First Week

Last week was my first week back at work after having six months off sick with severe fatigue. I was expecting my main challenges to be physical, coping with fatigue and the inevitable brain fog. But instead the week was dominated by an emotional rollercoaster that I couldn’t seem to opt out of. Anxiety reared it’s ugly head and very much wanted to make itself at home.

There were plenty of successes. My task for the week was almost entirely catching up on emails and messages but nonetheless I was relieved I could sit at my laptop for the required amount of time and make progress. By the Friday I even did some coding. I got up at the right time, worked the agreed number of hours, had nice chats with colleagues who I hadn’t seen in months.

But the overwhelming emotion that sticks with me from the week is Anxiety. It jumped up to greet me as I walked through the doors of our new office building. It taunted me when I couldn’t get basic things like lockers to work. It infiltrated me with a kind of low level panic that was both exhausting and distracting. I was constantly overwhelmed.

I think a lot of it had to do with how much has changed in the time I’ve been off. We’ve moved to a new office where nothing is familiar to me, even the way tea and coffee works is different and there’s a new set of office etiquette to learn. I can’t get my head around where I want to sit yet alone where my friends’ teams are located. My team has changed significantly with four new colleagues joining, I’ve lost my fellow female developer in the team so now I’m the only woman in a team of nine. Then there’s all the micro changes, updates to systems, changes to ways of working, projects veering off in different directions.

And I think new anxieties have an easy time latching onto existing anxieties, of which there are many lurking in the corners of my life. From the existential fears of always being alone or the planet being irrevocably damaged, to the daily worries of health and financial concerns. Even deciding how much to put the heating on causes anxiety right now. So whilst I wasn’t expecting this level of anxiety I shouldn’t have been surprised by it.

The problem is sometimes my brain confuses things being hard with me having failed. I found on the days I wasn’t working my mood was low because I felt like I’d not handled things as well as I could have done. It’s almost like I saw the anxiety as a personal flaw that I should have been able to overcome. But the road to anything worth achieving is paved with hard days. As the saying goes it’s not the number of times you get knocked down that matters it’s the number if times you get back up.

These days are a chance to practice extending compassion to myself. To celebrate the victories and not dwell on any defeats. It’s been a long six months with several difficult years preceding it. Maybe the anxiety I was experiencing was simply there to tell me to “go gently, you’ve been through a lot”. This will be a long journey, but every step forward is progress and an achievement. One week down, bring on week number two.

Advertisement

Best Foot Forward

Change is afoot in my life this week. On Monday I’m starting to phase back into work after six months signed off sick with extreme fatigue. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I love my job and am excited to be able to see colleagues and work again. On the other hand I’m anxious that it won’t work out. I still have significant ‘brain fog’ which can make concentration difficult and we’ve yet to get to the root of my fatigue. I’m hoping and praying that the extensive blood tests I’m due to have in the next fortnight will offer some insight and solutions. In the mean time I have to do the best I can with the energy I have.

Since I went off sick my team has nearly doubled in size, with four new people to get to know. This is great news for the team as we have been short staffed for so long. But now I will be the only female in a team of nine which feels a bit intimidating. This combined with the fact I need to get used to a whole new office building makes the transition feel more overwhelming than it might ordinarily be.

When I’m anxious about something I tend to over-prepare, it helps me feel more in control. So this week I have been collecting snacks and supplies to put in my locker at work, trying to cover every possible scenario. Sometimes it is the little things that get you through the day when life is hard. And I suspect that this transition is going to be difficult for the foreseeable future.

Managing chronic illness is not for the faint hearted. It takes grit and determination to push through on days that would send most people back to bed. It takes a lot of wisdom to juggle energy levels and balance all your different needs. The calculations are complex and ever changing. You become an expert at working out how sick is too sick, at which point pushing through does too much harm. But the reality is that whilst you build up your capacity you will spend a lot of time feeling rubbish.

It’s true that life would be simpler if I kept within the carefully constructed confines of my days these last months. But the root of it all comes down to: how much am I willing to give up? I went to visit friends last weekend despite the fatigue because that is something I’m not willing to give up. Seeing them brings me much joy and enriches my life. I’ve also kept seeing my two local godchildren weekly because building my relationship with them is important to me, I don’t want to lose it. Work is another thing that I’m not willing to give up. I’ve finally found a career I enjoy, that fits my skills and strengths, there is so much still to learn and move forward with. I want to be back.

But not wanting to give something up doesn’t mean you get to keep it. Life is unpredictable even without illness thrown into the mix. I have no idea what God’s plans are for me. I don’t know what the future holds, all I can do is cautiously put my best foot forward.

With mental and physical health challenges there is the concept of the ‘impossible task’ that thing which seems straightforward to other people but has been blown out of all proportion in your mind. One of mine has been getting my hair cut. It’s combination of phoning up to make the appointment and then having to make small talk with a stranger during the cut that has felt too difficult. I haven’t had a proper hair cut since before the pandemic. My hair has been at the stage where it’s too long, easily tangled and getting in the way of everything. I hated it like this, each centimetre of growth stood as a testimony to all those months of inertia. Looking in the mirror reminded me of the influence I was letting my anxiety have on my life. But this week, finally, I had it cut. It may seem silly but the sense of achievement was massive, after two years I’d done it and it had gone well. This, combined with the preparations for work, has felt like moving forward.

So today, in spite of my fears and anxieties, I am feeling hopeful. I have found peace within the uncertainty, found anchors despite the waves. All I can do is try my best. I have a keyring I’m going to fasten to my laptop bag, it says simply “your best is always enough”. That is the message I’m going to try and hold onto this week and in the weeks to come. My best is enough.

Watching the Leaves Fall

Autumn has definitely arrived, or fall as they call it in the US. I love this season, leaves crunching under your feet, the bright reds and yellows contrasting against the grey sky, the air crisp not yet freezing. I miss the sunlight and warmth but I am quite content snuggled up with a blanket and hot water bottle. I am happy that the sleepless summer nights are replaced by the cosyness of a warm bed in a cold room.

It strikes me that it’s been autumn for me for quite some time. The last six months I have been watching the leaves fall in my own life. The decline of my health has stripped away much of what I cherish. I have been unable to work, too fatigued to visit friends, largely confined by the four walls of my house. I have witnessed each leaf spin and spiral it’s way to the ground, left wondering what will be left when the falling has finished.

Sometimes we have to suffer losses to be able to see what remains. We need to wait for the blossoms to fade and the leaves to fall before we can stop and notice the branches. Some things remain through the seasons, growing only strong with the passage of time.

I am comforted that this fall for trees is superficial and temporary. Their roots remain in tact, the tree merely dormant until spring arrives. This shedding of life does not signal death but paves the way to new birth and awakening. You don’t judge a tree by how many leaves it has lost but by how big are the branches, how long it has endured through the seasons.

The essence of who I am hasn’t changed even though some of the things I placed my identity in have shifted. I am not worth any less than during the summers of my life. Neither does this season of loss negate or prevent the seasons of growth and blossoming that may come in the future. We all will experience many seasons over the course of our lives. The beauty is found in taking a step back to see those golden threads woven through thousands of days.

Love remains, running through the core of us, whether love of family, friends or our heavenly father. My faith, whilst buffeted by these colder winds, has not fallen with the leaves. My roots go deeper than that. And hope is still there, to be grasped with both hands. Hope for the new life that may be just around the corner, hope for change, hope that there can be purpose in each of these days.

And maybe I’m start to see the first hints of new leaves. I’ve just spent the weekend with dear friends, staying away for the first time since I got sick. I was able to spend precious time with them all and can still smile thinking about how excited my goddaughter and her little brother were to see me. Love and joy still remains and is to be cherished at every opportunity.

I don’t know if my life will go back to how it was before. No amount of growth can turn back time. I think I’m growing new leaves that may look different from what I’m used to. Maybe they will be fewer, more fragile and fleeting. But I’m confident there will still be beauty there, even in the bleakest and most broken days. The seasons will change but I’ll still remain, rooted in what I know to be true, whether the branches are full or empty.

Regaining Our Humanity

I don’t normally write about politics or economics but it only takes a quick look at the news to see that much of the world seems to be burning right now. There is an overwhelming amount of suffering and heartache, so much that is wrong around us. Those who should be helping and protecting the vulnerable and those in need simply aren’t. The government we are supposed to trust has been at best making decisions that are unwise and at worst decisions that are harmful to the country and its people.

In the UK, as in many parts of the world, we are in the middle of a ‘cost of living crisis’. Food and energy prices have risen to a point where families are having to choose between heating and eating. Children are going to school hungry, the elderly sat in freezing cold houses, many facing eviction. The poor are getting poorer whilst the rich can avoid tax and continue to prosper. Rather than more direct intervention to help the poor the government has talked of ‘trickle down’ economics. This means boosting the wealth of the rich in the hope that this will lead to more economic growth as they spend more money on goods or services.

But what worries me most is the attitude the conservative government and society in general is displaying to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. For most of the last decade we have seen television and media portrayals of the poor as ‘lazy’ and ‘scroungers’. The rhetoric has been that it’s their fault they’re poor and therefore we shouldn’t have to help them. Rather than increase benefits to a realistic level or offer different kinds of financial support the government is saying the solution is for those on low incomes to work more or find better paid jobs. As though it is really that easy.

©️Joseph Rowntree Foundation

I worked as a debt counsellor for five years. My days were spent creating budgets and setting up payment plans for clients struggling with debt. I watched as benefit caps and cuts, zero hour contracts and low salaries made these budgets tighter and tighter. Sometimes the only way to make the budgets balance was to take the food nearly down to zero. At times even that wasn’t enough and your only advice could be to move somewhere cheaper or somehow increase their income. Most of the unemployed I came across were out of work for a reason, for example poor health, exorbitant childcare costs or a feeling of worthlessness that followed them to every interview. It was rarely as simple as just going out and getting a job.

The fact remains that many of those living in poverty are working and struggling to make ends meet due to a combination of low wages and high living costs. As prices rise we can expect to see an increasing number fall into poverty, dependent on food banks or building up debt. The scale of the problem is such that you can see how it’s easier for the wealthier to believe that others have brought in on themselves. But that’s simply not true.

Another issue that has shocked me this week is the appalling treatment of migrants and refugees. It’s come to light this week that a UK migrant detention centre has been keeping people illegally for far longer than they should have. Those kept there have been sleeping on floors in overcrowded conditions whilst disease spreads around them with inadequate access to medical care or even basic supplies like nappies.

But more shocking than the conditions has been the callousness of those in charge. One home office minister called it a ‘bit of cheek’ for migrants of all people to complain about conditions. The Home Secretary herself has referred to migrants as an ‘invasion’ and is committed to shipping as many as possible thousands of miles away to Rwanda.

This level of demonising and dehumanising of migrants and those in poverty should worry us all. Because isn’t this how all atrocities start? All it takes is for one group to be seen as inferior to another, less human, undeserving of compassion or care. In that climate it’s easy to condone ill treatment. The justifications will follow: “Who cares if the poor are hungry, they should get another job“. Or “If migrants wanted to be treated with respect and dignity they shouldn’t have come here illegally”. We turn a blind eye to the inherent racism and classism that these sentiments are riddled with. Everything is fine so long as we ourselves aren’t impacted.

I could go on with more and more examples of dehumanisation and injustice going on here and across the world but I’d be here forever. I do know that when you’re confronted with these heart breaking stories it’s so easy to turn away. I find myself turning off the news, closing my news app, moving onto cheerier topics of conversation. For after all what can we do?

But we can’t keep looking away, injustice will go unchecked if we don’t hold those responsible to account. It was my eldest Goddaughter this week who inspired me. She came home from school and wanted to make posters to put up around the neighbourhood telling people to help the poor as she’d heard the government wasn’t doing enough. At six she had done something which many of us struggle to do as adults: put herself in another’s shoes, felt empathy for them and then was moved to act.

The only way we can fight dehumanisation is to humanise. We have to remind ourselves of all we have in common with each other, to choose unity and compassion over division. We can imagine ourselves in the place of the refugee who’s fled violence and persecution to be locked in an overcrowded ‘prison’ in a country that should be safe. We can force ourselves to look in the faces of the cold and the hungry, to think how it would feel if it was us or someone we loved. In those moments in daily life where anger or hatred stirs we can dig for compassion instead. To hold it out to the driver who cuts us up in the road, or the rude customer in front of us, to the person who doesn’t share our politics or decisions.

Writing this I was reminded of a quote from the Lord of the Rings franchise:

“I have found that it is the small everyday deed of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

Gandalf, The Hobbit

When the problems seem insurmountable and all we want to do is look away we can choose to lean in. To look for that small thing we can do. Maybe it’s checking in with a neighbour, writing to your MP, donating to a charity or foodbank or volunteering with those helping refugees or asylum seekers. And importantly don’t forget to vote, to hold governments and councils to account, so we can make sure the most vulnerable in society are cared for.

There is far more we have in common with our fellow human than divides us. For as long as we have a voice we aren’t powerless. We’re going to have to use those voices in the days ahead.

Body Acceptance

If I were to be completely honest I was much more comfortable with my body when I was underweight and in the throws of my eating disorder. I found my body easier to live with when it was smaller. From a young age I’ve worried about being overweight and the constant affirmation of the opposite from the scales helped quieten that worry. I could channel all the messaging I’d received from media and those around me into being the ‘thin’ that seemed to be so desirable.

My deepest insecurity around my body has always been my stomach. Growing up whilst my sister was slim I had the curvy gene and I hated it. The grass was always greener on the other side. As a pre-teen I was very uncomfortable in my own skin. I can vividly remember looking through photos from the disco I had for my eleventh birthday. It was a happy day, showered in sugar and presents, the last of the church hall children’s parties before I went to secondary school. But looking at this photo all I could see was the curve of my stomach protruding out of the pink and white tie dye top I was wearing. It’s the first time I remember looking at my body with disgust.

Our society celebrates thinness. Stomachs are supposed to be flat or covered in abs. We’re supposed to slim down for summer become ‘beach body ready’. We rarely see real women’s bodies in the media without editing or photoshop. We are bombarded with messages about how we can change or disguise our bodies. Little effort is put into teaching acceptance.

I have been a healthy weight in eating disorder recovery for a couple of years now. You couldn’t tell my history to look at me. But I’ve found all the changes that come with weight restoration difficult to deal with. This has been compounded by some extra weight gain as a result of my Thyroid condition and near constant bloating from the IBS I’ve developed. As always my stomach is the pain point, it is anything but flat. I can be convinced at times that I could pass for six months pregnant. I don’t know if that’s true or body dysmorphia asserting itself but the accuracy of the thought doesn’t affect the emotion that comes behind it. Even using different words such as ‘belly’ and ‘tummy’ can make me visibly cringe.

One of the tasks I have achieved recently has been clearing out my wardrobe. This involved a rather stressful afternoon trying on clothes. I got rid of all the clothes which didn’t fit which unfortunately included all of my trousers. But I also removed those clothes which I felt uncomfortable in, those that didn’t flatter me and made me feel self-conscious. In doing this sort out I was communicating to myself that I was not going to be these sizes again. My eating disorder was furious, wanting as it usually does for me to start restricting and losing weight immediately. Dieting is for me an act of self-harm to my body, it’s my drug of choice, I can fall off the wagon as easily as an alcoholic picking up that first beer in years.

But I haven’t followed my eating disorder down that rabbit hole. Instead I took myself shopping and brought myself trousers in bigger sizes, even braving the bright florescent lights and excessive mirrors of the changing rooms. As I’ve sat with these uncomfortable feelings about the size and shape of me. I’ve realised something important. I have had enough with declaring war on my body. With fighting against it with diet and exercise to make it look ‘better’. I am done with trying to manipulate my body into a different shape or size. I’ve lost too many years to self-hatred and disordered eating. If I don’t stop, where does it end?

It feels as though someone has opened up my eyes to the sheer ludicrousness of society’s expectations on our bodies. The embedded fat phobia in our health care, institutions and within each of us. Somehow we still think that a person’s weight is entirely in their control when there are so many reasons why it isn’t. We still accept BMI as a definitive measure of health. How can someone’s weight divided by height squared tell us what’s going on inside the body? It can’t distinguish between men and women, between muscle and fat, health and disease. I am done trying to conform to these impossible standards. I opt out.

I don’t want to be someone who passes down her body image issues to the next generation like some hideous family heirloom. The last thing I want to do is perpetuate the cycle, one we must all work to break. I don’t want to put my health and future on the line in pursuit of conformity to an ideal that is unachievable to most of us. My body is not a warzone to be fought over and conquered. Food is not something I have to earn. My stomach is just my stomach, in it are organs that keep me alive, the fat surrounding it provides warmth and protection along with energy when needed.

Back in 2016 I wrote a piece for TWLOHA called ‘Learning to Love the Girl in the Mirror’. I’ve had a lot of setbacks since then but the words are still something I aspire to:

“I’ve found that learning to love myself, like learning anything, takes practice and hard work. I may have a way to go, but I’m taking a step closer every day. I am making peace with the girl in the mirror. I’m learning to love her as she is, through her successes and failures. We’ve been through a lot and somehow come out braver and stronger than anyone would have predicted. We’ve fought and won many battles together, and now it’s time to lay down the weapons and learn to live and love together.”

Self-love and body positivity may feel a long way from me right now but the first step is acceptance. To let your body be, giving it the fuel it needs, valuing all it allows you to do. Nothing good comes from being at war with yourself. I’ve learnt that the hard way.

I Don’t Know

I’ve got some decisions to make. The company I work for has generous sick pay provision, but I’m about a month away from a significant drop in pay if I continue my sick leave. This is forcing the question of when to go back and how to do it. I came out of a meeting about it with different options than I had been picturing, feeling confused and overwhelmed about the decisions ahead.

The thing that makes it hard is that I’m not feeling much better. I’m still no closer to working out what the issue is and how to treat it. I’m having to transition from viewing this as a short term problem that will be solved quickly to a long term problem that I have to learn to manage. It’s time to find out what I can do with the energy I have and hope that I can increase this over time. But this is not the decision I wanted to be making or at least the circumstances I wanted to be making it from. I want to be feeling better, back to normal, ready to face the world. But I’m not.

I am struggling this week with just not knowing what to do. These decisions feel massive and important, with both my financial security and health riding on them. There’s no one else who can guide me in these choices, I have no partner to share the load. I feel the pressure to make the right choice but there’s so much I don’t know.

I don’t know what is going on with my body. I’m still waiting for more tests, hoping for answers. But I don’t know if I will get them. It feels like I’m trying to find the missing pieces of a puzzle without knowing how many pieces I’m looking for or what the picture is supposed to be. I don’t understand what is going on which makes it hard to work out where my boundaries are, how far I can push myself, when I need to stop. I’m used to managing fatigue but the intensity of this is much worse than I’ve experienced before. I’m not in control of my own body.

I also don’t know what the future holds. I can’t predict the outcome of all the different paths I could take. I can’t see the future and never has that bothered me more. As a developer I feel like I should be able to code some kind of model to predict it or algorithm to tell me what to do. But life doesn’t work that way. All I can do is try and make the best decision I can with the information I have, knowing full well it could end up being the wrong decision when more information presents itself. There’s so much that’s unknown.

I’m also feeling increasingly like I don’t know what God is doing. This period of illness comes after two difficult years of poor mental health. I have a job I enjoy which I feel like He brought me to yet I’ve been prevented from doing it for 5 months now. By this point it’s hard to see what new lessons I’m learning from these days. I can’t help but ask: what’s the point? What’s the purpose in this? I want to hold onto my faith and keep trusting but it is becoming increasingly painful and difficult to reconcile. I just don’t know why.

On weeks like this I think all you can do is make room for the uncertainty. Sit with it a while, accept and validate the emotions it brings up. It’s okay not to have all the answers. I often find that when I take the pressure off myself, offer myself both time and patience, then I start to know what the right decision is. Wisdom can be a whisper, buried underneath all our fears and insecurities. Life is full of choices, some will be easy and others difficult, some we’ll choose well and others we may regret. After all we’re only seeing the wrong side of the tapestry, only God knows what picture is being created. And along with the many choices at my disposal are the choice to trust that God has good plans for me, the decision to have faith even when I cannot see the road ahead, the choice to keep hoping for the dawn no matter how dark the night. Whatever course my path takes I can choose these today.

‘Healthy Eating’

I pick up two of my godkids from school every Thursday. It’s something I’ve kept doing in spite of the fatigue because they bring a lot of joy into my life. It’s time that’s life giving and good for my mental health even if we just watch a movie together. One Thursday my goddaughter came out with a letter about the policy around food in the school. The first part was explaining about the school being nut free which is good to hear considering my goddaughter has a nut allergy. The second paragraph was a request for parents to make sure children have a ‘healthy packed lunch’ in particular ‘limiting the treat element of the lunch to just one item’.

This sounds innocuous enough and undoubtedly comes from a place of wanting children to be healthy and avoid childhood obesity. Having a balanced diet is important for everyone but particularly for children as they grow and develop so rapidly. But the language used raised a few alarm bells for me particularly the use of the word ‘treat’ for a food item with hight fat and sugar content.

I’ve written before about my frustration with the way we give food a moral value. How we designate food as good or bad. We can use it as either a punishment or a reward. Calling something a ‘treat’ isn’t perhaps as problematic as labelling it as bad but it designates it as something to earn, a valuable reward, something to strive for and treasure. Most of us will have experienced food being used as a bribe when we were children e.g. ‘if you’re good I’ll buy you a chocolate bar’. It’s a dialogue that is ingrained into the society we live in. But the problem is that in doing so we complicate our relationship with food. Instead of being simply fuel for our bodies, the sum of the nutrients that make it up, it becomes something linked to our behaviour. It becomes something we have to earn or something we don’t deserve. It becomes tangled up in our emotions to the point where we can use food to comfort ourselves or express our self-hatred.

My visceral response to the letter can be explained simply by the thought that came with it: this is where it begins. My goddaughter is six years old and currently seems happy in her own skin, she’s confident in her own worth, skills and abilities. But I worry it’s something she’ll grow out of along with her love for unicorns and princesses. The world she lives in has so much to say about her body and what is and isn’t healthy. She will grow up in a society saturated with diet culture and fitness fads. There are entire industries built on encouraging dissatisfaction with who she is.

Education around food and diet is vitally important. I was at secondary school as the UK government was attempting to tackle the ‘obesity crisis’. The teaching and messaging around this was a significant contributing factor to the eating disorder I developed at seventeen. I vividly remember being set homework as a nearly teenager to record a food diary. The focus was highlighting all the ‘unhealthy’ food items we were eating. I remember the deep feeling of shame I felt for every packet or crisps recorded, every cake bar or chocolate item. I was convinced I was doing everything wrong.

The problem with a lot of the healthy eating government schemes or publicity is that it’s based around restriction. Rather than balancing your diet it’s about reducing the fat and sugar you are eating, limiting these ‘bad’ food items. This led me to believe that if reducing these items was good then cutting them out altogether was even better. My eating disorder started with what I considered to be ‘healthy eating’, cutting out all these ‘treat’ items which I felt I neither needed or deserved. From there it’s a slippery slope.

©️ Change4Life

One of the problems with this restriction approach is the assumption that everyone is eating too much of something in the first place. It’s true a healthy diet involves moderation but we do have to appreciate the importance of fat, sugar and carbs in our diet. ‘Healthy’ isn’t as simple as less fat and more fruit and veg, it isn’t a one size fits all approach. Some people won’t be eating enough of these higher fat simple carbs which can have significant health repercussions. I fear that somewhere along the line ‘healthy’ has become another word for dieting. It shouldn’t surprise us that eating disorders are on the rise and affecting children at a younger and younger age.

I wish I could sit down with my younger self before it all deteriorated. I wish I could have spoken to my old dietitian back then. Rather than telling me to cut back or cut out she would have told me I needed to eat and snack more. For as long as I’ve had periods they have been irregular, I’ve assumed this was just how my body was, maybe some kind of hormone issue. It wasn’t until eating disorder recovery this time around, when I actually committed to regular snacks in between meals, that I realised I was wrong. My cycle could be regular I simply hadn’t been eating frequently enough up to that point. My body hadn’t been getting what it needed. Another reminder that weight is not the only indicator of health.

It baffles me that despite decades of trying to tackle obesity we haven’t grasped how closely tied our diet is to our emotional and mental health. After so many years of moralising food and emotional eating many people develop an unhealthy relationship with food. If we don’t tackle the cause of over or under eating we can’t expect the behaviour to permanently change. It doesn’t matter how many healthy eating adverts you put out or exercise plans you encourage. You can cover restaurant menus with calorie counts, remove ‘buy one get one free’ offers and litter the supermarket with low fat options but it won’t make meaningful change. We have to invest in mental health support, in meeting people where they’re at, in messaging that doesn’t shame those who struggle with their weight. What we’re doing right now isn’t working and may be harming those very people we want to protect. It may start with a ‘treat’ but I worry where it ends up.

Overwhelm

I’ve struggled to find the words this week. There’s much that’s swirling round my head, a shapeless blur of emotions that want to get out but are too entangled to describe. I am feeling overwhelmed. The ‘overwhelm’ switch is one I find can easily be flicked. It’s when you encounter that one thing the pushes you over the edge, that straw that breaks the camel’s back. It may be something small but it becomes not about the thing itself but about everything that has come before. All of a sudden you feel the weight of every struggle.

Your capacity changes over time, affected by things like family circumstances, pressures, grief and illness. They all come together to dictate how much we can handle before we get overwhelmed. But we all have that switch, that point where the manageable starts to feel unmanageable, when we don’t know what to do with ourselves. Mine came this week when I found out I’d have to wait at least another six weeks for the blood tests that might tell us what’s wrong with me.

I saw a consultant endocrinologist privately a month ago, there he referred me to his NHS clinic for a whole load of blood tests. I was told these would happen soon and then I’d have to wait a few months to see him again. But this week I was told that because I saw the consultant privately I have to see him again on the NHS before I can get any blood tests. So I’ve been issued an entirely pointless telephone appoint in November where we can agree that what I need is the tests he’s already told me I should have. Initially I was grateful this was only a six week wait rather than the four months that I was told is the length of the waiting list. I guess it’s easier to schedule an appointment that doesn’t serve a purpose and will probably only take a few minutes. But now I’m feeling less grateful and more like six weeks is a long time to wait. I’m so tired of waiting.

I get that there are policies and procedures for a reason. I don’t want to take anyone’s place in the queue. I get that six weeks isn’t very long in the grand scheme of things. But it comes after five months of waiting for answers. My reserves are running low along with my sick pay. I’m trying my best to stay positive and keep taking a day at a time but my resilience is wearing thin. I’m desperate for a breakthrough for something to be straight forward for once. I am tired and weary on so many different levels. This is not the life I want to live long term.

Again I find myself wrestling with a God who has the power to tear down obstacles but doesn’t. I know He could lead me out of this place but He hasn’t yet. I trust that there is a purpose, that He will redeem this situation and bring good from it, but I can’t see it yet. I know there is a plan but I don’t know the timescale or even what the outcome will be. I get why people find it easier to reconcile that there is no God rather than believing God allows suffering into our lives for whatever reason.

People tell me I’m strong but ultimately you do what you have to do. Life has no emergency escape hatch. You have to keep showing up for each new day, to dig up the courage to persevere because you have no other option. Grit can get you through when all else fails. But that doesn’t stop you wishing there was another option. It doesn’t stop you longing to be dealt different cards. This week I want different cards.

When you’re overwhelmed and on your knees is the time when you need to be most compassionate to yourself. To give yourself permission to be not okay, to validate your emotions no matter how painful and jumbled up they are. To try and remind yourself that the hard days won’t last forever. I believe that hope still exists whether you can feel it or not. Sometimes hope is a choice. A choice to keep looking for the stars in the darkness, to decide that each new day is a blank page and to trust that no season lasts forever.

Hiding From the World

It’s been a while. Honestly I struggled after my last post. There’s something about writing that helps me validate my own emotions. Generally that’s positive, but once validated they can become harder to ignore. They climb out of the boxes you’ve squashed them into and then stand waving at you until you process them. And somehow their potency can be greater the longer they’ve been in the box.

I also find that once you pull one difficult thing into the light others want to come out too. I know I need to sort out and empty these boxes, to find a better place to store these difficult emotions or experiences. But it’s too much right now, too overwhelming, too exhausting. So I wrestle the lids back onto the boxes hide them in the depths of my closet.

The past can be a powerful draw. It can suck you under and disorientate you, flooding you with pain long buried. It can be tempting to make your bed in those depths, to let yourself live there. You can stay there until the past becomes your present, until you no longer know which way is up. But no good can come of that. You have to keep feeling the ground beneath your feet and try to stay in the here and now.

But the here and now has been difficult this week. I’m still waiting for the letter from my consultant and blood test appointment. As the saying goes hope deferred makes the heart sick. All this waiting and hoping has ground me down. Mentally I’m not really sure that I’m okay. This has been going on so long now, it’s taking a toll.

I probably haven’t been helping myself lately. I’ve turned into a bit of a hermit and have barely left the house or spoken to many people in real life. Loneliness and I have become reluctant housemates. The problem is that when I’m struggling mentally I get really insecure. I start assuming that friends haven’t been in touch because they’re fed up with me. It makes it hard to reach out, to take the gamble that people may say no. Instead it’s easier to shut the doors and hide from the world.

The truth is that my life is moving at a different speed from those around me. Other people have the busyness of work, family, hobbies and social lives. Time can speed by with barely a minute to stop and think. I know when life has been busy for me it can be weeks in between thinking I should check on this person and actually doing it. It’s not that you don’t care but just that your mind is full of so many other things.

Right now my life is going uncomfortably slow. My days are largely empty or at least occupied by the mundanities of naps and stationary activities. Without energy it’s hard to keep busy and distract yourself. It can feel like you’re trapped in the house whilst the world is speeding past outside the window. I so desperately want my life back. I’m not willing to accept that this is the way life is from now on.

But there is still value in life whatever its speed. There is still purpose here this side of the window. I’m trying to keep trusting that God can still bring good from these slow days. And so I persuade my inner hermit to pick up the phone, to make plans and go out the door sometimes. Even hope deferred is still hope. One day at a time life moves forward.

Dealing With Trauma

This post comes with a very specific trigger warning, I’m writing about a the death of a friend on a trip in 2013. I know some people who read this blog were on that trip. If that’s you then please be aware this is likely to be triggering. Please use your discretion.

I’ve needed to write this post for a long time. It’s one of those where I’ve been collecting sentences on my phone for years. Why I’ve picked now to bring it all together will become clearer but to get there involves a significant journey into the past.

In 2013 a friend of mine died whilst a group of us were away together in Norway. When I tell people this they tend to sit in two camps either ‘now it makes sense why she’s messed up’ or ‘that was so long ago just let it go’. Neither is a fair reflection of the truth. My mental health challenges predate what happened but it has also left some deep scars.

The trip was for a discipleship conference that was hosted by the organisation that ran a bible study group I’d been a part of. I’d been the previous summer and fallen in love with the fjords and breathtaking mountains of Norway. As a result I’d decided to go back the next year as a graduation present to myself, some time to think before I moved hundreds of miles away for work. There was a team from the UK who were running the conference, many of them I knew well. They arrived several days before me and a couple of friends arrived, we were just attendees with limited responsibilities.

We arrived at the youth hostel after 24 hours of travelling. The next day we had a lazy day whilst the other group went out for a hike. Most of them came back in the afternoon but one friend had stayed to hike a bit further up the mountain. He hadn’t returned by dinnertime and there was no sign of him when a group went out to look for him. Search and rescue were called and they found his body around lunchtime the next day.

It was one of those moments that doesn’t feel real. It’s the kind of thing you only see on TV not in real life. It’s as though you’ve tumbled into a nightmare. The American team were due to arrive later that day and somehow we continued preparing for the conference. I don’t remember much talk about going home, it was assumed that we would all want to stay. When I spoke to my sister she offered to fly out and come get me. It was an incredibly generous offer, neither of us found solo traveling easy at that point. But I turned it down. Honestly I’m still not sure if that was the right decision. I suppose I’ll never know.

I was an empath who was grieving surrounded by people I loved who were also grieving. My emotions got very much tangled up with theirs. I barely felt entitled to my own, especially when others were coping less well than me. I was sleeping every other night from a toxic mix of grief and side effects from a new medication that I had been foolish to switch to a week or so before the trip. My mood had been reasonably stable up to that point but grief pushed me down into the depths of depression.

Over the years I’ve owned the grief of that loss. I’ve moved through all the different stages of it, found a way through the pain to acceptance. But one thing I realised in counselling last year was that I had never dealt with the trauma of it. At the time I didn’t feel like I was entitled to feel traumatised because I hadn’t developed PTSD. I know that’s nonsense. Most of us will experience trauma of some description over the course of our lives, it doesn’t have to be big things like a death or an assault but anything that our brains don’t know how to deal with and categorise. Many of us for example will have experienced trauma throughout the lockdowns and losses of the pandemic.

I think my inability to treat it as the trauma that it was had a lot to do with what happened next whilst I was there. There was a lady leading one of the international teams who I had met the previous summer. She had said that she was here for us if we needed someone to talk to. Back then I used to get a feeling that someone was a safe person and I’d lean into it even if I didn’t know them very well. This person also had a medical background which I always put too much value in.

One evening on the trip I realised that I was in a dark place. I was convinced that it should have been me who died rather than my friend, that his life had more value than mine. I was grieving, in pain and depressed and I didn’t know what to do with all that emotion. So I asked to speak to this lady just wanting to be able to talk things through with someone who wasn’t grieving themselves, a shoulder to cry on, maybe even someone to pray with me.

I don’t remember all of what was said in that conversation. But I do know that she shamed me for the way I was handling my grief. She criticised the fact that I wasn’t joining in with all the activities that were happening, there was a quiz or something in the next room that I just couldn’t face. Rather than listen and empathise she tried to do behaviour therapy on me, wanting me to challenge thoughts that I had absolutely no capacity right then to do. It implied to me that my grief was not normal or natural. The worst moment and the words that stick with me to this day were ‘maybe you’ve just got your identity in being ill’. I felt judged and that I was being told I wasn’t really mentally ill but playing up for attention, that I was bringing all this on myself.

She couldn’t have known the power that those words had to wound me. She didn’t know that I carried so much guilt with me, even from when I was small and convinced myself that I’d made up the first bout of ME I had. She didn’t know how much I berated myself for not being able to pull it together. How much I worried that the suffering I had experienced with mental illness was self inflicted and something I should have been able to solve and avoid by now. Added to that I was a ‘people pleaser’ who hated to get things wrong and here she was telling me I was grieving wrong. She meant to help but did a lot of damage the repercussions of which I still struggle with today.

It’s only now that I can feel some of the anger that I should have felt that day. I was so vulnerable in that moment, I needed comfort and compassion not criticism and judgment. I was in shock and grieving in a foreign country. I didn’t have to follow anyone else’s road map for what that looked like. Everyone grieves differently. I didn’t need to join in with the organised fun if I didn’t want to. I didn’t have to put on a brave face and act like everything was okay to make other people feel more comfortable. If I needed to cry in my room then so be it. If I couldn’t face conversations with strangers then that was my choice. I was allowed to be myself in whatever stage of coping that moment found me in.

But back then I knew none of those things. I was so desperate to prove her judgments of me wrong that I joined in with a hike the next day that was beyond my physical ability. I walked until my feet bled, kept going as the throbbing faded and they were beyond hurting, a numbness that I wished would envelop my heart. For the rest of the trip I covered my grief with a smile, tried to make the pain presentable.

I worry that I learnt a damaging lesson about managing pain after that conversation. It taught me that even after the worst nights you should be able to get up, put a smile on your face and get on with it. It undermined my faith in my own instincts, in my ability to discern what my mind and body need. Her words are there in the back of my mind now when I feel so ill with fatigue. What if it’s all in my head? Shouldn’t I be able to man up and pull myself together? Do I deserve help and support?

It’s also true that I experienced much kindness and understanding from friends and strangers on the trip, people who let me just be and walked alongside me. Even those who sent love from back home. I remember clinging to a card from a friend that was sent out with another team member. It was filled with kind words from hundreds of miles away that validated my grief. From the same friend who would find me sobbing after my graduation ceremony where an award was announced for my friend who had died. One of many people who brought light into that dark summer.

Now I try to hold out the words to myself that I wish had been spoken to me on that particular evening in Norway: it’s okay to not be okay. We all deal with grief and trauma in different ways. It takes time and looks different for different people. There’s no wrong way of grieving, whatever you feel is valid. You don’t have to paint over your pain to make it more palatable to those around you. No good comes from denying our emotions. Trauma leaves scars that may not heal. We may always need to be mindful of those places where we’ve been wounded, the moments that may trigger us. As I trace the pattern of my scars I’m reminded of all I’ve fought against and found a way to heal from. That sometimes the scars on our hearts can be cracks that let the light in.