Recent writing: A moment that changed me

In July I wrote for The Guardian about two very special people in my life. I made so many wonderful friendships during my time at Women for Refugee Women, but this one has definitely had the most impact on me as a person.

A moment that changed me: becoming godmother to a refugee’s baby – for The Guardian

“Here, go to Auntie Sarah,” Lucy said, as she thrust her four-month-old baby into my arms – not leaving me any time to panic or protest. I’ve never felt particularly maternal. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to have kids of my own, and other people’s babies make me nervous. Like sharks, they can usually sense my fear, and scream for their mother as soon as they come into contact with me. But with Tom it was different. Neither of us cried or screamed in terror; instead, I looked down at this little boy and fell head over heels in love.

It was March 2016 and I was six months into my communications role at Women for Refugee Women (WRW), which I left earlier this year. I’d travelled 100 miles to interview a case study as part of our research on the detention of pregnant asylum seekers in Yarl’s Wood. But Lucy was already so much more than just a case study – and I knew from that moment that “Auntie Sarah” was a job for life.

Tom and I were sitting on the bed in Lucy’s dark, cramped asylum accommodation, while she microwaved the lunch I’d bought for the two of us. It was only the second time I’d ever met him in the flesh, but I’d never before felt so invested in someone’s future.

I had first met Lucy the previous October, when she was eight months pregnant and homeless. After coming to the UK from Ghana to seek asylum, she’d been detained in Yarl’s Wood for a month, before being released with nowhere to go, and left to rely on the kindness of strangers for the remaining three months of her pregnancy.

 

Continue reading at The Guardian…

Balance: July 2017

Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.
What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.
We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.
We are terrified, and we are brave.
Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.
Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise – you can make anything.
So please calm down now and get back to work, okay?
The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.

Big Magic , Elizabeth Gilbert

At the risk of tempting fate, July has been a bit of a game-changer for me. After a shock to the system early on in the month, I’ve spent the rest of July learning to practise more compassionate acceptance. (Hello, can you tell I’m almost 10 weeks through therapy?!) It’s bloody hard work. I’ve got so used to wallowing in a cocktail of self-pity and white wine, endlessly ruminating about the past or panicking about the future – or, more often, both! – that living mindfully in the moment has proven to be a real stretch. But, after months of demanding reasons and answers that no one could give me, it feels like the best option I’ve got left.

One of the big frustrations I wrote about last month was feeling that I’d been shoved off course so forcefully that I was struggling to even make it back to square one. Like falling down a snake that wipes you off the board entirely, and then scrabbling about in the dark for any ladder that might help you back on track. Lots of the things that happened early on in July forced me to accept that there’s no point trying to get back to square one. I am where I am, it is what it is, and all I can do from here is keep moving forwards. I have to start from where I am now, use what I have available to me, and build something new.

But I’m not going to write much about the emotional journey this month. Instead, I want to focus on the doing: how I spent July tapping back into my creativity, and gently nurturing the things that bring me joy.

Reading

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

If June was 2017’s month of sun, sand and sea, then July’s theme was – without a doubt – Big Magic . So let’s start there. There really aren’t many books I describe as life-changing – although I’m conscious that this is the second I’ve described as such in as many months! – but Elizabeth Gilbert’s  Big Magic  really was exactly what I needed to read this month.

The timing of what happened in January – coming so hot on the tails of my restful week of goal setting and planning ahead – has left me feeling really lost and directionless ever since. I started the year with so much creativity, inspiration and passion but, after the crash, fear has blocked pretty much everything in my life. I’ve coasted through the last six months, torturing myself and putting my plans on hold.  Big Magic  was just the kick up the arse that I needed.

Gilbert is so straightforward in her discussion of creative living, and of the courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust, and divinity required for “big magic” to happen. It really highlighted so many of the obstacles I’ve been putting in my own way, and helped me rediscover the inspiration that’s felt so lacking since 27 January.

Voices from the ‘Jungle’: Stories from the Calais Refugee Camp

I mean, nothing puts your own struggles in perspective quite like a book of stories from the Calais refugee camp! But, beyond my personal journey, this book is wonderful on so many levels.

Created as part of a project by the University of East London, it centres the voices and experiences of a group of refugees who otherwise feel voiceless, misjudged and maligned.

But, unlike many of the refugee stories that have come out of Calais, Voices from the Jungle  also succeeds in presenting each author as a whole person. Warm, happy memories of home are presented alongside tales of extraordinary hardship and persecution. The struggles of ‘jungle’ life are described in parallel with each author’s hopes and dreams for the future. And stories of abuse, violence and deception sit side-by-side with fond recollections of camaraderie, friendship, support and compassion.

My full review of Voices from the Jungle  will be in Wasafiri International Journal of Literature’s asylum-themed issue, which I’ll share here once it’s published.

It’s All In Your Head: A guide to getting your sh*t together, Rae Earl

When the TV adaptation of My Mad Fat Diary  came out it was (and I think probably still is) the first, best, and most authentic representation of teenage mental health struggles that I’d ever seen on television. So I was really excited to receive an advanced copy of author Rae Earl’s forthcoming book for teens,

is a comprehensive mental health guide for young people – covering everything from eating disorders, self-harm and OCD, to parents, friendship, drugs and alcohol. Like My Mad Fat Diaryit’s packed full of Earl’s trademark wit, no-nonsense advice and raw honesty. It might be written for teenagers, but it also helped me no end!

Listening

July has been a bit of a nostalgia-fest in terms of my listening habits. Years since we last went to a gig together, this month my husband and I went to see both Green Day and Blink 182 – bands that were giants on the musical landscape of my teens. In fact we were at the O2, waiting for Blink 182 to come on stage, when I heard the devastating news of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington’s suicide.

You don’t ever really move on from the music that defines your teens, because it’s the first music that really seeps into your heart and soul. It’s the soundtrack to all the best and worst of those tempestuous and formative years. There are songs, like 57 – Biffy Clyro or The Middle – Jimmy Eat World, that can instantly transport me back to some of my happiest memories. Equally though, albums like Hybrid Theory and Meteora undoubtedly got me through some of my darkest times growing up.

As a literature graduate it feels almost sacrilegious to admit, but the first poetry I ever truly loved, engaged with, and felt understood by was the poetry of men like Chester Bennington. It felt raw, honest, vulnerable, and authentic. Back then, it touched parts of me that couldn’t yet put my own feelings and experiences into words. It made me feel in the way that all great literature should. RIP Chester, I hope you knew what a difference your words made to the lives of so many noughties emo kids like me. We must keep this conversation going.

(If you’ve been affected by Chester Bennington’s suicide, please call the Samaritans’ free, 24/7 helpline on 116 123 or visit mind.org.uk. Talking saves lives.)

Creating

For creative people, not creating is destructive. I’d never really thought about it that way until I read Big Magic , but Gilbert is exactly right: when I’m not channeling my energy into creating I, like her, am usually channeling it into destroying something instead. And lately that something’s been myself.

It’s not that I’ve stopped creating this year. I haven’t – far from it. But I have put limits and restrictions on myself. I’ve focused on the necessary – creation for survival – at the expense of the joyful. I need creativity to do more than simply pay my bills. I need it to nurture me, guide me, and keep me open to inspiration. So rediscovering the “just for the love of it” side to my creativity has been an important part of rediscovering myself this month.

Photography

An unexpected side effect of everything that’s happened this year is that, in July, I picked up my camera again. I’ve had my Nikon D40 DSLR for nearly ten years, since my 18th birthday. During so many of my most difficult periods since then, it’s got me out of the house and out of my own head. In my late teens, during my first year of university, and during my year abroad in Paris, photography provided an outlet to literally reframe the world around me.

Between September 2010 and September 2011 I completed a Project 365, documenting daily my life in Paris, my summer adventures, and the start of my final year. And then I stopped. Just put my camera down and didn’t ever pick it up again. I’m not really sure why. Admittedly I’d been looking forward to not having to lug a heavy camera around with me all day every day, but I quickly got out of the habit of taking it out at all. Final year took over. My Flickr account started collecting dust, while iPhone photos and Instagram became the extent of my relationship with photography.

Almost six years later, this July, I picked my D40 back up again. Thanks partly to an unlikely muse, and partly to a night time photography course with my mum, photography has again become an important creative outlet in my life. It’s also got me walking lots – which is especially great now that I’ve finally accepted running is just too high impact for my back right now. I’m excited to see where it takes me!

Recent writing: struggling nurses, and Mental Health Act reform

Health and social care in crisis

I’ve written a couple of pieces in July that really highlighted for me the scale of the crisis currently facing our health and social care services. After news broke that there are now more nurses and midwives leaving the profession than joining, I spoke to some young women who are really feeling the pinch at the frontline of our health service.

When I think of the nurses who washed me, fed me, and sympathised with my hysterical late night sobbing back in January, I know I could never, ever do what they do. It’s heartbreaking to think that so many of them are valiantly working thankless 13 hour shifts, but still having to depend on extra jobs, and even food banks, to get by. Thank you and huge respect to all the nurses who spoke to me so candidly about their experiences – you are amazing.

Thanks also to the Approved Mental Health Practitioners (AMHPs) who spoke to me, for Mental Health Today, about the legislative and financial pressure they’re under when it comes to implementing the 1983 Mental Health Act. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the need for a wide ranging review and reform of the Act – but social workers and AMHPs told me that no amount of tinkering with the law will help unless the government also provides the funding and resources to ensure mental health patients get the help and support they need.

Meet The Young Nurses Who Need A Side Hustle Just To Pay Their Bills – for The Debrief:

‘I worked as a paediatric specialist nurse in a children’s hospice, but after having children of my own, I simply couldn’t afford to support my family on a nursing salary,’ says 27-year-old Naomi. ‘I now run a Botox and filler clinic, earning almost ten times as much each year. ‘

Naomi is one of thousands of nurses to have left the NHS in recent years, according to worrying figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), which show there are now more nurses and midwives quitting than joining the profession. And she’s certainly not alone in feeling the pinch.

‘We really do live on the edge of comfort when it comes to money. I’ve noticed a lot of nurses take on little things on the side, like selling beauty products,’ says 22-year-old Hannah*, who’s been a nurse for just over a year.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

The 1983 Mental Health Act: what needs to change? – for Mental Health Today

Mental Health Act

In May this year the prime minister made a pre-election pledge to revolutionise mental healthcare. What has happened since? What’s going wrong, and what needs to change?

Promising to rip up the 1983 Mental Health Act, Theresa May said she would: “introduce in its place a new law which finally confronts the discrimination and unnecessary detention that takes place too often.”

Detentions under the Mental Health Act have increased 47% over the last decade, and BME patients – particularly young, black men – are disproportionately detained under the Act.

There’s a fairly broad consensus across the mental health sector that the system isn’t working as it should. But the issue of just what to do about the Mental Health Act is more complex – and many professionals were angered by Mrs May’s comments.

 

Continue reading at Mental Health Today…

Recent writing: antenatal depression, childcare, and why you’re always hungry

In the last couple of weeks I’ve written my first two pieces for Grazia Daily. In the first, I explore the shame and stigma surrounding women’s experiences of antenatal depression during pregnancy. The second looks at the varying cost of childcare globally, and where best to live as a working mother.

Thank you to all the lovely mums who spoke to me about their experiences. Big thanks also to Tommy’s, PANDAs, and the Maternal Mental Health Alliance for their advice around perinatal mental health support. If you need support with antenatal or postnatal depression, do check out these brilliant organisations.

And, in my latest piece for The Debrief, I asked some experts why we can’t stop thinking about food.

Why We Need To Start Being Honest About Antenatal Depression – for Grazia Daily:

“From the day I found out I was pregnant, I felt like a failure because I didn’t have that excitement that everybody says you’ll have,” says 22-year-old Lauren. “All these negative emotions came over me – fear, panic, shock, and massive amounts of anxiety. It was horrendous.”

It wasn’t until after her 20-week scan that Lauren was diagnosed with antenatal depression (AND), a condition that affects around one in ten women during pregnancy.

A similar number of women are affected by postnatal depression (PND), which kicks in after the birth of your baby, but AND tends to be less well known about because of the shame around the condition.

Continue reading at Grazia Daily…

The Truth About How Much Childcare Costs Differ Around The World – for Grazia Daily:

It won’t come as a surprise to working mums that British childcare is amongst the most expensive in the world. A 2016 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that couples living in the UK spend, on average, a mind-blowing third of their income on childcare costs.

So how does it compare to the rest of the world? If you’re parenting as a couple, the UK tops the chart for childcare costs as a percentage of income – followed by New Zealand, Ireland, and the United States, where dual income families typically spend at least a quarter of their income on childcare.

Single parents in the USA typically spend more than half of their net income on childcare, making it the least affordable country for single parent families, followed by Ireland and Canada.

Continue reading at Grazia Daily…

Ask An Adult: Why Am I Always Hungry? – for The Debrief:

Always hungryWe’ve all been there: you’re sat at your desk, work is dragging on a bit, and your mind starts wandering towards that pack of chocolate digestives you spotted in the staff kitchen earlier, or the half a cereal bar that’s smooshed up in your bag.

I really hope at least some of you are nodding along in recognition of yourselves here, and that it’s not just me! But am I actually a ravenous, insatiable glutton, or is there something more complicated behind my constant desire for food? We asked some adults, why am I always hungry?

Continue reading at The Debrief…

Balance: June 2017

June: Sun, sand, sea, and love

It’s hard to believe that we’re already halfway through the year. So much has happened, and yet so little compared to what might have been. June has swung between the sublime and the ridiculous, without much in between. From blissful, life-affirming moments of joy, to some pretty dark moments of bitterness and frustration which I’m sure are getting as tedious to read about as they are to live through. Sorry about that – I’ll try and keep them brief this month.

Nurturing my soul

For the most part, it’s been a month of sunshine, seasides and special memories. Five months on from my disastrous winter seaside retreat, June has been a month of “reclaiming my life” (as my therapist calls it) – and reconnecting with my love of the sea has been the best possible medicine for my jaded soul.

We started June with a gorgeous weekend in Southwold and Benacre, Suffolk, to celebrate the marriage of two wonderful friends – Emma, who kept me (just about) sane during our time at university together, and her excellent new husband Alex. I’ve not felt so alive all year as I felt crying, laughing, drinking and dancing my way through their beautiful day.

There’s something uniquely moving about a wedding – especially one with so many familiar faces from my past – that gets me feeling all emotional and hopeful about the future. Emma and Alex’s marriage couldn’t have been better timed in that sense; I really needed the joy and optimism, nostalgia and giggles that their perfect day provided.

1. Southwold, Suffolk

It was also the ideal excuse for a weekend by the sea. We enjoyed a long, slow, surprisingly unhungover Sunday, moseying around Southwold in the sunshine, admiring the lighthouse, and catching up with old friends over fish and chips on the beach.

It was my first time on the Suffolk coast (or at the sea, full stop) since the week of the car crash, and there was something so healing about being back by the shore.

I love the vast, mysterious magic of the sea – its power and its beauty, its ability to nurture and destroy, and the enchanting rush and roar of its waves. I could sit and listen to it for hours, breathing in that fresh, salty air, savouring the feel of the sun on my skin and the wind in my hair.

Indeed, that Sunday morning Josh and I spent a precious, peaceful hour sat on Southwold pier, lapping it all up over a pot of tea, while I read a book that changed my life.

I’d been meaning to read Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive  for ages, and after the darkness of the previous few months it felt more vital than ever. It didn’t disappoint. I’m not sure I have the words to adequately do justice to the rawness and authenticity with which Haig writes about his struggles against depression, anxiety and suicide.

Reasons To Stay Alive  makes for challenging yet reassuring reading. It is utterly, powerfully (at times, overwhelmingly) real in its depiction of mental illness, and beautifully hopeful in its message that “things really do get better.” I cannot recommend it enough for anyone who lives with depression or loves someone who does.

2. Clacton-on-Sea, Essex

The absolute highlight of June, for me, was five wonderful days with our godson and his mum, who came to visit us in London. We did a pretty great job of wearing out 19-month-old N – cramming in visits to the Olympic Park, the London Aquarium, Women for Refugee Women, and the London Eye, as well as a day-trip to Clacton, on the Essex coast.

There’s something so pure about the adoration of a toddler who thinks you’re the next best person in the world after his mother. I spent those five days feeling like I might burst from all the love and joy in my heart, soaking up every opportunity for kisses, cuddles and toddler chatter, and creating beautiful memories.

As adults, it’s so important to be reminded from time to time of the wide-eyed excitement that can be gleaned from such simple pleasures as splashing in a water fountain, or the feeling of warm sand between your bare toes.

3. Brighton, East Sussex

My third and final seaside visit of the month was also my most indulgent. Back in April, when I interviewed behaviour change specialist Shahroo Izadi for Less-Stress London, we got chatting about the car crash and its ongoing impact on my life.

In her wisdom, Shahroo suggested that I should recreate the conditions of my January retreat – time alone, by the sea, for rest, relaxation, reading and writing – in order to separate all those positive experiences from the trauma of what happened on my way home.

It seemed so obvious as soon as she said it, but I guess the most obvious ideas usually do need someone detached from the situation to point them out. Immediately after our interview, I went home and booked myself a night at the Brighton Harbour Hotel – accessible by train, seconds from the seafront, with an on-site spa and complimentary gin decanter in each room.

Coming as I’d planned, directly after five days of entertaining a toddler, #SarahRetreats 2.0 was blissful: A leisurely Thursday morning train ride, a fantastic veggie lunch with an old friend, followed by 24 perfect hours to myself. I strolled along the seafront, and down the pier. I sat on the beach, reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings  – the autobiography of one of my all-time favourite women, feminists, and writers, Maya Angelou. I lay in my enormous bed, looking out to sea, thinking, writing, reading, sleeping, and dreaming.

I woke up feeling so refreshed and restored. And, despite the slowly creeping panic that built in my chest as the train rattled back towards London, I made it home unscathed, having successfully proven the point: I can take myself away without the whole world crashing down around me.

Reclaiming my life

For all the personal healing that’s gone on in June, there’s also been an ongoing battle within me about entitlement. In therapy, as I mentioned, the focus throughout June was on reclaiming my life. Reclaiming it from trauma, from depression, from anxiety, hyper-vigilance and fear. But the problem with PTSD is that it makes you feel unworthy of all that. Trauma tells you that you deserve this pain. Depression makes you feel ashamed for wanting your life back. It makes you feel guilty for reclaiming those precious moments of happiness. And anxiety tells you that recovery is impossible; that your life is irreparably broken.

There’s some truth in the latter: you will never, ever be the same person again. When I first left hospital, I felt frustrated by the thought of having to start so many things from scratch. But in June I realised recovery is not simply a question of going back to square one and starting over. Instead, you start from a completely different place – and that’s where the frustration has really kicked in this month.

Relearning square one

As I wrote in May’s update, June was supposed to be the first month of really rediscovering my exercise routine, and getting back into the habits that make me feel good. After months sitting in bed feeling sorry for myself – unable to run, swim, or even some days leave the flat – I was chomping at the bit to get going again. Then the neck brace came off, my neck and back gradually felt stronger, and I continued to do nothing.

Despite my eagerness, despite the training guide and nutritional goodies provided by Herbalife, and despite having an incredibly supportive husband/coach, my training stalled before it even really got started. In what’s felt like a frustrating metaphor for everything else in my life, my early attempts at rehab running have demonstrated (perhaps unsurprisingly) that I’m in a worse state now than I was when I started, post-honeymoon, three years ago.

I’ve never been a champion athlete. I’m a slow runner, a slow swimmer, and my flexibility and coordination are nonexistent. But this time last year, after months of solid, persistent training, I was running my fastest ever 5K and 10K times. Now the only PBs I’m beating are for my slowest, worst, and must frustrating efforts of all time. My calves are tight, my stamina is shot to pieces, and my back hurts after mere minutes of any remotely strenuous activity – like, you know, loading the dishwasher or light jogging. I’ve stuck a Strava ‘Recovery Training’ widget over there on the right somewhere, so you can track my incredibly slow progress over the coming months…

Being more gentle with myself

It’s really fucking hard, and dispiriting to realise how quickly all that hard work can disintegrate into nothingness. Instead of being back at square one, I’m several steps further back, and fighting just to regain what I once took for granted. And it’s not just true of my fitness and physical health, but of my mental health too. Years of therapy and self-care gone out the window, and I’m relearning all over again how to cope with the challenges life throws at me.

Recovery is an incredibly frustrating journey – slower than I’d like, and harder than I’d like, both physically and mentally. But I’m also trying to be more gentle with myself. To show myself the same love and compassion that I strive to show others.

It’s hard work, but so many moments in June showed me that it’s worth it. That there are reasons to stay alive, reasons to keep fighting, and that none of it is quite as impossible as it sometimes feels. It does get better; I just have to be less impatient. Learning that patience will perhaps be my biggest challenge this year!

Illumination

In the spirit of being more open about this journey, I was interviewed in June by journalist Harriet Williamson, as part of her ‘Illumination’ series on creativity, mental health and self-care. The post was actually published in early July, but since I’m running late with my monthly update anyway, here it is: Illumination 02 – Sarah Graham.

Writing has definitely always been a part of my self-care, so it’s what I instinctively do when I’m struggling anyway, and I often write some of my most raw and authentic work when I’m in a really bad headspace.

That said, it can also have the exact opposite effect. I’ll have days on end where my mind just feels full of thick, dark fog and I can’t get my brain to cooperate on even the most basic tasks – let alone find the words necessary to move and engage my readers. That can be incredibly frustrating. It’s usually writing something personal or creative (unrelated to my paid work) that gets me out of that slump though – and there’s always something therapeutic about handwriting in a proper notebook, with a beautiful pen! So I find it works both ways: sometimes inspiring, sometimes paralysing.

Continue reading on Harriet’s website…

Recent writing: Redundancy, stress, and acne

Acne and stress

This month I wrote for The Debrief about the reality of being made redundant in your 20s – from the stress of losing your job, to the unexpected opportunities that make redundancy a blessing in disguise. Many thanks to all the women who spoke to me about their experiences, and to success and accountability coach Ayesha Giselle, who shared her advice on how young women can embrace redundancy and turn it to their advantage.

I also wrote a more personal piece, for NetDoctor, exploring the field of psychodermatology, and what I’ve learned about the impact that stress and depression have on my skin.

The Reality Of Being Made Redundant In Your 20s – for The Debrief:

‘Naively, I thought redundancy only happened to much older people, but I was made redundant when I was 24. It was my first job out of uni, and I thought it was the end of the world,’ says Milly, who’s now 27.

In the first three months of 2017, 16-34-year-olds accounted for just a third of all UK redundancies, while people over 35 were most likely to find themselves redundant. There’s never a good time to lose your job but, for young people like Milly, redundancy at such an early stage in your career can have a devastating impact on your confidence.

‘I was working for a small travel firm, who never gave me a contract. The owner basically couldn’t afford to keep the business running, so they made me redundant as the most junior member of staff. It all happened in the space of a day. I remember being very scared, and worried about having to move home’,  she explains.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

What I now know about acne and stress – for NetDoctor:

Acne and stressAnyone who’s ever suffered from acne knows that stress can be a massive trigger. My own relationship with stress and acne is long-standing and complicated. After years of suffering from what the adults around me referred to as “teenage skin”, I battled through the GCSE and A-level aggravated breakouts in anticipation of one day growing out of it. I felt deceived and betrayed when, on reaching university, I discovered that adult acne was just as bad – if not sometimes worse.

Nothing sends you into a vicious cycle quite like the stress of battling stress-induced acne while revising for exams or a busy period at work. The psychological impact of acne on sufferers’ self-esteem and emotional wellbeing is pretty widely accepted, but far more rarely discussed. So while acne may begin as a side effect of external stresses it frequently, in my experience, becomes the self-sustaining cause of yet more stress.

Recent writing: Early menopause, cancer and fertility, and pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder

The more I write about women’s health – and particularly hormonal issues – the more I see the same patterns repeated over and over again. Lack of understanding, lack of choice, lack of support. And medical professionals consistently failing to trust women with choices about their own bodies. Choice and autonomy aren’t just about abortion and reproductive rights; there’s a broader culture of sexism and ignorance around women’s health – but women are starting to speak out.

I was really privileged in May and June to interview a few of those women, all aged between 17 and 41, about early menopause, infertility, and hormonal depression. Many thanks to all of them for their openness and willingness to share their experiences.

This is what it’s like to go through the menopause at just 17 – for NetDoctor:

Also republished by Hearst Magazines’ sister sites Good Housekeeping and Cosmo.

The menopause is one of those huge life changes that all women know is coming, but no one ever feels fully prepared for when it does. But when it strikes before you’ve even turned 40, the shock is all the more distressing.

According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the menopause typically occurs between the ages of 47 and 53, but premature menopause affects around 1 per cent of women before the age of 40, and 5 per cent of women under 45. So what is it like to be hit by menopausal symptoms so early, and what support is available?

Continue reading at NetDoctor…
Continue reading at Good Housekeeping…
Continue reading at Cosmopolitan…

What It’s Like To Go Through The Menopause In Your 20s – for The Debrief:

How often does the menopause cross your mind? It’s something far off, in the distant future, to worry about once you’ve finished building your career, your family, and whatever else you’ve got planned, right? For most of us, the menopause will strike at some point roughly between the ages of 47 and 53, but premature menopause affects one per cent of women before the age of 40. And, for the one in a thousand women under 30 who are affected, it can be especially devastating.

Emily is 17 years old and was recently diagnosed as going through an early menopause. As someone who’s always wanted to have children, she says, it’s been heartbreaking. She feels like she’s lost a fundamental part of who she is. She says it’s isolating, ‘there isn’t anyone to talk to about it, because it’s not a common problem, so it’s always this little thing I’m hiding.’

Throughout puberty, Emily says she’s always felt different from her friends. ‘I was the last of my friends to get my period. It was something I longed for so I was excited when, in year 9, I started,’ she says. ‘I was irregular for the next 9 months, but my mum reassured me that was normal – and then they just stopped. My physical appearance has taken a long time to develop too, so I have very small boobs and no hips.’

Continue reading at The Debrief…

PMDD: Imagine Having To Choose Between Your Mental Health And Your Fertility – for The Debrief:

Naomi* was just 14 when, in the fortnight before each period, she started seeing and hearing disturbing images and voices. ‘I thought there were sexual images everywhere – like I’d be watching TV and see sex toys and stuff, or I’d be looking at books and they appeared to have changed, or I thought they were talking to me in some way,’ she says. ‘It was really frightening. Then, when I had my period, the symptoms would stop and go away.’

Now 23, Naomi has been diagnosed with conditions known as pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) and pre-menstrual psychosis (PMP) – and is facing a stark, life-changing choice between her sanity and her fertility.

A severe form of PMS, PMDD is thought to affect an estimated 2-5 percent of women which equates to around a million women in the UK alone and, at its most extreme, symptoms can include acute depression and anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. While it can be managed with hormonal treatments, currently the only sure-fire way of putting an end to PMDD is with a hysterectomy, bringing on an early menopause and leaving you infertile.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

What it’s like to be left infertile by cancer at the age of 23 – for Cosmopolitan:

Becki McGuinness was left infertile by aggressive cancer treatment when she was just 23-years-old. Now 30, she’s launching a national campaign to ensure women facing cancer are given all the fertility options she should have had. This is her story

“I was 21 when I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer – in my sacrum and spine. Because the cancer was so aggressive, and located around my pelvis, I knew there was a chance my fertility could be affected by treatment. But doctors explained to my mum and I what treatment I’d be having and told us there were no other options for my condition. We took them at their word.

Continue reading at Cosmopolitan…

Recent writing: Bowel disease, and good mood food

I’ve been a little quiet on work updates since Mental Health Awareness Week. Not because there hasn’t been any recent writing, but because there’s been so much of it! I’m going to share May and June’s articles over the next few weeks, grouped together (vaguely) thematically. First up: a couple of my recent pieces for NetDoctor.

The first, my interview with Crohn’s sufferer Ed Corrie, was a real pleasure to work on. Some people are so much fun to interview that it doesn’t feel like work, and Ed was definitely one of those interviewees! Not only that, he’s also incredibly inspiring in his efforts to break the push-up world record and start some difficult but important conversations.

The second, on food and depression, was more personally significant. Many thanks to Lucy, Kirsten and Bexx, who spoke to me about the benefits – and the limitations – of changing your diet to improve your mood.

Bums Out Guns Out: The man using push-ups to get men talking about bowel disease – for NetDoctor

“Being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a 14-year-old boy was crippling,” recalls Ed Corrie, the fundraiser behind the cheekily named Bums Out, Guns Out campaign.

“When you’re rushing off to the toilet for 45 minutes at a time, you can’t really disguise it – and the worst was on school trips, where you’re sharing a bedroom with two other guys. I used to pretend I had a vomiting problem, because it seemed more manly somehow.”

Twenty years on from his diagnosis, 34-year-old Glaswegian Ed is on a mission to break the Guinness World Record for most press-ups in an hour. As well as raising thousands of pounds for Crohn’s and Colitis UK, Ed wants his “fun and irreverent” campaign to get more men talking about inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Continue reading at NetDoctor…

The complicated truth about food and depression – for NetDoctor

“It’s your diet that’s the problem, you just need to eat better.” I’ll never forget those words, said by a university counsellor when – faced with friendship dramas in my shared house, and all the usual student stresses of exams and essay deadlines – I went to her suffering from depression and anxiety.

For most people affected by depression, it’s a familiar story: all those well-meaning people who so regularly dismiss very real distress with advice to simply “eat better” or “exercise more”.

Of course, there is some truth in it – rationally, we all know that we feel better when we’re eating well and getting plenty of exercise – but changing your diet isn’t a quick and failsafe fix for depression, and it’s often the last thing you want to hear, or do, when depression takes hold.

Continue reading at NetDoctor…

Balance: May 2017

Balance: May 2017

I’ve found May inexplicably difficult to write about – despite the fact that, on the face of it, it’s easily been my best month of the year so far. Both work and life finally feel like they’re getting back towards some semblance of balance. On 9 May I was finally discharged from neurosurgery, free from the neck brace that had kept me so restricted for 15 weeks. May has been full of sunshine, joy, love, and wonderful opportunities to catch up with some really special friends. And, of course, it’s been my first month as a full-time freelancer since August 2015. Obviously though, I’m still a long way from what I set out to achieve in January. So I guess it’s been bittersweet. As well as providing the year’s highest highs, May’s also seen some of my lowest lows – from duvet days of depressive apathy, to full-blown existential crises about the future.

Work-life

I’ve loved the return to freelancing, as different as it’s been from what I’d originally envisaged. I feel like May has been the first month since the accident that I’ve got the balance of work (almost) exactly right – a comfortable, steady stream, with enough exciting projects in the pipeline to feel busy, but without totally overwhelming myself.

At some points during February and March, while supposedly signed off sick, I was over-working in a way that – like my gin and pizza habit – looked pretty positive on the outside, but was (with hindsight) rooted in self-loathing and avoidance. I’d convinced myself that keeping busy was a form of self-care, but honestly there were moments when it felt more like self-harm. Insidious, even sometimes well-meaning, but self-destructive nonetheless. It’s no coincidence that April, as well as my most profitable month ever, was also one of the periods when I’ve felt most miserable.

Life-life

Like my work, everything else in life has felt much more balanced in May than it has done lately. My renewed flexibility, both physically and temporally, has definitely helped – providing both the time and mobility to put into practice all those tried and tested coping mechanisms that have eluded me since February. I’ve finally been able to really relax into quality time with friends and family, with some really wonderful catch-ups in Manchester, Sheffield, London and Hertfordshire. I’ve been for a very long overdue hair cut! And I’ve enjoyed making the most of some of the beautifully sunny days we’ve had this month.

May’s also seen the start of some big, exciting changes in both my personal and professional lives, which I’m looking forward to sharing soon. It feels, to quote RuPaul (who’s never not relevant to any given situation), like the beginning of the rest of my life. I’m exercising more, comfort eating and drinking less, getting more fresh air, spending more time with cats (my own and other people’s), reading more, and – excepting a few wobbles – generally looking after myself better and more compassionately.

May reading

This month I finally read The Princess Diarist , which I ordered the day of Carrie Fisher’s death. I love her self-deprecating sense of humour, and her raw honesty about life, love, and mental illness. I’m also a huge Star Wars fan – episodes 4, 5 and 6 were amongst the most well-watched and well-loved VHS tapes of my childhood, and Princess Leia helped shape the woman I am today, as she did for so many others.

The Princess Diarist, naturally, ticks both boxes – providing an insight into the making of that first, groundbreaking film, as described in Carrie Fisher’s wonderfully unique voice. From the Carrison affair to the shock of being thrust into the limelight – and featuring extracts from the diaries she kept at the time – The Princess Diarist is such a compelling read on the life of a witty, brave, and complex woman whose entire career has been defined by that iconic character.

I’ve spent the rest of the month reading The Story of a New Name , the second of Elena Ferrante’s much hyped Neopolitan novels. Unlike the first, My Brilliant Friend , which took me a long time to fall in love with, The Story of a New Name has had me captivated from the first page.

Its depiction of young, female experiences of love, friendship, education and growing up are so breathtakingly authentic and imbued with a passion that – particularly following on from The Princess Diarist – made it feel unnervingly like reading someone’s private diary. If only, of course, all adolescent women wrote their diaries with the same stunning literary qualities achieved by both Elena Ferrante and Carrie Fisher!

Writing as therapy

Between the two of them, I’ve been inspired to start writing my own diary again. Journaling and I have had a troubled, on-off relationship for as long as I can remember. I couldn’t tell you how many crisp, fresh notebooks I’ve started jotting down my daily thoughts and reflections in, only to lose interest within a month. My sporadic diaries will never be published as literary memoirs, but finally feeling able to express some of my trauma and anxiety in ink has definitely helped me start coming to terms with things this month.

There’s something very cathartic about giving voice to thoughts and feelings that you don’t dare express out loud, or in your blog. In my typical style, I’ve so far only really remembered to write in it while feeling extremes of emotion – so it swings alarmingly from joyful relief and elation to utter despair and despondency without any real effort at balance or a coherent narrative. But that’s the beauty of a diary, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to.

Getting to grips with trauma

Late May also saw the start of my NHS therapy, after three and a half months on a waiting list. I’ve been as anxious waiting for it as I’ve been frustrated, to be honest. How many thousands of words have I written on CBT – my own experiences and other people’s – over the years? Shouldn’t I be able to write the book on the theory of how CBT works, so why aren’t I managing to apply it to my own life?

Fortunately, I’m feeling more positive after the first session. I’ll get 12 weekly hours of Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT), which so far feels far more helpful than I’d feared, and I really like my therapist for the first time ever. Again, I’ve written so much in the past about the importance of a strong therapeutic relationship, and of finding a therapist you connect with – all the while knowing that, on the NHS, beggars can’t be choosers – but I feel like I’ve struck gold this time.

As ‘back to normal’ as so much of my life feels now, trauma is a funny old thing. It strikes at unexpected (and usually inconvenient) moments, in the form of physical panic, or total despondency, or an overwhelming sense of grief. It’s been rough, but I feel like I’m hopefully through the worst of it. I really hope TF-CBT can help me keep moving in the right direction.

This Girl Can

Speaking of moving in the right direction, the penultimate day in May was a biggie for me. Four months and three days after fracturing my spine, Jorge the spinal nurse gave me the all-clear to start running again. I’ve never been a brilliant or speedy runner – I run very much for the fitness and mental health benefits, rather than the gold medals – but it’s been one loss that I’ve really felt during the past 18 weeks.

On Tuesday morning I put my trainers on, walked to the nearest grassy area (I’m not allowed to run on concrete again just yet!) and ran the slowest but most satisfying mile of my entire life. I felt amazing afterwards. May has been full of small but significant steps and, frustrated as I’ve been by their smallness at times, it’s wonderful to have so many of my old, faithful coping strategies at my disposal again.

Herbalife and Immediate PR very kindly sent me a big parcel full of goodies to support my return to training – including a five-week training plan, electrolyte drinks, and protein bars – and I’m looking forward to putting those to good use as I get properly stuck into my running routine in June. Inspired by last month’s incredible Mind Over Marathon, I feel like I need a mental and physical challenge to work towards – it won’t be a marathon!! – so watch this space for that next chapter in my recovery journey. Any (realistic) suggestions very gratefully received.