One of those days…

Yesterday I had one of those days. You know the ones. Every door I went through I bashed into the door frame. Every cuppa I made I spilt part of. Every task I undertook seemed to take twice as long as it should due to piffling little errors. One of those days. 

It started with an argument with my son, who was upset I wouldn’t let him microwave an aluminium foil food container.

I couldn’t get a parking space, so parked a ten minute walk from work. So of course a large and heavy parcel I needed to bring home arrived.

Mid morning I discovered my insurance company had mistakenly taken my annual car insurance payment twice. From an account with no overdraft set up. It got sorted out quickly, but felt like a lot of stress and hassle. Particularly when I should have been working. 

And so it carried on. A day of frustrations, bruises and bother.

These days can leave me feeling very negative, as if I’ve achieved nothing all day. It’s easy to remember the things that didn’t go according to plan, rather than the things that did. I’ve been trying to challenge this way of thinking, and over the past couple of months have been keeping a kind of minimalist journal. 

Image from https://theprimalyogi.com/2015/11/04/just-write/

To be honest it’s barely even a journal, just a notebook in which I jot down a list of things I’ve achieved each day. The achievements might be small and routine (washed dishes) or big and challenging (went back to work after sick leave) but they all add up to challenge my feelings of uselessness. I write it at bedtime, and I’ve found the focus at the end of the day on what’s gone right has helped my mood. And I have a physical record of achievements that I can look back on when my mood does dip. 

I’ve often struggled to keep going with journalling. And although writing things down can feel therapeutic it can also lead me to dwell on things best let go of, and to decend into spiralling negative thought. But I’m finding this quick listing of achievements is easy to keep up with. If you’re naturally disposed to negativity I’d recommend giving it a go.

– – – – –

A brief public service announcement for parents of small children.

Don’t be tempted to buy the character elastoplasts/Band-Aids. Unless you have exceptionally accident prone children they will grow into sullen teenagers before the packet is finished. Rather than waste them you, like me, will become a grown adult who ends up walking about with Barbie/Peppa Pig/Mr Men plasters on when you’ve had one of those days! 

I’m a grown up, honest!

Returning to work

This week I returned to work after six weeks off sick due to mental health issues. I’ve been here before, but previously it didn’t go well. 

I have a tendency to get myself back to work as soon as I’m well enough to force myself through a day, which leads to me burning out again quite quickly, and needing more sick leave in the long term. It had become a pattern, and was having a negative impact on my health, my work and my employers.
This time feels better (so far.) So what’s changed?

I’ve been more honest this time. Not just with my boss, but also with my colleagues. I know I’m lucky to work somewhere that recognises the impact of mental ill health, where it won’t be held against me or used to guilt trip me. I’ve worked places in the past where any sick leave, physical or mental, was treated as dereliction of duty. So it’s taken me a long time to be able to open up to other people about my mental healh. The first time I was on long term sick I asked my boss not to let other staff members know the reason. I was ashamed of it and wanted to keep it quiet, but that caused speculation among my colleagues and an occasional feeling of treading on egg-shells in their interactions with me which made me anxious. 

So this time my colleagues know I’ve had mental health problems. Everyone welcomed me back, and knowing they know has meant I’ve felt able to acknowledge being up and down. There was an incident this week with a missed deadline which would have had me in tears and panicking a few weeks ago. I was able to say “I can feel myself getting wound up, so I’m going to stop, make a cuppa and come back to it in a few minutes.” My colleagues were really supportive of that, and we got it completely sorted without my anxiety getting the better of me. 

I’ve also been more honest with myself this time. I’ve accepted that returning too soon compounds the problem, tried to limit my worry about how my colleagues are coping without me, and instead looked honestly at how I’m feeling and whether I am fit for work. I’ve allowed myself to do nothing some days, just gradually let myself see what I can manage.

Then there’s been the planning. I like to plan. To quote one of the TV icons of my youth…

… although unlike the A Team I don’t cope well with the unexpected. Unfamiliar places, unknown people and sudden changes of plans unnerve me at the best of times and floor me completely when my mental health is bad. So I plan.
But I have to stop myself over-planning. While having a plan in place eases my anxiety, trying to plan every scenario in minute detail can set me into a spiral of worrying that is incredibly difficult to get out of. Again this trait is worse when my mental health is bad. It’s a balancing act. 

While I was off my boss has been working with me on temporary changes to my role which acknowledge my mental health may take a long time to return to “normal” and limit the pressure on me while that happens. My hours have been reduced and my role changed slightly. I’d rather continue with a job I enjoy in a limited capacity than end up jobless because of my fluctuating mental health. And my employer benefits from my experience and commitment, rather than having to find and train a new worker. Win win.

In addition to these changes we’d agreed a phased return, with a detailed plan for catching up over the first month back. This meant I went into work on Monday knowing exactly what was going to happen, rather than feeling panicked about everything I had to catch up with. That really helped reduce my anxiety.

Of course I work in the real world, so already my plan has notes and edits, things that need slotting in. When I’m not too anxious, as now, this feels like necessary flexibility, rather than impossible demands. 

So I had a good first week. There were a couple of wobbles but I was able to identify and address them before they grew, with the support of my colleagues. Certainly I coped with things this week which would have had me in bits a few weeks ago. That success has increased my confidence, I feel like I was a useful part of the team, and I’m looking forward to doing more next week. I can see how my mental health has improved over the last few weeks, and I can acknowledge that I did that! I recognised the self care I needed, I let myself rest, I knew I was unwell and gave myself permission to get better. 

I still feel partly broken, but now I feel like I’m holding the glue and carrying out the repairs rather than just crying in the shards. 

Image – sculpture repair in progress from 
www.lakesidepottery.com

Pondering plastic free, the cause of clutter, and a recycled top tip. 

I know I use too much plastic, and the more I hear about the damage plastic does to the environment the more I worry about how much I use. But it’s so hard to avoid. And so easy to slip up. So I decided to sign up to Plastic Free July

I knew when I signed up that completely avoiding plastic would not be possible, not least because I didn’t sign up until July had already started and my fridge was already full of plastic wrapped food. So my aim is not to avoid plastic completely, but to be far more aware of it and identify the single use plastics I can easily avoid and those I’m going to have to work harder at. 

It didn’t start well. In hindsight starting on the day I returned to work after several weeks off sick and had to get my son to his work experience was not the best plan. Neither me nor my son are good with changes to our routines or mornings! There I was congratulating myself on remembering reusable shopping bags when I realised I’d just filled the reusable shopping bags with prepackaged lunches covered in single use plastic. Oops! I’d failed on the first day!

But these days I don’t give up that easily. Today I took homemade lunch to work, in a reusable box; remembered my water bottle as well as my shopping bags; and chose to sit in and have a cuppa in a proper cup rather than get a take away. Several lots of single use plastic avoided. I’ll build from here.

I’m hoping avoiding plastic will also help me avoid clutter. I’m trying to purge my house of clutter, which is a very gradual process, and in doing so I’ve realised something really important:

The most important part of decluttering is not deciding how to get rid of the clutter, developing organisational methods to rearrange clutter, or reading lots of online decluttering advice. The most important part of decluttering is STOP BUYING MORE CLUTTER! It doesn’t matter how prettily you organise it, if you have more stuff than you need you’ll end up with mess, stress and expense. 

I am both an impulse shopper and a hoarder. I love a bargain, and I hate to get rid of anything that might one day be useful. Hence the amount of clutter grows and grows. Its a habit I need to break, especially as my recent reduction in work hours means that our already tight budget is getting ever tighter. 

And I’ve found a way to stop myself spending that’s working for me (so far!)

It’s a variation on thesecretblogofa30yearsee‘s BIGGEST tip on saying NO. Deceptively simple and incredibly effective. She gives the tip about saying no to unhealthy food: 

Get yourself a notebook and pen, throughout the day every single time to resist something naughty, write it down… Then at the end of the day add up the syns you said no to, you will be amazed at what that number on the bottom of the page says. 

Read the whole blog post here

I tried it with food and it works. And then I expanded it and found it works for saying no to buying stuff I don’t need too. 

Take today. I had an hour to kill in town before I collected my son, so I wandered round the shops and went for a cuppa. There are so many sales on at the moment, and so much lovely stuff at bargain prices. 

I saw a gorgeous lamp, less than half price (still over £30!) And I said No to myself. 

I saw the whole of the range of one my favourite, treat myself, can’t afford it full price toiletries was at least half price and the perfume 66% off! Last time this happened I spent more than £50 stocking up. And I said No to myself. 

I mooched around T K Maxx where I can always find multiple things I could buy, but I knew I didn’t really need any of them. And I said No to myself. 

Total non essential things bought : cuppa and scone £5 (no single use plastic)

Total non essential things NOT bought: at least £100 (and a lot of clutter)

I think this works because generally we remember our failures rather than our successes. We remember we ate the one chocolate bar, but forget all the cookies we said no to. I could quite easily beat myself up for “wasting” £5, and never remember how much more I could have wasted. I see all the clutter that is in the house, and forget how hard I’m working to stop more being added. Writing it down and quantifying it makes it more concrete, and you can see that really you’re doing quite well, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I find that helps me a lot.

Now if I could just persuade the rest of my family not to add to the clutter we might get somewhere! 

Sickness and Seeing Things.

I’ve been physically quite unwell for a few days, but I’m getting better. That’s the short version.

I’ll understand if you leave it with the short version and move on to other things. The long version that follows is my gradually recovering brain pondering on what my feverish brain invented while I was sick, and I make no claims that it’s a work of stunning insight or perception!

Somewhere between Friday night and Saturday morning I stated being sick. My doctor says it was definitely “a bug” which I feel doesn’t really describe the full horror of the experience. Physically it was like a full body migraine. Everything hurt, everything from scalp and skull right down to toenails. The slightest movement set off another bout of retching, even after I’d brought up everything possible. I felt very cold, although I’m told I was anything but. My senses were ridiculously heightened, the smallest noise was torture and our older, smellier dog had to be banished to the other room because she made me feel so sick! 

Cute, but too pungent.

Somewhere in the blur that is Saturday/Sunday/Monday some unknown combination of fever, dehydration, lack of food and the sudden stopping of medication you absolutely must wean yourself off or face dire consequences caused me to start hallucinating. 

I’ve never gone in for hallucinogens. Zammo told me “Just Say No” to drugs at an impressionable age, and I took it to heart (and possibly also bought the single. Or at least recorded it off the radio onto cassette, clipped to cut off the DJ, which was the nearest I got back then to buying singles). 

Pic from eBay.

It’s not that I had a completely unadventurous youth, but by the time I had discovered sex and rock ‘n’ roll I found I didn’t have time to bother much about drugs too. And the loss of control thing terrifies me. 

I remember a trusted friend once offering me Es at a nightclub in my dim and distant past. “It’s great” he said. “You’ll want to hug everyone here.” I looked at the sweaty masses of early 90s grungers and thoughtfully replied “Over my dead body.” The idea of voluntarily taking something to make me act so out of character was unfathomable to me. 

So my rare experiences of hallucinations have all been fever based. I think they’re hallucinations. I’m not entirely sure where you draw the line between incredibly vivid fever dreams and actual hallucinations. Perhaps a medical person could explain, but I’m never really in a fit state to discuss the finer points of definitions when it happens.  

Anyway, while my body was in agony my brain was creating incredible feats of imagination, all nonsensical in retrospect, but seeming very real at the time:

There were the moon moths, whose breeding habits and feeding patterns I’d apparently studied for years (and should I ever write a sci-fi novel they’re going in). 

There was balancing over a cavern system that housed three of the rarest bee species in the world, although only two of them actually made prize winning honey, so we don’t speak about the third. 

There was the silver cup on a delicate silver chain that I used to get the honey and I swear was on my bedside table for hours afterwards until the dog knocked it down (I own no silverware and by this point the dog was banished – see above). 

There was a really compelling reason why I had to lie with one foot on the other knee, and something terrible would happen if I didn’t. 

There was a new social order with four strands based on selecting a random tile, but it kept going wrong and society had to be rebooted, which meant a party being chosen to make the long, dangerous trek to the on/off switch on the other side of the gnarly lands.

When my partner told me the doctor was on the phone I was genuinely confused, having just spoken to a doctor, although at the time I did feel it was unprofessional for him to be calling from the squash court (the fact I could see him while on the phone didn’t arouse my suspicion at all).

These are just glimmers of the ones I remember. There were unrelenting hours of this stuff, punctuated only by dashes to the bathroom to be sick. 

By Monday evening the medicine my real, non-squash court doctor had prescribed was kicking in and I was able to keep some fluids down and have snatches of sensible conversation. Tuesday I managed to eat a little, and sleep without dreaming. 

I’m still achey and wobbly, with a slightly elevated temperature, but I’m sure I’m on the mend. I’m appreciative of my brain for providing a distraction from my body when my body was feeling crap, and I’m accepting that I’m not going to find some complex hidden meaning in the weird journeys it took me on. I wish I could harness even a tenth of that creative capacity when I’m not ill though. 

Eating Healthier: Chips. #NewcastleCan

Until comparatively recently I rarely looked at the ingredients of the food I was buying. I was more interested in how easy it was to cook than what was in it. I had what now seems a naïve amount of trust in the food industry, who I was sure wouldn’t feed me anything unnecessary. 

My drive to get healthier has seen me paying a lot more attention to the labels, and doing a lot more of my own cooking rather than relying on convenience foods. I hadn’t realised how much I’d bought into the convenience food culture, believing cooking certain things myself was far too much trouble, without ever having tried it.

Until very recently having chips in our house meant either a visit to a chip shop or oven chips…

I mean they’re just chips, right? But quicker. Bung them on a tray, bung it in the oven and chips are ready in 20 minutes. No need for all that faffing about peeling potatoes, no worrying that the potatoes will go off before you use the whole bag, no dealing with roots or mud. And it’s just potatoes. 

Actually no…

This is the brand I happened to have in my freezer. Other brands may have different ingredients.

Call me fussy, but I expect chips to be more than 92% potato! Why do chips need two different types of flour? Why do they need colouring? And 4% oil seems a lot. 

So I decided I’d give making chips a go. Believe it or not I’d never made chips. As a child my mum made them, in a chip pan full of boiling oil that terrified me! As an adult I’d believed oven chips were healthier and more convenient. 

It turns out it’s not that hard to chop up a potato…

Skin on for healthier chips.

After chopping them I put the chips in a large bowl, with a tablespoon of oil and some seasoning, cover it up with a plate and give it a good shake…

Then pop them onto a baking tray and into the oven at 220°…

Depending how chunky I’ve cut them they can take up to 20 minutes to cook. They’re best turned half way through cooking. 

This is the way I make chips most often now. I can vary the size of them, vary the seasoning, and they’re very popular with the family. Apart from a couple of extra dishes to wash they’re not really an inconvenience. 

No flour, no starch, no colouring, no fuss! And a bag of potatoes is a lot cheaper than a bag of oven chips.

I’m not saying I never get chips from the chip shop any more, and we still have oven chips in the freezer for emergencies. But in general I make chips from scratch these days, and I’m surprised how easy a switch it was. 

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Newcastle Can is a project to get my home town working together to get healthier and lose weight. You can find out more about the project here, and my other blogs on the subject are listed here

Book Review: Unprocessed by Megan Kimble

Megan Kimble was a twenty-six-year-old living in a small apartment without even a garden plot to her name. But she knew that she cared about where her food came from, how it was made, and what it did to her body — so she decided to go an entire year without eating processed foods

Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble (from back cover blurb)

It has taken me too long to read this book. That’s not down to the book at all, it’s well written, and informative without being dry or excessively technical. I started reading it a few months ago before my current bout of anxiety and depression. 

One of the first indications I’m getting ill is when I struggle to read. In general I’m a real bookworm, flying through book after book. But when I’m ill I struggle to concentrate for a paragraph let alone a chapter. Reading just becomes impossible.  

Contrawise it’s a good sign I’m on the road to recovery when I feel like reading again. Last week I read two pages. Over the weekend I read six pages. Yesterday I sat down and read the two and a half remaining chapters and finished the book. The return of my concentration is hopefully a good indicator that I’m on the mend. 

I spotted this book in the wonderful Quaker Centre Bookshop last time I was in London. It leapt out at me. I’ve been worrying about the amount of processed food my family eats for some time, both in terms of its impact on our bodies and in terms of the environmental impact of its production. Yet it seems impossible to avoid. Then here was someone who had avoided it, for a full twelve months, I could read about her experience, and possibly pick up some tips. I had to buy it. 

I enjoyed it from the start. It’s clearly well researched and referenced, without the level of excruciatingly complicated scientific detail which puts casual readers like me off. The style is chatty and cheerful. While I try and avoid processed food by avidly studying labels Megan Kimble actually visits food producers, from massive industrial dairies to small breweries and distilleries. She finds out more about how labels can mislead us than I’d ever have known without her. 

I hadn’t started the book with the intention to dramatically change the way I eat. One of the things Megan demonstrates is how much work an unprocessed diet is. I knew that for me completely cutting out processed food wouldnt be practical. But it did get me thinking differently. 

Some of Megan’s conclusions shocked me. Considering dairy for example:

I try to consume less, but better. By better, I mean whole — I eat eggs with all their yolks, milk with all its fat, cheese with all its curd. Not only do fat molecules help your body to absorb the nutrients in mill, but also fat is delicious. Fat fills you up, so its easier to eat less of it. 

Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble

 This is so counter to everything I’ve been told about low fat that it seems positively revolutionary. And I don’t know if I could do it. I’ve never had whole milk, unless they gave me whole milk at school in the 1970s (until it was notoriously snatched by Thatcher.) Its been semi-skimmed or skimmed all my life. Maybe I should give it a try?

In other areas her experiments in processing he food herself led her to realise why communities and eventually big corporations developed, as the time and effort taken to produce food was better spent when sharing roles. But the soullessness of these massive corporations is evident, churning out bland additive-filled food, caring for their own profits over their customers health, causing damage to the environment and seeing animals as commodities rather than living creatures. There are lots of good reasons to avoid processed food.

One of the compelling reasons for Megan, which she quotes more than once in the book, is the realisation that we as consumers have power, and can make changes. In the UK free-range eggs and various Fair Trade products are now generally available, all due to customer pressure. 

For me, living in the north east, one of the most deprived areas of the country, the argument about investment in the local economy also resonated. If I spend £100 on food at one of the big supermarkets most of that money will leave the region, going instead to shareholders and parent corporations. If I buy locally produced food with that £100 much more of it stays in the region, supporting the local economy. 

Unprocessed food is more expensive though, and we all have to decide where we spend our money. Whether its £5 or £50 it will make a difference. I try to buy organic and unprocessed, but its a fine balancing act between what I want and what I can afford. I often have to compromise.

If I had to have a negative, and its a very unimportant negative, the book was very much embedded in the American systems of agriculture and processing. This is only natural, it’s where it was written and the audience it was initially written for. But it let me wondering whether things are the same here, and how I would find out. And she just did food, a mammoth task in itself, but what about the chemicals we have around us all the time? Toiletries, cleaning products, plastic. I had unanswered questions. However I think inspiring me to look further into something is the mark of a good book, not of the author missing something out. 
All in all a good read, and one I’d recommend. 

You can visit Megan Kimble’s website to find out more about her year unprocessed. 

The magical garden

Its still magic, even if you know how its done.

Terry Prachett.

I am not a natural gardener, in much the same way that a brick doesn’t naturally float. My postage stamp garden is largely overgrown, and any attempt at house plants, no matter how easy to care for, leads to death. 

But I so want to be a good gardener. I have wonderful memories of my grandparents gardens. The front garden was flowers, beautiful roses and cheerful marigolds. I remember helping my grandad collect marigold seeds, labelling envelopes in my skittery childish handwriting. The back garden was fruit and veg, an abundance which was shared with friends, family and neighbours at harvest time. My gran made jam and chutney. We had home grown veg with all meals.

I don’t have green fingers, I don’t understand soil or know when you should prune things.  I struggle to find time to put in the work needed to turn my garden into something beautiful and productive. And then I feel bad about myself, its such a visible sign of not managing. 

Yesterday I sat in the garden for an hour with my book. Although I’ve been off work a few weeks now I’ve spent almost all my time in the house, shut in and safe while I recover. And I’d forgotten how relaxing the sunshine can be. 

I didn’t get much of my book read. There were some sort of fledgling birds playing in the garden, landing on the tall dock plants I’d been beating myself up for not removing, and diving down to squabble over bugs and slugs in the grass below. I watched in fascination. I realised I was smiling.

There is a thin strip of the garden, alongside the fence to next door, which I have forced some order into. As I was sitting in the garden I spotted something there that made my heart leap.

Peas! I want to grow more things we can eat than just the herbs. This year I bought some pea plants (still feels like cheating not to grow from seed – sorry grandad!) I’ve had problems with previous attempts, usually slug or snail related! I was so happy to see these ones are working. 

There is something magical about plants turning into food. I know it’s science, not magic, but I’m still amazed and overjoyed when it works. So I checked a few other of my long suffering plants. 

Tiny pepper, my first ever.

Hidden straw berries.

First ever gooseberries.

I had forgotten, in this long period of anxiety and depression, how good it felt to sit in the garden, to feel the sunshine, watch the bids who prefer my messy garden to all the neighbouring lawns and patios, and connect with nature. I’m determined not to shut myself up in the house any more. And making me feel that positive really is miraculous.