Project HeatherED

Live your happiest, healthiest, and emotionally wealthiest life

Tag: anxiety

The Break Through Post (or how I realise I’m still stuck in diet culture – and how I plan to get myself out!)

Hello! It’s been a while, right?

Well, before I hit publish, my pride pushes me to caveat this by telling you that I’m intentionally sharing this relatively unedited piece on my website. I desperately want to overcome my anxieties around writing here. I can’t think of a better way to do this than to face my fears – and just go for it.

So I’m asking you to forgive me in advance for my imperfect post – my imperfect self. I shouldn’t need to do this, but bear with me. As you’ll read, I’m working on it!

Here goes nothing.  

The Break Through Post

(or how I realise I’m still stuck in diet culture – and how I plan to get myself out!)

I gained weight this year.  For the first time in five years, I broke my hard-won “healthy” habits.

It began when we moved into our new house back in November 2017. Expected disruptions  meant I wasn’t in complete control.  Having held on tightly for so long, I was scared of relaxing my regime. What disaster might unfold?

Turns out, relaxing my rules wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, my new-found freedom around food and fitness came as a pleasant surprise! I enjoyed the novelty of an impromptu dinner out with C, or a slice of homemade cake, without having to plan for it days in advance.

Sure, I gained a few pounds, but my clothes still fit. For the most part, I adjusted to my body’s new status quo. Mentally and emotionally, I was holding it together. I felt okay.

Then it all went awry.

When my beloved cat, D, died in September, something snapped. Already home from work mid-mental meltdown, on truth, I wasn’t exactly in the best headspace to begin with. Which explains why I spiralled so quickly into a “f**k it” mentality around food.

After all, what’s the point of dieting when –  at any time – I could lose someone I love?

On some level, this way of thinking made sense. Obviously, the people – and pets – in our lives are way more important than weight. Yet logically, there’s no rational connection between grieving and eating. Emotionally, I didn’t care – I simply needed something to soothe the pain.

Because I was hurting. Badly.

D might have been a cat – a scruffy, shouty one at that – but when he died I lost more than my best buddy. I also lost my most reliable source of happiness. No matter what, D could make me smile. Whenever I looked at his face, I’d wonder at the perfection of nature; at how something so cute could ever exist! And then suddenly, he was gone.

A guaranteed source of comfort, I turned to food. It’s been that way throughout my life. Love – at least from humans – has not been so reliable. So it makes sense that I’d look for something consistently soothing: Enter my faithful friend; food.

As my anxiety spiralled, I also stopped exercising. I lost confidence standing front-and-centre in my gym classes. Honestly, I didn’t feel comfortable around anyone anymore. I withdrew. At first I took a few weeks’ break, but the longer I left it, the scarier it became. Eventually, I felt so much body shame, I didn’t want to go back to the gym at all.

I was well-and-truly “off the wagon”.

Turns out, I’ve been dieting all this time.  

Only now as I slip and slide through another weight cycle* do I realise this.

Only now am I starting to accept that I’ve lived another half-century restricting to control my weight.

* I recently learnt this  modern terminology for  “yo-yo dieting”.

Whether a super-strict version of the Weight Watchers’ plan, or basic calorie-counting to maintain my BMI, it was a diet. My “balanced lifestyle” meant meticulous meal management and pre-planned workouts to counter calories. All the while becoming ever-more disconnected; unable to even enjoy the body that cost so much – in time, money, and sheer sweaty effort. Especially time – oh, the time I’ve spent thinking about this sh*t! I’m heartbroken and exhausted even thinking about it.

Frankly, I’m embarrassed.

Yet again, I’ve fallen prey to diet culture. How gullible am I?! I can feel my Inner Critic, rolling its eyes at me as I type.

Because I’m still “in it” in so many ways! Literally and figuratively, being thin is a part of my psyche. For as long as I can remember, it’s been my ultimate – sometimes only – aspirational goal. To me, being thin is a sign of success. The logic goes: If I’m thin, I’ll be attractive, and therefore acceptable.  It’s been my personal Holy Grail.

Thinness is a physical manifestation of being “good enough”.

It’s about more than the weight (gain).

I noticed negative self-talk sneak up on me as I gained weight. Hideously ugly feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred abound. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see it), I can’t ignore it this time. Years of therapy, personal growth work, and self-help have me hyper-aware of what’s happening inside.

I recognise these feelings from before. Looking back, my memories of the last time I gained weight after a loss are hazy. I’ve blanked much of that traumatic time. I don’t think other people commented on it – at least, not to my face – but I felt certain that behind closed doors there’d be whispers. After regaining thirty-plus pounds, I found myself standing on a Paris train platform willing myself to step off. To end the battle inside my mind.

For as long as I can remember, there’s a nagging voice in the back of my mind that tells me how much happier I’d be – if only I were thinner. Thing is, I’ve been thinner. I’ve objectively had my “best body ever” whilst still feeling depressed and anxious. Nothing ever changes – at least, nothing real.

It’s all superficial. I’m still me irrespective of my body size. 

Pre-Paris, I’d lost a huge amount of weight, only to look in the mirror and see myself as fat. A fleeting glance in the mirror, I saw my body was finally thin. Yet I was about as unhappy as I’ve ever been.

The disappointment – more accurately, devastation – was so utterly unbearable, I brushed it away as quickly as possible. I looked back and there I was again – fat. It felt safer, somehow, to continue to believe I’d always be big; someone who could afford to lose a few pounds. Only then could I be happy.

Back to binge-eating

Within a few days, I’d started bingeing again. I remember the first sneaky bag of cookies, eaten in secret. They were delicious. Simultaneously, sheer relief and utter disgust washed over me as I swallowed the last bite. 

I still feel confused and conflicted.

Thoughts around food and my body continue to infiltrate my daily life. Sometimes overwhelming, my obsession with appearance veers from all-consuming to an annoying nagging feeling in the back of my mind. I’m not yet free of diet culture. Perhaps, living in the world that we do, I never will be 100% free of feeling bad about my body.  

Weight gain feels so shameful; it feels like a devastating personal failure. Which is why I found myself bemoaning my body to Mum via WhatsApp this week. She says I have a beautiful body, and in the same sentence, tells me all about her recent weight loss. Apparently, pre-diet she’d been at her heaviest; a number she shared that still falls below my personal heaviest by a good stone. Urgh. 

Even with the acute awareness of body issues I have today, this hurts my heart.  I know it’s not Mum’s fault; it’s not mine either. This is a societal problem whereby we, as women, are raised to relate via this kind of body bashing.  That our weight – quite literally, the force of gravity we have on this earth – is a topic deemed interesting enough for discussion is baffling. Whilst it’s hardly a shock in a culture where thinness equals goodness, it’s still super sad. 

It got me thinking:

Do I really want to get to my sixties, like my Mum, and still be thinking about my weight?

Do I really want to spend another thirty years or more of worrying about my body? Thinking I’m not – nor likely ever will be – thin (read: good) enough?

Or would I rather get on with living my best life, irrespective of the body I do it in? Even if that body happens to be bigger than that which – in an ideal world – I’d effortlessly maintain?  

Honestly, I’m now questioning whether that “ideal world” is even mine to begin with, but this is beside the point, which is:

Do I want to be thin – at any and all costs – or do I want to be happy, in the body I have, right now?

I surprised myself by concluding I want to be happy as I am.

I am decidedly sick of feeling shitty about myself.

 

And that’s enough encouragement for me to try to find another way of being in my body – and with food – in 2019.

 

I don’t want to wake up in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time and find myself having another mental meltdown because I can’t fit into my jeans. Forcing myself onto yet another diet would be like kicking myself in the teeth when it feels like I’m already in the gutter. (And yes, it feels this dramatic.)

If not a diet, then what?

Which is why I’m exploring intuitive eating, health at every size, and body positive culture.** I’m effectively coming full-circle since heading into recovery. Back then, Geneen Roth’s books spoke of similar curiosity and self-compassion.   

Still, entertaining thoughts of giving up dieting forever scares me sh*tless. I don’t honestly know any other way of being. Even in recovery, I secretly believed that once I’d fixed my brain, I’d get “back on track” and “fix” my body. Eventually, I’d be thin.  

But I don’t like who I am in this relentless pursuit of perfection.

Case in point:

  • It adds to my anxiety, changing how I feel about myself.
  • My insecurities grab onto any sign of “success” (read: weight loss). I develop a “superior-than-thou” persona to cover up my nerves.
  • I’m increasingly afraid of people whilst hyper-aware of their food and fitness habits.
  • I’m no fun to be around.
  • If you think I sound judgemental towards others, then you should hear the sh*t that goes around my head about me. I’m most cruel to myself.

Those of us with disordered eating issues know that the awkward, difficult, and downright mean person we seem to be on the outside is nothing compared to way we behave inside.

And I don’t want to be that person. Not anymore.

I’m thirty-four – nearly thirty-five – and this has to stop.

There are too many good reasons for this.

I have two simply fabulous young nieces who look up to me – and I don’t want to let them down. Then there’s you. If you’re reading this, then I know you’re looking for an honest insight into what it really means to become better.  And then there’s me – and I truly believe I deserve to give myself the gift of respect.  To become better.

Even if it doesn’t look exactly as expected, I know happiness feels fantastic.

 

 

**If you’re curious about these topics yourself, then I list below some of the resources I’m exploring right now, or have been useful to me thus far in disordered eating recovery. I hope these help you – let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

 

The Geeky Corner

“Breaking Free From Compulsive Eating” by Geneen Roth 

My first ever book on eating disorders; the one that changed everything. A must-read. She’s a regular on Oprah and I’m sure you’ll find her in online knock-offs of the Oprah show. 

“Body Positive Power: How to stop dieting, make peace with your body and live” by Megan Jayne Crabbe. 

I’m currently listening to this on Audible and I’m really enjoying Megan’s story. She is really relatable – and I adore that her online name is bodyposipanda! Makes me happy just to say it aloud!

“The Goddess Revolution” by Mel Wells

Recommended to me by a friend, Mel reminds me of Geneen only for a new generation. You can see her in her awesome TEDX talk

Isobel Foxen Duke

Specifically, her “Stop Fighting Food” web series (free when you sign up for her email list) really hit home for me. That, and this article, are what led me to: 

“Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch

The original IE how-to guide, I’m about to embark upon this book myself. 

“Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight” by Linda Bacon

Like this post? Subscribe!

 

The Twenty-Third TWIG Post (or how I’m learning that new love grows – even through loss)

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.”

Sigmund Freud

An hour and a half. This week K broke her lifetime record for the “Longest Time Ever Sitting on a Human’s Knee”.  I was so delighted by this change in behaviour, I had to immediately share the photographic evidence on my Facebook page.

You see, both my feline friends have never been what you’d call “lap cats”.  Likely taken from their mother too soon, they never seemed to grasp how to be cats in that way. Surprisingly, this bothers my partner, C, more than I. Used to his role as perma-cushion for our previous pet, I’ve heard him refer to D and K as somewhat of “a disappointment”!

Still.

 

Dave enjoying the garden

D, in particular, became the heart of our home. This, despite him stomping around the place, shouting his kitty head off like a tiny military dictator. A plus-sized personality in a pint-sized cat. D’s very existence on this planet could brighten my darkest days. C and I both couldn’t love him more.

Which is why, when we unexpectedly lost D a few weeks back, it hurt so much.

My beloved baby, D never took to sitting on knees; a crying shame given how he was the most ridiculously cuddle-worthy cat! I know I’m biased, but he was breathtakingly beautiful. His fur felt almost unreal, it was so soft. That cat came covered in a perfectly plush, fluffy layer of inky-black down. Perhaps if he could have learnt to relax long enough to sit still, maybe – eventually – he’d have made an awesome lap cat one day. I guess we’ll never know.

Aside from the occasional perch-in-passing, K has never been a knee cat either. Since losing D, however, K has definitely changed.

Siblings adopted together, they’d never really been apart so we weren’t sure how K might react to losing D. Though when he disappeared for a few days when they were younger, she became suspiciously happy. Whilst C and I sobbed in the streets as we stuck our “lost cat” posters to lampposts, K came along with us, prancing and dancing around our ankles!

In a strange twist of fate, without D, K is starting to come out of her shell. She’s much noisier, for example, her vocal prowess expanding to nearly fill the space D left behind. No longer having to share space, she seems more relaxed, sprawling across the carpet rather than scrunched in a ball. Most irritating – but super cute – K now meows to be let in via the patio doors rather than use her specially installed, unfeasibly expensive cat flap.

Keiko Bean

She’s essentially becoming Queen of the House. “Queen B”, I call her (for Bean – Keiko-Bean. Yes, I’ve become one of those nutters who have a million nicknames for my pets).

Coming home with a cold the other day, I was just about to make a brew and settle down for an afternoon of “Made in Chelsea” (we’re now onto Season 11, FYI) when I was joined on the sofa by K. I felt nervous about making her nervous and scaring her off so I tried not to move.

However as we both began to relax, K did a cat-version of man-spreading, rolling around as she made herself comfy. She even woke up mid-way through her marathon nap to have a bath – on me – before falling back asleep!

Reluctantly breaking the magic of the moment, an hour-and-a-half later – desperate for the loo and a brew by now – I gently moved my cat from my knee.

In a strange twist of fate, it feels as if K senses my sadness and is seeking to befriend me. Maybe K misses her friend, too, which is why she’s gravitating towards me. Even if she does prefer life as an only cat to sharing her home with an annoying little brother! C has noticed the change in her, too, as she’s become more comfortable in my company.

We’re getting to know each other, which is kind of beautiful, in its own weird way. My heart is broken, yet it’s also expanding; making more room so I can love K more.

Though I’m over-the-moon to become closer with K, I have to admit – it’s rather bittersweet. It’s like with D gone, he’s created space for our connection to flourish. As our love blossoms and grows, I’m even more achingly aware of what we’ve lost.

I miss D; my shadow, my friend.

Keiko and Dave

“What greater gift than the love of a cat?”

Charles Dickens

I have to remind myself that the pain of loss isn’t lessened by love. Loving K doesn’t mean I love D any less. It’s not possible. Instead, love soothes; it salves. It helps our hearts heal more quickly.

We’re a smaller family now – C, K, and I – but we’re stronger, too. A tighter crew.

And maybe – just maybe – one day, in the not too distant future, C will cave – and let us have a dog! 😉

Though I’m still drowning in a sea of snotty, teary tissues, I’m becoming better. I’m back to work and I’m here, writing again. Glad to get back to being grateful and sharing my week’s thanks.

This Week I’m Grateful for:

*Having a great conversation kick-start my working week. I’m not one for small talk, but this past Monday I stopped on my way into work to greet my colleague, J. Twenty minutes later I was surprised to find myself still talking.

Technically, it was “big” talk. We covered topics from side-hustling, building our online skills, and mental wellbeing and learnt we’ve much in common. I’m glad I stopped to make time to talk; I went into my office feeling happier and less alone.

*Making new friends – who also love Vietnamese bahn mi! This week I found myself genuinely looking forward to lunch at my favourite cafe with a (relatively) new friend. Having social anxiety, I typically dread in-person meet-ups. Therefore actually wanting to go out for lunch is a hugely positive sign that my mental health is on the mend.

*Building my braves by increasing my working hours. Much of my anxiety ties into feeling trapped. After a few hours at my desk, I definitely notice myself having a classic “flight or fight” response; an impulse to escape.

There’s nothing to be afraid of at work; I know this to be true. Yet rational thinking doesn’t eliminate anxious feelings. So rather than fight with myself, I’m practising acting in spite of contradictory emotions. It’s certainly not easy, but it is possible and I am progressing. By Friday I’d worked up to two-thirds of my regular hours which, given my recent anxiety levels, feels like a noteworthy achievement.

*Coming up with ideas for C’s birthday presents, currently hidden at home and ready for wrapping. It’s a massive relief to be prepared early. There’s something incredibly anxiety-provoking about gifting. Honestly, I hate buying gifts. The whole process – thinking of an ingenious idea and executing it – is frankly exhausting and doesn’t come naturally to me. Some people have a natural gift for, well, gifts, whereas others find themselves agonizing over whether it’s okay to just give gift cards. Now I’ve done my shopping, I can now relax and actually enjoy the occasion.

*Losing myself in a good film. Visiting the Curzon to watch “Venom” this weekend reminded me how much I love the feeling of sinking into a story so completely that I disappear. Movies can give me temporary relief from living in the chaos of my own mental mind.

Ironically, I turned to a film about an impulse-driven alien – “Venom” – that makes its home inside Tom Hardy’s head. In a weird way, I could relate to him living with a voice within that simultaneously saves and destroys; a dark side that serves some greater purpose.

*Positive comments from readers. Admittedly, I’m someone who needs reassurance and encouragement to keep going with my creative endeavours.  Hence why it meant so much to receive a Facebook comment recently from someone who’d been binge-reading my previous posts.

Similar to myself, this reader had also taken time off work for mental health reasons. They said it felt like finding a friend; reading my words helped them feel less alone. This is exactly what I hoped my blog might do: my words create a spark of something that resonates with someone else. It worked!

I’m therefore extremely grateful for this particular reader whose kind words inspired me to publish this post. I’m not yet entirely back to my best self, but I’m catching a glimpse of her and I’m beginning to get back by blogging mojo.

Thanks to all those reading this. I look forward to writing more soon.

H x

The Writer’s Block Post (or why I’m giving my broken brain a break)

Writing is most definitely a skill. You write daily – at least, that’s the intention – and over time you become better at it. Even editing gets easier; the whole process speedier.

Persist with your practise a little longer, and eventually you find your own writing style. Something magical happens and you “sound like” you on the page.

It all sounds so romantic – and it is! When ^this^ happens, it’s the most wonderful feeling! This year I’ve fallen back in love with writing; I’m completely and utterly enamoured of it.

But like anything worth having, writing doesn’t always come easily.

Thus far I’m proud to have published here at least once a week. Oftentimes, I’ve simply shared a story around my weekly gratitudes, but I’ve kept my promise to myself – and you, my readers.

Regular posts have arisen naturally – I’m not holding myself to any publishing schedule. I haven’t needed to do so.

Writing itself makes me happy. It’s when I feel most connected with my “authentic self”; a “woo-woo” way of saying the version of me that feels most myself. Whether here on this blog, behind-the-scenes on my Google Drive, or on a scruffy piece of paper stuffed into my backpack, writing is how I sort through the contents of my mind. It slows down my thinking and brings me a sense of peace.

If that weren’t motivation enough, then there’s you – the reader. Sharing my story has created opportunities for connection that might otherwise have gone amiss. Relationships have grown – or in some cases, been rekindled – as a result of a single moment during which I felt brave enough to share Project HeatherED with the world. A world which, albeit, small, has grown exponentially, thanks to the power of the written word.

Which goes some way to explain my frustration of late at losing my publishing mojo. If you’re following along, you’ll likely be aware that I’m mid-mental meltdown. Held firmly by anxiety, and it’s close companion, depression, I’m not in the best frame of mind for making creative decisions. Writing – at least, writing for eyes other than my own – is its own challenge.

This beloved blog has therefore become something of a struggle. It feels like my broken brain is trying to break my heart, too, by keeping me from what brings me joy. I’m increasingly irritated when words won’t come, which ironically only makes things worse.

Like Keiko cat, I’m chasing my tail and getting nowhere quickly.

So after much internal debate, I’ve decided to give myself a bit of a break. Lift the pressure off. Like I said earlier, I’m not technically committed to regular publishing days or times, but I’m subconsciously setting standards. My perfectionist tendencies don’t need publication schedules to hold me to a habit. Used to writing weekly, my mind makes anything “other” feel like a failure.

Which is why I’m making a conscious decision not to publish here for the next month.
I recognise my need for clear boundaries if my brain is to relax, rest, and recover. Enforcing recovery, in a way, I hope will give me space and time recharge my mental batteries.

To do the actual work of recovery, rather than trying too hard to record the process as it happens.

It’s kind of missing the point, don’t you think?!

At the same time, I’ve literally just gone back to work. Five half-days, to be exact. I’m on “staged return”, which means I’m currently working part-time because my mental health issues leave me physically and emotionally drained. It takes a lot of energy to recover – yet another good reason to take it easy on myself.

And so I’m pressing pause on publishing posts. Just for a moment. I’ll take a few breaths, regroup, and come back better than before. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that, having decided to step back, my brain will step up a gear and find its way back to itself. I hope so. I’m kind of counting on it.

Because I love writing. Truly, I’m head-over-heels with the whole process! Beyond the mental peace writing brings, I’m creating honest, open-hearted connections with like-minded people like you. My world is bigger and brighter as a result.

Anyone who reads this blog will know how much it matters to me. It matters too much for me to ruin its magic by forcing myself to write when words aren’t forthcoming.

Which is why I’m hoping you’ll bear with me whilst I focus on recovering my mental health.

In the meanwhile, subscribe for my email updates by entering your address in the box at the top right of this page. You’ll be the first to know whenever there’s a new post on Project HeatherED. I’d also love you to connect with me over on Facebook.

I’ll be back soon to share more stories!

Heather
x

The Back to the Future Post (or how I’m planning a mentally healthy return to work)

This morning I spoke with my line manager to arrange going back to work from the middle of next week. Just mornings, to start, and – only if they go well – then slowly building back to my usual full-time hours.

Phone calls, I find, are particularly challenging when I’m unwell. I think most people my age and younger feel the same way, though this is amplified when my mental health isn’t tip-top. Today it felt especially hard to speak on the phone. I didn’t know what to say.

When you’re mentally unwell, being asked “how are you?” takes on another level of meaning. Even when you’re physically sick, it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint how exactly you feel at any given moment. You can 10X this for someone with a mental health issue. Honestly, it feels like I have to find something positive to tell the well-meaning inquirer at the other end of the line. I find myself saying something that boils down to “Look! I’m getting better!” I can almost feel the forced smiles. Reassuring others that I’m going to be okay, when I don’t actually know this myself, is scary.

It’s over an hour since we spoke. Whilst I know that my planned return is rationally a good decision, I feel anxious about it.  Not having felt much of anything in the past few weeks, it’s unsettling to suddenly feel familiarly unpleasant sensations. The tightness in my jaw and my chest. I realise I’m not breathing properly – I’ve been holding my breath – so take a few deep lungfuls of air and relax a touch as the oxygen revitalises my brain.

For the first time in a few weeks, I’m overwhelmed. Plans to walk to the shops slowly disintegrate. It feels too much to put away the washing, to bake pretty pastel-coloured cupcakes for my nieces, even to tackle the washing up. I just don’t want to do anything any more. No, thank you.

I don’t like how this feels. I remember that this is what it’s like to have a mental meltdown. I need to stop; be still and see what comes up for me. Wait for my emotional self to catch up with the rational part. Knowing my back-to-work plan is the right thing to do motivates me to take action. I’ve metaphorically opened my mental first-aid kit, tapping into tried-and-tested tools at hand that I hope will help me become better. I’m here writing to you, for one.

Immediately after hanging up the phone, I went to take a shower (and yes; I’m aware that this is lazy behaviour at 10.30am, but I have been writing for much of the morning). I find this to be a perfect place to tune into what’s happening in my body and brain. With the sounds of the shower drowning out my self-consciousness, I talk to myself aloud, heart-to-heart. Talking myself down from the metaphorical, anxiety-fuelled ledge, so to speak. Like any conversation with someone I love, I literally ask myself questions out loud – and I answer from the heart.

To anyone else, this talking to myself would look like utter madness. It feels that way to me, too. However I’m learning to care less about what others might think. If anything helps me feel better – closer to a healthier, happier version of myself – then I’ll give it a try. Taking the decision to be completely open about being on sick leave for mental health reasons helps. It feels authentic; to be true to myself and my values. And as far as I know, so far, so good.

This week I’ve sought comfort and companionship from Russell Brand’s book, “Recovery”, on Audible. Logically, I know I’m not alone in experiencing common conditions like anxiety, depression, and disordered eating. In practise I find I need to remind myself over and again that I’m not the first to struggle this way – nor will I be the last – and books like this helps. I recognise myself in their stories – and those of others, who also find themselves in a dark place.

More than ever, I find myself drawn towards self-help and recovery stories. Right now, I need to hear tales of people who’ve come through the other side of mental meltdown. Russell is an extreme example of this.  I accept I’m a little obsessive about this stuff. C finds the whole genre uncomfortable and would rather I read something else: a bit of sci-fi or fantasy, perhaps? However I find I enjoy spending time technically on my own, but via books and podcasts, simultaneously surrounded by people who’ve walked a similar path.

These “non-experts” – “leading learners”, as described by the Fizzle guys – are especially interesting to me. With experiential – rather than academic – expertise, these people successfully manage their minds. A mental mind-field, they’ve dug themselves out of the proverbial dark hole that bit sooner than the rest of us. We keep scrabbling at the sides of said hole, getting a bit of traction, only to find ourselves sliding back.

Ahead on the road to recovery, these Leading Learners choose to turn back and offer us a hand, sharing said experience and strategies which have worked for them. As I tentatively step forward, I hope to become someone who can, in turn, offer this crucial support to someone else, whether in person or virtually, via this blog.  It’s a virtuous circle, I suppose, and one of which I’m striving to be a part.

As a responsible adult, I know it’s important that I return to work. I’ve got a mortgage to pay, a partner to support, and two kitty mouths to feed. Still, I’m scared. Not of the work itself, but of what being in work might do to my fragile state of mind. Taking time out has shown me how imperative it is that I prioritise my mental wellbeing. I’m conscious of not going back too soon and sliding backwards.

Though I’m returning to the same environment – the same job – I don’t want to return to being the same person who left, a shadow of herself a few weeks prior. I’d incrementally become disinterested, despondent, depressed. I recognise this person from previous troubled times and I’m afraid that this version of myself might be back for good.

I still don’t know why I had this mental meltdown. I’m not yet able to pin down exactly what’s not working, other than my mind. It’s a complex knot to unpick, and it’ll take time to unravel. Whilst I’d love to resolve any and all issues immediately – perfectly – first time around, I accept this isn’t how things work. I’m learning to be okay with slowing down, being patient, and creating more balance.

I’m confident that I’ve devised a sensible strategy to get back to some kind of normalcy. As the person who knows me best, I’m taking the lead on my return to work, at a pace I can handle. I know it’s a good plan; I’ve checked with those who love and understand me most. Although I’m trying to cut out reassurance-seeking as part of my recovery, it’s a hard habit to break.

So I’ve made an exception in this case because work matters, not only financially but emotionally, too. It’s an important factor when it comes to self-esteem. I want to feel like I’m contributing; like I’m pulling my weight and making a positive difference. I have to make clear here that paid work isn’t the only way to do this. It’s only one part of the bigger picture when it comes to living a happy, healthy, and emotionally wealthy way of life. Volunteering, creative work (blogging anyone?!), and taking care of those we love are all valuable ways to contribute.

Yet work continues to be an important part, which is why I’m trying so hard to go back to work sooner rather than later. In any case, right now I feel better about my return to work after a liberal application of the Three Ts – hot tea, toast, and telly! Sometimes I find that the best way to take good care of myself is by doing the most simple things.

P.S. I sense that I’m starting to drift off-topic, so if this particular post feels rather disorganised, then that’s most likely because it is. I hope you’ll forgive me – after all, I’m still a bit mental, remember?!

Much love,

Heather x

 

The First-in-a-Fortnight Post (or why I’m struggling to share my experience of a mental meltdown)

As anyone who follows me on Facebook already knows, I’m currently on sick leave for mental health reasons. Though there’s never a simple explanation for these things, in my case, depression and anxiety are once again on the scene.

It’s the first time I’ve ever taken time off work like this. It’s not at all like I expected.

I imagined that if I were to ever “give in” and stay home – and yes, that’s how I’ve thought about it; at least as it applies to myself –  I’d have to be at my very worst.

Emotionally uncontrollable; my life falling apart at the seams; borderline suicidal.

Closer to self-destruction than ever before. More so than even my twenty-something self who found herself standing at the platform’s edge at a Parisian station wanting so badly to put an end to her pain.

You’ll be pleased to hear that nothing so dramatic brought me to this place. I simply found myself overwhelmed and overloaded by everyday life.

Eventually, it’s like my mind simply switched off. Refused to reboot.

Long story short, I tried to carry on as normal. I briefly existed in a zombie-like state, staring at my computer screen. However I couldn’t keep up the pretence of being okay. After a meeting with my manager, we agreed I needed to head home, rest and relaxation to temporarily replace to-do lists.

Turns out that sick leave after a mental meltdown looks rather different from that of any other illness.

Unlike being home with the flu (or, more likely, a cold), being absent from work for mental reasons doesn’t mean you’re housebound. On the contrary, getting out and about is a sign of being en route to recovery. Coffee dates with friends, going to gym classes, taking long walks in the countryside.  In theory, I can do whatever I like, whenever I like, and go wherever I wish. Sounds idyllic!

Yet this is at odds with the reality, at least in my experience.  

Whilst I’m not technically limited as to what I can do, I’m mentally restricted by how much I feel I can handle. Which isn’t anywhere near as much as I’d like. Effectively burnt out, my brain seems to have gone into hibernation. Physically, I might not be tucked up in bed, but my brain seems to have retreated, metaphorically tucking itself in with a hot water bottle to wait this thing out. 

Like when a computer hasn’t been properly shut down, I feel like I’ve restarted in “safety mode”. Only the most basic programs are running , and even they have limited functionality. Sleep, eat, read, TV, repeat. 

Concentration compromised, I can only focus on one thing at a time. Single-tasking is the order of the day. This I’ve found to be frustratingly slow going. Like most women, I’m a prolific multi-tasker so it’s positively painful to have to relearn this skill – and it is a skill – which isn’t as easy as you’d think.

Even then, my brain refuses to entertain anything complex. This thwarts any ingenious ideas as to how I might maximise my time. Learning anything new (like much-needed skills in web design) falls to the wayside, requiring a depth of thought of which I’m not currently capable. 

Instead I’m forced to stick to the most simplistic, surface-level subjects. Superheroes series are proving to be especially soothing to my tired mind. I can escape into Marvel (always, over DC) movies for a few hours.

Reading about recovery from depressive illness, it turns out I’m unintentionally doing the best thing to give my brain a break:

“The answers are to find any way that you can of keeping your brain just idling, to avoid any challenging activities wherever possible and to do what you have to do in very small chunks. Best of all, be passive. The ideal would be an undiluted diet of Australian soap operas, if you can stomach that sort of thing. They allow you to sit and not ruminate – a sort of mental wallpaper, filling up the space and covering over the cracks.”

Dr Tim CantopherDepressive Illness: The curse of the strong

(2003, p.38)

 

Whilst I’ve zero intention of reviving my interest in “Neighbours” or “Home and Away”, I am partial to a bit of reality TV.  “Made in Chelsea” is currently topping the bill of tolerable TV trash, but other firm favourites include anything “Housewives”, and pretty much everything on TLC (“Say Yes To The Dress”, anyone?!).  This is one time when even C deems reality TV acceptable, though I’m saving him from the very worst of this by indulging during working hours.

On a more serious note,  I’m finding it frustratingly difficult to do the things I love most. Ironically, these are the same things that are most likely to help me heal. Take writing, for example. It’s taken me more than a fortnight to create something I feel comfortable publishing. This is the longest I’ve ever left between blog posts. Not feeling able to put words to my experience hurts more than just about anything when it comes to being mentally unwell. My throat tightens just thinking about it.

So, in an effort to overcome this particularly painful obstacle, I’ve pushed myself to publish this imperfect post today.

To give you an idea as to how challenging this has been, I started to write over a brew that C Kindly made for me before leaving for work. On a Monday morning whilst the rest of the world is working, I’m still sitting on the sofa, typing away on my Mac, unwashed in my PJs.  I finished the first draft around midday – over three hours later! Honestly, it’s taken me most of my day to create something that spans just a thousand words.

As you can tell, it’s frustratingly, painfully, s-l-o-w progress and it certainly isn’t the best piece I’ve ever written. (Those you can find here and here!)

However it’s important to me to write and share this with you. By putting my words into the world again, I’ve achieved something today for which I can feel proud. I’m not back to my best just yet, but I am making moves to counter my mental meltdown. I’m working towards become better, which is ultimately the essence of the recovery process.

In publishing this very post, I’ve taken a tiny step in a positive direction – and Reader: 

I’m grateful to have you with me. 

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 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 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.

© 2019 Project HeatherED

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑