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

What Is ‘Health’? And How Do We Define It?

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What is health and how do we define it? It’s a pretty complex topic and our interpretations will vary as much as our personalities. In 1946 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (1) at the International Health Conference. This definition was put in place as of 1948. I don’t know about you but aiming for complete health in each of these areas feels like quite the daunting task, much like asking your crush out face to face in year 8 it isn’t going to happen.

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”
– Mahatma Gandhi (2)

Well-being focus and all the buzz around it is booming. Gone are the days when it’s a popular idea to starve yourself to nothingness in order to achieve a fashionable “look”. The greater the engagement from each of us with our health can only be a good thing. With all this focus on healthy living, healthy eating and “living my best life” what happens when the foundations of understanding what health is and is not are poorly understood? In this sense, striving for health can be like navigating the maze in a Triwizard tournament with an extra catch, you’re blindfolded and there is no cup to be found. Bah ha! You’ve been Tango’d. Except when health is concerned, the consequences can be a bit more dire than a double happy slap. 

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Being aware of and taking responsibility for our health can help us in many ways, whether it’s feeling able and capable, happy and content, experiencing sadness in proportionate bouts and even saving us money on health visits and prescription charges. With the age of the internet however, the health messages we receive can be combobulated and skewed – identifying fact from fiction is a bit of a tough cookie to crack.

So how does the evidence for what is and isn’t healthy translate into simpler ideas? Is it being a certain “ideal” weight? Having the “right” body fat percentages? Is it healthy to living in one emotional state? Is avoiding the GP unless you think you might be legitimately dying mean you’re healthier than everyone sat in the waiting room for said GP? The waters become murky very quickly and it’s easy to lose sight elusive Goblet of Health whilst sashaying amongst the currents and tides of fads, shock factor headlines and public health campaigns that are somewhat not accurate anyway – think Weight Watchers in American schools and the Ob_s__y campaign by Cancer Research UK earlier this year. 

The crux in relation to nutrition and our relationship status with food doesn’t boil down to one measurement, or one aspect of health. What we eat and how we do or don’t eat affects countless aspects of our bodies and functioning. Some very real questions in relation to health and nutrition is currently in an antler head bashing contest amongst those in the field, whether accredited and qualified or not. Is it healthy to marginalise a population group because of a pattern of association without identifying causation? Is it healthy to drill diet culture into young minds, and thus setting them up for a lifetime of living “healthily” on diet culture? Is that even possible? I’m not convinced. I’m also not convinced that everything stocked in Whole Foods is automatically healthy – sorry not sorry. I’m also not convinced about the healthiness of many modern day normalities, such as our phones becoming an extra part of the human anatomy, using social media to gain self worth and validation, or extreme approaches to anything much at all. 

With health food shops donning more supplements than we can possibly afford or swallow, and health influencers donning skimpy clothing to show off abs, glutes that can crush walnuts and who can do more chin ups than an excitable dog can tail wags, does being healthy have to be so extreme? I’m going to go out on a whim here and speculate that there’s no extremes in being healthy. It’s actually more about a balance and happy medium as boring and unexciting as that may sound.

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A little secret not pushed by those cashing in on the trend, you don’t need an extreme diet to eat healthily. You don’t need an extreme exercise regimen to be healthy. You don’t need to always be happy and content to be healthy. Nor do you need to spend crazy dollar on fancy ingredients and farfetched meal plans. Health isn’t even a number on a scale. The BMI is a tool for guidance and definitely not definitive – many athletes have a BMI considered obese and I’ve never seen someone typically considered to be ‘obese’ competing at the Olympics.

Each of us will define health differently drawn from our lived experiences. The most important point to be made though is that health is not a destination but a tool for living. It isn’t the be all and end all, merely a snazzy individualised car for scooting through your days with. Yeah, you want to keep the gear box in check but you don’t want to be obsessing over whether your gears are always sliding perfectly. You also need to keep your oil and waters tanks topped up, but you don’t want to be watching them furtively whilst missing out on the enjoyment of your drive. It would be a shame to not enjoy and take in the views.

Sources:
1. http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
2. 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705649/

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”

What It Really Means To Love Your Body

“I looked in the mirror and loved what I saw. If I can do it, you can too” – Insta Influencer

Of course you do, you epitomise the current beauty ideal: Gym Bunny Barbie, Health Freak Barbie, Can Survive In These Proportions Barbie – but this image is still unattainable for most.

#BodyPositivity #LoveYourself

Apparently loving how you look is still the secret elixir to loving yourself and your body. Loving yourself still equates to enslaving yourself to your reflection. I mean, it’s important to not hate what you see but apparently, according to this particular Insta influencer, aesthetics remain key to happiness and health.

Good for you but I call bullshit.

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When you love someone else how do you say what it is you love about them? Do you say, they have chiseled abs, a stunning jaw line and a booty worth twerking about? Of course you do during the lust phase, the honeymoon period of not being gable to keep your hands off each other. What about a year down the line, or five? After you’ve dealt with their death shattering snore, their farts at the airport security from nerves and little habits that are generally quite annoying, what do you say then? Valuing a partner on looks alone won’t sustain a relationship.

A deeper connection. The way they know what to say to cheer you up? The way they so badly don’t know how to cheer you up but you find it funny in hindsight? How about the conversations that never end and stimulate your mind and soul to no end? And the way they put a packed lunch in your bag even though you said you didn’t want one because they knew you’d get hungry and eat it anyway? None of those things are banging on about abs and jaw lines, so why should we focus on loving ourselves in this way? Putting the sole focus on body positivity on loving your reflection is pure, utter and complete bollocks.

The process of starting to love yourself includes more depth than this. It includes acceptance and appreciation, gratitude and developing core self-esteem. it is a process of the mind and a matter of perspective. I’ll use myself as an example. I don’t love how my body looks, far from it. I’ve gained a lot of weight these past couple of years from my medications, being unwell and generally neglecting myself at times. Self neglect when unwell with mental illness means more than not showering enough or brushing your hair, it includes not eating properly, not changing, not exercising, not sleeping, or over sleeping and neglecting every aspect of self-care there is.

I’m actually ‘technically’ according to the archaic BMI chart overweight at the moment. At the same time I don’t hat my body, far from it. In fact, I like my body more than I ever did and not because of how it looks. I accept that my body is at its biggest and I’m working on managing that in order to remain healthy. I accept my belly, and the scars on my arms and that a lot of my clothes no longer fit. I don’t like it and I accept it.

The reasons I love my body are more of an appreciation. My body allows me to run and climb. It allows me to have energy to do things in the day My heart beats and my lungs breathe with ease. My muscles are stronger than they one were and this allows me to progress at my sports activities if I put the effort in. I am capable of different experiences like the view from the top of a great big hill over a beautiful landscape, all thanks to my body. I feel different textures which can be soothing for me. I smell the beautiful wafts of perfume and baked bread thanks to my body. I can enjoy sex thanks to my body – here’s a hat tilt and wink to my nervous system and vagina for all the orgasms. I can see beauty. I can express myself fun entirely uncoordinated dancing. The list really is endless, but thanks to my body I am alive and can experience many wonders of living thanks to my body.

That’s some pretty dope shit and you know what the crux of all these things is? I can’t see any of this in my reflection or a picture alone. Yet I love my body for of these things.

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Through psychological work over many years I learned to respect, appreciate and accept my body in a holistic way. Becoming toned, health food obsessed and going to the gym most days didn’t change my perspective and feelings towards my body, therapy did. I didn’t even heal through an Eating Disorder service or therapeutic programme for eating disorders. I did it via a course of schema therapy. I am very lucky to have received this on the NHS I know, and I wouldn’t recommend going down the roads I did to land in the place. Now I’m on the other side of that part of my life though, I acknowledge this isn’t necessarily the answer for everyone. I also learned to stop caring what others thought of me and my body.

I enjoy my body and this provides my motivation to live a healthy lifestyle in order to maintain good physical and mental health. I exercise because it makes me feel good holistically in addition to reaping the health benefits over the longer term. I exercise because I love my body, not because I hate it to want to change it or look a certain way, and this is why I’m not buying the “I looked in the mirror and loved what I saw” as a phrase of self empowerment and body love.

Our love for ourselves goes deeper than our reflection, just as our love for other people does. It comes from our mind, our heart and a healthy dose of self compassion. Acceptance and gratitude are also helpful ingredients for the elusive loving yourself recipe. And if you don’t love yourself yet, but you are embarking on a journey of gratitude, acceptance, and self compassion honestly, it only gets better. It pays to pay attention to our mind and how we think about ourselves. Not everyone needs intensive therapy in order to achieve this, and if you do, that’s OK do. This is the part where I say, if I did it, so can you. You’ve got this, at whatever stage you’re at.

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I can honestly say I know how it is to hate yourself – and now look at all the things I think are pretty neat about my body. Reach out, ask for support, but most importantly work from the inside out and eventually maybe you’ll look in the mirror and say, “You’re not looking perfect dear body of mine, but I think you’re pretty neat and I love you anyway like I’d love a cat with three legs and one eye”.

*fist bump*

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Lifting The Dirt on Clean Eating with Hear Me Raw by Daniella Isaacs

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Last night I went to see Hear Me Raw. It is a one woman autobiographical show by Daniella Isaacs about her journey into the wellness trap. She documents about how her obsession about being healthy became an unhealthy obsession that instead of helping her to live her best life, hindered her from living at all.

She describes and delves into the depths of orthorexia, which is categorised as an eating disorder that stems from trying to be as healthy as possible. Lifting the lid on social media heroes donning restrictive diets and excessive exercise in order to be your best you and how everything isn’t always as it seems. I’m sure most of us are guilty of making our social media outlets a highlight reel. Instagram  never shows the full truth of our lives, and for some who are dominating the influencer circles as ‘health gurus’ are actually very unhealthy.

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Source: arcolatheatre.com

She doesn’t cut corners in her production and really gets into the grim reality of health bloggers being so ‘healthy’ that they’re unhealthy. Punishing treadmill sessions and ginger shots, snorting turmeric and forcing matcha products of all varieties down. She actually chugs some crazy ass smoothie that she makes as an example, seemingly without gagging or vomiting, which was very impressive but behind the impressiveness of such a feat is the reality of people forcing themselves to drink horrible concoctions, taking shots of health juices and not letting any form of perceived toxin into her body whilst flushing out as many toxins as possible. FYI, flushing out toxins and avoiding toxins in your food is largely based on bullshit. If your liver and kidneys are well, then you’re dandy.

Lifting the dirty on clean living is a topic that is being spoken about more and more. It’s a topic we need to keep talking about because there’s crazy dollar to be made from products promising health in an age dominated by lifestyle related disease. However, it is important to remember that health is a means to live your life and if the pursuit of health hinders you from living your life, going to events because you don’t want to face the food there, from seeing your friends because instead you feel you need to go to the gym or using food and diet as a means of gaining control in your life, or fulfilling some emotional void then maybe your healthy lifestyle isn’t as healthy as you think.

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Source: arcolatheatre.com

There’s so much bombardment of unhealthy health culture, especially on social media, that using a multitude of mediums to challenge health culture in a variety of ways will hopefully reach as many of those who need to hear it as possible. There’s podcasts and blogs and health professionals pushing the message – a play is a new way and it worked really well. I enjoyed Isaac’s performance and really loved her cutting the bullshit method of delivering.

It would be great if a version of this could go on TV and reach the masses, in the meantime however, if you were considering getting tickets to see the show I’d urge you to definitely go. It is showing until the 24th February at The Arcola Theatre in Dalston, London. After that, due tot he success I hope she does more shows to spread her message far and wide.

Ditching The Weighing Scales For Good!

How I moved away from compulsively weighing, through the weight anxiety to finally ditching my scales for good.

My set of scales are pretty standard and I’ve had them for years. I don’t even remember where I was in my journey with food when I bought them. I’ve read many times that an important step in recovering from an eating disorder is to get rid of your scales. There were a few reasons as to why I’ve resisted taking this step.
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Initially it was because I know banishing them from the house would not stop me from weighing myself or ease my anxiety when I was still recovering. I knew that I had to get to a place of using them less and placing less importance on their result with them around. Otherwise I would just buy another set, or would obsess when I went to someone’s house who had a set. It just didn’t feel like the right approach for me at that time.

Once I was more recovered I was put on medication that affects weight. A third of people on Quetiapine in the long-term develop diabetes and become overweight enough to negatively impact physical health. I was anxious about this happening to me and how not feeling in control of my appetite and weight could potentially trigger old behaviours. I did gain weight each time I went on Quetiapine.

Despite this, I stuck it out and have been taking it for the longest time that I ever had previously. Finally, I decided that the positive effects of Quetiapine outweigh the weight gain, and potential metabolic alterations it can cause. The decision to push on with taking it despite weight and appetite changes that at times felt bordering on out of control is that those side effects have eventually subsided. Who knew? I have stopped taking Quetiapine many times previously out of fear and anxiety of potentially feeling out of control with my appetite, and the unknown. Each time, I get very unwell again. It’s just a general shit show.

14 months later and I am not scared anymore. I’ve adapted. Yes I gained weight and ironically since I’ve stopped weighing myself regularly or trying to control my diet in any way there have been no drastic changes. I’ve pretty much stayed about the same and in this time, despite being near my highest weight I am more comfortable with my body than I have ever been.

Possibly due to some radical acceptance being practised. Ultimately though, this disproves my earlier theory that I had to monitor my intake and weight because of my medication. It also proves that my body has a way of adapting, staying well and maintaining some form of homeostatic harmony.

According to the BMI chart I’m probably still overweight, and I’m also pretty healthy. Most would agree that the BMI is an outdated and archaic measurement of health but it’s still used. There’s another myth disproved by my own experience, that BMI is important. I could play Bingo with previous misconceptions at this rate!

I fend off infections and illnesses well, I exercise, I enjoy it, I’m not unfit, I eat pretty balanced and I’m partial to a pain au raisin lately. Yeah I’ll look at food labels sometimes to see if it’s particularly high in sugar or saturated fat but it is more of a glance over to understand the composition of different foods. It is not the be all and end all, just more of an awareness about what’s in my food choices.

In general I feel the need to follow the path I’m advocating.  No hypocrisy, no secrets, and full transparency.It’s time to listen to my body. It finally feels like the right time to take such a  step. I feel confident that I won’t buy more in a panic or feel lost without them. This is a pretty big step and hopefully perhaps the final one in moving completely out of eating disordered behaviour, comforts and rituals.