The road less travelled

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Today, it has suddenly struck me that much of life is about how you deal with the unexpected obstacles, roadblocks, dead ends that come inevitably to all. It is generally those that persevere in spite of these things that achieve their goals.

At the moment, it feels like there are potholes all over the road I’m travelling on and my general tendency has been to simply avoid all roads with potholes. This week, I decided not to turn to avoidance and to confront head on my restrictive tendencies.

In a conversation I had with a mental health professional a few weeks ago, she suggested that perhaps my mood would improve and become more stable if I can regulate my eating. I am loathe to do this. Restriction feels very natural to me but in truth, I don’t think it is the way forward in life.

Restriction works for me because not dealing with food means I can focus on writing or doing things. When I am eating often or in greater quantities, I feel totally paralysed. Unable to move, to focus on things, to enjoy the company of others or conversations. It is so back to front but it is what it is.

But I know that the fluctuations in my mood are also very dangerous. There is no mental stability when I am like that and there is the feeling that I won’t know which me will appear on any given day.

So, for the past week, I have given regular eating (3 times a day and then shifting to 4 times a day) a go. The first 3 days were awful and filled with a lot of tears and self-loathing and a hyper critical voice. Then I took a day off because it just felt like I was torturing myself. Day 5 was a hot mess and it was as though I was trying to punish myself for eating by overeating. Day 6 was another awful day filled with tears and more self-loathing. Worse still, I was so mad at everything and everyone, ready to flip out at any given moment. This subsided somewhat by the time evening came around and the company of a good person helped a little. Day 7 was more of the same with a rock bottom mood to top it off. I generally am not one for staying in bed the whole day. In fact, I don’t do that. But yesterday, was that type of day with tears after all 3 meals.

I can’t say exactly what the upset is about. At the start of the week, it was anger and then it morphed into supreme sadness. I know why I am sticking with it and generally, once I start something, I like to finish it no matter how challenging.

This process over the past week feels much harder than the refeeding I did early last year. It’s like the challenge last year was the physical symptoms which come with refeeding (oedema, sore joints and muscles, constant urination, night sweats, painful feet which meant walking more than 5 minutes was tortuous, swollen body etc). All that lasted about 9 months. But what I didn’t experience so much is the emotion which I am experiencing now. The tears, sadness, self-loathing, negative voice.

I don’t think this is depression. It has a different face. I don’t know what it is but I know I have to stick with this road – the road less travelled.

Whenever I hear anyone say ‘sit with it’, I want to punch them in the face. I hate those words even though they hold value. For me, this week has not so much been about sitting as much as lying in bed with it. Squirming as though there are ants all over my body, crying as if the most awful thing has come to pass.

I am giving this process at least a month, to see whether my moods do become more stable. I worry that my writing has gone to pot somewhat because mentally my head is so filled with distress that there is no space for creating. But this post in itself is some small success because I am up, showered and writing even if there is no beauty in this post.

The moment you realise something’s not quite right

‘No matter what we face, we all must face our moment of truth’.

There’s a time in a one’s life when you realise something’s not quite right. For me in recent weeks, I have had a few of those moments. It was in fact something which happened yesterday which prompted this post.

My seat’s been in the wrong position all along

A few days ago, I was on my bike which I’ve ridden for almost 3 years, when I realised that something was wrong. My seat was too far forward. Consequence is that whenever I cycle, I am forever shifting on the seat, trying to find a comfortable spot. I had been riding in an uncomfortable position for the past 3 years and hadn’t really realised this. I hadn’t realised that there was a more comfortable way of sitting on my bike. When I got home that day, I tried to shift the seat myself but because I had been riding it in that position for so long, it was hard to undo the bolt which keeps the seat in place. The following day, I found someone who was a bike mechanic and with little to no effort, she was able to find the right tool to undo the bolt and shift the seat back.

Result: I cycled home like a speed queen.

The height’s all wrong on my bike

Similarly, last year, I went on holiday and had the chance to cycle in beautiful parts of Europe like Montenegro and Slovenia. When I returned home, I realised that my bike seat was too low down. I am short but have long legs and a short torso.  It was only by going abroad, riding a different bike that I was able to see there was a problem with the way I had been riding my bike. I raised my bike and suddenly I felt like a new person on my bike.

Result: cycling felt so much better. I was able to put much more power through the pedals.

Tales from the classroom – when the abnormal becomes normal

When I was a College teacher, I got used to all sorts of behaviour and students acting in ways which were far from ‘normal’. I remember a student lying in the middle of the road on a residential trip, another flipping a table over with all the force of Hulk (the Incredible, not Hogan), alcohol and drug use on those trips etc. I became accustomed to the behaviour. So much so that it became ‘normal’, expected even. In truth, not all my students showed such extreme behaviour. And even those who showed such behaviour were on the whole, individuals who deep down, had many wonderful traits.

I remember leaving the job and speaking to a colleague who also left. This colleague said that it was funny how accustomed we became to unacceptable behaviour that we now considered it ‘normal’ behaviour. My colleague said that it was only once they had left the job that they realised that what happened at times in our classrooms, was not alright. Something was wrong, all along. It’s just that we didn’t know it.

Of late, it has dawned on me that something’s not quite right. I’ve become so used to me and all my ways that some things which I thought were just me are not things I should accept as just a part of me. This may all sound a little cryptic but that’s okay. The important thing is that we all have moments of clarity in our life.

May we all have moments of clarity in our lives

The hamster spinning on the wheel may one day realise that something is not right – that there’s more to life than the wheel.

The person who thinks that a few drinks each night is harmless may realise one day that they are unable to stop drinking – that something’s not quite right.

Those living in abusive relationships who have become accustomed to being on the receiving end of violence in all its forms may one day realise that things are not right – that violence is not a ‘normal’ part of life.

Those aha!!! moments may be painful or come with regret or sadness or fear for the future but whatever that case, it means that we are more empowered to do what we need to do to change things. We cannot address an issue until we realise it’s an issue.

I am glad that I love to learn about myself and others. I love that I am willing to take on board the opinions and ideas of others. I am glad that I am willing to be honest with myself even when the result is a painful acceptance of my frailties and faults.

When the teacher becomes the student

I remember a student of mine. I have many memorable students. He used to come to me at the end of the day and ask about his performance and what he could do to improve. Now, I would not necessarily recommend such an in-depth daily assessment of oneself but what I loved most about this student was that he was willing to receive feedback from others, take it on board and use it to grow and progress in life.

I learnt so much from this student. Not least that the perception others have of us is sometimes just as important as the perception we have of ourselves. If others can see that something is wrong, then we must be willing to consider that maybe, just maybe there is something that’s not quite right.

Like the bolt on my bike seat, I know that habits and behaviours calcify the longer they are allowed to exist. But, I know too that finding the right person or support to help shift that seat is possible. At least, I hope it is. I know things do not have to be as they are at present. But it takes patience, a leap of faith and support to find a better way to live.

Looks can be so deceiving when it comes to mental illness and distress

Today is the first day I have had some clarity all month. It feels nice to feel like myself even if only for a day. It feels nice to have a mind which is not plagued by the weight of my thoughts.

An honest friend will always be better than a friend who just wants to stay on your good side or make you happy

In recent days, I have had an email exchange with a friend today who is well versed in eating disorders. She stressed to me the need to let others in my life know how bad things are at the moment with my eating and overexercise. I feel I have done this to some extent, probably not as firmly as I ought to (in part to protect the things that help me cope with life) but I also know that the thing which spoke loudest in the past was emaciation.

Looking unwell provokes a reaction from others

When I looked unwell, no one would encourage my exercise in they way they do now. When I looked unwell, my intake was monitored more closely by others. When I looked unwell, there was generally more concern. And that is a shame. Because mentally, I am a big mess at the moment but on the outside, I look fine, good even as people tell me from time to time, with annoying pleasure. When people have seen you looking really awful, the fact that you look good becomes a block. It is a wall which blocks others from seeing and sometimes hearing the truth about where you’re at in the present moment.

In all honesty, I kind of don’t mind it. I have spent more years looking well than I have looking unwell and looking well comes with many benefits (some good for the person, some good for the illness). Looking well allowed me to hide my eating disorder from my family for about 14 years. Now, it allows me to continue restricting and exercising without others commenting. But in the longterm, all these things which I use to manage the worst of my depressive episodes, only serve to plunge me deeper into my eating troubles.

Dispelling myths about eating disorders

People sometimes have the wrong impression about eating disorders. Let me dispel a few myths.

  1. People who restrict do eat but don’t necessarily prefer salad. I don’t care for clean eating or veganism or any other fad. I love me some butter on my toast. In fact, at times, I don’t really care what you put in front of me. If I am doing good mentally, I can pretty much manage most foods. Unfortunately, doing good mentally has proved somewhat elusive for me over the past year.
  2. Sometimes it is not concern about one’s body that makes the ED become entrenched, it is an inability to manage the anxieties of life or the fear of becoming a full-time depressive.
  3. A person may look perfectly fine but be close to death. Bulimia leads to low potassium. Low potassium can and has been fatal for many in the past. I have ended up in hospital numerous times for this condition, hypokalemia. A 16 year old girl, Libby Rose died of it in August 2017.
  4. Most people with eating disorders are at a ‘normal’ or ‘above normal’ weight. Only 8% of people diagnosed with eating disorders in the UK are considered anorexic (underweight). That means that the majority (92%) do not ‘look’ like the stereotypical image of a person with an eating disorder.
  5. Bulimia will eventually lead to serious dental issues: erosion of enamel, decay in one’s teeth and loss of teeth.
  6. Going from underweight to a normal weight does not signal recovery. It just means a person has done the physical work and now they have the mountain of the mind to climb.
  7. People may need just as much support when they are underweight as when they are at a ‘normal’ weight.
  8. Independent and flexible eating will take a lot more time than it takes to restore weight. I spent 9 years underweight and restored my weight in 5 months. Not only has this been a shock to my body but it has also been a shock to my mind. I need just as much support with meals now as I needed then because it is impossible to undo 20 plus years of an eating disorder in 5 months. I thought if I could just eat normally then I would be fine but that is not the case.
  9. Appetite is regulated by mood for some. With every episode of depression, my appetite takes a massive hit. This in turn reignites my eating problems. I sometimes have just about enough time to recover from one episode before another hits me.
  10. People frequently move from one ED to another. In recovery, it is likely that you will fit no diagnostic criteria. I am not anorexic (though I restrict at the moment) because I am not underweight, I am not bulimic (because I don’t throw up at the moment). I exercise a lot but not to lose weight but rather to manage the depression. I am not orthorexic because I don’t care for clean eating though I do exercise a lot (for my mind not for my body). I have in the past been both anorexic and bulimic. Eating disorders are fluid in nature. They morph into one thing or another depending on where a person is in life and in their mind.

Taking responsibility for my own recovery

My recovery is my business. I cannot and will not blame where I am on anyone else. At my current weight, I would likely not be eligible for any NHS support with my eating and I am okay with that funny enough. I think I am okay with it because I made way more progress with my brother’s support than I ever did with NHS support.

My brother helped make this happen only because I took responsibility for my recovery. I set up a meal plan, I read up about what to expect in recovery, I bought books and read blogs to help me restore my weight and deal with it mentally and I engaged in after dinner distraction.

I think I am struggling to take responsibility for my eating at the moment. I met up with a friend on Friday. I knew after talking to a profession earlier on in the week that I ought to use it as an opportunity to have lunch with said friend. Instead, I avoided any talk of food. When this friend eventually asked me if I would have lunch or at least share something with her, I completely backed out. I am allowing the depression to dictate my every move because nothing scares me more than the thoughts which come with depression. I have always feared a lifetime with depression more than I fear a lifetime with an eating disorder.

Nothing, at least for me, endangers my life more than depression.

So where now?

I think the first thing I must do is seek more support for the depression, which I have been trying to do since last year but it is hard to find good longterm support. Waiting lists, incompatible therapists, incompetent organisations, waning motivation are some of the things which get in the way from time to time. But I am hoping in the coming year, at least before this year is over to find more support to help me deal with the thing which triggered the depression in the first place.

I think confronting the depression head on is the way I will learn to eat better and manage life better.

I also know I have a lot of healing to do in relation to the grief which comes at times to steal every ounce of joy I have about life and living.

I am a work in progress and that’s just fine.

And as a final thought, consider this:

What exactly does a person with depression look like?

This? Anthony Bourdain

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This? Kate Spade

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Or this? (Gary Speed the night before his suicide)

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It’s not the likes of Trump we need to fear but rather, the silent majority they represent

This post is inspired by Matt Haig, fiction and mental health writer.

Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson

Haig recently replied to a Tweet by Katie Hopkins, the well-known controversy courter. She recently said in a tweet: What matters is the fight back for our Christian culture we desperately need to defend. Whilst I am not quite sure what this ‘Christian culture’ she speaks of looks like, the lady is passionate about defending it. Does this ‘Christian culture’ look like a Friday night in any UK city. Or does it look like the aftermath of a Millwall football match? Or perhaps it’s her culture of hate rather than love. Who knows.

Whatever the case, Haig was the first to weigh in with a reply, saying: This is the heart of it, Katie. You court this. You want to be called these things. You are virtually asking for it here. Why do you want to be so hated? Before it was Muslims, you hated obese people and working class people for money and attention. Why choose a career of hate? 

A career of hate does seem at odds with the central message of Christianity but perhaps Katie knows best. She also recently retweeted a Trump ‘speech’ in which he said, ‘if you hate our country or you are not happy here, you can leave’. Hopkins added her own comment when she retweeted the video saying, ‘How I wish we had such leadership in the U.K. “Don’t like this country? Don’t like what it gives you? Then leave”. Donald Trump is clearly a fan of Hopkins. He recently retweeted a couple of her tweets.

Hopkins is also a supporter of Tommy Robinson who is currently in prison for contempt of court. He believes he was ‘convicted of journalism and wore a T-shirt just to prove it.

Robinson was basically reporting on an ‘Asian-grooming gang’ case even though reporting of the case was not supposed to happen. He read out the names of the accused who at that point had not been convicted and also filmed them. Robinson reserves his ire for Asians who abuse girls. He talks about Asian ‘grooming gangs’ as though they alone sexually abuse young girls. He does not talk about the powerful politicians and men of power who abused boys back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Nor does he talk about the general objectification of women in Western culture or the oversexualised society we live in and the harm this does to young minds. How about the availability of pornography and the harm it causes young minds. I know everyone has a cause but demonising a race is perhaps not the best cause to tag yourself onto. It stinks of subjectivity. It stirs some, sure, but it deafens others.

Donald’s latest targets

The Donald stoked up tension recently by suggesting four female non-Caucasian politicians ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came’. But where these women come from is America (The U.S of A). I know they may not ‘look like’ they come from America, but they do. Trump acknowledged these women were American but still insisted on saying what he did.

Trump continued with his vicious tweets, ‘if you hate our country or you are not happy here, you can leave’. Implicit in the word ‘our’ is the idea that the country belongs to some people but not to others. Since the non-Caucasian politicians were told they could go back to their countries of origin, I will make the assumption that Trump believes America is not their country. I assume also that anyone who is not happy with the way things are in America should leave. Though where they should leave for is not quite clear.

It’s the silent majority we need to fear not the figureheads who represent them. 

I always prefer those who speak their mind over those who bubble away in secret. I’ll always prefer an outright racist to a secret racist. I’ve experienced overt and covert racism. It’s the covert racism which sometimes leaves me feeling paranoid and fearful. I much prefer to know that you think less of me because I am Black than for you to smile in my face and spit on the ground when I have left your company.

Hopkins has almost a million followers on Twitter (986.3k to be precise). Trump has 62.2 million followers on the same platform. Whilst I recognise that some of these supporters follow the latter just to see what he’s up to (Victoria Derbyshire????), if you take a look at the ‘you can leave’ tweet from the 16th of July, you’ll see that it had 334,000 likes and over 76,000 retweets. That’s scary. That means that there are plenty of people that think that America only belongs to a certain kind of person and that if you are not white, you are less likely to be that certain kind of person.

As for Tommy Robinson, he does not appear to have a Twitter account but he does have a whole host of followers. Some of them congregated on Westminster Bridge on the day he was found guilty and stopped traffic from heading up the bridge. There was a woman on a motorbike shouting in support of Tommy, lots of other white men waving British flags. The silent majority will not be silent forever. Today they will close down a bridge and tomorrow they will burn down the bridge.

In the latest episode of Trump, the man who defies all logic, we saw a bunch of his supporters shout at one of his rallies ‘send her back’ in reference to Ilhan Omar. Trump said ‘I’m not happy .. when I hear chants like that’ without acknowledging that his rhetoric of hate whips the crowd up. Trump said he spoke over the chant but it took him 13 seconds to speak again once the chant started. He did not silence the crowd, the crowd simply started to simmer down.

Behind every Trump, Robinson and Hopkins type character, are hundreds of thousands of supporters. These are the people I call the silent majority. They are the people that for the most part only say hateful things when they are in the company of similarly minded people. They are the majority because they are the kind of people that got Trump elected.

Liberals forget that just because they speak the loudest or dominate mainstream media does not mean that they are in fact in the majority. Some liberals have an extremism about them which they oftentimes fail to acknowledge and which simply leads to people like Trump supporters, hiding underground waiting for an opportunity to show their hate. Some liberals are unfortunately less liberal than they would have us believe. I have seen lots of people with opposing views shut down, shamed, no platformed etc. Neither liberals nor conservatives should have a monopoly on discourse.  All this does is stoke up more anger and division.

Boris Johnson is on the verge of being chosen as Prime Minister of the UK. Some of the careless and downright ignorant things he has said about Blacks, Muslims, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe amongst others show that the man is not fit to be Prime Minister. And yet he will become Prime Minister, most likely. He will be supported by the silent majority within the Conservative membership.

So where now? 

I will return to the post I wrote many, many months ago called The Dying Art of Conversation/Where Now For Rage?

We will not win the argument by silencing those who disagree with us. It’s true that sometimes it is impossible to win people over. But, we must still attempt to reach out to others, encourage them to speak about the things which ail them, reason with them, listen to them, provide facts where they provide baseless arguments and also be willing to accept the validity of some of the things they rail about. We need to hear from people who feel marginalised for whatever reason and we need to respect rather than ridicule them.

If not, we face more situations like Brexit, the election of Trump, the rise of populism – this appeal being made to people who feel marginalised by mainstream politics and political elites.

When a lapse turns into a relapse

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Over the past 6 months, I have struggled with successive depressive episodes which has not only impacted my ability to get on with life but also, my relationship with food.

I think I knew when I made the decision to recover in 2018 that there was always a chance that I would have a recurrence of the kind of severe depression that I experienced several years earlier. It was in fact the severity of that depressive episode that led to a complete descent into eating disorder hell as I sought to find a way to escape the thoughts which were plaguing me at the time.

For the first two months of my recovery last year, I did not experience one depressive episode. In fact, I had not had one episode of depression in the previous 7 months. Hallelujah, I said to myself. I thought that perhaps, I was free of it and perhaps the joy that recovering from the eating disorder brought me would be the thing which freed me from depression.

Unfortunately, this has not played out as I had hoped. I have experienced more depressive episodes in the past year that I have ever experienced in any one year in my life and this has inevitably led me back down the rabbit hole of the ED.

One of the key features of depression for me is that it leaves me feeling unable to stomach food. It also increases my anxiety around eating because the distress brought on by eating sometimes worsens the depression. I tend to feel calmer when I am not full and I guess for me, I have used not eating or restricting as well as binging and purging as a way of helping me manage my moods. I have used it as a way of helping me function.

The first two episodes I had of depression last year occurred in the early stages of the refeeding process. I was still experiencing a lot of extreme hunger and my weight had been climbing pretty rapidly. Once the weight gain stopped ( I put on about 40% of my current body weight in about 5 months) and the extreme hunger stopped, I lost interest in food in a pretty spectacular way. My appetite lessened and I went from 6 or 7 meals a day to about 4. At times, my appetite would return to me and I would honour it but once the third episode of depression arrived at the end of last year, my appetite completely went south.

It almost feels as though the only way my mind knows to protect itself is to begin to reject food. Almost like a choice needs to be made between food and suicidal thoughts. It is not so much something I will into existence as something which seems to happen quite naturally. And so begins a return into the eating disorder. I think that human nature is such that we will always choose to fight for life, until we can fight no more. I will always choose to fight for my life but I do realise that I cannot continue to use restriction as a way of dealing with mental distress.

After the refeeding process stopped for me in the autumn of last year, I started allowing myself a meal off here, a snack off there but only when I wasn’t hungry. Whenever the depression kicks in, a meal off here and a snack off there turns into more meals off here and more snacks off there and less food on the plate and a general return to restriction.

So a lapse begins to morph into a relapse. And when this happens, my mind generally begins to have a less rational relationship with food and my body such that I can see that clearly, this is a recurrence of the eating disorder. So now, I am managing two things rather than just one.

What I have noticed in the past month is that for two, every fortnight, I begin to experience extreme hunger. I am always inclined to honour my hunger but this begins to set off alarm bells in my mind and I start thinking of returning to purging which is a hellhole like no other. And so this then increases the depression because I become very tired of the endless cycle of depression and eating disorder.

I tried for a long time to force myself to eat mechanically as I have heard it said so many times in treatment and for a while, I was able to do so but there comes a time when fatigue sets in and ‘je baisse les bras’ (I give up). I stop willing myself to eat when I don’t feel like it, I keep myself busy just so I don’t have to think about food or deal with it, I avoid eating around people I don’t know, I avoid eating outside of my home because I cannot make choices about what to eat. It all becomes so ugly and all-consuming once more.

I am at least grateful for a few things. In fact, I am grateful for many things since I started recovering but more specifically, I am glad that I am still honouring my hunger, I am glad that I am not throwing up anymore and that I am a year plus into that state of being, I am glad that I am still receiving some support from my brother and I am glad for the friends who encourage me when I am with them, to eat in their company. I am glad that I have the mental space to write from time to time and that my life feels fuller some days.

I do find that eating with people I am comfortable with, who know me, who I don’t feel in anyway judged by, helps me manage any distress I feel around eating but I am also aware that the ability to nourish myself independently, without support is still something I struggle with.

I want to be able to live a full, expansive version of life rather than a redacted version. I want to be able to eat freely, be free and just be. I also desperately want to be free of depression and it is the depression which induces a fear like no other. It is the latter that makes relapses of lapses.

I know I have a long way to go. As I am often told, recovery is not a linear process. I know. Now please give me pound coin.

But I think I oftentimes end up choosing the calm of not eating over the distress of eating simply because I want a break from the depression. In the long-term, this cannot and will not be the way forward.

If I end up with a complete relapse in terms of the eating disorder, I will inevitably end up in a very dangerous place mentally and that is not something I want.

The challenge of reading fiction during the fog of depression

I had a conversation with someone recently about why I have struggled to read works of fiction over the past seven months. I have completed one fiction book in the past seven months: The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola.

I told this person that I do not have the patience for reading about made-up things and that I much prefer reading about real people’s lives at the moment.

The person I spoke to about this fiction/non-fiction split asked me why I am not interested in the escapism which fiction brings. I do not really know the answer it but I guess I just have less patience at the moment with made-up stuff. I have never really been one for escapism, low mood or not. I think reading for me has always been about the use of language. I am not pretentious but I do love words and how people combine words to connect to a person’s soul. So I can and do appreciate fiction. Not so much because it takes me elsewhere but because it connects me to somewhere.

Of late however, I have struggled to connect with works of fiction. One of the symptoms of depression is an inability to take pleasure in things. This inability to take pleasure in low moments has significantly affected my desire to read. However, over the past 3 weeks, there has been somewhat of a change in this which has coincided with a shift in mood.

I want to read about the battles (of the mind) people face and how they have overcome, sunk under the weight of or managed those battles.

I guess it gives me hope that just maybe, there is a way forwards for me too.

In the past seven months, I have had more than a few episodes of depression. Apart from the fact that this makes it difficult to read or write anything, what I have noticed most is my declining interest in reading or writing fiction and my growing interest in non-fiction books.

I have read about 9 works of non-fiction in the past 3 weeks. Something came over me during the last episode of depression and it was as though books were the only thing which gave me an ounce of comfort whereas normally I would not even be able to lift a book much less open and read it. Weird.

Some of the books I’ve read include:

  • Caroline Elton: Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors
  • Emilie Pine: Notes to Self
  • Dr Graham Easton: The Appointment: What Your Doctor Really Thinks During Your Ten-Minute Consultation
  • Arnold Thomas Fanning: Mind on Fire
  • Marya Hornbacher: Madness: A Bipolar Life

In each of these books, the writer talks about the challenges they have faced or the challenges of others they have come in contact with, and how things subsequently unfolded.

The challenge of blogging about my mental health is that I am not over the mountain. In fact, some days, I am not sure where I am on the mountain. Some days I cannot see the top of the mountain so I cannot even estimate my journey time. At times, I wish someone would wake me up when it’s all over. I am like the child shouting in the car ‘are we there yet?’ Only to be told not yet.

I hope to fall in love with fiction again at some point. In the meantime, I am trying to gently rekindle my love for it by reading short stories. I am currently reading a collection of short stories called The Book of Tehran (Reading the City), edited by Fereshteh Ahmadi. I am also planning to reread some of my favourite short stories including:

  • Vladimir Nabokov: Symbols and Signs
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: A Temporary Matter
  • Raymond Carver: Cathedral
  • Flannery O’Connor: Everything That Rises Must Converge

Short story writing has always been a source of comfort to me. Knowing I could start and finish something inspired me to get back into writing when I abandoned my first novel ten years ago after my mental health took a leap into the pit of hell.

I have struggled to read or write when my mental health has been at its worst. I think I had a period of 3 years within the past ten years when I did not read a single book. I am a long way from that but I do go through months where reading is a struggle. It is like the words become disjointed so that my eyes are unable to form sentences. My eyesight changes and my ability to make sentences out of the words is lost. I am grateful that at the moment I am able to read something.

I know these seasons come and go but I guess for me, it is better to read something which nourishes me in some way than to force myself to read fiction for the heck of it.

Wahala and the importance of caring for those who care for others

Take the Time to Honor Your Unsung Heroes

They say that in life you can be certain of two things – death and taxes. I am not too sure of this. Think Amazon. Personally, I think that in life, we can be certain of two things – big wahala and small wahala. Wahala means trouble/problems/worries in Yoruba, the language of my heart. 

This wahala that I am talking about, no-one is immune from. For some, they live life with plenty wahala and for others, wahala comes from time to time but nothing serious enough to fracture the rhythm of their lives. For some, wahala is neither visible nor made visible/public and for others, wahala is made public by force or by choice. To each their own wahala and their own level of wahala.

But whatever the nature of the wahala, you’d better pray that when it comes, there is someone by your side to help you or support you through it.

For me personally, I am forever indebted to the people that have helped me through the last 10 years of wahala and without whom I may not be here today.

But this week, a few things happened which got me thinking about those that step in to the breach or come to our aid when we are in trouble – whatever the nature of those troubles.

Because I blog mainly about mental health issues, I choose to focus on those who support me through my mental health struggles but this post is aimed at all who provide emotional or physical support to others.

The unsung heroes in my life

I am so fortunate to have had my brother by my side forever, but particularly over the past year, to help me through the process of refeeding. He has done so much to encourage me with food and to help me with my mood. I owe him a lot and I cannot thank him enough though he would probably tell me that ‘you don’t thank your own’.

 

I am also fortunate to have family members who try even when they don’t understand and who encourage me even when they have run out of words. I appreciate every one of them.

I know that my own struggles took its toll on them. I knew this at the the time but felt unable to get better. I definitely felt and feel guilt about what I put them through but I also know that people don’t choose to be mentally unwell and I am grateful that my family did not make me feel guilty or bad. I don’t know how much support they needed or received but I know it was not easy for them. I know there are some eating disorder units that provide support for family members but think this is perhaps provided more for family members whose loved ones are in residential or daycare facilities. I hope this changes.

Friends have also been a key to me getting to the ‘recovering’ stage. When I find/ have found myself Upshit Creek, I am thankful for their encouragement.

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I am thankful for those who knew me before they knew my problems and I am thankful that they know that I am more than my problems. I am thankful for the laughter we share and that I am in their lives and they in mine. They love and have loved in deed not solely in words.

Finally, I am extremely fortunate to have had good professionals from time to time who have supported me through the worst of things or made suggestions or told me that ‘I could do it’. I will not forget the doctor when I was in inpatient who kept on repeating this phrase to me over and over again (You can do it Funmi, you can do it) and the mental health professionals (past and present) who support(ed) me or tried to help me on the road to recovery and discovery.

But, I know from my time as a teacher that just because you help others does not mean that your capacity to support is an everlasting well. Please take a look at this BBC article which in part inspired this post.

My previous role as a teacher

I know that when I was teaching, long hours, a heavy workload, students with lots of wahala and trying to find ways to support them through it or trying to signpost them was the order of the day. And it was tiring. But it was a job I loved. I know that I was struggling to care for myself at the time and so found it more beneficial to invest in others because I did not see a way to overcome my issues at the time. I have no regrets about my time as a teacher but reflecting on this and the past fortnight helps me value those who support me and drives me to consider the care afforded to those who care for others.

I know I write from a personal viewpoint but in all honesty, I want this post to be about reflecting on those who work in caring roles or who take on caring roles: mother, fathers, children, siblings, friends, nurses, doctors, teachers, mental health professionals and anyone else that you wish to insert in this grouping.

What happens when we don’t take care of those who care for others?

  • On a basic level, if you are supporting people with mental health issues, it can eventually take a toll on your own mental and physical health.
  • Family structures can break down as the job of supporting a family member with mental health issues can drive individuals apart.
  • Worry can arise about the well-being of the person which can lead to anxiety.
  • People can lose heart or the motivation to continue supporting others even when they are good at the job or passionate about it.
  • Those who care for others may eventually become immune to suffering because they see so much of it so often (this is perhaps a sign that it is time to leave a role).
  • Burnout – plain and simple.
  • An inability to strike a healthy work/life balance.

What should be put in place to support those who care for others?

  • Emotional support – it should be a given that those who work in stressful roles supporting others should themselves be afforded emotional support to talk through the things they hear or do or witness or experience. Talking can be so cathartic. It can make a person feel they do not have to carry the burden alone. It always shocks me on reflection that when I worked as a teacher, the College did not see fit to provide emotional support save in the most exceptional circumstance. I did however have great managers who recognised at times that I was struggling even when I felt unable to say so.
  • Practical support – I know these are days of austerity but the workload that people who care have to put up with is ridonculous (purposeful typo). I have seen it happen that when a person leaves a workplace, they are not replaced. Their workload is simply passed onto another person. But how can we expect one person to do the workload of two people and not eventually break? This is how good, passionate teachers, doctors, mental health workers end up leaving the profession.
  • Space – to breathe, to recover, to be. I remember sometimes being desperate for team meeting days because it just meant a bit of a break from the daily grind. We all need this from time to time so we don’t burnout. It is up to managers to make this happen and up to those who care for others to demand it. In families, this sometimes means a period of respite away from the person that is unwell.
  • A culture of compassion – if we do not create in workplaces or other spaces (familial or otherwise) a culture of compassion, an environment in which a person can say ‘I am struggling’, then how will people ever feel they can be honest. I have read a lot of late from doctors with mental health issues who say they felt unable to be open at work. I don’t mean shouting down the hallway, ‘I am mentally ill’. I mean being able to talk to a superior about your struggles or being able to support a patient who struggled as you once did by giving them a small dose of honesty (like, I once struggled like you, it is possible to overcome it). This is not false hope, or inappropriate sharing (in my opinion), it’s real talk.
  • Boundaries – those caring for others need to put healthy boundaries in place to protect themselves from burnout and illness. This might mean making sure you leave work by a certain time or making your home a work-free zone. Personally, I remember having an open door policy during lunchtime when I was teaching. Eventually I got rid of that and though it was tough for some students to adhere to, they did eventually learn that just as they needed space away from me, so too, I needed space away from them. It did not mean I cared any less about their well-being. It just meant that protecting myself was the first step in my aim of protecting or supporting them.  

I leave you on this note, it is my sincere hope that those who care for others are also cared for in equal measure. No one is unbreakable and no one is free from troubles. Those who care matter just as much as those they care for. I just hope they get the support they deserve.

The use of ‘before and after’ pics in the ED recovery community: the case for and against

Image result for before and after pictures nature bad to good

Before I begin to assess this issue, I think it is important to state that I am a firm advocate of debating and conversing.

Far too often in our modern age, I notice a stubborn refusal by individuals to consider a point of view which does not align with their own. I think that if each side in an argument/discussion/debate insists on sticking rigidly to the viewpoint they entered the room with then there is no hope of progress or change. For more on this, please check out one of my previous posts entitled: The Dying Art of Conversation/Where Now for Rage.

What am I asking for?

I am asking that the Eating Disorder recovery community give due consideration to both sides of the argument in this debate. I am not hoping for a consensus but I just ask that you hear me out and that you hear one another out.

Please contribute to this discussion by adding your thoughts in the comments section at the end.

My own personal ED history and use of ‘before and after’ pics.

I have had an eating disorder for over two decades and now consider myself to be in recovery. I am an advocate of recovery and I believe firmly that one bad day in recovery is worth a hundred days stuck in the bowels of the eating disorder.

As with many people with eating disorders, I have taken on every aspect of eating disorders in the past (restriction, binging, purging, overexercise etc). As with many people with EDs, my weight was pretty ‘normal’ for the first 10+ years of my time with the ED. Normal in this context just means that I sat firmly within the ‘healthy’ BMI range. I do now think BMI actually stands for Bullshit Monitor of Individuals. For the final 10 years of the ED, I became emaciated. At no point in those 20 years was I free of the ED but treatment here in the UK became intensive only once my weight dropped. (Another bugbear of mine is that services wait till people become emaciated before intervention).

I was just as likely to die when I was classified as bulimic as I was when I was classified as anorexic. Both destroyed my mind and left me incapable of leading a normal, healthy life.

Eating Disorders are MENTAL not PHYSICAL illnesses. But the PHYSICAL representation is oftentimes the thing which shocks people into acting and reacting. It’s a sad truth but it’s the truth, at least here in the UK. When you look unwell, sympathy is elicited and extra care is given. I noticed a massive difference in the way I was treated when I was underweight compared to when I was a normal weight. It is the normal human reaction to act based on what we see more so than what we hear. That is not to say that I purposely became underweight. Having an eating disorder for me was and to some extent remains a way of managing the depression and the more my depression worsened/worsens, the more I struggle(d) with all aspects of food.

When I first started this blog, I think I posted pictures of myself at various stages of my time in the ED (varying weights) but I took it down in time because I just didn’t feel comfortable with having those pictures of me online. I once posted something on Instagram as a reminder to myself of how far I had come and they did include some pictures of me in a physically bad way. I did this for myself at a time when I was struggling in my own recovery. I was struggling with depression and could not appreciate how much I had achieved in terms of stopping restriction, purging and in terms of putting on weight. I wanted to celebrate my achievement and pictures helped me achieve this. I didn’t need to put it online but I did and I own it.

I do follow some people on social media who regularly post ‘before and after’ pictures and then use it to talk about the change in their life since recovery. I also follow some who are against such pictures and tell or ask others not to post such pictures.

Of late, I have come to rethink this issue because I have seen some people in the ED recovery community insist that others not post such pictures whilst at the same time reading posts from others claiming their right to post whatever they want because it is part of their story.

So let’s consider both camps.

Against ‘before and after’ pics

  • It promotes the idea that EDs are disorders of the body not of the mind.
  • It promotes the idea that EDs are all about weight
  • Weight restoration or being an average weight or higher does not mean you are recovered or are in recovery so the pictures themselves do not convey whether actual recovery has taken place.
  • It makes those who do not reach low weights feel less valid in their eating disorder/not sick enough.
  • Increases the negative body image some have of themselves because showing low weights increases self judgement and envy.
  • Encourages harmful comparisons within the ED community (like how low did your weight go. Oh, is that it? Mine went way lower, until I was at death’s door and this picture is the proof. Like my ED was way more serious than yours.)
  • It does nothing more than feed those who are looking for the shock value effect (media – Daily Mail more specifically)
  • Makes it seem that life without an ED is fantastic.
  • If it feels so wrong to discuss numbers in the recovery community, then why do images of people at low weights feel okay when it essentially has the same effect?

My thoughts

Life without an ED is not fantastic. It just is. It has a different texture and flavour. It is richer but it is still painful at times. My life is better without the ED but some days it feels harder because when the depression comes, I do not have my ‘trusted (but destructive) steed’ by my side to help rouse me from the coma of depression. I will always choose to be in recovery over being in the ED but life is still tough. It was tough then for different reasons.

There is a lot of competition within the ED community. Both amongst those who are in the illness and those who are out or recovered. Competition to see who can have the most followers, the most people say yes or ‘like’ to what we think, competition to see who was sicker, competition to see who had the toughest route to recovering or recovery. I will call a spade a spade. But this competition is not present amongst all in these communities. Sometimes people have good intentions in posting ‘before and after’ pics.

Pro ‘before and after’ pics

  • For some people, weight gain has been an extremely difficult part of their recovery and one which they wish to highlight.
  • People have the right to share their story and convey it in whatever way they see fit.
  • It helps others who are in a similar position (of being at a low weight with an ED) see that it is possible to let go of the need to remain at a low weight.
  • It helps others to see that it is possible to live and thrive at a higher weight

The role of ‘before and after’ pics in my own recovery

Before I started recovering last year, I followed very few people with EDs on social media. I found it extremely damaging to watch people who claimed they were in recovery yet still remained at alarmingly low weights. I eventually stopped following anyone on social media with an active eating disorder (not in serious recovery). I did not know about those on social media who had recovered and were now promoting the message of recovery.

When I decided to incorporate social media into my recovery, I came across the accounts of two women that I had followed for a short time in the days when the ED had its strongest grip on me. I think there must have been about a 2 or 3 year gap. When I saw how much progress these women had made from emaciation to weight restoration and beyond, it inspired me to let go of my fear of weight gain. I felt that if these women could rise from where they had been and were now learning to embrace life at a higher weight, then maybe I could do the same. One of them in particular who still posts before and after pics, said on one of her posts that no one cared what we weighed. Her written words stuck with me and helped me get on board with the inevitability of weight gain in recovery. I would also still be in recovery without seeing such pictures but I do think they gave me a bit of a mental shove in the right direction.

BUT, a word of caution. I was already beginning to embrace the idea of recovery before coming across these accounts. If I wasn’t then these pictures may not have made a blind bit of difference to me.

To a sick mind, all things will feed the sickness. One’s ability to tolerate these pictures may say more about the state of mind of the person seeing these images than it does about the benefits or negatives of the image itself.

To a well mind or one in search of wellness, then some of those things that may in the past have been harmful may no longer be. This again is a matter for debate. My word is not the final word. Nor do I want it to be.

I think that if more people speak for or against the use of ‘before and after’ pics in the ED recovery community then it might help those who are still unsure decide which way to go.

On the other hand, I think that for those of us who are in recovery or recovered then we need to be aware of the harm that some of these images can cause to minds which are still fragile or healing from the damage of eating disorders.

What we should ask ourselves before posting ‘before and after’ pics

  1. What message am I trying to convey by using these pictures of me at a healthy and unhealthy weight?
  2. Can I convey this message in a way which is less likely to cause harm to fragile minds?
  3. What message am I giving to those for whom low weight was never an issue by posting these images?
  4. What message am I putting out in the media and the public space by using these images?
  5. Am I more likely to hurt or to heal by using these images?

As for me, I will confess that even after all of this, I am not sure what I would do. I have only twice used such images, one of which I took down. Weight gain has been a massive part of my recovery and I guess for me, I needed to know that there were others who had been in a similar situation to me who had now moved beyond that state.

That said, the other key ingredient in my recovery were those who documented their recovery online as well as those who are now recovered and continue to make videos about recovery such as Elisa Oras. Her book helped me on my journey. I have never once seen an image of her underweight yet her message still spoke to me for some reason.

I do feel that one of the main things that ‘before and after’ pictures do is promote the idea that an ED is only serious if one reaches a low weight and I know that this is not necessarily the case.  Unfortunately, the body adapts to emaciation and makes changes to sustain life. Low potassium levels and suicidal thoughts were just as life endangering or perhaps more at times, than the fact of emaciation for me. Bulimia kills and so does anorexia.

Whilst I do not plan to post any more ‘before/after pictures (because that is not my calling and that is not what I choose to use to convey my message at this moment in time), I respect the right of others to do so and would ask simply that they think about whether what is gained from these pictures outweighs what is lost by others. I would also ask that they be reflective and honest when posting such pics.

What I will not do however is hide pictures of or burn or get rid of such pictures because that for me is about 10 years worth of pictures which document my life, not my ED but my life with family, friends and even on TV (Countdown)* I will not hide who I was but I prefer not to use it as the primary means of conveying my message about the harm cause by eating disorders.

Finally, if someone’s posts are negatively affecting your recovery, do as I did at one time and click the ‘Unfollow’ button. That’s what it’s there for.

* I will in a future post speak about how appearing on Countdown helped me begin the long and bloody difficult but worth it, road to recovering.

Ten things which bring me joy

I start with this track because this morning, this song is the one that I enjoy most. And that is what I am looking for today or trying to remember today. The things which I enjoy. The things which place me in-joy. So here’s my list.

  • Music: specifically at the moment, South African House music. Simmy’s track above is my track of the day. It’s hard to listen to it and not move my head or body or feet. I am also finding out that it is the best kind of music to cycle to, which brings me to number 2 of things which place me in joy. Other artists I enjoy are Robert Glasper, Hillsong tracks, Anthony Hamilton and pretty much anything which is jazz based.

Cycling: yesterday, cycling was the only thing that gave me some joy. Albeit temporary but I’ll take temporary for the time being. Normally, I also enjoy watching cycling races (the Grand Tours, small tours, any kind of tour as long as it is on 2 wheels and manual). My favourite cyclists are: the Yates brothers (Simon won La Vuelta last year and this year Adam is killing it),  Peter Sagan (built like a monster – in a good way) and Mathieu Van der Poel (anyone who can beat Julian Alaphilippe in a sprint gets my attention. I’m lucky that cycling is my only form of getting myself from A to B at the moment since it helps me retain my sanity.

  • Swimming: it’s been almost a month since my last swim and it is really hard to get out and it is harder to get out and swim at the moment but I do know this is something I have enjoyed in the past.
  • Watching dance videos such as the following https://youtu.be/FfPBi_xUID

5. Beating my brother at Monopoly: these raucous sessions are always guaranteed to make me laugh. And bring some true joy.

6. Blogging and reading non-fiction: does something for me on some level. Sometimes joy. So I will add this to my list. At the moment I am doing it more often because I need to rather than because I want to but whatever the reason, it is helping. I do love reading about other people’s lives, their challenges and how they have navigated the murky and clear waters of life.

7. Being in nature. Especially by the sea.

8. Walking out of the barbers with a fresh hair cut. Again, this is something I am struggling to do but I do remember that I always feel great after a good hair cut. This is one of my favourites. Simple but beautiful. #shorthairdontcare

 by @stepthebarber #naturallyshesdope

9. Spending time with good friends and especially spending time with one of my friends and her little kids. I do love kids and being in their company always makes me laugh. Kids always make me forget me. Kids remind me of joy, pure joy.

10. Watching comedy. My top selection is below. Some is intentional comedy and some is unintentional in its comedic element.

 

Writing this post has given me pleasure because it reminds me of joy.

 

The strange thing about depression…..

Is that yesterday, I was able to do so much (contrary to what we’re told depression is) and today just getting out of bed was a struggle. My jack in the box, I’m ready to take on the world morning routine of yesterday was today replaced by a long drawn out wrestling match with my mind over whether or not the day was worth the effort. How can the things which I do without thought suddenly turn into a mountain right in front of my eyes? I do recognise that this is what depression has been for me for a long time: weeks of struggling interspersed with days where ‘I get shit done’. I eventually made it out of bed thanks to something I’m currently using to combat the slowness of my brain and body at present – South African House music. Music really has helped me over over the past five months. Here’s one I prepared earlier.

Is that yesterday, I read an entire book in a day and today, the thought of even opening up a book is giving me a headache. I read a book called Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning which is a memoir about depression, delusion and mania in essence.

Image result for mind on fire

It grabbed me because there was so much I could relate to in terms of the link between grief and depression, the manner in which the interchange between joy and sadness can be so swift and most of all, the fear of facing the fact that it can and does take a long time to rebuild one’s life after a breakdown or a long struggle with mental illness or unwellness or distress or whichever term you prefer.

Is how I struggle to read or write fiction. I have read 2 books in the past 2 weeks. Both non-fiction, both memoirs, both dealing with what it means to be human. I have no patience or capacity for fiction when I am in this place. The words do not connect enough to make sentences. It’s weird. 

Is how zoned out I can be at times, how absent I can be at times when my body is most present. In the past week, I have pretty much given up on television as a way of helping me through this period. My eyes are on the screen but nothing is going in. I am not conscious that I have drifted until 5 or 10 minutes later, I regain consciousness and realise that I am not there mentally. I have in the past used TV to help me get through moments of intense distress but I feel positively bored by it at the moment which is no bad thing, I guess. The same happens at times when I am in the presence of others who are conversing and I am there one minute and totally gone the next. It is kinda funny at times but not when I think about the effect this thing is having on my brain, memory, concentration etc.

Is how yesterday, I was able to crack a joke with my dentist and today I am struggling to open my mouth to have a conversation. Depression is by no means a one-trick pony. Depression does not mean an inability to laugh or converse. It just means that sometimes, you come out to play for a bit, to be a part of the world, to be an acceptable face, person, but in private, you know nothing has really changed or is changing. I enjoy the company of others for the most part except when my mood is extremely low and I lose the desire to engage in conversations. At times, it comes across as sullenness but it is far from it. I have in the past had days where it is as though I have been stripped of my voice. It is the strange thing about depression. I love to laugh but sometimes, I don’t have the energy to do it. And when I am like this, the last thing I wish to do is inflict myself on others.

Is how much I still struggled with it when I was working as a teacher and when I was volunteering. I often recommended volunteering to my students and value what people can get out of being active, productive members of society but I realise that for me what happened was that I was able to care about others even when I cared little for myself. That is not a good thing. Eventually, it rendered me incapable of helping others, something which I continue to value. I don’t think depression is cured by exercising or working or any one thing. I do think it is a combination of things which can help. I guess I am still not at the point of believing one day I will not experience these episodes but what I do believe is that depression is not a sign that a person is only self-serving or self-seeking. I kind of feel the need to say this because of something I heard someone say which was basically along the lines of depression gets cured when you start serving others. I felt somewhat shamed when I heard this but then I know that we all have different experiences and that the person who said this sounded like he had no personal knowledge of what it is like to be depressed. If only ‘service’ was the answer to depression, then no doctor, teacher, nurse or other ‘servant’ would ever experience depression.

Is how the DSM which basically lists all ‘mental disorders and illnesses’ fits the human experience into neat little packages. Yet there is nothing neat about the human condition.

Is how quickly it can creep up on me. Like within hours.

Is how in the past, I would run for miles just to get away from it. Yet at present, I have little energy to fight even though I am not being particularly active. In the past, the combination of the eating disorder and depression meant I had an addiction to the one thing which helped me deal with the depression (or at least temporarily manage it) but which also put my physical health at risk since I was far too emaciated to be running at all. Now, I am physically in a different place but mentally too tired to use exercise (which is often touted is the magic which cures all) to combat it. I just want to sleep for a hundred years and wake up when it’s all over. I guess the other thing I have learnt over the past year is that for me, exercise has become a way to beat my body into submission in the hope that my mind will be too tired to linger on depressive thoughts. Sure, there are happy endorphins but there are also punishing regimes which in the end trigger another depressive episode because over-exercise is a one way road to insomnia for me.

Is how slow my brain and movements become once it sets in.

Is I’m really bored of it.

Is I’ve kind of forgotten what life was like before it.

Is that sometimes I just wish I would change the bloody record.

Is how much of my life it consumes so that it is as though I am nothing but my mind at its worst.

Is how I used to see it as a kind of laziness when I first started teaching and how short I was in compassion for my students who were experiencing depression. My own experience of it was what made me a more compassionate, empathetic person.

Is how I start to lack compassion for myself at these times and how shame and embarrassment begin to set in once more. The thing which helped me most in getting to a stage of being able to say, I am truly in recovery from the eating disorder was the compassion I showed myself and the compassion others showed me. I have worked with professionals who have been full of compassion and some to whom compassion was like dirt under one’s finger nails. I have always fared much better when I ‘llow myself. When I tell myself, ‘it’s okay’ rather than ‘you’ve wasted/are wasting your life away’. When I am mentally strong, I am more able to be compassionate and tell myself, ‘it’s okay, the past is in the past’ or ‘it’s okay, you’re just having a bad day’. When I am feeling more fragile, I am more self-critical. I am less a work in progress and more one constant and very hot mess.

I didn’t know I’d write this post today but I am finding that writing about this is the best way to keep myself going at the moment. The more I write, the more I process things and the more I hear my true voice, not that of an afflicted mind.

Today, since I am struggling with the basics, I will just practice and keep repeating to myself, ‘It’s okay Funmi, it’s okay.’