Recent writing on women’s health – and an award!

MHP Award Ceremony

Over the last few weeks I’ve covered pretty much all my specialist health topics: the brain, the mind, the uterus, the vagina, and the cervix, with articles on women’s experiences of trauma, planning a pregnancy when you have epilepsy, cervical cancer screening in the LGBT community, and – simultaneously fascinating and horrifying – vaginal ageing.

I was also thrilled and honoured to win an award, in the brand new Health Writer category, at the MHP 30 to Watch young journalist award ceremony.

With health award judge Jo Willey, at the MHP 30 to Watch award ceremonyIt was completely surreal to see an example of my work hung on the wall like an artwork in a gallery, and for my writing to be recognised alongside so many incredibly talented journalists – many of them far more visibly ‘successful’ than I see myself!

Anyway, here I am looking chuffed with Health category judge Jo Willey, former Health Editor of The Daily Express.

Thank you to Jo and MHP, and congratulations to the other 29 award winners.

Recent writing

We need to talk about how PTSD affects women too – for The Femedic:

“I lived in constant fear, but could never articulate what I was afraid of. My memories, the pain attached to the past, my current loneliness and fears for the future were so tightly entwined it seemed impossible to unravel. I didn’t trust anyone, and I pushed everyone around me away.”

Andrea* is one of an estimated 310% of people who will be affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lifetime. The condition involves recurrent distressing memories, flashbacks and nightmares of a traumatic experience, and was first diagnosed in soldiers returning from war.

During World War One it was known as ‘shell shock’ and, although psychiatrists’ understanding of the condition has come a long way since then, the association with the armed forces means that many people continue to think of PTSD as a largely male condition, inflicted on servicemen by the horrors of war.

But Andrea has never fought in armed conflict, and the only war zone she’s survived was inside her own home. Indeed, the prevalence of PTSD is estimated to be roughly equal across genders, while women aged 16-25 are the highest risk group, with a prevalence of 12.6 per cent.

Continue reading at The Femedic…

Is it safe to take epilepsy medication during pregnancy? – for Patient:

Hannah* was first prescribed sodium valproate to control her epilepsy when she was 13 years old. “At the time, I wasn’t told about any of the risks and then I fell pregnant at 16,” she says. “The pregnancy miscarried at four months, due to severe abnormalities with the baby, which were caused by my medication.”

More than 20 years later, UK drug regulator the MHRA last month announced a ban on prescribing sodium valproate to women and girls of childbearing age, unless they sign a form to say they understand the risks.

How life events and ageing can change your vagina – for Patient:

When it comes to ageing, few body parts go through quite so much over the course of an average lifetime as the humble vagina. Changes to collagen production and hormone levels bring about natural changes from puberty through to the menopause, which can, of course, be exacerbated by sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and even certain cancer treatments.

So what kind of changes can you expect, and what can you do to keep your vagina healthy throughout your life?

Do lesbian and bisexual women still need smear tests? – for Patient:

Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 35 and under, with around 3,000 women diagnosed each year in the UK. Despite this, just 72 per cent of eligible women in England attend cervical screening (or smear) tests, which can help to detect abnormal cells early, and prevent around 75 per centof cervical cancers from developing.

In the LGBT+ community however, the figures are much lower still. According to Lawrie Roberts, Macmillan LGBT and Cancer Programme Co-ordinator at the LGBT Foundation, around half (51 per cent) of eligible women who have sex with women have never attended a smear test.

Continue reading at Patient…


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.

Recent work: Road to Equality, with Google Arts & Culture and the Mayor of London

Photo: GLA/Caroline Teo

“What draws men and women together is stronger than the brutality and tyranny which drive them apart.” – Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Since February I’ve been working with Google Arts & Culture (GA&C), in partnership with the Mayor of London, on Road to Equality, a project celebrating 100 years since the first women in the UK got the right to vote.

GA&C is a non-profit branch of Google that works with thousands of cultural institutions around the world, using digital collections and storytelling to democratise access to the world’s cultural archives.

On 24 April 2018, London celebrated the historic unveiling of a statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett – the first statue in Parliament Square to commemorate, and to be created by, a woman. We worked with the Mayor of London, and Turner prize winning artist Gillian Wearing, to celebrate the occasion.

Phase one

Launched to coincide with the statue’s unveiling, Road to Equality is a digital project that tells the story behind Gillian Wearing’s creation. But it also explores Millicent Fawcett’s significance in the much wider context of the last 100+ years of the women’s movement – from the groundwork that was laid in the decades before (some) women got the vote in 1918, to the century of progress that has followed.

The Mayor of London’s content, together with launch film Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere, forms phase one of the project. It is divided into eight themed exhibits, and two editorial features, which:

  • Give a behind-the-scenes insight into the making of the statue
  • Tell the inspirational life story of Millicent Fawcett herself
  • Shine a light on 59 other women and men of the suffrage movement, who are also memorialised on the statue’s plinth
  • Explore the current state of feminism and women’s rights in 2018
  • Explain how the Mayor of London’s #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign is driving gender equality in the capital

You can read these pieces here:

Road to Equality phase one was officially launched after the statue unveiling, at a reception in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and can be found at g.co/roadtoequality.

Phase two

Phase two of the project will launch in June, and provides a broader look at the past, present and future of the women’s movement. I’ve been busy pulling together content from more than 20 cultural partners – including LSE Library and the Museum of London – as well as editorial features from some really impressive and inspiring women, and I’m looking forward to sharing all that with you soon.

Work-wise, my role as freelance content editor on the project has consisted of a bit of everything. There’s been writing, researching, commissioning, editing, project managing, and meeting some really fascinating people along the way. It’s been such an inspiring project to work on, and it couldn’t have come at a more serendipitous time.

I’m VERY excited about some of the content we’re going to be launching in June, so watch this space!

Recent writing: support for transgender children, student mental health, and accessible housing

In January I wrote about a number of challenging but important subjects. For Patient, I looked at how parents can best support their transgender child. For The Student Room, I explored what mental health support students can (or should be able to!) expect at university. And, for Inside Housing, I investigated how a lack of accessible housing leaves so many disabled millennials stuck living with their parents. They’re all such vital issues, which I hope I’ve treated with the care and sensitivity they deserve.

Many thanks to everyone who spoke to me for these features – particularly Susie at Mermaids UK; Joe (not his real name) at Growing Up Transgender; Nina, Shona and Fi for sharing their experiences of the struggle to find accessible housing; as well as the disabled millennials who spoke to me off the record and helped to inform my research. I hope that each of these pieces, in some small way, helps young people to access the support they need.

How to support your transgender child – for Patient:

“Some years ago, at a young age, our daughter Sophie* first told us they were a girl. This was quite a shock at the time, as we’d thought they were born male. It turned out we were mistaken,” says Joe*, who tweets as @DadTrans and blogs at Growing Up Transgender with his partner @FierceMum.

“Our acceptance of her identity did not happen overnight. At first we didn’t take it seriously. We tried to tell her she could be whatever type of boy she wanted to be, wear what she wanted, play with what she wanted. This was totally missing the point, and simply made her even sadder,” he adds.

“Eventually, it got to a point where we had a very depressed child, who felt rejected by her parents. We realised that we were letting her down.”

Recent years have seen a steadily growing awareness of issues around gender identity and trans people like Sophie. Sadly though, gender diverse children and young people have also become an increasingly popular topic of controversy and tabloid hand wringing – particularly around the use of hormone blockers to treat trans children.

As a parent, all that noise can just add to the worry and confusion you’re probably feeling if your child has recently told you they’re questioning their gender identity. You’ll no doubt want to support them in the best way possible, but it’s also totally normal and understandable to have questions and concerns about the impact it will have on their life.

Continue reading at Patient…

What mental health support can you expect at university? – for The Student Room:

For all the excitement and fantastic opportunities on offer, going to university can be a hugely stressful time. If you already struggle with your mental health, it’s understandable that you might be worried about how you’ll cope with student life. But don’t let that put you off.

One in four students in the UK suffer from some kind of mental health problem, and 95% of universities have seen an increased demand for counselling in the last five years. While this can mean that mental health services are overstretched, whichever uni you choose should have support available to get you through those more challenging moments.

Continue reading at The Student Room…

Access denied: the disabled millennials who can’t find adapted affordable housing – for Inside Housing:

“I’m living with my dad at 32, and he’d really like his flat back,” says Nina Grant (pictured). We’re sat in the far corner of artisan coffee shop Harris & Hoole in Southgate, north London, a short bus journey away from Mx Grant’s father’s home.

Mx Grant (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) has an effervescent personality, which shines through in everything from their expressive speech to their quirky plaid trousers and bright red Dr Martens. But the seemingly endless process of finding somewhere to live has clearly taken its toll.

“I understand that, in the economy we’re in now, being a graduate doesn’t guarantee you’re going to have a career straight off, but I think I just assumed everything would fall into place,” they say.

Mx Grant’s situation is far from unique. Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in November show that more than a quarter of 20 to 34-year-olds in the UK are still living in their parents’ home.

Housing charity Shelter has warned that, without radical action to tackle the UK’s housing shortage, the figures could pass 50% within a generation. But for Mx Grant, there’s an added layer of difficulty: being disabled.

Continue reading at Inside Housing…


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.

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.

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?

Recent writing: Periods in Yarl’s Wood, and teenage feminist activism

I’ve been a little quiet on social media this month – largely because I’ve had my head down in various commercial and personal projects that I can’t post very much about. I spent a lot of November working on a ghostwriting project for a client who’s one of the most inspiring feminists I’ve ever met. She’s a woman with real strength, courage, and such a fiercely independent spirit, and it’s an honour to play a part in telling her harrowing story.

Meanwhile, my recent journalism work has followed some similarly feminist themes. In my first article for women’s health website The Femedic, I wrote about asylum seeking women’s experiences of having their period while detained in Yarl’s Wood. As I’ve written a million times before, detention is traumatic and unnecessary as it is. For already vulnerable women, painful periods, cheap sanitary towels, and a lack of suitable pain relief can add another layer of misery each month. Many thanks to my friends and sisters at Women for Refugee Women for their support in putting this article together.

25 November was the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW) and the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. I remember as a young feminist (and still, often, as a slightly older feminist!) feeling utterly helpless in the face of such enormous global problems: domestic violence, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault, trafficking, and forced marriage. But I’ve also learned that little steps can mean a lot more than you might think. With that in mind, I wrote for Betty Collective about 16 ways that teenage feminists can get involved during the 16 days of activism – from signing petitions to fundraising, and attending Reclaim The Night marches.

This is the trauma of getting your period at Yarl’s Wood – for The Femedic:

“When you’re on your period, at the very least you want a clean environment, you want pads that are comfortable, and you want the freedom to eat what makes you feel better,” says Grace*, a 43-year-old refugee from Uganda.

Grace sought asylum in the UK after facing persecution and sexual violence in her own country because of her sexuality. She now has refugee status and the right to remain in this country, but in 2015 she was detained in the notorious Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre for seven months.

Described by the chief prisons inspector as “a place of national concern”, Yarl’s Wood is a Home Office detention centre run by private firm Serco. It houses up to 400 women, including refugees and asylum seekers, at any one time – ostensibly in order to deport them, but statistics show that three quarters of detainees, like Grace, are released back into the community to continue with their immigration cases.

Continue reading at The Femedic…

16 ways you can help end violence against women and girls – for Betty Collective:

Violence against women has never been more in the public eye, with what feels like a constant stream of allegations against everyone from Hollywood superstars to government ministers hitting the headlines. But, beyond high profile cases of sexual harassment and assault, violence against women is a much bigger, global issue, believed to affect around 1 in 3 women worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

As a teenage feminist, it’s easy to feel totally helpless in the face of such massive problems – from female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage, to rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. But remember that every big change starts with lots of tiny steps.

Each year from the 25th November (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) until 10 December (World Human Rights Day), UN Women organises 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. Here are 16 ways you can get involved…

Continue reading at Betty…

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 Dead Poets Society (yes, that’s a verb now) the hell out of my existence. So August, for the most part, has been utterly joyful – and, my god, has it raced by after seven months of time dragging its heels!

Living deep

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

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

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

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

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

Back to school…

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

*More on this next week…