5 things I’ve read this week that brought me joy

Content. Whether it’s books, articles, tweets or even a WhatsApp thread, most of us love to consume it. But the sad reality is that nowadays, we get an awful lot of negative content pushed to us from all angles. Which is definitely not good for our collective mental health. So here’s 5 things I’ve read this week that have brought a smile to my face.

Notes on a nervous planet, Matt Haig

I’ve written about Haig before in 4 books for a bad day. I regularly recommend Reasons To Stay Alive because it delivers exactly what it promises on the tin. I read it at a point in my life when I actually was suicidal, so it’s little wonder it holds such a place in my heart. Notes on a Nervous Planet is less emotionally loaded (or maybe I am?) but, just like RTSA, it’s wise, whimsical, thoughtful and earnest. If you struggle to consume content when your mental health is bad, as I do, it’s also extremely digestible, with short chapters and lists dotted throughout. Give it a go, and even if reading it doesn’t make you smile, following the tips within it will almost certainly help to give your frazzled mind a break.

Normal People, Sally Rooney

I’ve been in a definite non-fiction mood over the last year. Normal People bucked the trend: I gobbled it up in 24 hours, and it’s been so long since I did that with fiction that this fact alone made me happy. Rooney’s been described as the voice of my generation, something I resist on principle – but she certainly put into words ideas that I’ve been desperately trying to formulate for years, with no success.

As a novel, Normal People will make you think deeply about love, anxiety, self-esteem, the male psyche, millennial woes, the timeless concerns of being a pair of star crossed lovers. The two main characters are perfectly realised and the plot is engaging. I didn’t like all of the stylistic decisions, but ultimately, I thought it was an excellent read. Rooney is painfully on-the-nose about topics I’m very interested in, like privilege: ‘Suddenly he can spend an afternoon in Vienna looking at Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, and it’s hot outside, and if he wants he can buy himself a cheap cold glass of beer afterwards. It’s like something he assumed was just a painted backdrop all his life has revealed itself to be real: foreign cities are real, and famous artworks, and underground railway systems, and remnants of the Berlin Wall. That’s money, the substance that makes the world real.’ I kept wanting to read bits of Normal People aloud to people around me, because Rooney so frequently encapsulated ideas I have tried and failed to express a thousand times. All in: a book that made me sad and joyful all at once. Go and read it.

It’s decorative gourd season, motherfuckers, McSweeney’s

And in a complete 180 on the previous entry – an article that made me cry actual tears of laughter. (Which is always a good thing to do for your mental health.)

So, one of my absolute favourite things about my new job is that, by dint of being a team of writers, we are also a team of avid content consumers, and we’re always sharing articles with each other. Some are serious. Some are profound. Others are batshit insane, like this post about autumn from McSweeney’s. Not everybody’s sense of humour, but definitely mine. Content like this is just such a joyful antithesis to the seriousness of life. So, strap yourself in and enjoy the timely reminder – as the leaves start to drift from the tree – that: ‘It’s fall, fuckfaces’.

AI saves lives, The Good News Network

I think it’s important to seek out content that is purely good, instead of relentlessly depressing. I’m a technology copywriter, so I spend a lot of time reading articles about AI. Many of which intrigue me, some of which depress me, and virtually none of which actually make me smile. This one did. An AI system in China was able to correctly predict that patients in a vegetative coma state would wake up within 12 months. This was in contrast to the actual Doctors, who gave the patients such low survival scores, the families were legally allowed to take them off life support. Good save, AI! Best of all, in reading it, I found the ‘Good News Network’, which is exactly what we all need, given 95% of what we read is about the world going to shit.

My group chats

Our phones get a bad rep. And rightly so, in many instances: scrolling endlessly through the gram isn’t good for any of our mental health. But there’s one thing my phone does to improve my mental health, and that’s facilitate group chats. Honestly: all hail the group chat. (Sounds sad? Well, I moved to London by myself a year and a half ago, so excuse me for needing the human interaction.)

I have group chats for my best friends from uni, groups chats for ex-colleagues turned friends, group chats with family members – and they’re just bloody great. We go through ebbs and flows of activity but I always know they’re there as a little source of comfort and lols if I need it. If you are in a group chat with me: know that I value it very much indeed.

Time for your recommendations

Have a read yourself (although not number 4, obviously) and let me know in the comments what you’ve read recently that’s brought you some joy. The more (and sillier) the merrier!

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dealing with anxiety

Suicide: the great mental health taboo

Globally, every 40 seconds, a person ends their life through suicide.

In the UK, 6,213 people killed themselves last year. The suicide rate for young women is at an all time high. Men are three times as likely to take their lives than women. Hanging is the most common method. More children are thinking about suicide than ever before.

Does this make you feel uncomfortable?

It makes me feel uncomfortable. Even as I write this, I keep looking away from the screen. Suicide is a thing we still don’t like to talk about, unless a celebrity takes their life. I understand why. It’s too uncomfortable and too loaded. It forces us to confront something too painful to bear.

I suppose if you’ve never been suicidal, or even close, it seems an unfathomable act. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to talk about. Although it might be something to do with the fact that ‘self-murder’ was only decriminalised 50 years ago, and the very act of suicide – even admitting to feeling suicidal – is bound up in shame.

Don’t get me wrong: we’ve come a long way on the mental health conversation front. Tell somebody you have anxiety or depression, and you’re more likely than ever before to receive a compassionate response, or even the empathy of shared experience.

But suicide is a different beast. Tell somebody you’re suicidal and watch the air freeze between you, like ice across a windowpane.

It’s the great mental health taboo. We do not know how to talk about it. Even I – somebody who literally runs a blog about mental health – feel myself dancing around the word. And I should really know better. I’ve been there, after all.

I was 22. On paper, I had everything going for me. I was young and high achieving, well-loved and financially secure. But I was also in the grips of a deep mental health crisis. I felt unreal, as if I were viewing the world through gauze. I had lost the ability to connect with the world around me. You probably wouldn’t have thought it to look at me. I have pictures of myself, graduating from my Masters, where I look positively suffused with joy. But most of the time I felt nothing at all, apart from the moments when I wept uncontrollably, until my chest hurt and I couldn’t breathe for gasping.

Everything that makes life worth living had slipped out of reach. Everything felt insurmountable. I was so tired. No wonder: it’s physically exhausting, to feel so very hopeless.

One day, the thought slipped into my head: I wish I could go to sleep tonight and not wake up. It didn’t go away. Over the next few weeks, I worried away at the thought; where could I do it, how could I do it? The idea followed me around; in the bath, as the tram approached the platform. What a relief it would be, not to feel at all.

The only thing that stayed my hand was the thought of my mum and sister, bereaved twice in 24 months. Not to mention the friends who relentlessly stuck to me. In the end, the people I loved dragged me back from the edge. They made me talk, breaking down mountains into hills I could imagine scaling.

Talking saved my life. But too many people don’t have anybody to talk with. In fact, too many people will never let their feelings slip at all. The thought, the urge, will remain unspoken. Until it’s acted upon. Until it’s too late.

We have to talk. It’s a hard conversation from all angles, I know. Admitting you are suicidal is exposing the rawest part of yourself. Talking about it still smarts now: I don’t want people to see me differently, to see me as unstable, when actually I’ve never been happier or more content. It feels like a dream I had a long time ago – one I can only remember because I wrote it down upon waking.

It’s hard for those left behind. Because it’s not an acceptable topic of conversation, people who have lost loved ones to suicide are forced to hide their grief, to blunt its awkward edges in conversation, for the sake of avoiding the discomfort of others.

And it’s hard to respond to. Sitting and looking into the eyes of somebody telling you they do not want to be here is painful and uncomfortable and heartbreakingly sad. ‘I hate to think of you feeling like that,’ people say, eyes shifting into the middle distance. ‘I can’t bear the thought.’

But what should we choose? The discomfort of the conversation or the event itself?

It’s difficult. But here’s some places to start: we have to start the conversation and keep having it, relentlessly, even when it hurts, until everybody who even has a whisper of that voice in their head feels like they can talk about it. We have to write explicit mental health provision into our workplace conversations and HR handbooks. We have to banish the word ‘commit’, with its implications of criminality. We have to educate ourselves on the signs of somebody having suicidal thoughts, and be brave enough to reach out when we see them. We have to listen.

We can’t save everyone. But we can sit down and talk, refusing to flinch, asking the difficult questions. It might make no difference. It might make all the difference in the world.

I’m publishing this the day before World Suicide Prevention Day. If you are worried that somebody you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out. There are some resources below, or if you want somebody to talk to, drop me a message. 

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Why most things (probably) won’t make you happy

Sometimes, when I’m having a bout of anxiety (or a full blown panic attack), I close my eyes and imagine myself in an almost empty room.

Nowadays, this is the calmest situation I can think of, other than being by the sea or halfway up a mountain. A space without clutter, without objects.

I wasn’t always like this. But more and more, I’m mindful that ‘stuff’ (and shopping, AKA the act of acquiring it) does very little to make me happy. If anything, it actively makes me feel worse.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a minimalist or a committed experientialist. I’m not even particularly tidy. (I can imagine my Mum and boyfriend reading this and huffing, ‘HA! Sounds like news to me!’).

And I’m not judging anyone for buying things. I like things! I like objects that are beautiful and functional. I do a little wriggle with delight every time I sit on my balcony furniture, and my coffee table is a source of endless pleasure. I feel immediately becalmed by turning on my bedside lamps, which scatter light across the room like stars on a night sky. My friend Polly has a kitchen table made out of her childhood bed that genuinely makes my stomach contract slightly with lust.

But these are things that serve a purpose; they make a home a comfortable place to live in. I feel the same about clothes, shoes and bags: I’m still furiously in love with my four-year-old Barbour jacket and the multitude of pockets it offers. But nearly every dress I’ve ever bought has at some point made me feel shit about myself. Hmm.

As a result, I’ve started to read a hell of a lot about how I can make myself happier and less anxious by whittling down the amount of unnecessary crap I either keep in my flat or lust after online. This is important for your mental health on two fronts. One, clutter is stressful. The more clutter, the more mess.

Two, our need to keep buying things… well, it usually means something, doesn’t it? When we buy things, the sad reality is that we’re often trying to be somebody, or impress somebody, or plug a gap. But in reality, we’d probably get a lot more joy out of life if we stopped spending £200 a month in Topshop and spent the money enjoying activities with our loved ones, seeing new places, and building memories.

So what am I doing about it? I’ve started to unsubscribe from newsletters and direct mailers from brands I once loved. (Sorry, did anyone else think GDPR was going to do that for us?!). I’ve started to donate or throw things away if they’re sat in a cupboard or ‘tidied away’ somewhere.

Finally, I’m forcing myself to research before I buy, and only buy on a needs basis, like the rucksack I replaced recently. Most importantly, I’ve begun to question and interrogate my purchase. If you’re interested, here are the questions I’ve been asking myself to discover if an object is really going to bring me happiness, or if my money could be better spent elsewhere (e.g. weekend breaks to Europe).

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Does having it cause you stress?

‘Things’ should be beautiful, or useful, or both. But the things you own shouldn’t cause you stress. If all you’re ever doing with something is finding new ways to store it out of site, get rid of it. Likewise, if you own something that makes you feel bad about yourself (like, half of my wardrobe), get it down a charity shop pronto.

Even if you like it, do you actually need it?

I picked up some beautiful coasters yesterday, tootling home down Blackstock Road. And when I say ‘picked up’, I mean ‘picked out the four I wanted to buy’. But then I realised that we already have beautiful coasters. Like, more coasters than we could actually use, unless we both decided to drink three brews simultaneously. Or had four guests around. Sometimes, just because you like something, doesn’t mean you need it – especially if it’s just adding to an existing pile of clutter.

Do you need to pay that much money for it?

Will the expensive version of something really make you happy? This isn’t a snide question – I prefer slightly more expensive bedding, for example, because it generally feels nicer on my skin. T-shirts, however: no. I do not need to pay £100 for something I’m going to spill ketchup on. Get out of Selfridges and put it down.

Jeans are another good example of this. You can buy high quality, stylish, fashionable jeans for £50-100. (My thighs rub through anything cheaper). Is a £300 pair genuinely going to make you any happier?

Basically, before you buy something, ask if you’re really getting a level of value that’s proportionate to the extra spend. Because all of that ‘extra spend’, over the course of a year, could pay for an amazing holiday or the adult learning course you’ve always fancied to build your dream career. Just saying.

Are you buying this for the person you are or the person you want to be?

I can’t tell you how many pair of high-heeled shoes I bought as a teenager/young adult. I don’t like heels. I don’t like walking in heels. I don’t feel happy in heels. They’re deeply uncomfortable, and you can’t dance properly in them. And I definitely wouldn’t want to have sex with anybody who doesn’t fancy me in trainers, so I can’t even argue I wanted my legs to look thinner.

So why did I keep buying pairs of heels? I have no idea. I think I want to be the sort of woman that can and does walk in heels. Baffling. In short: you can’t buy your way into being a different sort of person. And you won’t find happiness by trying.

Do you love actually love it, or do you think it says something about you?

Very like the above. This is a hard and uncomfortable question to ask yourself. I have been guilty of it on so many occasions. And have, over the years, probably wasted £1403493024932 in Urban Outfitters as a result.

It’s not easy, and it’s a work in process – I’ve been trying to get up the energy to tackle my wardrobe with all of this in mind. But it is worth it – because every draw I clear and every penny I save from not buying crap needlessly is helping me on my way to a slightly saner, happier life. Which sounds like a good direction of travel to me.

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(This plant, this copper pot, and this Bowie print all make me happy every time I look at them. As does the chap in lurking behind).

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Recovering from anxiety: a work in progress

Are you ever really recovered from a mental health problem like anxiety?

I’d be interested to hear what everyone else thinks about recovery from anxiety? Once upon a time, I would have liked to think it was. I was quite young when I first seriously started to acknowledge that my brain wasn’t working like it should. My only frame of reference for illness was all the other ailments I’d had in my life – like swine flu (no, really) or a kidney infection. Horrible, but ultimately surmountable.

After all, my anxiety did ‘go away’, at various point. And if we’re judging ‘recovery’ from the baseline of ‘being suicidal’, then you could argue I’ve been recovered for well over three years.

Except, except. I’ve never been that bad again, granted – but anxiety has always found ways to creep back in. Which seems pretty bloody unfair – surely after all the counselling, and the sertraline, and the soul-searching/life-changing, I could just enjoy being better?

Sadly not. While I don’t love the ‘mental illness is like a broken leg’ analogy, I have realised that for me, anxiety is a bit like asthma; I have an active part to play in managing it, and probably will do for the rest of my life. My asthma got a hell of a lot better once I quit smoking (shock). It got worse again when I moved into a mouldy damp basement flat in North London. It got better when I got fit(ish).

My actions impact my health. It’s not fair that I have dodgy lungs, but bemoaning that fact won’t change the truth.

It follows logically, then, that anxiety might not be something I can recover from entirely – but it is something I can manage. I’m starting to think there’s a sort of happiness to be found in accepting this. Because accepting it means accepting a lifelong management approach.

And when I manage my health effectively, I can wake up and spring out of bed in the morning, going about my life with nary a worried thought in my head.

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Turns out some downward dogs don’t cancel out 6 cocktails… but we can only try. 

Managing anxiety: my 5 must-dos

  1. Get outside regularly, even if it’s cold.
  2. Limit my alcohol intake, even though I love booze.
  3. Sleep enough, even when people laugh at me for being a Granny.
  4. Exercise enough, even though I hate it, and would rather be on the sofa watching Mad Men.
  5. Listen to Headspace every night – I’m not going to call in meditating because I usually fall asleep four minutes in, but I’ve trained my mind to associate it with relaxing, and it seems to work.

It’s taken me a surprisingly long time to work out what this list should look like. And then I wasted more time ignoring it, because I love drinking, and late nights doing wild things with friends, and not exercising. But I hate being anxious more, and if this active management is what it takes to keep it at bay, I guess I better suck it up. Is it fair? No. But you can’t change that, so there’s not a lot of point in worrying about it any more.

Because for me, recovery isn’t an endpoint. It’s getting up every day, facing your demons, taking care of yourself, and remembering that you deserve to be happy.

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Keeping anxiety at bay: a 4 step mini-guide

  1. Over the course of a week, spend time noting down what makes you anxious. Even if you suffer from a general sense of dread, there’s usually triggers – whether that’s alcohol, lack of sleep, a social interaction, or something else. (PS., if you can, share this process with someone: staring down the barrel of what makes you feel bad can be quite triggering, but I do think it’s a necessary part of changing your life for the better.)
  2. Pick the one that seems most manageable to deal with and write down how it makes you feel and why it’s a part of your life.
  3. If it’s something you can stop doing, like drinking, try cutting it for two weeks and see if you feel an improvement. My advice is to only cut one thing at a time – don’t give up smoking, drinking and sugar in the same week; it’s a recipe for rebounding. (Also, don’t give up sugar: pudding is great).
  4. If it’s something you can confront, like a social interaction, get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Rip the plaster off! 90% of anxiety for me is thinking about the thing – the thing itself is rarely that bad.

What do you think – is recovery an endpoint or an ongoing process? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and let me know if you have any good tips for keeping anxiety at bay!

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Your beautiful state of mind

Do you ever read a quote and realise you’ve committed it to memory, without every trying?

In a book I read this week, a young would-be musician is in anguish, wondering whether composing is his true calling. Leon asks Marek – his hero, a Czech composer who has withdrawn his music from performance in the Reich – whether or not he really has talent.

‘No one else can tell you that.’

‘But how does one know if it’s worth going on? I don’t know whether I have any true creativity or –’

‘Good God, Leon, why do you always turn back on yourself? If you feel the need to write music, or play it, then do so, but believe me your creativity is of no interest to anyone. Write something – then it’s there. If it’s what you wanted to write, if it exists, then leave it. If it doesn’t, throw it away. Your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant.’

It stuck with me, that last line. At first, I thought: oof, little harsh, Marek. But it’s true. Your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant. More importantly, I think there’s a lesson in happiness there – at least for anybody who considers themselves a creative.

And this lesson was crystallised even further on Friday night, as I pottered round the Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate, one of my favourite spots in London. Don’t get me wrong, our friend Pablo had all sorts of issues, but looking at the work he created in a single year, it’s fairly obvious he felt the need to create and did so frantically. (PS., go to this exhibition if you can).

It’s a funny, lovely thing – the urge to make something. Whether it’s music or art or poetry, novels or installations or photographs. I think it usually arrives quite young, although certainly people discover creative skills later in life. It can be a source of great joy, or even a tool for improving your mental health. I almost never feel happier than when I sit back from something I’ve written and think, yes.

But the older I get, the more I seen how unhappy it can make people, too. Creativity can become a cage, particularly when we reach adulthood and start to feel like we haven’t lived up to our potential. Obviously, very few people get to make a living from the pure form of their talent. When I was a little girl, I would have told you I wanted to be an author. (Spoiler: I’m not. And I now know most authors have other jobs).

And I used to feel bad about not making that happen (or at least, not making it happen yet). If I were a Proper Writer, wouldn’t I be doing it? Wouldn’t I be writing the book idea I’ve always toyed with?

Perhaps. But the reality is, who cares? Why on earth would I let that affect my happiness? There’s no point beating yourself up about not doing something, if the reason you’re meant to do it in the first place is love.

It’s what I love about blogging, and bloggers, for that matter – it strikes me as an activity that is highly motivated by enjoyment, not a desire to be perceived in a particular way.

img_8801If you want to make something, make it. If you don’t, know that you might one day, but it really doesn’t matter right now. But don’t let it make you bitter. And don’t blame it on your life.

Because if what you’re clinging on to is just an idea of yourself as somebody who produces art, and you create just to conform to that sense of self, you’re not likely to find much happiness.

Worst yet, I think it can be a recipe for bad art. Sometimes it results in… too much artist in the art. It should be an insight or an expression, not a way of reflecting how you want the world to see you.

Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t stick with it. It’s part of getting better: painting every day, practising your instrument. Brilliant art doesn’t come without effort; by all accounts, writing a book can be a slow, tortuous effort.

But I think most of us would be happier if we followed Marek’s advice: if you want to create, create. If it’s no good, never mind. But just bear in mind that your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant. And there’s no small amount of peace to be found in coming to terms with that fact.

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The quote is from Eva Ibbotson’s beautiful book, Songs for the Summer. I read her books as a child, and still love them as an adult. 

The longest love I’ll ever know

All sorts of crap gets written about sisters.

Much of it is cliché. We don’t drink wine together, or post sister memes on each other’s Facebook walls. If you hurt me, she will not come after you with a bat.

If anything, any violence in our relationship is reserved exclusively for each other. After approximately 48 hours in each other’s company, we start to snipe and bitch. I’ve never been as vile to anybody in my entire life as I have been to her, with relatively little provocation.

And, like almost all younger siblings I know, I can be disparaging of her. Fortunately, she’s stoical enough not too react too much. And, hey: she can serve it out too.

I never felt less cool as a kid than when she appraised me, coldly, flicking her glancing up and down over my not-quite-there outfit, my sloppy drunkness, my childish tears.

Plus, she was a hot teenager, and I had a lot of male friends. If you have been in this situation (second only to having a hot Mum) you will feel my pain.

All in all, as kids, we annoyed each other. We had baths together for many years, shared a bed on hundreds of occasions, pinching and kicking and irritating. She once convinced me that a paedophile was somebody who weed on children. I once physically shoved her in the tumble dryer. (She’s quite small, mind).

Sometimes, I think she comes into my room and waltzes out, leaving the door open… just to spite me.

And yet. She’s the only person I can answer the phone to by shrieking ‘Jessica, no!’ and gain total, immediate comprehension. Humming a bar of ‘Cats the musical’ is enough to launch a 40 minute long kitchen dance production.

We once spent an entire Christmas hiding a Satsuma in each others bags/scarves/shoes, to the point where I tried to pull out my purse to pay for an eyebrow tint and came out with a handle of tiny, squished orange.

Ultimately: I love her, fundamentally and deeply. She is mine to criticise and defend, to bitch at and love bomb. I criticise her and make sarcastic comments, but if you were to join me I would turn that same, sharp tongue on you.

She is my sister. My sibling. And a sibling is, with any luck, the longest love any of us will ever know.

Are we alike? Not really. She is reserved where I am open, polished and chic where I am scrappy, analytical to my emotional. She was a natural athlete – a ballerina, a member of teams, somebody who wore a bib with a number on.

I hated teams, and sweating, and long-limbed girls in pleated skirts braying towards me on the hockey pitch. I write for a living; she’s dyslexic. She pronounces bath like it’s got an R in it. I do not. 

Even physically, we’re miles apart: fair and dark, tanned and pale. Somehow, despite being shorter than me, she has longer legs. This seems unfair, but I’m learning to live with it. (She’s also got bigger boobs, but small tits are in now, so I’m over that, too.)

(“But there’s something…” people say, screwing up their brows as they consider us, “Something in the shape of your face. Something in the mannerisms.” Well, go figure: 25 years and a shared gene pool has to count for something.)

She is tough and brave and determined. I endlessly admire her capacity for grit, for survival, wrapped as it is in a small, blonde and neatly manicured package. This is incidental, but she is also beautiful; I know without seeing that she will make a beautiful bride, a beautiful wife.

That’s why I’m writing, you see: to congratulate her, to honour her. She’s getting married. (Can words be an engagement present, Sophie, or is that cheating?)

She has a date, a venue, and a fiancé. She has, in me, a Maid of Honour. Most of all, she has love: the sort of love that we can and should hold up as an example. A model to aspire to.

Like me, he isn’t very much like her. He’s loud, talkative, hyperactive. He comes from a clan, full of noise and love and bustle. I suppose you could call him the brother I never particularly wanted but am now delighted to have. When the ripples of Dad’s death closed shut, he was left within the circle, and I can’t imagine life (or her) without him.  

To look at them together is to see what love should be like. It’s wonderful, and I’m so honoured to be part of their day.

So here’s to them. Here’s to love: the perfecting blending of two things which were fine by themselves, but are somehow more complete together. As I often do, I reach for the words, and find Julian Barnes has beaten me to them:

“You put together two people who have not been together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a faire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed.’

The world is certainly changed for us. It’s a strange thing, being a younger sibling. You’re always reaching, always trailing in their shadow. I can remember vividly thinking that whatever she did was the last word in cool – a Sienna Miller boho skirt, skinny jeans, dolly shoes.

I hated it as a child, but now I know a shadow is a cool, comfortable place to be. You can watch them strike out ahead and test the water.

And now she’s off again, the promise glinting on her finger. All that trailing along behind her – turns out it was practice, all along.

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gardening for your mental health

Getting old and green: gardening for your mental health

Call me pessimistic, but I think I might be crap at gardening.

Sad, but it’s true. Under my watch, a once-fragrant lavender plant (overwatered) has wilted and died, a grey crumbling rot creeping slowly from its root. My beloved TV-side Chinese Evergreen did not survive a weeklong sojourn in Spain. My mint succumbed to white fly.

I quite literally just forgot to water the coriander. Although I’m not that mad about that. Coriander tastes shit.

But, unlike most things I’m terrible at, I have no desire to sack off gardening all together and call in the plastic pot plants. Because I don’t just garden to make my balcony look instagrammable as fuck – I garden because the simple presence of green, growing things in my home does wonders for my sanity.

I garden because the sight of green leaves sends calmness rippling through me, like the breeze through my newly installed Bamboo plant.

(I’ve read they’re pretty hardy. We’ll see.)

Maybe I’m just getting old, because I certainly never had the urge to garden as a teenager. But now I can’t pass a garden centre without wanting to potter – and that’s find and dandy with me.

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Gardening for your mental health: why we should all be doing it (even if it’s just a houseplant)

A lot of mental health tips revolve around doing things that take energy, like exercise – and we all know that’s easier said than done when you’re in a bad place.

So, here’s a mental health tip that requires minimal effort, money and time: buy a house plant, stick it by your telly, pop it by your bed. Enjoy the strange and tiny positive energy of welcoming a living thing into your home. This (obviously) isn’t really even gardening, so anybody can have a crack.

Don’t believe me? Let’s throw some science at my theory: ‘Patients in hospital rooms with plants and flowers had significantly fewer intakes of postoperative analgesics, more positive physiological responses evidenced by lower systolic blood pressure and heart rate, lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue, and more positive feelings and higher satisfaction about their rooms when compared with patients in the control group.’  Sign me up.

But if you’ve got a bit more capacity and a teensy bit of outdoor space, even a windowsill, why not give a bit of Actual Gardening a go? It’s not just the end result that soothes a frazzled brain: the actual process of gardening, even if it’s on a small scale, is properly relaxing. It’s a) outdoors, and b) physical. Otherwise known as ‘the things I need the absolute most when my mental health is wobbling’. 

Plus: drifting around a garden centre is fun. Squishing earth beneath your fingers takes you straight back to childhood. And stepping back, dusting your hands off, and immediately seeing something beautiful… if that doesn’t give you a little mood kick, I don’t know what will.

It’s strange, because usually things that I’m shit at stress me out – but with gardening, it doesn’t matter. Even if the end result is a dead delphinium, I usually get to enjoy at least a few weeks. Which is more than enough for me.

(And sometimes, again the odds, my babies make a comeback. I really thought my basil was over, but he’s showing unexpected resilience with some frantic watering. A reassuring metaphor for my life.)

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Top tips for gardening for your mental health

  • Things dying unexpectedly can obviously be a teensy bit stressful, so seek out plants that can take a beating. Take bamboo, for example. Not only does it remind you to stay strong but flexible, it’s also one of the zennest plants going. These chaps are they lovely, leafy and make a deliciously soothing sound when the breeze goes through them. Not all types are evergreen, but most are pretty hardy.
  • Need a pop of colour? Pansies may look delicate, but they’re surprisingly tough little bastards: mine grew with wild abandon and brightened up my herb pots no end. (Until the mint got infected with white fly and it made my skin crawl so much I chucked the lot).
  • No balcony, no problem: houseplants have never been easier, especially since the renaissance of the succulent. If you’re truly clueless there are some amazing delivery services out there like Patch, which take the hassle out of it all, ideal if (like me) you don’t have a car. They even have a dedicated range of almost unkillable plants… Handy.
  • Succulents and cacti are so on trend these days that you can pick them up in Urban Outfitters along with a pair of Mom jeans. But, if you need a budget option, I urgently implore you to head to Homebase. Homebase may not spring to mind if you’re on the hunt for striking designs, but they’ve got some fab geometric pots (see below, all three cost under a tenner) and more cacti than you can shake a prick at – give it a go.
  • Mini herb pots: not only will they brighten up your space with some leafy energy; they’ll also make you feel v. smug and grown up. Why yes, I did make this mint yoghurt fresh this morning.
  • Need green-fingered help? I definitely did, once I bought a load of plants, lost all of their labels, and had no idea what any of them were/what care they needed. So, I bookmarked this handy site for a great visual guide.

gardening for your mental

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love island

3 Important love lessons from Love Island

Say what you will about reality TV, but I reckon Love Island has a lot to offer us. Eight whole weeks of memes and great office chat, for a start. But life in the villa also provides some fascinating and genuinely quite important lessons about love, life, toxic masculinity and how we view relationships in 2018.

I’m semi-ashamed to admit I easily churned out about 5000 words of draft copy for this blog; seriously, I’ve had to finalise it on a Saturday when there wasn’t any new fodder for me to comment on. I could write endlessly about the gender dynamics and attitudes at play in the villa. But nobody wants to read my Love Island dissertation, so for a start, I’ve whittled down this post to three things the villa can teach us about love and the dangers of toxic masculinity.

Love Island Lesson 1: A ‘bad boy’ usually makes for a ‘bad boyfriend’

Why do we persist in loving bad boys when the clue is quite literally in the name? I get it: they’re usually bloody attractive. Adam is a handsome rogue, you have to give him that.

I’ve done it. Your mates have done it. We’ve all bloody done it.

But WHY? Why is this a thing? I think we tell ourselves that we really mean: ‘I love cheeky guys, with good chat’. But in reality, on 9/10 occasions, this really equates to ‘I love people who treat me like shit, ghost me on WhatsApp, have a track record of cheating, and give me post-coital tristesse at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon.’

I know it’s a game show, so Adam theoretically has license to churn through women like I churn through Holland & Barrett raisin and cashew nut mix. But Adam has shown his stripes repeatedly; I’ll never get over his smirking arrogance despite Rosie’s visible distress. Another level of callous. But now, a week or two later, all seems forgotten? At any rate, the gals are still remarkably keen to crack on.

It’s a truly bizarre notion and it stinks of toxic masculinity. Because every time we knowingly decide to take a spin on a bad boy, we reinforce the notion that if you’re good looking enough, treating women like shit is okay. Granted, poor Kendall wasn’t to know. But Rosie really had the warning signs in front of her. And Zara? Oh, love: when somebody shows you who they are, believe them the first time. (Granted Darylle is yet to properly declare herself, but I’m not holding out much hope).

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Obviously. Credit: Love Island Twitter

And women aren’t the only ones at risk here. The notion of the desirable bad boy is just as damaging for men. It enables and encourages bad behaviour. How can men feel comfortable displaying softness and warmth and empathy, when we constantly reinforce the idea that being a dickhead is an attractive quality?

And look, I get it: it’s a game show. But Adam’s complete lack of remorse/empathy/human emotion for Rosie as she poured her heart out was terrifying, and it really worries me that people might still be looking at him and thinking: ‘yes, he’s a literal turd, but he’s very handsome, and I’d definitely still have a crack’. Gals (and guys), it’s a no from me. Bad boys make bad boyfriends at best. And at worst…

Lesson 2: Think he’s gaslighting you? He’s probably gaslighting you.

It’s okay for your partner to drive you crazy. I often infuriate mine, with my propensity for squirrelling hairbrushes under the covers and leaving jobs half finished.

What’s not okay is for your partner to make you feel crazy. If the person you’re with repeatedly makes you uncertain and confused about your version of events, it’s important to take time to question what’s going on.

Warning signs include: overtly making you feel jealous and then denying all knowledge; recounting conversations in a way that jars with your memory of events; twisting something you did say so you can’t technically claim innocence; and insisting that your intentions were different to what they were (“you were flirting with him!” “no, I just smiled at him for serving me dinner”). Bonus point for any “I just get jealous and angry because I love you so much” manipulation.

Serious red flags include feeling permanently more anxious than you used to, walking on eggshells, avoiding confrontation, and constantly feeling like you’ve done something wrong.

Obviously this happens on both sides. But it’s in many ways trickier for women, because accusations made by gaslighters are often reinforced by negative gender stereotypes—‘she’s crazy, she’s insecure, she’s embarrassing herself’.

Not only is this toxic masculinity at its finest, it’s also bloody difficult to spot, because it’s insidious and creeping. To make it worse, these unhealthy relationships often start in a whirl of romantic passion, so you’re left thinking: ‘but this person was so great to me—surely I’m imagining this?’ Gaslighters, as a rule, are charming. They’re often good looking, and charismatic, and completely oblivious to the noxiousness of their own behaviour.

Fortunately, with Love Island being televised, it’s much clearer that Adam is indeed trash. But for those of us who don’t have the privilege of round the clock camera crews, a simple bit of advice. If you’ve got a stage where you seriously wonder if you’re being gaslit: you probably are. Please, please, get out. This can so easily spiral into serious emotional abuse. I know too many women—strong, clever, beautiful women—who have been reduced a shell by this sort of behaviour. Compile some screenshots. Share them with loved ones. You are not alone. You are not insane.

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Credit: Buzzfeed

Lesson 3: Being a ‘nice guy’ doesn’t make you the ‘right guy’

Now let’s swing to the other end of the toxic masculinity pendulum. The nice guy. The spiritual guy. Lord forgive me, but I’ve fallen for this one before. Bad boys might be horrendous, but as least they’re obvious about it.

Let’s lay it down: virtually every single man I have ever met who makes a visible point of highlighting his own ‘niceness’ has had more than a hint of the ‘tremendous shit’ about him.

Seriously, this is just not something that genuinely kind people do. Kindness is always visible without overt reference. It announces itself quietly, as does true spirituality, arriving with a soft, unflappable aura of general loveliness. It’s just obvious. Decency is like… sticky toffee pudding. Not much too look at, but by god, you know it when you smell it.

And we’ve had two notable cases of nice-guy syndrome in the villa, albeit expressed quite differently. Presenting the defendants: Eyal and Alex. Whether you agree with me or not, I offer two pieces of evidence:

Alex: ‘I was ready to treat Ellie like a princess and she’s thrown it in my face’.

Eyal: ‘I didn’t expect everything I’d worked towards to be thrown in my face’.

Sorry: nope. I had so much material for this segment, but really it boils down to the above. WTF? I’m sorry, but you virtually never hear women saying this sort of shit. And I’m not here for it. Women are not coinstars. You cannot shove pennies of niceness into us and expect to get a paper bill of adoration (or for us to ‘do bits’) in return.

Where does this attitude come from? Maybe it’s the flip side of the bad boy problem. Are we inadvertently teaching our boys that some men are so awful to women, the act of being ‘nice’ merits romantic affection? This is a gross disservice to all genders, if true.

Because let’s be clear: having nice-guy syndrome doesn’t make you a bad person. I don’t seriously dislike Alex; I think he’s probably well intentioned and quite sweet in his bumbling way. And yes, being rejected is hard. (I do think Eyal is a toe, soz). But it can make you dangerous. My stomach dropped when I saw Alex’s reaction to Ellie parring him off.

Rejection can make your chin tremble with impending tears but it shouldn’t make your nostrils flare with rage.

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Credit: Love Island Twitter

TLDR: 3 lessons from the men of Love Island.

  • When somebody shows you who they are, believe them the first time. A bad-boy dickhead will always be a dickhead, and you really don’t deserve it.
  • When your partner makes you feel crazy, walk away. (Unless you are Beyonce, crazy in love, in which case, proceed.)
  • Nice guy ≠good guy. Approach with caution.

So there we have it: my three lessons on love from the villa. You may think be thinking: ‘this is a mental heath blog, what are you blathering on about?’ but I know categorically how ignoring these lessons can lead to the detriment of your mental health. Romantic love won’t fix your mental health, but by God it can destroy it.

And this is never truer than when some poisonous gender fuckery is at play. (I’m aware this is all very binary man/woman, by the way; that’s simple because I’m limiting this to the villa. I know it’s more complex.) Learning to recognise toxic masculinity and react appropriately is vital for your self-preservation. It’s the curly-haired hippy with a nasty streak when you don’t play ball with his chakras. It’s the gorgeous, dead-behind-the-eyes lothario. It’s the well-spoken Doctor whose nostrils twitch with anger when yet another girl fails to fancy him.

And it’s complicated, because these same men can be kind and funny and good. Silly and soft, sweet and shy, charming and charismatic and side-splittingly funny. We all exist on a spectrum, and we are all products of our society.

You might think this is just 1500 words of me ranting about the opposite sex, but it’s not. I certainly have my Angry Feminist™ badge, but I adore the opposite sex; I am fortunate to be surrounded by brilliant, decent men, so there’s no reason for me not to. The reason I want to call this shit out is because it benefits all of us to identify and cull these sorts of behaviours. We all stand to benefit from living and loving in a world without toxic masculinity.

So what can we do? We can call it out, when we see it. We can reject it, when we encounter it. We can do more to teach our men that we value them most when they’re decent and thoughtful and good. We can teach women that they never deserve to be spoken to like shit, manipulated into feeling insane, or made to feel obligated by the basic human quality of kindness.

It’s not much, and it’s just some silly lessons from a silly TV show. But it’s a start.

Sorry to go all ‘he’s just not that into you’, but as a closing note… Want to know the sign of a healthy, emotionally stable man?

If somebody really likes you they will make it fairly obvious, generally be quite decent to you, and then ask you to be their girl/boyfriend.

That’s it.

It’s that simple.

(Love you, Jani).

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Credit: Love Island Twitter

 

PS.

Girls, if you’re wondering how to remodel your attitudes toward men, and how you deserve to be treated, I present: Queen Laura.

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Credit: Love Island Twitter

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The magic of simple pleasures

When was the last time you took a few days to remember the magic of simple pleasures?

That’s what I’ve been doing for the last week in the beautiful Basque city of San Sebastian, and as a result, I’m feeling more relaxed and rested than I have done in a long time. To be honest, I’d been feeling a bit worried about this trip; the region can be quite expensive, and for some silly reason I felt pressured to go to lots of expensive restaurants to make sure we had a good time.

But actually, instead of expensive day trips and pricey dinners, we focused on the simple pleasure, from enjoying cheap, local food to walking for miles and miles. As a result, it was the nicest trip I’ve been on in a long time – so here are the simple pleasure I enjoyed on the trup.

The magic of simple pleasures 

Finding the best bakery in the city (hint: it’s the one locals are queueing out the door for), buying an insane amount of pastry, and eating it overlooking the sea.

On that note: being by water, constantly. The sea or a river or a bloody big fountain. Water instantly makes me feel calm.

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Hiking, for a long time, on tricky enough terrain that you have to really think about where you’re stepping. There is such a simple, meditative bliss on focusing on nothing other than putting your feet in front of you.

Deleting work emails off your phone. Unless you have a very serious job or are an entrepreneur, it’s unlikely that you need to be contactable all the time. If your work emails are liable to stress you out despite the fact you can’t action them, why on earth would you read them?

Eating a sandwich made with cheap, local ingredients, overlooking something beautiful. San Sebastián is noted for its prevalence of Michelin star restaurants, and I seriously considered booking one with an amazing view over the city for Adam’s birthday. This would have cost circa €350, and probably would have been incredible – but honestly, eating a ham and cheese baguette at the zenith of a four hour hike, overlooking the Atlantic, was one of my favourite moments of the trip and cost approximately €10.

Watching football in a bar, eating meat and cheese piled on bread, drinking beer, talking with strangers, explaining the group stages of the world cup to Americans.

Playing cards and drinking beer with the person I love.

Reading greedily. I’ve always been a voracious and speedy reader, but over the last year, I’ve spent so much time at work reading and writing that I sometimes get home and slump out on the sofa with my phone instead of picking up a book. This week I’ve remembered the pleasure of tearing through book after book. (Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Everything I Know About Love, Affluenza, I Choose To Live, High Fidelity and About a Boy, if you’re wondering. All recommended!)

Spanish wine.

img_8192Spanish Cheesecake. (Sorry not sorry about the crappy photo: this stuff has been voted Spain’s 6th best cheesecake and I can vouch that it is DELICIOUS).

Giving myself the freedom to indulge in whatever I want to indulge in, without feeling guilty or uncomfortable.

Sleeping without an alarm, napping in the sun, cuddling in bed.

Thinking about writing without actually doing it, until the ideas build up in my brain and start bouncing around.

It’s been a stressful few weeks and I couldn’t be more relieved to be feeling myself again; next time I’m feeling frazzled, I’ll look back on this list for a reminder of the importance of simple pleasures on holiday.

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Head to my Virgin Money Giving if you’d like to donate. 

If you’ve enjoyed Nicer Thoughts at any point over the last year please consider donating, even if it’s just a £1 (or $!). It takes a lot of effort and energy to keep a blog running on top of full time work. I do it for the love of it, and I hope it helps people – but I’d love to help people with cold hard cash even more!

books for a bad day

4 Books for a bad day

When I need to pick myself up, I often like to indulge in a spot of bibliotherapy.  The following are my favourite 4 books for 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 Gordon4 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. A solid entry into books for a bad day, if only to make you laugh!

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 compiling your books for a bad day list, 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

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