about me to make this effort. They accept that sometimes, I simply need to be alone. The world is too overwhelming. Like a turtle, I hide inside my shell until I feel safe enough to come back out and rejoin the world. What comes off as anti-social behaviour is usually my needing to take a little time away from the noise of open-plan in order to quieten the raging inside my mind.

I’m most grateful that they can “see” me, the person. It’s a real testimony to sensitivity and character of the people I work with that they can appreciate that “Heather” is the person I am underneath; the one who experiences these mental moments, as opposed to my being mental, per say.

*Being able to do what’s best for my health.

It’s not always easy to admit to feeling under the weather, but it’s even harder if it involves mental illness. For me, there’s usually a slow build-up to break-down that I can miss the early-warning signs of impending doom. Oftentimes, it eventually comes out as physical illness; my body literally acting to stop me in my tracks.

At times like this, I’m thankful that I work for a public-sector organisation that generally supports its people in taking the time to get well. Whenever I’m ill it’s a reminder to appreciate this anew. I know it’s not the case for many people, including C who works in a private company where taking sick days is penalised when it comes to bonus time. Particularly in light of my mental health, I count my job – and colleagues – as a blessing. Not everyone can choose to prioritise their health without worrying about the consequences at work.

*My partner, C, going out of his way to take care of me.

Being the sensitive soul he is, C picked up on my being out-of-sorts way sooner than I did. As such, he’s been extra lovely to me this week.

Examples of some small acts of daily kindness which make life much easier for those of us who have “wobbly” mental health include:

  • Cooking the dinner when it’s clearly not their turn.
  • Taking on more of the housework, which includes the intellectual (thinking) and emotional (feelings) work. Many women – myself included – unthinkingly shoulder the brunt of this without realising how tiring it can become (there’s definitely a future post in there!).
  • Keeping schtum when we zonk out on the couch in our PJs when we get in from work to watch a marathon of mindless TV (and I know this is not just me!)IMG_3341

My most favourite thing C does for me is making my supper cup of tea without my asking, simply because he knows I think it tastes better when he makes it.

Small kindnesses like this are often taken for granted in long-term relationships. We get used to them as they become habitual and routine; they’re just “what we do” for each other. Yet they’re often the things that mean the most when one of us is feeling off-colour, and so I’m focusing on feeling thankful for the small stuff – because they’re actually pretty big.

*My cats being so glad to have me home.

B.C. (Before Cats) sick days had been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, being ill generally necessitates some degree of discomfort. It’s either something painful or gross, and it’s usually some combination of the two. On the other hand, there’s daytime telly, extra tea and toast, and the rare opportunity to skip the shower and spend a whole day in my PJs. Still, there’s always that post-Doctors lull whereby the day’s officially more than half over. All the best terrestrial telly is over and you’re stuck watching re-runs of “Housewives” on catch-up.

Cats, however, have the unique ability to make a sick-day into a good-but-gross day. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you’re in-demand. Sitting next to D on the carpet to play with the feather toy made me feel so much better.  Making my cat happy makes me happy. Later I fell asleep on the sofa under the watchful eye of my buddy-boy.

Even just thinking about the fact that there are two creatures – mini-panthers – living in my home, wanting to hang out with me, tickles me. Such simple things can make me smile and totally change the tone of my day.

 *Love Islandtherapy

IMG_3360With my anxiety making a reappearance this week, it’s been a blessed relief to tune into the goings-on of this group of tanned twenty-somethings. It’s pure hedonism for this thirty-something with my mega-mortgage, a full-time office job, and the general gripes of  grown-up life. I’m only slightly serious when I say I wish I were holed-up in a Spanish villa for the Summer, my only responsibilities being to glam up, play Club 18-30s-style games by the pool, and partner up with whomever takes my fickle twenty-something fancy. #abitjealous? #100%!

Allowing myself this form of escapism is a literal holiday for my mind.  For some unbeknownst reason, this nightly dose of junk telly takes me out of my head for a while. It’s mental freedom –  exactly what the Doctor (Alex) ordered.  It’s proving the perfect remedy for an over-active brain which is why I refuse to feel guilty or ashamed of my love for the Island. #loyal

*C taking one for the team.

Let’s be clear about what I mean here: He removed the sun-dried frog found on our back doorstep and didn’t make me do it. There’s technically no proof it’s the result of either cats’ midnight madness but I have my suspicions that a certain kitty with a K might be to blame…

For some reason, the dead frog creeped me out way more than the three beautiful blue tits left for dead on the hall carpet. I can pick them up no problem (and I actually have a slightly macabre fascination with doing so). Something about the slightly shrivelled, sticky-looking amphibian corpse just grossed me out, so I was glad that C did the manly thing and “removed” it with the brush and shovel.

*Rehoming a pair of 1930s tulip vases.

At an antiques fair this weekend we lucked out by finding a pair of blue vases that fit perfectly with the style of our home. We’re still uncertain as to exactly how we want the house to look – I’ve painstakingly planned it on my Pinterest, but C’s yet to agree to the exact shade of Farrow & Ball blue I can use in the lounge.

Rather than sticking to any particular “look” or style we’re going instead with what we love. Definitely wanting to reinstall some of the house’s original 1930s features, we’ve also been on the look-out for items of the same era which appeal to our taste today.

For me, my taste is rather eclectic. I’m enamoured of angular Art Deco, an element of Victorian taxidermy, and masses of mid-century modern furniture. As the sale of our former home is almost final, the prospect of redesigning our forever home feels ever more real. I’m excited to have our own house and the opportunity to make it entirely us.

*Lemonade ice lollies.

Like all the other kids, C sent me off to the ice-cream van this weekend with the money to buy myself an ice lolly. Within moments of it being in my sticky mitts, I proceeded to down said popsicle, remembering how satisfying it is to bite through the ice. Frosty splinters stuck to my tongue, melting into delicious lemony numbness. On what was a ridiculously hot day, this was a small piece of sugary heaven.

*A chance chat with a charming child.

IMG_3369A young lad sat himself down – uninvited – at the same picnic table where C and I were eating lunch, resting his shaved head on folded arms with a sweaty sigh. Catching sight of a sparkly earring immediately got me thinking of the kids from“Shameless”. I planned on ignoring the interrupting, focusing instead on my food.

Moments later, his grandmother appeared with drinks and ice cream. I relaxed slightly: She looked like a nice lady and indeed she was, making friendly conversation across the table. I showed an interest in what they’d been buying at the antiques fair and the young lad sprang to live.

Showing me what he’d bought that morning, he spoke so thoughtfully, and with such intelligence, for what was clearly his passion.  He’d spent his hard-earned pocket money on militaria: a late twentieth-century army helmet, a WW2 artillery box, and an incredibly creepy baby’s gas mask-slash-cot.

C and I both rather fell enamoured of this lad. Noting his intense seriousness about his subject, he’s probably on the autistic spectrum but is also the most interesting and engaged young man I’ve met in a long time. Whilst I was drawn to his passion and enthusiasm, C could relate to being a similarly thoughtful kind of kid. It was a pleasure to meet him.

I absolutely adore kids and – for the most part – they seem to like me, too. I get so much joy from hanging out with my loved one’s offspring, it sometimes makes me question whether we ought to seriously consider having our own.

Yet when I come home to the peace and quiet – when I can sit here on my laptop typing away with no one to think about other than myself – no one I’m responsible for in that way – then I’m also grateful for that, too.

x

The Musical Chairs Post (or how I’m coping with change at work)

IMG_2966On Tuesday morning I got a lift into work with C, feeling slightly sick at the prospect of the day ahead. It’s been a while since I felt this bad about going into the office. I felt disappointed in myself, irrationally so, and then got cross with myself about that, too.

So why was I worried when I woke up? Well, we had a team meeting scheduled for that morning. Nothing unusual about that, but this particular meeting was to discuss our upcoming office relocation announced last week.

The prospect of imminent change to my “work home”, so to speak, has triggered my anxiety.  After five years’ sitting at the same desk I’m literally moving up in the world. Currently divided over two floors of our building, my colleagues and I are destined to go higher and join the rest of our team. A move has been on the cards for some time – so long, in fact, that I’ve settled into my space over the years.  As such, I presumed talk of reuniting my team was simply another public sector promise; a “nice to have one day” but not likely happening anytime soon.

Anxiety is a funny thing. Admittedly, it’s not so funny when you’re in it. However by “funny” I mean that it’s strange how anxiety appears and disappears so quickly. Sometimes coming on suddenly, and at other times, it seems to sneak up and catch me unawares. Like fire, anxiety rises seemingly out of nowhere. Also like fire, if left unchecked it can cause some real damage. I’ve already spoken about this on a previous post where I talk about my worst Summer ever.

Though this nascent nervousness around moving desks is relatively mild on the anxiety scale, I’m conscious about needing to take care of myself. In writing about my most acute anxiety attacks a few Summers back, I couldn’t help but wonder how things might have turned out had I been better prepared to take positive action earlier on.

As you’ve probably picked up on by now, in creating Project HeatherED I’m looking for ways to become better, which I define as becoming happier, healthier, and emotionally wealthier.  Drawing upon my experiences with stress management strategies over the past ten years (well, thirty four, technically, but you catch my drift) I made it through what could have been a really rough day relatively unscathed.

Reflecting back on what I did to achieve this, I’ve devised the following plan of action for anyone looking to become better at managing their anxiety. This is exactly what I did in the space of twelve hours to work through my own anxious feelings around my upcoming office move. I hope this helps whomever else might be reading this and feeling similarly stressed out.

IMG_2892My Seven Strategies to Stick-It to Stress

#1 Tell someone I trust how I’m feeling.

This was the very first thing I did. Only slightly from a place of of panic, I carefully crafted an email to my managers to tell them I felt worried about the pending move. I think I managed to come across professional (I read, re-read, and edited before pressing send). After that terrible, anxiety-filled Summer, I made a resolution to be honest abut my feelings, with myself and others. Basically, I learnt that I must stand up and risk sharing what I feel – and what I want to feel – if I wish to be helped in the precise way I need.  

As expected, my managers have been nothing but supportive and kind. I received a thoughtful reply from the big boss later that day, which straight away helped me feel loads better. Rationally I understand that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ is correct in saying “change is the only constant in life“, however this knowledge doesn’t seem to get through to my nervous system. As anyone with anxiety knows, reassurance only does so much to stem the nerves. It’s a temporary fix and it doesn’t take long for the unease to resurface.

#2 Be mindful and stay as present as possible.

My personal experience of mental illness is that it takes me away from the present moment. Depression dwells on past mistakes, whereas anxiety makes negative assumptions about what the future may hold. As yogis and modern-day “mindfulness gurus” like to remind us (frequently condescendingly IMO), the present is the only moment that counts. Reminding myself of this as often as necessary helps me from wandering in the maze of my mind. If I do disappear, then as soon as I’m aware of this, I can choose to returning my attention to the here-and-now. This whole “bringing yourself back to the moment” is the essence of mindfulness. No candles, incense, or mantra required.

#3 Play up the positivity.

Admittedly, it sounds cheesy (because it is cheesy), but I have repeatedly make a conscious choice to adopt an “attitude of gratitude”. Contrary to appearances, I’m not a naturally “glass-half-full” kinda gal. Of course, if you’ve known me for some time, you’ll be guffawing as you read this blog, or watch my vlogs over on Facebook, and wonder what’s happened to me. I get it – it still surprises me at times – but I’m learning that underneath the veil of mental illness, I’m much sunnier than I ever really knew. I’m discovering new elements to my personality; things like my inherent hopefulness, positivity, and gratitude for the small things in life.

IMG_2900Getting back to the whole office move scenario that prompted this post in the first place, one of my best strategies for neutralising my nervousness is to intentionally focusing on what’s good about the move. I came up with the following within a few moments of seeking out the positives:

  • sitting near my best work buddy again,
  • a fresh start at keeping my workstation clean,
  • a reason to clear out my clutter (which inevitably helps me get into a better headspace),
  • I’ll get to know the girls upstairs better by proximity,
  • an opportunity to redecorate – to go for a more grown-up look and update my cork board with pictures of the people I love, and symbols of my hopes and dreams,
  • and, being higher up, we’ll have better views of the park.

There’s always more than one perspective we can take on any situation and we can choose to take the most positive. Consciously focusing on the positive assures me that there’s plenty of good to be gained from my move, too.

#4 Take my medication. That’s what it’s for, after all.

Prior to our Tuesday team meeting, I took an anti-anxiety pill which I carry in my purse for such occasions. Again later in the day I took another. It sounds overly dramatic – to medicate for meetings. I feel silly even talking about it, envisioning eye-rolls from those who might reasonably wonder why I’m medicating to manage general life situations. My partner, C, would have been with them, too, before he took one of my meds (without asking me or his doctor – not to be recommended, folks) seeing the effects for himself.

Medication helps me. Accepting this has helped me learn to ignore the voice of the inner critic so I can do what works for me. I still clearly worry about what others might think of me, but it doesn’t prevent me from acting in my own best interests. These days it’s a rare occasion when I need to take one, but knowing there’s medicine I can take which will “lowers the volume” on my physical symptoms is a real life-saver in emotional emergencies.

 #5 Write my heart out.

When I feel anxious one of the things I regularly rely on to help is to write things down. Writing is an excellent tool that works well for most people as a way of untangling thoughts and feelings, likely because there are so many ways of making it work. For me, I journal by hand, type thoughts online at 750 Words, or list gratitudes. It’s another tool which helps me stay mindful, taking copious notes in work meetings (that I’ll never need) to focus my mind on the here-and-now. Bonkers maybe, but it works.

#6 Get moving. Literally

Quite frankly, I’ve been pants at sticking to my regular workout routine of late. Not so unusual – pretty normal, in fact – for most people whose commitment to their monthly membership peaks and troughs with the seasons (i.e. upping their game before Christmas party season and Summer swimwear). However for me, I’m usually at the gym to where it borders on obsession and so I’m feeling a bit out of sorts.

Having habitually attended class on a Tuesday after work for four years, I try to turn off my brain and follow my feet. This way, I’m getting into the gym at least once and it’s helping me to remember why I go in the first place: for fun, friendship, and freedom from my racing mind. Logically I know that once I’m there I feel fine. Chatting with classmates beforehand puts me at ease and helps me get into a happy headspace.

Unlike so many other experiences in life, I’ve never regretted a workout and this week was no different. Coming back to what I know works, exercise genuinely calms both my mind and body.  It’s a healthy way of channeling nervous energy into something productive, releasing muscle tension along with any frustrations. Back home I’m tired – but no longer wired – and I feel grateful for having trusted in what I know at heart is in my best interests.

IMG_2914#7: Let go of perfection. I’m perfectly imperfect.

Giving myself permission not to be perfect is one of the most important acts of self-care and compassion I can imagine. It seems so simple – and it is – but it’s certainly not easy and, for me at least and recovering perfectionists like me, is a perpetual practice. It’s an on-going challenge to scale down my expectations and be happy with “good enough”. This makes ever-more sense in reading “The Four Tendencies” by Gretchen Rubin. I’ve learnt that I’m an Upholder personality type, meaning I live up to the expectations of myself and others pretty easily. It’s great for when I have to get stuff done, but not so much for engendering a sense of personal happiness and fulfilment. I’ve always got that nagging feeling that I could do or be more. Choosing to consciously release myself of this perpetual pressure – particularly when already anxious –  is another way I can practise being kind to myself.  

Still shaken by the prospect of changing desks, I decided I’d allow myself to eat whatever I wanted for my post-gym dinner. Rather than eating a pre-planned, balanced meal of an evening when I’m anxious, I instead find it soothing to turn to childhood comfort foods. Namely, eggs, soup, buttery toast, rice pudding, kids’ cereal, chocolate, and  – of course – cake. Admittedly this doesn’t sound particularly grown-up and healthy-minded of me, and it’s probably not.

There’s a part of me which still feels guilty for not making a “proper” evening meal. I’m hesitant to admit to having these 1950s mental mantras of “I’m a poor excuse for a housewife”, “I’m neglecting to care for my man”, and “what kind of woman are you?!” amongst others playing on repeat.. Despite C being a way more capable cook than I, on days when I’d rather eat cereal these kinds of thoughts inevitably race round my mind.

Still, I went with my gut – literally – and had eggs on toast for Tuesday tea. Fighting the feeling that I’m somehow letting C down, I knew it felt like the right thing to do for me in that moment. Over time I’ve learnt that sometimes when I have a mini-mental health wobble – which will happen, no matter how hard I try to prevent it –  being a little bit selfish is okay. Indulging in a self-centred whim once in a while releases feel-good hormones, providing a much-needed quick-fix to feeling happy.

So there you have it: My seven strategies to stick-it to stress. When used together this helped me better handle my anxiety around our upcoming office move. I’m sure I’ll need to refer back to several steps of this self-care strategy to staying sane. Hence having it here – in writing – will undoubtedly act as a reminder for me, as much as I intend it to share what works with you.

Perhaps sensing that something was up (I’m terrible at keeping my feelings to myself), C offered to pick me up from the gym; an offer which I gratefully accepted. Throwing my bags into the boot, I sat beside him and began to tell him about my day.

When we pulled up the drive, I could see D running from the far end of the back garden to greet us. Shouting in his loudest kitty voice (don’t ever underestimate the power of a 4.2 kilo ball of fur with teeth), he shared his kitty news, pleased to see us home. As much as he’s a pain in the furry butt, that cat brings me so much joy I couldn’t help but feel better.

IMG_2890I came home feeling pretty pleased with how I’d handled my nerves around the whole change of scene at work. Yet still, something felt off; I didn’t quite feel myself. Hair sticking to my neck, my overheated, lycra-clad limbs just desperate to get out of my gym gear and jump in the shower, I understandably felt icky. So much for self-care strategies, eh?

As I walked in the door, bags sliding off my sweaty shoulder, there C stood, his arms wide open and welcoming. “Come here,” he said in a tone I recognised as being genuinely sympathetic, pulling me in for a bear hug.

It was perfect; turns out a hug from the person I love most was exactly what I needed.

Suddenly everything feels alright again.

 

 

 

 

The Worst Summer Ever Post (or my experience of living with acute anxiety)

Two years ago I experienced the worst bout of anxiety in my life. It started with my (not unreasonably) becoming upset at what I later learnt were massive, allergic reactions to flea bites which appeared all over my body. Thanks to an unfortunate combination of humid weather that Summer, and Frontline’s failure to work in an area overpopulated by cats, not only was I in physical pain but I was also hurting mentally.

IMG_3018Much like my body, my mind itched and burned. I felt like there was always something irritating me; prickling just under the surface. As I scratched my brain trying to figure out what was causing these hideous hives, I tied myself in knots with worry. It wasn’t long before this grew into a series of regular panic attacks. I recognised them from their occasional appearance during my university years, only this time the anxiety was on a whole, new, nasty level. Not only did I feel sh*t, but I then developed obsessive tendencies which made my anxiety all the worse.

OCD for me was an incessant need to check and re-check, assure and reassure, and then start again because I couldn’t trust my own judgement.

It was unlike anything I’d been through before. I was permanently tired, it was so mentally draining.

As is often the case with mental illness, mornings especially became nightmarish. Waking up already dreading the day, the first words to run through my head -before I’d even really opened my eyes – were “oh God…” At the time I couldn’t imagine not feeling that way at the start of the day. Frequently C would have to coax me to the car, me frantic, late getting out of the front door.

Simultaneously crying and trying desperately to keep my mascara from running (“waterproof”, my arse!), I’d drag myself out of his car and into the office. It hurts my heart to say it now, but C would sometimes have to literally push me out of the car door so he could get to his work.  I know for a fact he felt terrible about it. It was a hellish time for us both. For me, worse still than how I felt was knowing the effect I was having on the man I love, and yet feeling utterly hopeless about being able to stop it.

Once in the office I wasn’t much better. At least, not until the day got going and I was able to imitate some semblance of normalcy. For the best part of a year I couldn’t speak first thing for at least a half hour. It took time to choke out even simple words like “hello”. “How are you?” would send me into meltdown. Some days I cried for an hour before I opened an email.

I mistakenly believed that I had to push myself to keep going in. No matter how much it hurt – both myself and those around me – I felt pressured to keep showing up. Like many people who are mentally unwell, I was afraid of what other people might think were I to “give in” and take time out. Buying into the rumours, I was terrified that being signed off for “mental health reasons” would somehow blacklist me as a hopeless case.  I had a sinking feeling that, if I were to stay home from work, I might never go back.

IMG_3032It took a long time for me to recover from this particular episode. From the bites alone, my skin took a few months to start to heal. The house took us at least a month of exhausting, repetitive, after-work cleaning routines to get it back to normal. My mind took months to feel something like my own again. I was prescribed anti-anxiety tablets to be taken three times a day for several months to restore my “fight or flight” response back to something resembling a regular reaction to stress.

Unfortunately, it’s only in retrospect that I can see just how unwell I had been. In my last round of therapy with a rather special NHS therapist I finally understood what happened. I’ve since been able to articulate to C what I felt at the time; he regretfully says he should have seen it coming – especially as he’d through similar experiences with a previous partner.

However it isn’t so easy – mental illness is cruel that way. From the outside you seem to be alright much of the time, and yet you’re incapable of decision-making. I’d be processing millions of pounds worth of payments at work, and would break down over whether to have cheese with my beans on toast.

What I hope he now knows – and indeed anyone else going through something similar – is that it’s almost impossible to see a mental breakdown coming until it’s well and truly here. It’s an incremental process whereby those closest to us are also often unable to see it happening. Still, it’s important to remind him – and others – of the role they played in my becoming better. Testing their patience and kindness often, I look back and feel lucky, knowing so many lovely people genuinely care for me.

Even so, I wish I’d had the wherewithal to be able to see that I needed help sooner. Specifically, I needed someone to help me to allow myself the time, space, and patience to recover. I dug my heels in and insisted I kept going “as normal”, despite being anything but. Well-meaning colleagues tried to persuade me to take time out, but I couldn’t hear it. Sadly, in my anxious state of mind I wasn’t able to differentiate between a suggestion and a recommendation. I felt blinkered to anything other than what was most obvious.

 

It took longer than necessary for me to recover, but I did recover and I’m here telling you this tale in the hopes I can help someone else become better, too.

To give this story it’s sort-of happy ending, I’d like to share some of the lessons anxiety had to teach. Despite the darkness around this particular life phase, there are still several positive take-aways I’d like to share. Thankfully, there always are.

Regular readers of this blog may have been a bit thrown by the tone of this piece. If so, I hope this will bring you back on board. As you know, my becoming better sees me looking for gratitudes in just about every area of life. As such, I’ve come up with the following:

IMG_3037The best of things I learnt from the worst of times

#1 Never give up. If you look around you’ll see that us humans are capable of awesome achievements. Whilst mental illness undoubtedly sucks a**, it’s possible to come out of this period of time. Not only this, but it’s true that our struggles shape who we become and the influence we go on to have in the world. Had I not had such a sh*tty time with anxiety, I’d not be writing this blog, which brings such happiness and joy to my life today.

#2 Trust in the inherent goodness of people. Given half a chance, most will do their best to be kind and supportive. You just have to give them a chance, forgiving the stupid mistakes we all make as we fumble through the mental health minefield. My mind told me that people were only being nice to me because they felt they “had” to do so. Yet my mind wasn’t well, and so why was I listening to it?! Instead, I could have taken others by their word, accepted their help, and felt grateful, rather than guilty.

#3  If you can’t make a decision, then don’t. Ask for help. Like I said, when you’re mentally unwell – however that may look for you – it’s only rational to place your trust in those whom you believe to be more emotionally stable than yourself just now.  The pressure to choose often threw me off, proving the last straw in a day filled with last straws. If you’ve got people you love and trust around you, then let them love you and trust them to help you choose what’s in your best interests for now.

#4 Act. I implore anyone in the kind of mindset I was in to take action and do something – anything – other than stand still, and to do it as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter how small the action to begin with – small is good; it’s a great start. Just don’t let it go on without trying to change the situation, and if you can’t see how, then ask for help. It’s everywhere if you’re looking for it – so look!

#6 Take your health seriously. No matter how much you love your job, your family, your home, it’s no good if you’re falling apart. Before you can truly live, you need to make sure you’re at your mentally most fit, and doing that might mean taking time out from regular living. Whether it’s a visit to the doctor, regular therapy, a holiday, or being signed off sick for a while, it’s worth considering all available options and leaning on whatever help you can get to decide what’s best.

#7 Also, consider how much you’re willing to tell your employer about what’s going on for you. Despite having my manager present during times I was falling apart, I’ve never formally gone “on the record” with my own mental illness. I feel embarrassed admitting to it, but I’m still nervous as to what the implications may be. However I’ve known people who’ve sworn by it as having helped them to get back into work after some tough times.

#8 Finally, a practical tip: Always go for the prescription flea treatment and buy from the vets. Seriously. It’s worth the extra money and effort it takes to go pick it up every few months. We spent weeks – months! – spraying the house with Indorex and vacuuming like crazy people (literally) to get rid. Whilst it did the trick in the end, it was exhausting. Add this to the pain of being bitten, fear of sleep, and shame at being covered in ugly blisters, coming home from work to clean the house top-to-bottom over and again was truly testing.

So that was my most terrible Summer. Pretty sh*t, if I say so myself. What’s most sad to me is that C and I spent that time together, and yet apart, lost in our own minds. Changing the past isn’t an option, and in truth, I don’t actually regret it having happened this way. What I learnt that anxious Summer ultimately played an important role in my becoming better. In time, I hope I can use my experiences to help others live happier, healthier, and emotionally wealthier lives, too. Or at the very least to remember not to scrimp on their pets’ flea treatments.

The Seventeenth TWIG Post (or how I’m happily handling feedback*)

Someone I admire reached out to me online this week. Seeing their name flash up on my screen made me jump. Why would they want to talk to me? I had no idea, but feeling both excited and nervous, I clicked on their message, hoping for something good.

IMG_3203Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be.

Much to my embarrassment, they wanted to ask me not to do something. I’m not great at receiving feedback. I automatically take it as criticism, and being what some might call sensitive, I can’t hide my emotions and take things to heart.

Taken aback, I re-read their message.

Something clicked.

I realised in that moment how my actions came across badly. I could feel my face heat up in shame. What they said made sense; I’d misinterpreted advice and applied it inappropriately. I felt terrible. Despite them being lovely and understanding I never meant to cause offence, I felt really sorry and apologised for my behaviour.

Being able to admit to making a mistake without jumping to the conclusion that I am a mistake is a new experience for me. It was somehow easier to accept feedback from someone I don’t personally know, but whose work I respect. Being open-minded and willing to listen, I was able to objectively analyse their comments.

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Mentally separating what I do from who I am empowered me to own up to my errors and make amends without apologising for being me.

Surprisingly, a potentially awkward interaction turned out to be a truly constructive conversation. It’s already had a positive impact. I learnt first-hand that this person has integrity; what they say is reflected in their actions. This creates trust, even in a very short space of time. Moreover, I made a decision to sign up for a service from a company that this person works with because of our brief chat. It gave me confidence that it would deliver on its promises, which thus far seems likely to be the case.

Most importantly this week, I learnt that feedback doesn’t have to be negative. Indeed it can be quite the opposite, which was a real revelation. It’s an opportunity to do something differently; something better aligned with my personal values. I’m genuinely grateful to receive this kind of feedback because it’s helping me to become better in unexpected, yet positive, ways.

 

This week I’m grateful for:

*Having a home that lets us host friends and family. Particularly when I think back to living in C’s tiny terrace, I’m grateful to have the physical space to welcome people into our home. I’d previously avoided inviting visitors, anxious not to be thought of badly for the clutter and chaos that comes from combining C, me, two raggedly black cats, and all of our collective possessions.

Since moving to our new house, one of our greatest joys is having family and friends stay with us.  Not only do we now have the literal capacity to cope with even last-minute lodgers, my mental attitude to having people in my personal space has also opened up.

Becoming better at accepting myself as perfectly imperfect has rubbed off on my feelings about my home. I genuinely adore our house, which gives me confidence to care less if others don’t feel the same way. Of course I want the people I love to love it too – but I no longer need their approval – which has freed me to simply be. And allow others to simply be in my space, too.

*Soon to be living in walking distance of our nieces, whose parents will be renting a house just twenty-five minutes’ walk away. It’ll be a new experience to have family close by for both C and I as adults. There are bound to be tears and tantrums at times – and that’s just C! Still, it’s exciting to think we’ll be a more regular part of the girls’ lives as they grow up. Also, as Aunty Heather comes high on the list of the girls’ top reasons to move to Sheffield, I’m hoping I’ll get an invite to hang out in their new tree house.

*Reading my book’s draft introductory chapter and feeling relieved to find some good stuff I can work with. An aspiring author, it’s rather embarrassing to admit how reluctant I am to re-read my own writing. Without sufficient distance, I cringe upon “hearing” my own voice and can end up over-editing.

Secretly, I started writing my book back in March. It didn’t take long for me to realise I was taking on too much at once. Putting my book project on pause, I chose to focus my energies on first building my blog. My logic being that as both book and blog work in synergy, I can reasonably invest time in one for the benefit of the other. For instance, some of the self-help strategies I experiment with in my life, and write about on my blog, might eventually make their way into my book. It’s all part of my same passion project – sharing how I’m becoming better, in the hopes of helping others do the same. IMG_3186

I felt reassured after hearing my heroine, Geneen Roth, say that her latest book – “This Messy Magnificent Life” – took her over six years to write. Upon reflection, it makes sense that creating something truly beautiful takes time. Having one of my favourite authors talk about the time and effort it takes to complete her writing project, I don’t feel the need to be in such a rush with my own. As someone who enjoys the editing process, having lots of lovely words to work with has to be worthy of giving thanks.

*Receiving emails of thanks from people who’d gone out of their way to tell me that my words matter; that by sharing my stories, I’ve let them know they’re not alone. Positively impacting another person’s life – in whatever small way – is a true privilege for which I’m grateful.

Selfishly, I started this blog for as an outlet for myself. I didn’t have any particular agenda, other than to put my thoughts “out there” rather than keeping them “in here”, running circles in my mind. Rationally I know that my experiences aren’t unique to me – we all face challenges throughout our lives, and many more than we know also have mental health issues. However I hadn’t realised that writing about my vulnerabilities would bring me closer to others. I’m creating new connections all the time, as well as deepening existing relationships with acquaintances who are fast becoming friends.

 

*Geeking out over my Fizzle membership. I’ve already talked a lot about what led to my decision to sign up to this service, but what I’ve not yet shared is how grateful I am  to really embrace the learning process once more. I can’t believe it’s ten years since I last formally studied for my Master of Arts in Politics!

I’ve loved learning all my life, so its unsurprising that I’d thrive as a member of a vibrant community of fellow thinkers and creators. I’m never happier than when I’ve got a project (or ten) on the go – and I can’t think of any more ambitious than developing my own business! Choosing to join this group of indie entrepreneurs made sense, and so far, it feels like an awesome decision. My racing mind is permanently generating ideas, and the Roadmap program provides the structure I need to move forward in a (relatively) linear fashion.

What’s more, I took part in the group’s Fizzle Friday live on-line coaching session for the first time, which far exceeded my expectations. Other “Fizzlers” (the name used to describe Fizzle tribe members) asked such high-quality questions, and I was blown away by Steph Crowder’s intelligent, considered, and constructive coaching. I can’t wait to take part again, and maybe I’ll feel confident enough to ask my own questions on camera.

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*A mid-week Chinese takeaway. On Wednesday it was coming up to eight pm and C was still at work. I knew this having checked out his location on my iPhone (I know; slightly stalker-ish but it doesn’t count when you’ve been together nearly a decade). Something must have gone wrong at work, which meant C was likely feeling stressed and exhausted. Attempting to make the remainder of our evening as pleasant as possible, I asked him to choose a carry-out on his way back. He picked Chinese, over which we chatted about our days.

I’m grateful to be able to change our dinner plans last-minute like this. Less than a year earlier, I don’t think I could have allowed myself to be flexible around food. Take-outs were restricted to weekends only, and as an Upholder, I don’t break rules; my own or anyone else’s. It’s do-able, but this degree of self-control is emotionally exhausting long-term. As such, it’s refreshing and a relief to be able to choose love over fear, and put C’s feelings before my own anxieties.

*An excuse to spend my afternoon in my favourite cafe.

When questioned earlier this week, C insisted he “had plans” on Sunday. After asking as to the nature of said plans, it turned out to involve repairing the toilet. Don’t ask what exactly he was up to – he’s told me a million times and I’m still no wiser. In any case, when faced with the prospect of several hours sans toilet, I decided to make other plans.

Luckily for me, an air-conditioned afternoon drinking tea and eating cheesecake is barely a hardship. I took myself off to set up office in the Vietnamese cafe, a short, sunny walk away. Fast-forward a few productive hours, and I’d written a couple of #MicroBlogPosts on my Facebook page, worked on my Fizzle Roadmap, and watched Simon Sinek’s “Why” TEDtalk.

Feeling just a little guilty about how lovely my afternoon had been – particularly compared with C, who was home, elbows up to the U-bend – I phoned on my walk home to invite him to meet me half-way at the pub for a post-plumbing pint.

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*Standing up against casual misogyny; namely, cringe-inducing comments on my vlog. Whilst I became accustomed to this being a regular feature of the nascent net (anyone else remember ASLing in AOL teen chat back in the nineties?), it’s my first experience of this as an adult. It brought back the uncomfortable feelings I recall from being a teenager; a confusing mix of shame, self-consciousness, and self-hatred at having put myself “out there” to be criticised.

Like most women and girls, my initial reaction to inappropriate male behaviour is of the “fight or flight” variety: ignore, block, and/or run away from the situation (i.e. close the browser). Speaking to other women online, this seems the standard response, protecting  personal boundaries and cutting communications cold.

Yet this somehow didn’t sit right with me. Since coming into my thirties, I’m more aware of how much young women still have to put up with. Working with some amazing twenty-somethings, this simultaneously provoked anger and sadness in me. Becoming an Aunty, I feel a sense of responsibility to do something more, determined to set a positive example.

Nervous, I contacted said person and in a polite, positive, and professional manner, asked them not to behave this way in future. I explained how it came across to me, and how it could potentially offend other women, too. Admittedly, it wasn’t received particularly graciously, but I felt empowered by having taken action. As someone who believes in the inherent goodness of people, I lived my values by giving someone the opportunity to change. I’m grateful to be able to make my own small contribution to standing up for women and girls’ rights to be respected online.

 

Until next time!

H x

The Medication and Me Post (or why medicine is part of my toolkit for mental fitness)

Okay, so…

PinkYellowRose_090718This is a potentially difficult subject to discuss. It’s one I’ve been thinking about posting on for some time but held back, unsure as to whether it’s helpful or counterproductive to share my views. Unsure, I’ll leave it with you to make up your own mind as to whether my opinion on this subject is of interest. As such, I promise not to take offense if you choose to skip this post!

Medication, and the whole concept of medicating for mental health reasons, is a hugely controversial subject. Scientific evidence exists to support both sides of the argument; namely, those who believe medication “works” in terms of making improvements to mental health issues and those who don’t believe it’s a medical issue in the first place.

Yet despite the plethora of research, there’s nothing concrete to say which perspective on medication and mental health is “right”. Are those in favour of medicating for mental illness correct? Can we treat a broken brain – objectively-speaking a bodily organ much like anything else – with modern medicine? Or should we reconsider our Western obsession with finding chemical solutions to what might be considered a natural (albeit an uncomfortable) feature of the human condition? Not being a scientist, I can’t say.

Given that lived experiences of mental illness vary so much between individuals, it’s hard to prescribe solutions that’ll work universally. Hence the issue of medication becomes incredibly subjective – to the degree that even medical professionals aren’t best keen to take on the responsibility of whether to medicate or not on their patients’ behalf.
“It’s entirely up to you”, say most doctors before printing and signing any prescription, “whether to try medication or to wait for talking therapies, or both.” Respected medical bodies, such as the NHS on their web pages and in the media, generally suggests a combination is more likely to be effective. Yet even they don’t stand confidently on either side of pro-or-anti-medication the fence.
Ironically then, the decision around whether or not to “pop a happy pill” is often placed in the hands of those very same people whose minds are causing them issues in the first place. In the name of “patient care and autonomy”, we’re asked to choose a path for our own recovery at a time when many of us feel unable to trust our own judgement around simple things, like what to eat for breakfast. It’s no surprise then, that decisions made around medicating mental illness often prove ineffective and it takes a long time to get to where something works.
WildFlowers_090718For me, it took me over ten years to even try medication. Though once prescribed something years back, I took one tablet, got scared, and threw away the package.  Prior to my more recent foray into medical intervention, I’ve tried most other readily available therapies for my broken brain, with varying degrees of success.
In brief:
  • I’ve seen almost as many different therapists as I have fingers to count,
  • I’ve read a mini library’s worth of self-help books, magazines, and websites,
  • I’ve attended support groups, as well as trying to create my own mini peer support meet-ups,
  • I’ve tried online courses,
  • I’ve bought meditation apps,
  • I’ve written pages and pages in my journals,
  • and of course, there’s the good ol’ methods of ignoring and indulging my afflictions.
Why wait so long to try a pill, then? A reasonable question to ask, but I’d seen and heard of people whose mental health deteriorated as a result of taking pills.

I was afraid. I couldn’t bear the idea of it being any more painful inside my mind than it already was.

Emotionally, I was already such a mess. Dragging myself through my days, I was at least getting by, albeit so miserably sometimes I wondered how long I’d be able to stand it. I didn’t believe I could cope if medication made me worse, whereas I’d coped thus far. I hedged my bets with the devil I knew, so to speak.
PurplePansy_090718Fear held me back from medication. Yet in the end love helped me move forward and give it a try. I realised it was never about medication alone. The right combination of people, circumstances, and my own increasingly positive, rational mindset came together to make medication a manageable method of mediating my mental fitness.
An incredible CBT therapist helped me find the inner strength to decide what was right for myself – based only on my experience and my feelings. A fantastic doctor spoke of medication in such rational, and yet positive terms, he made it easy for me to trust that I stood as good a chance as anyone that it might work. My ever-patient partner, C, stood by, nervously waiting to see what repercussions there might be, but choosing to overcome his fears around mental health meds, standing by me nonetheless.
As it happens medication turned out to be my missing puzzle piece. Taking a mild dose of Prozac helps me feel like a better version of myself: a happier, more positive, and generally more peaceful kind of Heather.
The endless chatter inside my mind was turned right down almost instantly. The exhausting, rebel-rousing thoughts that led me to behave in self-destructive ways stopped bothering me quite so often. At long last, I had the mental space to regain the energies I needed become better. After years of working on recovery, reading self-help, dedicated to self-development, and making positive change, the marvels of modern medicine seemed to bring all the pieces together into a coherent picture of a perfectly imperfect person.
As expected, medication isn’t a guaranteed cure-all in the case of our minds. Our brains being such complex organisms it makes sense that chemical conditioning alone will only do so much. It’s almost impossible to understand how our minds definitively work, even for the most intelligent among us.
What’s more, I’m fortunate that the medicine’s side effects are minor for me. Most people have to try several different tablets before something has enough of a benefit to outweigh any potential problems they might cause. My first fortnight felt a little disorientating at times as I got used to the internal quiet. Then the excitement – sheer exhilaration – of living without the “black dog” hanging over me, as Churchill put it, was such that I became hyperactive.
PurpleHydrangea_090718I still get moments of giddiness now and again, but after years of depression it’s rather a relief to know I can feel such joy. After all, this could be my “real” personality without the shadow of mental illness looming large – who knows?! Other than this, I’m relatively restless, toe-tapping and sometimes kicking C in my sleep (or so he says), but all things taken into consideration I’d settle for these minor irritations over perpetual gloom, doom, and self-hatred any day.
My experiences lead me to lean towards the camp of those in support of trying medication for mental illness. Provided it’s taken under suitable medical supervision, and the person has appropriate emotional support in place, I’d certainly give it some serious consideration. It worked so well for me that for a while after first starting my pills, I felt sad because I wished I’d tried it much, much sooner.
Yet discussing this with C at the time helped me to appreciate how medication will always be a bit of a gamble. It’s rather like the “chicken or egg” dilemma, in that I’ll never know whether my becoming better was down to the pills in and of themselves. It’s likely to be a combination of timing, mindset, chemical alchemy, and the blood, sweat, and tears I poured into my recovery those ten years prior.
Having build up my own mental fitness over many years no doubt added to my arsenal of weapons against my mental demons.  And still I sometimes wonder whether I’d be writing at all had it not been for the tiny green-and-yellow capsules that sit on my bedside table.
FluroPinkRose_090718
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Let me know in the comments or over on my Facebook page.

The Sixteenth TWIG Post (or why my future now matters more to me than my weight)

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C snapped me without me realising he was there, so this photo – and the accompanying “bitchy resting face” is totally candid!

Sitting in my sun-drenched garden, it feels like being on holiday. Writing this post beneath my parasol, I feel happy. The midday heat hugs my body and wraps my skin in a cocoon of warmth. At the same time, there’s an unusually cool breeze finding its way to brush my skin. It feels utterly delicious, and reminds me just how wonderful it can feel to truly inhabit my body.

Yet sadly, I must admit to not having felt so good in my skin this week. Instead I’ve resented my body, which I irrationally feel has let me down by gaining weightParticularly in this heat, where the weather dictates dress-code, my body being literally exposed only magnifies my feeling self-conscious and sensitive about my appearance.

Ironically, deciding to relax around food and fitness is anxiety-provoking. My mind made an irrational link between my feeling vulnerable and working out. Uncharacteristically, I became increasingly nervous to where I made excuses to avoid going to the gym: the air-con might still be broken, the weather’s too nice to be indoors, I’ll go on my lunch-break tomorrow and head straight home tonight.

In a relatively short time, I found myself trapped in a cycle of anxiety-fuelled avoidance. By the time my – normally sacrosanct – Friday workout came around, I found myself not wanting to go. My anxiety had built to where I didn’t trust my own judgment around whether I genuinely needed a break from the gym, or if I was making excuses to myself to avoid confronting my body insecurities.

Suspecting my avoidance came from a place of fear, I decided to talk to people who know and love me. First speaking with my friend helped me get clear on why I felt funny about fitness, so I text C as the person who knows me best for his perspective. Knowing I wasn’t feeling quite right, C encouraged me to stick to my plan and go to the gym as usual. To seal the deal, he promised I could choose our Friday night take-out and  offered me a ride home. I’m lucky I have people who love me enough to help me see my own truth, even when I’d rather not do so.

IMG_2898Butterflies flapping in my tummy, I nevertheless determined to act in spite of my emotions and do what I know to be in my own best interests. To get myself there, I had to promise I’d only do what felt good in the moment. This turned out to be a long walk on the treadmill under the air-con whilst reading the latest Elle. I may have cut short my usual routine by skipping my regular weight-lifting session.

Today just getting myself into the gym was a huge achievement. By doing what I wanted in that moment, and finding the mental strength to confront my fears, my anxiety lifted and I felt quietly proud.

Rather than focus on the size of my butt, I’m instead channelling my energies into creating a happy, healthy, and emotionally wealthy life. Last Summer, I may have had a notable thigh gap but this Summer, I’m excited because I’m hopeful for the future, whose value is worth so much more than weight.

From this position of emotional strength, I share what I’m thankful for over the past seven days.

 

This Week I’m Grateful for:

*Being able to host family visits. I’ve said this before, and it feels appropriate to state once again as this weekend I’m happy to have had family over. My Aunty, Uncle, cousin and children drove over to spend time with us today. The kids had a great time playing games on the grass after failing spectacularly at cornering our cats, who are way too quick to be caught!

We enjoyed burgers on the barbie, courtesy of C (and Chris Beech’s butchers), followed by ice creams – delicious! Talking later, we’re both reminded that a part of the reason we fell for this place is because it’s perfect for hosting, whether for an afternoon or a few days. Tomorrow C’s sister and her husband are staying with us whilst house-hunting, and  I’ve invited my friend and her family over next weekend.  Again, I’m thankful we can open our home – and hearts – to those we love; to make opportunities to get together.

*New Summer clothes for this unseasonably hot spell from Fat Face, H&M, and good ol’ M&S.  I don’t like shopping – particularly at the moment – however I’m grateful I can afford to do so. I’m happy to have a couple of flattering new dresses, vests – and pants! – to survive the heatwave.

*Having stocked up on the sunscreen, what with the weather set for sun this coming week. Preferring to stay pale than risk burnt skin, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

*Accomplishing personal goals I made back in January. Over the past six months C and I have renovated our former home, successfully sold said home, and I’ve regularly written this blog for five months now. Opening my A3 sketchpad to see my post-it plans for the coming year reminds me how far I’ve come.

*Coming up with creative new ideas for work projects; namely, experimenting in the coming year with strategic use of social media and podcasting with my students. Not only do I have a genuine interest developing these relatively new marketing skills, as you’ll learn, I’m excited because I’ve found ways I can grow in my job.

*Kind words from friends and colleagues who’ve taken time to read my blog. Since sharing my writing publicly, I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and support I’ve received. When I started this blog, I hoped to build connections with strangers whose interests and experiences align with mine. Not only has this proven to be the case, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised that my opening up here has helped bring me closer to people already in my life. It’s been wonderful thus far.

*Discovering a supportive online community of women. Specifically, being a member of the Psychologies Life Leap Club Facebook group (a closed group for subscribers oftheir brilliant magazine)  has broadened my social circle and put me in touch with a plethora of intelligent, creative, and all-round wonderful women. On the recommendation of fellow Life Leapers, I’ve since become part of a couple of supportive groups for female entrepreneurs. Not yet venturing into my own business, just being around women who are killing it in business is so inspiring.

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*Giving the Courage and Clarity podcast a try, on the advice of one of the aforementioned lovely ladies. I’m so glad I did, as from the get-go I’ve loved Steph Crowder‘s format, addressing both the courage (to follow one’s vision and passion) and the clarity (to plan and pursue success) needed to be successful in business.

“With a clear vision and a well-defined process, you CAN have meaningful work in your life.”

Steph Crowder

I’m making my way through the Courage and Clarity back-catalogue – and I’m learning so much! Clearly structured episodes, with Steph’s summary at the end of the interview, has proved super-helpful.

Thus far my favourite episode (10th) is entitled “Everything You Really Need to Know about Publishing a Book” with Cassandra Bodzak. Steph and Cassandra discussed not only the practicalities, like how to find an agent and secure a book publishing deal, but also the challenges of writing a book more broadly. Listening to this encouraged me to  take seriously my own dreams of becoming a published author. Already having the creative inspiration to write my book, I’ve also a realistic idea of how I might go about making this come true.

Episode six with Claire Pelletreau, a Facebook Ads Consultant, was another notable listen for me. Speaking on a subject about which I know relatively little, Claire and Steph’s conversation had me musing over my own future strategies for using Facebook ads to promote my work. In particular, Claire’s suggestions for how one might maximise a minimal budget (of $40 per month) has sparked my curiosity enough to want to give it a shot. As Gary V often says, Facebook advertising is currently disproportionately under-priced, but this won’t last forever.

So intrigued was I by Claire’s approach to Facebook advertising that I plan to ask my employer for support in learning more at my upcoming appraisal. Not only for my personal interest and benefit, but for that of the organisation. I firmly believe by having a strategic understanding of how best to use this low-cost marketing tool, I can help us take advantage of this window of opportunity.

*Having read Gary Vaynerchuk‘s original book, entitled “Crush it!. Though much has changed on the Internet since this book was written in 2009, the principles which underpin Gary’s approach to business remain as strong as ever:

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“[T]rue success – financial, personal, and professional – lies above all in loving your family, working hard, and living your passion. In telling your story. In authenticity, hustle, and patience. In caring fierce about the big and small stuff. In valuing legacy over currency.”

Gary Vaynerchuk: “Crush it!” (p.134)

I’ve spent a lot of time with Gary (virtually, of course, but time nonetheless), and getting beyond his “shock-jock” public image, I’m humbled by his emotionally intelligent approach to doing business. His priority is always people, and technology is merely a means of creating value and serving others. A self-taught social media expert, Gary’s work has helped me figure out how to make genuine connections with like-minded people. Thanks to Gary, I’m no longer so reluctant to engage with social media, instead gaining a newfound appreciation of its value as a communication tool.

*Coming home to Geneen Roth by listening to “This Messy Magnificent Life, her latest publication, on Audible this week. Borrowed from the small library held at my local eating disorder support group*, hers was the first book I ever read in the “self-help” genre. Hers was also the first “voice” that cut through my mental chatter and touched my heart. She understood me, and I’ve been dedicated to Geneen’s teachings ever since.

This is the first book of hers I’ve listened to before reading it in hard-copy, and thus far I’m enamoured. Spoken in the same eloquent, poetic manner as she writes, her familiar voice envelopes me like a warm hug. Once again her words remind me of what I already know to be true: essentially, I am so much more than my weight. Interestingly, rather than simply causing pain, my emotional issues around food provide a doorway through which I can gain greater self-knowledge and compassion.

My body-confidence wavering this past week proved perfect timing to return to Geneen’s work. Though I’ve heard her speak on women and weight many times, she never fails to move me. Once again I’m guilty of pursuing physical perfection despite knowing thinness doesn’t deliver happiness. Listening again to my longest-standing teacher talk on this topic, I’m grateful for coming home.

*Buying my own domain name. This past week I spent pennies to invest in my own virtual home on the net: projectheathered.com I’m a Dotcom! HeatherDuggan.com has already been bought (who knew there would be more than one of us?!), but this name feels more “me” somehow. I am my own educational project, working on becoming better and seeking to share this with others in creative ways. I kind of always have been this way, but it’s taken until now for me to be able to express who I am in words. Having my own place on the web where I can do this has cost me nearly nothing in monetary terms, yet means so much more! It’s truly exciting and feels like the start of something more.

IMG_3029*Having the confidence to take myself seriously in business terms. I’ve the seed of an idea (well, several seeds, technically) which I may be able to grow into a business. It’s exciting to think is might be possible to earn a living doing something I truly love. Particularly given my academic history, as a former business student, this whole thing feels rather exciting!

Never having seriously entertained the idea of entrepreneurship, t’s a whole new world that I’m only just starting to explore! I’ve thankfully found myself guided to become part of a couple of super-supportive, online communities of women. Other members’ success stories cannot fail to impress and inspire hope. Perhaps my passion projects could yield far greater results than I can presently imagine.

Putting my first-class honours where my mouth is, I’m applying my academic knowledge to explore my ideas further before I look to create business plans. At the same time, I’ve taken what I learnt from my month-long Role Model Challenge (for which I’ve a series of posts, starting here), seeking advice from new role models I’m meeting along the way. Thus far, I’m loving the positive, practical strategies put forth by Steph Crowder, Ruth Kudzi, and Angela Raspass, whose work on women in business resonates with me.

*Finding new ways of thinking about long-standing issues. Taking a slightly different angle, I’m also enjoying watching Lucy Sheridan‘s YouTube channel, who speaks from her perspective as a comparison coach. Not directly related to business, but having a huge impact on how confident we feel as women to step up and speak out, X takes a holistic approach to  support us to step away from comparison so we can be our best selves. I especially like her style, both in terms of how she presents her ideas, and also how she presents herself; her pastel co-ords complimenting her dove-grey sofa, upon which is often seated her gorgeous, tawny-toned dog!

*Being brave enough to dream. In the past year, becoming better and building my mental fitness has allowed me to reclaim my lost ability to dream.

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Looking ahead, feel hopeful, and making positive plans for the future is a precious gift.

It feels miraculous; magical, almost; the disparity between how I now feel and my former state, characterised as it was by depression and anxiety in turn. Mental illness robbed me of my imagination, and when it did permit me to dream, those dreams were mainly nightmares.

Aligning with the Universe (which I’m told always has my back) is creating opportunities to practise dreaming. Designing plans to renovate our home, exploring ideas around how to make money from my passions, and this – the writing process – in-and-of itself brings me masses of joy, happiness, and a huge dose of optimism. An unexpected gift from having mental ill-health is that of being unable to forget the feeling of having no conceivable future whatsoever.

Thankfully, my mindset has brought me to a place where I not only dare to dream, but to believe that they might come true. I don’t even have to try hard to trust in the possibility that something good might happen, because in many ways it already has. And on that happy note, I’ll sign off.

Have a wonderful week!

 

*I’d like to take this opportunity to say that if you’re also living within the South Yorkshire region and relate to my food issues, I cannot recommend SYEDA highly enough. I’m sure I’ll speak at length on this in future, but needless to say their help made a huge difference to my recovery. The support groups they run are affiliated with B-eat; the UK’s national eating disorder charity, and I believe similar groups are run across the country.

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