#FreedomFriday Vol. 1: COURAGE

#FreedomFriday

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


‘G A L A X I E S’ by Sophie Victoria Rowe
Instagram: @sophievictoriaroweart

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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 tomlin.bethany@gmail.com.

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‘L I V I N G’ by Sophie Victoria Rowe
Instagram: @sophievictoriaroweart
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7 new year’s resolutions (that don’t involve losing weight)

Lifestyle, Mental Health

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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…!
  3. 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.
  4. 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…
  5. 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!).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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#FreedomFriday Vol. 1: INDEPENDENCE

#FreedomFriday

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.

E.F. McAdam

http://www.efmcadam.com

instagram: @e.f.mcadam



No! by Dayna Ortner. Instgram @winnow_by_day

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.

E.F. McAdam

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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 alive.

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 actual truth.

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.

Alice Bethan Thomas

http://www.alicebethanthomas.com

twitter: @ofboatsandbees



Cleaning by Dayna Ortner. Instagram @winnow_by_day


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


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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


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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.

Carrie Fisher

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.

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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 tomlin.bethany@gmail.com.

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!

#FreedomFriday: a new movement on quills & coffee

Mental Health, Writing

Calling all writers, bloggers, and people who have something to say. From January 2019, I’ll be starting #FreedomFriday here at Quills & Coffee. Here’s a bit of info on what it is, and how you can get involved.

What is #FreedomFriday?

It’s a project I’m starting that I’d like to begin in the New Year. The basic concept is, every Friday, a blog post will be published on Quills & Coffee about something free and liberating. Feminism, mental health, and global activism are some great topics to start with, but all-in-all, I’d like to have a collection of personal stories and articles that will encourage, inspire, and motivate others.

How can I get involved?

If you have an idea for a story or article that you’d like to share, drop me an email outlining your idea, and we can chat more about featuring your writing on Quills & Coffee. Alternatively, if you meet one or more of the following criteria but don’t have an idea for a post, email me anyway and we’ll brainstorm together!

If you…

  • are a young person (17-25)
  • are able to write about independence (solo travel, finding a job, your take on university life, your struggles & achievements as a young person)
  • are interested in sustainability (talk to me about your sustainable lifestyles, from upcycling to veganism)
  • are a feminist (talk to me about being an advocate for equality, tips for those who aren’t sure how to speak out, stories from women about injustice they’ve faced, stories from men who are helping to fight the good fight)
  • are able to speak about mental health (particularly interested in stories of recovery, volunteering and raising awareness, or personal essays that are able to invoke strength and courage in others)
  • have something to scream and shout about (this is #FreedomFriday for a reason. What is that burning topic inside of you that you need to tell others about? There are no limitations here, as long as you write honestly and with kindness and intelligence. It would be great to hear stories that are able to bring out a fire in your readers. Anything that can make people feel something is great. Want to start a revolution? Your time has come.)

The deadline for dropping me an email is 20th December 2019 for January’s #FreedomFriday’s. After that, submissions will be taken on a monthly basis.

As a side note: if you are creative / artistic and have poems, artwork, photography, or flash fiction that you’d be interested in displaying on #FreedomFriday – I would love to see it.

Once again: tomlin.bethany@gmail.com . I look forward to hearing from you soon…

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Mental Health in YA: Top 5 Picks

Mental Health, Writing

I’ve had a lot of time to read this week (whoop! Unemployment!), and with my shiny new library card, I’ve been scouring the shelves for some beautiful, funny, and searingly honest YA reads to share with you. Unemployment ends soon (hopefully – keep your fingers crossed for my trial shift tomorrow…) as my bank balance is seriously dwindling, but hopefully I’ll keep finding time to read some of the wonderful YA that’s being churned out left, right and centre.

Side note: there’s so much great young adult fiction that’s being produced at the moment – a lot of it focusing on mental wellbeing – and I haven’t yet found the time to read them all. These are some of the books I’ve read recently that I loved – but don’t doubt there is so much more out there to be explored.

  1. Are we all lemmings and snowflakes? by Holly Bourne

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“I think real kindness, real compassion, is having the strength to stop and try and see where another person is coming from. To try and work out why they’re being the way they’re being. It takes time and patience. It’s not as easy, but that’s real kindness.”

Holly Bourne has been one of the big names in YA for many years now, and is really a spectacular writer who brings so much knowledge and experience of young people to her writing. I loved reading It Only Happens In The Movies a few months ago – so much so that when I was working as a bookseller, I was constantly recommending it to young girls. I’ve heard so many great things about Are we all lemmings and snowflakes? that I was a little wary going in to read it; but trust me, I wasn’t disappointed.

Now, I’m a big fan of ‘summer camp’ narratives. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because, as a kid, it always seemed like such a far fetched, American thing (look, I went to Brownie camp, but it really wasn’t the same, okay?). The novel follows Olive as she heads to Camp Reset; a clinical trial aiming to benefit those suffering from mental illness. Olive’s narrative is so easy to get wrapped up in; I found myself empathising and hugely relating to her. One of my favourite things about Olive – and this whole novel, if we’re being real – is that her symptoms, behaviours, and thought processes are not glamorized in the slightest. This is a raw and honest novel about inner turmoil and overcoming psychological boundaries – and it’s also going to make you laugh ’til you cry. I was super emotional when I finished this one; it truly deserves it’s Bestseller spot.

 

2. What I lost by Alexandra Ballard

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“You have been through a war. And you’ve won.”

Here’s what Elizabeth has lost so far: 50lbs, a boyfriend, and her peace of mind. Then, she’s sent to a mental health unit for young people with eating disorders. Obsessed with being a size zero, and constantly influenced by her mother’s own eating difficulties, Elizabeth is in a constant back-and-forth narrative when it comes to her recovery. I think this whole narrative was hugely accurate when it comes to disordered thinking, particularly about food and weight, and it’s written in a very sensitive way.

After completing my MFA dissertation on eating disorders in young adult fiction, I’ve done an awful lot of research on this topic and was excited to read this one and really see how the author had chosen to approach it. Elizabeth is a relatable and fully-rounded character, and the other girls in the hospital were all so likeable and became some of my favourite characters. The only flaw in this novel would be the lack of diversity within this kind of environment – something I also researched into last year – but I don’t think this takes away from what this novel has achieved at all. The major demographic for eating disorders (particularly AN and BN) is young, white, women – and this is what we see in this novel. I’d like to see more diversity in the future of YA fiction exploring more men and BAME demographics: but Ballard has written a beautiful novel here. It’s heart-wrenching but often light-hearted; equal parts delicate and fierce.

 

3. Colour me in by Lydia Ruffles

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‘No such thing as just friends,’ says Mizuki. ‘Friends are more important than anything else.’

I know I don’t have to bang on about good old Lydia, because The Taste of Blue Light is still one of my all-time favourites and I know I’ve raved about it plenty to you guys. Needless to say, when I found out Ruffles had written a second novel, I snatched that UPC right out of the Waterstones staff room quicker than you can say, well… anything. Colour me in is such an important read – particularly  for lads, for once (down with toxic masculinity!) and I would recommend it to any teenage boy in a heartbeat.

We start the novel with unemployed child star, Arlo, who is living far away from his mum, and with his best mate. It’s clear from the get-go that Arlo is struggling mentally; he seems to be falling back into a pit of depression, but he’s desperate to keep up appearances for his fans and family. The only person that seems to understand is his best friend, but when he suddenly dies, Arlo is left alone. Grieving and mentally unravelling, he catches the next flight to wherever, and ends up on an unexpected adventure.

This one’s about friendship, and talking openly about mental health, and learning to ask for help, and letting go. It’s so very moving, and Ruffles’ descriptions and dialogue are as flawless as ever. It’s definitely worth a dabble (and look at the gorgeous cover!).

 

4. After The Fire by Will Hill

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“Bad and good, False and True: they’re the opposite ends of a whole spectrum of behaviour, not the only two things a person can be. Because life just isn’t that simple. People aren’t that simple, even though I’m sure things would be a lot more straightforward if they were.”

Okay, hear me out. This one isn’t technically focusing on mental health at all… But it’s about a girl who has recently left a cult, and trust me, the girl has got issues. From Chapter One, I was utterly confused about what had happened to poor Moonbeam, and this feeling will stay with you for quite some time. Determined not to give anything away to her new therapist and the FBI agent that accompanies him – the ‘Servants of the Serpent’, as she calls them – Moonbeam is constantly arguing with herself in her head.

This is a story about breaking free from what you’ve been conditioned to believe, and that’s why I think it fits in well with the list I’ve compiled here. This is a story about a girl who has been following the words of a false prophet for so long, she can’t distinguish between what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. The supporting characters as well – particularly Luke – are all so realistic, and haunting in their actions and beliefs. This book opened my eyes a lot, and I think it’s important, uplifting, and empowering. After The Fire is Moonbeam’s story, and her journey to, finally, finding herself.

 

5. The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But…you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”

A friend of mine read this a while ago and wouldn’t stop singing it’s praises, but it took me a long time to get round to actually picking it up. When I did, however, it was finished within the day. Because… well. It’s pretty incredible. If you pick up this book and read the blurb like I did, you’re likely to be confused by the concept (I definitely was), so I’ll do my best to explain.

Protagonist Mikey lives in a town that seems to be affected by weird supernatural things. So much so, that everyone is just kind of used to it. There’s references to this ‘vampire outbreak’ they had last year, and weird things are always happening, and there are the “Indie Kids” (think, the “Chosen One’s” of Mikey’s town) who are running around fighting battles. But Mikey isn’t one of the Chosen One’s. He’s actually pretty normal – or he wants to be anyway. One of my favourite things about The Rest Of Us Just Live Here is that there’s an equal mix of contemporary, honest, deteriorating mental health plot, and supernatural, ‘we’re off to save the world!’ plot. It really helps lift the darker parts of the novel, and also offers so much in the way of subplot that there isn’t a single sentence in the novel that isn’t pushing the narrative forwards.

The idea of this book is: if you’re not the chosen one, and you’re kind of on the side-lines… what’s your story? Mikey’s story is full of obsessions and compulsions and heartbreak and sibling bonds and this desperation to just be good enough. I personally think this is Ness’s best book yet (fight me), and I think the characters and their delicately intertwining lives have been masterfully created.

The thing I took away from this book is: we are all the chosen ones, really. Even those of us blending into the background will always have a story to tell.

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Reminder: if you find yourself in Oxford, my ‘Mindfulness Writing’ masterclass runs every Saturday until December 1st at Common Ground Workspace, Little Clarendon St.

Dealing with disaster: mid-week reflections

Lifestyle, No Fixed Abode

I think it’s safe to say that our move to Oxford didn’t go totally to plan. For those of you who haven’t heard about the madness we’ve endured this week: saddle up. I’m about to re-live the whole thing…

So, it’s Sunday. The day of rest. Beth and I set off on our five hour drive from Cornwall to Oxford, on the way to our lovely little caravan. We’d been liaising with our soon-to-be landlord for months; she’d sent us video tours of this beautiful two-bedroom static, pitched on what seemed to be private land attached to a residential property. £400 a month between us, all bills included, no council tax… In hindsight, we should have known it was too good to be true.

We drove through some beautiful little villages on our way to the caravan, and kept commenting about how we felt like we were going to drive right up to Hogwarts. We were getting more and more excited: until we actually reached the site. Then, we realised what we’d got ourselves into.

The ‘private land’ we’d thought the caravan was pitched on was completely ruled by Irish travellers. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. There were hundreds of caravans, all encircling the walled-off area that ours was situated in. To begin with, we couldn’t find our pitch, so I hesitantly got out of the car and wandered over to ask someone. I was then told by a lady that this land was ‘family only’, and even when I tried to explain that we’d planned to rent this for months, she was adamant that we wouldn’t be staying there. It was clear from the get-go that we were absolutely not welcome.

This might be a good time to mention that Beth and I both have family histories of travellers. We’ve got heritage way-back-when, but I think our combined accents were enough to put them off and let this particular clan know that we were outsiders. But just so you know – neither of us are prejudiced against the traveller community, and I actually don’t think I would’ve felt so threatened, had they not been so… uh, threatening.

Finally, we found the lady we were renting off, who was lovely and charming and very sympathetic when I told her I didn’t feel safe staying there. She wasn’t a traveller herself, but knew the other residents and just kindly explained they were ‘set in their ways’. This did nothing to reassure me. Beth and I sat in the caravan, listening to the ruckus of the site around us, and knew for a fact that we wouldn’t be safe staying there. As of that moment, we were homeless.

With very little money, and no other plans of accommodation, we hastily checked in to the nearest (and cheapest) inn, on top of a pub in Witney. We called our parents, sobbing and feeling utterly useless as adults. We couldn’t believe we thought it might work out – and Beth started her Master’s degree in only three days time. We had no plan. Nothing. So, we did what we do best – went downstairs to the pub and ordered the largest glass of wine they could offer.

That night, we met a lovely lady called Bernadette; her daughter had just started at the same university as Beth, and she’d come all the way from Paris to help her move. She’d also had a few days from hell, and we all wallowed together, then met up for a hangover breakfast the next day. One of the ladies that worked in the pub overheard our conversation about being homeless, and offered us live-in accommodation if we went and worked there. It was a lovely offer – and a great back-up plan – but with Beth completing her degree as well, it might not have been ideal.

So, on Monday morning, after waking up with both hangovers AND stomach bugs (which we’re now, finally, at the tail end of), we set off to find a home. Never has a task felt more important before. We went around every letting agency Oxford had to offer, and were told time and time again that our options were slim. Every two-bedroom flat was either a minimum of £1500 a month, too far out of the centre, or – because I don’t have a contracted job yet – would need the rent for the year paying upfront.

By midday, we were hopeless. As a last ditch attempt, we went to the university and told them that unless we could get a flat sorted, we’d have to go home. A wonderful, wonderful lady there found us a studio flat in about an hour. Probably assuming we were a couple (who doesn’t assume we’re a couple these days?) we were given a studio flat with a double bed, but I popped out and bought a single as well so that we don’t have to be that much of a couple. We have a bedroom, a bathroom, and, after months of tent living – a kitchen. With a fridge. 

One more night in the inn with our new friends, and then we moved into our flat on Tuesday. Safe to say, everything worked out in the end. Today is Beth’s first day of her MSc, and while she’s at her seminars, I’m blending in with the Brookes students by chilling in the library and getting on with my work. My final submission for my own Master’s degree was signed and posted yesterday – so that manuscript has now gone off, too! Both of my book babies are awaiting judgement from publishers or marking tutors, so it looks like I’m going to have to find something new to write soon…!

In the meantime, this Saturday will be the first session of my Mindfulness Writing Masterclass, at 3pm in Common Ground, Oxford (in case you’d forgotten). Today, I’m doing my finishing touches and getting some handouts together, so I’m excited to finally get started and start building a life here in Oxford.

What a week! I’m so thankful for all the support we’ve had from friends and family to get us through. It was a minor disaster – but one we overcame. We might be back in halls again with all the eager first-years – but I guess it’s alright being those ‘two old lesbians upstairs’…

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If you’d like to come along to my course on Saturday, go and grab your free ticket here on Eventbrite.

The next step: Oxford bound

No Fixed Abode

As everyone knows by now, we’re not in the habit of staying in the same place for too long. That’s why, on this sunny Cornish morning, we’re saying goodbye to Bude and heading off to our next stop: Oxford.

This has been on the cards for a long time, so it seems kind of (understatement) surreal that this is actually happening now. Ever since Beth was accepted onto her master’s degree months ago, back when we were in Bath, we’ve been preparing ourselves for this day. It was the event that prompted our decision to move into a tent to save money – the whole reason we’ve spent the last few months travelling around and trying to stay afloat. And now the day is here – and we, as always, feel pretty underprepared.

Logistically, though, this move has all the right ingredients to go smoothly. We’ve planned for the five hour drive thoroughly (aka we have snacks and a cracking Spotify playlist), we’re prepared for the worst case scenario (aka Beth finally joined the AA), and we know where our next home will be. Spoiler alert: it’s not a house. But you could’ve guessed that already, right?

Staying true to our vow of not having a fixed abode, we’ll be moving into a static caravan in one of the villages outside Oxford. It’s hard to tell at this early stage whether we’ll transition well into caravan living (definitely a step up from a tent, though!), but I’m excited to see how we get on. We’ve only seen pictures so far, and a five minute video tour, but we’ve been liaising with our new landlord for a little while and have high hopes that this little mobile home will suit the two of us well. I’m just excited to scope out our new neighbourhood – and neither of us have actually even visited Oxford before, so it’s a whole new experience for us both.

We’ve had such a great time this past couple of months in Bude, and I’m so thankful to Beth’s family for making it so wonderful. Her mum welcomed us onto the campsite that she lives on, and when it was too windy and rainy for camping, her dad and step-mum invited us to stay with them. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming and we’ve never gone without food, water, and a roof over our heads. It’s given Beth a lovely opportunity to spend time with her family, and given me chance to get to know new people (and also lots of time and headspace to write!).

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I’ve managed to pop back to Bath for a few days, where I finished writing the manuscript and did the majority of my edits and re-writes. It was great to just hole myself up in a hotel room and really have no distractions from my novel – and it’s also great to know that the hard work paid off. I squeezed in a lovely couple of nights with my wonderful friend Elysia, and then popped to Portishead to stay with my other wonderful friend, Jen. Once again, I’m always humbled by the amount of people, near and far, that are so willing to have me stay with them. I know I’m probably a bit of a whirlwind to have around (particularly in deadline season!), but I’m so grateful for the brilliant friendships I have. I hope one day (maybe when I have a house…?) I’m able to return the favour.

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Although Beth obviously has plans to start her master’s degree on Thursday, I haven’t lined up a job yet, so I’m apprehensive to see what line of work I’ll end up in once we arrive in Oxford! Regardless, I’ve always maintained that my career is my writing, and I’m happy to work little side-line jobs in the meantime to make ends meet. I always seem to end up doing jobs I could never see myself in – so who knows where I’ll end up! So far, I’m feeling prison guard… or possibly ushering in the local cinema…

One plan that I do have, though, is my writing course that starts this Saturday (22nd), and I’m really excited to get cracking with it. I’ve had some great responses on the event pages so far, and since it’s something I’m so passionate about teaching others, I’m hopeful it’ll turn out well! If you haven’t heard about my course yet, have a look at the Facebook event page. It’s focusing on using writing as a mindfulness technique and a form of therapy – and tickets are absolutely free for the first introductory session. Grab your free tickets through this Eventbrite link and pop along if you’re in Oxford this weekend!

In the meantime, one of my manuscripts is currently sitting on the desks of five editors at children’s publishing houses, and the other one I’m due to hand in in a few days time. So I’ve a few last minute edits to be getting on with! Please send all your good vibes to the two of us as we try to navigate moving, our new city, getting jobs and finishing / starting our degrees. As always, there’s a lot on our plates…

But it’s always better to be busy than boring, right?

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