long live the night owl: taking advantage of the witching hours

Lifestyle, Mental Health

It’s one a.m., and you’ve been lying awake for hours. Already, the anxiety of the coming day has started to creep in through the curtains and the racing thoughts are making your body restless. Unfortunately, the only logical thing to do is to lie back and force yourself to get some shut eye… Or is it?

For years I’ve been a self-acclaimed night owl, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to embrace it (admittedly because self-employment often means I can plan for an afternoon nap). I remember during my master’s, I had a job in a bookshop, one doing freelance festival production, and I had my manuscript to write at the same time. On top of this, I really wasn’t sleeping well (looking back now, I’m not sure how I managed). I’d be lying awake at at two or three in the morning planning the next opportunity I’d get to sleep — what time would I start work, get home from work, how much uni stuff did I have to do, etc… Eventually, I just started using those hours in the middle of the night to get stuff done.

I fell out of habit of embracing the night time for a little while when I was working in a cafe with regular hours, because I had time during the day to utilise and get my work done – and I fell into a good sleeping pattern because of the regularity of work. But there will always be periods of my work life and personal life when sleeping patterns are irregular; often I get enough sleep – just not at the same time as everyone else!

Who made up the rule that we have to sleep at night, anyway?

I mean, getting a decent amount of sleep is just common sense. But if our jobs mean our day starts at ten a.m. instead of seven, surely we don’t have to sleep until later either? As long as we get the classic six to eight hours, does it really matter when we do it?

Maybe it does. I’m not a scientist (or a doctor), but my tried and tested theory (albeit on just the one test subject) is that we don’t have to waste hours trying to sleep if it isn’t coming naturally. This isn’t to say that you should be running marathons or taking up a new hobby in the middle of the night, but you can do things that require movement and actually set yourself up for the next day and maybe even wear yourself out at the same time.

I’m writing this in the middle of the night, just for context, so doing a little blog post is my way of feeling productive, getting some creative juices flowing, and hopefully tire my brain out at the same time. Here are some other things that I’ve personally deemed appropriate night-time activities:

  1. Put the washing on. Do you know how nice it is to wake up with a load of washing done in the morning? What’s that, you have a life? Whatever — stick the washing on and wake up to one task crossed off your to-do list. (I’m also sad and find folding and ironing very therapeutic so this is a fun morning activity for me. Shut up.)
  2. Listen to an audiobook — or a podcast! My audible choice this month was the last Harry Potter book (again, I find this super therapeutic and it’s like forty hours long so I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth?) I’m up for podcast recommendations if you have them, but I listen to an eclectic mix. Favourite at the minute is the ten minute TED Talks series on Spotify.
  3. Read a book. Sounds like a boring old classic but it always does the trick for me. I can’t count the times I’ve woken up with the lights still on and a book balancing on my nose. Try to steer clear of the thrillers and pace-y page turners and go for something a little lighter that won’t leave you wanting more. My favourites for nighttime reading are non fiction books because I feel kind of like I’m learning something but, most of the time, I’m happy to put it down when my eyelids start drooping.
  4. Tidy your living space and then sit on Twitter for an hour. Light some candles (not if you’re super sleepy, let’s be sensible), make yourself a snack, curl up with a (decaf) brew and scroll on the internet. Tweet the other people who are still awake. Make a friend. Have an interesting discussion (steer clear of politics if post midnight). Be kind.
  5. Watch the stars. Sorry if you’re in a city. At the minute it’s pretty stormy here and cloudy at nighttime, but I still always have my curtains open (I’m optimistic that the neighbours aren’t creeps) so that I can have a cup of herbal tea whilst watching the moon and pretend I’m in a period drama or something.

You’ll have your own list of nighttime activities, I’m sure. But my point is – under the assumption you live with people that don’t mind a bit of rattling around the house at night, or you live alone – take advantage of the time you’re awake. Don’t lie there and become heavy with anxiety as you overthink every tiny detail of your life. Don’t let your bed – a place of comfort, rest, and Netflix binges – become somewhere laden with worry and fear.

Distract yourself from your racing mind (we’ve all had that if I go to sleep now, I’ll have this much sleep, if I go to sleep now… thought) and do something that makes you feel better. Sometimes it’s nice to just open your window, breathe in the witching hours, and know that you are one of the special few who are awake to witness them. There’s something really magical about being one of the few still awake in the dead of night. Everything is at a standstill – but you.

You don’t have to sleep because everyone else is sleeping — not every night, anyway. The world won’t end because you decided to do your dishes at three a.m..

Anyway… I’ve got tea to drink, edits to make and, if I’m honest, probably a bit of laundry to do, too.

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Comment with your favourite podcasts and audiobooks at the moment — I always need more.

transient vs long-term: redefining friendships as a grown-up

Lifestyle, Mental Health

Over the last couple of days, I’ve had the chance to reconnect with some friends I haven’t seen in a while. With my oldest friends, there’s rarely any awkwardness to stumble over, even if it’s been years since we last caught up. We had time to speak about friendships – and the extra value we’ve started to place on our closest pals as we approach our mid-twenties.

This last year has felt quite a transient one, friendship-wise, with some of my closest friends moving geographically further away, and some of the friends I saw every day turning out to be less reliable than I thought. I’ve started to realise that perhaps, in some circumstances, I’ve set myself up for disappointment by expecting more of people than I should have. Some of the friendships that I’d valued the most last year, for example, I’ve had to re-evaluate this year – asking myself, do I mean as much to this person as they do to me?

On Saturday, I met up with my friend Josie, who has been one of my closest friends since we met in high school, aged eleven. Our friendship has spanned over a decade, and she is one of my most trusted and valued friends. Meeting up with her made me think about the other friendships I formed in high school, and how most of the people I used to be so close to in those pivotal teenage years I no longer keep in contact with. I think the reason behind that is probably because so many of my teenage friendships were based around convenience. I was put in classes, year groups, after school clubs – and if I didn’t get on with at least some of the people I had to see every day, I would have really struggled.

So I picked my friends based on who I liked best from the people that I was stuck with – as harsh as that might sound. And some of those people, the ones I had a real connection with, like Josie, have stayed in my life since we left school and parted ways. Josie and I only really see each other once or twice a year, now (sometimes not even that much – adult life is busier than we’d anticipated it being), but every time we meet, we pick up where we left off. There is no awkwardness to stumble over, no small-talk to tiptoe around; the love is just there.

Even though I’d come to this realisation about my younger self’s friendships, I’ve noticed that I’ve fallen into similar scenarios in adult life. Sometimes, the genuine connection with people you see every day is just there, and sometimes… Sometimes, I think I’ve forced friendships that might have been better off as passing acquaintances. I think I’m learning that I’m someone who is quite eager to make meaningful connections with people — and this means I often find myself committing my time and energy to one-sided friendships. It’s time I learnt that not every person who comes into my life is meant to stay. Sometimes, people are just there to teach you something about yourself (or vice versa) that you can take on with you into the next stage of your life.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been asking myself questions whenever I feel a friendship might be a little one-sided, problematic or, frankly, not really a friendship at all. Being able to analyse my motives and emotions towards certain situations is a skill I’m still developing, but one I’m proud of. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself these three questions.

~

What does their friendship mean to you?

Sometimes, I can go months and months thinking I’m really close with someone. We see each other most of the time circumstantially, so their friendship is convenient to me. We seem to care about each other an equal amount. Sometimes I find their views and opinions problematic – but they’re always there for me. Then, I’m out of the city for a few weeks. That time passes, and I don’t think about that person once. Chances are, they aren’t thinking about me, either. Our friendship certainly served a purpose, and we were there to be each other’s crutch when we needed it the most – but perhaps neither of us was as invested in our relationship as we thought we were.

~

What does your friendship mean to them?

Are you just a placeholder for when their other friends are busy? Don’t let people use your friendship to pass the time. Do they just see you as a colleague, whereas you thought they were a really good friend? Sometimes it’s hard to recognise that you might only play a small part in someone’s life – someone who has turned out to be quite a big part of yours. Reevaluating friendships like this can often feel like going through several painful break-ups at once, but it’s necessary. It’s unfair for you to be pouring time and love and affection into someone’s life that doesn’t recognise or give back the energy you’re putting in.

~

How easy is it to maintain this friendship?

So many of the people I consider closest to me are the ones that I don’t have to speak to every day. The ones that, when we meet up, regardless of how long it’s been, nothing seems to have changed between us. I feel that the best friendships are the one’s that are relatively low-maintenance. I don’t want to have an argument because it’s been a week and I’ve forgotten to message. I don’t want to feel like I’ve been a terrible mate because I didn’t have time to meet you for a drink this month. I want to feel there’s mutual love and respect between us, even after we’ve grown up and into better versions of ourselves.

~

Friendships, in my eyes, should be the light of our lives. Sometimes, it’s good to acknowledge that we – or they – might just need that light in a moment of darkness. Some friendships are transcient, and that’s okay.

But some friendships – the best ones – don’t just serve a purpose for a little while. They are the ones that stay and bloom and adapt around each other’s changing lives and circumstances. They are the ones that, now, at this point in my life, I value the most.

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I was heartbroken to hear about the death of Caroline Flack on Saturday. Please, take this opportunity to reach out to your friends and check in with them. Tackle the tabloids by avoiding click-bait and celebrity gossip, taking extra care about how you present your opinions online, and – as Caroline would say – #BeKind.

Guest post: ‘LILAC’ by Alex Jones

Mental Health, Writing

A short piece about mental health, self-discovery, and reaching out for help through counselling. Guest writer Alex Jones shares his story in this profound piece of autofiction.

~

“And stay, my dear

stay…

forever, as my quiet song,

in my lilac dawn.”

Sanober Khan, A Thousand Flamingos

~

Lilac by Alex Jones

Every Thursday at 7.30pm, I would climb the stairs of the Cowley Children’s Centre, following my counsellor up to a beige room. I would always very visibly keep my eyes focused down on the way up, I did not want to appear to my counsellor that I had been staring at her bum. That week was the first time I noticed the sign ‘Lilac Room’, a laminated, lilac lettered sign stuck to the wooden door. 

I have been working to rebuild myself for four years now. Mindfulness, counselling and hobbies all in the pursuit of re-finding the identity I had lost under the collapse of my ex-girlfriend’s mental health. Six brutal years of caring had taken their toll and I found myself an insecure shell, shattered and delicately dancing on the edge of a dark depression. 

In the ‘Lilac room’ I found myself sat upright, switching from gently stroking to tugging my arm hair depending on the levels of discomfort I experienced journeying into the folds of my personality. In all the personal delving that was done, I found myself reminiscing on someone who, for a short while when at my lowest ebb, sat at the centre of my world. 

I remember the excitement of sleeping on a dirty brown sofa on a bitterly cold night in November. It was exciting because she was there, and I lay next to her with my face at her waist height. As I needily tried to hug her, probably unsuccessfully, my mind became caught up in the excitement of how I adored this woman. My nostrils seemed to fill with a distracting sweet and heady scent of flowers. The drone of fear my mind was usually preoccupied by had halted for that moment.

Being around her reminded me I was still an interesting person, with passions and an identity that wasn’t just a ‘carer’. It was inevitable that I would have fallen for her; I adored her beautiful dark brown hair and her love of film. I had tried to kiss her a few times, failing miserably. We played a game of pretending it never happened. By Christmas, I decided I had to remain the only possible ‘saviour’ for my much in need Girlfriend. I had chosen to remain alone in a battle for someone else’s survival, at the expense of my own. I concluded that I would purge this wonderful new woman from my company and thoughts.

My approach to that was simple, I hunted out every flaw in her behaviour and amplified them with my general contempt for human behaviour. I remember clearly late on Christmas Eve, sitting up in bed, writing in my little green ring-binded notebook. ‘Not very intelligent – not Oxbridge enough for you,’ ‘she is only friends with you because she is lonely’, ‘she has no friends’. I didn’t believe a word I wrote. 

The words I wrote were bloody useless. The part of me that lay wounded from the previous years craved to be seen and affirmed by her, and come January, I again found myself with her out on a drunken night. This one was to end with a lot of pain and ultimately the unravelling of any closeness we had. 

On that night we found ourselves floating from bar to bar swigging bottles of red wine we had managed to buy barely before the bell of last orders rang. The world spun, I fell off Nelson’s column at one point and eventually we found ourselves in a tourist trap bar on St Martin’s Lane, near Leicester Square. I barely took my eyes off her or my thoughts away from how to impress her. I didn’t want to go home that night or her to leave.  She didn’t seem to either, but perhaps that was for very different reasons. 

Things went downhill from the point when I had returned from the bar to find her passed out. Panic set in, and I took up the mammoth challenge of booking a cab on my phone with drunken eyes and fingers. I dragged her into a cab and ventured through the orange flashing lights of south London to Brixton. But we didn’t get there before I decided to vomit the contents of my drunken guts into my own favourite leather postal bag. On arrival, the passed out woman miraculously rose from the dead and ran into her house, I just wanted to clean the mess I had made in the bathroom upstairs. 

I was struck by sinking feeling in my gut when the misery of scooping cold sick into the sink suddenly turned to fear that water was no longer going down the plug hole. Time exponentially expanded  as I tried to scoop the already scooped sick from the sink to the toilet. It was chaos. The things covered in sick, including my favourite copy of Ernest Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast, workbooks and headphones, were bagged up. For the life of me I am not sure why I didn’t bin them, but instead I put them on the side in her bedroom. 

The other housemates approached me just as I was about to finally let this painful night end. They didn’t know who I was, and their housemate was passed out on her bed. The kind smaller Welsh guy tried to counter the aggressive taller guy by explaining why I should consider just sleeping on the lounge sofa. But my drunken impulsive brain only felt only irrational self-pity and accusation, so I stumbled out of the house into a taxi home. I ended the night seventy quid down, hung over and full of existential dread. 

The month that followed that night was painful. The initial thankfulness for getting her home morphed into annoyance about the sink and then finally developed into a confusing anger directed at me. We left it with her messaging me about what to do with my sick covered items left in her room, before she started to act clearly angry at me. I retaliated with my old passive aggressive tactic of ignoring her to her face. The truth was I just felt deeply sad, it was painfully confusing as to why I was being punished. I just wanted to be close to her again. I missed the beautiful dark hair, the exploration of film and art, but most of all I missed feeling affirmed and alive. 

The month came to ahead when we ended up, despite actively avoiding each other, sat next to each other at work drinks. We sat back to back to each other, and did not speak until we realised we had decided to get up and leave at the same time. As we walked to London Bridge tube station, our mutual anger grew in to a shouty argument. I can’t remember everything that was said that night, but I remember her back against the entrance wall, looking into my eyes and saying something very odd and out of place. “I guess I am just too stupid to get that, Alex!”. The argument travelled down the Dantean layers of the station, it would develop into a point and then she would run away to the next layer and shout something like “This isn’t a movie, Alex”. By the time we reached the platform, where we would part for the tube home, I begged her to tell me what I had done wrong. Her tone changed and her frustration changed to something more vulnerable…”

“You don’t get it, do you?”. 

“I don’t get what?”

“You don’t get it…”.

“Then just tell me…” 

“I read it Alex, I read your notebook….”

I cringed as the words I had written that Christmas Eve shot back into my mind, along with the memory of putting the notebook safely in my brown postal bag. Fuck.

The truth is I have never told this story to my therapist. It never really felt relevant to things I was working on in sessions. This is not to say that this person was not part of the 26 weeks of exploration and healing, of course they were. But this has always been a story better to tell new friends in the pub; you get to enjoy the notebook shaped penny drop in their eyes, whilst letting the humour misdirect them from asking how I really felt about this awful time.

The reason this story really matters to me is not because of the drunken antics, the story’s notebook punchline or even because it was a night out with the woman I desperately wanted to be with.  But because of the path that this ruinous time in my life put me on. At the same time the drama of this story was taking place, by some coincidence, I was really into Jeff Buckely’s album Grace and listening to it on repeat. Track 4 was Lilac Wine, a beautiful song about being intoxicated with the memories of a lost love after drinking a heady lilac wine. The meaning of this song became more and more pertinent as I also became intoxicated by the memories of a lost love that I wanted back. 

One afternoon, I went with the dark haired woman to explore an exhibition at the National Gallery. I felt completely engrossed by the unusual feeling of excitement and fun I was experiencing from joking and playing around the paintings with her. Suddenly, and very unexpectedly, we were joined on the staircase of the gallery by someone I felt I knew. He was attractive, fun, very curious and passionate. I found him entirely likeable, and not just because it was determined by the neediness of those around him. He was stirring to be around, and yet just like me he was surrounded by unending destruction. It occurred to me that perhaps I used to love him. 

She and I eventually stopped hanging out, but he stayed around. His presence turned into intoxicating nostalgia, and acknowledgement of my painful present. Being with him was powerful, and I allowed him to be with me more often, to care for me, and to guide me. First he encouraged me to start learning mindfulness and to enter into a short therapy course with the NHS. These built the foundations that led me to a longer term therapy, where four years on he was still there holding my hand in the ‘Lilac room’ as I struggled through. I had regained my lost love, he was I, and in remembering and not letting him go I started to care about myself once again.  

Therapy recently came to an end, and I no longer have to worry about averting my eyes on that staircase every Thursday. When I left the Cowley Children’s centre, walking to the bus stop for the final time, I reflected on everything I was taking away with me; an education on self-care; a brighter world to inhabit and a story of progress worth sharing. I boarded the number 5 bus, climbed the stairs, sat down and as I continued to reflect on therapy I reached into my bag and found a small bunch of lilac flowers. I proudly pinned them on to my lapel, decorating myself like a Victorian widow intent on being reminded of a love lost. In that moment I decided I would wear lilac every day, for never again shall I forget that I am someone worth loving. 

~

I really love this piece by Alex. I think capturing experiences that mean something to you and managing to pin down past emotions on paper is a really powerful therapeutic tool. One of the things that makes this piece so evocative is Alex’s sheer honesty: his admittance of the mistakes he made and his ability to evaluate the situation – after time – to have a more objective view. ‘Lilac’ really does explore the positive impact that counselling, therapy, and being brave enough to reach out for help can have. Throughout the narrative, it’s clear that the once hesitant, second-guessing voice of Alex develops into someone who knows themselves. Who trusts their own voice. And, as Alex says, someone who is ‘worth loving’.

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#FreedomFriday vol. 1: SELF-CONFIDENCE

#FreedomFriday

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.

  1. Practice courage

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.

*

by Michael Harkness
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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 tomlin.bethany@gmail.com!

andante, andante: notes on recovery

Mental Health

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 tomlin.bethany@gmail.com – as can submissions for #FreedomFriday.

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#FreedomFriday vol. 1: IDENTITY

#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.

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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

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‘S E L F L O V E’ by Sophie Victoria Rowe 
Instagram: @sophievictoriaroweart

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Mirror

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

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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

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‘C L I M B’ by Sophie Victoria Rowe

Instagram: @sophievictoriaroweart

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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 tomlin.bethany@gmail.com.

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#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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