Balance: November/December 2017

Happy New Year! This time last year I wrote the first in this ill-fated blog series on balance, my theme (or, at least, my goal!) for 2017:

It sounds painfully obvious typing it out, but I now know that I’m happier, more creative, and more productive when I make time for the things I love, as well as the things that pay my bills. Running, swimming, reading, writing for the pure love of writing – all these things feed my creativity, my productivity, my physical and mental health, and yet I’m not fitting them in as much as I need to.

In 2017 I want to find that balance. I want to devour books and magazines like I did as a child – which I currently only manage on holiday. I want to make time each day for exercise, self-care, learning, and screen-free time alone with a notebook, pen and my thoughts. And I want to rediscover the joy of writing for the sake of writing – in my journal, on this blog, and *gulp* finally working on that novel.

Well, for a start, I’ve not touched (or even looked at) the novel since 26 January 2017. Nothing about last year turned out the way I’d planned or expected, and it’s fair to say that I’ve spent most of the last 12 months feeling about as far from balanced as it’s possible to get. More like totally out of control!

2017 was life-changing. It’s been devastating, stressful, physically and emotionally agonising – but it’s also brought so many aspects of my life into really sharp perspective. I know I’ll never be the same person I was this time last year. She’s gone, and I’ve spent so long grieving for her that I’ve pretty regularly lost sight of all the joy, wonder and opportunities that life still has to offer.

November and December

Regular readers might have noticed that I missed November’s blog post. As I predicted in October, the return to reality and a more normal routine hit me really hard after the “fairytale” of a month spent basking in the glow of my much-needed fresh start. By the end of November, I was ready to give up on blogging, on balance, and just ride out 2017 through gritted teeth.

So yeah, the last couple of months were a real rollercoaster – a frenetic blur of festive busyness, work stress, self-destructive drinking, and quality time with the people I love most. The highs have been so high, the lows have been so low, and I haven’t really wanted to put any of it into words.

The closer we sped towards Christmas, the more time I spent torturing myself over what a total failure of a year 2017 was: all the things that might have been; all the lost opportunities, money, and experiences; all the things I should have, but didn’t, achieve; everything I did worse in 2017 than in 2016, because so much of the year was spent just scrabbling to survive; how much time I’d wasted focusing on my mental and physical recovery from the crash. And how utterly never-ending it all still feels.

I couldn’t even muster any of my usual optimism about the prospect of a new year; not beyond: “surely it can’t get any worse”. But Christmas has a funny old way of shifting your focus! It’s been a magical fortnight, full of precious moments with my family, godson, husband, and friends. So while 2017 was definitely not my year, somehow I still ended it with pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted: in my dream home, surrounded by amazing people, with a fulfilling job, and a heart full of love. And honestly, what can 2018 throw at me that’s bigger or more powerful than that?

Balance: October 2017

Another month, another belated update. But I’m going to keep this one short and sweet, because frankly October’s been too good to ruin by trying to put into words.

My plan for the month was to finally reconnect with the real world, after nine months preoccupied by my own little bubble of stuff. In reality though, October passed by in a fairytale of DIY, gym classes, and cosy evenings in. Okay, perhaps not your classic fairytale – but it really has felt like a whole new world.

October was a month of family and friends; fresh air and green spaces; spa days and DIY days; making the most of our new local leisure centre; and enjoying the peace and quiet of our new life. Outside of all that, the real world has felt too grim, too overwhelming, and too traumatic to engage with – and so I haven’t, really.

Shutting out everything from Weinstein to Westminster, I’ve quite happily sunk into the warmth and comfort of suburban grown-up life: cooking and yoga classes with my 17-year-old sister, tea and cake with our lovely new neighbours, and a long weekend at Center Parcs Woburn Forest with the family.

I’ve crunched my way happily and aimlessly through the autumn leaves, I’ve loved finally having a workspace all of my own, and I’ve relished watching my cats eagerly explore the freedom beyond our back door.

After months of attempting (and miserably failing) to run before I could walk, my body is finally strong enough to get back into the exercise regime that I’ve so badly needed. There’s been swimming, badminton, yoga, Pilates, Body Balance, aqua yoga, spinning, so much walking, and it’s made the most enormous difference to both my mental and physical health.

I’m more energised, more motivated, and everything just feels easier. Who knew that a life of herbal tea, gentle strolls, and lunchtime Pilates classes would suit me so much better than the gin, takeaways and self-pity that dominated the first half of this year? Sure, reality probably beckons again in November, but October was absolute perfection.

 

Balance: September 2017

New chapters

I’ve always loved September. There’s something a little magical about that back-to-school feeling: new pens, fresh notebooks, new opportunities to explore, and the chance to start over. The new academic year has always felt ripe with possibilities for reinvention and discovery – and, as my birthday falls in September, it also marks a new year in my life.

So, it’s always very much been a month of new chapters for me, and this year was no exception. Instead of a new school or university year, what September 2017 had in store was my biggest new chapter to date: moving from our little east London flat – our first home together – to a proper grown-up house with stairs, a garage, a downstairs loo, and a garden, and settling into our brand new life in the suburbs.

Of course, in keeping with the theme of MY YEAR SO FAR, not much about that new chapter actually worked out according to my plans. But we got there in the end!

Moving and leaving

September was stressful, beyond all the usual stress of moving house, and probably also my least balanced month of the year to date. I worked like a Trojan, and I spent virtually every spare minute packing up the flat, or chasing the solicitor, or crying in frustration. I did very little else. There was no reading, except Sue Perkins’ delightful memoir Spectacles, which was wonderful company once I finally managed to relax. There was no exercise, except anxious and irritable pacing. And I stress-ate approximately seven million calories over the course of the month.

I think this must be the latest of all the monthly updates I’ve posted this year and, for all the same reasons, I’m also going to keep it the shortest. We ended up completing on the purchase of our house at 5pm on my birthday, after roughly three weeks of stress and delays. We had just enough time for celebratory pizza, prosecco, and negligible sleep before – less than 12 hours after moving in – we had to leave for Gatwick at 4.30am.

In all fairness, we had a lovely week in Italy with my in-laws, staying not far from Venice and enjoying plenty of wonderful Italian wine, pasta, pizza, and gelato. But the timing really could not have been less ideal. For the first two days I found it completely impossible to relax. I sat on the beach, registering for council tax and ordering appliances on my iPhone; I text my brother, who was house sitting, requesting updates on the house and the cats roughly every ten minutes (neurotic, me?); and I continued my pattern of not really sleeping for more than a couple of hours at a time.

Coming home

Then I crashed. On our third night, I slept for ten blissful hours and, having caught up on sleep, I did manage to chill out a bit and enjoy myself for the rest of the week. We had a beautiful day exploring Venice, several days doing as little as possible, and then got back to our new house, ready to start our new chapter, with just five hours left of September. It was exactly as we’d left it – full of boxes and chaos – but I’ve never been so pleased to come home. Bring on the next chapter…

Balance: August 2017

Yesterday, after six consecutive weeks of finally making some breakthroughs, I was discharged from therapy a week early. It feels like such a small thing now, but 15 weeks ago this entire journey felt totally insurmountable. 31 weeks ago today, an A&E nurse told me I was lucky not to be dead or paralysed. And they’re the kind of words that make you reassess absolutely everything.

For about the first 25 weeks, I was pretty harsh in my assessments. I let myself be totally consumed by grief, guilt and shame – that I didn’t deserve to have survived, that I’d let everyone down, that I might as well have died because I’d never, ever be the same again. I imagined spending the rest of my life as a miserable bundle of panic and anxiety; that I’d never feel able to drive again; that all my plans – long-term and short-term – had been put indefinitely on hold.

Then, it was like a switch was flicked in my brain. I realised how counterproductive it is to beat yourself up for not recovering quickly enough. You can’t bully yourself into feeling better, any more than you can bomb a country into peace and stability. And so, on a disgustingly hungover Sunday morning in July, I had this epiphany that the more I hated myself, the more I was hurting and pushing away those I love.

Or, in the inimitable words of Mama Ru, who I can never resist quoting: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

As I wrote in last month’s post, those first few weeks afterwards were a big, creative, emotional process of figuring it all out; learning to swap resentment and self-loathing for gratitude and self-compassion. I realised I needed to carpe diem; to make my life extraordinary; to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life; basically to Dead Poets Society (yes, that’s a verb now) the hell out of my existence. So August, for the most part, has been utterly joyful – and, my god, has it raced by after seven months of time dragging its heels!

Living deep

This month I’ve immersed myself in work that I’m passionate about. I’ve witnessed the most breathtaking evening of athletics, at London 2017. I’ve enjoyed quality time with so many of my favourite people – not least the world’s most wonderful and beloved grandparents. And my back has hugely benefitted from one-on-one Pilates classes in the sunshine with Han. Seriously, is there any greater Pilates studio than the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park? I don’t think so.

I’m still not sure how it’s ended so soon, but I finished August with a wonderfully enjoyable and refreshing long weekend walking, eating and drinking in the Derbyshire Dales, with my two favourite uncles, my husband, my brother, his girlfriend, and my newly-rediscovered camera. Plus their dog and a lot of sheep, of course. It really is such a beautiful retreat from reality.

Reading has been a bit sparse this month, focused on quality over quantity, with Beta: Quiet Girls Can Run The World by Rebecca Holman, editor of The Debrief, and Odd Man Out by Nige and Elloa Atkinson.

Rebecca is one of my favourite editors to work with and Beta was such a refreshing, reassuring insight into her experience as an introverted beta boss in a working world that’s  largely set up for alphas and extraverts. It made me realise a lot about how neatly freelancing fits with my own personality, why I’d rather be my own boss than anyone else’s, and the areas where I can really channel my strengths and stretch my comfort zone.

Odd Man Out  has been tougher going, but in a good way. It’s an incredibly raw, challenging account of male mental health, anger, violence, and vulnerability. I actually only got about halfway through before lending it to a (male) friend who I realised needed it more than I did – but I’m looking forward to finishing it once he’s done!

Back to school…

It might just be all the vitamin D talking (check back in November!) but between all of that, therapy, and a secret photography project I’ve been working on*, I finally feel like myself again. In lots of ways I’ve got a real ‘back to school’ feeling about September – the anticipation of a fresh start with new possibilities, and just a tiny bit of stress and anxiety.

*More on this next week…

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!

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…

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.

Balance: April 2017

Balance: April 2017

It’s been a beautiful month, all sunshine and blue skies carried over from March. But, in my head, it’s felt more like endless, drizzly April showers. As of today, I’m 13 weeks into recovery. I’m sure there’s no typical pattern with this kind of thing, but I’ve started noticing distinct phases in my own recovery journey, and April has very much been one of resentment and frustration.

While March’s sunshine had me feeling optimistic and hopeful, in April it’s simply made me despise anyone who’s enjoying life more than me. And, particularly on social media, it’s hard not to feel like that’s everyone. I even weighed up whether to bother writing about this month. Imagine starting a 12-month blog challenge, your entire year falling apart within the first 30 days, but still being stubborn enough to feel like you have to keep it up!

And honestly, despite being my most physically well month since the accident, it’s also been my least balanced month of 2017. I haven’t finished a single book in April. I’ve had terrifying panic attacks in the middle of the street, and on public transport. I’ve had duvet days of wrapping myself up in self-pity and sleeping for 15 hours at a time. I’ve cancelled so many plans. (Sorry.) I’ve had sudden outbursts of frustration and rage, but mostly I’ve felt nothing much. Work has plodded steadily on, but writing at the moment feels like I’m just about keeping my head above water, not relishing it in the way I did when my cast first came off.

Darkness

What people who’ve never had depression don’t realise is that, at really bleak times, it can feel like less than ‘sadness’. You spend a long time feeling overwhelmed by all the emotions, only to reach a point of total emotional paralysis. It’s nothing. It’s numbness and apathy, a big, dark empty pit inside yourself, where nothing matters and you’re not worthy of feeling anything at all. Not even sad. Not angry, or frustrated, or lonely, or anxious.

The moments when you do feel those things – when the hospital cancels your much-anticipated appointment, and your body actually allows you to burst into tears – come as a relief. The tightness of panic in your chest, however hideous and nauseating, feels like a pleasant reminder that you’re still alive enough to care about your own preservation. That an irrational fear of suffocating to death on the tube, surrounded by strangers, with 15 panicked messages to your husband forever remaining unsent, is better than weeks on end of simply not caring if you live or die.

April has been a month of not caring, punctuated by moments of caring deeply and overwhelmingly. Recently I’ve started working on content for next month’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year has a theme of “surviving or thriving?” For me, simply surviving each day is enough right now. Thriving still feels such a long way off. We’re now a third of the way through the year, and I’ve not even come close to completing my goals – personal or professional – for Q1. My goals for Q2 have all been replaced by “make it through to June”.

Even self-care becomes a struggle when you can’t shake the feeling that every attempt to do something nice for yourself (like a retreat, for example) backfires spectacularly. I ordered myself a dozen beautiful pastel roses to mark the 12 week anniversary of the accident. When the courier (no prizes for guessing) forgot to collect them from the depot, so they didn’t show up until 24 hours later, I felt distraught.

Light

Of course, there are always glimmers of light, and I’d be remiss not to mention them. The day my roses didn’t arrive, my husband came home with ten cheap and crappy red ones from the local shop, which brightened my day immeasurably.

Over the Easter weekend, I removed my email account from my iPhone for four whole days – so good for the soul – and spent my days walking, eating, and enjoying the sunshine in east London, Cambridge, and Welwyn Garden City, with some of the people I love most in the world.

On Sunday 23rd, my not-so-little brother ran the London Marathon in aid of Toybox, and I’ve rarely felt so proud as I did watching him reach that finish line. Speaking of which, this month has also seen me weep my way through the BBC’s Mind Over Marathon, which is a must-watch. I can’t wait to get my running shoes back on once the spinal nurse okays it.

And finally, we’re spending the upcoming bank holiday weekend in one of our favourite cities, Bristol, visiting the world’s greatest little boy (our godson) and his mum. There’s no better excuse to run away from reality.

Work-wise I’ve written more than has actually been published this month, but below is the small selection I have to show for it so far. Perhaps this month’s biggest work news though is that I’ve taken on a freelance ghostwriting contract with LifeBook UK, working on a project that I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into over the coming months…

The Motivation for Moderation – for Less-Stress London

Shahroo Izadi is a modern behaviour change specialist, supporting clients to change their habits around food, drugs, or alcohol. Having previously worked in addiction support services for the NHS and Turning Point, her work combines the well-established techniques of motivational interviewing (MI) and mind mapping.

Commonly used in drug and alcohol services, these techniques are very effective in stopping ‘all or nothing’ thinking and allowing clients to take back control of their lives. “Motivational interviewing is like dancing with your client,” Shahroo explains. “You know where you want the dance to end, but you allow them to lead, you don’t push, and you get there in their own time.”

This works, she adds, by reflecting back what the client has said, gently guiding them to reach their own conclusions, before reflecting those outcomes visually in a mind map, which the client can refer back to. “There’s no judgement, you’re not putting words in people’s mouths, so it makes them less defensive,” she explains.

Continue reading at Less-Stress.London…

6 of London’s Best Modern-day Gin Palaces – for Hotel Indigo

For gin lovers, there’s simply no better city on earth than London. From the Gin Craze of the 18th century, to the grand Victorian gin palaces, London’s love affair with “Mother’s Ruin” is well established, and still going strong today. The city’s first gin palaces began popping up in the East End, around Holborn and Old Street, during the 1830s, before spreading to more central locations. From the Hotel Indigo London – Tower Hill, you’ll find yourself ideally placed to explore the London’s gin-loving heritage. From traditional offerings in nearby Holborn to trendier variations in Shoreditch, here are a few modern-day gin palaces to try:

Continue reading at Hotel Indigo…

Balance: March 2017

After spending most of February hosting my own private pity party, I’m pleased to report that March has been, well… better.

Physically my health has improved enormously in the last 8 weeks. I’m off painkillers, I’m sleeping more sensible amounts at more sensible times of day, without sleeping pills, and my left wrist is finally free of its cast. I can handwrite properly again, which is wonderful, and I’m gradually getting my strength back. More frustratingly, I had expected to be free of the neck brace by now too. After going into hospital expecting to be released, the news that my consultant wanted me to keep it on for another five weeks felt like a massive blow. I wrote off two whole days just lying in bed feeling sorry for myself and depressed. Fortunately though I’ve just about mastered the art of covering it all up under a scarf.

So, what have I been up to?

Celebrating amazing women

March is always one of my favourite months of the year, and not just because it’s when the sun finally begins to emerge from its wintery sleep. Women’s History Herstory Month means International Women’s Day celebrations, Women Of the World (WOW) Festival at the Southbank, March4Women, the Million Women Rise march, and lots and lots of exciting feminist writing and events to get stuck into. This March was quieter than usual, obviously, but there was no shortage of sisterhood.

On 1 March I was gutted to miss the National Refugee Women’s Conference, after so many months of planning and looking forward to it. Women for Refugee Women hosted hundreds of refugee women and supporters from around the country for panel discussions, workshops, performances, and the launch of The Way Ahead report. Although I was confined to watching along on Twitter and Facebook, I was so proud of what an inspiring and uplifting event the team achieved.

Actress Noma Dumezweni, who’s currently playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, opened the conference with a moving speech – and musician Yasmin Kadi closed with a performance that just perfectly encapsulates everything I love about Women for Refugee Women. As our director Natasha Walter said, quoting Emma Goldman, “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”:


International Women’s Day (8 March) was fairly muted – but I wore my WSPU T-shirt and wrote a client blog post about feminism, in the spirit of the day.

Then, that weekend, I put my face on and dressed up like a functional human being for the first time since the accident – to see my Women for Refugee Women sisters perform again, this time at WOW Festival. They never fail to blow me away, and it was lovely to catch up with so many of my talented and inspiring friends. As of today, I’m now back in the office a few hours a week, until the new comms exec takes over the role after Easter, and it feels so good to be back with my sisters.

Reading and writing

After having to put most of my work on hold following the accident, March has been a month of gently easing myself back in. I’ll post more about my recent writing work shortly, but in brief… As well as catching up on blog writing for my regular clients, and working on health features for my regular publications, I also started writing lifestyle content for a global healthcare brand, and had my first article published by Mental Health Today.

Of course, some days are easier than others. The brain fog, the forgetfulness, and the inability to get out of bed are too unpredictable to get back into my normal work routine just yet. But, for the most part at least, writing feels like a release rather than a chore again.

Having my cast removed has also made a big difference to my reading, so I’ve started making up for lost time in the book department! It’s been a really great month for captivating reads by brilliant women writers.

A Quiet Life

First up was A Quiet Life by my colleague Natasha Walter – a gorgeously written, unputdownable novel about the wife of a Soviet spy during the Cold War. A Quiet Life was very almost my favourite read of the year so far – but then I read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Homegoing

Set over three continents and seven generations, Homegoing tells the story of two Ghanaian sisters’ descendants – after one marries a British slave trader, and the other is shipped to America to be sold as a slave. Gyasi’s novel is heartachingly beautiful – both devastating and restorative, brutal and hopeful – and without a doubt one of the best things I’ve read in a really long time. I raced through it in 24 hours.

Ghana holds a very special place in my heart because of the incredible Ghanaian women (and one very special Ghanaian little boy) who’ve had such an impact on my life in the last 18 months. I spent a lot of time thinking about them while I was reading Homegoing; such a wonderfully raw and poignant tribute to their homeland, and to the power of human connections. I can’t wait to visit some day.

A Single Man

My third book of the month was a ‘get well soon’ gift, Christopher Isherwood’s classic A Single Man. I saw the film adaptation of it years ago (mostly for Colin Firth), but I obviously hadn’t remembered much of the plot. It centres on the grief of English professor George, whose partner was killed in a car accident 8 months earlier. Perhaps not the most thoughtful choice though, for someone recovering from a traumatic car accident! As beautifully written as it is, that detail was still just too raw and painful, and I had to stop about halfway through. I’m sure I’ll come back to it one day.

Shrill

Finally, I read Lindy West’s Shrill (Notes from a Loud Woman) – another ‘get well soon’ present from a friend – which was far more uplifting than A Single Man. I have a complicated relationship with the Jezebel.com ‘loud women’ school of feminism – mostly because it’s always made me feel that my own quietness is one of my biggest failings as a feminist – but I enjoyed Shrill far more than I expected. West has done significantly more than her fair share of speaking out, and taking the relentless abuse for it, than most of us dare. Her victories – against the social acceptability of rape jokes, of fat shaming, and of Twitter abuse – are hard-won and well-deserved, and speak volumes about the power of women’s voices when we do speak out. She’s also refreshingly human and down to earth; raw in her honesty about the struggle to overcome shyness and self-loathing, and learning to love and accept herself. A really inspiring read.

Topping up my vitamin D

Although – to my huge frustration – I’m still not allowed to run or swim, the sunnier weather has made it easier for me to enjoy getting out and about. Somehow, despite knowing that exercise, fresh air and sunshine make me feel better, as a depressive I’m still always pleasantly surprised when they do. After a grim couple of months, March has been beautiful. The extra vitamin D has definitely given me a much-needed boost.

Self-care this month has meant buying myself daffodils; eating ice lollies, reading books, and sipping cider in the sunshine; going for gentle walks around the park; and enjoying some much-needed quality time with really wonderful friends. Emotionally I still feel unnervingly fragile, like the slightest insensitive question, or unexpected engine noise might shatter me into thousands of pieces. But I also feel loved and supported, and more capable of learning to love and support myself again.

Paris in the springtime

On Saturday, the most glorious day of the year so far, I wrapped up March with a trip to Paris with my mum and two very special little sisters. It was a celebratory trip, planned to mark the ten year anniversary of my parents becoming their respite foster carers. I still can’t believe the eldest is now almost 17, the same age I was when I first met her. Despite their problems, the pair of them have grown into such bright, thoughtful and funny young women, who I’m very proud to call my sisters.

The weather for our trip was perfect, and there really is nothing more beautiful than meandering around Paris in the springtime. I was surprised by how familiar everything still felt after six years away. The eight months I lived there, in 2010 and 2011, were simultaneously the best and worst of my life. I’ve always loved Paris, but the everyday stresses of living there certainly took some of the sheen off. My mental health during that time was dreadful. And yet Paris, in all of its darkness and light, still felt like home. Wandering along the river with my family, and eating breakfast by the Notre Dame, it was such a relief to escape from everything, even if only for a few hours.

There’s still a long way to go, but recovery is so much easier when the sun’s shining.