Challenge this!

I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on this for a while, but I’ve always seemed to shy away from it. Possibly because while I am an AWFUL lot better than I have been in a while just now, there is still the odd hang-up and in the back of my mind, I can’t help but feel like maybe I almost don’t want to let go of it? Maybe fully letting go is moving past this chapter of my life.

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Don’t get me wrong – in the vast, vast majority of ways, this is a Very Good Thing. Living with any kind of eating disorder is hell. I cannot explain to anyone who has not suffered the hell you live in all day, every day. It is something I would never wish on my worst enemy. Being threatened by a nasogastric tube just to please, please, please eat something, dammit and even then STILL being so terrified by what is in front of you that a single kiwi fruit makes you feel like your chest is caving in and you struggle to relax enough to swallow each pitiful teaspoon. I cannot express that hell, and moving past from that? Of course I want it! Bring it on!

But on the other hand, it has taught me a lot. It is something that I do wish I will be able to one day live completely without (more on that later), but it has made me – I think and hope – a better person. A more empathetic person, a more patient person, and ultimately a much stronger and more determined person than I was before. I feel like I’m a person who has learned not to hide when there is uncertainty on the horizon, but to find out how to move past that and work for what I ultimately want. The problem is, moving past my illness also feels a bit like I might have to let these lessons go, and I don’t want to forget the lessons it gave me.

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Anyway, today I want to write about living with the aftermath of an eating disorder. I want to talk about the challenges I still face, the ridiculous things I still have to congratulate myself for, the times when I can feel myself slipping back and how to combat it, and the emotional rollercoaster that the last four years has brought. And really I want to talk about the fact that even though by most clinical standards, I’m fine, in reality it is a lot more complex.

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So. Point one. Challenges. There is still some stuff I do, still some stuff I avoid and many things I wish I either did (or did not do) that I need to bloody well work on. Though I also have to say that the last couple of months have seen me break through so many of these challenges and I’m immensely grateful for the circumstances around that. The first big thing for me is eating out. Eating out was such a terrifying thing for such a long time, because I had become such a ridiculous control freak around food. I had to know how things were made, down to the exactly quantity of olive oil used for cooking, the brand of food being used, the breakdown of each ingredient and how it could be added to a fitness tracker. When I made my own food, I knew it all and so it was all okay! I knew it fit into whatever arbitrary ~plan~ I had sorted for the day. But eating out??? And eating out at a) a restaurant I don’t know; b) ordering food I’d never tried, heard of nor seen before; and c) eating in front of other people?! Are you having a laugh????

I’d managed to get to a place where there were about 3 places I’d eat out at (plus one takeaway), but I wasn’t willing to push that any further and had a good bank of excuses saved up. This changed this summer when I was able to eat back at Wagamama (my favourite eat-out place) twice (!!), two different burger places, get a cooked breakfast out, a McDonalds (?!?!?!) and even eat take out pizza (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). These were all Very Unheard Of Things, and have all happened in the last couple of months, and for that alone, I am immensely proud of myself. Yes, I absolutely did have a total war going on inside my head for every single one of these occurrences, and yes I felt guilty as heck for many of them before, during and after the fact, but I did it. And do you know what? The world hasn’t ended. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see myself at an all-you-can-eat pie and cake day any time soon, but this is still the most progress I’ve made in recovery in the last two and a half years by a long shot.

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One of the main things I’ve been trying SO HARD at the last few months that has helped is to stop reading the sodding nutritional information labels of everything! Just stop it! There is no need! Seeing how many grams of protein or carbohydrate (or heaven forbid – fat) that something has in it is not going to change the world. It will provide a complex so that you cut things you enjoy out of your diet and will start to limit your social life, but that’s about all it can achieve. So I’ve been working extremely hard on not doing this (as much) anymore. I used to be so terrible with it that my brother put sticky labels over things in his kitchen to prevent me from going on the prowl when I visited.

It was horrific at the time, but I totally saw where he and his fiancé (now wife) were coming from. Reading that information gave me nothing but fear foods, and I am still living with the aftermath of having a vast quantity of nutritional facts in my head about a load of stuff in the supermarket. I wish I didn’t know the labels off by heart for most fruit and veg, quorn stuff, cereals, fancy coffees and the snack isles, but I do. It means I can calculate the calorie content of a meal with a scary amount of accuracy and I really don’t want that knowledge! The day I can buy something without having the urge to turn it over and read the label, and then have a meal where I don’t do some mental arithmetic beforehand, I will have a party.

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Another set of challenges for me is choosing what I want to eat, not what is “better” to eat (what my mind tells me is “better” to eat). I still struggle with this – ordering not what I want because it’s not as “good” as something else. If I’m at a restaurant and it looks like it’s taking me forever and a day to decide, it’s because I want to have one thing, but I’m having an internal war with myself over that and another option that I see as being ~good~ (or better) and these two voices are going at it – the “just for god’s sake eat what you bloody well want!” and the “don’t you dare – you’re going to roll home”.

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This is what I call enjoying food for food. There’s still stuff I avoid (cheesecake, anything with cream on/in it, coffee made with milk, most take-outs), but this list is also getting smaller. Before my recent trip to Amsterdam, doughnuts would have been on there, as would chai lattes (one of the ridiculous things I’ve had to congratulate myself on recently), but there is definitely still work to be done here to enjoy stuff for what it is. It’s not like I do this all the time – I was on holiday enjoying a wonderful few days before heading back to the UK and throwing myself into work. But I do wish I could have allowed myself to be more free with what I wanted. And I wish I could have enjoyed what I did have without checking the step-counter on my phone…

Which brings us to the next bit. Times when I can feel myself slipping, and what to do. One of the tell-tale signs that I’m slipping is that my activity and exercise goes through the roof. If it is far more sensible to get a bus or train or subway somewhere and I’m insisting that I walk, it is because I’ve eaten something I feel awful for, my skin is trying to crawl off of me and I Need To Walk It Off Now.

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So yes; the big first sign for me is exercise (followed by filling myself up with caffeine but not a whole lot else). I need to feel active – I get quite low when I don’t – but I’m also terrible for using it as both a distraction method and a method for punishment. If I’m feeling Not Great, I will go to the gym or go walking as a way to think about something else. Not only can it focus your mind and force you to tune out and not think about what you were thinking about, it also gives you a lovely little boost of serotonin, adrenaline and some endorphins. And that is wonderful therapy – it’s the best therapy I’ve ever sought.

However, for me I can tell I’m slipping when I start to not only rely on it, but feel terrible if I don’t do it, and continue to go to the gym and walk miles and miles even when I’m still very much feeling a past workout or set of activity. This is something I still have to work on a LOT because this is the easiest thing for me to abuse and it often leads to a trickle-down effect onto other behaviours like logging my day and pairing the two and only allowing one thing if I’ve done (or will do) another thing.

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So, what can I do about this? Well the first is that I’m getting a lot better at recognising this happening. I used to go to the gym 6 times a week and walk 5-10 miles a day (every day) on top of that. I’m tying to limit myself these days to 4-5 times a week, with a very much rest day thrown in and no stupid walking after having already been to the gym. This past week I know I’ve not really done this (yes, I have only been to the gym 4 times, but I’ve done far, far too much walking on top of that and both of my knees are… twinging just now). There are a few reasons for this (my mood being the main one), but I have at least recognised this and will take it easy this coming week.

The next thing I can do about it is tell someone when I can feel it happening, and not be so secretive about it! One of the worst things about anorexia is that it’s so bloody secretive! So just letting people in can be a huge help. And being honest with yourself – stop the bull, stop trying to justify and ‘logic’ yourself out of illogical thinking. If you know something is not okay, recognise it, be honest and talk to someone to sort out what to do. It is amazing how much this can help.

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Really, the more I think about it, the more I see that before these last few months where I really have come on in leaps and bounds (the amount of times I’ve said “you know, it’s been well over 5 years since I’ve had this!” is in equal parts awesome and heart-breaking), I wasn’t really living as much as I could have been. So much of life is focused on food. It’s one of our hierarchy of needs. It is essential to life, and maybe that is why so much of our social lives – between friends, acquaintances, colleagues, partners – is focused in on food. You share a breakfast, meet for lunch, chat over a coffee, go out for dinner. And when I had as many hang-ups as I did, I wasn’t taking what I could have been taking out of life. Goodness knows, there’s still huge chunks of my life where I am still existing and not quite living, but the hope is that come the day that this aspect of my life is finally tackled once and for all, I’ll have more mental energy to focus in on those other aspects as well.

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It’s the old adage – life is for living, so live it. It’s a cliché, but it isn’t half also true. So get on out there and do it.

Chewy

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2017

2017 will be a year of change.

I’m not saying this metaphorically. Lots of people (myself included) make statements or claims when a new year rolls around, and the vast majority of these times these changes never come into fruition (or they do for a month or so before life goes on as it did before the claims were made). But I can say with a large degree of certainty, that 2017 will be a year of change – for me at least.

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I’ve decided to take 2017 as a ‘mental health year’. This might sound a bit strange as every year should be a mental health year, but I have learned an awful lot – both about myself, and my situation – this year. In all honesty, I’ve been kidding myself.

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I claim to be doing better then something happens and then I’m not – I’m closing in on myself and pushing people away and hiding from the world and only rearing my head out of necessity. Next year, I cannot do this. There’s a few reasons for this.

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  • I’ve found my crew

Everybody needs a crew. They need a team of cheerleaders (so to speak) who will be there for them no matter what. Who will not judge them. Who will never, ever make their feelings and thoughts out to be irrational or exaggerated (see: gaslighting). Who will listen to what they say and actually process it before saying something in return. Who will always have their back. I’ve had this to certain extents in the past, but have been missing it since I was ill.

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I’ve said before that my illness took an awful lot of things away from me, and it did. Yes, it took my physical health, but it also took my mind and with that, went my friendships. Unless you have been though it, you have absolutely no idea what so ever what anorexia can do to a person’s thought processes. Food becomes, quite literally, the only thing you ever think of. Ever. You watch food-related shows (hello Masterchef, GBBO, Cake Lord, Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, food documentaries). You read cookery books for fun/to torture yourself. You can’t settle on anything unless it is related to food. This makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective – we need food to survive, and if you deprive yourself of that, your body will prioritise this over every singe other thing possible – not to be a dick to people, but to try and somehow keep you alive.

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The photos of me and the many notebooks I kept at the time show that between June and late November, I lost 4 stone (I went from 10st 4 to 6st 4). That is an average of around 2-2.5lb every week. If you think of this in terms of calorie intake needed, I was under-eating by over 1000 calories every single day. Towards the end, this was even more difficult because at the same time you have to keep in mind that I had an untreated under-performing thyroid (which slows down metabolism), that sustained undereating also slows down your metabolism, and your daily needed energy decreases a massive amount as you lose weight because you’re not keeping as much tissue alive. I wasn’t functioning. If you then add this onto the disorder, then not only was food the only thing that was ever on my mind, but the fear that went alongside it was as well. This left absolutely no room at all to even think about another thing ever. I physically couldn’t.

This isn’t an excuse though, as the crew I had at the time were also going through an awful lot and I wasn’t there for them, and I lost them. I don’t know where we are now, in all honesty, but we are all very different people from back then and I’m slowly trying to allow myself to get past the guilt of this and accept the situation for what it was.

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My new crew, on the other hand, don’t give a flying do-dah if I fall off the face of the earth or if my disorder creeps back for a bit and it starts looking like I’m ignoring them. They call me out on my BS and make it clear that no matter what is going on, they’ll always be there. We have a group chat and pretty much every day we will also have some random conversation in it – and none of us are ever excluded from this. So even when I’m in my own head and can’t think straight, I know I’ve not been forgotten about and that they have my back. They have never once told me to get over any problems and even at my very worst this year, all I had from them was their love and support and not a single ounce of anything else. This is such a massively positive way to start the new year.

  • I’m moving!

In about two weeks, actually! There we go – I said I couldn’t BS some parts of 2017 being a year for change. You cannot completely upheave your living situation without it being a huge change. For me, this is moving from living by myself to moving in with a dear old friend (who I have lived with in the past) back in a city that I have a huge soft spot for – Durham.

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I think I needed to live by myself – at least for a while. It has really helped me to find myself and learn what I need and what I don’t – how I can function and what is important. It turns out that, yes, I’m a HUGE introvert, but also that I do need some human company. I can say one thing for certain – if I’m at work all week and then have commitments all weekend with no day off and then I work again, I can’t function. The world gets too noisy and I can become incredibly unwell. I need ‘introvert days’ where I don’t have to pretend to be anything other than what I am.

This has actually got a biological base – I’m a biological introvert (as opposed to a biological extrovert). The theory behind this is that – as we all know – we process the world around us by our senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell etc.). This information is sent to the brain where it is processed and we make sense out of it. At the same time, the brain needs a certain level of activity (this is one of the reasons why solitary confinement is a cruel punishment – the brain needs to be active). In some people, the brain’s ‘volume control’ (for lack of a better term) can dull down this information, so we naturally go and seek more of it to keep our brains at a happy level. These individuals are biological extroverts – they seek out extra stimulation to top up the levels of activity in their brains’ caused by the brain turning the volume down on it all. For other people, the brain turns the volume up on this incoming information, meaning a little bit of outside stimulation has a marked effect. These people will often shy away from too much stimulation to keep from over-stimulating themselves. These people are biological introverts – they avoid too much stuff in the outside world because their brains’ turn the volume up on it all. I’m one of the latter.

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The friend I’m moving in with is very well aware of this and has never once judged me for needing introvert time and is so amazing with it all. She knows some days I need to be left alone or have a quiet text and little else and she never once nags me or makes me feel like a social outcast for needing this. This is the kind of environment I need and I’m really looking forward to this. Big changes!

  • I’m. Getting. A. Dog. !!!!!!

Stop press, this is not a drill! I’m getting a dog. Likely in January. My new house mate (I say this… it is her house (she’s just become a homeowner!!) and I’m just along for the ride) have discussed this in depth and there are a number of reasons why the time is ideal just now. Yes, I’ll be utterly broke for a few months, but my monthly bills are getting so slashed that come March (I think) I’ll be pretty comfortable. But yes. I’m getting a dog.

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Why now? Well, my teaching load at work is pretty kind this coming semester. This has been caused in part by a multitude of clashes that have been brought on by moving campuses and fitting in our stuff with the stuff already being taught there. I have a LOT of marking, and a LOT of lectures and module bits to write, but not a huge amount of face-to-face teaching (and what I have is often confined to certain days). Now, I had a strong feeling even before this that on the days I wasn’t teaching or seeing my students, I was more likely than not to work from home (unless I’m needed to cover a class) because we’ve just moved into a large shared office and – as I’ve said above – incoming information is amplified for me meaning that I find it difficult to work or concentrate with lots of background noise. If I’m writing new lectures I need a very quiet place and a shared office with 15+ other staff there is not an environment I can concentrate in effectively. So I’ll be working from home a few days a week (schedule permitting).

My house mate has study days on one of the days I’m needed at work, and while she much prefers working in libraries etc., she has said that for the first couple of weeks while we’re puppy training and while the dog’s vaccines are getting sorted, she is happy to work at home. She also knows lots of people around where we’re living who have somewhat flexible work schedules and can come and let the dog out over lunch/take it for a small lunchtime walk if we’re both out. So for the first few weeks when we’re needed around a LOT, we are there, and after that we have a really good plan.

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Also, the place we’re moving into is unfurnished so I’m taking all of my furniture along. Most of this we’re wanting to replace, so if a small, new dog decides to use an old kitchen chair leg as a chew toy before we’ve trained the dog that furniture isn’t for eating, it doesn’t matter as much because we’ll be replacing it. We’d rather this not happen to a brand new dining set! Oh, and two of my besties are getting married (!!) in the Summer/Autumn and I think the dog will be old enough by then for it to be looked after by people it might not be 100% used to. Also, on top of that, by September, the dog will be trained and hopefully settled enough that if doggy day care is needed when classes start for the 2017/18 academic year, this should all be fine! So lots of ticks in the YES box – it’s the right time.

As I said in a previous post, I need a dog. They have been found on many occasions to be better for mental health than drugs (which I’m all for). My head can be a horrible place and I HATE being on medication because the side effects are just horrendous. At the moment, I use exercise as a form on self-medication but it can get to unhealthy levels (see today: I cannot go on my cross trainer because I’ve overused it for the past four days and my knees are really quite painful right now). Dogs offer a companion who doesn’t judge. They are always happy to see you. They force you to leave the house even when you otherwise wouldn’t. They force you to take care of yourself because you need to in order to take care of them. Plus, I love them. A lot.

  • I’m going to try and stop apologising for doing things that I need to do

This might sound strange, but my squad will tell you – I’M SO BAD FOR CONSTANTLY APOLOGISING FOR THINGS! Oh my word. I know I have to stop, but I think this goes in line with having really bad self confidence and always believing myself to be a burden. I’m just so bad for it. When I need their help or their advice, I apologise. If I can’t make something, I apologise. If something is genuinely making me unhappy, I apologise to people involved for feeling sad or unhappy about it. I constantly apologise for my feelings, belittle myself and invalidate my own experiences and I’m going to tttrrrrryyyy and somewhat tackle this.

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This might not work out, but I’m going to at least try. I’m 30 years old and I need to focus on things that make me happy and – IMPORTANTLY – do NOT stress me out or pressure me. Someone with a history of really crappy mental health has to put their health as a top priority and needs to excuse themselves from situations where stress and pressure are present. It is a one-way ticket to falling back down a rabbit hole I simply cannot return to. Yes, it might disappoint people. I might let people down or make them angry or irritated, but I need to stop apologising for feeling the way I feel and just do the things that are good for me. I have this one shot at life and I’ve already wasted so much of it on crappy mental health – I cannot waste another decade.

So there we go! Four ways that 2017 will be a year of change and better mental health.

Fingers crossed it’s a good one.

Dear Mum,

Happy birthday. I’m sorry I’ve only been to see you once this year. I always promised that I would never not visit, and yet I’ve found it so hard to come since you’ve been gone. Please don’t take this as a sign that I’ve forgotten you. I haven’t. I never have. I never will. I never could.

It’s been five years since I last gave you a birthday card. They seemed such a small gift back then, and yet now, every time I find myself in the birthday card sections in the supermarket, I just stop and stare and wish with all my heart that I could buy one and give it to you and see you smile. It makes me ashamed that I ever thought them as small. Right now, they’re omnipresent. Everywhere and all-powerful. Never letting me forget.

As I can’t get you a physical card, I wanted to write you a letter instead. I hope you don’t mind. There is just so much I want to say to you and I can’t think of any other way to get it down.

I guess the main thing I want to say is thank you. Thank you for everything. Thank you for putting my (and David’s) happiness above your own. Thank you for sacrificing your evenings and weekends for your kids to give them the best of life. Thank you for never showing your boredom or irritation at something that we loved. Thank you for never mentioning the cost of our hobbies or holding it over us. Thank you for teaching us right and wrong, selfishness and selflessness, enjoyment and passiveness, love and compassion.

Thank you for the immense amount of time, money and effort you put into my swimming lessons. You always told us the story of the first time you stepped foot inside a swimming pool, aged 11, and an older boy pushed you in. How scared you were, how you never wanted your children to feel like that. You were there to help us learn the basics and if we wanted to take it further, you supported us every step of the way. I was never very good, but I loved it and you never gave up on me. Thank you for the 6am mornings three times a week, taking me to my lessons before school. Thank you for the weekends you lost at swimming galas, despite being horrifically busy at work and knowing full well that I was never even remotely in contention for a medal. Thank you for the evenings spent cheering me in club races. And thank you as well for supporting my wish to stop swimming when I no longer wanted to pursue it as a serious hobby, trying to balance it with all of the other extra-curricular activities I had going on. Thank you for not pushing me into something my heart just wasn’t into any more.

Thank you for the gift of music. You used to tell me and David how you wished you could play, and so when we were asked if we’d like to learn from school, the money (nor the noises coming out of my bedroom) was never an issue. You signed us both up – brass and string – and you encouraged us to practice and grow as musicians. Then keyboard cropped up, and we were signed up to that, too. Thank you for noticing when my awful sight-reading became an issue and pushing me to use different books than David that I’d never heard before to force me to learn. Thank you for coming to every concert with the youth band, for the keyboard competitions, for ferrying us to practices and picking us up afterwards. And never once complaining about it or holding it over our heads.

Thank you so much for my tenor horn. When you saw that brass was something that I loved, and you branched out and bought me my first ever horn; I will never forget it. It was such a terrible instrument and the case was falling apart, but it was mine and I loved it. And then my Sovereign? Good lord. Back then, it took a lot to make me lose the ability to speak, but you managed it with that one. Making me think you’d bought a new case for my rather tired old instrument and actually exchanging it for an almost brand new top-of-the-range one instead, just because you’d seen it in the shop and knew how much I’d love it? I will never, ever forget the moment I opened that case. I know dad gave you some grief over it (the floors in our old house were never very sound-proof) because it wasn’t cheap, and money was tight at the time, but mum. Thank you so, so much. It is still my baby (and is sat in my flat with me just now), and I still love it so, so, so much. You gave me that. You saw what it would mean and didn’t worry about the money struggles for the moment – you fulfilled the dream of your daughter and I can never thank you enough.

Thank you for the hours spent taking me to drama club on a Saturday morning (and paying for it). You coming to the productions they put on meant more to me than you’ll ever know. Just the knowledge that my mum was sat somewhere in the front rows feeling proud of her daughter, watching me grow and come out of my shell – it was the biggest confidence boost in the world and I owe you so much for that. I’m sorry that I’ve left that confidence behind somewhere. It’s become a bit lost lately. Thank you for never once showing your boredom with it – because I know theatre wasn’t your thing. But you didn’t care. You came along and cheered and supported and I felt so safe and so loved.

Thank you for never once trying to get me to change my A-Level options. They caused such a huge argument at home when I wanted to study psychology and biology over maths and physics, but you were never once against this. You never told me that I’d be broke and never find a job, or that it was a soft subject and I wasn’t academic like my brother. It was really hard to hear that stuff, but you never once agreed. Thank you for just being the rock that I needed, giving me the confidence to push through.

I cannot thank you enough for everything you did for me while I was at university. You were so wonderful when I said that I wanted to live away – always acting as a mediator between me and dad. Thank you for the financial support you gave while I was away. I never did tell dad that you’d been helping out, but I never forgot it. This helped me not have to work so much and in part, you were responsible for my First. Thank you for the phone-calls and emails and text messages. They always brightened up my world, no matter how stressed I was feeling. Thank you for the good luck cards you’d post to me every time I had a test or exam. I don’t know if you realise how much they meant. I’ve never had much confidence academically, but for these short moments, you made me feel like I was enough.

When you came to visit me in October, a few weeks after I had started, and told me that you had been given your diagnosis, I broke. What would I do without you? I had a feeling it was coming, though I’m not sure why. I just remember talking to my friends and saying that I thought you had cancer, and yet the confirmation made my floor give way. How could I go on without you? How could I do it – do anything – without my mum? You were my parent. My support. But I soldiered on, because that is what you taught us to do.

Thank you for coming to my graduation, so ill on your treatment that you couldn’t stay standing for too long because the chemotherapy had destroyed your nerve endings. Thank you for never giving up, even though you were sitting in the audience with your chemo bottle attached. You gave me such a huge cheer when my name was read out. I just wanted to make you proud, and you made me believe that you were. I missed you so much when I graduated two years ago from my PhD. The day was never the same without you. Did you read the dedication in my thesis? Every word was true.

I’ll never forget our girls’ holidays – Cyprus, Paris – day trips away when I came home from university. It didn’t matter how awful you were feeling, you were there. Cyprus when we got so sunburned that we couldn’t sit still that night. Paris when you were in so much pain from your chemotherapy that we took bus tours around the city instead of walking. You even came to Bridlington when you were so poorly you were just skin and bones, and yet you still stopped to buy us all ice creams on the pier even though you couldn’t eat one yourself.

Mum, I just also want to tell you how sorry I am. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to tell you how much I love you, just one more time. I wasn’t there to hold your hand, to ease your pain and say that it was okay not to hurt any more. I wasn’t there. And I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. Please believe me that if I had known even in the slightest that I would be too late, I never would have gone away. Please believe me. I am so sorry that I was not a daughter to you when you needed me to be. Please don’t ever think this is because I didn’t care and I didn’t love you. I did, I do and I always will. I’m so sorry. This guilt has been crushing me for years, and I’m not sure it will ever really go. That phone-call is forever etched into my memory and I know that there is nothing anyone can say that will help me forgive myself for this, because I was not there when you needed me. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t tell you, one last time, at the end, how much I love you. I’m so sorry.

Please let this be my message to you. Not a single day has gone by since we lost you that I have not thought about you. Not a single day has passed by that I have not missed you. The words do not exist for how much I miss you. It’s impossible, because it is such a physical knife-in-the-heart pain and no words can even come close to touching it.

There is a quote I once read by Edna St. Vincent Millay that sums it up closer than anything else I’ve read, and even this is off the mark:

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling into at night. I miss you like hell.”

I know that since you’ve been gone, I have not really been myself. I know that I’ve let people down and that there is no excuse for that. I know that I get so jealous of people when I see them with their parents because the longing is so acute, but I can’t say anything (who could possibly voice something like that and for it to be okay?) so I hide away. I know that I’ve been scared to love or let anyone come close to me because how can I lose anyone else? But I also know how you would tell me I was being ridiculous at this and that I need to live. I need to go on and live with the honour and passion that you lived with, because living in fear is no way to live. And I will try, mum. I promise you I will try. If nothing else, to honour you.

For now, though, I’ll just have one last thing to say.

I love you so much. Thank you for everything. I miss you. Every day, I miss you. With every fibre of my being, I miss you.

With all my love,

Helen

 

 

The Bradshaw Guide to Life

This is a hard blog post to write. But it feels somewhat fitting, so I shall do it anyway. Don’t expect much in the way of images, though.

As you all know, I lost my mother several years ago. Since then, there has not been a single day where I have not thought about and missed her terribly. However, there are three days in the year where the pangs of missing her become that much more acute. One is Mother’s day. The second is her birthday. The third is today – the 3rd February. The day we lost her. Today marks four years since I received the worst phonecall of my life. Four years since I was last able to tell her that I love her. Four years since my closest ally and biggest supporter was taken away.

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My mum was everything to me growing up. She came to every band performance and keyboard competition. Every swimming practice and gala. Every drama rehearsal and play. She sent me good luck cards for exams, and a “well done for trying as hard as you can” soft toy when I thought I’d failed everything.

She came to my first graduation from university with her chemotherapy drip in and sat in the stands feeling as sick as a dog, but still cheering when my name was read out. We went on girls holidays together and had weekly film nights. She came to every Harry Potter film with me. She supported every attempt I had to ~find myself~, helping me buy my wardrobe and shoes for my goth phase, dying my hair black and pink, trying to find me a boyfriend or a girlfriend or supporting my desire for neither. She was everything a confused, lost girl needed growing up, and I owe her everything.

For her funeral, I had written a document that I wanted the officiator to read out, however I didn’t get the email to her in time, so it went unannounced. Today, I wanted to share with everyone this writing. It’s called The Bradshaw Guide to Life (mum’s maiden name was Bradshaw). Basically, these are the rules that my mum lived by. They encapsulate her and describe her to the T. These are the rules I wish I was good enough to live by, and which I will try to incorporate into my life – if only to make it a little more meaningful.

  • Play Monopoly so many times that you get bored with the Community Chest and Chance cards, giving you the opportunity to replace them all with new, ‘original’ and predominantly horse-related ones.
  • Be so indecisive that you never buy yourself anything, because you “couldn’t choose”, but buy everyone else two slightly different versions of everything, for the same reason.
  • Similarly, go to the supermarket for a couple of essentials, arriving home 3 hours later with £150 of shopping, then find out you’ve forgotten one of the main items that you’d originally gone for
  • Change the rules to all normal card games so that they are unidentifiable to the layperson, and you therefore have to rename them. Like Hundred’s Up (a convoluted version of Rummy) which has rules such as “if the person to your left has a Queen, and the person on your right has two Jacks, you can take two cards and need to only discard one in this hand, but another two in the next hand…”
  • Cook so many different types of veg for dinner that you’re in danger of hitting double figures. The excuse being “Well, it needed eating”.
  • Make sure food eaten from the fridge is eaten at precisely the right time. One day after it has been bought results in “I’ve only just bought that!”. A four day delay, however results in “Can someone please eat this, it’s been in here ages!!”.
  • List every single possible item in the house for desert, even if everybody insists that they’re full, until eventually someone has something just to shut you up. For example, “There’s cheese and biscuits”, “We’re full”. “Ice cream?”, “We’re full!”. “There’s some rice pudding”, “WE’RE FULL!!”… “There’s some yoghurts in the fridge”, “Oh all right, I’ll try one!”.
  • Forget how to rename files on your computer, so that every file name is about 20 thousand characters long (usually named after the first sentence in the file), and you can never find anything.
  • Be incapable of working out the diagrams on the cooker, so that you accidently turn the ring on where you’ve put some plates and don’t realise it until one of them shatters. Eventually, get into the habit of holding up a pan, switching on a random ring, then putting the pan down onto whichever ring fires up.
  • Feel bad about asking for things for Christmas, so that your family find presents labelled “to Sue, from Sue” under the tree.
  • Under no circumstances what so ever double-barrel your surname! Ever. Ever, ever, ever. Any attempts to do so will be met with shock and outrage.
  • Forever buy your grown children – who have left home – random presents whenever you feel they might be short on cash. This may also include sneaking into their house to deposit deep fat fryers, assortments of garden plants, or fridges of cheese, when your children are at work.
  • Basically, be the most wonderfully generous, thoughtful and helpful person you could ever imagine. And be so desperately missed by anyone lucky enough to have crossed your path.

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I have the day off work just now, so I’m going to get into my car, drive somewhere alone, go for a nice long walk, and think. Walk, think and remember this amazing person who was the very embodiment of goodness, who was taken too soon. Wherever you are mum, know that I love you. I miss you. I hope you’re showing them all how it’s done, and I will do wherever I can to try and make you proud. I just wish you were here to see it.

Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This

As I said in the last blog post, today will be the second part of a two-parter all about sleep. I’ll be focusing a bit more on the science of actually sleeping in today’s post, rather than the discussion of why we don’t get of enough of it in today’s society.

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Human sleep has been extensively studied using many technologies, but perhaps the most commonly used neuroscientific technique used in the study of sleep is electroencephalography (or EEG as it’s more sanely called). EEG is a wonderfully versatile technique that involves electrodes (the amount depends on the device use – they range from 20 to 256) to measure the residual electrical activity that is produced by the brain. The brain is made up primarily of neurons. A message is sent from one end of a neuron to the other end of it (neurons can be very long!) via the movement of charged electrical particles. In other words, a neuron communicates with itself via electricity. EEG exploits this and records this electrical activity. Each electrode on an EEG cap will record wavelengths of electrical activity. The fascinating thing is that the various stages of sleep that we know of produce uniquely different wavelengths of electrical activity, recorded via EEG.

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When humans sleep, they typically go through 5 distinct stages. One of these is known as Rapid Eye-Movement (REM) sleep, and the other four as non-REM sleep. The first four stages of sleep are the non-REM stages. When we are awake but resting, our brain (the electrical activity recorded) gives off Alpha waves. When we enter Stage 1 of sleep, these are replaced by slower waves, called Theta waves. This first stage is technically sleep, but it can be thought of as more of a bridge between wakefulness and being asleep – it typically lasts only a few minutes and if a person is woken during this stage, they will usually report that they were not really asleep. The second stage of sleep is also characterised by Theta waves, but it is unique from Stage 1 in that these waves are also accompanied by small bursts of EEG activity called Sleep Spindles. While it is very easy to rouse someone from sleep during this stage, they will usually report that they were actually asleep.

Stage 3 of sleep is yet deeper sleep. Between 20 and 50% of EEG recordings in this stage are much slower waveforms called Delta waves, and it is more difficult to wake a person up if they are in Stage 3. If not woken up, a person will then enter the deepest stage of sleep – Stage 4. EEG recordings here show mostly the slowest waveforms recorded: Delta waves. This stage is also known as Deep Sleep and it can be very difficult to rouse somebody from this stage. At this point, our muscles relax, our heartrate and blood pressure drop to their lowest levels and our temperature is at its lowest level as well. These first four stages take around an hour to occur (however, more on this later!), with the overall sleep cycle (including the next stage) taking around 90-100 minutes.

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After these first four stages, we enter what is possibly the most fascinating stage of sleep – REM. At this stage, the EEG recordings alter completely and look more like those recorded when we are alert and awake – Beta waves. It is at this stage where the vast majority of our dreams take place and it is thought that it is at this dream-stage where the focus is on the brain, rather than the body (unlike the previous four stages). REM sleep also lives up to its name, as if you observe a person during REM sleep, you will see their eyes moving around an awful lot under their eyelids (hence the name – Rapid Eye-Movement Sleep). There have been a few fascinating studies done which have also found that the patterns of eye movements we make are more often than not congruent to the dreams we are having. One lady, for example, seemed to be moving her eyes constantly from left to right and back again. When abruptly woken up, she reported dreaming that she was at a tennis match.

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When we first enter REM sleep at the beginning of the night, we spend only a small proportion of the overall 90-minute cycle in this stage. As the night draws on, we spend a progressively longer time in REM sleep and a progressively shorter time in Deep sleep (Stage 4 particularly). I’ve touched on this previously, but it is thought that Deep Sleep is more for rejuvenating the body, whereas REM sleep is for rejuvenating the brain. It is really interesting to note that we have evidence for this split – and dual-purpose of sleep – by various studies that have found that what we have done the previous day has a massive effect on how long we spend in these stages. I’ll focus on Deep Sleep to begin with.

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As I’ve said above, there is a general consensus that the stages of Deep Sleep are vital in repairing and rejuvenating the body. There are a few pieces of evidence that back that up – the first is a good old hormone. Human Growth Hormone, or hGH, is a hormone that is particularly active during a growing child’s maturation. It is believed to stimulate growth by encouraging cell reproduction and cell regeneration. Considering what hGH is involved in, and what we believe Deep Sleep to be necessary for, it is no surprise that this hormone is released during Stage 3 of sleep – when we are entering the deepest stage of the 90-minute cycle. The thought is that the hormone encourages repairing and regenerating the every-day damage we do to our bodies.

Further evidence that Deep Sleep is vital for this process comes from a few studies that have examined the effect of strenuous exercise and sleep. There are many, many studies (and, more recently a meta-analysis that pools together the findings across many studies) that have come to the conclusion that engaging in vigorous exercise increases the length of time a person spends in Stage 4 Deep Sleep. This include marathon runners, weight lifter and – I’ll bet my paycheck on it – CrossFitters. The explanation of this is simple; when you exercise, you create micro-tears in your muscle fibres that need to heal. When they heal, they heal stronger and more resilient than before. This requires cell regeneration and cell production – all of which are enabled by hGH which is produced in Deep Sleep.

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REM sleep on the other hand is much more related to brain function. The brain’s activity during REM sleep is similar to that when we are alert and awake – the neurons are continually firing and sending vast quantities of information from one region to the next. One of the ways that the brain makes new neurons, strengthens these neurons, forges new connections between neurons and strengthens those as well is through continual use (the Use-It-Or-Lose-It mentality I mentioned last post). It therefore seems somewhat logical that during REM sleep, the brain is collating information and strengthening the connections it forged the previous day. Again, we have some studies that have suggested this as well. Humans spend longer in REM sleep after learning a new task/new information. New-borns and infants spend much longer in REM sleep than adults. The amount of REM sleep we need decreases as we age. And preventing people from spending as long as they should in REM sleep adversely affects memories of information learned the previous day.

It therefore seems that sleep has a two-fold job. It helps to restore the body and helps to improve the functioning of the mind. Both of these are absolutely vital for life, but in their own unique ways. Having disrupted sleep, not enough sleep or being prevented from sleeping full stop is thus not only detrimental to our physical and mental health, it is also downright dangerous. On that note, I thought I’d share a few tips that have helped me get a little better sleep – at least to an extent.

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The first is engaging in regular exercise – but not just before bed. This will ensure that we need to release some hGH to repair the micro-tears in our muscles. We need to be in Deep Sleep for this to happen most effectively. Following a good routine is also really important. The brain requires the hormone Melatonin to fall asleep. Melatonin is crucial for our daily-cycles (or circadian rhythms). Melatonin works like clockwork if we keep to the same schedule. Messing up our bed time or nightly rituals will negatively affect when and how much melatonin is released, thus messing up our ability to get to sleep. Another thing that disrupts melatonin production is blue light – the light from your phone, laptop, tablet computer and TV. Basically anything that is back-lit will emit blue light. Blue light tricks the brain into thinking that it is still day outside, and so melatonin production is suppressed.

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Artificially lowering our body temperature is also quite an effective way of drifting off to sleep. Our temperature naturally drops when we drift off to sleep. If we can artificially cause this to happen around the time we usually go to bed, this is another signal to the brain that it is time to shut down. One of the ways a hot bath (especially with small amounts of smells such as lavender; known to relax the central nervous system) can help us drift off to sleep is not just that it is nice and cosy. It also raises the core temperature of the body, so that when we get out, we cool down by a few degrees. This cooling down is what makes us tired. Finally a very light snack with perhaps potassium or a slow-release carbohydrate can be helpful because it prevents blood sugar levels from dropping too low in the middle of the night, making us wake. But do note – this is a small snack: eating too much will prevent you from dropping off in the first place. I’ve found something like half a banana or an oatcake or something can sometimes help.

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So there we have it. Sleep. That unconscious state we spend so long it. Some of it is still a mystery, but one thing is for certain – we all need to do our bit to make sure we get enough.

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Enter Sandman

Today’s blog post is all about sleep. This could be a bit of a problematic blog post to write, as I also deliver a lecture on sleep to my Stage 1 students (which I’m writing as I write this post). I find the neuroscience of sleep to be absolutely fascinating, and while I seem to be able to make my students pay attention during a lecture, I need to remember that I cannot prance in front of everybody while they’re reading a blog post – so I’m trying to not get side-tracked on the brain too much here. Though you do have a bit. Because it’s cool.

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The average adult should get around 8 hours of sleep a night (the ideal range for a healthy adult is between 7-9 hours). Seeing as how there are 24 hours in a day, this suggests that we should spend an entire third of our lives asleep. For an average male living in the UK, this amounts to 26.33 years. For an average woman, slightly more at 26.67 years. That’s a lot of sleep! Considering that new-born babies, children and adolescents need a lot more than this, sleep must really be vital to our survival. If it was not, why would we spend such a huge proportion of our lives in this unconscious state?

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The brain is fascinating and has a strict Use-It-Or-Lose-It philosophy – if you do not use a process (i.e., if you do not use the neurons that code for that process), it is simply too costly in terms of the energy required to maintain the dormant neural circuits to keep, and so the neurons and connections get pruned. Over the many millennia that humans have evolved, it is interesting to note that we have not pruned the process of sleep. Every mammal on the planet requires sleep – and many other non-mammalian specials of animal do as well. Sleep is profoundly important and yet a disturbing amount of people simply do not get enough. I most *definitely* include myself in this last statement. My sleep has been absolutely awful for a long time now. It all started when I got ill, just over two years ago.

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Anorexia and sleep are not good friends at all. If you go to bed hungry, you often wake up after a short while because your blood sugar levels have dropped too low and your body wakes you up so that you can find something to eat – simple natural selection in progress. Another reason why sleep and anorexia never seem to be included in the same sentence (unless talking about the lack of), is that when you starve yourself, your body does everything it can to conserve energy and keep vital processes ticking away. This includes drastically slowing down your metabolism – it’s one of the reasons anorexics are always so cold. The body’s metabolism helps to stabilise the internal environment of the body and that includes keeping you at a constant temperature. With a lack of energy, the body seeks to keep the internal organs vital for survival at the correct temperature, but the extremities not so much. A by-product of slowing down the metabolism is a drastically reduced heartrate. When I was at my worst, my resting heart rate got down to around 40 beats per minute – dangerously slow. When you sleep, your heartrate naturally slows down even further, but in the case of an anorexia, this slowing down can get way too dangerous for the body to allow, so it wakes you up: a double whammy of being woken up in the middle of the night and being unable to get back to sleep.

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When I got better, my sleep improved a little, but it’s never been great since. I wear a FitBit. One of the really useful things that my FitBit does is track my sleep, though. It tracks heartrate and movement and from that can calculate when you’re asleep, awake or just restlessly dozing (which I seem to spend most of the bloody night doing).

According to my data, I get an average of 2 hours 30 minutes of sleep a night. I’m in bed for a lot longer just dozing, but actual sleep is around 2 hours 30 minutes. If I get three hours, I feel remarkably rested and sprightly the next day. I have a prescription for sleeping pills from my doctor with I *hate* taking and do not take more than once a week – on a Saturday night if so. These knock me out for a lot longer – 4-5 hours (doesn’t seem much compared to the 8 I’m meant to be getting but it’s double my normal lot!) – but I feel sleep drunk the next day. This data is pretty self-explanatory – I don’t sleep enough, and this insomnia seems to get a lot worse with stress. As well as being a natural side-effect of the stress response, I think that the body’s reaction to the hormones released in times of stress could also be a partly genetic thing. There are a few traits I recognise in myself that my mum used to have and used to show, and one of them is disrupted sleep.

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There are a few reasons why sleep becomes disrupted in times of stress. It is interesting to note is that we have the biological systems of a species that evolved around 200,000 years ago, and yet we have the lifestyles of an individual living in the 21st Century. The stressors that were around when the biological sides of ourselves evolved included things like finding food, finding a mate, finding shelter, defending from predators, defending from rivals. These stressors were acute – very short-lived, very dramatic at the time. The stressor came and went within a restricted time frame. They resulted in a Fight or Flight response because that was how we confronted and removed the stressor – we fought or we ran. In this case, insomnia or sleep issues as a result of a stress response make sense – do you want to be sleepy when in an environment full of hungry sabre-toothed tigers? Or napping when a rival tribe wants to take control of your land?

In today’s society however, stressors are around for a lot longer. Some have no real end-point in sight, and they are not things that that can either be fought or run from. Fighting or running, in fact, is often very counterproductive. They’re things like juggling family, work, friend and personal issues. Too much stuff on your to-do list. Being unable to fit everything into the working day. Many external pressures on your job. Too many people needing too many things from you in too short a time-frame. We live in a 24/7 society and the stressors are constant – they never switch off. In these cases, the insomnia and sleep issues that arise as a result of the hormonal response to stress do not help in the slightest.

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There are several hormones that are involved in sleep. I’ll not list them all here as you’ll still be reading this next week. The important ones to think about in terms of health, are cortisol, leptin and ghrelin. Cortisol is a hormone that is released in times of stress. It is supposed to be released when presented with a threat and is involved in the Fight or Flight response. As I’ve already mentioned, cortisol did a good thing when we were our past Cavemen selves, but nowadays with our constant stressors it has the nasty side-effect of causing insomnia. Which increases stress because you feel tired and lethargic and cannot fit the million things into your life that you need to. Which increases cortisol. Which worsens the insomnia. Which increases stress yet further… you see where I’m going with this. The caveman/hunter-gatherer body in the 21st century is not a great fit.

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Leptin and Ghrelin are also pains-in-the-bum when you’re stressed. Leptin is the hormone secreted that suppresses appetite. Ghrelin is secreted to stimulate appetite. Guess when happens when you don’t get enough sleep? Leptin production gets suppressed and Ghrelin increases. So not only do you feel tired, more stressed, more lethargic and have too much to do, you also have an increased appetite, a lower amount of a hormone that tells you you’re full, and your brain is crying out for sugar – glucose specifically – because unlike other organs of the human body, it relies almost solely on glucose as its energy source. Cue poor, sugar-fuelled cravings which make you feel like crap and stress you out yet further.

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With increased sleep, not only will we be able to sleep more soundly, we will adjust the body’s hormone levels to normal levels, be more able to make appropriate nutritional choices and will feel more switched on throughout the day to tackle our gigantic to-do lists. Sleep is so vital, and a huge aim of mine for next year is to really try and crack down on my atrocious sleep. This may be difficult seeing as how I’m a bit of a doctor’s nightmare with my insomnia, but this was also at a time when I let me work take over my life.

I think that my new balance in life and the fact that I’m now officially on holiday from work until January will really help. Yoga, I think will help as well. It does definitely need fixing. I would dearly love to be – and am aiming to be – in the best shape of my life when I turn 30 next year, and sleep is a huge, huge part of that.

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There is still another half of a post on sleep that I’d love to discuss, but this will be in the next blog post – the next one will be looking at the stages of sleep, why we need sleep and some hints and tips I’ve found that have at least helped me get a little.

Until next time!