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. 

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.