Project HeatherED

Live your happiest, healthiest, and emotionally wealthiest life

Tag: recovery

The New Year Post (or how I’m opting out of Diet Culture in 2019)

You can already feel the momentum building. You can literally see it online. People are pre-planning their New Year’s resolutions, preparing for the clock to strike midnight. For many, this means starting yet another diet. Especially in January, “diet culture” is alive and kicking.

Give it whatever name you wish – wellness program, healthy-eating plan, a holistic lifestyle adjustment – it’s all the same. Collectively, we’re looking forward to a time when things – when we – will change. Somehow, we’ll become better.

In public – often at parties with family and friends – we set forth ambitious annual “health” goals. Secretly, we all add the same silent sentiment:  “…and then I’ll be happy.”  

“ Diet culture is a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”

Diet culture doesn’t just mean “being on a diet,” because you don’t have to follow any sort of official diet to be caught up in the culture of dieting.”

Christy Harrisson of Food Psych podcast.

 

Diet Culture and the Resolution Revolution

Peach Rose Taken By Heather DugganI’m talking about more than weight loss here. Not everyone sets out to slim come January 1st – though many  still make this their top personal goal, year after year. Regardless of what we choose to work on , the intention behind New Year’s resolutions stay the same: 

You must do – or stop doing – something if you want to be accepted; to potentially be seen as “good enough”.

In other words, if you break away from expected norms, you risk rejection. Or its cousins: loneliness, humiliation, and even shame.

This “New Year, New You!” sentiment is almost impossible to avoid.

Case in point: Infinite twixmas Weight Watchers advertisements, punctuate my festive viewing. Notably, it’s been rebranded as “WW: Wellness that Works” to appeal to a modern-day dieter. Heck, they’ve even got Robbie Williams alongside owner, Oprah, for their glossy new promotions.

If I’m honest, it’s tempting, even for a seasoned slimmer like me; one who’s been there, done that, and got the T-shirt in multiple sizes.

Whatever the original outcome, however, all previous attempts at weight loss have brought me back here:

Wondering when – if – I’ll ever feel good enough.

And I’m tired of feeling this way. It’s time to step out of diet culture’s vicious circle. I’m taking a different approach this New Year.

New Year, New Me?

Instead, my focus in 2019 is on how I feel. Specifically,  I’m working on feeling good about myself, irrespective of my current weight or appearance. Contrary to what diet culture tells us. 

And it’s not just me who’s fed-up with the whole Groundhog Day goal-setting routine that comes around every January.  

Mel Wells Author of The Goddess Revolution: Anti-Diet CultureThere’s a growing social movement of people like me looking to create a different relationship with food, fitness, and their bodies. One that’s based around prioritising feeling healthy and happy, rather than what we look like. Amazing, inspirational teachers and leaders are emerging from my peer group. Wonderful women like Laura Thomas PhD, Isabel Foxen-Duke, and Mel Wells are standing up to speak against diet culture, instead espousing Intuitive Eating (IE) and Health at Every Size.

Take Mel, who’s come a long way since “Hollyoaks”. She’s the youngest author with Hay House book publisher of my self-help dreams! She’s also organising the UK’s first Self-Love Summit in 2019. Earlier this week, Laura (who hosts popular podcast “Don’t Salt my Game” ) has been on the cover of “The Times Magazine” promoting her forthcoming IE book.

Even popular glossy women’s magazines are joining the revolution. When I opened my copy of this month’s “Red”, I was delighted to see they’ve cut out the stereotypical diet and exercise articles. The editor openly acknowledges their evolution, from encouraging readers to  “be a better you” to  simply “just be you.”

I think this is awesome! Clearly, I’m not alone in wanting to get off the weight-loss resolution roundabout. To kick diet culture to the curb. But how exactly can we step off? 

HeatherED’s Top Three Tips to Counter Diet Culture

Like I’ve said, it’s everywhere we look and near impossible to avoid completely. So here are my ideas for three step-off strategies to steer clear of self-destructive diet chatter:

 

Tip #1: Opt-out of Perfection Propaganda Publications

Magazines, newspapers, books – not to mention online media – all go goal-setting gaga at this time of year. Don’t get me wrong – I adore magazines and subscribe to at least three monthly publications at any one time – , but for this month, it’s a case of if in doubt, opt-out.

Intuitive Eating Book: Anti-Diet CultureThis includes impulse-purchase favourites and sneaky peaks at the Sidebar of Shame. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. We all do it.) A comprehensive knowledge of the cast of Love Island‘s weight fluctuations does not win any prizes. (At least, none you’d actually want to take home.)

I’m literally not buying into any diet-related materials in January. Instead, I’ll channel my curiosity into other, more positive publications. Right now, I’m reading Tribole and Resch’s book on “Intuitive Eating” and I’ve a ton of other texts lined up, including “Health at Every Size”, “The Goddess Revolution, and “Quiet“. 

Tip #2: Get Selective with Social Media.

My reasons for staying on Facebook far outweigh those for getting off. I’ve built deep and meaningful connections online, both with strangers and friends, by being vulnerable and sharing what matters. Which is why I’m unwilling to follow the trend for turning off technology.

Whilst I won’t be going cold-turkey on social, I will be spending less time on Facebook. Mostly, I want to avoid the January junk feed; save my brain from being bombarded with messages around what we “should” be, “must-have”, and “ought” to do.

Thankfully, I’m not on Instagram, otherwise I’d be limiting that, too. These heavily image-focused forums head to new heights when it comes to pushing unrealistic #bodygoals. We know these images are curated to within an inch of their life; artificially staged before being edited to death. Yet we’re still affected by them.  They infiltrate our daily lives, filling our social media feeds (and brains) with bullish*t beliefs.

Realistically, I recognise we can’t control this particular cultural change. However, we can choose how much time and attention we give it.  Namely, less of it than we do already! 

 

Tip #3: Workout (but only if it works for you)

Purple Hydrangea by Heather DugganSeparating how my body feels when I move from how my body looks is my top 2019 fitness goal. 

Resolutions around dieting typically go hand-in-hand with exercise. Many people only workout to control their weight – for a long time this was me ,too. Success measured by calories burnt, we mentally associate fitness with food. 

Interestingly, I first joined the gym for reasons beyond body size. I needed something – anything – to relieve the pain of depression. So desperate, I was willing to try exercise in hopes of feeling a bit better. Amazingly, it worked!

Still, I’m sometimes reluctant to go, which is when I’ll drag myself to the gym. I consistently come out feeling more like myself. When I workout I find my flow; body and mind on the same page. It’s a way of pulling myself back together, so to speak.

When I go back to work, I’ll go back to the gym, despite it being the most popular time of year for new members. Being busy, I’m sure I’ll find myself feeling anxious and angry at times. Yet I plan to push through because I know – from experience – exercise is one of the most helpful things I can do – for my brain and body.

 

One more time, what really matters is…

And that’s my plan to avoid being sucked in by the “wellness” industry this January. Admittedly, it’s not much but it’s a step in a more positive direction than going on another diet.

Nevertheless, I’m still tempted by the promise of weight loss. A voice in my head continues to coax me back:

Just one more diet – one more time – might be the answer to everything…

 

Except that it’s not.

 

I know this, you know this. And still we feel the tug of thinness. 

Rationally, I know the size of my body doesn’t affect my happiness. Some of my darkest moments have been whilst I’ve been objectively in my “best” shape. Yet still I’m drawn to diet culture. As a reasonably intelligent human being, it’s incredibly frustrating. 

I’ve done dieting so long, at times it feels like I don’t know what else to do.

But this is just another thought. It’s hard, but I can change my thoughts.

It’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy 101. And if I can do that – if I can change what I think – then eventually, I can change what I believe, too. 

“We are what we believe we are.” C.S. Lewis

 

Becoming Better

Pink Rose by Heather DugganLiving our best, most beautiful lives has got to be about something more than what we weigh.

Something we can’t measure in inches or kilos; something far more valuable than any number on the scales.

Even well-respected leaders in the wellness industry are beginning to buy into the idea that we’re more than our weight. Joe Wicks, the so-called “Body Coach”,  for example, calls the scales the “Sad Step” – and for good reasons!  

What I understand as “becoming better” is evolving.  Focusing on what truly matters, rather than what I’m led to believe is important. Breaking the rules of diet culture by making life about more than what we eat. 

 

I’m getting back to recovery basics in 2019. More than ten years in, I’ve hear the same messages over and again:

“It’s never been true, not anywhere at any time, that the value of a soul, of a human spirit, is dependent on a number on a scale.”

Geneen Roth

Somehow these words washed over me before. I’ve never really taken them in – at least, not to heart. I always hoped diet culture would deliver in the end. I figure it’s about time I listened – body, mind, and soul. 

Self-worth comes from more than what we look like or what size jeans we wear.

I’ve got more important things to think about in 2019. And so have you.

 

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

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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. 

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.

 

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