Ignoring my inner bully.

I was brought up to believe good attendance was incredibly important. You only missed school in our house if you were physically incapable of going. Partly this was because both my parents worked and parental leave was even more of a nightmare in the 70s and 80s than it is now, but mainly it was because it was the right thing to do. 

You’re supposed to be at school, you make every effort to go. You’re supposed to be at work, you get there. You have obligations, you’ve made a commitment. You do it because you’re better than the layabouts, the slackers, the people who don’t try their best. You get on in life by working hard. You stay busy.

Its a mindset that has stuck with me and it’s not uncommon. Every workplace has its share of people who hardly ever phone in sick as they try to struggle on despite cold, headache, fever etc. Good managers will send these people home, both to give them time to recover and to protect the other staff from the germs, but other workplaces expect staff to work through illness, penalising sick leave and treating those who are unwell with contempt.

I once worked for an organisation where “Staff Health” was used as an intimidation technique by managers, if you didn’t stop disrupting their business by being so selfishly unwell they threatened to get rid of you by sending you to Staff Health. I know people who’ve worked for organisations where the staff health systems were well used and supportive of staff with ongoing medical conditions, as it’s surely designed to be. I think it just shows bad managers will treat people badly with whatever tools are at their disposal. 

If I find it really hard to take sick leave when I’m physically sick, it’s even harder when it’s my mental health that’s failing. I saw my GP this morning and was advised not to go back to work just yet. I know I’m struggling, I know I can’t do my job as well as I should just now, and the anxiety about everything would just keep building til I broke if I went to work. 

And yet there’s that bullying voice in my head “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfectly fit. If you can get out to walk the dogs you can get out to go to work. Why are you just lounging about doing nothing? The world would grind to a halt if everyone just gave up whenever they felt sad or worried. You useless waste of space.” And so on. 

But there is something wrong with me, and just because it’s not visible doesn’t mean it’s not real. My whole pattern of thinking is scewed just now. My reaction to any sort of decision making is a fight or flight panic, heart pounding, head hammering, sweaty, breathless fear. The fact I recognise it’s illogical doesn’t make it stop. I know from past experience that if I try to do things when I’m wobbling like this I will just keep getting worse, until I no longer recognise this scewed thinking as illogical. That is where the real danger lies. 

So the break I wrote about last week in Stopping is becoming longer. I will take this time to reset, to ease my mind, get to grips with altered medication, grow my strength. It’s not selfish, it’s necessary. I will try to ignore the voice telling me otherwise. I will try to do things that will fill my spiralling mind without worrying that I should be at home in bed since I’m too ill to work.* 

If I’d injured myself I wouldn’t think it was selfish to go to physio or occupational therapy, so why is self care for mental health seen so differently? Why does our society make us feel guilty for being ill, being less than perfect? Why does what’s visible matter most?

I’m trying to be more open about my mental health, to feel less embarrassed and ashamed of my lack of control of it. I have decades of trying to hide it to overcome, but I know talking about these things helps to normalise them, I know I’m not the only one struggling. Its really helped me to know strong people who were open about their mental health challenges. I don’t feel strong yet, but I’m done feeling guilty for something I can’t help. 

Slightly the worse for wear, but still beautiful.

* I first wrote this section with “I need to” instead of “I will…” but I remembered what I’d written earlier this month about using need too often, and decided I sh/would be more decisive about it! 

15,000 steps and a slice of cake before lunchtime. #NewcastleCan

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

Ford Prefect*

Last night I set my alarm for 8am, which is not usual. For me Saturdays are a time to catch up on the limited sleep I get through the week. 

My partner is the sort of person who can say “Goodnight”, roll over and be snoring within 10 seconds. Sleep doesn’t come that easily to me. I toss and turn, my brain spiralling through repeated anxieties, until finally I fall asleep. I usually get about 5 hours on a weeknight, and that’s since an increase in medication made me sleep noticeably heavier. 

I know this pattern of little sleep on weeknights and long lie ins at the weekends isn’t healthy. I know lack of sleep can contribute to poor mental health. In my case I’m not sure whether the poor mental health causes the problem sleeping or vice versa. 

Anyway, none of that lounging in bed til lunchtime for me today. It turned out my 8am alarm was optimistic, as the dogs decided at 7.30 that they needed to go outside urgently. When my alarm went off I was already eating breakfast and drinking tea.

The reason for the uncharacteristic early rising is that, following last weekend’s Newcastle Can taster sessions, I have signed up for a Dancercise class. And because I had a poor week in exercise and healthy eating terms I’d decided to challenge myself even further, by walking there and back. 

It’s not a particularly exciting walk, mostly through housing estates except for a brief spell across the Town Moor, but its one I’d done before and was confident I could manage on top of an hours dancercising. My map app said it would take 55 minutes, but the app creators have a very poor understanding of how fast a fat lass can walk when she puts her mind to it, so I allowed 45. 

I threw in a couple of short bursts of jogging and made it there in 40 minutes. I’m fairly sure jogging isn’t for me, it takes all my concentration and I can’t keep it up for any length of time, but I persevere because I know it uses different muscles to walking and I reckon every little helps. (Other inspirational supermarket slogans are available!)

The class was small and friendly, and as it was the first we were all newbies together. There was shimmying, hip swinging, bhangra, rock, charleston, lindy hop and even jazz hands. Something for everyone. I struggled to get my arms and legs doing different moves at the same time, but it didn’t matter because I kept moving.

I think part of why I enjoy the Dancercise is that it doesn’t come naturally. While my peers were learning to move to music I was listening to Metallica and Megadeth, neither noted for their dance moves. So it takes all my concentration. And that means those spiralling thoughts, the worries and anxieties that have dragged my mood down this week, have to stop. There’s no room for them when all my concentration is on getting my body to move to the music.

It didn’t feel like an hour. It didn’t feel like a class either. It felt like relaxing and having fun, while at the same time moving and exercising.

Afterwards some of us went for a cuppa and a cake, because, as I’m learning, getting healthy isn’t about never having treats. Its about adding to what you already do, little changes which build and grow. You need to enjoy it, not feel its a chore you’re obliged to undertake.

I walked back, with occasional jogging, and realised I didn’t feel as anxious as I had earlier. On the walk there my brain was doing its anxious, spiralling, hamster-in-a-wheel thing which I’ve struggled to control this week. On the way back I was noticing the sunshine, thinking about exercise and movement, feeling energised. That hour of concentrating on movement had stopped the spiralling. It’s an unexpected way in which improving my physical health can improve my mental health, just giving me a break from my bullying brain.

Before I signed up to NewcastleCan I’d have laughed if you suggested I join an exercise class. I’d have given you loads of reasons why it wasn’t for me, why I didn’t have time, why the very idea was absurd. If youd said I’d be up early, and have done 15,000 steps by lunchtime, I’d have laughed too. And if you’d said I could get healthy and still eat cake I just wouldn’t have believed you!

I’m almost 3 months into my journey of getting healthier, body and mind, and I know now I’d have been wrong back then. I wonder which of my other assumptions about myself will be challenged along the way? 

* In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. But you knew that, right? 

Stopping. 

I’ve always been a picker, a worrier. No scab left to heal, no blemish unprobed. Sitting in a pub I’ll be shredding the beermats, my restless fingers can’t keep still. My thoughts are like that too. I can’t switch off, I go over and over everything, into minute detail about scenarios which aren’t remotely likely because I just can’t stop.

Sometimes it’s unconscious. I’d wondered for years about the unexplainable callouses on my hands. They never go away, they don’t correspond with how I hold a pen or anything else. I mentioned it to my GP a while ago, and she looked at me and said “Really?” And I noticed for the first time that I was gnawing on my fingers, an outward sign of my anxiety that I must have done for years without ever being aware of it. Now sometimes I do notice I’m doing it, but it’s not that easy to stop. 

It’s the same with my thoughts. These days I do often recognise when I’m being irrational, when I’m getting overwhelmed and upset by things that aren’t directed at me at all, when the last strands of control are slipping through my fingers. I notice it, but I can’t stop it. 

I am curled up in bed, with a dog who senses that my need for company outweighs the ‘no dogs on the bed’ rule. I should be at work, but the negative blips that have been happening over the past couple of weeks combined into a flood I couldn’t cope with. So I am at home, where I’m trying to switch off and be kind to myself.

I’m trying to stop the incessant barrage of my thoughts. 

Everywhere I look there are things I should be doing, reasons to beat myself up for the mess I am, to class myself as a failureBut I’m not going to do that. I need to stop. 

Completely stop.

I’ll give myself today to stop, and tomorrow I’ll look at starting again. I’ll try not to pick up where I left off, with stress and anxiety preventing me making the most basic of decision. I’ll try to restart by building on the break, with a rested empty brain ready to deal with the tasks that need doing, rather than too full of worries to even know where to begin.

I recognise the irony that as my physical health improves my mental health is wobbling. I’m trying not to probe that, just to notice it and move on. I hope to keep this as a wobble, not a breakdown. I could speculate for hours on why now, what’s triggered it, what can I change to prevent it happening again, but that would just make me more anxious. 

So I empty my brain, concentrate on just being here without worrying about anything, ignore everything that needs doing. There’s nothing that can’t wait. 

Sleepy dog keeping me company.

Too much chocolate.

I’ve had a bad day. One where everything went wrong and I just felt I shouldn’t exist at all. 

I managed no unhealthy snacks at work, but once I got in I ate chocolate. And more chocolate. 

I put the chocolate away, then got it out again and ate more chocolate. 

I went to make tea, and before I started I ate more chocolate. 


There’s something to be said for not keeping anything that will tempt you in the house when you’re trying to be healthy. But if there hadn’t been chocolate I don’t know what I’d have done. 

I don’t even know why I was eating the chocolate. I wasn’t hungry. Was it a distraction? A craving? Self harm? 

I’ve been trying to break the link between stress and food, but it’s strong. It keeps snapping back into place. 

I’d like to stay I took hold of myself and stopped myself eating the chocolate. But in reality I ate it until I felt sick, until I couldn’t eat any more. 

And then I cooked tea. I made fried rice. I concentrated on finely chopping the vegetables. I tried to forget everything.


The bad day continued. I forgot the garlic and only remembered the prawns at the very last moment. It didn’t matter though, it still tasted good. 

It showed me I can turn a bad day around. I can find a little victory. I stopped eating the chocolate, I didn’t order a takeaway, I made a healthy meal for my family.  


I still feel sad, hopeless, overwhelmed. But it’s when I feel like this that I most need to cling to the little victories. 

Fighting with myself.

“I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down”

Chumbawumba, Tubthumping

I’ve had a couple of bad days this week. Flare ups of poor mental health, which scares and infuriates me as I’d been doing quite well.

It can hit me in two ways and I’ve had both this week. The first is feeling completely overwhelmed by everything, like I can’t do enough and whatever I do is wrong. I feel worthless and useless. I stare into nothing, unable to do anything, while my thoughts tell me how bad I am, that nothing I’ve ever done matters, that I wouldn’t be missed. I interpret anything said to me as a justified criticism. 

The other type is more anxious, terrified of something happening to someone I love, desperately repeating irrational actions to try and keep them safe. This feels as if it has the most physical impact, heart hammering, head thumping, shaking and nauseous. 

What they have in common is that I’m fighting my own catastrophising mind. I know the only person putting pressure on me is me. I’m the only one who expects me to be perfect, to solve everything, to never say no. I’m the one who’ll beat me up and call me names if I get something wrong. I’m the one who doesn’t forgive, and brings up past transgressions as I’m trying to get to sleep. It genuinely feels like a battle, I’m telling myself I’m behaving irrationally, I’m listing all the times everything has been fine, I’m trying to calm myself down, but another bit of me is insisting that this time it will be a disaster. And that bit of me seems to control my body as well as part of my mind. 

It’s exhausting to carry on these arguments with myself. And then there’s the guilt afterwards. Feeling like a failure. I know mental ill health is a real and genuine thing, but that doesn’t stop me feeling like I should be able to stop it, snap out of it, do better. 

As chance would have it I came across two things that helped when I was feeling like a failure today. The first is an article in the Metro When you’re working on your mental health one bad day can make you feel like a failure which ended with something I really needed to hear. 

“Bad stuff will still happen. I’ll still feel sad sometimes…

That doesn’t make me weak, or a failure. It makes me a human that sometimes has to face challenges. And it means I’m making a genuine effort towards getting better.”

Read more: http://metro.co.uk/2017/04/03/when-youre-working-on-your-mental-health-one-bad-day-can-make-you-feel-like-a-failure-6549419/#ixzz4dhujCmOT

The second was a post by the marvellous Mindfump on Dealing With Failure, and the difference between failure as a lack of success and failure as something we are personally. This gave me something to strive towards:

“You can opt out of this cycle, if you follow a strict diet of ‘not giving a shit’ ”

Read more: https://mindfump.com/2017/04/08/dealing-with-failure/

I need to learn to do that. I need to stop caring what the angry dictator that lives in my head is saying. I need to trust myself. Because I am doing better. I’m recognising when downward spirals start happening and seeking help. I’m talking to people, and I’m doing that as soon as I recognise I’m thinking irrationally, rather than when I’m at breaking point. I’m giving myself space to recover. 

I need to acknowledge my progress. I need to breathe and pause and let go of the guilt. 

I need to stop telling myself how many things “I need” to do. 

It’s harder with mental health because I can’t see the progress. Physically I know I’m getting fitter. I can measure my weight, heart rate and blood pressure. It’s not like my brain will drop a dress size as it gets healthier. Which is why it’s so important to keep acknowledging my progress. I will keep on getting up again. 

6 weeks in #NewcastleCan

[L]ets come together as a city to change the way we live, work and play, and help make Newcastle the healthiest, happiest city it can be.

https://www.newcastlecan.com

Its six weeks since I joined the Newcastle Can campaign, which seems like a good time to reflect on how its going. So, in no particular order, so far I have:

  • Tried to eat healthily rather than dieting.
  • Upped the vegetables in most of the meals I prepare, increasing the number of portions and reducing the number of calories per portion.
Adding vegetables
Pushing myself

That looks good, it is good, but I want to record the pitfalls as well as the successes. It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve:

  • Binge eaten half a box of fudge because I hadn’t had any sweets for weeks and just couldn’t stop myself.
  • Had several weeks with several portions of cake, and needed to impose stricted limits on myself.
  • Had 2 weeks where I lost just one pound, followed by 2 weeks where my weight stayed the same, before I gave myself a metaphorical kick up the backside and began taking it more seriously.
  • Had several days where a busy life intervened and I didn’t do as much physical activity as I’d wanted.
  • Really struggled with my anxiety, because I’m forcing myself out of my comfort zone.

So, not always easy, but going well. Which makes me wonder why I’m sticking to this better than previous fitness attempts? Six weeks, for me, is a long time! 

Adding hills to my walks.

I think its because its part of an organised campaign. I’ve committed to doing this, I’ve stated so publicly. And that means I’m not alone. The emails and updates from the campaign team motivate me if I’m finding it a struggle. The articles on the website give me ideas of how to make positive changes. People ask me how its going and if they’re taking part too we share what’s worked and what hasn’t.

Physically I feel there hasn’t been a dramatic change yet. But dramatic change isn’t necessarily sustainable, so maybe that’s a good thing. Mentally its been a challenge. I feel less depressed but more anxious. One of my major anxiety triggers is change, and this whole campaign is about making changes. I know I can get through the anxiety, and each time I do the next time becomes a bit easier, but that doesn’t make it any the less unpleasant at the time. 

I’m doing this for me, and it means facing up to my anxiety and getting through it. I can do that. Six weeks is nothing compared to the year I’ve signed up for, but if I break the year into months, the months into weeks, the weeks into day and the days into hours I can do this. One hour at a time.

This Woman Did! #thisgirlcan #newcastlecan

On Wednesday I took part in the #thisgirlcan UV 5K event for International Women’s Day. This was the first organised event where I’d be doing a physical activity with other people for years. Doing anything outside my comfort zone triggers my anxiety, and this was so far outside my comfort zone that I’d have needed binoculars to see it! It’s an understatement to say that anxiety is not pleasant. I struggle with anxiety a lot.

The person I was walking with was running late. I spent almost 20 minutes waiting for her, watching loads of women going into the park. 

Anxiety lies, and there’s rarely anything logical about it. Despite the evidence of my eyes my brain told me that all of these women were fitter than me, better prepared than me, better equipped than me. 

Anxiety focuses on irrelevant details. By the time my friend had arrived I had convinced myself that they weren’t going to let me walk because my shoes were wrong, and was deciding whether I should protest or just slink away.

Anxiety is invisible. Although all these thoughts were screaming through my head and my body was in full on fight or flight mode with heart thumping and nerves jangling I said nothing to my friend. I don’t talk about what’s going on in my head much. I can write it, but I can’t say it out loud to anyone.

Anxiety can be beaten. Together we joined the women walking to the park, where no one gave a damn about my shoes, and we joined women of all ages, shapes, sizes and fitness levels ready for the off. 

There were runners in full athletics kit, Nordic walkers with poles, loads of hiking boots, trainers, tutus and face paint. There were women in glorious neons and women like myself who are so used to dressing to be invisible that grey is the brightest colour we own. They were all supportive, all enjoying it.

Me and my friend walked the course at a fast pace. It challenged me physically and soothed me mentally. By half way round I was smiling, and by the end I felt great. Sweaty, muddy and tired, but great.

I wish I’d realised sooner that #thisgirlcan is for all ages. I’m still not comfortable with the name, and judging by this article in the Guardian I’m not the only one, but I’ll be looking out for more of their events. And hopefully next time I’ll be less anxious about it.