Recent writing: Christmas and New Year

Unsurprisingly, the weeks around Christmas and the New Year were a busy time for writing about health. Throughout December and January I’ve written a lot about alcohol, food, diet, fitness, body image, and how to stave off the post-holiday blues.

The festive period now feels like a distant memory, and January seems to be going on forever! But somehow I’ve only just caught up with myself enough to share some of that recent work…

Drink Spiking: Why Horror Story Drug Devil’s Breath Is The Least Of Our Worries – for The Debrief:

Two weeks into December and the festive party season is now well and truly upon us. I can barely go 48 hours at a time without someone twisting my arm into a mulled wine and mince pie, a gratuitous glass of bubbly ‘just because it’s Christmas,’ or a festive spiced gin. It’s the most wonderful time of the year – but, for me at least, it also always comes with just a twinge of anxiety.

Continue reading at The Debrief…

Alcohol and health: The mythbusting article – for LV=:

Is there a way to cure a hangover? Can some alcoholic drinks help improve our heart health? In what order should we drink wine, water and beer? We tell ourselves many things to feel better about our alcohol intake, but what truth is there in them? We asked the experts to find out.

Continue reading at LV=…

How to stop binge eating – for Patient:

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. But if you struggle with your weight, eating, and body image, the weeks around Christmas and the New Year can be an absolute minefield.

Continue reading at Patient…

Surviving the New Year body image minefield – for Betty Collective:

If you struggle with body image and eating issues (and honestly, who doesn’t, from time to time?) January can be really rough. After a month of festive parties, cosy evenings in with Christmas movies and hot chocolate, and stuffing our faces at almost every opportunity, suddenly it’s all over and the dreary reality of the New Year hits.

Continue reading at Betty Collective…

How to embrace fitness after 50 – for Patient:

You already know it’s worth making exercise a priority. But, if you’re over 50 and haven’t laced up your trainers since secondary school PE class, it can be a real struggle to get going. We spoke to the experts about the health benefits of taking up exercise after 50, and how to make sure your shiny new gym membership doesn’t go to waste.

10 ways to avoid the post-holiday blues – for LV=:

After the joys of late December, January can feel a bit gloomy. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. We spoke to experts about how you can tackle the January blues, and get your year off to a flying start.

Continue reading at LV=…

Is online counselling actually any good? – for Betty Collective:

There’s an app for everything these days, even your mental health. You’re probably already tracking your fitness, sleep, and periods, so why not also track your moods? And, when it comes to more formal mental health support, online counselling services are just a click away – whether you’re not sure where else to turn right now, or need something to bridge the gap while you’re on an NHS waiting list for CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).

Continue reading at Betty Collective…


IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact Mind on 0300 123 3393 or Rethink Mental Health on 0300 5000 927. In a crisis, call the free, 24/7 Samaritans helpline on 116 123.

However, if you would like to get in touch about your own experiences, or a story that you’re keen to tell, please feel free to drop me an email.

R.E.D January: Running away from the blues

It is a truth universally acknowledged that January is, well, always a bit shit. Grey and austere, after a month of twinkling lights and festive indulgence. A dark, cold, gloomy return to work and reality, after a week spent drinking hot chocolate and watching Christmas films in your pyjamas, unsure of which day of the week it is, and totally oblivious to any kind of real-life responsibility.

It’s usually around this time of year that I find myself casually daydreaming about running away. Last year it was a week on my own by the sea (albeit in Suffolk, not Sri Lanka) and we all know how well that worked out. This year I’ve been browsing Skyscanner for flights to visit my friend in New Zealand, but in reality I know I’m not going much further than sunny Stevenage any time soon.

R.E.D January

Back in December though, I signed up for R.E.D (Run Every Day) January, for an alternative kind of running away. R.E.D’s a New Year fitness challenge, in association with mental health charity Mind, that harnesses the mental health benefits of running to help participants beat the January blues, while also fundraising to support Mind’s work around the UK.

Despite the on-off, love-hate relationship I’ve had with running over the years, I know it’s always made a massive difference to my mental health. I really resented not being able to put my trainers on and get out when both my back and my mind were at their worst last year. Plus, it felt like a good way to up my recovery training in the New Year, now that I’m actually starting to notice a difference from my weekly yoga and Pilates sessions.

Running as self-care

Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, I had a bit of an epiphany about where I’ve always gone wrong with running in the past. I was interviewing the always-inspiring behavioural change specialist Shahroo Izadi for an article on binge eating and she said something that – although it didn’t make it into the article in its entirety – really stuck with me:

Usually Sunday evening was my hardest time not to overeat because I lived by myself and, especially in the winter, I’d get bored – but I didn’t want to go out and spend money. So one day I just decided to go to a karaoke booth by myself in Brick Lane. It was really cheap, like a fiver, they gave me a microphone, I got myself a coffee, and I sat and sang for one or two hours.

Since then, whenever I have a desire to binge, or I’m triggered by something – because it does still happen – what I tend to do is try and book a karaoke booth. I’ll tell myself: “Shahroo, you can do whatever you like, you can eat whatever you like, just first go and have a sing, and see if you still want to afterwards”, and to this day I’ve never wanted to afterwards. The craving passes, singing’s a really mindful activity in general. For me, mindfulness just means when I’m so engrossed in one thing that nothing else is coming in, and I’ve found that through singing.

By the way, I’m not a good singer – I’m not training for anything, it’s not to any end, and I think that’s the other really important point around self-care. It’s about reinforcing that you like yourself, and that’s why you’re doing this. The more I do things that are just purely for joy, with no outcome – I’m not recording an album, it’s just purely because I feel good about it – the more I’m reinforcing my self-worth. Tiny things I do each day just to acknowledge that I have a body worth taking care of, I have a brain worth taking care of, and that leaks into all your little habits.

So that’s the approach that I’ve taken into R.E.D January: not worrying about my time, or my distance, or how much of each run was actually spent walking and wheezing; just enjoying how it makes me feel.

Best laid plans

Of course, as often seems to happen with all of my best laid plans, my body had other ideas. I was struck down by that brutal Christmas cold that everyone’s had, just in time for New Year’s Ever. Thanks, crappy immune system! It’s meant missing a couple of days, which were spent in bed feeling totally wiped out and miserable, but otherwise I’ve quite impressed myself (so far!) with my ability to stick with it, and even to compensate for missed days by adding in extra activities  and then actually enjoying them!!

It doesn’t make the reality of January any less grim, but it does give me 10-60 minutes a day away from my racing thoughts and chaotic feelings, just to focus on my breathing, the thudding rhythm of my feet against the pavement, and the beauty of our new town – and that’s absolutely invaluable. If you’d like to help raise money for Mind by sponsoring me, you can do so at my JustGiving page: justgiving.com/fundraising/sarah-graham-red

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: 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.

3 things I learned from swimming 22 miles

Just keep swimming

I’m not a sporty person. At school I was the one who was always picked last in PE. I couldn’t throw or catch to save my life, and my coordination is non-existent. I’m basically useless at every team sport there is, and the humiliation of those PE lessons has been enough to put me off exercising in public for life. Going to the gym is my worst nightmare – all those people, silently judging my flailing limbs and sweaty red face? No thanks.

However, in the last few years I’ve begun to slowly but surely brave the whole fitness thing. Initially, to be honest, it was in a bid to reverse some of the excesses of my all-inclusive honeymoon, and subsequently to ensure that, as a full-time freelancer, I didn’t spend all day every day sat on my arse, only ever moving to go to the fridge or kettle. Freelance sloth is a very real danger – especially when you work from home, so the kitchen’s mere steps from your office.

Eventually though I actually began to enjoy it, venturing from the cross-trainer to running outside, around the lovely Olympic Park; signing up to 5Ks, and then 10Ks; taking advantage of the rather beautiful London Aquatics Centre being virtually empty during office hours. Then I went a step too far. Under the spell of Rio 2016 Olympic fever, while watching Ellie Robinson win gold, I spotted a Facebook ad for a charity swimming challenge. “I should definitely do that,” I thought.

What followed was a brief conversation on our family Whatsapp group, where my mum (at this point a regular swimmer, unlike me!) said “I’ll do it if you will” and bam, we were both signed up for the Aspire Channel Swim. During the 12 weeks of the challenge, between 12 September and 5 December, we were committed to swimming 22 miles – equivalent to swimming the Channel – in our respective local pools.

The main thing I learned was that swimming 22 miles is really, really, really tough. Two miles a week doesn’t sound like a lot until you work out just how many lengths of a standard size swimming pool that actually is, and I quite quickly found myself wondering what on earth I’d got myself in to. But I did it! On Friday 2 December my mum and I each swam our final mile together, in the Olympic pool – albeit not feeling as much like Rebecca Addlington as I’d expected to back in August! It was tough, but it was also a really amazing experience, and for a great cause – I’ve so far raised £290 for people with spinal injuries, and you can still sponsor me here if you’d like to.

So, what did I learn?

1. Consistency is key

The thing with swimming 22 miles over the space of 12 weeks is that, unless you’re David Walliams, you physically can’t just leave it all until the last minute. Learning to pace myself was therefore essential. Fortunately it’s something I’m already pretty good at – I can’t handle the stress of finishing written work right up to the deadline, so I almost always file early – but it was made a bit more complicated by the fact we already had a three week holiday booked during those 12 weeks.

Despite my best intentions, I was inevitably behind schedule by the time we got home, but sticking to a consistent 1-3 miles per week throughout the challenge meant that I could see real improvements each week. A little more speed here, a little more stamina there, as I edged my way steadily towards the French shore. It was frustrating at times to put all my energy into a swim and get out having only knocked three quarters of a mile off my target, but the tortoise always wins in the end.

I was reminded of this recently when I wrote a blog post for a client exploring the importance of consistency in daily habits and routines. Without the challenge – and without the pride and stubbornness that kept me going once I’d signed up – I would never have got into the habit of swimming two or three times a week, but it’s definitely something I’m intending to keep up now.

2. Take it two lengths at a time

There’s a great quote in season 1 of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: “I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds. All you’ve got to do is take it 10 seconds at a time.” When you’re swimming in a 50 metre pool, 10 seconds doesn’t get you very far (unless you actually are Rebecca Addlington), but I quickly learned to take it two lengths at a time.

“Just another 100 metres and then we’ll see how we feel,” I’d tell myself. If I didn’t feel like I was going to drown by the end of it, we’d try for just another two lengths. Then another two, and another, until my arms and legs felt so weak that I could bearly drag myself out of the pool. Some days washing my hair post-swim felt physically impossible.

There’s no getting around the fact that 22 miles is an enormous challenge for someone with my swimming ability. But breaking those 708 lengths down into just two lengths at a time made it all feel so much easier. It’s amazing how many “two more lengths” you’ve got in you! It’s a lesson I’m trying to apply more to my life and work too. I don’t know if it’s a writer thing, a freelancer thing, or an anxious person thing – maybe all three – but I regularly find myself feeling overwhelmed by the scale of work I’ve taken on. Broken down though, it’s always so much more manageable.

3. Swimming is great for productivity

I can’t tell you how many brilliant intros I wrote in my head while swimming up and down that pool. Swimming became my way of unblocking all those frustrating creative jams. Whenever I was struggling to construct the perfect turn of phrase, that was my cue to hit the pool. The words just seemed to flow as I swept along below Zaha Hadid’s stunningly designed roof, while all those other, distracting thoughts drifted away. The only downside of course was having to stand, dripping wet in my towel, and transfer paragraphs from my mind to my phone before I could get changed afterwards!

As a freelancer living and working on the edge of London’s Olympic Park, I’ve swum semi-regularly over the last few years, usually when work was a bit on the quiet-side. I’ve always loved going in that wonderfully deserted 1-3pm slot, when you can often have a lane to yourself and, as a member, I pay just £2.25 off-peak. But as soon as work got busier, taking an hour out of the middle of the day to swim felt frivolous, a waste of precious writing time.

What this challenge made me realise was how essential it really is to the way I work. Getting out of the house, away from screens, clearing my head, getting active – it all just made me more productive. Rather than wasting my time, swimming actually made me a better freelancer because it took me out of that post-lunch energy slump and got the inspiration flowing. They don’t teach you that at journalism school, but it’s going to be such an important part of my business from now on!

You can sponsor my 22 mile swimming challenge, in aid of spinal injury charity Aspire, on my JustGiving page until March 2017.