The real secret



I get in my car. I drive to my meeting, my eyes fixed on the dark road ahead. I try to clear my mind after the anxiety of the day. The ups and downs. The pain that is slowly building in my stomach. Last I didn’t sleep well. I was thinking about this meeting. Before I get out of the car I tell myself over and over: Just be brave, just be brave. I attend the meeting. I am quiet, withdrawn. My stomach ache is getting worse, and with it, my panic. I don’t want these people to see my anxiety, my fear of being ill in a strangers house. I say a curt goodbye at the end of the meeting and try to smile, but I am still the worst one to leave. I get in my car, wondering if I can honestly drive home like this. My stomach is so sore and my heart rate is so high, I am struggling to keep control of my breathing. It is only when I have put the car in gear and pulled away from the drive, only when the dark of the night and the motorway consumes me, that I can let the tears fall. I know I’ve done well enough. I attended the meeting. I was brave. But I don’t feel it. Not at all. Instead, I feel like a failure.


I’ve been working on a project for mental health week called “Don’t keep it a Secret.” In my job, I am privileged to be able to go into school and influence young people positively, and this is a great opportunity. Given my history, this is something I am really passionate about. I’m putting together a video to show the students, which will hopefully feature a lot of people holding signs up with their “truth,” their “diagnosis,” on it, with the hashtag #notasecret. I’ve been plugging it on social media, trying to get volunteers, and basically shouting it from the rooftops. I’m going to be in the video too. Holding a sign saying “Eating and anxiety disorder. #notasecret.” I don’t have any problem doing this. After all, I know that this is who I am, and sharing this with people is what I care about.

What worries me is that people might get the wrong impression from me doing this stuff. Sometimes, being outspoken about a cause can give the impression that you are no longer one of the people affected by the cause. I sense a slight shift when I talk about projects to do with mental health that I am promoting or creating. I sense that people start to believe I have overcome my challenges and are now encouraging others to do the same. I am aware of the resistance within myself at this idea, this idea that I believe is built on a lie from our society: that a person cannot be struggling and helping at the same time. As a culture, we like winners. We like those who can say, “that happened to me, but it’s not me anymore.” The prisoner who becomes the CEO, the drug addict who founds a charity, we love a good transformation story. But we are unforgiving, and often very black and white in our understanding of exactly how that transformation should play out. You are only a winner if you transform in the right way. It’s just so clear from the attitude we have to those who have recovered, versus those who relapse. We see these things as two, clear, definitive states rather than both of them as the ever-winding journey of recovery. Someone who had an eating disorder and has overcome it can be a role model. Someone starving themselves cannot be.

I find this difficult because of the story at the beginning of this blog post. That was from this week. At that meeting, I spoke about the mental health week project. I will be going into schools and encouraging young people not to hide the secret of their mental health. I will tell them about my eating disorder and depression throughout my own school days. I will hold up a sign that declares my mental health status. But the real secret, I guess, is that I am still a person who is struggling. If anyone is looking for a winner, they won’t find her here. I care desperately about the young people I am working with, and I urgently do not want them to feel what I have felt in the past. I do not want them to know the humiliation of your teacher telling you that you’ve been “very naughty” for self-harming. I do not want them to know the embarrassment of calling a helpline late at night and hearing the bored, uninterested tone of a person who doesn’t take them seriously. I do not want them to fear the judgement of their peers, to have no space in their school to talk about their issues, and have no education about what mental health even means. I so badly want to help them. But if it means I have to have it all together, then I guess I will have to sit out.

Because at the beginning of this week, I had a panic attack. I’m not over my anxiety disorder. Because I am on the waiting list for CBT therapy. I’m not over my depression. Because every day I struggle to eat what is healthy for my body and mind. I’m not over my eating disorder. But I am living with it. Brutally, angrily, every day, I am living with it, and I am talking about it and getting help. If I wait until I have beaten all of these things, until I am a real winner and clearly on the side of the recovered, then I might never be ready to do it. And I can do something good now. So I’m doing it.

I guess this is my way of saying that you don’t need to have it together, you don’t need to have put everything behind you, in order to affect the change you want to see in the world. You don’t even need to be having a majority of good days. This week has had some truly bad days, and yet, the mental health project still advances. Because I don’t need to be fixed. I just need to be brave. I don’t even need to feel brave. I just need to be it. Stumbling blindly forward, even if it’s just on my knees.

So, in honour of that, this is me, holding up my real sign. Because I’ve been many things, and my diagnosis and my mental health state will still be shown in that video. I will hold up a sign saying “Eating and Anxiety Disorder, #notasecret.” I will still share the truth of who I am with those young people, but I also wanted to share with you this part of my truth, just in case it is your truth too: I am not perfectly recovered. I am not constantly relapsing. I am something else, something messier.

I am Recovering.






The drudgery of recovery



I am watching Elementary. It is an excellent show. I am interested in nearly every artistic incarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous character, but Elementary is maybe my favourite so far. That has a lot to do with Johnny Lee Miller, the introduction of prominent, powerful female characters, and a script that more than passes the Bechdel test, but one of my favourite features of the show is their engagement with Sherlock’s addiction problem. The show imagines a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, self-exiled to New York City after a transformative stint in rehab after a life implosion brought on by heroin addiction. Consequently, Sherlock’s sobriety is the constant background music to the show, hovering like a spectre over his relationships and his work. I like it. I like the mental hopscotch that has been done to take the very victorian characteristic of occasional recreational drug use to escape from “the dull routine of existence” to its inevitable consequence. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, I know some people might struggle just to haul themselves over the mental hurdle of a female Watson, but I enjoy seeing the life of Sherlock cast through a redemptive lens.

It also affords me a great opportunity for quote mining. The writers of this show love to throw in the classic Conan Doyle quote, and I do like to play a sort of bingo with it, but the other day I was caught off guard by the writing for other reasons. Speaking about his sobriety in the episode “The eternity injection,” Sherlock says the following:

“If you must know, Watson, I’ve been feeling a little bit down of late. It’s the process of maintaining my sobriety. It’s repetitive. It’s relentless. And above all, it’s tedious. When I left rehab, I… I accepted your influence, I committed to my recovery. And now, two years in, I find myself asking, ‘is this it?’ My sobriety is simply a grind. It’s just this leaky faucet that requires constant maintenance, and in return offers only not to drip .”

I felt something when I heard that. I heard in it the complex nuance of recovering from something; the brutality monotony of the hard work that goes into just being…. normal. It sometimes feels like endless work just to interact with food at the same level that other people interact with it. To eat three meals a day, to like food, to stop myself slipping into bad habits, sometimes it is just a grind. Because the promise of good habits is not extraordinary living. It isn’t guaranteed happiness. It’s just… not the other things. It’s not sadness. It’s not addiction. It’s not depression. It’s not a hospital. It’s not death. It’s the promise of not being something.

And of course, that is an amazing thing. It is! To not be exhibiting anorexic behaviours, to be eating regularly and not terrified, it is amazing! It’s amazing in perspective to where I was and where I have been. But through the long lens of the future, the lens that Sherlock is looking through as he contemplates a life dedicated to sobriety, a life where it might never get easier, it seems less amazing. It seems like downright drudgery. In the episode, Watson responds to Sherlock in the manner that any good friend might in a situation where someone shows that they are tired of doing the things they need to do to stay healthy:

Watson: You have your work, you have me. You’re alive. 

Sherlock: I’ve told myself that many times. So many times it has become unmoored from all meaning. 

Watson’s response is right and good of any friend: it is that recognition of the path veered away from. It is my own partner’s response when I become morose about my progress with regards to my mental health. When I get upset or discouraged by my continued panic attacks or bouts of anxiety, he is prone to reminding me of how bad it has been in the past. When I get angry about where I am with my eating, the constant maintenance it takes to stay healthy, he reminds me how bad “unhealthy” really was. Most of the time it helps. It grounds me, and takes me out of my head. Because that is the truth. The truth is it’s not as bad as it has been. But then there are other times when his words don’t do that, when they can’t pierce the fierce frustration I am experiencing, for the same reasons Sherlock expresses. Sometimes the problem isn’t that it’s been worse before. Sometimes the aching, horrible question inside is: Is this really as good as it’s going to get?

That can be a draining feeling, and the sensation of a life lived constantly fighting against the part of yourself that leads you to be unhealthy is exhausting. We often talk about recovery as a fight that you are going to win. The reality often feels more like a fight where you have reached the point where you can fight back, and maybe for a long time, but it doesn’t really look like there’s a win on the horizon. Does recovery feel like winning? No. Oftentimes, I feel like I should feel happier by now. I should feel better. I should be further along. Then I start to realise I might never be happier, or better, or further along. With this type of thinking, you start to become unmoored from all meaning, and from your own reality. The prospect of the future becomes more depressing and more important than the past that has been overcome.Weirdly, having enough distance from the despairing times doesn’t always make you happier. Sneakily, brutally, your perspective gets twisted the further into recovery that you progress. So instead of constantly thinking, “Thank God I don’t have to live that way anymore!” one starts to think, “Do I really have to live this way forever?”

These are not nice thoughts. These are not even right thoughts or good thoughts, because like I said and my partner constantly reminds me, being in recovery from something is amazing. It’s beautiful, and scary, and relieving, and transformative. And perhaps there is better coming. Perhaps there is total recovery, a complete win, a moment where you stand on your mental mountain and know that the one ring is gone and you are free. But I’m inclined to think there is more of Frodo and more of Sherlock in recovery than there are promises of complete wellbeing. But maybe. Hope is not a crutch. It’s an act of faith. And I still have some, even though it has been seventeen years.

These are not nice thoughts, but they are true. Because it is hard and monotonous, but that’s the reality. And we keep on going. That is what drew me so powerfully to the quote from Elementary, and what continues to draw me to the narrative I find in the show. The narrative that maybe life will never be great, but it’s better. It may not be nice, it may not always be encouraging, but it is something else. It is true.








Fear is the mind killer


Ian Cumming, finalist GBBO 2015, telling it how it is


It’s that time of year again! That time of year when I lose my mind over how to roll the perfect swiss, which baker made the best ciabatta, and why oh why, lord in heaven, why isn’t my own genoise sponge rising?!? Yes, it’s bake off time. But don’t worry, this isn’t another blog post about Candice’s glorious lipstick or Selasi’s amazing composure. This is a post about fear.

As the blossoming contestant, Tom helpfully put it this week: “Fear is the mind killer,” showing us that he is not only capable of conveying a rock-climbing disaster in gingerbread, but he is also one of the geek collective (“One of us! One of us!”)  by quoting the Litany against Fear from Dune:


Now, I’m not a Dune expert at all, so I didn’t even notice Tom’s geek prowess until I googled the quote for this blog. (Sorry, Dune fans, will do better next time). But when I watched the episode on Wednesday night the quote jumped out to me. “Fear is the mind killer.” I had spent most of the day in a state of fear. I was watching the episode with my adorable sister snuggled on the lounge bed, whilst my  husband slept in a hospital bed down the road, recovering from an operation. It was a routine surgery for a chronic condition; we have done this many times before and will probably have to do it again in the future, but it still gives me fear. Partly because fear is a big part of my everyday life.

As you know I have anxiety, but I also have struggled with a phobia for years that has left a clear impression on my mental health. Fear has been something I have had to mould my life around, something that had affected the way I have grown as a person. Consequently, I have often found something compelling about platitudes concerning fear, I have been drawn to quotes, books, blogs, you name it. I’m not belittling this, I know this is a helpful practice for some people, but I actually have found it to be a bit conflicting over the years. Rather than build me up, sometimes these platitudes have actually made me feel worse. For instance, when I was a teenager, the movie Princess Diaries came out. The lead character was Mia, a sixteen-year-old heiress to the rule of an imagined European country, with a fear of public speaking and a mountain of anxiety to overcome. As you can imagine, I identified with her. We also had similar eyebrows. However, my identification was over by the end of the film – as was Mia’s anxiety. Following a letter from her Father, she was able to overcome this anxiety and claim her crown. My anxieties had never been put to bed so quickly or so quietly. My teenage mind clamped onto the contents of the letter, wondering if it could do the same wonders for me. It couldn’t.


I don’t have any problems with what Mia’s father wrote her in his letter; it is my experience that courage and fear come hand in hand a lot. One can be brave and afraid. But one can be afraid, and know that something is more important, can desperately try to move towards that thing, and still be immobilised by fear. I guess what I found so troubling as a teenager was the idea that fear could be “thought” away. Had I not been thinking correctly? If I just told myself not to be afraid, would I stop?

When your fear takes control of your body, your sleeping, your eating, it’s hard to believe that it can be thought away. How can I think away sickness? How can I think away insomnia and night terrors? It is my experience that it cannot be done. It is my experience that it has to be lived through.

I’m a person of faith, so this is a difficult area for me.

I have heard preachers who call my mental illness a product of my lack of faith, my fear a symptom of my lack of prayer, lack of joy, lack of something. They might be right – perhaps my faith is not strong enough to outweigh my fear. Maybe. It is my belief that my faith asks me to walk through places of fear. I don’t know how you think of feel about the concept of God, but my God does not require me to be fearless, he requires me to be faithful.

So I don’t find narratives where people recover from their fears quickly helpful. Mia’s narrative ultimately does nothing for me. I find my encouragement from narratives where the characters fear dreadfully and make mistakes. When their fear sometimes ruins them, but they keep going. Because when you live in fear, the bravery does not always come from overcoming the fear, it comes from the living. Living every day. Knowing that you might be afraid every day, for the rest of your life, but continuing to live all the same. In my case, also continuing to believe.

Believing that whilst fear might be the mind killer, it will not kill me.