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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A Letter to Anxiety

Dear Anxiety,

My toxic friend, my emotionally abusive lover, we’ve had an on-off relationship for years (mostly on… but you know there were times when you weren’t there).

You know what you do to me and how you make me feel.

The intense times, the passionate times, that is when you are most destructive. You make my head spin, my heart is in pain, my breath is short, I shake, I feel as if something terrible is going to happen, I cry, I snap. You are all-consuming.

Other times you aren’t so intense, but your damage is always there. Making me feel sick to my stomach, making me feel restless and edgy, making me upset at the slightest thing.

Sometimes we even have a threesome with depression. It’s like you two hang out together. Feeding off and into each other. Into me.

But, Anxiety, I’ve lost touch with you recently. To be honest, it’s like you just walked out on me. Where are you? Where have you gone and how long for?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want you to rush back. The last few weeks have felt so good without you.

But then… maybe I’ll start to miss you and the things you do for me. Because you are someone I go to as a knee-jerk reaction, a default setting, and in a very backwards way you are protective and safe.

But right now, I’m telling you, Anxiety, feel free to stay away as long as you like. Seriously. I love it now you’re not here.

When you come knocking at my door again, there’s no guarantee I’ll let you back in, but if I do, it won’t be for long. I might even be strong enough to kick you out.

Love,

Jo

 

This Blog is about ALL of me!

I’m writing again for the first time in weeks and it feels weird, a little scary, but I am enjoying the tap of my fingers on the keyboard because I have really missed it.

I have not felt able to write; there are things I could have shared but chose not to because I was too afraid.

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But maybe… maybe today will be the day where I feel I can. Because it will explain why sometimes I blog again and again… and other times there is a great empty chasm of weeks or months where I don’t, won’t or can’t write (I don’t actually know which verb to use here).

The thing is that back in October I made a huge change in my life which in the short term has been really difficult, but hopefully in the long term will have a lasting positive effect, allowing me to move forward and experience more joy out of life 🙂

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Back in October I began to accept that I suffer with depression and I started taking medication to help me with that.

(That just felt SO SCARY to write!)

The reason why I am finally sharing it on here is that this blog is so important to me; it’s as if writing is a part of me. By not allowing myself to write about the bad times as well as the good, it’s as if I’m pretending they don’t exist, as if I’m denying them. In doing so I am also not giving myself an outlet that may actually be helpful to myself (and potentially others too).

The blog is called Life Is Beautiful. And I believe that. But it doesn’t always seem beautiful. Sometimes it seems so hard, so exhausting, so painful.

Other times it is so joyful, so exciting, so uplifting.

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There are good times and bad times in our lives. And I need to stop avoiding writing about the harder times. They happen. But we get through them.

I’m trying not to be afraid of them.

I’m feeling better, stronger, and after this blog post I feel as if I can write about ALL of me, and not just the parts I think are nice for others to read, but write about the parts I am afraid to share. Because if you are afraid of something… perhaps what you really need to do is… take a deep breath… and do it!

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Can your heart change colour?

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The Christmas period is  coming to an end, and for me, personally, it has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster. But, during this time, I have felt so much love from my family and friends. For that I am truly grateful.

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In the last couple of years, for quite some time I had this feeling that some bad events had irrevocably changed me for the worse. I remembered the time when I used to be compassionate and willing to give much of my own time to help and listen to others. At school and university I had always been involved in voluntary work and it made me feel happy to help other people. But in the years after university, I sensed that I had gradually started to lose this compassion and, because of this, I felt that I had even lost a deep part of myself. Some difficult circumstances and my reaction to them seemed to cause a bitterness inside me, a deep unhappiness with myself and people I felt I should have been able to trust, perhaps also a latent anger.

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I realised this had happened, not from consciously articulating it, but just because I had this very strange but strong feeling, even a visualisation, that my heart, which had once felt big, had shrunk and turned black, or turned to a small black stone.

I know that might sound crazy, but that’s the image I had.

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I decided that I needed to try and change my heart back to its original size and colour. I tried to give more kindness by doing simple things, like making time to talk to others even when I thought I didn’t have time, by trying to speak in a nicer tone even when I felt stressed (although I didn’t always succeed at that!), by helping a grieving neighbour, by even letting myself not feel guilty about the fact I can’t help others as much as I used to because now I have a full-time job and I also have to make time to look after myself.

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Later in the year, I think it was just before I moved house in August 2015, I had another visualisation about my heart (perhaps it was a dream or maybe just a mental image). The image was that my torso had a zip in it, which I unzipped, reached inside the darkness for my heart which I then took out in my hands, cupping it like a baby bird. Then I put it back inside. I felt that it was gold and glowing a whiteish light.

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I don’t know why I had these mental images which seemed to really speak to me about what was going on with my feelings. After the second one, I sensed that I had started to heal the bitterness and that I was in control of how my heart looked or felt.

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I don’t know how common this kind of thing is… but if you have ever also had a strong visualisation or a mental image that has really meant something to you, don’t be afraid to share it by commenting below or messaging me. I know that to others the mental images I had might sound weird or crazy, but perhaps they were actually very intuitive and trying to tell me something I needed to know. I am just curious if others have experienced this as well, so let me know if you can.

I hope that in 2016 I can keep being kind and compassionate, because it’s a part of myself that I don’t want to feel I have lost.

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Forget about Enlightenment

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Hello readers… I feel slightly ashamed as I type this, that I haven’t written a blog post since August and the months have slowly passed by and my poor blog has been sitting here waiting for me to put words on the page.

I hadn’t forgotten about writing; in fact it was on my mind that I should write something (because writing and creating is actually an important outlet for me) but I felt as if I had no inspiration and to be honest, I still don’t feel inspired. There’s the thoughts that say You have nothing to write about and No one will be interested anyway and You don’t have time and simply, What’s the point? 

But listening to those thoughts and sitting around waiting for inspiration to come wasn’t getting me anywhere… so think of this post as me popping in to say hello and by starting to write, hopefully more inspiration to write will follow.

The kind of negative thoughts I was having about writing are not just limited to this area of my life; they seem to be a daily struggle, especially things like, You don’t have timeWhat’s the point? and a very common one, I can’t be bothered. It’s as if the thoughts are talking me out of doing the things I enjoy… and more often than not I do listen to them. But there are times when I know I have to ignore them, which isn’t always easy to do.

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This happened to me just yesterday, before I was about to go to my weekly yoga class. I absolutely love this class and I really do look forward to it. It is challenging but there is something about it that I just love and when it’s over, it’s as if I can actually feel the new suppleness of my body from the stretches. Often in the class, during the final resting pose, the teacher will offer inspirational thoughts, anecdotes or poems. At that point in the class, there is a feeling of openness, where you can almost feel each person in the room listening to her words and taking on their meaning in whatever way they personally need to.

So yesterday, at home before I left for yoga, despite looking forward to it beforehand, I had a very strong feeling not to go and to stay at home instead. I can’t be bothered and Just stay at home and You won’t enjoy it anyway made an appearance. I decided that they were talking rubbish and made myself go to the class. Of course I enjoyed it… and there was one more thing I took away from the class. This week, the final message was a poem called, “Forget about enlightenment” by John Welwood. Below are the words and I’ve also included a video if you want to hear the poem being read. Personally, the line about opening your heart to who you are right now struck a chord with me. But perhaps you will find it meaningful in another way that is personal to you. I hope you enjoy it.

Forget about enlightenment.
Sit down wherever you are
And listen to the wind singing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you would like to be,
Not the saint you are striving to become,
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.
All of you is holy.
You are already more and less
Than whatever you can know.
Breathe out,
Touch in,
Let go.

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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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

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