Picture this: I’m on a train from Glastonbury to Oxford. Having been away for a few months, I’m finally heading home. I have no contract on a house – no roof over my head to return to – though, somehow, things don’t seem daunting. I’m heading home.
Isn’t it strange how a place can feel like home, even when you’re not necessarily returning to a bed in a room with material possessions? A few weeks ago, I was sitting on that train with a bursting-at-the-seams suitcase and a backpack twice the size of me, knowing that I’d spend the next few weeks on the floors and sofas of my friends. Even though the concept of being without a physical home was, at times, terrifying, I was so ready to be back in the city I love, surrounded by friends that feel like family.
It’s safe to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own concept of ‘home’ recently.
I suppose, for the last few years, physical ‘homes’ have always felt quite temporary to me. I mean, I lived in a tent for a little while – one of my favourite homes so far – but I always knew that it couldn’t last forever. It was a great few months, whilst the weather was good and our jobs permitted us to travel, but then it ended. After a rocky transitioning period of maybe-living-in-a-caravan and maybe-ending-up-sleeping-above-a-pub-in-Witney, we finally found our little studio flat. Even then, though, Beth and I shared such a small space, and I stayed on a pull-out bed on the floor; that home, too, felt temporary.
Maybe that’s how physical homes always feel, though? I’ve always been a little jealous of friends that still have parents that live in their childhood homes, because that idea feels a little more solid to me. A little more permanent. I had one main childhood home, but from the age of fourteen, we moved house a bit – always in the same village, but still different houses. When I moved to university, my family grew with my mum’s new partner and his daughter, and they rented a few different places before buying the house they now live in. Sometimes, I’d go home for Christmas to a house that I hadn’t even seen before.
Yet still, when I say I’m going back to see my family, even though I’ve only been to their new house a handful of times, I say I’m going home. Because home is not a physical place for me. It never has been.
If I’m heading back to the North to see my family, I’ll always be going home. I have connections to every village neighboring the one where my family now live: school days in Chorley, sixth form and nights out in Wigan, day trips to Manchester, iced coffee on park benches in Bolton… When I head back to Bath – the city that I lived in for four-and-a-bit years – I say I’m going home. Of course I am, because there are still people I love there. Maybe if I go back to Glastonbury next festival season, that will feel like going home, too – because of the people I met and the connections I made there.
Edinburgh is a city I’ve always been to alone; a city where I finished my first book and found so much of myself in the cobbled stone streets and teetering stacks of well-read books. It will always feel like home, maybe not because of the friends I made there, but because of the characters I created, the scenes I painted, and the conversations I wrote whilst travelling on my own.
Maybe I’m fortunate enough to have left pieces of my heart in cities all over the world.
So, here I am. Back in Oxford. I’m home. I’ve been sofa surfing with some wonderful friends for a few weeks, and I’ve finally found my own flat. It’s a one bedroom apartment in a building due to be demolished (not in the near future, don’t worry), so I’ll be a property guardian, which essentially means the rent is cheap and they can give me a month’s notice -as can I with them. It also means I have to commit to 16 hours of volunteering a month, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while anyway, and I can decorate however I like.
It’ll be the first time I’ve ever lived alone, and the first time I’ll have the freedom to paint and decorate and furnish my own place. I can’t invest too much time or money into it, because I could be given my months notice at any time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make it my own. It will be temporary, like all of my other homes so far, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the time I have in it. I can make it cosy and unique and a place where I can relax and write and grab a few hours of peace at the end of a long day.
I’m slowly learning that just because things are temporary, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them.
If I’m only in this flat for a few months, that’s fine. It’s impermanent, but still special. Time will pass and things will change and I will still have a home. I will still always have a home, because I don’t just have one.
My homes are in the company of those I love, scattered across cities where I lived and loved and left and came back.
Home is where the heart is – and my heart is, truly, all over the place.
In this issue, we’ll explore three practical ways you can build your self-confidence, accompanied by beautiful artwork by Michael Harkness.
We are works in progress: 3 tips to build self-confidence
I’m sure we’ve all felt that pang of jealousy when we meet someone self-assured and unfazed by other’s opinions. We’ve all been excited about an idea or opportunity, only to have our inner critic tear us down once again. So, what is self-confidence, and how the hell do we get our hands on it?
Self-confidence is defined as having belief in oneself. It’s being able to trust in your own abilities and judgments; to be aware of your capability and resilience. Self-confidence is important because it, essentially, brings happiness. When we’re confident in ourselves, we have a better sense of self-worth, and freedom from self-doubt, fear, and anxiety.
For many of us, fear really does hold us back in many areas of our lives, even when we don’t consciously recognize it. But I’ve been hitting the books (naturally) and the world wide web (duh), and I’ve learned some stuff about self-confidence, and how we can nick some for ourselves.
This one seems to crop up a lot, but it seems like a really important way to learn more about yourself and to build your self-confidence. Trying new things, pushing back the barriers, and jumping out of our comfort zones is a way of proving ourselves to… well, ourselves. If you can push yourself to do something you never thought you could – or something you’ve just never considered doing – you gain confidence in yourself. Hence, self-confidence. Expand the limitations you’ve set for yourself, and feel that little glow of pride start to grow inside of you.
Beth’s top tip: Start by setting a small challenge, like talking to a stranger. This could be a casual meeting at a bus stop, an opportunity to buy a homeless bloke a coffee, or a nice chat with your early-morning barista. One way I’ve been building my self-confidence is by trusting that I’m capable of holding interesting, intelligent conversations with friends and strangers.
2. Give yourself permission to be a work in progress
This self-confidence malarkey won’t happen overnight. It’s a journey, and that journey might take a long time. What matters is that you care enough about yourself and your self-worth to take yourself on that journey.
Failure is inevitable: sometimes, you’ll try to push yourself out of your comfort zone and it won’t work out. You might be embarrassed or overwhelmed. But, hey, imagine if you did that thing you’re so afraid of for the second time, or the third, and something amazing happened? Imagine that swell of self-confidence as you realize you’re capable, worthy, and strong. Sometimes visualizing yourself as successful is the biggest motivator for change.
Trust that it’s okay not to be perfect. Nobody is.
Beth’s top tip: I like art journalling as a tool to learn more about myself and ground myself in my current situation. It’s like writing a diary, but a little more creative. Start by creating a background on a page, then try some mindfulness techniques to help you feel grounded in your body and mind. Write about your day – or just draw what comes to mind. You’ll love looking back on entries and seeing how far you’ve come.
3. Speak kindly to yourself
‘Don’t do that, you’ll make a fool out of yourself…’, ‘You’re not as good as they are at that’, ‘Don’t express your opinion – you’re probably going to make everyone hate you…’ … Anyone else guilty of these thoughts? Because I certainly am.
It’s time to change the inner-dialogue. Practicing self-compassion is the new In Thing (in my world, anyway!) and it will honestly change how you feel about yourself for the better. Be kind to yourself – if you’re struggling with this, picture yourself as a young child or teenager. Would you be telling that child that they weren’t worthy of success? Would you be telling that teenager not to speak out about their struggles – to keep it all bottled up?
Challenge your inner critic. They’re not all they’re cracked up to be. A friend of mine sent me this great TED Talk the other day called ‘This talk isn’t very good’ – it’s only ten minutes and it’s wonderful if you want inspiration to start to combat the little negative voice inside your head.B
Beth’s top tip: Try to be mindful of when your inner narrative is taking on a negative tone. Try to reword certain phrases that you’re repeating to yourself. Practice makes perfect, and if you can build up your own internal confidence, what other people think of you will matter less and you’ll start respecting yourself and valuing your own thoughts and opinions more. If you’re struggling – fake it til’ you make it. I spent a long time standing in front of a mirror telling myself how RAD I looked; these days, I almost believe it.
Take care of yourselves and start making changes to build your self-confidence. You deserve it.
Thanks for all of the love and support that you guys have shared for volume 1 of #FreedomFriday. Volume 2 begins March 1st 2019 — send submissions over to firstname.lastname@example.org!
It’s been nearly two weeks since I took the plunge into honesty, and I want to continue sharing my struggles and successes with you all. Though recovery will never be completely rainbows and butterflies, this week I’ve found love and laughter in unexpected places.
Back on the EDU last year, one of the nurses told me the average time it takes someone to recover from an eating disorder is seven years. At the time, I thought she was depressing and disheartening. Now, I realise she was just trying to warn me: there is no quick fix, and even when your physical health stabilizes, there will always be emotional issues to tackle. It’s never as simple as ‘just eating’: it’s a long, winding road of learning and un-learning thoughts and behaviours.
This being said, the last week has been a good week for me, recovery-wise. After the initial sharing of my story for the first time (which was equal parts terrifying and liberating), I started the week positive and motivated. I’m currently on a 16-month waiting list for one-to-one therapy (tell me NHS budget cuts don’t exist, I dare you), but I’m lucky enough to be in regular contact with the EDU here in Oxford, and I’ve found their support really helpful so far.
A few days ago, I had an appointment with my new dietitian. It’s always nerve-wracking meeting a new member of my key support team, but she was a cracking lady; really supportive and down-to-earth. We had a ten-minute conversation about our shared love of sourdough, so that was great. I thought it’d be helpful to share some of the processes that I go through with my recovery – for those still suffering who have yet to seek help. Seeking help for your ED is the first step – and the hardest one – but I’d like to raise awareness of the fact that, although it’s scary, it’s vital in order to get the freedom you deserve.
So, my appointment with my new dietitian lasted about two hours. This is totally normal for dietitian appointments, though sometimes they vary and can be a little shorter. Usually for this kind of thing, I’ll be expected to go up to the eating disorder inpatient unit – though some units will have separate buildings for outpatients, and sometimes I might meet my dietitian at the main hospital. We talked about my current situation and how we could work together to make small changes that would benefit me in my recovery. While I’m still waiting for psychological support, it’s important to have a steady intake and sleep schedule, and to try and drop some of the unhealthy coping mechanisms my little brain has been clinging onto.
Because I’ve made some progress with my diet and weight over the past few weeks, this meeting was different from the others I’ve had. My dietitian has given me some timetable-come-meal-plan sheets that I have to use to keep track of intake and compensatory behaviours, and I’ve also been given a little CBT hand-out to help me remember the ‘new rules’. I thought it might be helpful for you guys to see:
You may find it totally bizarre that there are times when anorexics are ‘not allowed’ to eat – but this is a big thing in recovery! Even back in group therapies, we weren’t allowed any food or drink (aside from water) inside our sessions. There’s always been a huge emphasis on eating at the *right* times, and this is because a) it’s important to get into a good routine, for physical things like your metabolism, as well as psychological impact and b) it allows you to listen to your hunger signals.
Hunger signals are another big thing, let me tell you. For your average non-disordered person, they will feel hungry around lunchtime, and they’ll eat. For someone with an ED, feeling hungry is almost constant; sometimes we might feel hungry even after we’ve eaten, and sometimes we’ll feel so hungry that this can lead to periods of ‘bingeing’ which damages our stomachs – constantly shrinking and swelling – and our minds. So, until we’ve learned to train our minds and bodies to expect food at certain times, we’re unable to trust when we’re hungry and when we should be eating.
As you can see from the handout I was given, there are rules about the flexibility of mealtimes (1hr max), using compensatory behaviours (that’s a no-go) and eating outside of these set times (totally forbidden). So, my new rules are pinned up in my bedroom and I’ve jumped head-first into trying to achieve my goals. Also, my dietitian has clocked on to my competitive-ness and is definitely trying to provoke me in any way she can. She’s a smart lady (I hate that).
Another thing you can expect when recovering with the help of ED services is a lot of scans and blood tests. You kind of get over the needle thing after a little while! This week I didn’t have any blood tests, as I had them the week prior, but I did have a good old ECG and a DEXA scan.
So, for those who don’t know – an ECG is where you go (to your GP) and they stick lots of sticky pads all over your body and measure your heart rate. This is because those with ED’s will often have heart irregularities, like a heart-rate too quick or too slow. Deep in my disorder around fourteen months ago, my heart rate was very slow due to over-exercising (yeah, that can happen!), but this time, it was looking pretty healthy (#winning). It’s important to ask for an ECG if you think you may have an eating disorder – even if you feel you don’t ‘look underweight’, your heart can suffer from lack of nutrients, and it’s important to keep an eye on it.
A DEXA scan scans your bones to check their density. When people develop ED’s whilst their bones are still growing and developing (aka teens – twenties), it can lead to osteopena and osteoporosis. DEXA scans are super quick and easy – you lie on a table and put your legs on a raised block. It takes maybe ten minutes, if that. It does not involve getting in a tunnel. But, if you’re very lucky (and you forget to wear a non-underwired bra), you might get to rock one of these cool hospital scrub gowns.
My radiologists were hilarious and super interested in my writing: in fact, both of them jotted down my name and book title to ‘buy it when it’s published!’. So, uh, I guess I have to get it published now, if only to save me the embarrassment…! It’s always lovely to have good chat and banter with hospital staff: they make a routine check-up an actual enjoyable experience.
So, that’s my week for you! Lots of appointments, kind, friendly nurses, and laughter with some rad radiologists. It’s been wild; and I’ve mostly stuck to my new plans, so I’m calling this week a Recovery Win.
I also just want to throw it out there that my diagnosis of Atypical Anorexia Nervosa means that for most of my disorder, I was not underweight. A common misconception – and one that AAN sufferers often internalise – is that you have to be underweight to be ‘actually sick’. This isn’t true. If you can relate at all to what I’m talking about, I’d urge you to seek help. One of the nurses at the Bristol EDU once told me that AAN can often be more dangerous than other eating disorders, because your internal organs are suffering, but you might not ‘look the part’ and therefore not seek treatment. There’s a reason it has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. You’ve nothing to lose by speaking to your GP. Trust your instincts and find freedom through honesty.
Thank you so much for your comments on #FreedomFriday’s COURAGE issue, it does – and always will – mean the world. As always, questions and feedback can be shot my way at email@example.com – as can submissions for #FreedomFriday.
In this issue, we have more beautiful poetry from Danny Steele and stunning artwork from Sophie Victoria Rowe accompanying a heartfelt essay from Finn McCarty about body image, being transgender, and fighting to find who he truly is.
the death of an old story
you sit now. right here with my friends, blame, shame and fear they are here chatting away you should know they talk a lot, they will do all day love them all. embrace them all. The light of all is the soul of one, the soul of one is the one i am Embrace death, the death of an old story with a smile with acceptance and grace for it’s not often we look at death and laugh squarely in it’s face.
by Danny Steele
I wake up on an island, completely isolated from the world I thought i knew so well. I’m looking out onto the horizon, and when the fog clears, I spot a silhouette in the distance. I try to call out, but it feels as if my voice has been chained to the bottom of my constricting throat. After wrestling with the sinking sand for an eternity, I spend another falling to my knees. The silhouette of the man I should be plunges into the water with me, and when I open my scorching eyes, he cracks a wicked smile and whispers, “You will never be me.”
I’m beginning to lose count of how many times I’ve stopped and questioned myself. How many times I’ve shot out of bed with my heart in my throat and my body a shaking mess because I couldn’t slow down my train of thought. I couldn’t stop it from going off course and plummeting straight into the inevitable. I can never seem to shake off this feeling of static, especially when I’m in front of a mirror. If I let that train run too long, like when I think about the inevitable, I begin to crumble. I’m constantly obsessing over those curves and edges- ones I know so deep down shouldn’t be there at all.
I spent most of the seventh grade trying to mimic what the girls in my school were wearing. My grandma had previously given me a bunch of her old makeup, and from time to time I would dreadfully attempt to apply it in a way that was similar to the trends I had noticed. It was as evident as a zebra on a horse farm that I had no idea what I was doing, or why I was doing it. I felt like an idiot down to every last moment. I was jealous to the core of how natural it was for the other girls to walk around flawlessly and with ease, as if they weren’t fighting back tears when they wore dresses. I was trapped in this void of lost dignity, and little did I know that I wasn’t alone.
Come eighth grade, I was still as lost as ever, but getting my first super-short haircut made me the most confident I had been in a while. But of course, being the intensely negative person I was – and sometimes, still am – it eventually came crashing down on me. When the daily bouts of extreme depression and anxiety dawned on me, I would push my dark purple dyed hair over my eyes and pray for eternal sleep. I sunk lower and lower in my ocean, and soon enough I was hitting the bottom. Soon enough it was the one horrendous day when I held a knife in my hand and sobbed as I scratched the surface of my skin.
The realization struck me right there and then, when I began to cut at my breast tissue: I was not a girl.
When I’m asked about it, there’s nothing I can do but put on a fake smile and say, “I’ve always known.” I never talk about the years of pain; the pain I still feel from time to time. The fear of rejection. The universal fear of the unknown. I still fear that I will never reach my goal to this day. All I want is to be the man I was meant to be, before my time on this puzzling planet is up.
But lately, as I’ve been slowly swimming my way back to shore, I see millions of my brothers and sisters trapped in the wrong body. I am not alone, and neither are you. We are who we are, and what we look like on the outside makes no difference.
No matter what body I’m in, I am Finn. And I am a boy.
by Finn McCarty
I saw you today
I saw you today I saw your aliveness today you’re alive with aliveness you who i see on the bus, a face in the clouds your voice in the raindrops that fall on my face the heat of the sun and you are there i see your soul when i look inside myself i feel your heart you are there and yet….you are not you, who has lived many lives you who will continue to do so i miss you darling
by Danny Steele
Thank you for reading this week’s issue of #FreedomFriday. To submit your words or artwork for next week’s issue ‘SELF-CONFIDENCE’, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this second issue, we have poetry from Danny Steele, artwork from Sophie Victoria Rowe, and I talk openly for the first time about creative writing and mental health recovery.
every time with you matters
I wonder what it’s like for you I say wonder as sometimes i don’t know or can’t hear or don’t hear or won’t hear
I carry on, like an elephant trampling through the wild grass thinking ahead
time waits for noone spending time as us has been toxic, ‘us’ has become toxic, reactionary, defensive the kryptonite cutting through the ice, a blackened flower wilted in the heat.
rage pain rage repeat
in this, in this there is hope, there is potential through the pain: There is always room for celebration, there is always room to hear what is really being said
growth love growth repeat every time with you matters you are important, we are significant i enjoy it most when we just be
by Danny Steele
Writing yourself well: my creative journey
It’s so easy to lose ourselves. There are always things that need to be done, relationships we need to maintain, responsibilities we just can’t escape. Not to mention, holding on to the essence of who we are is becoming harder and harder as technology develops. We create different versions of ourselves to present on social media, to our bosses, our friends, our parents. So how can we find the courage to be truly ourselves in a society that tells us who we are isn’t good enough?
I struggled with my identity for many years. I was such a perfectionist, and so desperate to be equal parts successful and likeable in whatever pursuits I chose, that I created so many personalities I couldn’t keep track. At work, I wanted to be a loveable colleague and a valuable employee. At university, I wanted to be effortlessly successful and get the highest grade I was capable of. At home, I needed to be a perfect daughter and sister, always available to help and love and support.
But I was spreading myself too thin with all of the things I wanted to be. I’m a perfectionist anyway – a risky trait that I’m still trying to work on – and maintaining the high standards I’d set for myself just wasn’t realistic. My mental and physical health was suffering, and I had to find a way to get back to myself before I forgot who I was completely.
At nineteen, I was diagnosed with depression and began to develop an eating disorder. It started subconsciously, and without any effort to lose weight, but soon began to snowball out of control. Because I’d have periods of restriction and eating normally, my weight fluctuated, and this made it hard to ever admit that I had a problem. Somewhere inside, I knew I was grasping at control by using food and exercise, but I never fully understood why. As long as I wasn’t stick thin, I didn’t have to admit to myself – or anyone else – that there was in issue at all.
Over the next year, as my University workload increased, and I pushed myself to continue getting top grades in every assignment, I became more restrictive with my eating. People began to congratulate me on my weight loss, and this only fuelled my disordered thinking – leading me to believe that this was something else I was succeeding in. Every day, my disordered behaviours were more prominent, and the illness felt more and more like a part of my identity.
I continued my cycle of revolving personalities until I couldn’t anymore. A friend convinced me to go to the doctors, where I was diagnosed with Atypical Anorexia and assigned weekly weigh-ins, blood tests and ECG’s to monitor my physical health. But there was no psychological support available, and this lack of resources only convinced me I wasn’t ‘sick enough’ to receive treatment: something that I realised, much later, was a common belief in anorexic and bulimic patients. I was put on a waiting list for a specialist treatment program. I waited eleven months and was underweight by the time I was admitted.
It’s my first time writing about any of this, and terrifying as even most of my family and friends have yet to hear my story. It’s strange writing about a time when I was so unhappy, when to the outside world, it probably didn’t seem that way at all.
The ten weeks I spent on the program at an eating disorder unit in Bristol really were beneficial. The girls I met there were incredible, and I’ll always treasure our heart-to-hearts at the end of every session. Group therapy was something I’d never done before – in fact, I’d never done any kind of therapy before – and I was surprised to find that most of the sessions involved writing of some sort.
Spoiler alert: the story is less depressing from here on out.
Almost every group therapy had us writing something. Sometimes it was letters to our future selves, to our bodies, to each other – but the biggest piece of work we produced was our Life Map. Each week, one of us would present our life to the rest of the group. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write (harder than this post, even!), but after reading my story to the rest of the girls, it was like a weight had been lifted that I didn’t even realise was there.
The treatment ended with us writing letters of encouragement and support to each other and taking home a little envelope of kind words. I still have mine now, and I hope I always cling onto it. At the end of the day, that envelope holds more than just kind words: it holds hope for the future, for all of us.
Figuring out that I could use writing as a form of therapy was an epiphany for me. The end of treatment was scary and isolating, but I had something that I could take with me and use in my recovery. This will sound like greeting-card levels of cheesiness, but I really did get back to myself through writing. Having that initial courage to explore my emotions and problematic aspects of my personality on paper was the hardest part, but once I’d started, I never stopped.
Around the time I finished the program, I had just started my Masters degree. Had it been a few months earlier, the anorexia would have been pushing me to get perfect grades, never hand in anything that would get less than a First, attend every lesson… As it happens, I started my manuscript for the course with one thing in mind: to get back to who I really was.
I started with an exercise that I now teach in my writing workshops for mental health recovery: splitting the self.
When I was starting my Masters, I was still clinging onto my eating disorder. If there was one thing I learnt in hospital, it was that eating disorders develop for a reason, and often that reason is to help you cope. They are helpful, in a twisted way, and that makes them hard to give up. Writing about my disorder was still too raw – and I knew, somewhere, that it would do me more harm than good. So, I took my writing in a different direction: not autobiography, but fiction.
Exploring yourself through fiction is great. Honestly, it’s wonderful.
I began by taking two identities I had: Beth, who, let’s be real, I was kind of losing sight of, and this disorder. I took them away from myself, separated myself completely from them, and made them into two different characters: Etta, and Violet.
My manuscript I AM ETTA was born. I began with a writing exercise that I’d encourage you to try yourself, if you’re looking to do a little soul searching.
It starts with picking an identity.
I am a daughter.
I am a writer.
Et cetera. Pick your identity, and split it.
I am a good daughter, and I am a bad daughter.
I am a motivated writer, and I am a lazy writer.
You have two different identities now, but they’re so much more than that. They are two different characters. The good and the bad. Or, as one of my students described it, “Myself, and my shadow self.”
The next thing you do is give your two identities names. They aren’t you anymore. They are completely separate. It’s important to humanise these characters, and to make them into fully independent, fictional beings – because it’s hard to examine our flaws on paper. It’s hard to admit that we might not be so great in aspects of our personalities, but when you think about these characters, you will start to realise that there is a motivation behind everyone.
Even the worst parts of yourself have joys, loves, goals. Every antagonist is the protagonist of their own story, in a way.
Once I’d given my characters names, I started to jot down some words, images, and phrases that I could associate with each of them. I made two little tables, looking something like this:
Etta – “Well self”
Violet – “Ill self”
Childlike curiosity Stacks of well-read books The colour of the sky Kindness Chalky poetry on pavements Bravery
An unexploded bomb Manipulative Hailstones on bare skin A cloudy sky before a storm Flashes of manic laughter Neon colours that hurt your eyes
Do the same for your characters. Think carefully about emotions and descriptions.
With my writing workshop groups, I usually get students to put their two characters into different scenarios. Where might they meet? How might you think about bringing them together through a narrative?
What might they learn from each other?
Writing I AM ETTA helped me to explore my own emotions and motivations through a completely separate and fictional narrative. More than that, it helped me paint a picture of recovery for myself. I walked with Etta through her darkest moments, cried as I wrote about her suffering, but then I brought her up. I watched her grow. I was right there with her as she started her first steps towards recovery.
Through writing my manuscript, I was able to write myself well again.
I brought the focus that was on my eating habits onto my writing instead. Through nourishing my body, I had more time and energy to put into honing my craft. I graduated my Master’s degree with a Distinction, and feedback that I AM ETTA was a deeply moving and publishable piece of work.
The manuscript now sits on the desk of my agent, awaiting feedback, but it won’t matter to me if a publisher doesn’t decide to pick it up. Writing that book was the therapy I needed; a piece of writing that healed me in ways I might never fully understand.
The point of this essay is not only to shed light on a story that I’ve kept in the dark for so many years, but to show others that writing might be the way to wellness for them, too. Now several months into my recovery from depression and anorexia, I’ve been running workshops in Oxford on writing for mental health recovery. I’ve received wonderful feedback from students on all the different ways they’ve found pieces of themselves in their writing, and I’ve hope for the future that I’ll find more ways to heal myself and others through the simple act of creativity.
You can read the blurb for I AM ETTA on the Bookshelf website here, and in February 2019 you’ll be able to read an extract from the first few chapters of the manuscript.
Thank you for reading my story. It took courage to write, but that’s the whole point of #FreedomFriday. If you have your own story, poetry, artwork or creative writing to share, contact me at email@example.com.
It’s January; the dreaded ‘diet season’, and the worst month for those of us already struggling with negative body image. But guess what? It’s not too late to make New Year’s Resolutions – and we can resolve to ignore society telling us that shedding a few pounds is the only way to have a great 2019.
So, here are some resolutions to make this year that might actually change your life because, trust me, losing weight won’t change a single thing.
Stray away from routine. When your body is bored, your brain is bored. Walk a different route to work in the mornings. Go to a different cafe for your morning coffee (and, as a barista, I’d recommend going to your local independent, rather than your local Starbucks!). Change what you have for breakfast every day: there’s more out there than toast and cereal, I promise.
Keep a journal. I can’t stress enough how much writing can benefit your mental health. It’s something I’ve been studying (and practising) for a few years now, and I’ve found that sometimes, even just scribbling down a few lines about why I’m so irrationally angry can really help me find rationality. Writing your feelings down validates them on paper, and suddenly makes this invisible emotion visible again. And if it doesn’t work for you therapeutically – it’s always funny to read back over and wonder what the hell you were thinking…!
Try something new each week. This is a classic resolution for me, but it’s a great one. Similarly to straying from routine, trying something new once in a while stimulates your brain and keeps you from falling into dull, repetitive actions. Trying new foods, reading new books – even buying a new item of clothing. Keep life exciting by keeping it unpredictable.
Speak to strangers. I’ve made some great friends at bus stops. You’d be surprised by how many people are quite happy to be spoken to – and actually how many people’s days you can truly improve with a simple hello. Working in retail and hospitality can be a great way to do this (hear me out – every cloud has a silver lining…). Barista-ing is such a nice way to have an excuse to talk to people. And let’s skip the ‘how’s your day going?’ and start asking more interesting questions. Where’d you buy your shoes? What’s your favourite dairy alternative? Etc, etc…
Listen to more podcasts. Podcasts are a great way to learn things without even trying. I’ve started listening to podcasts instead of music before I go to sleep, now, and every so often I’ll play one on the bus into work in the morning. Some of my favourites are Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place (great inspiring, funny conversations with celebrities on real-life topics) and The Guilty Feminist (hilarious, motivational – give it a go!).
Revel in your independence. See the latest #FreedomFriday for an expansion of this – but really, you are your own person. You could change your life in a single day if you wanted to. You are in charge of every decision you make – and you should enjoy every bit of independence you have. Be proud of the choices you make. Try not to second-guess yourself. Be brave.
Realise that the only person who needs to think well of you, is you. I’ve spent most of my life so far worrying about what people think of me, and trying to get people to like me. Recently, after moving to a new city, I decided to see what would happen if I just let myself choose, what to do – rather than let others’ opinions of me decide. Let me tell you; I’ve been wearing the same pair of dungarees for weeks and I’ve ditched all make-up aside from my eyebrow pencil – and I feel great. If you feel most confident when you take time to do your hair and make-up in the morning, then start setting your alarm earlier to make sure you have time to feel good instead of rushing around at 6a.m. If you feel good about yourself and your appearance, that’s all that matters. Nobody really cares what you look like, they all just care about what they look like to others; but you only start to truly realise when you stop caring, too.
Be kind to yourself this January. Ignore everything you’ll see this month that implies your self-worth is based on your weight. You’re fine just how you are, and your confidence in yourself is both radiant and contagious.
In this first issue, E.F. McAdam talks ditching the career job to benefit her mental health, Alice Bethan Thomas explains how CBT helped free her from anxiety, and we have fresh, emotive artwork from Dayna Ortner‘s latest exhibition – as well as top tips for first-time solo travellers.
Breaking free: the dreaded Career Job by E.F. McAdam
I got a job in an office, because that’s what I was supposed to do.
I went to my sixth form because that’s what my parents wanted. I went to university because all my friends went; Bath Spa to do Creative Writing. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and met some amazing people, found my independence and grew up a lot, but I didn’t really need to go.
Either way, when I graduated and moved to Manchester, I was looking for office jobs. Nothing in particular, and I was given a job within a company doing invoices.
It was boring as hell. And I was told that was normal.
No one likes their jobs.
It’ll lead somewhere.
It’ll get better.
But it didn’t get better. It slowly got worse, making me spiral into depression, until I finally realised;
What am I doing this for?
So I quit. Commence the first stigma I faced – unemployment.
It’s one thing to face a bit of worry from family and close friends, but a whole other to have peers telling me I was a ‘leech’ to the system, even when I didn’t even go on the dole. I didn’t want to – I had savings and very supportive family to help me out for the few months I didn’t have a job.
Of course, I found another easily enough – in the service industry. Enter the second stigma – that a service job isn’t a ‘career’ job, an ‘adult’ job… a ‘real’ job.
Where has this come from? Who decided that the service industry was lesser than the regular 9-5 office job? When did working eight to ten hours a day, on your feet, helping people, smiling and serving food and coffee, become lesser than sitting on your arse and answering the phone?
Who did I help in my office job? A handful of people who happened to use the company and wanted a refund, or to tell me the invoice was wrong, or to tell me I was useless and unhelpful and want to ‘talk to my manager’.
In my current role, I make people smile. I give out free drinks and make someone’s day. I spread a smile and happiness and good food. I haven’t met an angry customer. My team are my friends and my managers super supportive. In the few months I have been here, I have been told how great I am, how smiley and happy, and have been put on progression pathways.
Still, my friends and family think my job lesser. How? Why?
I just don’t understand. Our generation is stuck in service industry roles, and I get that it’s not for everyone. I get tired, I get fed up of it. But to think of my time in an office, the monotony, the upset, the feeling that I just didn’t want to get up in the morning – I’m better off.
And it upsets me when people say that they have to get an office job. Like it’s the only way to progress. To ‘move forward’. To ‘be an adult’.
What I say is – think for yourself.
I’ve found I work better on my feet, meeting people and having a changing environment. By all means, if an office job suits you better, do it. Just don’t follow the conventions and dismiss something as ‘going backwards’ or ‘beneath you’ because that’s what you’ve been taught to think.
Do what you love. Be independent. And please, be supportive of those who feel differently from you – we’re all individuals, after all.
Just don’t follow the conventions and dismiss something as ‘going backwards’ or ‘beneath you’ because that’s what you’ve been taught to think.
Independence from anxiety: a journey through CBT by Alice Bethan Thomas
When I say I have anxiety, I mean that I wake up every
morning with a ball of tangled thread for a brain. I don’t know what will
unravel when I choose a string to pull on. I don’t know what else will be
caught up in that mess. I don’t know what I’ll be afraid of today.
Well, it wouldn’t be that hard to take an educated guess.
There are often a number of repeat offenders in there.
You are not enough
It’s your fault
this terrible, awful thing happened
You never do the right
thing. Everything you do goes wrong
It’s taken me years to understand these are anxious
thoughts, because they weren’t always this little voice in my head telling me
how terrible I was. They looked more like this:
I’m not good enough
This awful thing is my
fault. It must be. I did something to make it happen
I never get anything right. I
always do the wrong thing
There’s only a two letter difference from the word ‘I’ to
the word ‘You’, but it changes everything.
When there isn’t a separate voice taunting me, but an echo
that looks like my conscience observing, these thoughts begin to sound like the
truth. They master the art of imitating me until they’re near impossible to
separate from the actual truth. And I believe them.
I have believed
them for most of my life, not realising it was not myself speaking but an
anxiousness instead. I thought I must just be the worst person in the world,
and nothing I tried would ever change that. I thought I deserved to feel this
way, that it was normal, that I was fine. This is just what it feels like to be
If you’re far enough from the shore, drowning can look like
treading water. The chains around your ankles – well maybe they’re not weighing
you down but holding you in place.
So, sticking with the water metaphor, how did I learn to
swim?In real life it takes time and patience, a good coach on your side
cheering for you, and it’s probably best to start in the shallow end.
The first step I took in defiance of anxiety was admitting
it existed. I accepted it was there, and I had a mountain to climb. And then it
took me far too long to accept I also needed to ask for help. My GP referred me
for cognitive behaviour therapy. CBT is a talk therapy; you talk through your
negative patterns, find the roots and triggers for them and learn new
techniques that rewire the way you think and react.
One of the worst parts of anxiety can be the lack of control
you have. You cannot control what thoughts come into your head, or the physical
way your body might respond to it, or the things you’re unable to do today.
However, CBT did help me see that I had a choice over my
reaction, and how I chose to treat that thought when it took up residence in my
head. To be honest, not everything I learnt in anxiety helped me and I don’t
remember all that I should. I wasn’t in the most stable place when I started
therapy, so probably wasn’t fully prepared to begin recovery properly.And in
all honesty, it didn’t ‘fix’ me, or send me back home anxiety-free.
But, slowly, word by word, it did start to help me. I learnt
that everything that had made a home in my head did not belong there. I
understood that I had the power to remove what should not be there, and to
write a clear line between truth and lies.
One of these sessions became the forge where I built my most
effective weapon against anxiety. It was an exercise called ‘Judging Thoughts’.
This kicked off a visible shift in my recovery journey; I left feeling the
change for once, feeling that I wasn’t just going through the motions, stuck in whatever cage anxiety
had chosen for me that day. I had dug down into the dirt and found a key.
My therapist described this exercise as putting your
thoughts on trial. In a court of law, the side defending and the side
prosecuting will each present their arguments, with credible evidence to back
up their claims. Based on these arguments the judge or jury present a verdict.
And this is what I did. We created a table with whatever
hideous thought that was plaguing me in the first column. Next, I had to present
the evidence for this thought being the truth. It couldn’t be a feeling or a
‘just because it must be’. It had to
be solid and actual fact. Next we thought of the evidence against this thought.
I had to grade how much I believed the thought, then based on the evidence
whether this was a truth or not. If it was not, I had to amend it for the
The more you do this exercise the quicker you’ll get at it,
to the point that you won’t need to write them down and can just judge their
worth as they appear. But the effect of seeing the words I had accepted as absolute
truths discredited beyond doubt, to see them written down next to a stark,
white ‘Evidence For’ column was life-changing.
This is not my truth.
This person whose skin I have lived in for so long is not me. I am free.
The biggest question the universe can ask you is probably ‘Who are you?’. It’s all we ever look for, the light we chase from ocean to ocean. It’s why people have passions, why they move cities, why young adults leave their parents and home behind. The search for independence is an act of finding yourself, or at least the version of yourself you most want to be.
But I had no chance at finding independence while I was a
prisoner to anxiety; it didn’t want me to learn who I should be. Anxious lies
latch as closely as they can; they will find a truth and nestle beneath it,
they will bite it apart and take some of it to wear as a coat. Hiding in plain
sight, they pass as a truth.
CBT was difficult and scary, but it was also a torch I was
able to throw into the dark places of my mind. The more I used it, the more the
lies began to splinter and run. The more real truth I uncovered, the less hold
anxiety had over me and the easier it became to spot.
I know what anxious thoughts sound like now. I can catch
them and judge them before I begin believing them too deeply. It’s no longer
allowed to speak to me in my voice; and it’s so much easier to tell an
independent thought to shut up than yourself. With a calmer mind, the reality
of who I am whispers clearly.
I’m no longer paddling in the deep end; I’m walking towards the shore.
The biggest question the universe can ask you is probably ‘Who are you?’. It’s all we ever look for, the light we chase from ocean to ocean. It’s why people have passions, why they move cities, why young adults leave their parents and home behind. The search for independence is an act of finding yourself, or at least the version of yourself you most want to be.
Alice Bethan Thomas
Travelling alone for the first time: tips and tricks
Whether you’re planning your first little solo holiday, or you’re ready to jet off travelling by yourself for a few months, make sure you’ve planned ahead. I’m all for spontaneity, but travelling alone requires a little more thought than when you’re off out with the squad.
Check the safety of your location, especially if you’re female. I know, I know. It’s 2019 (!) now, and us ladies shouldn’t have to take extra precautions. But we do. If you’re off alone – particularly if you’re off for the first time – make sure you do some research online. The first time I travelled to Italy, I was totally naive about the *cough* forward-ness of Italian men. I didn’t realise British girls are immediately targeted and flirted with – and at 18 it was quite scary. The second time I went to Italy alone, I had already memorised how to say ‘I have a husband’ in Italian, and I felt so much safer and in control.
Try and master the basics of the language beforehand. Following on from before: a few key phrases can put you back in control when you’re by yourself and feeling vulnerable. Learning the phrases for ‘No, thank you’, ‘How much is this?’ or ‘That’s too expensive’ could save your life in a crowded market, when vendors try and get you to buy things you don’t want. We often feel guilty when we’ve no one else with us, and it’s easier to be backed into a corner. A firm ‘No, thank you’ in any language should get them to back off without you feeling rude.
Pick activities & places that will help you grow. When travelling with friends, we have to go sightseeing and shopping and make sure everyone has okayed all of the days itinerary. When travelling alone – it’s all up to you. This means you can pick things that will not only look good on instagram (because, really, who cares?), but will make you feel good. How amazing will you feel if you manage to climb that mountain, or explore those caves? Plus,if your plans fall through, and you’ve no mates there to say “Let’s just head back to the hotel, then…”, you often have more adventures. You have to figure things out for yourself. It opens up a whole world of opportunity.
Talk to people. Talk to strangers. Talk to everyone. People love it – and once you’ve jumped over that initial fear, you’ll love it to. The biggest boost to your confidence in your own independence is randomly speaking to someone and making a friend by accident. In a small mountain village, I heard two Australian’s chatting, and they were the first people speaking English I’d heard in days. I started chatting to them, we had lunch, then spent the whole day together. In Venice, I asked some Americans when the bus was, and it sparked a friendship that is still going now.
Be brave. When you’re alone, you need to grow ten times more courage than you already had. There’s no one you know looking out for you, so you need to be aware of where to go for help, should you need it, and you need to be confident enough to ask for it. Speaking to people you don’t know can be hard, but one of the good things about travelling alone is the fact that nobody is there to watch you fail. It’s harder to be embarrassed when nobody knows you, or will ever see you again! Be brave, have fun, and speak up. Ask someone if you don’t understand something, speak to the group of people who look like they’re having a good time, and feel liberated by your independence.
Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to be confident – just do it, and eventually that confidence will follow.
Make it your new year’s resolution to feel independent this year.
Feel good about the decisions you make – not guilty. Take chances that effect only you, and do things that will benefit your mental health and personal development. 2019 is the year to become your own person, and feel confident in the choices you make.
Thank you for reading this first volume of #FreedomFriday. Contributions are welcome every single Friday – from essays and articles to poems and artwork. Any creative work can live here. Just email it over to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Big thanks to the wonderful fierce ladies who contributed to this week’s theme of INDEPENDENCE. Next week’s theme is COURAGE on the 11th of January. See you there!