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.

Zigzagging

I’ve been quiet here lately, and that’s reflective of my life in general at the moment. I’m closing in and shutting down. It started as a way to recover, avoiding the things that trigger my anxiety in the hope of getting to a settled state.

It doesn’t seem to be working. 

I’m zigzagging between hyper-anxious, depressed and numb, with a very occasional happy few hours. And throughout it all I’m overanalyzing, trying desperately to work out how I can improve. 

There are so many chicken and egg moments that I just can’t unravel. I feel like if I could I could fix myself. And that adds to the feeling of uselessness and worthlessness – I can’t do anything, not even look after myself. 

Am I avoiding social situations because they make me anxious, or am I getting more anxious in social situations because I’m avoiding most of them? Am I isolated because I’m depressed or depressed because I’m isolated? Am I better off at home until I’m partially recovered, or would work distract me from my anxious mind? And so on.

Because of the impact of my mental health on my work, and vice versa, I’ve agreed with my employer to reduce my hours when I go back. This is necessary, it will be good for me, and I’m incredibly grateful to have a supportive employer. But it has financial implications which I feel horrendously guilty about. I feel like I’m inflicting problems on my whole family because I can’t cope with everyday life. It reinforces that sense of uselessness, of being a burden, incapable. 

It’s been hard to find positives this last week. 

Something happened on Tuesday that sent me right back to a traumatic event that happened nine years ago. I don’t want to write the details, that would set me off all over again. Suffice to say it’s one if those horrendously shitty things that real life can throw at people, it had a massive effect on me at the time, and took a long time to get over. And sometimes things put me right back in that moment, as if it was happening now. I never know it’s coming, and it always sets me a long way back. Although I tell myself I just need a quiet day to get over it I think it lingers, and explains why the remainder of the week was so difficult. 

I need to hold on to the few happy hours. They’re fleeting, but they’re happening. That’s an improvement. It feels like a failure because they can end so suddenly, with me hurtling into an anxiety attack, but in fact feeling positive for any time at all is an improvement. 

I had a dream this week, a nightmare, in which I was wearing a mask. I dreamt I was attacked by a dog which went for the mask, and that feels like where I am – the mask is slipping. I’ve worked hard to keep my smile on in public, I always say “I’m fine”, I don’t want people to worry, or feel sorry for me. Even to my GP I sometimes say ” I’m struggling a bit” when I actually feel like I’m hanging on by my fingertips, brittle and broken. My GP, to her credit, sees through this. I don’t feel like I deserve help, I should be able to fix this myself. But the mask is slipping, I can’t keep the smile on, even in front of my family who I always try to shield from the worst of me. 

Perhaps this is a sign that I should be more honest? Admit I can’t fix it myself. Ask for help. But I don’t know what would help. 

I do know people care. Knowing that helps. 

A surprise delivery made me smile. 

Dancing without Drinking.

For many years I went out several times a week, dancing and drinking til the early hours. I’m not claiming any especial dancing skill, it was more rocking out than rhythmic, with pogoing and headbanging as required. So not particularly aesthetic, but still movement and exercise. Its no coincidence that I was at my thinnest then. 

But life happened. First work that required getting up early in the morning, then children limiting my ability to get out. But on the rare occasions I did get out I still liked to dance and drink. 

Then I had to give up alcohol. This was due to the various medicines I have to take, not any moral opinion on the evils of drink. But I went from being a typical British occasional binge drinker to tee total. And it was quite a shock to the system. Not least because the majority of my social life revolved around drinking. 

It’s not a lot of fun being the only sober one among a mass of drunken people. Especially if you struggle with anxiety. I found I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself because I felt responsible for everyone’s safety, like I had to be constantly alert because I was the only one who wasn’t drinking. 

I also lost my confidence. Sober I was well aware that I was now a fat, middle aged woman, and who wants to see a fat, middle aged woman leaping about when they’re out for a good night? 

It’s that wierd depression contradiction of feeling worthless and useless, and at the same time self-centered enough to be assuming you’re the most important person there, the one everyone is looking at and judging. 

I became paranoid that people would judge me if I danced, if I relaxed. I was hyper alert whenever I was out. My anxious brain never let up… Why does that person have their phone out? Are they taking my picture? What if they make me into some body-shaming meme? Why are those people laughing? It must be at me. How can I make myself less visible? 

For several years now I’ve gone out less and less often. People have stopped even inviting me to the boozy nights out I used to enjoy. I miss it, but I feel I can’t risk the anxiety such a night brings on. 

However over the last couple of year my partner and I have started going to gigs. We still don’t get out often, but its rekindling a love of live music I thought I’d buried in the 1990s, along with my student ID and dreadlocks.

Last night we went to the gorgeous Wylam Brewery to see the London African Gospel Choir perform Paul Simon’s Graceland. It’s one of my most loved albums and I’d bought tickets on the spur of the moment when they first went on sale, not realising that by the time the gig took place I’d be in the middle of a real battle with my anxiety. I wondered over the last week if I’d be able to go.

Wylam Brewery, a gorgeous venue.

We walked across the town moor to Wylam Brewery, which is now housed in the Palace of Arts in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park rather than in Wylam. Walking rather than driving or getting the bus is a useful way for me to manage my anxiety, the extra time travelling helps me get my head in order. 

I did have some moments of anxiety over the course of the evening, mainly when alone if my partner had gone to the bar or wherever, but I was able to keep it under control. The music was fabulous. And I danced all night, for the first time since giving up alcohol. I shut out worries about how I looked or what people would think and I enjoyed the music and relaxed. I sang at the top of my voice, I cheered and whooped, and I kept on dancing.

Since I started my efforts to get healthier my stamina has definitely improved. We went to see the Levellers a few months ago and I could only dance for the odd song, not all the way through. Dancercise has honed my rhythm and taught me new moves, not that I was doing a full on lindy hop or Charleston!

I don’t know why I was able to relax last night when it’s been so difficult other times. I dont know what let me ignore my anxious brain. My mood at the moment is still zigzagging all over the place, so it was probably equally likely that I didn’t make it at all. But I’m determined to make the most of the up moments when I have them.

It was a wonderful night. 

Resetting My Brain To Battle Anxiety.

When my anxiety becomes so chronic and debilitating that I can’t hold it together for a couple of hours, let alone a full shift, as happened last week, I retreat. 

For ten days I’ve hardly left the house. I did a supermarket shop, but used the ‘scan as you shop’ so I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone. I did make it to Dancercise on Saturday, but drove there and back to minimise the potential social contact. I was glad I got there, it does me good mentally as well as physically. Other than that I’ve only spoken to my family and left the house to walk the dogs. Where I’ve had to communicate with people I’ve done it in writing.

The last few days I’ve felt slightly less anxious. Its come and gone, rather than the constant barrage of catastrophising thoughts they’ve ebbed and flowed. In the gaps between the anxiety there’s been nothing. Numbness, inertia, nothingness. 
Despite a million things to do I’ve struggled to move off the sofa. Getting dressed has seemed a monumental challenge that requires several hours of sofa-sitting before I can attempt it. While on the sofa its been hard to concentrate on anything. I’ve played repetitive games on my phone or spent time colouring (another of my many u-turns, I was convinced it was just a fad, then tried it and found it helpful.) I’ve thought about how thirsty I am but not managed to summon the energy to get to the kitchen to make a drink. 

I think this is my brain resetting itself. As if my subconscious has noticed the state I was in and decided the only way forward is a reboot. 

Image from quickmeme.com

Yesterday, after a morning of inertia and numbness, I suddenly felt alive. Like I needed to do something. I baked, I tidied, my daughter and I sorted out some clutter. I made a new meal and wrote a blog post. I didn’t feel anxious. 

Of course it’s not as simple as that. No magic fixes. If the secret to mental wellness was to reset your brain by taking a few days feeling numb, well, Britain wouldn’t have the epidemic of mental ill health we seem to at present. 

This morning I was numb and unable to motivate myself again. 

This afternoon I had to go out, and I had to speak to people. I was slightly afraid that I was only feeling a bit better (numb does feel a bit better than anxious) because of my voluntary isolation. What if I fell apart again the moment I got near people?

I did OK. 

The anxiety tried to make an appearance while I was shopping with my daughter (I refused to ask a sales assistant for help finding things) but I was able to overcome it (I did ask about a discount we’d heard we might be entitled to). 

It tried to appear again when on the way to my son’s youth club (we were running very early) but again I overcame it (better early than late, right?)

Anxiety tried to appear a third time when I got to the gym (everything had been moved around) and for a third time I overcame it (I want and asked when I couldn’t find one of the machines I wanted to use.)

So for today I’m beating anxiety, 3 – 0. 

Managing a few hours active a day is not the same as being recovered, but its a step in the right direction and I’m celebrating the achievement. Hopefully I can keep building on it. 

In praise of occasional randomness

It’s getting towards pay day, that last week of eking out the remaining pennies and supplies and hoping nothing expensive happens. It’s in these circumstances that some of my best culinary creations occur, like the fried rice in Tanking the Takeaway. My family look forward to such delights as “almost payday pasta” and “almost payday pancakes”, meals made of whatever’s to hand without a recipe in sight. 

It’s a skill to just throw what’s left in the fridge together and get something that tastes like a meal, rather than something that tastes like you just threw what was left in the fridge together. It’s a skill I’ve developed over time, although it can be a bit hit and miss. Since I signed up to the organic veg scheme (of which more here) I have a lot more fresh fruit and veg to play with than in previous months, which helps. 

My trawl of the cupboards turned up just 200g of pasta. Before I signed up to Newcastle Can and started eating more healthily I would have given up at this point, certain that you can’t feed four adults (or two adults and two adult sized teenagers) with so little. Now I know better. 

The fridge was better stocked than the cupboards, yielding some bacon, two onions, a courgette, half a bag of spinach, one pepper, a small cabbage and some feta cheese. 

The basic technique of my random meals is to chop everything then cook it all together, nothing complicated! So while the pasta was cooking I chopped everything except the spinach. I cooked the bacon first, adding the onion and pepper after a couple of minutes. Next went in the courgette, followed by the chopped cabbage and the spinach. When it was almost ready I added the chopped feta and stirred til it had melted into the sauce. I didn’t need to add any liquid, plenty had come off the veg. Then stir in the pasta.

Tadah! A healthy, tasty, colourful meal made in minutes. 

Although I was so busy chopping and stirring that I almost forgot to take a photo for the blog!

I think it’s important to embrace randomness occasionally. I tend to get stuck in a routine, unable to easily leave my comfort zone, especially when I’m struggling with my anxiety. I’ll seem fine while doing my usual stuff, but throw something unplanned at me and I completely unravel. So I need to remind myself now and then that random can be fun; just throwing things in a pan can be tasty; that sometimes it will go wrong, and that’s OK.

Tonight, on the spur of the moment, I tried an alternative route home from work. I ended up stuck for ages at one of those junctions where the traffic lights seem slightly out of synch, so only on every third green light could any traffic from my lane move. Sometimes random things don’t work. Rather than get frustrated at being delayed I turned the radio up and sang along, enjoying a few minutes with nowhere to go (and possibly startling passing pedestrians, my singing has more enthusiasm and volume than tunefulness!) Despite the delay I had a good journey. 

So, here’s to occasional randomness. 

Not too much randomness though, chaos would just cause more stress! 

My Anxious Mind. #MHAW17

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, with the theme Surviving or Thriving? I’d recommend visiting the Mental Health Foundation‘s website to find out more.

Image from http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk

Ironically this week I have struggled to find words to talk about mental health, because I’m struggling with my mental health. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, but I’m zigzagging between not too bad and barely coping at a rate that’s leaving me exhausted. Usually my mental health, while not great, is relatively consistent. I’m OK for a few days/weeks/months, then bad for a few days/weeks/months, and so on. Just now I can go from OK to crying and unable to carry on several times a day. I’m hoping it’s down to the change in medication a couple of weeks ago, and that it will settle down. I’ve been speaking to my GP to plan what to do if it doesn’t. 

I’m holding on to the fact that I am better than I was a few weeks ago, that there is progress. To illustrate I wanted to share two similar experiences I had a few weeks apart, vastly different in how my brain interpreted them. 

Last week, my first week back at work, I had to drive to Gateshead for some training. I don’t often drive south of the Tyne except on motorways, and the Gateshead town centre is unfamiliar to me, but I had directions, my trusty sat-nav, advice from colleagues and, as it turned out, an optimistically naïve faith in towns always well signposting their public parking. 

I’m not sure if the car park I was heading for was completely unsignposted from the main road, or if the sign was obscured by the roadworks and temporary traffic lights, but I didn’t see the turn off until I was passing it. I was then sucked into Gateshead’s one-way system where I tried to follow the occiaisional parking signs but ended up hopelessly lost and doing a u-turn to avoid a sudden (unsigned) bus only lane, much to the consternation of several bus drivers (I don’t think my mouthed apology and panicked wave appeased them). The inexplicable system continued to chew me up until I was finally spat out on a bit of bypass I recognised and was able to head to the quayside. 

Its fair to say I was frazzled, definitely stressed, but I knew the walk from the Quayside into Gateshead was mostly a pleasant one and would give me time to calm down. I emerged from the car cursing the town planners, sign buyers and road builders of Gateshead and stomped up the hill perfectly fine to take part in the training (after a medicinal cuppa.)

Not a bad place for an unscheduled walk.

Rewind a few weeks…

I am driving through an unfamiliar part of the city, following my trusty sat nav, to find my way home from an unfamiliar branch of my vets, the only one that could fit my accident prone greyhound in this morning. Spotting a gap in the traffic ahead I mirror, signal, manouver and overtake a cyclist.

Its only after I pull ahead of him that I realise there is unexpected traffic calming there, and my manouver has prevented him from pulling out past it. This I figure out while watching his angry hand gestures in my mirror as the traffic behind me slows to accommodate him.

I don’t know if there was no sign, or if it was hidden behind the van parked at the side of the road. 

I am a terrible person, I have nearly caused an accident, I could have killed that man, I shouldn’t be in charge of a car. 

He is justifiably angry. What if he reports me to the police? I’ll be arrested for driving dangerously. If I can’t drive I can’t work. What if I’m sent to jail? I’ll lose my house, my kids. 

What if he’s a criminal and follows me or finds me out from my numberplate? What if he targets my family for revenge? I’ve put my children in danger. I’m a terrible mother, I shouldn’t be allowed to have children, they’d be better off without me because I can’t keep them safe.

Is the car behind following me? Have they witnessed it, do they want to report it or just lose their temper with me? What will I do if they yell at me? I can’t defend myself, I nearly killed that man, I deserve whatever I get. 

This continues, not just through the day when I expect every knock on the door to be either the police, an angry motorist or cyclist out for revenge, but every night that week when I’m trying to get to sleep. What if he’d fallen off the bike? What if the car behind had hit him? I’d not just be responsible for the cyclist’s injuries or death, but also for the trauma of the driver who hit him. I am a terrible person. And so on…

That’s what anxiety does to me, the difference between an OK day and a bad one. The catastrophizing isn’t rational and it isn’t proportionate, although it feels it at the time. It doesn’t have to be a situation with a real fault or error on my part, my brain does just the same faced with something very minor, e.g. someone forgetting something I remember (“Should I remind them? They’ll think I’m bossy, they’ll think I’m interfering, they’ll think I don’t trust them, I must be a bad person to make them feel so bad”).

There’s a strange contradiction in my anxiety, one I can’t notice at the time and can’t explain. How can I feel simultaneously worthless, useless and unnecessary and also be so completely selfishly convinced that only I am responsible for everything? There was no thought in the second example of blaming the planners, sign writers or even the person who’d parked their van so inconsiderately. It could only be my fault. Nothing else and no one else gets in. 

At my worst my mental health problems are visible, perhaps I’m jittery or I can’t make eye contact, but usually they’re hidden. Many people who know me have no idea about it. And that’s true of so many people. 

The idea that everyone is fighting  battle you can’t see is becoming a cliché, which doesn’t stop it being mostly true. Far more people have mental health problems than speak about it. I’m getting help. If you’re struggling please seek help too.