Fighting thin: weight and the mental health crisis

The summer my Dad died, my Mum booked for my boyfriend and I to go on a lovely holiday. Obviously, holidays don’t make up for the untimely loss of a parent—but let’s face it, we’d all rather grieve on a sun lounger.

It was the summer between my third and fourth year of studying; I had a good eight weeks to ‘get ready’ for the trip, so like a million women before me, I decided to take up a fitness regime. I’d like to say I exercised repeatedly that summer to offset my grief with endorphins, but that would be rewriting history. Mainly, I wanted to look good in a bikini.

My Dad had just died, but what I really wanted was to look thin in a swimsuit. I did not feel I was allowed to go on holiday with a plump stomach and rounded knees.

But I digress. I probably lost half a stone that summer, and looked pretty good for it. I wasn’t actually medically overweight to begin with, I should add. But when I headed off to start my Masters that September, I was fit and tanned, despite my grief. Having always struggled with my weight and body image, I felt pretty damn pleased—I’d been trying to lose my ‘freshman fifteen’ (read: thirty) for the last few years, without much success. On top of everything else, at least I didn’t have to worry about my weight.

Fast-forward a year of grief-driven terrible decisions. I was (somehow) starting a PhD, living on my own in a flat in Nottingham. That September, I got tonsillitis and lost my appetite. What happened next was peculiar: it simply didn’t didn’t come back. As physical and mental illness collided, I completely lost the ability to eat.

Speaking as somebody who once melted a crumbly Cornish cheddar onto an M&S cornflake bite (no, really) I can categorically say this was something I had never experienced before. When I forced myself to eat, it came back up within the hour: I once threw up a mouthful of scrambled eggs, back onto the plate, in the middle of a restaurant.

At the time, this was the least of my problems; my daily panic attacks and 3-hour bedtime crying jags were a bigger source of concern. I was getting thinner, but it was hardly the number one issue on my agenda. But then a few pounds turned into a stone. Bones emerged from cavities I’d never seen before. It was an interesting turn of events. But it wasn’t a choice.

For the first time, skinny was not a battle I was half-heartedly waging—it was a thing I couldn’t stop.

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Hadn’t kept a meal down in two weeks, but was buying size six skirts, so smiles all around.

Friends tell me now I was too thin. I never felt that way, but there are a few photos fromthe time where I can see it, although I cannot reconcile those jutting elbows and scrawny neck with my own sense of self. I only remember the persistent cellulite of my thighs, the soft white rolls of my admittedly shrinking stomach. I was buying smaller sizes, of course; I went from a 12 to a 6. But the truly disturbing part is how it made me feel.

I revelled in it. I might have been suicidal, but at least I was skinny.

There’s a casual, dark glamour in whittling yourself away to the bone. Here’s the worst bit: did you know strangers are nicer to you when you’re thin? Isn’t that sick? The world is kinder to women who take up less space. As much as I was suffering, I felt rewarded for unintentionally stripping my body back to bone and sinew.

My feelings were not unusual. I have friends who have lost weight after anxiety stopped them from eating, and they have quietly admitted how good it can feel. How the rest of the world unwittingly praised them. I know too many women, and some men, who think their value in this world increases as they diminish their physical selves.

I also have friends—intelligent, kind, wonderful people—who have starved themselves, flayed themselves, binged and purged and exhausted themselves. All in the pursuit of Skinny and the strange rewards it brings. And this is endemic: our attitudes towards our bodies and the food that fuels them are broken. There are now many millions of us who on some level believe we are worth more when we take up less space.

It’s just… exhausting. Before my illness, I was on a lifelong semi-diet. What a depressing sentence (I LOVE food). 1200 calories a day, aged 16, to fit into a prom dress (which, in hindsight, made me look like a wedding cake-topper). Zumba five times a week to go on holiday with a man who already wanted to have sex with me when I was fifteen pounds heavier.

Years of my energy wasted on striving to be thin. All those opportunities to eat pastries, wasted. I never saw my body as a thing that carries around my brain, and deserved to be nourished. I saw it only as a thing I had to make smaller.

I only truly began to understand all of this when, having turned the corner of my mental health crisis, I decided—for the first time in my life—to try and put a few pounds back on.

Only when weight gain became a sign of my recovery did I begin to forgive myself for the crime of taking up space.

Excuse my language, but this is fucked. No wonder we’re a society undergoing a mental health crisis. It’s a marvel more of us aren’t completely batshit—we can’t even go on a nice holiday without torturing ourselves for a month beforehand about the state of our thighs. Worst yet, we treat fat like a crime—like a personal failing. We literally ascribe morality to food. PS., ‘naughty’ is bunking off work for a netflix binge, not scranning a chocolate brownie at your desk.

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A little bit chubby? Yes. JUST CLIMBED AN ACTUAL MOUNTAIN? Also yes.

It’s exhausting, this notion of fatness as failing. I’ve been overweight, yes, but I was still able to hike Machu Picchu, and be a First class student, and quote all of the really bad funny lines from Star Wars. But when I think how differently people treated me, I shudder. I shudder too, when I think how quick my own mind is to judge and dismiss fat bodies. We turn our eyes away from them, don’t we? The more space a person takes up the more eager we are to slide our gaze past them.

My own body is now nothing of note; a size 10-12, a little wobbly in places, a little muscular in others. Work-out endorphins are incredibly important for my mental health, so I endeavour to do that. But I am also constantly reminding myself that my weight is the least important thing about me. I let myself enjoy the food I love, and try not to critique this shell of mine too harshly. My wonderful, strong body, that has survived all I’ve put it through. I exercise now to keep my demons at bay, not my thighs.

Of course, I’m still battling with this revolutionary idea. Sometimes I cry when I feel a little fatter. I don’t think it will ever really go away; that feeling of my body being unworthy when it gets a little bigger. But I try to remind myself every day that my worth is made up of a thousand things that aren’t my weight: I am smart and well-loved and kind. I stand up for people who need it and I can dance on stilts, and do obstacle courses, and raise a laugh in the office a few times a day.

It doesn’t always work, but it’s the world I want to live in—and I have to start building that world with my own actions and words. Yes, look after yourself. But please know: you are not worth more just because you have made yourself smaller. You are allowed to enjoy the simple pleasures of toast and chocolate and blue cheese and red wine. It might feel like you shouldn’t, like you aren’t allowed to take up space—but I promise you, you are.

You are, you are, you are.

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The day I find this level of body confidence again is the day all my demons are laid to rest.

When Christmas sends you crackers: mental health in the festive season

As a merry voice on the radio is currently reminding me at least once an hour, it’s the most wonderful time of the year—but as anybody with mental health problems knows, the month of December can be anything but.

I used to love Christmas. But after losing my Dad and experiencing severe anxiety and depression several years ago, the season hasn’t just lost it’s magic… it often makes me feel actively worse.

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I also apparently used to look like Michael McIntyre, but that’s not the point.

As the excitement ramps up, so do the mental health triggers. If you have issues with food and body image, the endless parade of festive feasting is a nightmare. If money is a big source of your anxiety, the pressure is ramped up even more. If you’re suffering because you’ve lost someone you love in the last year, the whole thing feels almost offensively pointless—no present in the world can plug that gap.

And all of this is sharpened by the expectations of happiness. The general environment doesn’t help; long, dark days and terrible weather are a killer if your mental health is fragile—and this is made all the worse if you feel like everyone around you is having fun, fun, fun. It’s sad to say, but Christmas can be a truly lonely and difficult time.

Just to really push you over the edge, there are emotional booby traps everywhere. Christmas TV adverts destroy me: I can’t even talk about the BBC father-daughter animation without welling up. As I found to my embarrassment at work. Oops.

Unfortunately, short of hibernating, it’s hard to avoid the whole shebang. It’s been three years since I lost my Dad and simultaneously lost my shit—here’s what I’ve learnt about dealing with Christmas along the way.

Treat yourself first – the rest can follow

treat yoself

It’s a time of giving, but remember you can’t pour from an empty cup. Take time out from the madness for self-care, quiet reflection, a hot drink on a busy day of shopping—whatever you need. A bonus tip: if Christmas is hard because you’re grieving, make the most of an awful situation and splash the cash you would have spent on them, on something nice for yourself. (Shallow? Yes. Do I care? No.)

People not presents

In a completely contradictory bit of advice: focus on people not presents. Make the time for your loved ones; it seems like effort sometimes, but you’ll feel better after. And don’t be afraid to open up. When everyone’s caught up in the Christmas hype, I often worry I’m being a party pooper. But really, there’s a lot of good people out there—and once you start admitting that you’re struggling, you’ll be amazed how many people fess up to their own private struggles. If you can’t believe in the magic of Christmas, believe in the magic capacity of people to give you the support and love you deserve. You might just be surprised.

Sack it off

Remember you aren’t obliged to engage in the whole shebang. It doesn’t make you a Scrooge or a bad person. Let’s be real: the whole thing’s a horrendous capitalist ploy. If Christmas makes you feel awful, bin it off wherever you can. In the words of a wise and sassy colleague, ‘TURN OFF THE MUSIC AND THROW AWAY THE JUMPER!’

Change it up

christmas in australia

And finally, if you can’t avoid it, and you can’t make it better… make it different. Do whatever version of Christmas you think will bring you the most peace, whether that’s sacking off the work Christmas party or refusing to stress yourself out with Christmas dinner, a la Caitlin Moran. The best Christmas I’ve ever spent, mental-health wise, was pissed up in a swimming pool in northern Australia. It was so different, I didn’t have time to dwell on my sadness. There were no presents, social pressures, or expectations—and the only mass consumerism was a mass consumerism of tinnies. Win.

So there you have it—a rushed post this week (I’ve been away and am now dying of a cold so struggling with my to-do list) but hopefully one which resonates with at least a few people. I’d love to hear how you all cope with the difficulties of the festive period—let me know in the comments, and good luck with the rest of the month!

Nic x

Diary Extract: I might be okay, January 2015

DIARY: SRI LANKA, JANUARY 2015

Blowing your life to pieces can be done very quickly. Putting it back together is a slow process, with many steps. At first I can just about wake up, swallow tablets, get through the day. Go through the motions. Once a fortnight, I thrash out my thoughts in a counsellor’s office, sipping water between bouts of sobbing. I numb myself in the company of friends, mindless TV, long train journeys.

I’m like a ghost, drifting around my own home. But when I dare to leave, it’s the world that feels unreal, so I scuttle back to safety. I ache to be held and babied. Actually, I ache to give up all together. I would, too, but I have something to try for: a holiday with my mum. Counselling, tablets, endless love and cuddles have failed her: sunshine and a change of scenery are her next gambit.

This trip is a huge source of concern. I can barely leave my own flat, let alone go to Asia. But—because I feel I owe it to her—I decide I must seriously try.

I start with the mechanics. For two months, food has sat like cotton wool on my tongue. The bones in my spine are visible. Eat anything you like, the counsellor advises: don’t worry about it. So I don’t. For a fortnight, I eat nothing but toast and butter, iced buns dunked in Earl Grey, and French Onion soup. I seem to have bypassed hunger, and even thirst, but after a while my stomach remembers what it is to enjoy food.

Eventually, when my limbs start to feel like they belong to me, I force myself out into the crisp December mornings and walk-shuffle-drag myself along the roads. I am impressively unfit. My thighs are lead and I shake with exertion.

But each step lightens the weight in my chest. Even on Christmas—especially on Christmas, the worst of days for the grief-stricken—I throw on trainers and an offensively blue windcheater. For the first time in two years, things get a little better—or at least, they stop getting considerably worse.

A part of me is nervous to declare rock-bottom. Rock-bottom has, at current count, been reached on at least five occasions, only for me to stumble to impressively new lows. But maybe the last few months really have been it. Maybe lying in bed, debating a hot bath and a sharp knife, is as bad as it can get.

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Christmas passes, and the small, almost imperceptible improvements continue. By the time the trip rolls around, I am hopeful. It’s New Years Day, for one thing, which feels auspicious. Tabula rasa. On the plane, I worry myself gently about being far from home, losing my tablets, not enjoying this expensive trip and pissing my mum off. I mean, wanting to top yourself on safari seems really fucking ungrateful. I can’t talk to my counsellor about it all, so I settle for a large complimentary baileys, and in-flight entertainment.

As it happens, there’s no need for fear. Some places are irrevocably good for the soul, and this is one of them. It turns out going far away is exactly what I need. Days pass in a splendid blur of heat and mountains, foreign voices, spices, animals, magnificent sunrises. I hold strong. I have patched myself back together slowly, delicately, and in the warmth of the Sri Lankan sun my pieces begin to set, like a glazed clay pot baking in a kiln.

I enjoy the food, the people, the stark reminder that my grief and my illness is just a small thread in a global tapestry. It’s been months, perhaps even years, since I’ve felt anything like this pure and uncomplicated happiness. As the trip ends, I even begin to toy with the idea that I might be okay.

mental health sri lanak 4We’re on a morning safari. The sun’s on my face in an open-top jeep. A snuffling boar darts across the road. Elephants—disinterested, ancient-looking—linger by the road side. A sole leopard pads across an outcrop of rock to survey her Kingdom.

And there are a thousand flowers, spiders web, hollowed out trees. Casts of dappled sunlight on the rust-coloured track, and puddles that gleam like mirrors. Alone in the back of the car, above the roar of the jeep, I say the words out loud, as if to test them out: I am okay. I’m going to be okay. This life—this life, that can have such beauty in it—is one I want to live.

Hello, lovely readers! I’m taking a break next week as I’ll be on holiday with my Mum. This got me thinking about the last holiday we took together (January 2015). The above is a real extract from my diary/writing at the time, when I began writing about my mental health to try and piece together how I could recover. My Mum, in her infinite kindness and wisdom, was a huge part of my recovery, and now – as we head up for another trip together – I wanted to share something to let her know just what Sri Lanka meant to me. 

Barring the odd grammar fix, this is pretty much exactly 
what I wrote at the time (January, 2015). Leading up to Sri Lanka, I was at my lowest ebb. Now, two years on, I’m the happiest I’ve been in years and have my mental health well managed. It’s quite shocking to revisit this and realise how much has changed—and I hope someone, somewhere finds some hope in that. I’ll be sharing some more diary extracts in the future, so stay tuned.

Love Nic x

mental health travel

 

Cutting the crap: positive talk for your mental health

It’s been a busy few days, so I’ll keep it short and salty. This week I want to talk about something I think is essential for good mental health: cutting the crap when it comes to self-talk.

What is self-talk? Any words you say about yourself, essentially. I’ve really noticed recently how frequently people run themselves down. In the workplace, amongst friends—I constantly see people talking negatively about themselves. There’s a sliding scale of this, from rejecting compliments to actively slating themselves.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m British, I know it’s Not The Done Thing to big yourself up. But there’s a difference between comical self-deprecation and constant critique. It’s time we reassessed, for two key reasons:

  1. It’s damaging to your mental health. You know how it’s hard to rub your belly and pat your head simultaneously? It’s also tricky to have a genuinely positive mind-set when you’re constantly spewing negativity about yourself.
  2. It’s fundamentally unfair to other people. The example I see most often is fatness; I regularly witness women (myself included, though I try not to, now) talk constantly about their loathing for their bodies. How fat they are, how grotesque. I have real sympathy for this; I know how paralysing body dysmorphia is. But if you talk constantly about how fat you are, I can almost promise you you’re upsetting someone else. I see size eight women calling themselves disgusting, in front of women who are double their size. And what does that reassert? I’m not good enough, and you aren’t either.

Of course it’s not intentional. Again, I am compassionate, but increasingly, I’m incredulous. You’re not just tearing yourself down—you’re tearing down the people around you.

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Believe me, I know how it feels to have poor self image. But (revolutionary thought, I know) if you have poor self image… you don’t always have to have it. And you sure as hell don’t have to reinforce it in your own mind by talking about it every twenty minutes.

So, rant over—and on to the positive. What steps can we take to cut the negative crap and talk about ourselves more kindly?

  1. First, learn to accept compliments instead of rebuffing them. This week, I overheard my yoga teacher compliment somebody’s hair. This girl was rocking a straight Pocahontas do, alongside some pretty flawless downward dogs. No word of a lie, she replied by saying ‘oh no, it’s awful, I need to get it cut!’ Can’t we just… accept it, when someone says something nice? Is it that hard?
  2. Next, train yourself to cut the crap. Every time you go to speak negatively about yourself, force yourself to stop, crumple up the words and throw them in your mind-bin. Self-love and good mental health are more likely to come when you stop spouting a never-ending ream of shit about yourself.
  3. Finally (and I appreciate the difficulty of this for all of my fellow Brits)… learn to compliment yourself. Own your brilliance. Last week at work, we were shooting the shit on a Friday afternoon, asking each other deep life questions. ‘What’s your favourite thing about yourself?’ I asked. The appalled silence that followed, and the hesitancy of the answers that followed, speaks volumes about how incapable we are of owning even one really good thing about ourselves. And this is sad, because this was a group of women that I think are truly fantastic humans.

None of this is easy, but it is important. But people will think I’m arrogant! Yes, they might. But do you actually want to be friends with people who think you’re arrogant because you don’t talk shit about yourself constantly?

For your happiness’ sake, I hope not.

Love Nic x

*Note: this doesn’t mean I think nobody should talk about feeling crappy. When my mental health was at its lowest, I needed to talk often and at length about a lot of negative stuff. Your feelings are valid. But there’s a difference between discussing your feelings and slating yourself relentlessly. A good litmus test is this: if you say something negative about yourself, imagine how you would feel if you overheard somebody say that about your mum. ‘My mum is having a really tough mental health day and feels awful about herself’: fine. ‘My mum is a fat, useless waste of space’: not so good.

Keep on movin’: exercise for anxiety

The year is 1999. Companies around the globe are plagued by fear of the millennium bug. The Phantom Menace has just been released, subjecting eager cinema-goers to whatever the hell ‘Jar Jar Binks’ is meant to be. The world’s population has exceeded 6 billion for the first time.

5ive_-_Invincible.jpegBut amidst all the carnage, ‘Five’, a dedicated quintet of hip-popping young vocalists have just released the track which not only became the 16th biggest selling boy band single of all time, but also the best piece of advice I can give anyone suffering with moderate anxiety: Keep on movin’.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it took me a disturbingly long time to truly cotton on to the link between moving my body and caring for my mind.

Some background on me: I am a cheerfully lazy sort by nature. A big fan of cheese, and wine, and getting public transport everywhere over a ten minute walk away. I never enjoyed sport or exercise as a teenager. If anything, I regarded it as a punishment—a thing I had to do to make myself skinnier (but that’s another post altogether).

Until, that was, my anxiety led to my mental health hitting rock bottom. I had lost a lot of weight, and no longer felt motivated to exercise to fit into a smaller size. For the first time, in desperation, I flirted with the idea that exercise might just be good for my mental health.

Now, I had the approximate strength of a kitten and the endurance of a nervous 17 year old boy. But when I finally got out the door, to jog-shuffle-splutter my way around the block, it helped to clear some of the anxious fog in my mind.

I didn’t go in hard on the fitness. I did drop out of my PhD and get a physically demanding job, so I was sort of fit without thinking about it—and also taking a shedload of sertraline, so it was difficult to pinpoint the blame. I then went on a seven-month adventure around the world where I walked so many miles every day I could barely stretch my legs out—so again, I was fit without really thinking about it.

It was only when I came home from travelling and got a desk job that I started to feel really quite anxious again. And I’d been healthy for a while, so I put this down to the stress of trying to start an adult career. It all came together surprisingly quickly, actually; I got a good job that I enjoyed, made friends, found a flat. But I still felt anxious, and couldn’t identify why. Maybe this is just who you are, a voice said. Maybe you’ll always be this way.

Even then, I didn’t quite click. I started exercising purely because, in a fit of insanity, I signed up to do Tough Mudder with work. Having not been to a gym in over a year, I was very sceptical about how this would go down.

It was bloody hard. I couldn’t walk for three days after my first session, having gone in slightly too enthusiastically.

22292073_10155124123726553_470448784_nSo. I walked until I could jog. Jogged until I could run. Then I wanted to build my strength, so I started lifting. Lifted until I could lift more. Lifted until I could haul somebody else’s body over a 10 foot wall during a muddy obstacle course. And then I flew for a week on the giddy adrenaline of what my body could do.

And throughout this time… not one bad mental health day. It was like a magic pill. I remember thinking, could this really be it? Is exercise the way to keep my anxiety at bay?

Turns out, the answer is yes. One of my biggest mental health problems has been that my anxiety leads to a strong sense of ‘detachment’: I struggle to feel emotions, and have a disconcerting sense that I’m a visitor in my own body. My mind, body, and reality are all disconnected.

Exercise aligns the three: it’s almost like focusing a camera. When I’m ill, my mind is foggy. Exercise endorphins sharpen my worldview, and help me get my body and my mind in tune.

I’m finding the only way to keep at it (I have fallen off the fitness wagon more times than I care to admit) is to treat exercise like you would a counselling session, or even taking your medication. Exercise is an input, and the output is better mental health.

As I said, I’ve never been an exercise fan. Full disclosure, I still don’t love it now, but I love how it makes me feel less batshit. So I’m sucking it up and trying to make it fun. There are many ways to move your body in a joyful way, not slaving away in a gym: ten minutes of slut dropping in your bedroom is as good a start as any.

And don’t beat yourself up about it, on the days when it doesn’t go to plan. Some days I clock-watch every second of my body pump class. Some days I run for two minutes and then sidle home because I just can’t be arsed. Some days, I cancel Burn 360 and slink off to the pub, because having a pint with people who make my stomach hurt with laughter is also excellent for my mental health. Consistency really is the key—just two or three times a week, find the time to raise your heart rate, release some endorphins, and see if you notice a reduction in your anxiety afterwards.

I plan to write more posts about how exactly to get started; including top tips for free or very cheap exercises. So watch this space, and let me know in the comments what your experience of anxiety and exercise are.

And in the meantime? Keep on movin’.

Love Nic x

Surrender your joy: how to improve your mental health by learning to let go

What comes to mind, when I ask you to imagine happiness? What do you think of, when I ask you to describe your ‘joy’?

When I was eighteen, I could have told you in a heartbeat. ‘Happiness’ meant success. It meant fulfilling my ambitions. And (lucky me) I knew just what my ambitions were. I wanted to be an academic, to lecture in English Literature at a top university.

I’d excelled in the subject from a young age, so I was quietly confident. I knew it’d take a huge amount of hard work, but I was sure I could do it: one day I’d have a PhD, and this would make me happy. Success would be my joy.

Reader: this was not my joy.

Because I did it, you see; I got a First class degree and a Masters. I was accepted onto a prestigious PhD program, working with two eminent supervisors. But along the way, I picked up some emotional baggage—and by the commencement of my Doctoral studies, that baggage had pushed me to the brink of collapse.

In November of 2015, just three months into my PhD, I sat in a Doctor’s office and sobbed out my shameful secret: my anxiety and depression were so bad I had recurrent thoughts of suicide and could barely leave the flat.

Tablets were hastily prescribed, and a medical note excused me temporarily from my studies. Before long, I was bundled up in the front of my Mum’s Honda CRV, waxy-faced, dry-tongued and sweating profusely from the new chemicals in my system. That winter, weight dropped off my bones like candle wax as I tried to work out how to make my way back to the world of the living.

Eventually, the pills did their job. By Christmas, I resembled something like a human. I had done the work of pulling myself out of the pit. What came next was harder: I had to decide what to do—how to find joy again.

To give myself breathing space, I took a half-year sabbatical from my studies. For the next six months, I dismantled the blocks that made up who I thought I was. In the meantime, I worked in a furniture store. At first, this felt like failure. I felt like a quitter. Just two miles down the road, in the literal ivory tower of Nottingham University, the world I’d worked so hard for continued on without me.

Acquaintances would blithely ask how my PhD was going, and I never quite knew how to explain that actually, I was working for minimum wage after suffering a mental health breakdown.

But strangely, for the first time in years… I was happy. I felt joyful. I worked with wonderful colleagues who made me laugh every single day. I was good at the job; I mean, I do have a passion for cushions and bedding that verges on the insane, so as retail jobs went it was pretty spot on.

The months passed, and the time came to make a decision about returning to my PhD. My pride wanted me to do it—the ego of my 18 year old self. It was so much a part of who I thought I was; the academic, the student, the life-long learner. But then, serendipity struck, as it often does when we need it to: I stumbled across a quote from the marvellous Cheryl Strayed.

‘Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true any more.’

This was enough to stop me in my tracks—to make me realise how foolish it would be, to risk my hard-won health by returning to the path I’d been on. Two years on, I still think about this quote regularly. And I stand by the fact we should reassess our attitude to quitting. Because if I could give one piece of advice, this would be it: don’t surrender your joy for your pride.

We all have an idea of what will make us happy, but so often ‘what we think gives us joy’ and ‘what actually gives us joy’ aren’t properly aligned. How many of us have pursued a goal or a job or a relationship, thinking it will bring us joy—only to discover along the way that we’d made a wrong choice?

This in itself is fine; it’s how we learn. The problem comes when we refuse to turn back. Sometimes we need to quit. I had seen the warning signs even before I started my PhD; I was going down a very dark path, and whilst the PhD didn’t cause my illness, the environment of Doctoral study (lonely, high-pressure, introspective) really isn’t the best for mentally unstable people.

So what stopped me from saving myself sooner? Pride. My ego prevented me from quitting, and having to admit to everyone that I wasn’t capable. (After all, I’d done a Facebook status about getting my PhD funding, which we all know is basically a legally binding contract).

And you know what? That was a seriously stupid thing to do, and had a seriously adverse affect of my mental health. I think it’s a lesson we can all stand to learn. Don’t stay in a relationship that makes you unhappy because you’re afraid of what people will say, or because you’re scared to be alone. Don’t stay in a job that damages your mental health any longer than you have to.

That’s not to say we should quit everything we don’t enjoy willy-nilly: you can’t throw in the towel on your marriage because you’ve had a bad week and your partner’s been a bit of a knob. It’s often important to go through hardships to reap a reward.

But we should keep an eye on the paths we choose to walk down, instead of stumbling blindly on. My litmus test now is to ask: what’s my motivation for continuing? I might keep doing something I don’t enjoy if I can see the positive reward. But if the reason is ‘because I’m afraid/embarrassed/too proud’ to quit, then maybe it’s time to reassess. Not just for the sake of my joy, but also for my mental health.

Because I deserve joy. And so do you.

4 Books for a bad day

Last week—for the first time in a good six months—I had a few bad anxiety days. (Realistically, this was brought on by an excess of booze during my holiday to Morocco, so erm… potentially my fault). To pick myself up, I decided to indulge in a spot of bibliotherapy.  The following are my favourite 4 books to read on a bad day—all very different, but all with something important to offer.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

books for a bad day 4

“Depression is also… smaller than you. Always, it is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you; you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but—if that is the metaphor—you are the sky. You were there before it. And the cloud can’t exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud.”

Part memoir, part guide to a life well lived, Reasons to Stay Alive is exactly what it says on the tin. If you’ve ever suffered from anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, I implore you to buy a copy, find a scenic bench, and dive in.

I read this book at the lowest point of my life. My memories of that time are foggy, but I can clearly remember feeling breathless at how succinctly Haig described exactly what I was experiencing. Frankly, this isn’t just a book for people suffering – I’d advise buying this as a gift for your loved ones, if you want to help them understand how anxiety feels.

Read when… you’re at a low point and need to be reminded: things will get better.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

Frankl was a Jewish psychologist, working in Vienna before the outbreak of World War 2. His background provided a unique lens through which to experience the horrors of Auschwitz. With the keen eye of a trained professional, Frankl carefully noted the behaviours and outlooks of his fellow prisoners.

Man’s Search for Meaning details both his experiences in the camps and his psychological findings. In particular, Frankl focuses on how to find meaning in the most horrific circumstances. One of his most interesting observations is that those prisoners who strove to comfort others were the ones who survived the longest.

But there are many other lessons to be learnt from this beautiful book. My most important takeaway is probably the idea explored in the quote above—that regardless of your situation, your attitude will always be a freedom nobody can take from you.

Read when… you’re looking for perspective, wisdom and inspiration. A friend sent me this shortly after my Dad died, along with a bumper crop of malteser chocolate bunnies (win).  At that moment, it was the most perfect gift I could have received.

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon

4 book for a bad day“It’s as if I think mental illness is something I might grow out of, like puppy fat or having an imaginary friend. I want to shake my thirty-year-old self by the shoulders and say, ‘No, Bryony! OCD is not an imaginary friend. It is a very real enemy, and very real enemies do not just disappear if you ignore them, you blithering IDIOT!”

Journalist Bryony Gordon chronicled her hedonistic twenties in The Wrong Knickers, but in Mad Girl, she details an altogether more agonising reality: the debilitating onset of OCD, anxiety, bulimia and depression.

Admittedly, it doesn’t sound like the most uplifting read—but Gordon writes with such honesty, dark humour and general effervescence that I alternated smiles with tears on almost every chapter.

Gordon also illustrates a Very Important Point: someone going through a mental health crisis isn’t always… obvious about it. Your colleague/daughter/friend might be presenting to the world as a successful journalist with party-girl sparkle, but the reality is often very different.

Gordon’s style probably isn’t for everybody—but then, I’m a huge fan of a) being upfront about my mental health and b) joking about sex. By all accounts, so is Gordon, so five stars from me.

Also: check out her organisation, Mental Health Mates. It’s a fab idea.

Read when… you need something to put a smile on your face. Gordon’s writing is the literary equivalent of having a Thursday night drink with your most entertaining pal.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Like the book itself, I’ll keep this one short. The Little Prince is poignant, wise, and utterly joyful.

But ultimately, this choice is less about the book’s content and more about the place this childhood classic holds in my heart. I think most of us have a book like this. If you’re having a bad day, dust off a copy of whatever your childhood/teenage favourite was, make a hot drink, and lose yourself in an old friend.

Read when… the adult world is too much to bear.

Thanks for reading – let me know in the comments what your go-to bad day book is.

Nic x