Stopping a wobble turning into a nose dive…

I’m having a blip. My mental health is wobbling, between the equilibrium I’d reach and a lower, more self destructive mood. I know this happens. It’s part of my recovery. But knowing that doesn’t make the blips any easier. 

I’m trying to identify what causes these blips. But it’s rarely as simple as one thing. Potential triggers this week:

  • First week back at work after two weeks annual leave.
  • IBS flare up leaving me feel bloated and uncomfortable.
  • Worry about elderly dog who spent Friday at the vets for blood tests.
She’s feeling a bit better on her new meds.
  • Out of my routine with one child away with friends and the other at Granny’s. 
  • Long drive to collect daughter from Yorkshire leaving me very tired.
  • Variois triggering conversations I couldn’t avoid.

And those are just the ones I noticed!

I’m trying to deal with it differently. Keep the wobble from turning into a downward spiral. So yesterday evening instead of hiding myself away when I felt dreadful I let myself cry in front of my partner. Usually I insist “I’m fine” even when I’m clearly not. I cry alone, hiding in another room or after everyone else is asleep. This time I let my partner know how I was feeling, we talked about it. It didn’t stop the negative feelings completely but it muted them a bit. 

This morning I felt lethargic and numb, that washed out emptiness that hits after a real low and leaves me not wanting to do anything. I could happily have moved no further than the sofa all day, and very recently I wouldn’t have. Again I spoke with my partner. 

My plan for today had been to go for a run, but with my mood low being seen in public in running gear just seemed impossible. My paranoia was in overdrive, my anxiety telling me how awful an obese middle aged woman in leggings would look, how I’d be unable to run, how people would laugh.

My alternative was the gym. Leggings aren’t so bad when everyone’s wearing them! But getting up seemed impossible. My partner reminded me how positive having the 5k goal had made me, that I’d feel worse about myself if I skipped a training session, that I could do this. 

And I did. I headed to town, did a couple of messages (including buying cupcakes for tea) and then I went to the gym.

I started slowly, and felt leaden for the first few minutes, but I managed my first ever 5k on the treadmill, running the first 2.5k and then combining running and walking for the rest. It took me 43 minutes, and hopefully I will improve on that in the 4 weeks before the race. I know it will take longer off the treadmill. Mo Farrah could run 3 x 5k in the time it takes me to run one, but he’s a world class professional athlete and I’m a middle aged obese woman who has never run before, so I’m still proud of 43 minutes! 

Proof 🙂
Three short spells of walking is not bad for just over 5k.

This evening I cooked our tea from scratch, so I’ve not yet succumbed to the sofa, but my anxiety tried to turn every tiny error into a crisis. A dropped knife, a missing ingredient, a pan boiling over – all led to panic. Getting out helped, but it’s not a magic fix. I feel better than I did, but still wobbly. I know I need to keep on top of it, I know how easily a blip can become a nose dive. But I also know I have support, and if I take advantage of that support I can start heading back upwards. 

Running for the reluctant. 

I went for a jog this morning. I’m determined to complete the Great North 5K at a jog next month, so am pushing myself to get fitter. (More on that here).

Up until now my running had been done on a treadmill at the gym. I’m doing quite well there, up to 2.5k at a run, or 3k if you include the cool down. But as my free training plan has me running 3 times a week I decided it was time to venture out into the real world to run too.

It turns out the real world is much harder than a treadmill. There’s the obvious hazards: hills, puddles, dogs, pedestrians, traffic, uneven surfaces etc. all of which I was prepared for. What I hadn’t realised was how hard I’d find it to control my pace. My body just kept speeding up to a pace I couldn’t maintain, and I ended up having to slow to a walk to get my breath back several times. 

I managed 1.3 miles in 17 and a bit minutes, which is distressingly close to my fast walking pace, and a fraction of the time I can manage on the treadmill at the gym. But the race is in the real world, so I need to get used to running in the real world. 

I wish I enjoyed it more. My body doesn’t naturally move in a running stride, and I’m more looking forward to it being over than enjoying the moment. I’ve been watching some of the athletics from London and marvelling at what the human body can do. I saw Usain Bolt’s final race last night and wished I had just a smidgeon of his effortless grace when running. I saw Jessica Judd interviewed after her race saying how much fun she’d had and wished I had a tiny part of her attitude to and enjoyment of running. 

All the advice on getting fitter and more active says to find something you love doing, but I love curling up with a good book and a cup of tea rather than anything energetic. As well as training my body to move more I’m having to train my mind to enjoy it. So far my body is responding better than my mind, but I’m determined! 

My Gemma Correll water bottle sums up how I feel running! Pic from, and bottle bought from https://m.ohhdeer.com/collections/gemma-correll

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

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

Fat & Fit? #NewcastleCan

It’s been a while since I posted a Newcastle Can update. My mental health wobble has been of more focus lately, but this isn’t because I’ve forgotten my physical fitness. 

An explanation for new readers: Newcastle Can is a local project to get my city working together to change the way we live and become healthier. Their website is here, and you my previous posts about it are listed here.


I’ve been signed up to Newcastle Can for four and a half months, and I’m seeing significant progress. My weight loss has stalled, which is disappointing, however my body shape is definitely changing and I’m feeling fitter. I’ve lost 17cm off my waist, my skinny jeans are far less skinny than they were, and I’m going to have to start investing in new clothes soon! Its made me realise that weight isn’t the only way to measure progress. 

While I’ve been off work I’ve been doing significantly less steps each day, rarely hitting my 10,000 daily steps total. I’ve also been eating more unhealthy snacks, because the link between stress and food is one I’ve not been able to completely sever. I’m nowhere near the volume of sweet treats I used to eat, but over my self-imposed one a week limit. I’m not stressing about this, because at the moment getting well is the priority. I’m still doing a lot more cooking from scratch, of healthier meals.

I am proud that despite how unwell I’ve been I’ve kept up my regular additional exercise. I’ve made it to Dancercise every week, and only missed my weekly gym session one time, when I was in bed with migraine. It’s at the gym in particular that I’m really seeing the improvements. A few weeks ago I struggled to do 10 reps on some of the machines, now I’m up to 30. When I first went I struggled to do 3 minutes on the elliptical trainer, now I’m up to 15. 

I had worried that only being able to go once a week to the gym would mean the results were limited, and am happy to have been proved wrong. Would I get better results if I went more often? Probably. But the whole point of the Newcastle Can challenge is making sustainable changes. I usually get a 90-105 minute session, enjoy it, and leave feeling energised. That’s good. I don’t want to force myself to do more than I can manage, getting to a stage where fitting it in becomes something else to stress about. It’s about making the most of the time I have.

So it’s going well and I feel fitter. But I’m still a long way off a healthy weight. So am I healthy? There was a lot in the news last month when scientific research debunked the “Fat but fit myth.” You can read what the Guardian wrote about it here. I found it disheartening. And I also think it over simplifies it. Fit/unfit isn’t a binary thing, getting fitter is a gradual process, not a sudden thing that magically happens when you hit your ideal BMI. I am certain that I’m physically fitter now than I was when I joined Newcastle Can. I’m not yet the healthiest I could be, but I’m making gradual improvements and heading in the right direction. And the important thing is I’m keeping up the changes I’ve made, which will benefit me long term. Yes, I may be more at risk than someone with a healthy BMI, but I’m sure my risk levels are dropping as the weeks of healthy eating and more activity go on. 

I’m interested to hear what’s working for other people. Are you trying to get fitter, and have you found something that works for you? Can someone be fat and fit, or at least fat and fitter? Let me know what you think. 

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.