International Women’s day – owning our own experiences

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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.”

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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kitten asleep between me and the sofa.

 

Doing the hardest thing – Relaxing

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I put it off for weeks, but I am finally sitting in the waiting room of the clinic, filling out one of those forms. In go the details, the medical history, the current medication. Then we get to the pain area. Head, Neck, shoulders, back, I circle them all. I tilt my head to the side and feel the heavy dragging ache that I’ve been carrying for a couple of days. It’s definitely time for a massage.

I have been in somewhat of a slump.

I am tired, I am filled with lethargy, I am struggling to enjoy things that I usually get pleasure from. I want to be in bed, or asleep, all of the time. It’s not as bad as it has been, or could be. It’s just a general feeling of being slow, of having weights attached to your brain that make everything heavy. And that’s not just an expression, which is how I end up sitting in the waiting room at the clinic. The crushing headaches. I get into the massage room and I don’t even have to take off my clothes before the masseuse puts one hand on my clavicle and said “Hmmmm, yes. Your clavicle is a little higher, and your shoulder…it’s uneven.” My inner tension had misaligned my physical body! She then spent the next 45 minutes tugging and manipulating my reluctant muscles in order to correct it. She sent me home with some exercises to do, and the awareness that bending over a computer might be turning me into Quasimodo.

But I don’t just blame my computer – whilst it might account for some of the back tension, the other symptoms are partly my fault. I haven’t been feeling well because I haven’t been doing the thing that I find the hardest – relaxing. And it’s not just me! Apparently, we are all suffering an exhaustion epidemic. As Louise Carpenter says in her enlightening piece for the Guardian, “The Exhaustion Epidemic”**:

“Only recently, a survey commissioned by Legal & General found that 42 per cent of the 5,000 people asked said that lack of sleep was their biggest health concern, followed by 34 per cent worrying about low-level, general fatigue. More than a quarter said they were stressed and another quarter admitted to depression. It was concluded that working long hours combined with not seeing enough of friends and family is about to threaten our health. These statistics confirmed those produced less than three weeks earlier by the Chartered Management Institute, whose ‘Quality of Working Life’ report showed that more than half of us experience feelings of constant tiredness at work and even more of us suffer from insomnia.”

It’s all down to our inability to relax. Studies have shown that even though we know we need to change our pace of life, we don’t, and are only prompted to change by a break-down. I know from my own experience and the experience of others around me that have suffered mental or physical problems as a result of constant stress. I’m part of a group of twenty-somethings who have been brought up to constantly push forward: we pushed ourselves at school, we pushed ourselves at university or into a job,  we push ourselves to pursue careers, and we push ourselves to maintain a lively social circle that we think is appropriate. We are constantly pushing towards the social security achieved by the generation before us, but also pushing towards the individual, passion-lead ideal life that we are encouraged to pursue. It’s a lot to achieve, and when we don’t achieve these things, we feel we are failing. When we strive for them relentlessly, we burn out. Or, in my case, my mental health problems get worse.

So how can you build relaxation into your life whilst living in a society that fetishizes workaholics? I’m no expert, but here are some ideas:

Know your limits

My limits are a lot lower than most other peoples. This is partly due to my mental health, partly due to my personality, but whatever it is the limit of time before I need to recharge and relax is lower. But just because I need it more often, doesn’t mean I need it more than anyone else. I have friends who work incredibly high powered jobs where they leave the house a six and don’t get home until ten in the evening. I have friends with small children who keep them awake all hours of the day and night. Their limits are higher, they can go longer without relaxing, but if they don’t then they will still feel consequences, just like everyone else. So work out what your limit is. I work full time and that takes a big chunk of my energy. Consequently, I have to be very protective of my outside of work hours. I have to be strict about socialising; I generally only socialise with a larger group of people once a week. I can’t do more than that, because whilst I find it enjoyable, I don’t find it relaxing. Which sort of leads me to my next point.

Know where you get your energy from

I have a job that involves me standing in front of large groups of often rowdy school children and entertaining them, and I love that. I love the adrenalin that comes from performance. I love to hang out with friends and organise parties and events. I love all of these things, but I am still an introvert. What does that mean? It means that whilst I love these things, they don’t give me energy – they take energy from me. This means that at the end of a working day, a day talking to people and presenting to children, going out with my friends will not relax me. I might enjoy it, but it won’t give me energy. I need to go home and not talk to anyone for a couple of hours. Extroverts are often the opposite. For some extroverts, the best thing after a long day at work is a drink out with some friends. They unwind and relax and are re-energised by social situations. Being an extrovert and an introvert is not binary or static. My husband is an extrovert, but he also draws energy from time alone. I’m an introvert, but a dance class with lots of people will recharge me. It’s just about working out what recharges you. Which leads me to…

Work out what recharges you and when

Different things relax us at different times. It is helpful not just to know what relaxes you, but at what times those things will be most relaxing to you. I often find writing this blog relaxing, but there are sometimes when I don’t even have the energy to do that. Rather than forcing myself to write and maybe draining more of my energy, it’s better for me if I do the things that I know will relax me according to my energy levels. For instance, earlier today I got back into bed. I had incredibly low-energy, stressed, and felt basically awful. After 45 minutes, I felt better – more relaxed. Well enough to get out of bed and start to work on my blog. Now I feel even more relaxed. I suggest working from the bottom up: What relaxes you when you are at the lowest ebb of your energy and so frazzled you can barely think? For me, it’s time with my partner, a neck massage, and a long shower. What is it for you?

When we don’t give time to our relaxation, then other areas of our lives suffer. I have seen this happen in the last few weeks in my life. I have been so worried about work and I haven’t been relaxing, but rather than making productive at work, my work has suffered. I’ve been too tired for things, I’ve found concentrating hard, and activities more draining than they usually are. Turns out, constantly worrying about things doesn’t make them better, it just makes you less effective. So I have been focusing on making a sustained effort to do the things that relax me. Reading books. (Not just buying them and taking photos of them on Instagram!) Watching TV shows with my partner. Making pom poms. Bullet journalling. Face masks. Cooking. Hanging out with friends. Getting a massage, even if it is delivered by a woman whose unflinching claws make me wince and give me bruises. (Actual. Blue. Bruises).

Lastly, I need to allow myself to do these things without feeling bad or feeling like a failure. Sometimes, by relaxing I feel like I am somehow not taking my work or my responsibilities or my worries seriously. That I am somehow betraying the people who rely on me by relaxing and letting those things fly from my mind. But I am not, and neither are you. We all have a duty to the people we love to stay healthy, and true health is only achieved by balance. Because I’ve seen the pointy end of a lifestyle without relaxation, and I’m here to tell you, it is not worth the price.

So let’s do the hard thing and take a deep breath… and relax.

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**https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2006/dec/03/healthandwellbeing.features

 

 

How to beat blue Monday (and blue January too!)

 

 

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Blue Monday feelings 

 

So after last week and my feelings about the inappropriate use of the phrase “The Blues,” it’s actually “Blue Monday” today. This is a day assigned by Dr Cliff Arnall formerly of Cardiff University when statistically the most amount of people are likely to be depressed, and apparently, this year it might be even worse than usual!   Thank you, world politics. Sigh.

So how to deal with it? One option is to curl up and hibernate the day away. Very tempting. A big duvet, a Netflix account, and unlimited Oreos are all I need. Bliss. However, this is not an option for all of us, and I often find that Blue Monday falls within a month when everyone is likely to be experiencing low mood. As much as I would like to hibernate January away, alas, it cannot be so. So here are some of my tips to take on Blue Monday and what I would like to rename as Jarring January because it came out of nowhere and I feel like I have whiplash from 2016. I can’t be the only one.

1. Give yourself structure 

When life seems a bit crappy and the horizons of your life seem bleak, having structure can be a real saving grace. Having structure is what allows you to get from the beginning of the day to the end of the day without having a crisis. When those invasive, gloomy thoughts emerge, having structure is what helps you put them aside, at least for the moment. No judgement on what that structure is, either. For some people it will be getting a 5 am run in before your full-time job, for others, it will be making sure that they get up out of bed and make themselves a cup of tea at least once a day. We are all at different points in our lives and structure can mean many different things. For me, it means a bullet journal and small routines around the house that help me feel in control. For me, it is trying to blog once a week, and keeping on top of my work. For me, it is trying to get out of the house every day. Don’t use this tip as a stick to beat yourself with – I don’t know where you are and what your structure looks like, only you can know that. You do you.

2. Put happy things in your diary 

For a short month, January sure seems to drag! It seems long, poor, and grey. (Especially if you live in the UK. Especially if you live in the north of England. ESPECIALLY if you live in Manchester.) There’s a reason that you can’t flick a channel or click a link without seeing a holiday advert in January. Who doesn’t want to escape the drained bank accounts, walking to work in the rain, and the general malaise that seems to fall across the nation? Some people are economically placed so that they can head off on holiday in January, and if I ever can then I will too, but I can’t right now. So I compensate by putting happy things in the diary. Family coming to visit. Dinners out with friends. Seeing a movie I’m looking forward to, and yes, even a teeny tiny holiday. In April we are heading to Dorset for a weekend break with our best friends. Just knowing that is the diary really brightened up the first few days of January. Going to see “La La Land” last night, a movie I have been waiting for since November, was another thing that really put a spring in my step going into this week. Basically, give yourself things to look forward to, things that turn the year from a terrifying abyss of unknowns into a place where good things are planned to happen. Plan those good things.

3. Allow yourself to have the things you need.

This is the most important one for me. Allow yourself to have the things that bring you joy. Give yourself permission to do the things that make your smile. Don’t beat yourself up for needing a boost. I know I am guilty of comparing myself to others around me and being angry with myself for needing support. How can other people find it so easy to get through things whilst I find it so hard, and need so much help? It’s a question I still fight against, but it’s redundant. I don’t know what’s going on in other people’s minds. I might sit across from them in a coffee shop and think “How are they keeping themselves together so easily?” but I don’t know what happens behind closed doors, and neither do you. So do the things that help you and don’t feel guilty that you need the help. Which leads me to….

4. Treat yo’self

What do you love? What’s indulgent to you? Find what it is and treat yourself, without guilt or condemnation. Now, I’m not condoning foolish decisions. If you are piss-poor after Christmas but shopping makes you feel better, don’t go shopping every weekend in January and put yourself in immense debt. This is not a wise decision. But maybe you can have a wish list, a saved items bag on Asos, or a date at the end of the month where you’ve planned a little spree. The same goes for food –  I don’t want to encourage anyone’s unhealthy eating habits. A treat is only a treat if it’s something you look forward to, that you don’t have every day, so binge eating through January doesn’t count. What does count are the things you wouldn’t usually do for yourself. For example, I love candles. Love ’em. But I’m always saving them for a special occasion, not wanting to “waste” them on myself, and even buying cheap tealights makes me feel like I am being indulgent. So this January I have lit a lot of candles and let me tell you, it’s been lovely. Just those little candles lit on these dark evenings brightens my mood. So what’s your treat? Maybe it’s booking yourself in for that extra class at the gym, maybe it’s giving yourself time to read your book, maybe it’s giving your space to get back into hobbies you have loved, but pushed aside. Dancing. Painting. Having coffee with friends. Treat yourself, because you deserve to feel happy, and if these things help then why not?

For me, it always boils down to this one fact: Self-care isn’t selfish. In my experience, you can try to push through and get angry at the fact you need help at all, or you can learn what helps you make it through and then do that. January is a hard month, and no one wants to feel like they are starting the year on the back foot. So do the things that make you feel like you’re getting back onto a level playing field, and do them without feeling guilty. Because you deserve joy.

And if, after all of that, things aren’t getting better, don’t beat yourself up.  I say all of this from a place of medication, therapy, and a strong understanding of why my brain makes me feel certain ways. Some blue Mondays can’t be beaten with these things, and they are the blue Mondays that you need to get help about. See a doctor. Talk to somebody. Talk to me. You are not alone and you are not a failure for struggling.

I believe in you, and I believe blue Monday can be beaten.

If you are struggling, don’t stay silent. Comment here and we can chat, or see the below websites. 

 

 

Dancing with the blue devils

 

 

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Feeling blue 

 

I like the colour blue. A lot. My partner thinks I am trying to “blue up” his wardrobe. All of our bed linen is blue. It usually makes me happy.

Except when “the blues” show up.

I hate it when people use the phrase “The Blues.” Nowadays, it has connotations of rainy days and the kind of soft sadness that bubbles up when one is lonely or has a hangover. People can be blue when their favourite contestant doesn’t win a television talent show. But that’s not what being blue means. Not by a long way.

The phrase “The blues” (apart from being the name of the great American music movement) comes from the 17th Century English expression “the blue devils.” It was a description of the intense visual hallucinations accompanying severe alcohol withdrawal. Over time, it became the term for a state of deep depression or agitation.

I’m dancing with the blues today.

These days when I dance with the blues are the days I feel most “in recovery” for something. I feel shaky and painful and headachey. I feel hungover with no cause, mournful with no reason, terrified with no trigger. The blues are not a tender dance partner, and they appear, like the devil in the red shoes, demanding you dance until you drop. Even 150 mg of a new medication cannot stop the blues spinning you out on the dance floor. I wonder if even a lobotomy could.

So where do the blues come from? What crack in the surface of the mind springs forth the blue devils?

It might have been putting away the Christmas decorations. (Yes, I know, many days late.) It could be. There is something about putting the Christmas decorations away that renders me a little morose. Apart from the fact that the flat looks a little drearier, a little more tattered, there is the clench in my stomach as I put duct tape the Christmas box closed and the same thought recurs: I don’t know where I will be when I open this box next year. Both physically and mentally. We don’t know if we will still be in the city, or be moving on to the next location, the next job. Also, I don’t know how I will be. Will I be well enough to open up this box and decorate whichever flat in whatever place we call home at the time? Will I be better or worse than I am now? Will I still be staring down the long, bleak, path of recovery?

It might have been the call to the Doctor to confirm my picking up of my new medication tomorrow. I am well into my first month of the new 150 mg, but talking about it does put a lump in my throat and a tug in my gut. It might have been the coffee I drank at Starbucks – maybe the barista forgot to make it decaf, and my sensitive system is overloaded with one of the many chemicals that can unhelpfully trip the balance in my brain. It might have been the several difficult tasks I was dealing with today at work. The burden of responsibility has felt heavy in the last 72 hours, and I have found work worries sneaking out of my inbox and into the back of my mind. It might have been going to bed late last night. It might have been waking up late. It might have been something negative I read on the Internet or an interaction at a shop that didn’t go well. It might have been, it might have been, it might have been.

Or perhaps, like the shingles my partner has been battling for the last two weeks, the blue devils are like a virus buried deep in my cells. No one knows exactly what prompts them to emerge, only what situations can make them thrive. Shingles like stress and a low immune system. The blue devils like unstructured environments and an opportunity to make you dance until you drop.

My partner has been in bed for twelve days. He’s been resting, drinking lots of OJ, and enjoying daily naps. It’s what he needs to do to help his immune system beat that back that virus into its slumberous state inside his cells. I need to sleep too, I need to watch my triggers carefully, I need to keep up with my meds and try to be kind to myself and then maybe, the blue devils will recede back into their dark lair as well.

Then maybe I will feel better about blue.

 

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Kazuya Akimoto – “Blue Bust”