Sunday, 29 January 2017

How to Survive 2017 with some Sanity and Self-Care

This week, whilst getting my eyebrows waxed, I found myself debating the best ways to survive a nuclear apocalypse and I realised that 2017 is really doing a number on me. All of a sudden I’m anxious about the fact that I stopped watching 'The Walking Dead' after season two and I don't know how to open cans of beans without the use of my left-handed tin opener. I am a terrible millennial who survives on 'Sushi to Go' lunches and next day delivery purchases, and I know I am completely unprepared for what is about to happen in Post Brexit Britain. For someone who experiences anxiety in most situations in my life this current state of world affairs is really distorting my chi. I’m about two signed executive orders from locking myself in a cupboard with a box of pinot and waiting for Will Smith to come and rescue me. 

If like me, you're are feeling the pressures of the tiny handed Cheetos world domination and you need to find a way to calm your knickers before you start raiding B&Q for barbed wire and nails guns then below is a few helpful tips in how to manage your self care and maintain your sanity as we step into the abyss. 

Lets Get Physical 

Tired, sick, exhausted? The number one rule of self-care should be meeting your own physical needs. If the shell in which you are working out of isn't functioning then how can you expect to even to begin to address all the other bits? If you have been to the GP and he has given you prescribed medication, then take them. Meet your own health needs and make them a priority, and whether that is drinking more fluid, getting more sleep or seeing to your medical needs then don't procrastinate, get on and do it. I am a great believer in the occasional mental health day and taking some time to your self to recover from the everyday stressors of life. So whatever it is that you need to do to keep your body fit, healthy and functioning, make it the number one of your to do list today. 

Hello Master 

No, put down your crusty copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, I am not talking about that kind of master. I am talking about the skill of master-y. The ability to become a bloody boss of something and enjoying the feeling of control that comes along with it. Whether you've decided you're going to become the bad ass bitch of cross stitching or Instagram's new favourite yogi, find a skill and master it. It will take hard work and there will be times when you are a complete fail, but as you learn and develop your new skill, the sense of achievement and confidence which will come from this will help you feel confident in mastering other aspects of your life. So go forth and knit until your hearts content. 

Get Out of Your Head 

My head is a busy place to be. Its like a medieval market up in there, a cacophony of noise, chatter, debates and the occasional deluded woman running through it, ringing a bell and screaming "The Plague, The Plague'. At best, it's a place I need to vacate from occasionally and I find the best way of doing this is grounding myself in reality. Not the reality of Twitter, Facebook or (in the darkest of days) Tumblr, but in actual real life. My favourite way of doing this is with a little awareness exercise.

Grab a fragranced hand lotion and pop a bit in your hand. Smell it, look at it, and recognize how it feels. Now spend the next 3-5 minutes massaging it into your fingers, palms and wrists. Be aware of how it feels and every time your mind drifts off to that medieval market, bring it back and refocus on what you are doing. It sounds weird, it might look a bit weird, but trust me, and a five-minute vacation from your thoughts is a marvelous thing to do. 

Increase your "Ahhhh Yes!" Moments 

My favourite place is in the bath - gin optional 
Tell me the last nice thing you did for yourself? Not for your kids, partner or next door neighbours cat - but for you... If you can't think of anything then you need to be spending a bit more time on yourself, like now! Life is a struggle, as an adult we probably learnt long ago that chasing the ‘Happy Ever After’ has not really worked out for us, and if anything, it can leave us feeling a little flat. The best way to counteract this is with little moments that make us feel good. The skill is to input little positive events that increase our pleasure and our overall well-being throughout the week. It can be an extra long bath, a candle lit room, a dance class, singing to the radio at dial 11 or a nice meal and a cuppa with friends. Whatever tickles your fancy? I like a nice long bath (sans phone) with a candle flickering on the bath side. I like to watch the flame flicker and jump for 5 minutes and notice the thoughts I've been carrying around in my head during the day.  It's worth noting, that at first, these might not always feel as good as you had planned they would be, but over time, adding things in our lives that are purely there for our own enjoyment will cause a snowballing effect and remind ourselves we are worth five minutes of our own time. 

And Breathe...

When it all just gets too much and you want to bury yourself inside your duvet until 2030, just stop and breathe. I never really understood this before I started therapy, like we breathe all the time, how can that bring comfort? Then I found my favourite 'breathing technique' and it all made sense.

Sit comfortably and focus on how you breathe, notice your lungs filling, your stomach moving, feel that breath in your chest. Now breathe to the count of "Inhale 1" and then breathe out to "Exhale 1", then breathe in again, repeating in your mind, 'Inhale 2' - repeat this 10 times until you get to 'Exhale 10 'and voila, you will feel a lot more calmer and less crazed, I promise. The same with the awareness skill earlier, when you mind drifts off, bring it back to your breath and start again - Inhale 1... 

If All Else Fails - Pass the Gin 

If you try all these and life is still going to the shit then I advise we all bundle round mine for a pint of gin and watch the nuclear explosions from my kitchen. At least we will be together. 

In all seriousness, the current mood of the world is a little scary and placing that on top of all other day-to-day worries can feel a little overwhelming. It is more important than ever to see to your own mental health and ensure you have little moments in your day that support you to cope. I am sure we will need all our strength over the coming months to support those around us who may be struggling too. Here is a big fat glass of Gin to our health and happiness. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Am I just Greedy? A Binge Eater's Confession:

2014 - My best friends wedding 
I sat in bed, the duvet wrapped around me as I tried to distract myself with the images on the screen. I placed a hand on my chest as wave upon wave of anxiety flooded across my body. My skin tightened, my heart quickened and the pain entwined itself around my chest and through my ribs. My mind raced, as I tried to manage the pain, and then, I thought about the twenty-pound note that sat in my wallet and I felt the breath squeeze out of my chest as a smoky fog of calm encircled me. I pulled clothes over the top of my pyjamas and I was in the car, the dark smog pushing me forward as I drove to the local corner shop. Under the shadow of the darkness, I filled my basket with crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks and handed over the crisp note to the cashier. Once home, I ripped off my clothes and spread the food around me and I climbed back into the bed and began to gorge. My mind finally distracted by the TV, I placed piece of food after food into my mouth, not tasting it, not smelling it, but feeling the fog get thicker, my mind calmer and my chest more relaxed.  The elation would seep through me, and then the numbness would creep from my belly through my legs, into my fingertips and finally through my mind. I would hold my swollen stomach and fall back into the bed as the inevitable sleep would come and all would be ok again for a little while. Inevitably, once the food had been digested or I had lain on the floor as the stomach cramps rolled in, the numbness would dissipate and the nervous anxious energy would seep back into my every pore. And this time it was accompanied by waves of guilt and shame, as I stared at the empty packets of food around me. I would internally berate myself and make promises that tomorrow I would restrict my entire food intake for the rest of week, but the emotions would still linger.

This was how I spent the next ten years of my life, in a cycle of emotional pain and bingeing to relieve it. I coped.  Bingeing was my coping mechanism, it made the pain and anxiety easier to manage and when I stepped into that fog of calm and numbness, it was worth it. It felt blissful. But each time I binged, the emotions I had pushed away came crashing back, and each time they felt stronger, more painful and I began to need more and more food to calm the noise of them. At my worst, I binged four or five times everyday. I would plan my day around when I could fit binges in, waiting for the working day to end so that I could scurry to the shop and fill my basket with food. I began to isolate myself, not just because my growing belly was embarrassing to show to friends old and new alike, but because socilalising interrupted my binges. I put on eight stone in weight, and physically my body was struggling to manage the effects, I had my gall bladder removed, I was obese and I had begun to have signs of cirrhosis of the liver. I was paranoid. I was paranoid that people knew what I was doing, that people thought I was grotesque and disgusting. I could barely stand to walk through a crowd of strangers, let alone see my friends and family who had known me six dress sizes smaller. I felt a failure.  My bingeing put pressure on my relationship and when that relationship ended, my bingeing became my comfort blanket in which to escape the pain. Eventually, my bingeing was all I had.

In 2013, knowing I could not cope any longer, I went to the GP and he prescribed me anti-depressants and anti anxiety medication and when I spoke about my eating, he directed me to the ‘Healthy Living’ team where someone chatted to me about calories and eating vegetables for half an hour. I took the medication and my bingeing did decrease a little and my anxiety was quelled, but still, when I was distressed, the bingeing would return and along with it, more shame and guilt and despair. After a while, I came off the medication and I was OK but the bingeing still bobbed around in the background between diets and personal training sessions. At times, I felt like my old self again but I still couldn’t stop, and after periods of abstinence from the gorging I would relapse. By 2016, my bingeing had increased again and I was back to doing it every night. It was miserable.

I did some research online and came across the term ‘Binge Eating Disorder’ (BED) on the NHS  website and began to think that my eating was more than just being greedy. I visited a new GP and told him that I thought I had BED. He didn’t know what BED was but agreed to refer me to the local eating disorder clinic but he wasn’t sure if I ‘qualified’. Three weeks later I visited the clinic, convinced that perhaps I was completely wrong and they would throw me out of the door for being overdramatic. I met with the psychiatrist and spoke about my eating patterns and my thoughts about myself and she told me that yes, she too thought I had a Binge Eating Disorder and that there was therapy she could sign me up to. I left the clinic and phoned a friend and we laughed about how ridiculous it was that I had an eating disorder. For surely, eating disorder clinics were for teenage girls who were frail and thin, and not for severely obese women in their thirties.

Recovery - 2017
Two weeks later I got a letter in the post, which detailed my diagnosis to my GP and set out dates for my therapy. Suddenly it dawned on me that I had been really sick and I felt a sense of relief that someone had listened to me. My name is Cara, and I have an eating disorder. 

In September this year I began a twenty-week Dialectal Behavioural Therapy course, and in two weeks time this will come to an end.  Since June 2016, I have had only three episodes of binge eating and as a consequence of this reduction, have lost over 3 stone in weight (not my main goal but something to discuss another day) and I am learning how to manage and cope without the use of food as an emotional blocker. I am committed to living a life binge free and I hope this is just the beginning of a more positive future.

BED has only been characterised as a stand-alone eating disorder since 2013. The NHS began implementing specific therapies for BED in 2014. It is estimated that 1-5% of Americans have BED. If you are worried about any of the issues I have raised here or you think you may have disordered eating, please do go and speak to your GP or you can visit B-eat who have online support tools including forums, chat rooms and helplines.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

New Year, same perfectly imperfect me.

As a teenager, I used to love the start of the autumn term. I wasn't plagued by the fear of a new start, a return to school and the hellish routine of a double math’s lesson. Instead I embraced the clean slate, the new beginnings and the unblemished, untouched, perfectly lined new notebooks.

I loved a new notebook. Normally covered in wallpaper (why did we do that?), a new notebook was a symbol of perfection, completely undamaged by my doodles, spelling mistakes and scrawled handwriting. Each term I would promise myself that this year I would keep this notebook perfect. The first time I would write in it, I would ensure my handwriting was neat and precise, a splendid array of perfectly crossed 't's' and love heart dotted 'i's'. Ultimately, this attempt at perfection dwindled by page 2, as I made my first spelling mistake and I would pull out my Tipex and sponge over the imperfections in hope of erasing them, but it was never quite the same. On occasions, I would rip out whole pages until my notepad was only 4 sheets thick and try and start afresh in the last final pages of this dwindled little book. However, by the end of each term, I would be left with a dog eared, doodled and damaged note book and I would promise myself that the next term I would be less of a disappointment. 

It dawned on me in 2016, that when I left school, New Year replaced my New Term and I began to pledge each January that this would be the year I was a little bit more perfect, that I would keep my 'notebook in check'. New year resolutions inspired by perfect Pinterest posts and Instagram idols ensured that I would spend the first 2 weeks of the month online buying kale, juice cleanses and storage solutions. However, by February, broke, starving and a little dog-eared, I would inevitably give up on all of those resolutions and wait patiently for January to swing by again and embrace that fresh start. 

Never was this more inevitable than in my attitude to my diet and weight. Each December, I would stare down at the downtrodden and battered (deep fried in extra oil) body, I had acquired over the previous 11 months and resolve that come January the 1st, I would be perfect. I would fill my stomach with ingredients that could only be bought online or in organic greengrocers (where people carried their pets rather than walked them). I would sign up for online personal training and body over hauls that promised to diminish every single abuse I had put my body through the previous year. On the 28th December each year, I would squash one more chocolate into my mouth with promises that this year, I would be perfect. And was I? 

Once New Year had come and gone and I still wasn’t perfect, I would wait for Monday, and if that fell by the wayside then the summer, or autumn, or 2 weeks before Christmas for the New Year, New Me diet. Each time I failed to reach perfection I would give up and wait for that ‘fresh start’ to come round again. During each of these periods of giving up I would embrace my failure full heartedly through gorging myself on cakes and doughnuts and 4am kebabs and remind myself, that come the ‘fresh start’ I would be perfect again. I absolved myself of all responsibility, I was working within the ‘fresh start’ impasse and until that clean slate came rolling around again I could fall head first into my failure (which was usually a Victoria Sponge cake).

The problem with seeking perfection, whether it's perfect handwriting, a perfect diet or a perfect wrapping station (pinterest has a lot to answer for), is that flawlessness is not only ambitious, it is completely inflexible. Once you have one failure, it's ruined, it's imperfect, and unless you start over again, it will always be imperfect. Once we fail, we are failures, and then we might as well jump wholeheartedly onto that self-destruction bulldozer and head for ‘hot mess’ mountain. We can spend the weekend wallowing in the ‘waste of space’ waterhole, until it’s time to jump back on that ‘start again’ wagon that always seems due on a Monday, because it could never arrive on a Sunday, could it?
But what if there were no fresh starts, no resolutions and no begin again?

2016 was the year that I had to come face to face with imperfect me. It wasn’t pleasant, because in reality I am a full time resident of ‘hot mess’ mountain. I am pretty sure I have a penthouse apartment there. I have had to come face to face with my imperfections and learn to sit with them even when I have wanted to change them. It’s not to say I’m without hope that I can’t make improvements in some areas of my life, but that there is no such thing as a ‘clean slate’. By not having the option of a reset button, I have learned to accept that I can’t be perfect and that all these promises to myself to be perfection personified only ever really made me feel like a complete failure. This New Year, instead of resolutions to myself to lose weight, get fit or be a better person, my 2017 promise to myself is to be kind to me. To not judge my imperfections, to embrace them and then let them go. If I go to the fridge to get a salad and then come back with a shepherds pie, then that’s ok, and next time I go to the fridge, I will try again for that salad and I won’t wait until 2018 to go and get it.