A Celebration of Wellness

I’m currently on a train to Lincolnshire, travelling to my brother’s wedding, and instead of doing my usual train journey thing of eating followed by sleeping, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to grab a few minutes of quality writing time.

You see, there is something I have been meaning to write about, but I kept refraining from putting pen to paper (or letters to screen?) because part of me didn’t want to jinx it.

It is, essentially, a celebration.

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A celebration that I am in a good place, and I’m not going to take that for granted. Because I know that not so long ago I was in a terrible place and wondered if there would ever be a way out.

I feel so much better and, having felt stressed, angry, sad, irritable and all other shades of depressed for so long and not really known it, I now feel generally calm, happy, strong, rational, clear-headed and excited about the future, and have done for several months.

In my experience of managing mental health, I once read somewhere that it is a good idea to write down what it feels like for you when you are well. There might be a few reasons for this; one idea is to read it when you are down to reassure you that you can feel well (because when you are in the throes of mental illness it may feel like you will never feel well again). Another good reason for doing this is that you are able to identify how your body feels and what your emotional state is like when you are feeling good, and, by comparison, to recognise when you aren’t feeling so good. This kind of personal understanding of your own reactions and moods can be extremely helpful if you begin to feel ill again; you can then take steps towards wellness before it becomes worse.

So, what brought about this change in me? I feel so different, I almost feel younger (which must be a sign that I felt this hopeful and happy at a time in my past; I’m thinking of my final year at uni where everything seemed to come together and I was excited about graduating and what the future would hold).

It didn’t happen by accident, that’s for sure. It’s not like I woke up one day and was like, Oh, I feel well again! (which is kind of what happens after a few days of having the flu).

There are a few things I did, and am still doing, which have helped me to feel so good in myself:

  • I stopped taking the anti-depressants. Obviously, this may not work for everybody, but I realised that since I had been taking the pills, they had made my moods more erratic, and I had never had a feeling of being well. I had the dosage changed several times and nothing seemed to work. In the end, I decided I didn’t want them any more. I had actually felt better without them and thought that I would see how it went for me and if I needed something else, I would try that. It’s been a year now, and things have just got better and better. Obviously, if things had not improved, I would have probably tried a different type of pill. I’m not advocating coming off the drugs as a cure, I just had a personal feeling that they hadn’t helped me. I think it’s important to listen to your body in these situations. If you need them, take them; I know many people who have taken anti-depressants and it has worked for them, it just didn’t work for me.
  • I gave up caffeine. This one is so simple, but it had the most amazing affect! I started drinking decaffeinated tea and coffee instead of the usual kind, and it didn’t take long for me to notice a difference in my moods and general feeling of well-being. I’ve always been pretty sensitive to caffeine and had avoided coffee for a long time, but cutting it out completely was probably one of the best things I did to feel well again. Now, if I drink it by accident or when there’s no alternative to decaf, I instantly feel the effects on my body. To me, the effects of caffeine on my body mimic those of anxiety (fast heartbeat, feeling a little nauseous, feeling angsty) and are just unpleasant. Without it, I feel so much better, less anxious and highly-strung.
  • I had therapy. I did the NHS CBT counselling and it gave me some practical short-term strategies to manage anxiety and depression, but it didn’t go anywhere near deep enough for me. I saw a private counsellor instead. It was in central London, it was pricey, but it was an investment. I knew in the very first session that this counsellor was going to be a great help to me. I went to see her for around 9 months, every week to start with, then every two weeks when I felt better. Did I enjoy going? No. Did I always want to go to the sessions? No. But I did it because I knew it would be good for me. And it was.
  • I joined a choir. I feel like a member of Glee Club… I joined a choir which sings the cheesiest songs but it’s so much fun. Every Monday night, I go to the local Salvation Army Hall and sing classic pop tunes, such as ‘True’ by Spandau Ballet and ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ by The Beegies and Take That! It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and part of me is a little embarrassed, but the other part of me has so much fun I don’t care. I also feel part of my community and I meet other people so there are lots of good things about it. Plus the instructor makes me laugh from beginning to end. It is definitely good for my soul.
  • I stopped overreacting to little things. In hindsight, I can see how stressed and irritable I was, because little mishaps and annoyances used to upset me beyond belief. Now I often find myself laughing in the face of adversity. Sometimes I have to stop a negative or stressed thought in its tracks and consciously decide not to engage with it. It works. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s not worth the negative effect on your body and mind.
  • I stopped bringing so much work home. I realised that when it came to work, something had to give. It was a choice between my health and my job, and my health had to take priority (because, without it, I wouldn’t be able to do my job anyway). As a teacher, it is easy to take work home and the hours can stack up if you don’t notice. So I set myself some boundaries, made sure I stuck to them, and I really noticed a difference. I now feel like I have a much better work/life balance, which I once thought was absolutely impossible.

These are some of the main things I did which have helped me become a happier person in the last year or so. There are other little things which all add up, like making more time for friends, getting enough sleep, and maintaining a healthy diet.

There are so many parts of your life where changes can be made: your diet, your social life, your exercise, your work/life balance, your sleep patterns, and even if you start working on improving just one of these life areas, everything else somehow begins to fall into place too.

I am just so grateful that in the last year or so, I have made some amazingly positive changes in my life and feel so much healthier, happier and stronger. There was a time when I didn’t think this would ever be possible. I still get my moments of anger and sadness, that’s human, and they are just moments, not stretches of days or weeks like they once might have been.

I’m grateful to all my friends and family who supported me through this time, but also for my own strength and perseverance which got me through and I’m writing this partly in case I do ever feel down again; to tell myself, that yes I am strong and I can feel well and I can overcome depression and anxiety.

So, here’s to the future, and to finding strength, health and happiness.

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Jet

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It is just over a month ago that we lost our family pet, Jet, and I have been meaning ever since to write him a tribute… but I needed time enough to do him justice… as he was a very “special” kind of pet 🙂

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Jet was a complex little dog who was many things at many times… he could be cute and adorable, he could be silly and really stupid, he could also be aggressive and there were times when you had to know to leave him alone; but in the end he was our dog – we loved him and he loved us back.

We got him in April 2000 when he was 9 weeks old… and the fun started there. He was a naughty puppy – he got kicked out of puppy training and it didn’t take us long to realise that he was very anti-social as he would always try to bite other dogs, even if they were just minding their own business. He often ran away and I remember him jumping the fence on many occasions… and also remember searching the neighbourhood, knocking on doors asking if anyone had seen him.

Even though Jet could be a pain sometimes, we soon realised that a lot of his aggressive behaviours stemmed from the fact he was actually terrified of unknown things; that he got nervous around other dogs and then tried to bite them. Realising this helped me to understand why he didn’t act the same way as most other dogs.

As he got older, Jet mellowed a lot. When he was young, he was the one taking us for walks, choking himself on the lead in desperation to walk at the front. As time went on, he slowed down and didn’t mind trailing behind at the back any more. He used to have a lot of energy and run round the house in crazy loops when a member of the family came home. In the last year or so of his life, he just about managed to wag his tail for you when you came in.

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There are so many stories about Jet’s craziness that made us laugh over the years… like the time he ran across an iced-over lake to chase a bird and then fell in…

there was the first Christmas with Jet, where dad put a bird decoration on the tree, and Jet tried to eat it…

…when Jet learnt to climb the stairs for the first time, but got stuck when he realised that he didn’t know how to get back down again…

But as well as all the crazy things, Jet was a friend when we needed him most. He used to keep my sister company when she was writing essays; he kept my other sister company when she spent a year living and working at home after graduation, and, as for me, daily walks with him got me through a difficult time in my life and I feel forever grateful for that.

Jet… we loved you and we will never forget you… thanks for all the fun times

 

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When Dreams Become Objects – What do you hold on to?

As I mentioned in my last post about my trip to Amsterdam, I felt very moved, yet also inspired, by my visit to Anne Frank’s house. I hadn’t previously read Anne Frank’s diary, but bought a copy from the gift shop, which I have since read; it opened my eyes and my heart to Anne Frank’s (and her family and friends’) experiences of the war.

There was something about reading the diary that made me want to read more, and I had on my Kindle a book that I downloaded about a year ago but hadn’t yet got round to reading, Lusia’s Long Journey Home. Like Anne Frank’s diary, the story focuses on a young Jewish girl’s experience of the war, yet Lusia’s story is one of ultimate survival. Lusia and her immediate family were able to survive the war by fleeing their home in Sucha, Poland, and undertaking a nomadic journey which led them to Ukraine, Siberia, Tajikistan, back to Poland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, and finally, America.

lusia's long journey home

Lusia’s memoirs of her life as a refugee child, constantly on the move throughout the war years, revealed a part of the history of WW2 that I hadn’t come across before. Like Anne Frank’s diary, the voice of the young girl comes through; by retelling what happened to her family, people today can learn and try to understand this aspect of European history.

There was a part of the memoir that stood out to me as I read it, which seemed to symbolise the human need to hope and dream, to trust in something in order to keep going. Lusia describes her father’s dream that the family would eventually reach Palestine and how his dream rubbed off on her too; she then describes that her mother carried this dream in the shape of a seashell.

It had been sent to her in Poland in the early 1930s by her best friend who moved to Palestine. Mama held on to it throughout the long and difficult years of the war. I have it still, and to this day, we all treasure the shell. If you tap it gently against a hard surface, you will hear the sound of the ocean waves.

There was something about this that really got me thinking about the objects we hold on to in life that become loaded with meaning. To Lusia’s family, this was not an ordinary shell; it was a dream of survival for her family and people. I am not actually very sentimental about objects and tend not to load things with emotional attachment, but who knows, maybe in adverse circumstances such as Lusia’s, there may be something that I would hold on to, that would come to embody my dream.

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Although there is no object I cherish as strongly as Lusia’s family cherished the seashell, there are certain things that I have been given that always bring fond memories to mind. For example, the sequinned star a friend gave me as a parting gift, that now lies on my dressing table; the list of ‘highlights’ of my time in Bratislava that I was given to help me remember the good times over the bad; the homemade personalised badge I was given as a ‘thank you’ by some of my students in Spain.

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the handmade badge

But more than objects, it is the caring things people have done for me that I have really cherished. There have been many times when I have been pleasantly surprised by kindnesses shown to me when I didn’t expect it. I might not be sentimental about objects, but I definitely get sentimental when I think about certain times that friends and family helped me to keep going. These moments and memories are my treasures; they are what helps me to keep believing and to have faith.

Where did January go?

It’s a good job I have 11 months left to achieve my new year’s resolutions because it seems that January whizzed by before I had time to blog or start all those sewing projects. You’ll be pleased to know, however, that I have started working on my transformation into Princess Elsa and will be striding up North Mountain with my sparkly braid flowing down before the year is out 🙂

January 2015 felt too fast and a little stressful, as if I’d smashed a sand timer and was desperately trying to catch the grains, but they just kept slipping through my fingers. There was a lot going on, and some of it was wonderful, but most of the time I let work take over my life, and my happiness. This weekend I decided to put the brakes on and I feel better for it, but having left it until the first day of February to take a step back, I can’t help but feel it is a shame to have felt so stressed for a month. I mean, today, I actually put the Christmas decorations away. It shouldn’t really have taken until February to do that, but I kept telling myself that I didn’t have time. Instead, I piled them in a corner and kept trying not to look at them… but I knew they were there, and it was another job I hadn’t done, just to add to the list.

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Photo Credit: Time Slips Away – Cheesov http://cheesoz.deviantart.com/art/Time-Slips-Away-394197227

So February is here and I’ve taken control of the time that felt so elusive to me throughout January. I’ve cleaned, I’ve organised, I’ve put the Christmas things back where they should be, and I’ve decided that I need to spend more time putting myself before my job. The question is how exactly to go about doing that. I’ll have to keep you posted on how that works out for me…

Because I haven’t blogged at all about January, and because some lovely things happened amongst all the stress, I have decided to write a brief list mainly just to remind myself that it wasn’t all a blur of work, work and more work:

  • I went to stay in the Tower at Scotney Castle with my wonderful girl friends 😉
  • I turned 27 and celebrated with cocktails and danced in my pyjamas…
  • I went for a delicious Italian meal to celebrate my, my sister’s and brother’s birthday with Mum and Dad
  • I generally had a lovely time with friends and family, who made me feel so loved and cared for (birthdays tend to make me a little sentimental)

So there was a lot to cherish about January 2015, and I just hope that February goes a little slower so I can enjoy it more, feel more peaceful, and appreciate it more as it happens.

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Love Actually Is All Around!

Inspired by the Christmas season of goodwill and peace to all men (and women) and by one of the cheesiest but loveliest Christmas films, I am dedicating this post to all the loved ones, friends, and family, who have made 2014 a special and successful year for me.

love actually movieOn January 1st I wrote about my intention of this year to be a Renewed Commitment to my blog, to myself, to putting the joy back into living. I am happy to say that this approach definitely helped me to take things in the right direction. 2014 has brought some positive changes for me (big and small), such as:

  • completing my first year as a primary school teacher
  • learning new skills (such as cooking and using a sewing machine!)
  • taking a confidence course
  • changing jobs
  • my sister moving in with me
  • taking a trip alone

I am ending the year with a real sense of achievement as I know I have come a long way this year and I also know that the support from friends and family has really helped me. There are some really special people in my life (some of whom may not realise it) who are always there to keep my spirits up, to reassure me, and to give me the strength to keep going, particularly in the face of adversity.

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So, it’s like Natalie says in ‘Love Actually’ – “Because if you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you eh?” – THANK YOU to all those special people in my life. I love you and I am always grateful for your support. I know that with this year behind me, I am approaching 2015 with a stronger spirit and will hopefully achieve even more great things on my personal journey towards positivity and self-confidence.

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Connecting the Dots

“…you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

– Steve Jobs, Commencement Address, June 2005

This is one of my favourite quotations and I have a few favourites from Steve Jobs, whose life philosophy I find hugely inspirational. I chose to copy this one today because I feel as if I have had an epiphany. I feel as if I have looked back and have now connected some of the dots of my life, that the zig-zag lines of a dot-to-dot truly do reflect the ups and downs of the years gone by, and that only now are they beginning to make sense as a whole, as a bigger picture.

For a long time I have known that I have an anxious personality and that I am prone to stress. Some situations forced me to realise this, and before I realised, I had suffered with these things not actually knowing that they were the labels for the way I was feeling. I can look back on my life and can identify anxiety attacks from the age of 12, and I can identify that during A levels I lost weight due to stress, but at the time I didn’t really know what I was experiencing. Then in my second year at university I was forced to understand the meaning of stress to a debilitating level when it made me nauseous, dizzy, emotional, and lose weight. It didn’t take me long to “recover”, but three years later, when I took my first job abroad, I experienced this kind of stress again, and this time it was accompanied with visual distortions. Enough was enough. I couldn’t stick my head in the sand any longer. It was time to learn how to manage stress, how to become more confident, how to conquer my fears, etc.etc. This is when I dedicated myself to my own personal development, and when I vowed I never wanted to go through that kind of stress-related illness again.

So, aware of the triggers, and susceptibility to stress, I didn’t let it stop me doing what I wanted to do in terms of working abroad and training to be a teacher. I thought I would be able to “manage” the stress when it happened by using strategies I had learnt through self-help. And I could. I got a lot better at looking after myself and have avoided the kind of illness I had before. But it came at a cost.

I was so afraid of what might happen if I got too stressed that during my teacher training I, ironically, did not deal well with the stress. It made me defensive, it made me doubt that I could cope, it made me question if teaching was for me if I didn’t have as much stamina as the other teachers in the staff room. I was afraid of feeling anxious. I was “fearing the fear”, “being stressed about being stressed” – the ultimate vicious cycle. I feel that my fear contributed to the alienation I experienced at my last workplace; I admit that I wasn’t at my most charismatic with colleagues because I was full of self-doubt and a preoccupation with NOT GETTING TOO STRESSED for fear of what would happen to me if I did.

Until now, I had been able to join up some of the dots in my picture. I had labelled the feelings I felt, I had identified my issues, I had begun to learn how to manage them, I had also learnt that trying to manage them too much could cause further problems… so what next?

As the summer holidays draw to a close and I am about to embark on a new teaching position in a very different situation to my last work place, I have joined up some more dots. And I would not have been able to get to this point without some of my lovely friends listening to me talk about this and helping me to understand further. So I would like to extend a big thank you to all the people who have always been there when I needed to talk about “my issues”.

I have come to understand that, before, I treated anxiety and stress as if they could be cured and as if they would eventually go away, that one day I would have finally learnt to manage them successfully and, as if by magic, I would not experience them any more, and if I did, the effect would be negligible. However I now realise that this is sadly not possible. I need to let myself feel these things, but most importantly, I need to believe that if I feel stressed or anxious, I will be able to handle those feelings, I will be able to cope with those feelings as best as I possibly can.

It is not about avoiding, preventing, curing, hiding, repressing – it is about feeling, and knowing that I can deal with it. After all, I felt these things before, and I got through it. So I can do it again if it happens again.

I feel that now I can go forward with more compassion to myself and others, with more clarity, more commitment, and less resistance to the feelings I didn’t want to feel.

The past has been connected, but the future stretches ahead as a vast expanse of as-yet-unconnected dots, and I am going to step out and allow myself to wholeheartedly experience whatever comes next, trusting in my own ability to handle whatever happens as best as I possibly can.

Thank you for reading,

Love, Jo

x

Rabbit in a Hole

Hello all.

I had a feeling this week. A feeling one morning that I was having a ‘Rabbit in a hole’ day.

That means — I wished that I could hide away. I didn’t want to come out. I would have preferred not to face the world. If the world was different and I didn’t have any responsibilities, maybe I would actually have crawled back under the covers and let myself be a rabbit.

However, feelings come and go. I made myself face the world. I went to work. I got on with things. Sooner or later I had forgotten all about hiding away.

So sometimes when I think about all the pressure and responsibilities, and all the things I haven’t done yet and all the things I still have to do – before I beat myself up too much, sometimes I think “Hey, you went to work today; you faced the world…” sometimes, that alone is an achievement.