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.

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.

We need to talk about… Grief, mental health, and Holly Willoughby

As I write this, I’m watching Holly and Phil. They’re lovely, aren’t they, Holly and Phil? They glow with health and giggles; if I was crying on my own in Costa, I think Holly would come over and give me a nice big hug, and the sensation of being nuzzled in her bosom would probably fix my anxiety forever. But I don’t usually get to enjoy their mid-morning hilarity, working as I do in the sort of office job that precludes proper enjoyment of English daytime telly.

But at the time of writing, instead of enjoying an 11am banana at my desk (I’m a passionate believer in an 11am pick me up), my scratchy chest, blocked nose and aching muscles have rendered me bedbound. So I’m watching morning TV and I’m shocked by the level of quiet understanding and brave expression I’m witnessing on that most awkward of subjects: grief.

It’s a ‘life after loss’ segment. A woman is on the line to Holly, Phil and the nice TV Doctor, voice cracking even as she murmurs hello. It’s her story to tell, not mine, but suffice to say she has been shattered by grief, anxiety and depression. Death has left her utterly alone. It’s hard to watch, the very antithesis of that great viral clip of Holly pissing herself with laughter during a feature on tantric orgasms.

This caller is hurting down to the sinews of her being. My bones tingle at the raw loss in her voice. Holly and Paul scarcely know how to arrange their faces, such is the agony in her words. I’m simultaneously awed by her bravery and saddened by the fact there’s nobody in her life for her the share this with.

Sadly, I can also see why she would feel that way—because in Britain, in 2017, we don’t like to talk about grief. And this seems dangerous. Grief can (understandably) easily tip over into mental illness, and whilst I’m glad we’re making a place (on national television, no less) for people to find help, we need this across the board.

We’re an awkward bunch, us Brits; talking openly about death is not the done thing. My Dad died in 2014, and I have horrified many of my fellow countrymen with stark admissions of my loss. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it’s bloody awkward. It’s deeply uncomfortable to have frank conversations about death, and the raft of emotional issues that follow.

If you’ve never experienced grief, it can be almost impossible to know how to respond. But it can’t be healthy to live in a society where we feel like we can’t even say the word ‘dead’.

Surely, surely, this inability to talk frankly must exacerbate the risk of grief turning into a mental health issue? Traditionally, grief was a shared activity. When families lived in close quarters and small-town life meant everyone knew everyone’s business, it must have been almost impossible to be left alone to grieve.

But in an increasingly insular society, it’s very possible for somebody to lose a close loved one and turn up at work three days later with nobody being any the wiser. Of course, you don’t have to go around shouting about it. Everybody has their own way of coping, and hopefully, most people do have a close support network to help them through. Likewise, although the former can and often does develop into the latter, grief should not be classified as a mental illness; it’s a natural and very important process.

But a society which doesn’t like to talk about death and grief is almost certainly a breeding ground for mental health issues. Grief is incredibly isolating, despite the fact we’ll all go through it at some point. I believe it was loneliness that catapulted my own grief into a mental health breakdown; I was living alone, away from family, studying in relative solitude and most of my friends had recently left the city I was living in after graduating.

I tried to carry on as if nothing had happened, and failed spectacularly. I was so embarrassed, feeling that I wanted to do my Dad proud by cracking on with life. But why, in hindsight, should anybody be embarrassed of their grief?

Sharing and supporting each other through grief is a way to catch people before they fall into the pit. If you’ve lost someone, know that you aren’t obliged to bury your feelings for the sake of other peoples’ embarrassment. Reach out: to family, to friends. Know that crying spontaneously and loudly on the bus doesn’t make you a pariah.

Don’t be ashamed of getting help. Seeing a counsellor earlier rather than later is a fantastic way to process grief, and stop lingering issues from developing into a mental health crisis; Cruse Bereavement care offer free advice and support.  I found a fantastic counsellor through The Counselling Directory.

And if you know somebody who has lost a loved one, please: try your hardest to be compassionate. Try to listen without looking visibly like you want to edge out of the nearest window and sprint across the carpark. It might mean more to someone than you can begin to imagine.

This is a topic I’ll be writing much, much more on, including tips for how to deal with grief and many discussions on the nature of loss. But in the meantime, all I can do is send my thoughts of compassion to anybody struggling with the loss of a loved one. You aren’t alone. I’d also direct anybody looking for more information to the wonderful charity, Mind; this page discusses the range of mental health problems that can come about after a bereavement.

A long-expected return

Two years ago today, I had a blog a bit like this one. It’s not around anymore. It was my academic blog, to be used alongside the PhD I’d just started. (The PhD’s not around any more either, funnily enough). I deleted the rest of the site, when it became apparent I wasn’t going to be heading back to academia any time soon—but there were two posts I felt a bit attached to, and couldn’t quite bring myself to bin.

One was a memorial for a man I loved very much. The other was a post where I spoke publicly, in quite some detail, about my views on mental health, and how we needed more awareness, more visibility, of this problem that seemed so rapidly to be becoming an epidemic.

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It was a good post; lots of people read it, and told me so. (You can read it here, if you like.) I wrote about being a student and having poor mental heath; the negative effect of social media, the crushing weight of imposter syndrome. I also wrote, quite candidly, about the incident of poor mental health I had suffered. Had, past-tense, done and dusted. I was ‘feeling better’ now, I coyly suggested; I may even have buoyantly claimed to be ‘absolutely loving’ (!) where I was at. I was cured. Maybe even as happy as my former self. (But probably never as happy as my toddler self).

Hindsight’s a bitch. I was just warming up.

But, regardless of what was to follow (spoiler: HUGE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN!) I still remember a feeling from that time; of sharing my innermost thoughts, and being met with warmth and kindness. There’s much healing to be had in sharing. I didn’t continue writing publicly, busy as I was with the whole ‘constructing myself into something resembling a functioning adult’ business.

But I did continue writing, and learning, and talking. After hitting a rock bottom lower than a 2008 Flo Rida hit, and slowly dragging myself back up, I tried every method going to improve my mental health, and after that, my fundamental happiness levels. I rebuilt as a person, and I wobbled, and I dipped again, but every month was a lesson. And now, two years on, I know there is no such thing as cured. There’s only learning to cope, and more importantly, learning what you need to live a happy life after suffering with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Along the way, I’ve written thousands of words about how best to live my own happy life, and the mental health crisis currently on-going in Britain in the 21st century. I’ve also had hundreds of conversations with people across the world, who’ve shared their stories and their wisdom.

I literally get paid to spend my days writing, so I always had it in mind that one day I might find a place to publish some of these thoughts.* Like Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday, my return to blogging has been long-expected by myself if no-one else. Now, on the 2-year anniversary of that post, I thought it was about time I shared some of that good stuff. It will definitely help me. It might even help someone else.

*Also: opinions, rants, recipes, and potentially some snaps of me marauding around London, or going on holidays I can’t really afford.