The September Issues in Marrakech

[When I wrote this] I was supposed to be relaxing in a gite in the Atlas Mountains of Morrocco. The people who I met the previous Sunday and shared an evening meal with will have been doing exactly that after summiting the highest peak in Northern Africa, Mt Toubkal. Instead I am at home in London, having slept for the majority of the last few days.

There are a few times of year that are particularly difficult for me with my mental health: March/April and September in particular. I have a feeling that it is related to the changing seasons, and others have theories that it is a result of my daily stresses and goings on each time. It could even be related to historical events playing with my memory and emotions on a subconscious level. There really is no knowing of the exacts except for that they happen, and they happen at these times of year. After a number of years I have named them the Spring Bounce and the September Issue. I am not the only one to have such a pattern to their moods and well-being, it turns out that a lot of people, particularly those with mood disorders like Bipolar, struggle immensely at the onset of spring and autumn.

It could be a vast number of things but the experience feels familiar: moodiness, snappy encounters and a general grey scaling of everything: colours, smells and tastes. I need a lot of sleep: this means a long night and 1-3 naps during the day. I need a lot of cups of tea for soothing the soul, because is there anything that a cuppa can’t help with? I have a weird relationship with my appetite. I want sugar and comfort foods, yet at the same time everything tastes muted and I desire much less of it. I am slow. Speaking in sentences can at times be difficult because my words get muddled and I certainly don’t seem very capable of speaking and thinking at the same time. I feel like anyone who laughs within earshot of me is laughing at me after saying mean things. This has resulted in some stern stares to try and figure out the truth and if I need to confront them. Sometimes when this happens I turn around and no-one is there. The sun in the day may as well be night time all the time right now because that is exactly how it feels.

So instead of being up a mountain, hanging out and exploring I have been sat in my flat in London trying to minimise the effects of my mood on others as much as possible.

I was unsure about whether I should go to Morrocco or not and I went anyway with the theory being that I would never know unless I tried. Additionally, it could have gone very well or very badly. When I booked it in september, with the prior knowledge that i struggle at this time of year, I naively thought that having something to focus on and look forward to, and essentially distract myself would end a potentially self fulfilling prophecy of The September Issue’s reoccurrence. Of course, just as with the september issue of our favourite fashion magazines, nothing is going to stop the september issue from launching and being ever so extravagently big and jam packed with chaos, whether its mental health chaos or fashion chaos. I have had a brilliant summer, it’s in the top 5.

Even though I got to Morocco I had a break down on the sunday evening and walked home, having excused myself early from the group meal, crying. I decided to sleep and see how I felt in the morning however, after packing and prepping for the day ahead I just broke down crying. It would not stop. I knew at this point that pushing myself further would not reap any good results. When I cry like this, it is usually only going to get worse until I sleep extensively. It happened in Berlin last year, also in september, and at home. Even this morning, although apparently over nothing I cried and cried and cried until I eventually went to bed to sleep it off. No trigger. No cause. No reason. It just is.

Sometimes the right decision is not the one you want to make. There are many lessons yet to be learned. Even with potentially over doing it on the insight and reflection stance I will probably still make mistakes and much to my dismay, may never be fully in control of all of my mental health shenanigans. Sometimes when you live with chronic mental illness you have to make difficult decisions because ultimately, no matter how much I try, my illness will most likely always hinder me in some way. I won’t let it defeat me. I can’t. Instead all is can do is all that I will do, to keep working on getting what I want from life by working with my illness.

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How Gratitude Can Help Improve Body Dissatisfaction

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The power of practicing gratitude has the potential to be something quite incredible. Culturally in the West we are conditioned almost to always want for more, or with our bodies ironically we want for less. Less waist, less weight, less is more when it comes to beauty and looking good, or so we are told. We are primed to be perpetually discontented, dissatisfied and looking to others who always seem to have more of whatever it is we want: friends, tech, clothing or, ticking more beauty standard ideals with their appearance.

Like any other skill in our tool box of tricks to get us through our days reasonably content and in one piece, it takes a bit of practice in order to change our thinking patterns. The good news is that it can be done and that it can be an effective tool to develop a healthier relationship with your body and body image.

In a study conducted by Armstrong State University, USA, gratitude and cognitive restructuring were compared for effectiveness in reducing body disatisfaction amongst college age females. The group studied had not sought clinical help for body disatisfaction and eating disordered related issues. The importance of body image and dissatisfaction is that the feelings we have towards ourselves often permeate other areas of our lives: body disatisfaction has been associated with depression (Jurasico, Perone & Timnko, 2011) and social anxiety (Cash, 2011) for example.

Cognitive restructuring is a CBT technique. CBT is an established treatment for many mental health and well-being complaints including: bulimia, anxiety, depression. SOURCE THIS. By comparing a gratitude based intervention to an established intervention such as cognitive restructuring, the effectiveness of each intervention on body dissatisfaction can be compared.

The strength of using gratitude based interventions for body dissatisfaction is that it increases appreciation for non-appearence based aspects of one’s self and life: gratitude interventions have been found to be causally related to improvements in intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of well-being including: increased happiness, decreased depression, improved pro-social behaviour, decreased aggression, improved sleep and concentration (Watkins, 2014).

There does need to be more studies in order to confirm or dispute similar findings. However, with this in mind gratitude is a promising intervention for people experiencing body dissatisfaction without a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder.

Gratitude works is by changing perspective on what is important in life and how and what we judge ourselves and ourl ives to be worthwile. This study illustrates the potential effectiveness that can be had from introducing and working on gratitude in order to improve well being and happiness.

With this. Line of thought fresh in my mind, and my own practicing of gratitude lately I will be exploring some personal experiences of gratitude and how practicing gratitude has helped me alter my automatic thought patterns over time. As a disclaimer I am not suggesting gratitude is a cure-all, but more of a handy tool to help contribute to a changing way of relating to the world around us.


References:

Cash, T. F. (2011). Cognitive behavioural perspectives on body image. In T. F. Cash, & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body Image, A Handbook of science, practice and prevention (2nd ed., pp. 39-47). New York, NY: Guilford Press

Juarasico, A. S., Perone, J., & Timko, C. A. (2011) Moderators of the relationship between body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Eating Disorders, 19, 346-354. doi: 10.1080/10640266.2011.584811

Watkins, P. C. (2014). Gratitude and the good life: Toward a psychology of appreciation. New York, NY: Springer Science

Wendy, L. Wolfe & Kaitlyn Patterson (2017) Cpmparison of a gratitude-based and cognitive restructuring intervention for body disatissfaction and dysfunctional eating behaviour in college women, Eating Disorders, 25:4, 330-334, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080.10640266.2017.1279908

The Importance of Talking About Mental Health

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Heavy with lead through every morsel of torso and limb she tries to carry herself tall. Heaving an impossible weight and pushing on she gets by, dragging what may fall behind along the way. A fog has descended and thickened, clouding her vision, judgement and perception. A thick rain cloud of anger hangs over her head, a relentless thrashing of her senses persists. Hearing anything clearly becomes impossible and coping with daily life is an overwhelming task. Her thoughts are foreign to her previous self, morbid, dark and terrifying. Through her diminishing abilities she becomes frustrated and deflated, hopeless and surrendering. She is vulnerable, but not weak. This is no personal flaw and through no personal fault of her own; she is experiencing an invisible illness, a mental illness.

“Mental health problems affect the way you think, feel and behave. They are problems that can be diagnosed by a doctor, not personal weaknesses” – The Mental Health Foundation.

Those around her, loved ones, colleagues and friends may notice a change. Maybe she’s withdrawn, quiet, short-tempered or tearful and they may not understand, or perhaps they fear the unknown. Frustrations can rise, “she’s just not making an effort”, “she’s no fun anymore” and “you just have to get on with it” are all too easy a response, but ask yourself, is it the right response?

As tempers turn into turmoil, frustrations grate and ties wear thin she may start erupting into sky-high emotions, hearing voices or facing difficulties with food. What do you say then? Is she a psycho? Does she need to go to the loony bin and get out of your hair? Or is it just all in her fucked up head and she just needs to sort it the fuck out and stop it, this instant, right now? Believe it or not, these are the nature of responses I have received throughout my own journey and experiences with mental health difficulties. Dare I ask it, would this have happened had my illness’ been physical? I doubt it.

It is an abhorrent suggestion of absurdity to march into a cancer ward and demand that this has to stop, they have to stop their tumours and bodies from being affected by the illness, they must stop making a fuss of it, and they must stop dying from it – and that if they really must continue with this being ill from cancer thing they’ve got going on, could they please do it quietly, out of sight and act as if nothing is happening?

It is a despicable suggestion; cancer and mental illness alike need care, support and treatment yet mental health remains subject to negative attitudes of stigma, discrimination and invalidation yet the remarkable fact is that we all have mental health just like we all have physical health. Every year 1 in 4 of us will be affected, that’s 25% of the population, a whole quarter. Yet the experience of a mental health illness is often one of isolation and shame. The effects of which can be worse than the illness itself.

The invisibility of the illness does not equate to a lack of debilitating effects such illnesses can have on a person’s life: mental illness costs lives, it can diminish lives to a mere state of existence and make every day functioning a seemingly impossible feat. It can be overcome for many, and many people do recover or learn to manage their conditions whilst living fulfilling lives that are worth living again. There is hope, but in order to achieve that people need support, to be listened to, and acceptance.

This is why it is important that we talk about mental health; it affects every aspect of our lives: in how we function, enjoy and cope from day-to-day, and that instead of meeting these conditions with hatred and hostility, they are met with the care, compassion and support that these individuals need.

 

The London Marathon Route Through Memory Lane

In 2013 it was advised to me that doing some exercise could help me with my mental health, the associated weight gain with my medications, and in general. Never did I imagine on that first run in 2013 did I think that 5 years later I would be walking up the same streets to the start line of The London Marathon. South East London has been my patch for almost a decade and in my lack of preparation for the marathon I didn’t know the route. I only saw it fully on some handouts at the expo, and my response was to think “oh wow, hmmm…” and proceed to not look at it again. I felt that having naivety on my side in regards to how long 26.2 miles really was was helpful. Sometimes, not knowing w hat you’re about to get yourself into can help diminish the pre-race anxieties of “shit, what have I just dove headfirst into”. This won’t work for everyone, but in this instance it worked well for me.

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Fully clueless to what I was about to do. Naivety was my friend at this point!

 

It was when I got off the bus with my Dad to walk up as it turned left onto Lee Terrace that the trip down memory lane began. Running up from the bottom towards Blackheath for the open space to run in was the initial plan when I started running. I got half way up before finding myself sitting, a flurried hot mess on the pathway up to blackheath and fervently googled “Why can I taste blood from running?” and “Why do my lungs burn so much from starting running?”. I sat there for a good while longer than I had been moving for and decided that I needed to take another route to exercise. I walked up to the grass on blackheath and decided to just move for 20 minutes with my music on. Cue, waving arms, and some jumping around, some dancing and just getting some movement into me. It was on the 3rd session of this that near marker 1. on the picture below that I tripped over a branch and found myself hobbling to A&E with a gash in my knee and needing stitches. When I say I NEVER thought 5 years ago in my clumsy attempts to get some exercise into my life that I would be walking those same routes and roads to The London Marathon start line. The moral of this story is, just move. Just get going in any way that feels right to you at the time. By starting, you never know where the journey will take you. Maybe it’ll take you to A&E in a wonder woman top needing stitches, or maybe it will take you to start lines, views and adventures you’ll never have guessed you would. Maybe, as in my case, it will lead to both. Don’t give up.

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For the first 8 miles, the absolute privilege of running The London Marathon and it being on my patch really served as a distraction from the momentous task that was ahead of me. It was very cathartic to be running quite literally through memory lane, acknowledging the good and the bad memories.

I spent the majority of my head space during the first 8 miles reminiscing on my journey over the last 9 years in London. How this journey has shaped me, open my eyes, taught me brutal lessons, and saved my life. To the people of Lewisham, thank you. To the places that have brought me a lot of joy, purpose and good life lessons, like that people aren’t always mean or operating with ulterior motives, Thank You. Even the memory of my first mental health crisis that landed me in hospital, and the first time I got sectioned, without these experiences I would not be who I am today. From the bad good can come. This trip down memory lane felt like closure on some of those experiences and chapters in my life.

Mental illness can be brutal. Without these memories though, I wouldn’t be studying something I am so passionate about from these experiences. I wouldn’t be volunteering in community projects to help others on their journeys. I wouldn’t have had my eyes open to the importance of practicing non-judgmentalness. Some of these memories are difficult ones but sometimes it is exactly those difficult memories that are the most important for growing as a person.

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The heat was brutal at this point. My most tired photo from the race -a mile just past half way.

The result? The first 8 miles were the most important for me. I really think this 8 miles of reflection time gave me the drive to bloody well enjoy the journey I was on to the finish line, be grateful for everything I have endured and survived and really just enjoy the pure act of being very alive that running is.

The rest of the markers and their associated milestones and memories are listed below: Continue reading “The London Marathon Route Through Memory Lane”

Life’s Funny Lessons Found In My Pre-Marathon Journey: You. Fucking. Got. This!

Sunday 22nd April 2018 – the day I ran my first marathon. Wow. It still sounds pretty surreal. I hadn’t trained for it properly and consequently, the goal was to cross the finish line in one piece, uninjured, and within the 8 hour cut off time. Regardless of training, I think these are pretty decent goals for a first marathon.

I’ve lived in London for nearly 9 years now. I first got the “It would be amazing to do that one day” was in 2010. I was in town for a photoshoot for a site I was writing for at the time and the marathon happened to be on. We caught a glimpse of it by chance at the north embankment, which is in the final stretches of the marathon route. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to do it within the decade; at the time, I didn’t run. I toyed with it but never kept it up. I didn’t do any formal exercise anymore and when I did it wasn’t for good reason. I wanted to lose weight; exercise was another form of self punishment.

I only really delved into the possibility that I could do it, actually for real, once I started running with Backpackers where I’d hear stories of other people running marathons, and see them with their medals. They survived and often had a smile on their face at their achievement and you know what? They were normal people. They had normal lives, weren’t necassarily highlighted as a running ‘talent’ from a young age but they ran marathons. Not only did they run marathons, they enjoyed them. It was at that point I thought that maybe one day I could possibly do that too.

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As an adult in my twenties I also thought that for a long time my mental health would prevent me from doing anything like this for a long time to come. Then Mind Over Marathon on the BBC happened. I heard of the project via Backpackers (original founder being Chevy Rough) and I heard him talk at the Backpackers launch. I watched the documentary and saw other people with mental health difficulties managing to take the challenge on, and amazingly, it helped them with their mental health. My focus shifted from I can’t do that until I have mastered my mental health issues sometime, in the distant future or maybe never.

I stopped viewing my mental health as an obstacle to what I wanted to achieve and do. I learned that actually running could become another tool in the big box of tricks for managing and living with, not fighting, my menta health difficulties. It was shown to be, very blatantly, that actually you can live alongside your mental health. You can work with it. Sometimes it may dominate your life, every waking moment for periods of time even but I had a new fire in my belly to make sure that I was going to learn to live with my issues and not in constant headlock with them. In the wake of 2017’s race I sined up to run for a chairty place. Shit. Wow.

In the wake of this enthused decision I was questioned. Are you still hypomanic? That’s crazy, that’s what people do after years of running consistently! Well wow, it’s good you’re doing things and aiming high but you don’t have to run a marathon, that’s…that’s…what? Crazy? Maybe it is but sometimes in life we gotta be a bit “crazy”. Life isn’t all that sane. Life isn’t calculated or linear or predictable. So I chose to embrace this and signed up. By winter I was doubting myself. I was depressed. I was barely coping. I wasn’t ready to train for a marathon like everyone else was. I wasn’t going to manage to raise the money. I couldn’t handle a big race because of my start line anxiety, as proven by my opting out of The Big Half for the virtual option.

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Then the hype for 2018 began. The countdown began. I stopped fighting myself and coming down on myself. I listened to the language of the universe and the ultimate summary was to go for it. I had come to the conclusion that I needed to listen to my body, listen to the universe, and ultimately trust in my body that it could manage to complete 26.2 miles. Together, my body and my mind crossed the finish line of The London Marathon 2018. I finished in 6:42:44 without a cut off time panic dash.

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The take home message? If you have a desire to do something and you believe that your life circumstances, or your mental health, or anxiety is a reason to not do it then stop that shit. right. now! I know it’s not easy and I wont say “if i can, anyone can” because we are all different. Our journeys are all different and maybe you have no desire to run a marathon. Maybe you want to paint, or go to art school, or play tennis. Whatever it is, as cheesy as this is about to get, if you don’t try you 100% won’t do it. Maybe it will take a long time to get there, but as long as you’re trying to live with your illness or whatever  it is you face in your life, and you know deep down that you really are trying then you won’t remain stagnated where you are for eternity. I promise you that.

Finally, if you on an impulse whim want to do something – stop doubting and just go. Just do it even if other people think you’re crazy or weird or being unstable. Sometimes, these decisions will retrieve terrible consequences, and other times they will be a major lesson that shows you just how much more you are capable of than you or anyone else ever previously thought. You’re in charge of you. You find you, and you do you – even if it is sometimes clinically diagnosable, trust me, the majority of people are in some way and you may find some doors you didn’t even know existed in life for you – you never know unless you try.

You fucking got this!

A Place for Processed Foods

There’s a lot of hype, or should I say anti-hype around the idea of ‘processed foods’. Frequently the term “processed foods” appear on lists of “bad foods” and “foods to cut out” in a number of “diet programmes”. I realise I’m using a lot of quotation marks here but it’s necessary.

A lot of these “diet programmes” requiring participants to cut out “processed foods” are often vague about what is classified as a processed food and what isn’t. This leaves the restrictions of the diet wide open for interpretation. I’m not a fan of these programmes, Whole 30 for example, is a whole load of bullshit neatly packaged to sell people more rules around eating that are unnecessary, restrictive and let be straight here, based on complete bullshit science – if you can even associate the Whole 30 with any sort of science at all.

In general though, there’s a trend towards whole food in general. Whole meaning, better, organic preferably, plant based, raw maybe, and likely to be found at hiked up prices in places like WholeFoods. (Sorry WholeFoods, I kind of like you and kind of detest you all at once). The problem is with this trend is that it perpetuates food snobbery and food elitism. It not only labels all other foods as lesser, to the extreme of basically calling anything else devil like poison. It’s an easy ploy to buy into with the current health status of the western world keeling over with lifestyle associated diseases more so than has ever really faced human history.

It’s scaremongering and food propaganda, harnessing fears of foods, to sell products and programmes that will cure all consequences of eating from the devil’s path. I wish I was exaggerating. The thing is, a lot of processed foods have a very good place in our food industries. I’m not talking about money here, I’m talking about widening the availability of a wide variety of food choices to more and more people worldwide. The food industry, although it has a lot to answer for, has made having a decent meal in the evening not require someone cooking all afternoon for the family. The food industry has made it possible to preserve foods at higher nutritional qualities with less nutrient and quality degradation in various forms from frozen to dehydrated powders.

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These products don’t exist because people are lazy. They don’t exist to tempt us into a life of crippling illness. They serve a lot of people, some who may not have the skills to cook from scratch, those who have a stringent budget where buying processed might offer more affordable options, or those with few cooking facilities in their homes. Not everyone has a freezer, or even an oven. Many are now living with hob plates, maybe a microwave and a kettle. Sadly, this isn’t a vast minority anymore – Yo! London landlords, this isn’t OK for £600+ a month!.

Then there are people who have the skills to cook, have the knowledge of what a meal consists of, has a fridge freezer and an oven but for some reason or other are not able to cook as they’d ideally like to all the time. I fall into this category. Living with a chronic mental illness means that sometimes I’m fine prepping veg, buying fresh and cooking up a few meals in preparation for the days ahead. It also means that sometimes, this is an insurmountable task so I will either rely on convenient options, or not eat then make up for it in an all out ice cream and chocolate frenzy.

Many may disagree that convenience “processed food” is a healthy option. It isn’t always but there is a lot available now in the form of ready meals. These get pricey though. To keep eating a relatively balanced diet in a pretty regular pattern is as important as a regular sleeping schedule for management of my illness. If that slides I’m basically putting my foot a bit more to the metal towards a breakdown, a crisis or an extended period of really not functioning.

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Why is this relevant? Tonight for dinner I had some frozen veggie sausages, cheap smash and some frozen peas and sweetcorn. The smash is from the days when we had no money. The best before dated to April 2015. I figured a sealed pack of powder that will smash up into a kind of mash couldn’t do too much harm. I seem fine so far. This meal meant that I ate something filling and more wholesome than ignoring eating all together. However, without such processed foods – everything was processed from the gravy granules, the mash powder, the frozen veg and factory made sausages, this meal wouldn’t have existed. I would have likely just done without until I couldn’t do without any more. You see, for many people in many situations throughout society, processed foods are a lifesaver. They can often be a better option. So demonising “processed foods”, getting on the nutrition high horse and engaging with food elitism isn’t necessary – and often the arguments for such a stance are inaccurate, based on cherry picked science, sometimes written by people claiming to have credentials that upon digging deeper actually mean very little, and scaremongering us into paying £3 for an avocado and £4 for a 100g bar of chocolate.

It makes you wonder who the real devils are in all of this?

Medal Monday: CRUK Winter Run, London 2018

Sunday 4th February was World Cancer Day. To mark the event Cancer Research UK held their London event of their Winter Run 10k series. I ran this race for the first time last year, and it is a really great race. This year, my friend donated her place to me as she had signed up, forgotten so and couldn’t make it anymore, so that was really kind of her.

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I set off quite well in one of the final waves and remembered what I loved about this race so much. It’s not the size of the event, or the route – although it is a lovely route. It’s the inclusivity of the challenge. 10k is a significant distance to run. It isn’t a quick flash and it’s done for a lot of people. You have to mentally engage and push yourself to keep going. At this race there are runners of all shapes, sizes and levels of fitness, the brilliance of the event being that people are running not for times, but for a cause close to their hearts.

As I trundled behind some other trundlers (repping BackPackers!!) I couldn’t help read the signs adorning people’s backs remembering loved ones who had lost their fight to cancer, and celebrating those who survived because of research developments. More people currently survive cancer than ever. We still have a way to go but we’re progressing and that’s what feels so positive about this event. Developments have been made. There’s more work to do and fund to be raised by breakthroughs are happening and people are surviving.

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It was much colder this year than the last, but I’m not sure if that was because I layered more appropriately this year. Last year I was just getting back into running. I hadn’t managed to train much so it was a real achievement to even get to the start line because y’know, anxiety. I also wore way too many thick layers, like a running onion with them all tied around my waist by the finish line. So maybe experience made it feel colder because I was not a running onion this year.

Last year this race kick started my more frequent running. I do enjoy running, but when it’s cold, dark and wet it’s so hard to force yourself outside to run for the good of your mood, especially when you’re already in a ripe old funk. We all know this battle well, and it’s something that only sheer grit and determination is going to overcome until the nights get lighter and warmer: Yo! Spring, hurry up yeah?!?

7518843888_img_1553Hopefully this was the kick starter i needed, i hope *fingers crossed* to get back into running and exercising regularly as a way to stay well, mentally and physically. In fact it is a core pat of my current Wellness Action Plans, and I’m sick of letting myself sit in my bed for days at a time so let’s go! Everyone is saying that January was a trial month and that it doesn’t count right? I’m going to join that tribe. January isn’t a real.