These are a few of my least favourite things…

0581004b091df2d4fca8847e59e54b3b

I am driving home from town for the third time today, and I am seething. The first journey was to the computer shop, the second journey was to the computer shop with my old computer to exchange it, and the third was to get the charging cable I had forgotten in order to make the exchange. All in all, I have tried to buy a new computer three times today, and I am seeing red about it. I want to scream and shout and kill plants and kick pigeons. I am moving into the place beyond light frustration into genuine, OCD fuelled rage where I feel like I need to rip all my skin off. Why? Because this will be the third time I have visited the shop, and that means it will be the third time I have paid for parking. I will have spent £3, and for that, I am in a tailspin of fury. This is just one of the delights of Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour.

I get annoyed easily. I am terrible in queues, I hate it when plans change, I don’t like altered train services, altered bus services, bad traffic conditions and I take personal affront when the weather does not behave in the manner predicted by my iphone. (“How DARE it rain? How DARE it?! I wore PUMPS today!”) However, my irritability is just one side of the brutal coin of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and on the other side of the coin there is crippling anxiety. I’ve been going through therapy (those of you who read this blog will know it’s not for the first time) to try and get a grip on what it means to live my life by the constant turning of this coin. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been helpful. Now my therapist wants to make it even harder. I am hoping this means it will also become even more helpful.

I have been challenged to do something that confronts my over-control mindset every single day. This might be little things or big things. For example, in the last two days, I have parked my car in the “wrong” spot and I have put my yoga mat in the “wrong” space. Agonizingly, I had already put my yoga mat in my normal spot in the class. I was then gripped with a sense of obligation to challenge myself and had to excruciatingly pick up my mat, move my mat, pick up my stuff, move my stuff, and sit back down in the new spot. I hated every moment, and the view of the instructor was much worse than my usual spot, but I did it! As you can tell, I have a very pronounced sense of “right” and “wrong.” Like a lot of people with over control tendencies, my life is governed by an intricate set of rules that this day-by-day challenge will hopefully give me an in-depth awareness of. The whole idea is that by breaking these small rules, challenging myself repeatedly in ways that are non-threatening, I will eventually be able to challenge myself in the areas that I find incredibly threatening. Food, for example, and showing emotional vulnerability.

I don’t know if this is the key, but to keep myself accountable and to keep it fun, I am keeping a daily log on Instagram and Twitter called “These are a few of my least favourite things!” I wish I could say that the public nature of this little project is merely due to my heartfelt desire to reach other people and raise awareness, but honestly, a big part of this is my personal determination to prove to my therapist that I did it. By making him look through every. Single. Photo. Now, who wishes they had set me easier therapy homework? Uh huh. He does. HE DOES.

I am also tentatively hopeful, quietly excited, that perhaps this experiment will help me push the boundaries of myself in not just painful ways, but positive ways. Maybe the heavy chains of my routines and rules will be broken and give me the freedom to do those things I have felt too afraid to do. We will see.

So follow along with the journey! You can find me @elphreads on insta, and @EmmaLouisePH on Twitter. To get you in the mood, here’s a picture of a car and a yoga mat. It might not look like much to you, but I promise, it matters a great deal to me.

To not beating yourself up

additional_70de03ffb6bd2764c188afbf2f0e0b32b762b02b-8
Strength and Weakness – Darren Crowley 

I am lying face down on the bed. I am exhausted and my throat is dry. My stomach has stopped churning, which is good, but now I ache all over. I feel like one big gust of wind could knock me over. Except it wouldn’t need to. I am already over.

The phone rings. It is an unknown number. Like all millennials, I do not answer unknown numbers, or really like talking on the phone at all, but I answer, thinking it could be my poor friend with whom I had to cancel plans today.

“Hello?”

It is my therapist.

“I wanted to make sure you got home safe.”

Of course he does.  I had a panic attack followed by an IBS attack in his office this morning and spent half of our session in the toilet.

“Yes I did, thank you.”

“Good. You did very well today. Don’t beat yourself up.”

“Okay. I won’t.”

I say it like it is the easiest thing in the world to do, as easy as making a cup of tea or turning on a light. By the time I have hung up the phone I know it isn’t. My mind is already reaching for the metaphorical stick. Afterall, how could I do that in his office? How could I bother him with my IBS and my fear? And what a waste of money, spending half of the time in the bathroom! Then there are the plans, the carefully made, lovingly organised plans with a friend that I have cancelled. What kind of person does that? Then there’s the husband, who has had to be recalled from the office in order to watch over me while I nap, fetch me cups of tea and medicine, and generally apply the soothing balm of his presence to the situation. What about his needs? What about his work and deadlines and own anxiety? I am selfish. I am a bad wife. I am a bad friend. I am a bad patient. I am a bad human. I am beating myself up.

Sometimes I am selfish. Sometimes that selfishness might make me a bad wife. For instance, I hate the washing up and in the tournament of “who breaks first does the washing up,” my husband has been the biggest loser of the season. He likes things clean. I do not care about clean really, not unless it’s going to kill me, but I could care for him. Often, I still don’t care. Sometimes I am a bad friend. I screen calls and forget to return texts I have already read. Sometimes I am a bad patient. I can grow resentful of the treatment process and uncooperative. I rarely do my homework. Sometimes I am a bad human. I love animals but I still eat peanut butter, even though I know palm oil is hurting the Orangutans, and I still eat meat, even though I ethically disagree with the meat industry. I think recycling is boring. Sometimes I am all of those things, but not today. Today I am just ill, but I am still beating myself up.

I am beating myself up because my body is not performing the way I want it to, the way society wants it to. I am beating myself up because getting ill feels like failing. Sometimes, despite what other people say, this world makes it seem like failing too.

*****

I’ve been reading a lot about disability discrimination recently. Not because I’ve been researching, but because people have been writing more openly about it in this country than perhaps they have done before. Also, government cuts are beginning to hurt people more and more. I read this piece in the guardian and was mortified by the stories I heard. This morning I listened to the radio on my painful drive back from therapy and heard women’s hour discussing the different unfair dismissal claims people have struggled with. When I came home I read this on buzzfeed, detailing people’s own experience of the treatment they have received at work regarding their health. A lot of them have mental health problems.

What stands out to me is how oppressive our societal expectation of “normal” is. We do not seem to have created systems that reflect the varied needs of our citizens, rather our systems seem to be coming more and more primitive. If you can’t hunt, you don’t eat. It is no wonder to me that there is a push more and more towards doctor assisted suicide as the way to finally manage terminal problems. If you cannot guarantee that your pack will stay with you to the bitter end, why would you want to see the bitter end?

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

“I don’t want people thinking I’m lazy.”

“I don’t want to take up time and space.”

“It’s my problem, not anyone else’s.”

“I don’t want others to suffer.”

“I’m not a scrounger.”

If you have a chronic illness of any kind, mental or otherwise, I know you will have recognised one or more of those thoughts. You will have thought them in the midst of a panic attack, too scared to pick up the phone and call for help. You will have thought them as you dragged yourself into work when you were really too ill, and you will have thought them again on the times when you simply could not drag yourself in, and had to call in sick. You will have thought them when your support system gathers around, giving you love and kindness but also their precious time. You will have thought them when you have laid in bed at night, unable to sleep, because you are so worried about finances. You will have thought them when you tell your parents or your friends what you are really feeling, and see the disappointment and pain in their eyes.

These thoughts are the ones we carry around with us, the ones we use as whips to keep us moving forward. We propel ourselves through pain with them, we push ourselves and squash our real feelings with them, because we have internalised on the deepest level this grand, horrible lie: Being ill is not an excuse, it’s a weakness.

There is research that tells us otherwise. There are therapists and scientists and advocates and hopefully, friends and family who tell us that it isn’t true, they don’t think being ill makes us weak people. There is the great, unbendable logic of the universe, the truth that all humans must die and that to die all humans must experience physical decline, that it is part of the fabric of life that we all get sick from time to time, but for all of that and every person who counters the lie, there is a person who, inadvertently, enforces it.

“Oh, I get that as well! I just take some paracetamol and get on with it.”

“Man, I would give anything to stay in bed all day! Nice life, isn’t it?”

“Can’t you just think positive about it?”

“Don’t you think you’d feel better if you just came along for a bit?”

“So you’re off work but you’re still going to that other thing? I thought you were sick?”

“You don’t look too bad.”

“You’re just stressed.”

We’ve all had those. Some will have been more painful than others. Some will have caused rage, some will have caused fear, but all of them will have contributed to the lie, and the lie contributes to this thought pattern:

I am sick. My sickness makes me a bad person. I am a bad person. I need to remind myself that I am a bad person. I am beating myself up.

When I do that, I believe the lie. I am telling myself that what I feel isn’t relevant, the pain I’m experiencing doesn’t change the fact that illness is a weakness. At its most abstracted point, I am telling myself that I am lying. That my sickness isn’t real, it is just an exhibition of my weakness. Truth becomes a lie, and a lie becomes the Truth.

*****

We’re all looking for validation in this life. When we suffer, we seek validation in different ways, largely from outside of ourselves. We rely on doctors to validate our pain with a diagnosis. We rely on our community to validate our experience with the appropriate level of support. We rely on our society to validate our pain with care. When our society refuses to respond with care, we remain unvalidated. Our suffering hangs around us, an inconsummate shroud, that forbids us from taking our place in the world and hangs like a judgement seal. Our society does not validate our pain. It takes away care programs, it signs people on for work who cannot cope, it takes people’s benefits, flexible working, and wheelchairs. What can we do?

We can either live invalidated or choose to validate ourselves. Living invalidated means beating ourselves up, allowing other people’s prejudice to govern how we are treated in the work place and the public sphere, and making the space we occupy as small as possible.  Living invalidated means having a private illness. It means pretending to be well. Or we can validate ourselves. We can not beat ourselves up. We can start to say that our illnesses, our chronic fatigue, our depression, our bipolar, our MS, our Fibromyalgia, our IBS, our grief, or our other illnesses that has been hidden away do not stop us being contributing members of society with a voice of our own that deserves to be heard. That deserves to be heard even if we have to take sick days. That deserves to be heard even if we have to cancel plans. Our experience, though not “normal,” deserves to be recognised as part of the broad spectrum of living on planet earth. We can validate ourselves by affirming that whilst it is true that we are not physically well, not all the time, that does not mean that the times we are unwell cancel out the times we are well. We can not beat ourselves up.

We cannot beat ourselves up. Not if we want attitudes to change.

So yes, I had an IBS attack during therapy and it was unpleasant.

Yes, I have depression and OCD and today I had a panic attack.

Yes, I have to cancel plans and adjust my work schedule according to it.

But I am validating myself. I did well today. I continued to exist and live with my illness, and having that illness and existing with it is a valid way to live. Because illness is not weakness.

In fact, a lot of the time, it is strength.

 

 

Embarrassing bodies – Living life with long-term illness.

the-brain-gut-connection-722x406

This is going to be a hard blog to write. That’s because this is a hard topic to discuss. Even more difficult than my mental health. There’s only one thing more difficult to talk about than my mental health, and that’s my physical health. Increasingly, however, I live in a reality where one has a huge impact on the other. Because I have (take a deep breath) …. I have irritable bowel syndrome.

Ugh, it just sounds gross, doesn’t it? I don’t know if it’s just being British, but the idea of having a condition that has the word “bowel” in it is just beyond offensive. It’s not just icky sounding, it’s icky in reality – people with IBS have the joy of a thoroughly unpredictable stomach. My partner and I often use trains as a helpful euphemism, (because we’re too British to say poop), and IBS can either mean that the trains hardly ever show up, or that your small intestine is the equivalent of Euston station on a Saturday, fully equipped with high-speed rail. With either version, one can expect cramps for days, back pain, gas, and all those other delightful symptoms one might associate with an aggressive bout of food poisoning. Full disclosure, I have the second type. With all of that, you have to thank God for abbreviations. I stick with “IBS” usually, and thankfully, most people know what I mean. Not surprising really, considering it is the reason most people go to the doctors every year. I find though, that when I reluctantly admit it in public, whilst everyone has the knowledge of it, like a dirty, horrible secret, nobody really wants to talk about it. I don’t blame them! I don’t want to talk about it!

So why am I talking about it? I blame my therapist. My therapist has been challenging me to “out” myself in situations as part of my therapy, making me understand that the pressure to keep my obsessive-compulsive disorder a secret from the outside world is only giving it more power. As a blogger, outing myself is sort of my gig. However, today I challenged myself to talk about my IBS. The one thing I dread to talk about, the ugly secret of my life that I am constantly quietly managing, desperately hoping no one notices how long I spend in the bathroom, how my face muscles contract in conversation as my stomach is full of cramps. The last thing I need is to give my IBS more power, and if hiding from it is doing that, then consider me out of the closet.

You might be thinking “Hang on! your IBS is a physical condition; how can you give it more power or less power?” Well, that’s the extra fun thing about IBS – it’s one of those hard to diagnose, sneaky illnesses that often come part and parcel with mental health problems. Along with M.E, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia, IBS patients often have pre-existing mental health problems, and thus, the diagnosis of these issues becomes more complicated. Because if you are an anxious person, how can a doctor work out what percentage of your symptoms are from your anxious brain constantly telling your body you are under threat and to respond in kind? Well, I wish I could say there was a test. Like all of those other illnesses I mentioned before, there is no positive test for IBS. There is just a serious of negative tests. Do you have bowel cancer? Do you have endometriosis? Do you have leaky gut syndrome? Do you have Crohn’s disease? No? Well then, you’ve probably got IBS. The spectre of mental health carries over into the treatment too. At every turn, there is a question about the validity of your experience. Not because doctors are evil and don’t understand, but because they are trying to be accurate about an incredibly inaccurate area of diagnosis. Even today, speaking with a doctor who is incredibly understanding and helpful, I was reminded that people with mental health problems tend to experience exacerbated pain and symptoms. In the cruellest terms possible, the question a doctor will need to find an answer to when they are presented with a mental health patient with abdominal pain is: “How much of this is all in their head?”

It is very much not all in my head. It’s in my stomach, my abdomen, the back of my legs, my lower back …. but it is also in my head too.  How irritating! But there’s the rub. Having an IBS attack makes me anxious. When I am anxious, I am more likely to have an IBS attack. There is part of that which is natural – all of us might get a dodgy tummy before a big meeting or when a gun is held to head, and after a night with your head in the toilet, you might also find yourself anxious and a little bit depressed – but my reality is so far from those natural moments we all experience, and that is the reality of which I have been ashamed.

I cringe when I have to send family and friends a long list of things I can’t eat before I visit (in the last few days I haven’t been able to stomach anything other than cooked rice!), wishing that I could be a simpler guest. I dread going out to dinner because I know that my anxiety about not knowing exactly how the food is prepared will follow me well into the night. I flush with embarrassment when I trot out an order that makes the waitress sigh with annoyance. I plan in my head if I have the right medication at home and the time the next day to be ill if I get sick following the meal. It’s humiliating to have to leave a small, crowded theatre in the middle of a show and beg the ushers to let you back in. It’s mortifying to have to go backwards and forwards to the toilet on a plane whilst the seatbelts signs are on, clambering over the man in the aisle seat, and feeling embarrassed as you pass, multiple times, the people sitting beside the toilet and the resulting smell. I get embarrassed just writing it! What does this embarrassment mean? It means I don’t leave the house without appropriate medication. It means I often work from home and have to cancel work engagements. It means I don’t eat out anymore. It means I always know where the toilets are. It means long journeys make me nervous, I don’t eat before films and theatre (just in case), and every day I wonder if I’m going to get caught out today. It has happened. It is mortifying.

But…. is it more mortifying because people don’t talk about it? Would it be easier, less stressful, and less anxiety-inducing if I could just turn around to a waitress and say “I have IBS – sorry about the list of “no-no” foods, but I don’t want to spend all night getting intimately acquainted with your toilet facilities!” Maybe if I could do that, and become less stressed about it, less anxious about how to manage it in public, it might go a long way to helping the symptoms. It’s unlikely that I will have IBS all of my life, and it’s important for me to remember that. No matter what it feels like, (and it has been about 3 years now), the stats are on my side for making a recovery someday. However, I don’t know how long the wait might be, and continuing to tiptoe around my gut isn’t good for my brain, so I’m taking a gamble on breaking the taboo.

Let’s talk about poop. Let’s talk about how it really feels to live with a chronic illness. Let’s talk about muscles that won’t work and nights on the toilet, about chronic pain and not being able to get out of bed, whatever you’ve got, let’s have at it. If being honest about our aches and pains might help us, then that seems worth a shot for me, and for others like me. So that’s what I’m doing. Starting a conversation about something that humiliates me, something that stresses me, in the hopes that by talking about it, it will become less humiliating and less stressful. As it becomes less mentally stressful perhaps, just maybe, it might just become less physically painful…

And then I might be able to eat something other than rice!

*****

If you want to chat, please do get in touch. Let’s talk about our embarrassing bodies together!

 

 

Mental Health Awareness Week

mhaw17-main-banner_0-1

“My name is Emma, and I’m here to talk to you because it’s mental health awareness week.”

I take in the sea of young faces before me. I feel the heavy drum of my heart against my chest wall, observe the questions in some of their eyes, the laughter in others.

“I’m here to talk to you because I have a mental health disorder.” I take a breath. “I have an eating disorder and OCD that manifests itself in anxiety. This is a very important week for me.”

This is not the first time I have stood up in front of students and said some version of these words. It will not be the last either, but every time I do it, I feel the same things. The slight edge of my panic growing. The annoying tremble of my voice. And the shame. The corners of an old shame that I catch my heart on. That shame makes me hang back, pause for a moment, and think: do I really need to do this?

Then I watch the students come in. I watch their faces as they watch our video and see the stories of people who are just like them with a mental health diagnosis. I scan the room for that look, that familiar look that one mental health sufferer can always spot in another: the tensing of the shoulders and the biting of the lip. These are the tell-tale signs of a hidden shame.

Yes, I think to myself. Yes, I do need to do this.

*****

This week I am doing a mental health project in a school for mental health week. My story is an important one for young children to hear – it tells them that they are not strange or weird and that they have company in whatever shameful place they might feel they are in. However, mental health awareness week isn’t just for young people, even though that area of awareness is my passion. My own life is evidence to the fact that mental health problems that exhibit in young life often will carry into adulthood, and so this week I am writing here about adulthood and mental health. I am challenging myself to write every day at the moment – some of that might be here, some of it might not, so forgive me if there is not a post for every day of mental health week. I promise you at least one at the beginning and one at the end. But like all things, I am taking each day at a time.

So what do I have to say about mental health today? Well, I have this to show you.

This may not look like much. Just another form or questionnaire. But this is my most recent GAD 7 scoring and PHQ 9 scoring. These are a Generalised Anxiety disorder assessment and a Patient Health Questionnaire which is used to measure the severity of depression. They show that I have moderately severe anxiety and moderately severe depression. They also show improvement. When I first did these assessments in December/January, my scores were much higher. Both closer to twenty. Now, I have moved down a whole category of severity, and on my PHQ 9, I am close to moving down two.

This is a triumph of a few things: a triumph of medicine, a triumph of a targeted therapy specific to my temperament and illness, but also a triumph of awareness. Since coming to a significant low point in December that prompted me back into therapy and into the psychiatrist’s office, I have become steadily more aware of my own mental health. This probably sounds insane, after all, I have a blog about mental health and I deliver mental health projects regularly in public forums. So how could I possibly be more aware?

Well, the answer comes from diagnosis and education. My journey over the last six months has shown me just how important and accurate and educated diagnosis is. For the last six years, I have had a certain idea of what my brain was doing to me. I had been told that I had depression with anxiety. I was given to understand that my brain had an enemy living inside it that needed to be fought back with medication, good habits, and a positive mindset. This, unfortunately, is like telling a cancer patient that they should probably have some radiology and chemotherapy and hope for the best. I hadn’t understood until now how similar a psychiatrist is to an oncologist. It agonises me to say that this is one area where mental health patients are being failed by the public system. It is difficult to get on a waiting list for a psychiatrist, and it is a dangerously long wait time. Even if one gets an initial appointment, it is hard to get a booking to see someone as regularly as you need. This is not the fault of anyone actually providing the services – they just are incredibly over-stretched. This is one of the great tragedies of our age and our health system. I am fortunate to be able to pursue alternative options.

And what have the other options given me?

Awareness.

Understanding myself as a person with OCD and understanding that OCD emerges often from a pre-existing temperament has been both painful and freeing to me. Painful, because when I asked my therapist honestly if I would ever be “different”, he explained to me that I have a temperament that leans towards over-control. It is part of who I am. This caused a lot of crying. A lot of ugly crying. Yet, it is also freeing. For the longest time, I have seen myself as the enemy. This new information frees me to the new possibility that whilst I will always have an over-controlling instinct, it can be a positive thing. People who are over-controlling might manifest OCD, but they can also achieve amazing things with their dedication. What this means for me is that I am not inherently wrong. It could be different. The thing that causes my OCD can be re-trained, re-wired to be something great in my life. Basically, the instinct to be obsessive or compulsive doesn’t have to be a disorder.

This, for me, is why awareness is so important to me. I am becoming more and more aware of who I am, and how my mental health is not a gremlin squatting on my brain, but rather a series of complex neurological instincts that need to be given a break. They don’t know they’re hurting me. They’ve developed a pattern that they think is saving my life. My brain is not against me, my brain is neutral. My brain needs some re-wiring, but it doesn’t need to be told it’s bad or wrong or shameful. It’s a brain. It can’t be those things. This is something I have become aware of, and because I have become aware of it, my scores have gone up.

In other words, awareness is helping me heal.

So this is what I tell myself when I watch the young people file into assembly every day. This is what I tell myself when I stand in front of a class of rowdy year eight students, or when I sit with a group of year six girls, or when a child asks me about my mental health status. I tell myself I am giving them knowledge, giving them insight, and making them aware of what mental health really is. I tell myself that if awareness is helping me heal, then it might help them too. I tell myself that awareness could save a life.

#MHAW17

5628f1c61400002200c7a8d1

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week

https://www.mind.org.uk/

 

International Women’s day – owning our own experiences

Image result for international women's day

As facebook will have undoubtedly told you, it is International Women’s Day. This means that all this week I have been delivering an assembly in primary schools called “Girls Going for Gold.” It is about equality, gender perception, and very basically, how we should all be able to wear whatever we want to school and do whatever we want (within school guidelines!) without getting picked on by our classmates. Delivering it has shown me how much of our ideas about gender are entrenched from an early age, and are very westernised. I showed the children pictures of Jeong Kwan, a female Buddhist monk, Rain Dove, an international model, and G-Dragon, a member of the popular K-Pop group, Big Bang. In each case, the individual simply dresses in a way that is suitable for their culture but is counter to the stereotypes of gender we expect in our western society. Buddhist monks all dress the same and shave their heads regardless of gender, the androgynous look is an important part of the high fashion scene for women, and K-Pop boy bands often all have a highly stylised, well-groomed aesthetic. Even with these explanations, the children initially struggled to understand how someone who did not look like a girl/boy to them could possibly be identified in that gender. It reminded me that this is where sexism begins; when young children believe that there is a certain way they must behave in order to be accepted. But I also saw flashes of the future. By the end of the assembly the I overheard boys in one of the classes taking on board my challenge to tell an awesome girl she was awesome by doing just that. One boy also named his teacher as the awesome girl he could think of that deserved celebrating. On top of that, For world book day, two boys in a class I taught came dressed as Dennis from The Boy in the Dress. They were boys and they wore dresses to school. Voluntarily. One of them stuck up his hand as soon as he saw me and proudly shouted “Look Emma! I’m wearing nail varnish!” In a class full of little red riding hoods, Hermione Grangers, and another Boy in a Dress, no one batted an eyelid.  I told him he looked great. It was amazing. Because he did look great, and everyone thought so.

It reminded me how important it is that we hold onto our own narratives of who we are. It is international women’s day, and my experience of being a woman might be very different from the next woman’s, but it is mine, and it is important that I own it. So today I have been thinking about what it means to be a woman. And I’ve come up with a few things. (!) Being a woman is positive and negative, an experience patterned with dark and light moments. To me, being a woman is so many things. It’s the socially accepted practice of being able to draw on one’s face in the morning and then go outside without wiping it off.  It’s the fear of leaving the house without it, and that comment, “You look tired today,” when you do. It’s having private stalls in toilets, and having a multi-billion dollar fashion industry uncovering new and exciting ways to not be naked that is aimed predominantly at people with bodies something like mine. It’s also the crushing blow to your self-esteem, time and again, as you grow up measuring your own worth and beauty against that of photo-shopped models and movie stars. It is glittery nail-varnish, the horrifying/awe-inspiring potential to carry human life inside of you, and a strong pelvic floor that means you can manage a long train ride without using a dodgy loo. It’s blood-curdling cramps that your male teachers never take seriously, and hiding a sanitary product up your sleeve so your classmates don’t see. It’s sitting in that small room in the pharmacy waiting for the morning after pill alone, feeling like the only person in a decision made for two. It’s frenetically counting the days of your calendar, seeing dates fly by in your sleep. It’s having that question in the back of your mind, every month; “What will I do if…?” It’s being super focused for three days before your cycle and feeling like a superhero. It’s those sweet back rubs your best friend gave you in homeroom because she, like every woman, knew just which spot to rub. It’s hearing “Of course you’ll have kids, just give it time…” again and again and again.

It’s the beautiful process of having a strong, intimate group of friends from a young age with which you could be open about your feelings. Holding their hands and knowing the soft smell of their hugs because society doesn’t frown on physical displays of affection between women. It’s those teenage boys who asked to see you kiss your best friend and those adult men who jeered at you for holding hands in public. It’s that crushing expectation that you need to act and behave a certain way to be accepted. It’s the kindness of open doors, the smiles of people when travelling, making friends with new mum’s and their babies on buses. It’s the painful laugh and awkward smile when a stranger makes a joke or compliments you and you don’t know how to respond, and he might be a serial killer. It’s the way you hold your keys tightly in your hand when you walk home, aware of how many steps behind you that man is walking. It’s a creepy guy asking you to take off his trousers at a bus stop, it’s the strangers who pinched and slapped you and your friends’ bums in Rome, it’s the wolf whistles, it’s the driving instructor whose hand drifts from the gear stick to your thigh, it’s the story you hear in year eight about that girl who got touched up by that boy, that girl who had to give the bus driver a hand-job, that girl, that girl…. it’s that feeling you have inside that it’s only a matter of time before that girl is you. And one day it is.

It’s the professional delight of being asked to contribute to an academic work. It’s the sting of watching all the young men walk up to preach at the front of your church, and never being asked to speak. It’s the pride of holding your degree in your hand, despite all the trouble it caused you. It’s the embarrassment of everyone assuming your husband was the one studying. It’s the excitement of being a bride, the joy of finally walking down the aisle. It’s the pressure to wear white.  It’s the confusion when people don’t accept that you didn’t take your partner’s name. It’s the excitement of good feedback from professional writers, the burst of happiness with their praise. It’s also the devastation when that professional believes that your protagonist desired her own molestation and that girls don’t carry swords. It’s the anger at being type-cast as a woman writer, or a woman anything when you know you are just a human trying to do your thing.

It’s staring down the barrel of depression. It’s the doctors who told you it was hormones, and that your eating disorder was a phase and self-harm was attention seeking. It’s being called a slut. It’s falling hard on the curved sword of the purity teachings. It’s waking up every day and wondering if you are ever going to get there, wherever there is. It’s buying flowers for yourself. It’s voting, and protesting, and shouting and rejoicing because we can. It’s the sorrow of the knowledge that for the longest time, we couldn’t. It’s the fury of knowing that in so many places, we still can’t. It’s being a feminist. It’s being called a feminist. It’s being told time and time again that feminism is a dirty word. It’s the sensation of standing on the shoulders of so many other women before us, who have put up with so much crap so I could get here; wearing my trousers and going to my job and picking up the pill from the pharmacy in Sainsburys’. Being a woman is fun and exciting and joyful, but it is also perilous.

This is and has been my experience of it. Almost none of these experiences are exclusive only to women, and not all women have these experiences, but this is the large, awful, glorious tapestry of what it means to be a woman to me. I’m sure for many people, this might be all the things that being a woman ISN’T to them. And that’s fine. Because we can all choose a different outfit for world book day, and some of us might come as the boy in the dress. But today is the day that we celebrate and share our experiences with other different and wonderful women around the world.

So let’s listen to their voices.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Here are some of those stories, experiences, and voices. Enjoy!

Pioneers such as Marie Curie, pictured, are well known, but the less celebrated contributions of women such as Hilda Petrie, Charlotte Murchison and Margaret Murray remind us how far women have come in the fight for equality.

Read: “The History of Women in Science shows us the Fight is worth it” 

Read: “Forget Miserable, Oppressed, Stereotypes, this is what it’s really like to be a muslim woman today.”

BLM

Read: “A Herstory of the Black lives matter movement.”

Read: “International Women’s Day 2017: 5 Women changing their world for the better.”

What happens when you tell a ten-year-old you have an eating disorder.

southernsmash_scalesmashingevent

Here are three facts: Eating disorders are on the rise in the UK. Theresa May promised that her government would tackle mental health stigma. Last week, one of her advisors went on the radio and said that mental health sufferers didn’t deserve disability benefits.

It’s the end of National Eating disorder awareness week. For most of us, it will have been a normal week. We will have eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Healthy salads, meal deals from superstores, a cheeky takeaway, an apple on the go or a mars bar hiding in the glove compartment. We will have punctuated our weeks with food without thinking about it. At least, most of us won’t have been thinking about it. Some of us will have, those who fall into the category who George Freeman believes do not deserve to be supported when our sickness over takes us. Because things that happen in your mind cannot possibly impede your ability to work. And if they do, well, I guess the message is get over it. Because that has been a mental health policy proven to work.

So he back-tracked his comment. So Theresa May has committed funds to mental health services. Not good enough. If her advisors comment and the week I have just had (more to follow) proves anything, it’s that we need a radical overhaul in this country as to how we educate and understand mental health. If I sound angry, it’s because I am. Mental health has been a buzzword in politicals for the last twelve months and yet services have dwindled. There is a counselling service in a school I work in that has a six month waiting list. These are children with PTSD, terrible family situations, children who are grieving parents, and yet there’s nothing for them. My father-in-law works in a building where a daily drop in for dementia sufferers is closing down, with nothing to replace it. I have friends who have suffered chronic mental health episodes and need to be in hospital, but there aren’t any beds. Too right I’m angry.

You might say that those are just words one person spoke, a slip up on national radio when discussing a complex part of social security. Don’t get it out of proportion. I’m here to tell you that those words are where it matters. Mental health might be a buzzword but stigma is alive and well. Words are where our battles are going to be won and lost. You might ask what are we at risk of losing. I think we could potentially lose a generation.

It’s National Eating disorder awareness week. I spent some time talking with children. This is what happened.

****

It’s Wednesday afternoon and I’m sitting on a dirty school hall floor after lunch with the stray hula hoops, talking about my eating disorder. My listening audience are a group of Y6 girls, all ten or eleven years old. They have just this morning found out which high school they will be attending. They are on the cusp of a massive life change. It feels like nothing I can say will truly prepare them, but here I go. We are doing a session on self-image and mental health. I sit down with them, and they all lie of their bellies, kicking the feet in the air adorably. My heart aches for them. I explain that I have an eating disorder, that it started when I was their age. Their eyes are wide and very quickly, the questions start to flow.

“Why did you stop eating?”

I explain about the stress triggers in my life at that time; how I struggled my first couple of years at high school, how I was always told that I was too big to be a ballerina, too tall, and I was always put at the back of the class, behind the skinny girls. In a few pensive faces, I can see that they have already had their own experiences of being too big for something. Too wide for ballet, too tall to be pretty. We talk about Misty Copeland, my inspiration, who was told she was too big and too black for professional ballet. They gasp at a photo of her.

“She’s not fat!”

Of course she isn’t. I explain we shouldn’t hate our bodies, but love them for what they can do.

“Do you wish there had been a Misty Copeland around when you were young?”

I can’t tell them how much, so I just say that yes I do. I don’t want to dwell on how positive body image role models might have changed my young life, so instead I tell them how I teach dance now, even though I’m not petite or like the tiny ballet dancers I see on TV or in shows. A little hand is raised.

“Now that your a dance teacher,” she hesitates, “do you put the tall girls at the back like they used to do in your class?”

She is tall.

I tell her no. She looks relieved.

I tell them how our bodies are not just about what we do physically, but maybe what we do with our mind. I explain how it’s important to be kind to our bodies even if we want to do something academic. I talk about writing, and how I still need to be healthy to write and stay focused.

“Have you really written books?” One girl interrupts. She has been silent until now, not quite engaging, but now her eyes are glowing. I can almost see the stories she written or imagined shining inside her eyes. “Published ones?”

“None that you could read,” I say, thinking of the erotica and academic books, “but yeah.”

I tell them they can do anything they want to do. They open up, their minds unfurling before me, brave and intelligent and funny and sweet.

They say they are tired of being judged on their looks. They say they don’t know what to feel about make-up; if they like it, should they wear it? But if they don’t like it, should they wear it anyway? Because everyone else is, and boys are into it.  They say the boys wouldn’t understand these things because boys don’t know how it feels. They say they are afraid of being emotional. One of them says she’s tired of people using “like a girl” as an insult. One of them says she’s the only girl on the football team and when she scores the boys say she is “actually quite good.”

I want to tell them we are buildng a better world for them, but I can’t. Already, I feel like I have failed them. The sexism they are encountering is coming from their classmates, from their peers, from within their own generation. These are not boys who should have known better, these are boys who should have been taught better. By us. These are the men who will be these girls’ co-workers, their friends, their boyfriends, their employers, and their politicians. I can’t tell them it’s going to get better with any certainty, so I don’t. I tell them that they might lots of people in life who say they can’t do certain things because they are girls. I tell them these people are wrong. They nod in agreement.

Some write down questions they are not brave enough to say out loud:

“Is it true that there are things you’re not allowed to do if you’re fat?”

I am overwhelmed by the all-encompassing scope of the lie inside this question. We have glorified the body beautiful, the body skinny, the body full-stop and I am reading the fruit of it. A generation growing up believing that there is a body for everything and if you don’t have the approved body size for something, then you are cut off, expelled. One size does not fit all, not at all.

To start, I talk about the things they will have seen in their towns and on their TV’s. I tell them about clinical obesity and how it is caused by many things and is a real disease, not a bad decision. I explain how some people who suffer with it do struggle. I also tell them that I can’t think of a single thing a non-normalised, societially not-approved body couldn’t do. I point to Misty Copeland. I point to myself. I pray that they believe me.

The next day I am in a secondary school talking about eating disorders again. I get some questions, but not many. They are all twelve and thirteen year old girls and this is their lunchbreak. They have come for the donuts, the chat, and to play on their phones. We move on to one of the activities I have prepared. I ask them to take the best selfie they can in one minute.

A flurry of activity. Cries of “Can we use an old photo? Oh, but I have so many good ones!” A row of pouting faces. One of the littlest year sevens that I know pulls out a burgundy lipstick and applies it swiftly. It jars with her childish complexion. I command them to put their phones on the table and explain why they chose these photos, these angles, these filters.

“I tilt my head so my nose looks smaller.”

“I put stickers on to cover my acne.”

“I put black and white to make me look older.”

“I posed that way to make my skin look clearer in the light.”

“I do that so my eyes don’t look so small.”

I ask them if when they look at their friends selfies they see their flaws. They don’t.

“I’m getting a nose job when I’m older!” One girl announces.

My heart sinks. She is beautiful by normalised standards and her friends coo over her selfie with envy, but that’s not the point. The point is she is gregarious and funny and the first girl whose name I learnt. She persuaded me to bring in KFC to school and went on and on about KFC gravy so much she pretty much drank it from the tub. She is wholly beautiful, and she is 12 years old.

And she wants a nose job more than anything else.

I don’t tell her that’s crazy or that she’s stupid because why should I? She’s a child. It’s not her fault she feels this way. It’s ours.

I ask them to take no filter selfies. They hate it but they do it, complaining and shrieking. One cannot put her whole face in the photo, she is so disgusted by her skin problems. Then we compliment one another. I tell them how beautiful they all look, and for some of them, I genuinely wonder if its the first time they’ve heard it. Those shy smiles say it all. I ask them if they judge their friends on their looks. They say they never would. I ask them why they can’t believe it for themselves, why they have this double standard.

They don’t know.

I know why. It’s because they are twelve year olds who are being sexualised every day, by the media they see and the people they meet. I look at them and know I am complicit in all the ways I have been a negative role model when I could have been a positive one. I explain how it is so hard to be kind to ourselves and accept compliments. I share with them how when I was at my lowest weight, I still wasn’t thin enough. I share with them how somebody complimenting me at that time, saying “Oh you’re so thin!” would only produce annoyance in me; annoyance that they clearly were too pitying, or too stupid to point out my flaws. They nodded. They said they understood that feeling.

I asked them if they could try to be kinder to themselves. I know many of them think they are fat. I know some of them aren’t eating right. I admit to them that I had thought about coming to our meeting without make-up but chickened out. I admitted that it was hard for me too. I asked them if they could try. They said they would.

 

It felt like I was asking them to overcome a system of society they had no control over. It felt like I was asking them to change the world.

Next week we will talk about it some more, and the week after that, and the week after that, but I don’t think it’s enough to make a difference. Not if I stand by and let the sources that are fuelling their critically low self esteem go unchecked. I am part of an adult society that has had maintained a lax attitude to porn regulation, has let our young children get their sex education from explicit online material, and has let photo shop become our norm. They have grown up on a diet of media that has given them unhealthy appetities for perfection, a standard of physical normality that is only achievable with a professional make up team and a stylist. We have produced apps which encourage them to sell themselves, and since they are not adults with businesses, they are selling their self-image. We call them vapid, we call them obsessive, we call them vain and fame-hungry, when we are the ones who have been feeding them. Our own language of self-loathing, or own thoughts of perfection seeking have only set an example of how to be. Our huberous in blaming them, calling them the online generation as if they had invented these apps, these phones, these pornsites themselves, is beyond staggering. We are the poison, but I have to believe that we can also be the cure.

It’s national eating disorder awareness week, and honestly, I think at least five of the fifteen girls I have spoken to this week show signs of disorded eating. All of them show signs of chronic low self -esteem. We need to do more.

One of the questions I was asked by the primary school girls was “Do you meet people or talk to people who struggle like you do, and do you help them?”

Only a ten year old could be so excruitiatingly direct. I said that I tried to, that I am trying.

And I am. But I can’t do it alone.

 

Finding Joy.

6bd706c522749ab8f317a144930d8701

As I write this post, our tiny 9-week old kitten is snuggled between my body and the couch cushions. She has been there for the last hour, intermittently opening her amazing eyes and stretching, before dropping back off to sleep. This prolonged nap comes after a morning of zooming around our apartment, climbing behind my desk, getting stuck under the radiator and squeaking until she was released covered in dust, and ignoring all of her new toys in deference to the amazon package that arrived today and needed to be slain by her ferocious kitty paws. It’s been a busy day already.

I’ve been meaning to write a post for a while. I started CBT three weeks ago and have consequently drafted four or five blog posts about it, all of which I couldn’t finish. I knew that National Eating Disorder Awareness week was coming up (starts this week) and knew I wanted to write something about it. Once again, I drafted. Once again, I couldn’t finish. So I have been carrying around this feeling for about three weeks; the feeling of wanting to say something, but not quite being sure what it is I want to say.

And then we got the kitten.

We drove two hours on a Friday night across the sunset over the peak district with an empty cat carrier and then drove the 45 minutes back (minus peak-time traffic) with a tiny kitten curled up in a blanket and a woman having a panic attack in the driving seat. As my partner sat with the cat carrier on his lap, holding it tightly as we swerved over the winding roads of the hills, I was suddenly panicked about the enormity of what we had done. We had willingly entered into a situation where we were responsible for another living creature that we could not communicate with properly for an unspecified number of years. What if she got sick? What if she chewed through a cable and electrocuted herself? What if she shut herself in the washing machine and I turned it on? What if she fell in the toilet and drowned? What if, what if, what if?!?

As part of my CBT, I have been asked to track my anxious thoughts. At first, I just thought this was going to only further my anxiety, but it’s actually been weirdly revealing. Prior to picking up the cat, I had actually been using thoughts of the kitten as a tool to calm myself in anxious times. I was astonished by how quickly I could turn something positive into something that could stress me out. I wondered how many other times I had unwittingly let things that were intended for joy be manipulated by my brain into being products of anxiety.

Because this kitten is made of joy. She is a skinny, scrappy, wiry bundle of joy and love. She squeaks when she wants to know where we are, she runs up to us and snuggles next to us for cuddles. She is joyful to have in our lives. If I find anxiety in her, it is all coming from me. So I need to make a choice. Somewhere, in my unconscious babble of my brain, I need to introduce a way of choosing not to see anxiety in a situation that brings me joy, because I can get so much out of this joy, and it doesn’t end with the cat.

For example, for two consecutive weekends this month we have had visitors. Having visitors can be stressful for me. It can make me anxious from too much extrovert time and stressed from sharing my personal space. I can spiral inside my brain, and the presence of other people can make me afraid of vocalising it and not vocalising it is a trigger for only more anxiety. So we don’t do it often, and rarely two weekends in a row. So why did we?Because these visitors are visitors who always bring me joy. These women are the equivalent of sisters; women who bring with them safety and fun and a familiarity that wraps around me like a blanket and makes me happy but also gives me pain, because we are no longer in and out of each other’s lives on a day to day basis. They are best friends, they are the people you can’t wait to see, the friends with whom the dialogue is always going and even if years have passed the conversation just picks up again. So I found a way to make a choice – I’m not exactly sure how I did it, I definitely didn’t do it consciously – but I found a way to make the choice that the joy they would give me was worth more than anxiety the situation could possibly cause.

This might sound like basic common sense to most people, but for me, a person who makes a lot of choices in life based on an aversion to anxious situations, this is a big deal. This is the choice to risk anxiety for the possibility of joy. What we are talking about here is the tipping of my internal scales which for the longest time, have always weighted towards anxiety. It has always been the heaviest stone, the state with the most votes, the superdelegate of my internal decision making. Shirking anxious situations has always been inevitable. But now, I feel a tectonic shift inside. That perhaps the massive density of that anxiety weight is lightening somewhat, and that when faced with the fragile weight a little kitten (a mischevious, unpredictable, potentially anxiety-inducing kitten), incredibly the balance begins to tip in her favour.

So I’m cautiously trying. I’m trying CBT, which is not always a barrel of laughs. I’m opening my personal space up a little more, to kittens and people. I’m letting myself take little risks. Risks that scare me, risks that might provoke anxiety attacks, risks that hold inside them all the things I fear. But maybe the risks are worth it. Because maybe I might find joy.

 

file_000-1
kitten asleep between me and the sofa.