Who Are You?

Am I asexual? Am I broken? Or do I have chronic low self esteem?

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I’m finding myself asking this question a lot. I’m a scientist. I love the scientific method. I don’t believe anything based only on anecdote or personal feeling – show me an academic paper or five and I’ll re-evaluate. But this question is one that I cannot seem to clarify because annoyingly, there is evidence for all.

Maybe family is the place to start. I’ll get this off my chest first – as much as I loved my mum (I would give up anything to have her back, and if I could be one tenth of the person she was, I’ll consider myself to have lived a great life), she sometimes was not the best for my self esteem. I’m sure she had my best interests at heart, but there are things that were said that became a little… ingrained.

I used to be a competitive swimmer. I swam 8 times a week – every weekday and Sunday, plus Tuesday and Thursday mornings before school. This was a lot of swimming and a lot of burned energy. But I did this alongside brass band, wind band, drama club, keyboard lessons, girl guides and being a brownie helper. That was a lot of hours, and I was never great at swimming, so – with the raised demands of school – I had a choice – drop the swimming, or drop many of the others. So I dropped swimming, but I didn’t change my diet and I put on weight.

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Mum told me – more than a few times – that it was not puppy fat I was carrying around and that it would not go away. I was 10. It took a few years to shift some of it, but at one point, when I was in secondary school, I used to walk to school, then home for lunch (a 20 minute walk each way if I was yomping it), and have 5 ice cubes and a swig of alo vera juice for lunch before walking back to school and then walking home again. Looking back, I don’t think this was indicative of fabulous self-esteem. And looking back more closely, this would be an attempt to control my diet and weight as a way of managing my confidence.

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At the same time, I tried dating for the first time, and nothing ever lasted past a couple of weeks. I was regularly told that I was “cold” or “closed off” or “absent” and I can’t really argue with that because I was. But over the last few years, I’ve asked myself why this was the case, because each time I tried to force myself into something it just felt… unnatural. Or wrong. Or like I was trying to be somebody that I wasn’t. My friends were starting to get boyfriends and I just didn’t want to engage with that – or I pretended to, to help fit-in with my peers, but it felt just so unnatural and thus nothing ever lasted.

At the time, I pegged it down to low self esteem, but what if it wasn’t? What if I’m just not wired that way? What if it is just a part of who I am, and nothing related to my opinion of myself? What if I am one of the estimated 1% of the population who identifies as asexual and I’ve been trying to force myself to be somebody that I’m not for the past many years in order to meet some societal demands for cohabitation?

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But on the other hand, what if in the back of my mind, I just don’t think I’m good enough or attractive enough or thin enough for these people to like me, so I’ve kept them at arms length? I know I had (and still have) crappy self esteem – the ice cube and alo vera for lunch was a testament to that – so maybe the alienness of it all was due in part more to that than to being differently wired?

I know that in everything I do, I doubt myself. I close myself off, I apologise for things that I should never have to apologise for, I become small, I don’t speak my mind, I withdraw and I have such negative views about myself – my intelligence, my personality, my qualities – that I become a really shitty version of myself. I’ve had this conversation with my closest friends not that long ago, and they tried really hard to help me see differently, but it just doesn’t work.

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I really, really dislike myself. And I often inadvertently make myself miserable in order to make other people around me feel better. Sometimes my dislike of a situation or of an event will show through my facade for a period of time, but then I’ll see what my reaction to that event/my feelings towards something does to other people and I’ll feel awful about making them feel bad, and I’ll then hide how I truly feel to make them feel better – all the wile, making myself feel dead and cold and deceitful on the inside.

I just can’t help but feel like there is this really horrible, dark thing inside of me that I try so, so hard to not let other people see. So I push it down and try to muffle it, and most of the time it works. But when I’m feeling ego-depleted (a state wherein you are so mentally exhausted that you have no more reserves left to retain behavioural control), this monster can make itself known. And when it does, I’ll later notice it and will beat myself up for letting it treat people a certain way. This just reinforces what an awful person I am and I feel so guilty and ashamed of myself. I just constantly feel ugly on the inside, and as much as my friends have tried to say otherwise, I cannot get away from thinking like this. So maybe I felt wrong and uncomfortable when trying to engage in anything romantic or start a relationship with someone because I’m utterly terrified of letting them see this ugliness inside of me? Maybe I’m not asexual, maybe I’m just broken?

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If I am broken, what caused it? Well, this is another interesting question and one which I’m about to get super personal and OTT with, so you’re warned – if you’re easily triggered or don’t want to read this, look away now. As a side note, I’ve written and re-written the next few paragraphs here for about 2 years but never posted it. But then, maybe the reason I haven’t posted it is because it’s a bit of a taboo subject or something that people should keep hidden, and really, all that does is hurt and shame the victim even more. So here goes.

I have a past history of sexual assault, by two different people (who are, oddly enough, closely connected). The first happened when I was 7 with an 18 year-old in my bedroom at a family BBQ. I can remember every aspect of it utterly vividly as if I’m back there. I can tell you the exact events leading up to it – how this person started getting very handsy with me when other people were around but their attention diverted. How we moved to a different room in the house and it got worse. How I went to my bedroom to escape from him and he followed me in. How I tried telling the adults I was with at the time and he said it was nothing and he was “just leaning against the chair”. How I got so, so cold later that night sat outside, but I wouldn’t leave my mum’s side. But how nobody really believed me. It was after this that I became much more introverted and I did stop putting myself out there as much as I used to.

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The second time was at a wedding when I was 20 after my immediate family had gone home. I had gotten quite drunk at this wedding (because, ironically, the person from the previous event was also at the wedding and I was terrified to be around him). But I got chatting at the reception to another person. He was really nice and I was being taken to a car in the car-park by him when the celebrations were coming to an end when he dragged into some bushes. I still have some small scars on the top of one arm from where the spikes in the bushes caught me.

It’s strange what I remember from that event – how afterwards, the worst thing to me was that I loved the dress I’d gone in, but I had to throw it out. I refused to go to the police and report it, because nobody would take me seriously. I had been drinking and it was my word against theirs. I’ve studied law – I know how many reported cases make it to court, and from those, how many result in a conviction. I’m not stupid – mine would have caused a lot of issues for absolutely zero gain. I did make sure to get tested for everything afterwards, and there was no lasting physical damage, but I can’t help but think that this – and the previous incident – broke something inside of me?

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What is really sad – and quite pathetic – is that all this has done is to teach me is that I am worthless and not good enough. I’m not worthy of anybody’s time, or effort, their protection or care, their affection or support. I’m broken on the inside, and I have to give something back. If I don’t – at all times – then I’m being a terrible and thoughtless person. You should see the amount of times I’ve been told by my closest friends to stop apologising to them for seeking advice or having an opinion – it’s such a common occurrence because I’ve been conditioned to believe that I’m a pest or a bother. So then maybe my aversion to anything of the romantic nature is also due to this.

Which brings us onto the issue I’m trying to get my head around – is my aversion to anything remotely ~romantic~ due to me being genuinely uninterested in anything of the nature (asexuality is a real and genuine sexual orientation – and is something I’ve become more and more interested in as time has gone by), have I been broken by events in my life, or is it due to me having such a low opinion of myself that I feel so bloody uncomfortable when anyone expresses any remote interest that I think they’re unhinged and I bolt?

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It is no surprise that I have shitty self-esteem – it’s not like anorexia is prevalent in people with a high opinion of themselves – but is it as central to my living situation as it could be? What came first, the orientation or the aphid-like ego? Maybe I am asexual or demisexual (someone who only experiences sexual attraction after building a close, emotional bond with another person) and it is just who I am. Or maybe I only think that I am when in actual fact my trust was broken a long time, so I don’t feel relaxed in romantic situations and feel repulsed by them? Or maybe I just have such low self-esteem that I can’t bare to let myself be vulnerable with another person?

Maybe I’ll never get to the bottom of it, but it is not for a lack of introspection. For now, I’ll keep pondering on it but will gladly take any advice people have to offer. I guess it is getting to me a fair amount now because I’m 30 years old, my longest relationship has been about 3 months and I often go years without so much as a date. It feels like just now, my life is getting away from me and I’m too busy being scared or confused. But there we go. Like I said, maybe I will never get to the bottom of this – but I am sure as heck going to try.

The Year So Far

I have the house to myself this weekend, and I thought I’d do another blog post. It’s been a while, and these things can be really quite helpful in getting my thoughts out – and also, quite cathartic.

So. 2017. My last blog post was all about the exciting change in 2017. So how are tings after living through some of this change? Well. Okay, I guess. I had to give up my puppy because of an allergy – to him, to his hairs, to something on his skin? I don’t know. But it had to happen. Hugging your dog one morning and literally feeling the hives creep up your chest is never a good thing, but it was heart-breaking. Most people have been really lovely with this, suggesting I maybe get a hypoallergenic dog or something, and I really do appreciate the offer. However, I’m not sure if I’m ready to go through that again any time soon.

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I miss Sidney (or, as his new family have called him, Dexter) like crazy, and I need to make sure I literally have no work obligations on for a good month or two when I first get a puppy because it is so difficult to balance the two when your puppy isn’t vaccinated and you can’t leave the house. It’s different when you raise a puppy with another person – you can take shifts, you can get an hour to yourself here and there. I didn’t really have that, if I’m being honest. I had him for a bit before I moved, then had to move house (with the help of some AMAZING friends) with a 9-week old puppy.

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My house mate helped a little, but she has a much more active social life and wasn’t willing to alter that (understandably – he was my dog), but it did mean it that the onus was almost entirely on me, and that – with my job – was so incredibly, incredibly difficult. So I’d need to do this over the summer when I have no classes to teach in order to ensure that I’m still being who I need to be for my students, but also being a good new puppy owner. It also means that, while I’d love another puppy, if a hypoallergenic dog came up at a local shelter, this may be more ideal – so I do have some alerts set up for this, but would need to put some serious consideration into the balance of care once term starts up again.

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Now – onto the house move! I am officially living in beautiful Durham. The city centre with its stunning cathedral is about a 20-minute walk away as are moorlands, riverside strolls and a city which has an identity. While I enjoyed living in Washington, aside from the local park – which was great for a stroll – it always felt a little tired and forgotten. Maybe it’s because it is sandwiched between Newcastle and Sunderland, and so gets overshadowed? I’m not sure. But it seemed a little lost in its identity which was sad. Durham is extremely different on this front. The place I’m in is my friend’s 3-bed house with a wee garden at the back. It’s quaint and cosy and a really lovely house.

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The adjustment to living with anther person again, however, is huge. I did not realise it would be this difficult and I’m trying not to be so hard on myself with this struggle (because what kind of monster finds it difficult to live with their friend?), but it is so hard. I have to keep reminding myself that I lived by myself for 2 years, and that in those 2 years, I got extremely used to a certain way of living, and getting used to this will not pop overnight – it will take time, adjustment, and some self-care.

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In my own place, if I cleaned something, it remained that way until I used it, and thus it never bothered me. Now, funnily enough, I live with someone who needs to feed themselves, so a plate will get used (I know, shocking). It doesn’t bother me, but it is very different from how I’ve been living. If I wanted to go on my cross trainer, I could do so whenever I liked and didn’t have to worry about monopolising a shared living space. Now, I have to pick my times very carefully. Is my housemate out tonight? I might be able to sneak in 30 minutes. Is she popping out early this morning? Might get a 45-minute workout in here.

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If I’d had a long day of speaking to lots of students, showing my enthusiasm for the subject I teach and being present and engaged in a range of different situations, I could come home and re-charge in a dark, quiet place with no requirement of further conversation. Now I beat myself up because I live with someone who thrives on human contact and – completely understandably – doesn’t want to live with a hermit, so when I’m so exhausted by physical stimuli that I need the dark and quiet, I either torture myself by pushing through it, or hide away and hate myself for it. And I hate that this may well be affecting my friend. I cannot blame my house mate one iota for living in her own house – that would be ridiculous, selfish, absurd and plain nasty.

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Before, my living space was only my own, and had an identity that I alone gave it, and now not only is it shared space, it is physically my housemate’s house. And while when I unpacked to get rid of the thousands of boxes, furniture and layout was determined by where I put things, now it doesn’t matter what my opinions are on interior design, or decorating, or anything – because it’s not my place to say and my housemate relies on others for advice on this (again, completely understandably – it is her house!). So this adjustment has been so, so, so difficult. It is a huge life change going from one extreme to the other, and it takes me a while to adjust.

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It doesn’t help that work is utterly exhausting right now. We’re two weeks off the end of term and everyone is knackered. I’ve been getting up at 4:30am to write lectures, read drafts for my project students, do admin for boards, write materials for combined subjects, work on my own research, write exam papers, do funding applications – all sorts. Doing that, then going to work and being who I need to be there means that by 5pm I’m completely and utterly done. It’s not unique to me – I have colleagues going to bed at 2-3am, others getting up at 5 every day – it’s been tough. We moved offices and campuses and there is something about this big upheaval with a completely altered timetable in a new location with different facilities and a massive open-plan shared office that has taken its toll on us all, and the entire staff is looking so longingly at the end of term that it can’t come sooner. We’re all completely and utterly knackered.

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But on the other hand, I try to always ensure that I’m a good enough lecturer for my students. They’re the reason the university is open. They’re the reason I have this job. They have put their trust in me and the ultimate priority for me is to not let them down. I found psychology and neuroscience when I was a bit lost in the world of education. My dad was always very vocal about how physics, maths and computing were the only “real” subjects, and anything other than those were somehow inferior. But then I found this subject and I reclaimed my youthful curiosity and it lit a passion in me that, 12 years later, is still burning – and I just want to convey that love and passion to my students.

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This is especially so for 2 banks of our Stage 3 students. Firstly, the students who have opted to spend some of their allotted credits in their final year on a module that I have created myself from scratch, on the main area of psychology and neuroscience that interests me the most – addiction. They have put their trust in me that 10 credits of their final year will be usefully spent taking this brand new module, and I have endeavoured to do my upmost to make it worth it. So when I’ve had another attack of insomnia, or have been up writing lectures at 4:30, I cannot let this show to these students – they deserve an engaging, lively, passionate person standing in front of them every Friday morning. Nothing else is good enough.

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The second bank of Stage 3 student this relates to are my project students. The students who are spending 40 credits of their final year working with me to create their own piece of research. The students who chose me over other staff, and put their trust in me to guide them through this process. These students deserve so much and I do carry around the fear that I’m not a good enough supervisor for them, or that they would have fared better with someone with more experience or a different style of supervision. I just hope they don’t feel disappointed that they did put their faith in me, and that I am the person they need at this vital point in their university career.

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So all of these stressors at work, plus the huge upheaval in my personal life plus losing my puppy – it’s bee a difficult 2017 so far. I’m hoping it will just take some adjustment and I am working on that just now the best that I can. It might not be as good as it needs to be just yet, but it will get there – and with Easter coming up, it should get there soonish.

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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.

Headspace

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going to go with the blog post. It might be another one of these write-and-I’ll-see-where-it-goes kind of things. My head is pretty full at the moment and writing often helps to sort this out – even if it is just via the process of putting things into a coherent prose instead of it all jumbling around inside my noggin, different parts of it peaking out at unexpected moments.

I haven’t been very well lately. This happens – it’s part of mental health. I think I know a little of why, but the whys aren’t particularly great if I’m being honest with myself.

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I have depression. I’ve had it at least since I was a teenager (these things often get diagnosed at this time). It is not a “phase” or a result of bad experiences or crappy life situations. It is a physical fault with my brain that we try to manage as best as possible – in a similar way to how my underactive thyroid is managed as best as possible. Normally, it is one of those things that I live with – it crops up a little more now and then, and I use mechanisms to deal with it and carry on as normal. However, for the past few weeks I’ve found this harder and harder to do – and I can pin it back to injuring my foot.

About a month ago now, I partially ruptured a tendon in my foot – one of the ones that helps my toes move. I could not put any pressure on the ball of my foot without absolutely excruciating pain and I hobbled around work for a while. It’s not 100% better though it is improving, but I have been unable to exercise to nearly the extent that I’m used to. And this, as it turns out, is a problem.

As many of you know, depression is related to the underactivty of certain chemicals – neurotransmitters – in the brain. I’ll not get into the science of it (you’ve actually just missed the lecture on it that is delivered to my first years), but one primary neurotransmitter of interest is serotonin. Now this is not the “happy hormone” as I’ve seen it called. For starters, it is not a hormone, but a neurotransmitter – and there is an extremely large difference there. Serotonin is related to elevated moods, but this is not the only thing that it does in your brain (this is one of the main reasons why most antidepressants have a large host of side effects – because they don’t just work on some parts of the brain – they effect them all).

serotonin

Serotonin is what we call an “excitatory” neurotransmitter. What this means is that when two neurons communicate with each other via serotonin, the message they are sending is one to be active – to send more communications. We have other neurotransmitters that do the opposite, and these all work together to form this beautiful communication network that keeps us alive and thinking and feeling and dreaming and planning and remembering and everything else it is to be you.

However, there are two primary things you need to remember here. The first is that the brain loves to be active. This is the reason why sensory deprivation and isolation are such successful torture mechanisms – the brain needs activity or else it will create its own. The second is that there are natural things that we can do that can help to regulate the amount (and effectiveness) of the neurotransmitters that we have. Now, we need to keep these chemicals in a careful balance or else problems will occur. Too much of some types of extitatory neurotransmitter – dopamine, for example – are related to schizophrenia (or schizophrenic-type symptoms). Too little of others are related to depression. There are things that we can do that can – and do – help to keep these in order. Don’t smoke too much strong weed or else there is a higher likelihood that you’ll get the side-effects from too much dopamine. Engage in regular exercise or else there is a higher likelihood that you’ll get the side-effects from not enough serotonin.

There it is again – serotonin. As I said earlier, it is not just related to mood, and there are natural, every-day things that we can do that can raise its amount and effectiveness inside our brain. The more we have and the more effective it is, the more our brain will be steadily active – even at rest – and the happier our brain will be. The side effect of that? The happier we will be.

block-toy-weightlifting-586

Now of course this as been oversimplified in this blog post, but as a general rule, this is how we all run. As a neuroscientist, I’m only too aware of this and so I have consistently used exercise as a crutch to self-medicate my depression for many years. I *need* it to be able to function even half-way normally and when I cannot engage, then I fall – and I fall hard. The other thing I am only too aware of is that I have been off any kind of meds (save my thyroid hormone) for a fair few years now (as a side-note, I was put back on some recently and lasted all of about 3 weeks before I stopped taking them again) because I am a giant wuss and cannot take the side-effects I get.

Which brings us to where we are now. I have used exercise as a crutch to manage for so many years now, but with coming off my meds and with my eating disorder (whatever the hell that thing is right now), my depression has been a lot worse since about May/June this year. So I have been exercising more and more so that I can keep on soldiering through and continuing to work and continuing to do my duties and not let people down. But there is one big, big problem with this.

It is very difficult to consistently exercise to the rate I normally do with a tendon that is partially ruptured in my foot. Very difficult, indeed. And what has happened since this occurred? I have not been very well. At all. Like really – at all.

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I didn’t think I could get this low, but you know things are pretty bad when you’re driving home from band practice and almost detour to A&E because you were *this close* to deliberately driving your car into a tree and you’re worried about what you might do when you get home. And the only reason you don’t go to A&E is because you don’t think you’re worth their time. The NHS are pushed enough as it is – they don’t need some bint rocking up at gone 10pm because she can’t handle life. And after that, the only reason you don’t then do something stupid at home is because you’re teaching all day the next day and don’t want to burden your coworkers with your mess and your responsibilities. This has been what is keeping me going just now – responsibilities to other people.

It’s been hard.

I don’t really know where I’m at just now. I have mildly better days and dark days still, but I am starting to exercise a little more, so maybe that’s helping – but I cannot continue like this because the next time I injure myself, what will I actually do? I’m genuinely worried about this because I don’t know the extent to which my responsibilities will keep me from self destruction should I be unable to self-medicate. Enter a new situation.

dog

I’m soon to be moving in with a very dear friend of mine, and then I’m getting a dog. Dogs are amazing, amazing animals and are incredibly effective at helping people with depression. You want to give yourself responsibilities so that you don’t fall too far into your own head? How better than looking after an animal who gives you unbridled affection. Who is happy to see you no matter what your mood is doing. Who you can talk to and not worry about burdening because you’ll give them a biscuit afterwards. Who you have to step out of your house with and get some fresh air and take for walks. Who you can go on day trips to the beach with. They are nonjudgmental and pure and have no ulterior motives apart from food, toys and tummy rubs, and I genuinely believe this will help.

I am almost certain that Tyke kept me from doing off the deep end when mum died and he did it by being him – an animal who always had a tail wag and a snotty ball for me to throw, who would hide when Have I Got News For You came on and stealth-stole a Tupperware of cheese off the coffee table when left for about 30 seconds alone. He kept me from falling into my head, and I really miss that chump of a face – so be prepared for a photo album armed with puppy photos in the not too distant future.

tykie

Until then, I know I have my friends and I know they’re amazing. They’ll keep me grounded as best they can should the void crop back up. I’m not sure they have any idea of how much I appreciate and love them, but it’s a lot. It’s amazing to know they’re there and I hope they all know that should they need or want for anything and I can do something, then I’ll be there in a heartbeat.

truefriends

Speaking of, I’m off to go play some board games with them tonight, so I will bid you all farewell. Depression – in cahoots with an eating disorder that will not just fuck off – might try to get me, but it’ll not win out just yet. I’m too stubborn for that.

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.

MumHel3

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.

MumHel2

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.