The Twenty-First TWIG Post (or why I’m persisting with writing, despite depression making it difficult)

It’s felt like a hard slog to get grateful this past fortnight.

fullsizeoutput_5ebDepression has many negative side-effects, one of the most frustrating being an inability to fully focus. Admittedly, I can be a little scatter-brained from time-to-time. It’s likely just part of my personality. However when my brain’s not in great shape, my concentration is one of the first things to go.

My decision-making capacity disappears. Though limited at the best of times, tasks take me twice as long to complete when I’m depressed. I can sort of sense this is the case, though it’s not always obvious to me. C commented yesterday that it’s taking me twice as long to get out of the shower of a morning lately. We get up and out of the house mega-early, plus it’s the school holidays (less traffic), so it’s not a big problem, but it’s definitely noticeable, which has me on high-alert

In fact, this is my second attempt at writing my twenty-first TWIG post. The first is sitting in my drafts, half-edited. Though there was – is – good stuff in there, I felt so frustrated writing it – like I was trying to force the words out. I write to communicate – not only with the world, but myself. Thus it being such a slog – feeling so damn challengingwas very telling as to my present mental state.

Contrastingly, writing this today has felt fairly easy. It’s not my most poetic of posts, but it’s back to feeling natural once more. Though overdue, I’m here now to share the small (and not so small) things in my life for which I feel truly thankful.

This Week I’m Grateful for:

  • Tap water. As the water board are currently tampering with our supplies, I’m reminded of just how amazing it is to live in a country where we’ve got hot and cold water literally on tap. Given how many people worldwide struggle to find clean water, it’s pretty damn fortunate.
  • Being able to help the people we love. Our fabulous nieces moved to their new house five minutes around the corner this week. C took an afternoon off work to help his sister, S, unpack, and the weekend prior we doubled-up on grocery shopping to fill their fridge, too. Whilst it’s an exciting move for all of us, understandably the Family B are nervous in the face of such major change. Personally, I’m just thankful that we’re able to be here for our family when they need us. It feels lovely to be in a position to help make someone’s life that little bit better.

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  • C being incredibly thoughtful and buying the Family B fresh, crisp bedding for their new home. Whilst one of our nieces told him she actually prefers her existing Harry Potter bedding (!), the littlest was over-the-moon at her Peppa Pig duvet. I tell him often, but I really mean it when I say I’m proud of his kindness and generosity of heart. He’s so sensitive to other people’s needs, it blows me away sometimes.

 

  • Constructive help and advice on my ideas from the generous, inspiring people I’m connecting with on the Fizzle forum. They’ve boosted my confidence no end, not only in my writing, but in my pursuit of creating something meaningful to help others with mental health issues live their best lives. It would be easy to get disheartened and give up, but this group help me keep putting one foot in front of another. What’s more, I’m being approached for advice and feedback from others, which makes me feel like I actually know what I’m talking about here – at least, some of the time!
  • Finding my voice to write a blog post I’m truly proud to share. After struggling to write a weekly TWIG post last week, my “Ten Things” article literally came to me overnight. It sounds cheesy, but it just kind of flowed out of me. Sometimes words come to me so easily, writing is a real joy! After consistently blogging for seven months now, I feel like I’m finding my voice as a writer and that’s genuinely exciting!
  • Taking yet another day of leave. Having more holidays than C (sorry C) and no plans for a major holiday (other than a September break in Seahouses), I’m using my leave to make a shorter Summer. I love having a three-day weekend, and having the time to sit here and write whilst watching “Made in Chelsea” is blissful.
  • C having bought me freshly-squeezed orange juice from our local grocers. There’s this amazing machine which squeezes the oranges in front of you. It’s worth the expense just to watch the machine at work! I’m not a fan of juice (empty calories), but this stuff is delicious – like sunshine in a glass!
  • Morning and evening sleepy cuddles with C. As the weather turns cooler and Autumn approaches, I’m really thankful to be able to cuddle C without feeling claustrophobic and sweaty. I sometimes forget how important the little things, like cuddles, can be. When I remember, this feels like a lovely new discovery again.
  • Starting to feel better. As you’ll have picked up from my previous post, I’ve been dealing with depression which isn’t entirely unexpected – my mental illness is predictable, coming over me in wave – yet it’s always shockingly painful.

Curiously, I’ve noticed that the initial recovery process is often more uncomfortable than being in the illness itself. It’s disconcerting, living inside a mind where – all too often – I can’t trust my own thoughts.

Thankfully, the darkness is beginning to lift. In depression I lack energy, feel lethargic, and have a general sense of heaviness hanging over me.

I’m making steps towards becoming better, the most productive being what I’d call my Go Slow” Strategy.  I’ve learnt that, rather than trying to fight this feeling, I recover more quickly if I allow myself to slow right down and accept that I have to go at my own pace. I’m nowhere near as productive as I usually am, but that’s okay. Perhaps it’s my subconscious mind’s way of telling me to give myself a break before I break.

  • Being self-aware and recognising that right now, I need to prioritise self-care. Just typing this makes me roll my eyes – it sounds like “therapy-speak”.  The phrase “self-care” makes me think of bubble baths and scented candles, yet I know on a deeper level it’s so important. It’s crucial to maintaining my mental fitness. So I’m quietly proud of myself for noticing what I need.
  • fullsizeoutput_5eaSmall acts of kindness. For example, C making me a cup of tea without my having to ask, or him taking charge of making lunch or dinner, makes such a huge difference to how I feel.  These everyday gestures are what contribute to a positive state of mind.
  • New underwear. Nothing fancy; it just feels good to wear something comfortable under my clothes.
  • Feeling weirdly “free”. Despite gaining weight, I’ve noticed that I’m becoming less concerned with how I look, and more interested in how I feel. It’s not foolproof – I’m still uncomfortable in my skin much of the time – but it’s a definite improvement and one which I won’t shout about for fear of frightening it off!
  • My friend E coming to see me in my new house. She lives in another city, so has not only taken the day off, but taken the train and a bus to get here. I’m especially grateful for her making this big effort because I know depression makes me a flaky friend. I feel lucky to have people who know and love me well enough to tolerate my not always being in the best of mental health.
  • Being a Kitty Mama. Particularly on 8 August, which is International Cat Day, I’m especially grateful to have two fabulous feline friends. Whenever I’ve felt down, the cats in my life have played a hugely important part in lifting me up. This week K jumped from the first floor and gave me a scare, but thankfully she seems to be fine and well.
  • Being able to walk to work, three times out of four this week. Walking to work in the morning is one of the easiest ways lift my energy before I start my day. It takes about 45 minutes door-to-door, which is just enough time to get my heart pumping, and listen to a podcast episode. I’m much more positive during the day when I’ve made the effort to exercise first-thing.
  • My family being (literally) closer than ever. I now have my sisters, nephew, sister-in-law(ish), and nieces, all within an hour’s drive of me. It’s exciting to think I can be a part of their lives growing up. C and I are also rediscovering who our siblings are as people, and that feels rather strangely lovely.
  • Gorgeous roses in the gardens I pass as I walk to and from work. Watching “Gardener’s World” with C of a Friday evening (yes, we’re that cool), I’m surprised that there’s such massive variation in these beautiful blooms. One of my favourite places to visit in Sheffield – the Botanical Gardens – has an amazing rose garden. As you’ll have seen, I love to take photos to use on my blog.
  • Having fun with my whiteboard. I intended to use it at work, but found that there’s not enough space on my desk. Instead, I’m using this to share my gratitudes and write silly messages for C to find.

Phew! It’s a long list, but it feels like I’m making up for my previous week’s absence.

Until next week!

H

x

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The Teen Angst Post (or Ten Things I Hate About You, Depression)

By some twist of fate (or perhaps just C’s bad taste in telly), we ended up watching Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema on BBC Four. Now, I’m not a fan of movie review shows. I prefer to make up my own mind about whether or not to watch something. Yet this show caught my attention because it was about the “Coming of Age” movie.

IMG_3333. Ever the emotional dramatist, my teenage self relates so deeply to the characters they portray I can’t help being pulled into their narrative. From those films I grew up watching (like “Clueless“, “The Craft“, and later, “Lost Boys“) to those I discovered and fell madly in love with in later life (most notably, “The Breakfast Club“), I’m stuck on these stories of growing up. They move me in a unique way, stirring emotions and memories long-since forgotten.

 

Like me, it seems like many of the stars in these particular films struggle with their mental health. Tragic tales of teen actors abound, many of whom find themselves in rehab before their twenty-first birthdays . Whilst some successfully recover in later life, some do not. I’m thinking specifically of talented young actors like Corey Haim, Heath Ledger, and Brittany Murphy. Despite their infinite potential, their internal pain far exceeded anything else. It’s uncomfortable to speak about suicide and addiction-related death, even on a mental health blog. However it’s important to acknowledge because their ending could easily have been my own had my life not taken a different turn.

Getting back to why I’m writing this long introduction for such a short post, rediscovering my love of teen films coincides with my own recent depressive episode. Embarassingly, and in the kind of dramatic terms we associate with teenagers (though in my experience, adults are as guilty as teens of this), I’m having a bit of a personal “creative crisis”. The more astute readers may have noticed that I’ve not yet published my weekly TWIG post, which is because I’m finding it hard to write just now.  Staring at my screen, shuffling words, I’m not getting anywhere fast. I’m putting the hours in, and publishing nothing – and it’s frustrating the hell out of me!

This weekend I decided put my writing woes aside and instead, sank into the world of a teenager, Mia, in a film I’d not yet seen. Namely, “Fish Tank” starring the fabulous Fassbender (AKA “Shark Teeth”, at least in my house).

Something clicked.

The wistful, twisted emotional discomfort I felt as I put myself into the shoes of the film’s protagonist did something to unlock my creativity.

I was suddenly and randomly inspired by the heart-wrenching poem at the heart of another fantastic film, “Ten Things I Hate About You“. This movie is a little more of the rom-com, albeit more of a black comedy than most. Still within the realms of teenage angst, it somehow epitomises my relationship with depression, which developed during my teenage years and has become a kind of internal frenemy.

A tongue-in-cheek nod to the aforementioned poem, I’ve penned the following ode to depression:

My Ten Things I Hate About You, Depression

I hate the way you shut me up. Quite literally – my tongue feels swollen to twice its size and I’m unable to speak without slurring my words.

I hate the way you slow me down. I crawl through the days, zombie-like, whenever you’re around. My legs leaden, I drag myself along, going through the motions.

I hate the way you steal my mind. Frustratingly, you make me forget my words. You leave me hanging mid-sentence, embarrassed; you make me look stupid.

I hate the way you make me numb. In trying to keep me safe, you shut me off from any kind of emotion. Even – or perhaps especially – the good ones, which only makes things harder for me.

I hate the way you steal my sparkle. I don’t feel like laughing when you’re around. You drain the fun out of me. You steal my sunshine.

I hate the way you make me selfish. I care so deeply about others, and yet with you, my attention is entirely consumed. There’s no room for anyone else; just you and me. You’re an emotionally abusive partner. You’re my frenemy.

I hate the way you make me cry. And it’s never about anything in particular. Sometimes, at the end of a movie when I’ve spent the past two hours living someone else’s life, I don’t want to come back to mine. So I cry.

I hate the way you isolate me. You make me lie to friends and family when you convince me to cancel plans last-minute. To keep me “safe”, but from whom? You encourage me to push away the people I need and love most. You make me afraid to try to make new friends.I hate the way you make me lonely.

I hate the way you make me disappear. I’m a ghost hovering on the edges of my own life when you’re around. I float on the edge of my own existence. Like watching my life unfold from behind soundproof glass. Sometimes, it feels like I’m screaming and no one can hear

But mostly, I hate the way I don’t really hate you.

Instead, you make me hate myself.

We’re tied so closely together, you and I. I can’t quite trust myself when it comes to knowing how much of what I think is me is actually you, and how much of what I think is you is actually me. So I assume the worst of us both.

Reading this back to myself aloud, it has a certain kind of power. A strength that’s simultaneously sad, but also truthful. It feels like an authentic account of depression and I. The opposite of a love letter, I suppose.

There’s even something strangely satisfying about being able to capture something intangible – like depression, which is really just a state of mind – and pin it down in words. It reminds me of the Victorian butterflies on my living room wall, pinned and frozen in time. Beautiful, in a macabre kind of way.

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Writing on Depression is my Emotional Entomology 

Perhaps I’m invoking my perpetual moody teenager in this piece. You know, the sixteen year-old goth who comes out whenever I’m in the company of my parents for too long. She’s definitely in here somewhere. After all, my Mum’s literally only just stopped buying me gifts in varying shades of black (seriously).

Still, I think I’ve nailed how insidious my experience of this particular form mental illness can be: taking me over, throwing a tantrum inside my mind, causing chaos in my internal world.

Thankfully, I’m starting to feel the fog lift. Depression comes and goes, I find, and it’s often only a matter of time before it comes to pass. Though it hurts like a b*tch in the meanwhile.

In a way, it’s because of this cyclical nature that it feels even more important to acknowledge how my present state of mind massively impacts upon on who I am and how I navigate the world in any given moment.

Think of it like the grown-up version of going through puberty. An adult adolescence of sorts; an eternal version of the emotional turmoil you feel as a teenager. It’s invisible, embarrassingly uncomfortable, and affects absolutely every part of my life experience to date.

 

The Twentieth TWIG Post (or making a mental health confessional this week)

So, I have a confession to make before I get into my gratitudes.

My mental health isn’t in the best shape at the moment.

IMG_3431I’ve been able to tell for few weeks now that I’ve been sinking a little. Some signs I’ve picked up on include:

  • No motivation to get into the gym. Something pretty standard for most people, but not for me. I’ve described it as my “happy place” on many an occasion since I found it helpful for my mental health. It’s therefore ironic that the first thing to go the moment I’m a little low is my drive to work out.
  • Disproportionate tiredness. Not only do I feel super sleepy, nearly falling asleep on the bus on my way home, but my body feels physically heavy. It’s a cliche but it I’m getting the whole “walking through treacle” thing as I drag myself leaden-like about my daily life.
  • Irrational irritability. C might argue that I’m always a bit annoyed (or is that annoying?!), but I’m especially ready for a fight just now. Even if only in my head.
  • More frequent negative thoughts. I can tell in conversations I’m a bit more moody; more likely to bitch and moan over otherwise insignificant issues.
  • Getting especially teary when watching movies. Okay, so I’m a cryer when it comes to watching telly and am likely to burst into tears at the sight of a small animal or human in crises. However I’ve noticed I’ve a particular propensity to water-works of late, which given my medication suppresses my emotions in that regard, says there’s something up.
  • Inability to focus. I’m not great at paying attention at the best of times, but I’m especially scatter-brained just now. My least refined communication skill – listening  – is proving to be an extra effort.
  • A generally “noisier” brain. Prior to taking mental health meds, there was a permanent undertone of chatter murmuring away in the background of my brain. Since then, it’s been much more library-like. Yet recently I’ve heard a few rebel voices in there, piping up without my permission.

Honestly, it sucks. I hate feeling this way.

Frustratingly, my mental health isn’t entirely within my control. Sometimes depression rears its ugly head. If I’m particularly unlucky, it brings anxiety along with it and they work together to make me miserable.

What’s more, mental illness affects not only me but those around me. Even when I mostly keep to myself, the people closest to me usually sense there’s something wrong. Their sadness at my suffering only makes things worse, adding guilt to the emotional mix.

IMG_3447Yet I am genuinely grateful to be able to share this with you. I don’t want to bring you down, but I do want to be unapologetically honest here. Besides, I can’t be bothered to cover things up. It’s taking what little energy I have left not to beat myself up for my broken brain.

As you can probably tell, the tone of this post feels different to others I’ve written. I’ve worked hard to train myself to pursue a positive perspective on life. For the most part, this strategy has been successful. Yet becoming better is not a linear process. As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m a perfectly imperfect human being. I don’t have all the answers to becoming mentally fit and healthy, but I am working on it and I can promise to share the results of my experimentations here with you.

So, yeah. I’m having a sh*tty few weeks. And I’m still here, with a long list of reasons to be thankful.

This Week I’m Grateful for:

Another whole day to myself. Being fortunate enough to have more annual leave than my partner, C, I’ve spaced random days off throughout the Summer. After I heard about this idea of operating from different styles of thinking, I read a little more on the Fizzle blog about what it means to be in “CEO” versus “worker bee” mode. This meant I could declare a “CEO Monday”; devoting my day to the kind of “big picture” thinking most of us normally skirt over in the course of everyday life.

A timely reminder about a helpful way of Getting Things Done (GTD). Intrigued by the CEO-worker bee dichotomy, I took an online productivity course. I know: “work about work” – the basic premise of productivity –  doesn’t exactly sound thrilling.

Yet it’s something I’m surprisingly grateful that I spent a few hours of my hard-earned leave doing. I’d recently given up on GTD; a productivity management system proposed by David Allen in the early 2000s. It started to feel more work than the work I was meant to be doing itself. Learning from this course, the creators made it far less complex, more flexible, and easier to implement. It inspired me to tweak it for myself. Just because something didn’t work for me in one way, doesn’t mean it can’t work for me in another.

IMG_3425Treating myself to ice cream. A small – but not insignificant -development, one of the “quirks” of my eating disorder has been not allowing myself to eat particular foods when alone. In spite of being in recovery for many years now, I’m still sometimes plagued by food fears. In this case, I’m afraid of opening Pandora’s box and binging my way back to obesity.

Recognising this irrational thought-process, I keep working on becoming better. Turns out this includes buying myself ice cream even though there was no one else around to join in with me. It’s kind of like the whole “If a tree falls in a forest…” thing; if I eat ice cream by myself, does it mean I’m destined for an unhealthy future?

So when I left my local cafe last Monday on a scorcher of a day, I bought a scoop of Bakewell tart-flavoured ice cream (in a waffle cone, of course – none of that soggy wafer nonsense). I sat on a bench outside, listening to my podcast, and enjoyed every short-lived lick. De-licious! Admittedly, I do still feel a wave of guilt wash over me around this food stuff. I’m not sure if that feeling will ever go away entirely. However being able to do these things  – even just sometimes – feels like a win.

Good questions. They lead to good answers, after all. Over the past week I asked women within various Facebook groups a few questions about working whilst managing their mental health. Within moments, I was inundated with replies and within twenty-four hours I had over fifty replies. I’ve been wondering how I can use my experiences and interests to actually make a difference, and this boosted my confidence in my idea no end!

On a similar theme, I’m chuffed that my questions have appeared twice in recent newsletters, giving me a little confidence boost. It’s proof that I’m asking interesting questions that provoke conversation with other entrepreneurs,  too, which feels good. I’m finding my place in this community and it’s lovely to feel like I belong.

C being a total hero – so much so, I think he deserves his own TWIGlet list:

  • Awesome partner that he is, C took charge in the kitchen when my mental energies weren’t up to it. Having taken it upon himself to do the weekly supermarket shop, C came home with several exciting dishes planned, including this new concoction: Fish goujon tacos. Neither of us have had fish tacos before, but being fans of the ol’ classic fish finger sandwich it made sense to give the Mexican version a go. He’d even gone so far as to lovingly prepare his own salsa for us! They were yummy.
  • C has been a bit of a hero when it comes to meal planning of late. He made us dinner more than once so that I’d be able to get other things done. For example, responding to all the Facebook messages I received. Knowing how much these connections mean to me, he quietly played chef without comment, where he’d otherwise have been tempted to chastise me for spending too much time on the Internet.
  • Last Wednesday C drove out of his way to give me a lift home after work. I’d mentioned that I was feeling off that afternoon, and the next thing I know, there he was. It was a hot day, and it turned out that C just wanted to be kind to me! C even affectionately called me “wifey” as I got into the passenger seat, complimenting me on my sundress. He’s got a real talent for giving me an emotional lift.
  • C being willing to sacrifice TV time to make me happy. As we get closer to the “Love Island” final, he’s been so good about watching it real-time that I’d almost assume he liked watching the show himself…  Sitting through two hours of ITV2 catch-up sounds really trite, however it means so much to have a partner who is so kind and considerate of my needs – however bonkers –  when I’m feeling low.

IMG_3445Attending my first Fizzle Office Hours. Beforehand I wasn’t entirely sure how this would differ from the usual group coaching. It was more of a quick-fire session, by the end of which I’d made four pages of notes and learnings, so it was an hour well-spent.

An awesome annual appraisal. It was worth investing time and energy to writing-up all I’d achieved over the past year at work. A productive conversation with my line manager helped me better understand myself. It confirmed I lack confidence in being perceived as an “expert”, even after seven years in my job.  Emotionally, I don’t connect with the confidence this experience ought to provide.

Though technically negative, this self-knowledge is actually a positive revelation. Coming away from my meeting, I felt hopeful and optimistic. I’ve ideas for strategies to start to challenging this self-depreciating self-image, and good people around to support me in becoming better.

Rain – and lots of it. We’ve had buckets of the stuff after what’s felt like a desert these past few months. Opening our patio doors and being able to smell the deliciously fresh atmosphere has been a real joy for C and I. I love the sound of thunder and lightning; stormy weather somehow brings a sense of cosy comfort.

Making new friends when you’re thirty-something. After sharing with you the story of my sudden gym-phobia… and the conversation I had with my colleague that convinced me it was okay to take it easy on myself,  To be frank, social anxiety is a b*tch. I’m grateful this only really kicked in for me in adulthood. It’s made making – and keeping – friends hard work, which sometimes really gets me.

Still nervous, I met my colleague, M, for coffee and a catch-up as planned. Rather than a quick half-hour meeting, it was over an hour later before we headed back to our respective offices. We still had tons to talk about, and I’m so thankful she was brave enough to invite me out. Next time it’s my turn.

Making my first-ever home-made nachos. Memories of “Bungalows and Bears‘” nachos playing on my mind, I decided to experiment with cutting up and baking our leftover corn tortillas. With cheese, salsa, guac, and jalapeños, it made for a deliciously crispy,chewy light Friday-night meal.

Being there for my nephew’s first birthday party. Okay, so he’s too young to understand the significance of the occasion. He was mainly grumpy; overwhelmed by us overly affectionate adults. Honestly, it’s highly unlikely he’ll have any memories of the event at all. Still, I’m grateful I could be there – for him and for my sister – after having difficult family relationships in the sort-of recent past. It means a lot – to them and to me.

Speaking of which, I’m thankful for birthday cake. In fact, any cake, really. As anyone who follows the blog will know by now, home-made cake is my most favourite food of all-time. Luckily I had the common sense (read: shame) to pass on the gorgeous-looking garden centre blueberry cake prior to baby G’s party. My brother-in-law had baked deliciously moist chocolate cupcakes, each covered in a generous swirl of buttercream frosting. I ate two.

IMG_3441Relaxing in a clean and tidy home. Pulling together as a team, C and I worked hard to get our house in shape  this Sunday. It’s mentally soothing to live in a clean, calm environment. The external organisation does something to my brain, creating a sense of calm.

Finally, I’m grateful to have spent my Sunday afternoon on the sofa with C to watch a movie. Admittedly, “Dunkirk” wasn’t my choice of film, but I got sucked into the story, sobbing my way through to the end. Finding it especially hard to focus of late, it felt good to be able to concentrate because it’s lovely to connect with C over a bowl of popcorn and a healthy cry.

Until next week.

x

My ProjectHeatherED Manifesto Post (or why I believe mental health matters and my motivations behind this blog)

Last night I went to bed listening to Simon Sinek‘s “Start With Why” on Audible.  He quite literally spoke to me and rather than winding down for sleep, I stayed up past midnight writing this post.

It’s inspired me to create this manifesto; a manifesto being defined as “a public declaration of policy and aims.”

By openly sharing my “why” I hope to make clear to you, dear reader, what it is about mental health that really matters to me. Why I feel so passionately about Project HeatherED, and what’s kept me consistently publishing these past six months.

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Why Becoming Better is the Heart of Project HeatherED 

A Mental Health Manifesto

I believe we are more than our mental health.

I believe as human beings we are inherently worthy.

Our value is no more tied to our physical bodies than it is to our state of mind.

Instead, I believe that what matters most is our emotional intelligence. Being Open-minded and open-hearted, if we’re willing to learn – to improve, expand, and grow – then there’s always hope of becoming better.

I believe that it’s important to explore ways we can become happier; to maximise our mental wellness.

I believe we deserve better than a mediocre mental existence.

I believe that our dreams are not determined by any diagnosis.

We can have anxiety and be amazing.

We can feel depressed and, deep down, still dream of a happier future.

We can fight to control our our dangerous desires – be they food or fitness, drugs or drink – and also fight to feel truly free.

I believe a healthy mind is linked to having a healthy body, but that doesn’t always look how we’d expect.

I believe that a perfect body is one in which we feel at home.

I believe we can learn to feel truly beautiful; to become comfortable in our skin, to overcome our mental, physical, and emotional barriers to having a positive body image.

I believe that we can overcome our fears of being judged by others.

I believe that by daring to be fully ourselves – by being vulnerable – we can become better at self-acceptance.

I believe it’s possible to get to where what we think matters, first and foremost; where what others think doesn’t matter so much after all.

I believe in self-determination; in making informed choices.

I believe that we can choose to take control and manage our mental wellness.

I believe that how we manage our mental health is a personal decision; that we deserve respect, whatever we decide.

I believe that medication can play an important role in helping us feel better.

I also believe in taking responsibility for our own recovery; for our happiness.

I believe we each have our own definition of success. Knowing what we want, we can then design our own blueprint for the life we wish to lead.

I believe we choose the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, our lives and the world we live in. We have the ability to rewrite it at any moment, making it better, brighter, and more beautiful.

I believe that we can help each other to become more.

I believe that by working together, we grow in confidence, increase our emotional fitness, and our psychological resilience.

As we learn more about ourselves and how our minds work, I believe we’re becoming better, each and every day.

This statement is a work-in-progress. Still, as of this moment, I’ve given it my best shot. I think it goes some way to explain why I’m driven to contribute to the conversation around mental health.

My manifesto is also a declaration of how I strive to live my own life; how I aim to value myself and others. I do so imperfectly, of course. I regularly fall short of my own ambitious standards and that’s okay.

I, too, am a work-in-progress. My manifesto makes room for mistakes. I hope it explains why I’m driven to invest so much time and energy in this project, and why it matters so much to me.

As I’ve already said, I truly believe we can become better.

 

The Confidence 101 Post (or what we can do right now to build self-belief)

Having  self-confidence has to be one of the most – if not the most – commonly-cited challenges to living our best lives. Courses and classes abound on the subject, yet it continues to be an issue for even the smartest, most successful among us.

Inevitably, it’s harder still to believe in ourselves when we’ve got mental health issues. On top of the usual challenges that thrown at us in the course of the average day, we’ve got bonus bullsh*t echoing around in our heads.

I mean, we only need look at this dictionary definition of self-confidence to see where our problems begin if we’re also conscious of managing our mental health:IMG_3231

Self-confidence: “[a] feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgement

Sounds great – an ideal state of being  – but feeling self-confident is the complete opposite experience of anyone who’s ever contended with depression and anxiety. For me, when I’m in the former mindset, I search the recesses of my mind to find proof-positive of my failings. In the latter, I can’t even think about the future without feeling utterly petrified.

Whichever way I turn I’m mentally tying myself up in knots, setting into motion a vicious cycle of self-criticism and doubt, chipping away at what little confidence I had in the first place.

I’ve been musing on this and here’s my two-penneth, for what it’s worth.

What we need is to build a base level of self-belief that’ll carry us through those days when we’re just wrecked with worry. From my experience, mental health doesn’t deteriorate overnight; it creeps up, worming its way insidiously into my mind until I’m no longer certain of what’s me, and what’s it working through me.

Hence I’m proposing we pursue a slowly-slowly-catchy-monkey approach to creating genuine confidence.

I’ve come up with a plan, people! Let me explain.

My theory is that if we embed a few healthy habits into our regular routine, we’ll become more resilient and better able to handle situations where our confidence is challenged. We’ll be building our emotional strength and will have that “bounce-back-ability” to overcome whatever barriers to self-belief are put in our way.

So here’s a few simple strategies that have helped me to become more confident and start to reverse the spin on the vicious cycle of poor self-esteem. I hope they’ll do the same for you, too.

HeatherED’s Three Things to Start Building Self-Belief

#1: Make decisions up-front.

IMG_3396In my experience I’ve found that my confidence grows the more I experience success. Hence this first strategy is all about creating enough head space for us to learn how to handle moments of self-doubt. As is the case with taking good care of our bodies, it requires time and energy to establish a healthy emotional fitness regime.

Our brains are literal thinking machines.  We humans do a lot of this thinking malarky. Adults apparently make around 35,000 decisions each day, and the more decisions we have to make, the quicker we reach what’s called “decision fatigue”; explained in the New York Times as “the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making.” It seems even thinking about thinking’s pretty exhausting.

This got me thinking: how can we free our minds from minutiae that doesn’t matter? I suggest that we front-load our decision-making. How, exactly? Well, by making as many choices in advance as possible, minimising how often we need make choices, and reducing repeat decision-making. This way we’re saving time and energy that we can instead invest in the more important stuff of life.

Ways I’ve reduced decision fatigue include pre-planning packed lunches, advance booking gym classes, and sticking to my morning routine. I find that when I’m mentally “wobbly” my conviction in my own capability wavers and I become stuck in indecision.

Sometimes, when we’re in this mentally dubious place, dithering over daft decisions, then it makes most sense just to rip off the plaster and choose something – anything – and move on. Ironically, it’s only in the choosing that we can get out of a sticky spot and move forward.  In life there’s often no “right” decision. By not deciding,  we’re just wasting what little energy we do have on stuff that really doesn’t matter.

#2: Get grateful.

If you’re reading this then you likely already know how I feel about gratitude. Read any of my TWIG (“This Week I’m Grateful”) posts and you’ll soon get the picture. IMG_3239

Starting a daily gratitude practice sounds cheesy, I know. For anyone uncomfortable with the idea of navel-gazing, this is going to be a bit of a hard-sell. However I cannot state strongly enough the positive impact this one strategy has had on improving my own confidence. 

As a result of getting grateful – actively looking for all those things I already have to be thankful for, and consciously stating this for myself – I’m happier, healthier, and emotionally more fulfilled. It’s not magic; it’s simply self-awareness and showing appreciation for what I have, in the here-and-now.

Self-awareness and self-esteem are intrinsically linked, so this is where a regular gratitude practise can help build confidence. The better we know ourselves, the more compassion we’re likely to find for ourselves when we fall upon hard times.

How you go about this can be tailored to the individual. I started by writing lists in my journal – in classic self-help style, jotting down three things I felt thankful for about that day. Gratitude made its way into my Tony Robbins’-inspired priming ritual on the walk to work, becoming a habitual practice. These days, anyone who follows me on Facebook (hint, hint!) gets to see me share my daily gratitudes.

However you choose to do it, the more you find to be grateful for, the more confident you’ll likely feel. It has cumulative impact, lifting mood incrementally. As we see ourselves living happier lives, we rack up the positive achievements which ultimately boosts our self-belief.

#3 Be a copy-cat.

When my mental health isn’t in its finest shape, I can’t trust myself to know which way is up, let alone feel confident enough to make important decisions. Rather than forcing myself to try, if all else fails then I’ll turn instead to someone I do trust and instead copy them.

If in doubt, I role model it out!

(Ack! So cheesy I made myself cringe!)

I’ve followed this “fake it ’till you make it” strategy for building self-belief before, particularly in recovery from disordered eating. I lost touch with what “normal” eating even looked like, so I’d watch those around me and quite literally copy them.

The “someone” we choose to imitate matters a lot with this strategy. It’s got to be a trusted friend, partner, or family member. Someone whose judgement you believe to be reasonable, rational, and whose approach to life is generally balanced and healthy, particularly in relation to whatever issue we’re looking to address.

IMG_3395Looking around me to see whose attitude to food most resembled that I wished to have myself, I chose to emulate my little sister, C. That Summer, if she was having baked potato with beans and cheese for dinner, then so would I. If it was okay for her to say yes to an ice cream on a day out, then I accepted it might be okay for me, too. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in my case it meant more than that. It was a way of becoming better and building confidence in myself and my body again.

Deferring to someone else in this way is a short-term strategy to self-confidence. Still, in my experience it’s been really helpful to pull myself out of a mental rut. I might have heard the playground taunt of “copy-cat, copy-cat, sitting on the doormat” in the back of my mind, but it helped right my path and restored at least some of my self-belief around food.

And that’s it. In sum, we can become more confident by applying the following simple strategies:

  1. Make decisions up-front.
  2. Get grateful.
  3. Be a copy-cat.

Having practiced this stuff, I know it works for me but there’s always more to learn. I’m looking to grow in this area, too, so I’d love to hear from you:

What helps you become better at building self-confidence?

What are some of your strategies for strengthening self-belief? 

Share your thoughts with me in the comments.

The Nineteenth TWIG Post (or why it having good friends and happy cats matters more than a flat stomach)

After much debate I’ve decided to go on hiatus from the gym. This has come as a bit of a shock – especially to me! For over four years now I’ve been regularly attending classes, reliably turning up, rain or shine (or snow) at least three times a week. But over these last few months I’ve skipped several sessions, too tired to be bothered.

fullsizeoutput_596I’ve lost my workout mojo.

With nothing specifically sparking this change of heart, my immediate worry went straight to my mind. As anyone who’s ever experienced depression will appreciate, that’s one place I never wish to return to, if I can help it. Still, I don’t think I’ve felt particularly down about anything of late. On the contrary, I’m more enthusiastic about life than ever: I’ve several exciting projects on the go, we’re about to conclude our house sale, and we’re enjoying our first long, sunny Summer in the new garden.

So why this sudden turnaround?

Why does the thought of a workout leave me feeling… well, meh?

Okay, so I have to point out the elephant in the room here: me. C would be really cross if he heard me be so self-flagellating, and I don’t actually mean it, but I’m acutely aware of having gained a few pounds. I can’t deny it when I look in the mirror, even if it’s only really noticeable to those closest to me.

Gaining weight obviously doesn’t make me feel great about myself – but neither has it brought me down in the way I’d have expected. My self-worth being tied so closely to my body image for pretty much my whole life, this apathy feels weird. I don’t care as much as I think I should and I have to admit – it’s unnerved me.

Overwhelmed by this gym guilt, I reached out to my colleague, M, to enquire whether she’d be attending class this week. Since my house is en-route to hers, she’s kindly been giving me a lift home and we’ve become friendly. Moaning about my lack of motivation, I learnt my fitness pal is actually recovering from an injury. After telling my tragic tale I felt myself blush, embarrassed to be making a massive fuss over nothing. After all, I wasn’t the one who was hurt, was I?

Well, actually yes; I was hurting. The difference being that my mind was the specific cause of my pain.

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Emotional pain can be as acute as anything we feel physically.

Both reside within our bodies.

Whilst our capacity to feel physical pain is limited (admittedly, it can get pretty physically painful), our minds have no depth of darkness to which they cannot sink. 

Empathising with my mental health worries, M suggested I consider taking time out from workouts. A break might help me figure out my feelings about fitness; build a better relationship between body and mind. Whilst we agreed a regular routine benefits an anxious mind like mine, it’s sometimes healthy to step back and reassess things.

There’s no rule that says I have to do, or be, anything – let alone “make up” for my lack of interest in exercise just now. At least, none other than those self-imposed rules we use to hold ourselves up to impossible standards of perfection.

M suggested getting rid of guilt by thinking about how I’d prefer to spend my time. What matters most to me? A flat stomach or having fun with favourite fluffs? Given the brevity of their time on this planet, wouldn’t I rather spend more of it playing with my feline friends?

When I look at it this way, I’d much rather cuddle my cats than spend an evening sweating in a stuffy studio. Decision made, I cancelled my class, breathed a sigh of relief, and planned to head home.

Before I logged out for the day, M suggested we catch up over coffee and immediately booked a time in our calendars. As it’s me who usually has to make plans with friends, it felt good for someone to invite me out for a chance. I’d been feeling so bad, this small kindness actually brought tears to my eyes – despite my medication making crying a challenge!

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I’m touched and tremendously thankful that someone has seen my vulnerability, recognised my pain, and still wants to befriend me. 

Even talking about making new friends feels a bit uncomfortable. In our modern Western society it seems we’re conditioned to feel embarrassed about our having needs. Yet it’s in our nature to need human connection.

What’s more, as adults we meet fewer new people in general so making friends becomes even harder. Hence whilst I’m sure social anxiety will creep in when it comes time for that coffee, I’m thankful for the chance to  get to know my new friend.

This Week I’m Grateful For:

*The velvety texture of C’s hair when it’s just been cut. Running my hand the wrong way up the back of his head, it feels soft and spiky against my skin. For the next week it’ll look that bit too short, but it’ll feel fantastic. C has what he himself describes as Chinese hair: straight, dark and ridiculously dense. Unlike the majority of his peers, C’s got a full head of hair. – something for which we’re both grateful!

*Still another new dress from the Fat Face sale. It was meant to be two dresses, but it looks like perhaps my credit card has been saved by the other selling out. Oh, and a cardigan. You never know when I might need one.

*A mid-week Paperchase binge. Aware I’m nervous about the impending office move, my colleague K asked if I fancied a trip to town to treat ourselves to some new stationery.

She returned with lunch boxes for her little girl, whereas I came back with a whole new organisational system (in co-ordinated pastel shades, of course).

IMG_3383

My former desk buddies have returned home after seven years.

Given this chance to change my work space, I’m re-decorating. Going for more grown-up vibes, I plan to update my vision board.  To help me manage my mental health at work (where it inevitably sometimes gets stressful), I created my board to remind me of all that I have in life which brings me happiness.

I’ll be working on this for the next few weeks, collecting new inspirational quotes and images, and updated photos of all those whom I love. Next weekend it’s my nephew G’s first birthday, so I’ll take new photos with him, my sisters, and maybe even C. Our nieces will soon be moving into their new Sheffield home (it’s even got a treehouse!), so I’ll be able to add their pictures to the pile.

I have to admit, it’s kind of exciting, which leads me perfectly onto my next thanksgiving.

*Coming into work of a morning and finding postcards left  on my desk. Turning them over, I found a message from K bestowing positivity, love, and luck for our move. I’m so lucky to work with such kind-hearted people, and it’s times like this when I’m reminded to be thankful for my job.

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I found these on my keyboard. I think I can re-home them on my vision board. 🙂

*Building confidence in my business skills. Taking advice from those further down the road success, I put myself “out there” and offered my help for free. Volunteering to read, review, and feed back on other women’s work has taught me so much about my own strengths.

Creating anything of value takes confidence; something I sometimes admittedly lack. However helping other women make their businesses better actually helps me – and myideas – feel more worthy. It reminds me of the point of pursuing my passions and gives me hope that I’m moving in a positive direction.

*Being brave, I switched on my webcam for my first “Fizzle Friday”. I was anxious about asking my early-stage questions, given that most participants in these weekly coaching sessions are so much further ahead in creating their businesses.

Yet I need not have worried. Not only did Corbett reassure me that I’m on the right path,   but combining his comments with others’ feedback will help me make constructive, positive progress in the coming weeks.

*Freshly-squeezed orange juice. It’s impossible to ignore its delicious scent when walking into our local grocers. I have to admit – it’s incredible! I can’t recall when I last drank anything this good. We’ll definitely be keeping our refillable bottle to go back for more.

*Guido’s chocolate flapjacks. How the topping stays Nutella-like runny – never going hard – I don’t know. Honestly, I’m not sure I want to know! Still, they’re totally treacly and utterly umptious. Served in tiny fairy cake cases, they’re slipped into a paper bag, the flapjacks’ sheer stickiness turns it transparent.

*Magazines as my weekend treat. Ever since I can remember this has been one of my most favourite pleasures. Popping open the plastic, I love to smell their glossy pages packed with promise before anyone else has touched them. Odd, but true, I’m afraid.

*An extra day off this week. Whilst I’d prefer proper holidays with C, his lack of leave means I’m taking some time off work alone. Still, I’m feeling rather smug about having several extra-long weekends over these Summer months.

*C and I have booked our September staycation in Seahouses, Northumberland once again. Wearing waterproofs to wander across the sand to Bamburgh Castle, browsing the shelves at Barter Books, and cosying up in a pub sharing a bag of crisps: These activities may sound rather dull but for us, it’s one of our happy places.

*An unexpected visit from a rather smiley, sticky little boy, and his equally messy mother. My sister and my nephew, baby G, came for lunch today. I’m definitely biased, but I’m 100% convinced that G is the happiest, loveliest child in the Universe.

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The Eighteenth TWIG Post (or how I’m happy despite having felt unwell this week)

I’m trying something a little different with my TWIG post this week.

I think I’ve been trying to do too much.

So rather than overloading you, I’m simply getting grateful. Instead I’ll share another story around becoming better in a separate post. I hope you’ll join me then, but in the meanwhile here goes…

IMG_3340This Week I’m Grateful for:

*Working with people who care about me.

Kindness is under-rated in our society, and yet it makes a massive difference to our quality of life. My anxiety now rarely shows its face at work (which is a gratitude in-and-of itself). However on the odd occasion it makes an appearance – like this past week – I’m thankful to have colleagues who make the effort to understand and accommodate my “quirks”.

Mental health issues are something even those of us with them struggle to comprehend. For people who haven’t personally experienced mental illness – and there are more of us than one might think – it must be hard to imagine. Not able to totally trust your mind to tell you the truth is, well, a mind-bending concept. It’s also pretty scary – to the point where many people choose to deny its existence rather than have to face the fact that, as Clare Eastham states so well in her book, “We’re all mad here”.

Fortunately for me, I have colleagues who try to understand. They care enough about me to make this effort. They accept that sometimes, I simply need to be alone. The world is too overwhelming. Like a turtle, I hide inside my shell until I feel safe enough to come back out and rejoin the world. What comes off as anti-social behaviour is usually my needing to take a little time away from the noise of open-plan in order to quieten the raging inside my mind.

I’m most grateful that they can “see” me, the person. It’s a real testimony to sensitivity and character of the people I work with that they can appreciate that “Heather” is the person I am underneath; the one who experiences these mental moments, as opposed to my being mental, per say.

*Being able to do what’s best for my health.

It’s not always easy to admit to feeling under the weather, but it’s even harder if it involves mental illness. For me, there’s usually a slow build-up to break-down that I can miss the early-warning signs of impending doom. Oftentimes, it eventually comes out as physical illness; my body literally acting to stop me in my tracks.

At times like this, I’m thankful that I work for a public-sector organisation that generally supports its people in taking the time to get well. Whenever I’m ill it’s a reminder to appreciate this anew. I know it’s not the case for many people, including C who works in a private company where taking sick days is penalised when it comes to bonus time. Particularly in light of my mental health, I count my job – and colleagues – as a blessing. Not everyone can choose to prioritise their health without worrying about the consequences at work.

*My partner, C, going out of his way to take care of me.

Being the sensitive soul he is, C picked up on my being out-of-sorts way sooner than I did. As such, he’s been extra lovely to me this week.

Examples of some small acts of daily kindness which make life much easier for those of us who have “wobbly” mental health include:

  • Cooking the dinner when it’s clearly not their turn.
  • Taking on more of the housework, which includes the intellectual (thinking) and emotional (feelings) work. Many women – myself included – unthinkingly shoulder the brunt of this without realising how tiring it can become (there’s definitely a future post in there!).
  • Keeping schtum when we zonk out on the couch in our PJs when we get in from work to watch a marathon of mindless TV (and I know this is not just me!)IMG_3341

My most favourite thing C does for me is making my supper cup of tea without my asking, simply because he knows I think it tastes better when he makes it.

Small kindnesses like this are often taken for granted in long-term relationships. We get used to them as they become habitual and routine; they’re just “what we do” for each other. Yet they’re often the things that mean the most when one of us is feeling off-colour, and so I’m focusing on feeling thankful for the small stuff – because they’re actually pretty big.

*My cats being so glad to have me home.

B.C. (Before Cats) sick days had been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, being ill generally necessitates some degree of discomfort. It’s either something painful or gross, and it’s usually some combination of the two. On the other hand, there’s daytime telly, extra tea and toast, and the rare opportunity to skip the shower and spend a whole day in my PJs. Still, there’s always that post-Doctors lull whereby the day’s officially more than half over. All the best terrestrial telly is over and you’re stuck watching re-runs of “Housewives” on catch-up.

Cats, however, have the unique ability to make a sick-day into a good-but-gross day. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you’re in-demand. Sitting next to D on the carpet to play with the feather toy made me feel so much better.  Making my cat happy makes me happy. Later I fell asleep on the sofa under the watchful eye of my buddy-boy.

Even just thinking about the fact that there are two creatures – mini-panthers – living in my home, wanting to hang out with me, tickles me. Such simple things can make me smile and totally change the tone of my day.

 *Love Islandtherapy

IMG_3360With my anxiety making a reappearance this week, it’s been a blessed relief to tune into the goings-on of this group of tanned twenty-somethings. It’s pure hedonism for this thirty-something with my mega-mortgage, a full-time office job, and the general gripes of  grown-up life. I’m only slightly serious when I say I wish I were holed-up in a Spanish villa for the Summer, my only responsibilities being to glam up, play Club 18-30s-style games by the pool, and partner up with whomever takes my fickle twenty-something fancy. #abitjealous? #100%!

Allowing myself this form of escapism is a literal holiday for my mind.  For some unbeknownst reason, this nightly dose of junk telly takes me out of my head for a while. It’s mental freedom –  exactly what the Doctor (Alex) ordered.  It’s proving the perfect remedy for an over-active brain which is why I refuse to feel guilty or ashamed of my love for the Island. #loyal

*C taking one for the team.

Let’s be clear about what I mean here: He removed the sun-dried frog found on our back doorstep and didn’t make me do it. There’s technically no proof it’s the result of either cats’ midnight madness but I have my suspicions that a certain kitty with a K might be to blame…

For some reason, the dead frog creeped me out way more than the three beautiful blue tits left for dead on the hall carpet. I can pick them up no problem (and I actually have a slightly macabre fascination with doing so). Something about the slightly shrivelled, sticky-looking amphibian corpse just grossed me out, so I was glad that C did the manly thing and “removed” it with the brush and shovel.

*Rehoming a pair of 1930s tulip vases.

At an antiques fair this weekend we lucked out by finding a pair of blue vases that fit perfectly with the style of our home. We’re still uncertain as to exactly how we want the house to look – I’ve painstakingly planned it on my Pinterest, but C’s yet to agree to the exact shade of Farrow & Ball blue I can use in the lounge.

Rather than sticking to any particular “look” or style we’re going instead with what we love. Definitely wanting to reinstall some of the house’s original 1930s features, we’ve also been on the look-out for items of the same era which appeal to our taste today.

For me, my taste is rather eclectic. I’m enamoured of angular Art Deco, an element of Victorian taxidermy, and masses of mid-century modern furniture. As the sale of our former home is almost final, the prospect of redesigning our forever home feels ever more real. I’m excited to have our own house and the opportunity to make it entirely us.

*Lemonade ice lollies.

Like all the other kids, C sent me off to the ice-cream van this weekend with the money to buy myself an ice lolly. Within moments of it being in my sticky mitts, I proceeded to down said popsicle, remembering how satisfying it is to bite through the ice. Frosty splinters stuck to my tongue, melting into delicious lemony numbness. On what was a ridiculously hot day, this was a small piece of sugary heaven.

*A chance chat with a charming child.

IMG_3369A young lad sat himself down – uninvited – at the same picnic table where C and I were eating lunch, resting his shaved head on folded arms with a sweaty sigh. Catching sight of a sparkly earring immediately got me thinking of the kids from“Shameless”. I planned on ignoring the interrupting, focusing instead on my food.

Moments later, his grandmother appeared with drinks and ice cream. I relaxed slightly: She looked like a nice lady and indeed she was, making friendly conversation across the table. I showed an interest in what they’d been buying at the antiques fair and the young lad sprang to live.

Showing me what he’d bought that morning, he spoke so thoughtfully, and with such intelligence, for what was clearly his passion.  He’d spent his hard-earned pocket money on militaria: a late twentieth-century army helmet, a WW2 artillery box, and an incredibly creepy baby’s gas mask-slash-cot.

C and I both rather fell enamoured of this lad. Noting his intense seriousness about his subject, he’s probably on the autistic spectrum but is also the most interesting and engaged young man I’ve met in a long time. Whilst I was drawn to his passion and enthusiasm, C could relate to being a similarly thoughtful kind of kid. It was a pleasure to meet him.

I absolutely adore kids and – for the most part – they seem to like me, too. I get so much joy from hanging out with my loved one’s offspring, it sometimes makes me question whether we ought to seriously consider having our own.

Yet when I come home to the peace and quiet – when I can sit here on my laptop typing away with no one to think about other than myself – no one I’m responsible for in that way – then I’m also grateful for that, too.

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