I’m Sick Of Accepting What I Cannot Change

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It’s 7am on a Sunday and really I should be asleep, but I have been wide awake for a while now; my mind whirring and busy as it has been all week. I’ve found myself wondering and questioning things a lot recently, mainly things that just don’t seem to sit well with me. Now, I’m sure I don’t have some sort of heightened awareness of things around me; I just seem to have developed some kind of acceptance fatigue! One of the things you get taught in various types of therapy is the need to accept what you cannot change. This is all well and good but what do you do if accepting everything starts to wear thin?

Peace is accepting today, releasing yesterday, and giving up the need to control tomorrow- Lori Deschene (Tiny Buddha)

A quick look on Pinterest reveals that the key to acceptance is acknowledging and letting go of ‘yesterday’, being content with the current and not trying to control the future. It’s a fairly simple recipe that would arguably lead to some higher plane of life satisfaction. The trouble is, as much as I would love to do what I can to feel all happy and zen inside… the reality is really hard. It’s a bit like the mindfulness exercise where you allow everything to float down the river, letting it go in the process. Whilst it’s fab in the moment, mindfulness doesn’t prevent all of the crap you have to keep dumping in the river!! And if you end up in there yourself, whilst it would be great to think ‘I’d just go with it, accepting that I’m coming up to the waterfall rapidly and could well be about to meet oblivion’; you’re probably more likely to be feeling a little dissatisfied that you’re in the river in the first place!

But, is there an answer? Do you continue along begrudgingly accepting whatever is thrown your way, or do you fight it? To me, both options sound a little exhausting and it feels like there are situations where both, either or neither would be most appropriate. I found a blog by Kirra Sherman that thinks about acceptance in a different way. Rather than acceptance being a route to feeling at odds with your ‘true self’, she describes true acceptance as embracing how you feel about whatever it is that you are trying to accept, instead of just trying to be at peace with it in your head. As Kirra says, some things are too big and horrible to ‘just’ accept, but realising that can be what you need to get to a place where you can begin to let go and move on from them.

Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of the thought or feeling, acknowledge it and let it go. Whilst this can be helpful, it feels like there is a stage missing where you really consider what the feeling or thought is. Mindfulness ‘tells’ us not to engage with whatever we are feeling; but when that’s too hard, embracing that we are feeling that way and for now that’s completely ok is perhaps a better course of action. In a way, you can shelve whatever is going on and come back to it when you’re feeling resilient enough to tackle it more, rather than trying to just let it go if that’s not something that feels possible right now. Being honest with yourself and facing that you’re responding in a way that’s probably grounded in your morals, experiences and the person you are, could be more empowering than trying to accept everything that’s going on around you.

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A Message of Hope In Difficult Times

Just over a week ago, the world felt like a different place. Things felt a little less sad and scary than they do today. We are in the aftermath of great tragedies both close to home, Nationally and Internationally; and surrounded by the uncertainty of an election where it feels as though many people are feeling alienated by the politicians who are meant to represent them. Looking at the world feels terrifying, there is so much hatred and suffering right now and we seem to be in the midst of so much change, that it feels really unstable and messy. People around me are hurting and struggling and it’s hard to always find the positivity and hope to get through the tricky bits to a new day. What is the use in powering through if it’s going to just feel the same? In the depths of my struggles and battles with mental illness, I have felt really hopeless at times; I’ve had times where I’ve not been able to imagine a life without my demons and it’s felt awful, to say the least. But, despite the hard times, there were always little glimpses of hope. I think Dumbledore said it best:

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In times of difficulty, it’s so important to take stock of everything around you that is good. Look out for the tiny positives, wherever you can find them because the little things can build up and grow to a much larger amount of hope and goodness. Once you start recognising the good around you, your mindset can be shifted and things can feel a little easier and more positive. When I was in inpatient treatment, we completed a task of noticing positives or negatives during the same day and reporting back to the group. We found that it was much easier for people to find negative things about their day as opposed to those who were looking for positives, however those who were trying to purposefully find something good in their day generally had a better day and noticed the little things that were good. People who were looking for negatives tended to slip into a spiral of catastrophizing everything that was happening around them and assumed their day was going to be bad anyway. Despite it just being a short and non-scientific experiment, it was impressive to see there was a difference between the two groups. Now, the effects of positivity and gratitude are

Now, the effects of positivity and gratitude are widely discussed, with examples of improvement health, happiness and wellbeing demonstrated.  Whilst looking for a little positivity or gratitude, or even trying to create a little for ourselves each day won’t fix the world around us or protect us from some of the horrible, unfair and upsetting things that life can throw our way; it can help to create the resilience and strength we need to find a way through the dark times and back into the light. These good bits of life are like the little glints of sunshine getting through, add them all up and you might find your days get a little brighter and you feel a little stronger.

We are in difficult times at the moment and it is so important to seek support from those around you or professionals if you are struggling. You deserve happiness and healthiness and you deserve whatever support you need to get to that place. Stay strong everyone.

Your Comments Aren’t Helping Anyone

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This week Joan Bakewell made a sweeping statement that anorexia was a result of society becoming more narcissistic; she later apologised for the distress caused by her ‘reported views’ and of course has been widely criticised; but I’m still left feeling quite angry and frustrated that this kind of information is still finding it’s way into the world. Of course people are entitled to their own views and opinions, but surely you have to be more careful if you’re in a position of power/influence.

Andrew Radford, chief executive of Beat explained the problem with these kind of comments perfectly:

“Eating disorders are something a lot of people have misunderstandings about and they make throw-away comments as if it’s something you choose to have. This sort of comment is not helpful.”

The problem with comments, such as those made by Baroness Bakewell, is that they have the power to reinforce the negative stereotypes that surround eating disorders, as well as other mental health problems. They suggest that these illnesses are the ‘fault’ of the individual rather, creating a bit of a blame culture that really doesn’t aid in recovery. I’ve seen mental health issues related to physical health issues in this way often enough; being told that if I had a broken leg, it would be ok to get it treated… I wouldn’t be expected to just keep running on it. In this way, the mental illness is just that, an illness that people deserve support and help to overcome or manage to live alongside.

For many years, my feelings of guilt and shame surrounding my eating problems completely paralysed me. I didn’t want people to know what was going on because I was embarrassed and felt that on some level, I wasn’t even ‘good enough’ at being unwell to deserve any support or treatment… I was still too big, too much but also never enough. Guilt and shame surrounding eating disorders is unfortunately a very common issue amongst sufferers. A driving factor of an eating disorder is secrecy… the illness doesn’t want anyone else involved, it’s easier to maintain what’s happening if that person isolates themselves and retreats from the world. And the feelings of shame, blame and guilt aren’t restricted to the sufferer alone, they can be experienced by carers, friends, family members and those around that individual. Perhaps society, rather than being solely responsible for the disorders, is in fact perpetuating the negative feelings around such illnesses. Ultimately… perhaps these unhelpful views and stereotypes can build on the idea that eating disorders should remain unseen, whereas really we should be talking about them more to help reduce the stigma and allow individuals the right environment to be able to feel empowered and seek the support they need to overcome these horrible illnesses.

Part of me feels sorry for Baroness Bakewell, whom I’m sure did not expect this reaction to what she probably thought was a fairly harmless comment. The trouble is, these types of comments represent a bigger problem within society of not tolerating others who have different struggles to those we have experienced. It can be hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you don’t have their lived experiences… but it’s not that hard to find within yourself a little bit of empathy. We’ve all had a time of our lives where we’ve had moments of hopelessness or feelings that perhaps there’s even something wrong with us. Perhaps we could draw on those feelings before we start making sweeping judgemental and unhelpful comments that really have little basis in facts.

Getting My Happiness Back- EDAW 2016

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Today is the final day of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016; a year since I reached my thirtieth week of inpatient treatment and two since I took a leave of absence due to my eating disorder. I wanted to share a bit more of my story.

I think I reached rock bottom when I was put on bed rest. I was an inpatient on an eating disorder unit in a psychiatric hospital and the doctors had decided to remove all my responsibility from me. I was locked out of my bedroom all day meaning I had to stay in communal areas where staff could see me at all times. I wasn’t allowed to move without permission from a member of staff, I couldn’t even go outside. One evening I threw a bit of a strop when a pregnant member of staff wouldn’t let me change my bedding myself. I tried to argue a heavily pregnant woman shouldn’t be doing this for me. Her response summed up my situation perfectly: she was healthy enough to be pregnant and at that point, I wasn’t.

I got sucked into my eating disorder by the illusion of control it provided me, the idea that I could fix everything and make everything right, including myself. My illness had completely isolated me and was risking my life. It’s terrifying to think back to that time, I was so caught up in it’s depths that I didn’t even believe it was a problem, let alone life threatening. I’d been living in a horrible eating disorder bubble with no real social life and horribly dark thoughts. I agreed to a six week admission to a psychiatric hospital, convinced I would be leaving at the end of that time. Eventually, I started to see that I’d be there for the long haul. It ended up being ten months.

If you ask me when I first became unwell, I’m not sure I could pinpoint it exactly. I had never made a conscious decision to have an eating disorder. It was a much more gradual process; yet there came a point where it felt like everything had snowballed and was suddenly completely out of my control. I can remember always wanting to be different; whether it be a thinner, brainier, more popular or a more successful version of me. I never quite felt good enough.

I started at University and came down with the dreaded fresher’s flu, being physically poorly seemed like the final trigger that set me off on a downward spiral. I lost a large amount of weight in my first term and struggled to eat at all, it became easy to restrict my intake and compensate when I did eat. In second year, I went to the doctors with a chest infection and he asked what was being done about my eating disorder. He’d recognised my weight loss and made an accurate guess and knew all the right questions to ask to expose my unhealthy eating habits. I completely broke down and admitted that I was in a really dark place and didn’t know how to get out of it. I was referred to Uni support services, the Community Mental Health Team and the eating disorders team.

A year and a half later everything had taken a more serious turn. My physical health was suffering; I had chronic gastro intestinal problems including gastritis from the stress I was putting my body under. I couldn’t concentrate and had no energy. I was getting the majority of my nutritional intake from disgusting Fortisip supplements, a prescription drink usually given to ill old people who can’t eat. I’d been in hospital overnight after fainting due to dehydration and worrying electrolyte levels. Electrolytes conduct electrical impulses throughout the body and an imbalance can lead to arrhythmias and heart failure. I had gone from worrying a little about my weight, to being totally encompassed mentally and physically with an eating disorder.

It was my eating disorder specialist nurse who suggested inpatient treatment. I truly believed it was an over reaction. She told me if I didn’t accept support now, it may get to a point where the choice wouldn’t be mine, or I’d get so ill I’d be admitted to general hospital. During my assessment I answered a lot of questions about my self-image, eating habits and was weighed. It was decided I should be admitted to the hospital as quickly as possible. I’d managed for such a long time to be a ‘high functioning’ eating disorder suffering. Maintaining a fairly healthy weight at periods and not looking like a stereotypical anorexic. In a way, managing had meant my illness had become very ingrained and I was really in denial about it’s severity. I didn’t think I would be accepted into inpatient treatment.

Thanks to movies like Girl Interrupted, I was expecting a scary asylum full of scary people. The reality was a lot more normal. I received a lot of support, a regular program of meals and group treatment, therapy and a graded approach to returning to the real world. On arrival my bags were searched to remove anything I might use to hurt myself, it seemed unnecessary but made the reality of my situation really sink in.

At first I wasn’t even allowed to go outside without a staff member to escort me. All the control was taken away. I spent a lot of time in the dining room. Everyone had to wait until everyone else finished eating. Then it was time for post-meal support. Sometimes we’d spend hours in the dining room. It was a place of tears and tantrums but also amazing support from the other girls.

I went through the program with staff members initially reminding me when to have a drink, go for meals, portioning out my food and supporting me to eat it. It was a nurturing environment but completely different to anything I had ever experienced. I was very emotional and overwhelmed in the early days of being in hospital, perhaps feeling the emotions I had shut out for so long with my eating disorder. Gradually I worked my way through the program and gained back responsibility, starting with self-portioning and self-catering before being allowed out of the hospital to practice the skills I’d learned in a more realistic setting. Returning to the real world was really challenging. It started with an hour coffee trip once a week. During the first one I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and how fast everything was going.

My eating disorder had a huge impact on my time at university. I stopped socialising and I really struggled to leave the house to attend lectures or go out. My grades slipped and I had to have frequent extensions until I there was no choice but to take a leave of absence. I am so thankful to have had such a supportive group of friends who stuck by me when I was struggling. I also have the most amazing supervisor, community and uni support team who have helped me regain my health and return to uni. I spent about six months back with my family after leaving hospital. Eventually, I moved back to my university town and returned to my course about a month later. I’m now getting to the end of my degree… with my last few taught sessions; a year after my 30th week in hospital and two since I had taken my leave of absence.

It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. I’m by no means recovered but feel I’m going in the right direction. I have my good days and bad days, but I always try to remember that my worst days in recovery are always better than the best days in relapse. There has been so much about being back on campus that, at times, made me want to be back in that dark place. I’m back in the place I felt the most unwell, which in itself can feel like a trigger. The key has been to keep talking about what’s going on for me and use the skills I learnt in hospital to try and make sure I don’t slip back to old coping methods. My experience has enabled me to become a much stronger person despite my struggles, which I am grateful for.

Eating disorders are such horrible illnesses that can affect so many different types of people. You can’t always tell if someone has an eating disorder… in fact weight is just one symptom but isn’t a measure of what’s happening inside someone’s head. If you are worried about your eating or about a friend, then please do seek support and help. You deserve to recover and recovery is so worth it.

Originally written for Campus Society, you can check out Kate’s Huffington Post Blog too!

Bloggers’ Lounge Finalist

I feel so privileged to have been shortlisted as a finalist for the Bloggers’ Lounge annual blog awards for their charity and social category.

I started blogging about my experiences and random waffly ideas to try and help others. After a while, writing became something therapeutic for me too; something that helped with my own journey.

It was such a surprise to be shortlisted let alone make it to the finals!

If you have a moment, I would really appreciate it if you could vote for me using this link. It only takes a moment and it would mean the world to me! If the link doesn’t work, please try and get to it via mobile connection (it was a little glitchy for me at first!)

Please Excuse Me While I Overshare

IMG_4212I’m probably guilty of oversharing; I’m a private person but when it comes to my mental health, I’m quite comfortable being open about my struggles. It’s an interesting balance. Will people be interested? Am I on the right track? Is this too much? It’s a conversation I’ve had on multiple occasions; perhaps my desire to share my story goes back to a time when I struggled to let anyone in, I became wrapped up with my illness and ultimately stayed unwell on my own. It was hard to open up to the people I care about. I was scared to let them down, to admit I was struggling and to allow them into the depths of what was going on in my head.

There wasn’t always a right time or a right way to talk about my mental health. Perhaps there is always a right time, but perhaps there isn’t. Sometimes the opportunity doesn’t arise or you have to make that chance to speak. Being a human can be tricky, there’s no manual that lets you know how to deal with different situations and sometimes it would be really lovely if there was something to refer back to when times are hard.

I developed maladaptive coping strategies over the years and thankfully had the chance to receive the support and help I needed at a time I was able to engage with it and I now consider myself to be firmly on the road to recovery. It’s strange when you start to do things and quickly they can become a habit, recovery has been a little like that… finding ways to develop the healthy and happy habits that turn problems into more manageable solutions.

I hate labels with an almighty burning passion. I think they can be something that frees you and offers you comfort but can equally burden you and make you feel more stuck. I struggled for a long while to accept that I had problems with my eating, denying the severity of my illness for a very long time. It’s interesting that when you have a difficulty with food, the thing that often becomes key to whether you are eligible to receive support and treatment is your BMI. Now, if I ruled the world, BMI could go and die in a hole. BMI is like underwear, it’s important but it’s not something that needs to be on show and focused on all the time… and I certainly don’t need other people flashing theirs in my face. BMI is tricky… it’s one measure but not the whole picture. It doesn’t take into account muscle mass, hydration, whether you’ve peed or not… and above all it doesn’t measure anything that’s happening in your head. They key to eating disorders often isn’t the food, it’s a symptom but there’s underlying problems that are the real problem deep down. It makes me cross that we currently have a system that just doesn’t seem to work, people are too ill or not ill enough and often it’s near impossible to receive the treatment you need when you actually need it. I think treatment should start early and work to help people before they ready the point of being too unwell to engage… I suppose that’s an argument for another time though.

So… I went from worrying a little about my weight, to being totally encompassed mentally and physically with an eating disorder. One of the ways I’ve tried to describe it to friends, family and professionals before is like that kind of conscience feeling when you leave the house and you know you’ve forgotten something; that feeling deep in your stomach that something is amiss but you can’t quite put your finger on what it might be. Well imagine that but the only way you can get rid of it is to place all of your self worth on what you’re going to eat or not going to eat, what you weigh or should weigh or did weigh or will weigh… then imagine that feeling being the background of everything. That’s what it’s been like for me with an eating disorder, part of my treatment has been to look at using mindfulness to notice my ED but let those thoughts go without needing to engage with them.

I hope you can excuse me while I overshare, I do it to try and help others and share my experiences to try and break down the stigma around mental health problems. I hope that if we try to move towards a society where it’s ok to talk about mental health, then a few more people might be able to get the help and support they need. I also share my experiences to help myself with my own recovery. I will not let my eating disorder beat me and persuade me back to a place where I keep my struggles from others to remain on the side of my illness.

Life Doesn’t Come With A Manual

Coming back to Uni after taking a leave of absence has been strange. It’s felt like there’s a lot to do, catch up on and keep up with; yet at the same time it’s felt oddly manageable at points which has of course led me to wonder what I’m doing wrong!! It’s been a weird muddly act of balancing, evaluating, reassessing and tweaking… But if I give myself a break and a little credit, I think I’ve been doing alright! It’s made me think a lot though, wouldn’t it be easier if we had a manual for all of this!!

Starting Uni and struggling with mental health problems was difficult. The longer I tried to get through, the more difficult it got. But even when things were almost as bad as they could get, there was no hard and fast rule about what to do. No one could tell me that I needed to not be at Uni, or that I needed to take time out. The decision had to be mine, of course people could advise but they couldn’t do the deciding for me. Looking back now, I do think perhaps things could have been easier had I decided to stop and focus on my health sooner, but then perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to engage at treatment and make the most of that time, had I not taken my Leave Of Absence when I did. Hindsight is, of course, a most wonderful thing! There’s no real way I could predict or work out what could or would have been, having a level of acceptance is definitely helpful! I guess I can just try to use my experiences to help me to possibly finally get my degree finished, by noticing my warning signs or when things are starting to get difficult… To help stop any deterioration in its tracks!

It’s ironic really, that after resisting taking a break from Uni for so long; it actually turned out to be the best thing I could have possibly done and ultimately a vital step in my recovery journey. I was really scared that taking time out would take away the drive I had to stay well; I feared that without that reason to keep going and would just have my eating disorder to fall back on. I was convinced I needed to have uni to give me a kind of raison d’être. It was really challenging to come away from my degree, especially as due to a year out, changing my course and then taking a LOA meant I had seen three cohorts of my peers graduating. I felt like I was being left behind, failing impressively! But the reality was that by enabling me to come back after taking some time to really focus on my needs, I am now in a place to actually give my degree the focus I need to! I hadn’t realised how poor my focus, concentration etc. was… coming back in a much healthier state has really reinforced it was the right decision to make.

If you’re thinking about taking a leave of absence, make sure you get a few different opinions, work out the reality of what it will mean (i.e. will you have to restart any modules) and try and hold on to the fact that often taking time out can be the strongest decision, rather than any sign of failure.