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.

 

And Still I Rise: a psychological portrait by Diogo Duarte

Sometimes words fail me. It’s a difficult thing to admit as a writer, but it’s true. So, for the last few months I’ve been working on a secret visual project with photographer and artist Diogo Duarte. I thought maybe I’d pitch and write an article about it, but I can’t – at least not yet. The circumstances are all wrong, I’m not emotionally ready, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever have quite the right vocabulary to put something so huge and so raw out into the world in quite such a public way. And so, I’m largely going to let the picture speak for itself.

Psychological portraits

Diogo’s work is stunning. His fine art portraits are high-concept, striking, psychological, and often dark, drawing inspiration from mythology and fairy tales, and tackling themes like gender, sexuality, and mental health. I love the creativity and vulnerability of his self-portraits, and I was so intrigued when he first told me about his plans for a psychological portrait service.

That was almost two years ago. In February of this year, I found myself physically, mentally and emotionally broken by a traumatic car crash that I still can’t put into words or really make sense of. With hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have even been thinking about work so soon afterwards but, mindlessly scrolling through Facebook one day, one of Diogo’s posts sparked an idea. That idea resulted in me writing about his work for Broadly – and then chatting to him about a portrait of my own!

Celebration of Self, Diogo Duarte

There’s something about Diogo, which I felt from the first moment I met him, that just makes him so easy to talk to. He’s one of those people who exudes warmth, empathy and sincerity – and, having already asked him to get pretty vulnerable when I interviewed him, I felt totally at ease opening myself up in return. Diogo’s background in mental health is really invaluable here too – he both works and volunteers for the Samaritans, so he’s absolutely nailed his probing but supportive approach that really delves into your psyche.

The emotional and creative process

It was April when we had our first proper conversation about the portrait. I was still in a neck brace, still too anxious to use public transport on my own, and still on a seemingly endless waiting list for NHS talking therapy. Diogo came over, sat on the bed with me and the cats, and we talked about everything. And I mean ev-er-y-thing: Memories, and blanks. Nightmares, fears, hopes, and dreams. Shame, guilt, anxiety, despair, confusion, grief, pain. The past, present and future. Things that are public knowledge, and things that I’ll probably take to my grave. It felt like the therapy that I so desperately needed at that point.

And then, for several months, I continued on my journey while he let his imagination get to work on creating the concept for my photo. A lot happened in the time that passed between April and August. We continued talking, sharing thoughts, feelings, symbols and ideas, while Diogo sketched, researched, and gradually pulled together his vision.

By August I was most of the way through therapy, and starting to really feel like I was getting somewhere with it. Everyday life felt less of a struggle, and I’d resigned myself to maybe never having all the answers, instead of endlessly fighting myself and everyone else. We shot the photo in Bourne Wood, near Farnham in Surrey, and Recom Farmhouse created the CGI concrete monolith – Diogo’s symbol of that hard, brutal intrusion into the landscape of my life, that I’ve had to learn to live with rather than futilely punching at with my fists.

And Still I Rise, by Diogo Duarte

Finding meaning

There’s a dark weariness and isolation in the photo. I’m exhausted, despairing, and covered in mud, but I’m hopeful. I’m learning to let go, to comfort myself, and to let the moss take root. And I’m held by the starry universe of the ground below me, seeking for a place of safety and comfort. I can’t look towards the future just yet, but it’s out there, beyond the wall.

There are so many elements of the photo that mean really personal things to me, but what I love too is how those around me see it – and particularly what Diogo has to say:

For Sarah’s portrait, I was interested in capturing a state of mind rather than a specific point in time. It’s not about the past, the present, or the future. In a way it encapsulates all three, depending on the way you look at it, but to me it became important to create a photo that referenced various points in time of her journey. When I look at it, I see an incredibly beautiful woman who is learning to trust that the ground underneath her will hold her, despite changes to her personal landscape. It’s so easy for all of us to forget about trust; trust in ourselves, trust in other people and the environment that surrounds us. The first time I saw Sarah, I really felt her pain and could see doubt was very much present in her mind, so I knew I wanted to incorporate this in the portrait.

One of my best friends said the photo feels dark and lonely, and I guess I’ve felt a lot like that in recent months – though not for a lack of loving people around me. My husband says it has a Stranger Things feel for him, as if I’m in my own personal Upside Down – disconnected, parallel to the real world but not currently quite part of it.

To me it feels like a kind of acceptance of everything that has happened. It is what it is. For better or worse, I survived – albeit with plenty of metaphorical dirt under my fingernails and twigs in my hair. In many ways, it’s an emotional snapshot of everything that’s slowly begun falling into place for me recently. That it’s okay to grieve and to struggle. That it’s not weak to need to rest, heal and recover before embarking on the dark, wild forest of whatever lays ahead. That I am who I am, regardless of the changes to my landscape.

Self-indulgence

Maybe it’s all just been ridiculously self-indulgent, I panicked as we made our way back towards London. But then maybe all therapy, and self-care, and transformative journeys of self-compassion and self-acceptance are self-indulgent. Maybe, when it comes to our own mental health and personal growth, we’re not nearly self-indulgent enough. Maybe we all need to take a step back and reframe our own situations. To take them out of our own heads, where they drive us slowly mad, and quite literally see them through someone else’s lens.

I see new things every time I look at Diogo’s portrait of me. I know its meaning and significance will change and grow as I change and grow. It will always be a reminder of deep, deep darkness, as well as strength, resilience and hope. But I can’t thank Diogo enough for stepping in when words failed me.

Find out more about Diogo Duarte’s fine art photography, including his psychological portrait service, PhotoBard, at: www.diogo-duarte.com

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  (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: 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 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…

Client profile: Ayesha Giselle Life Coach

Last month I profiled Rachael Cunningham, founder of Sebastian & Millicent, as the first in a series of posts about my small business clients.

Today I want to share some of the work I’ve been doing with Ayesha Giselle, a success and accountability coach based in Hackney.

Ayesha and I met through a networking group for east London freelancers and entrepreneurs, and I knew she was exactly the kind of person I love working with. Ayesha is a driven, ambitious woman, with a passion for supporting and empowering other women. She’s also a fellow east Londoner, so that was a big tick in my ‘supporting local small business owners’ box. And her work is all about self-development, and helping people – particularly young women – get the best out of their lives and careers.

When Ayesha and I got chatting, we realised that our skills complemented each other perfectly. She had the courage and self-confidence to put herself out there, but lacked the writing skills to really make an impact; while I had those writing skills but felt certain that I regularly held myself back from being as successful as I could be. Well, working together has been really quite special for both of us! Since last summer I’ve been writing blog posts, PR pitches and e-books for Ayesha. I’ve learnt so much from her, both through the briefs that she sends me for her content, and from the coaching I’ve received through our brilliant skill sharing agreement.

I sat down with Ayesha for a chat about what coaching means to her and her clients, and how my writing services are helping her to get her messages out there.

 

SG: What does being a coach mean to you, and how did you get started?

AG: Being a coach means being a source of inspiration, guidance, support and wisdom. Leading by example to inspire and encourage my clients. Using my wisdom and insight to help guide my clients to making the best choices for where they are at on their journey. And to be a support system who is completely in their corner. My client’s success is my success; we win together.

Being a coach allows me to be the person I needed when I was going up, starting my business, and finding myself and my way through life. I always wished I had someone I could talk to who was a bit wiser than me, had more insight into life than me, who would support and encourage me 100% when I found it hard to do so myself. Someone who could push me out of my comfort zone, provide a safe place to explore ideas, and believe in me. Not really having that kind of support growing up made realise what was missing, and who I could be to help others. Funnily enough, I think I decide to become a coach when I was a teenager, after reading one of my mum’s self-help books and thinking to myself ‘this is what I want to become’. At the time I was studying performing arts, which I loved. I initially planned to pursue a performing arts career until I was 30-35, and then I thought I’d have enough life experience to become a coach.

Later I was in university studying Arts Management, which I didn’t really enjoy, and I decided to drop out in year 3. By that stage, I was living life thinking ‘time is too precious to spend it being miserable and doing what you don’t enjoy’. So I made my decision with no plan, just knowing that I no longer enjoyed my course at all, and that it wasn’t for me. However, there was still this strong desire to become a coach as I felt it fit perfectly with who I am – a bold action taker who loves to learn about herself, and always looking forward to growing, teaching, and supporting others. The only thing stopping me was the fact I thought I was way too young to be a coach; I thought I need to be an older person with lots of life experience. In spite of my fears, I took a leap of faith and enrolled myself on a life coaching course, invested in some of the best coaches and mentors, and have never looked back since.

 

SG: Who and what are your personal inspirations and motivations?

AG: My inspiration to become a coach was Fiona Harold, who I had the pleasure to be coached and mentored by, and Iyanla Vanzant. Both women inspired me through their work and love for what they do.

My main motivation for coaching is making a difference in individual people’s lives, and knowing that I’m having a massive positive impact on them and their future. Nothing can beat the feeling of your client’s success. My clients’ success is my happiness. It brings me pure joy knowing that I played a part in their amazing journey.

 

SG: What unique experience and perspectives do you bring to your work with clients?

AG: I am able to pass on my resilience to my clients – helping them to keep their eye on the goal, remain consistent, enjoy the process and be willing to challenge themselves, whether that challenge is a self-limiting belief or a fear. I see opportunities within the problems. I help my clients to track, track and track some more, so that they can see the progress they have made. If they want certain results then they need become that person who can get the results they want. Lastly, I know that your thoughts create your reality, and by changing the way you think about yourself or a situation, you can change your reality or an outcome.

 

SG: Like me, you’re obviously passionate about working with ambitious and driven women – what issues do you see coming up again and again?

AG: I see clients using excuses to hide behind their fears which literally holds them back from becoming their full potential. I see women not believing that they are good enough, and lacking confidence in their ability, which stops them from going after what they really want. And then being scared to ask for what they want. Another thing I  have noticed is that many women know, and deep down really want, what it is they desire; they just don’t how to get it – which is where I come in.

 

SG: How has hiring me as a writer helped you as a small business owner?

AG: It has helped me a lot. Writing is not my strength, however I have so much wisdom and expertise in my area that I want and need to share with the world. Sometimes it can be so hard to explain what is in my head in a clear succinct way. Hiring you to help write my blogs and pitches has helped me to articulate my thoughts and message in a coherent way. You always deliver on time, with material that surpasses my expectations. You really get exactly what I am trying to convey. It has also saved me a lot of time. Instead of wasting time stressing over trying to produce content, I am now able to focus that time on the things I enjoy and am good at, which is coaching and teaching.

 

SG: What do you feel the blog and e-book content I’ve written add to your brand?

AG: It has allowed my message to be clear, and really show my expertise and wisdom in my area. It allows my brand to be more polished and professional. It’s a really good investment as what you put out is what you get back in return. If you put out quality work, you attract the right clients and the business that you want. The content you put out represents you, and you always want to put your best foot forward, and the blogs and e-book have allowed me to do just that.

 

You can find out more about Ayesha Giselle’s range of coaching programmes and services at: ayeshagiselle.com.

Could my writing services also benefit your business? Click here for information about working with me, check out some examples of my work for Ayesha Giselle, or click here to see what other clients have said about my writing.

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  (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.