Dear 18 Year Old Self

Dear Laura,

You are eighteen and it should be the most exciting time of your life. Unfortunately, right now, you are finding life hard. You are in chronic pain and you don’t know why and you’re spending a lot of time in and out of hospital. But you’re going to get through it and it will make you even stronger (we love a cliche). You think that your A Levels are going to destroy you. Spoiler: they don’t. You won’t enjoy them, you might even cry during them but you’re going to get through them and you’re going to go to university and start the best three years of your life.

Don’t take life for granted and don’t waste time on the wrong people. You will meet the wrong people and part of life is learning lessons from the bad times. Don’t hold on to anger, resentment or jealousy because it will take over. Try not to put your self last, even though doing the opposite seems completely unnatural to you. The things that bother you now will not bother you in the future, trust me on that one!

Hold your good friends tight. The friends you value now won’t necessarily be in your life in the future, but know your self worth and know that it is okay to move on. Laugh and cry with your friends, stay up late and drink bottles of wine. Don’t pressure yourself into going clubbing because it really isn’t as great as people make out.

Believe in yourself! Know your own worth and what you can offer. Don’t be silenced by people who are louder and more confident than you. Try not to compared yourself to other people, everyone is walking their own path and there’s no point comparing your step one to their step five. You’ll get there, in your own way.

Learn how to be independent. Don’t rely on other people for your survival, be happy on your own and be happy with other people.

Dating the wrong people is not a mistake, but staying with them, because you feel that you have to, is. Be your own person and don’t change because a man wants you to. You will make mistakes, in relationships, in life, with decisions but you will learn from those mistakes. Mistakes are okay. Self talk, problem solve and don’t regret what went wrong. It went wrong for a reason.

Asking for help is okay. There will always be people there who are willing to help you. This is your time to learn, but that doesn’t have to be done alone. There isn’t an age limit on success, now is the time to explore, live your life, make decisions (good and bad) and don’t beat yourself up if it goes wrong.

Make memories. Take photos.

Stand up for yourself.

Risk it.

Find and enjoy whatever it is that makes you happy.

Respect yourself and respect others.

Save money and don’t spend all your student loan in one go when you get to university. You’ll be thankful for this when you’re not poor and hungry.

Your mum is [nearly always] right. She will tell you things that you don’t want to hear and she will nag you until the point that you want to explode but she does it because she loves you and cares for you. Never forget that and try and listen to what she says, she is the person that loves you the most and will not turn her back on you.

Also, always drink some water before bed after a night out. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.

You’ve got this,

Laura x

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Emily McDowell

 

 

Volunteers’ Week 2020

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The first week of June marks Volunteers’ Week across the UK, a week to say thank you to volunteers for giving up their time and celebrating work which is done by volunteers. I have been volunteering off and since since I was 15 and I personally think that it is one of the most rewarding things that you can do. You’re able to contribute time and skills to help people, often who are vulnerable, as well as gaining new experiences and opportunities, whilst making a huge difference. Not only that, but at some of the toughest times in my life, I have been able to hold on to the fact that I volunteer: it has given me a purpose and something to focus on when everything seemed impossible hard and has also forced me to think about something other than my wonky body or spiralling mental health. Put simply, I genuinely think that volunteering has saved my life.

As a teenager, I volunteered with Barnardo’s, a children’s charity, before being offered a paid position as a play and support worker. It gave me an escape from the reality of exams, applying to university and instead gave me confidence, new friendships and an escape. It was really tough at times, I was working with disabled children and young people, frequently people who were the same age as me and I was having to do intimate personal care, amongst other things. I very quickly learnt the importance of dignity and putting aside disability and treating service users like “normal” people. Most of my friends worked in retail, but I knew that retail wasn’t the job that I wanted to do. I would go to work and be having to restrain children for their own safety, if they became violent, I would have handfuls of my hair pulled out, I was urinated on and had sperm wiped in my hair (I wish I was joking) and I was dealing with medications and tube feeding and complex health conditions like it was nothing. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life, other than being really interested in working with people and this job was my first paddling into the world of supporting young people with additional needs and I loved it.

I stayed in this, now paid, role for six years, working around university and living 200 miles away and gave as many hours as was possible in holidays. It’s only now that I look back, ten years on, do I realise how vital this volunteering position was. When I started, I was deep in the grief process, after losing a friend to suicide. I was struggling with my own health and being bumped around different hospital departments to try and figure out what was happening and I was unhappy at school due to the pressure of exams. My confidence was low but I was welcomed with open arms by a fantastic team of people: little did I know that my initial enquiry about volunteering would see the dark clouds above me start to fade away and bring new light into my life. Not only had I made a difference to people’s lives, I had also made lots of new friends and built my own confidence as well.

Fast forward to September 2018 and I started volunteering with Girl Guiding. In January 2018 I had been offered my dream job, working in children’s social care, but my declining physical health meant that I had to turn it down and instead forge a life on universal credit because I was too ill to work. I sent an enquiry to Girl Guiding to see if there was any volunteering that I could do. Initially this was purely because I was thinking about my CV and was forward planning for when I would be returning to work. The atmosphere in Girl Guiding has made it one of the best places I’ve worked. Everyone is awesome, and I don’t say that lightly.  Everybody goes into Girl Guiding with their own story and reasons for volunteering but one thing is certain, you cannot beat the passion and positivity from everyone you meet. The two hours when I was helping to run a Rainbow group (five to seven year old girls) quickly became the highlight of my week. It gave me my smile back when I felt very lost and without a purpose.

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Girl Guiding Killamarsh

My health deteriorated further over 2019 and I had a few months away from volunteering when I was in hospital. I remember being so anxious about returning and potentially having to face difficult questions. But yet again, I was welcomed with open arms and unwavering support. I didn’t face any stigma or discrimination, maybe because the other leaders had their own stuff to contend with too, I don’t know. It makes such a difference working with people who have a shared understanding, there was a mutual respect that we all had stuff going on in our private lives and sometimes we talked about it whilst always focusing on making the sessions as fun as possible for the girls. The diversity of the role means that even if you’re having a bad week, there is still a role for you. You can be sat dealing with the admin side of running a group or be actively playing with the girls and having fun with them.

Without a doubt, choosing to start volunteering as a teenager was one of the best decisions that I could have made. Continuing to volunteer throughout my twenties proved to me such a strong protective factor in my life that I now can’t imagine my life without volunteering in some respect. So whilst volunteers’ week is about saying thank you to volunteers, it seems only right to say “thank you” to all the people who saw the potential in me and allowed me to volunteer in the first place. You’ve made my life better because of it.

October Favourites

Ah it’s now officially autumn, my favourite season! This month has been pretty busy, by my spoonie standards, but I’ve still found plenty of time to curl up on the sofa, with my duvet and the fire burning, being a proper little hermit.

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Keep reading to find out what I’ve been loving this month.

Books

Only one book recommendation this month, as I’ve been slacking a bit with reading. I also haven’t had as much spare income, so I’m having a bit of a break from buying books. Sob. I went back to my childhood by reading My Mum, Tracy Beaker by the one and only Jacqueline Wilson.  As a child, I loved Jacqueline Wilson books, although unfortunately, as an adult, I loved this book a little less. I enjoyed the idea of Tracy Beaker returning, with a child, but Tracy is yet to grow up and behave like you would expect an adult to behave. I can’t comment on other books by Wilson as it’s been so long since I have read them, but it took a long time to fully get into the plot. That said, there are strong messages around happiness, money and family values and I love that the book explores relationships outside of the traditional hetro-sexual ones normally seen in children’s books.

Film/TV

The arrival of autumn means that all the good TV series are back and this year has not disappointed. Strictly Come Dancing continues to sparkle on Saturday evenings, with the added controversy of Seann and Katya and That Kiss.

Outside of the world of glitter and sequins, October saw the start of series 14 of The Apprentice. I’ve only been a hardcore fan of The Apprentice for the past few years and always worry that the series will burn out and become repetitive but thus far, this series seems to be pretty strong, with the usual mix of good business ideas and crazy levels of arrogance.

The BBC is excelling itself in new dramas at the moment, including Killing Eve and The Informer. Killing Eve has been a real wow of a series, with a strong female cast, seeing Jodie Comer take on the role of a sociopathic serial assassin, being hunted and investigated by Sandra Oh. In a series full of twists, these two fierce women, both equally obsessed with each other, go head to head in an epic game of cat and mouse, toppling the typical spy-action thriller, which we are used to seeing on our screens.

Spoonie Favourites

Over the past few months, I have been struggling more and more with pain. I am reluctant to increase any of my opiate medication anymore than I already have done, which has led to me exploring other pain relief options. So, today I had my second acupuncture session, to see if this can help with some of the pain and/or symptoms of gastroparesis. I’m yet to feel any benefits from it and if I’m honest, the sessions have left me feeling a little odd, thanks to a combination of losing sensation in my hands and feeling very spaced out, which I’m told is normal and should lessen as the sessions continue. But I am finding the overall experience relaxing which I guess is half the idea.

It’s no secret that I love pyjamas, I probably have more pyjamas than I do real clothes and I am totally okay with that. One of the best things about the change in season is new pyjamas and I am loving the pyjamas in White Stuff. They are so soft and cosy the the Midnight Bloom bottoms are my new favourite pyjamas.

Odds and Sods

At the very beginning of the month, I stayed with a close friend, who lives in London and went to the theatre to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, It was outstanding and possibly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen on stage. Based on the BBC3 documentary, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie follows teenagers Jamie New achieve his dream of becoming a drag queen and going to his school prom dressed as a drag queen. With themes such as prejudice, bullying, family relationships, race and culture, this musical could not be any more relevant for a 21st century audience. It is funny, raw, a little bit fabulous and very sassy. I walked out at the end wanting to see it all over again.

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Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month – My EDS Story

 

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In May 2015, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and fibromyalgia, then in February 2016, I was diagnosed with reactive arthritis. Whilst the majority of my diagnoses have been over the past few years, I started to become symptomatic in terms of EDS when I was around the age of 13, but I was passed off as clumsy by my school and healthcare professionals. EDS doesn’t run in the family, so no one was looking out for it: I have wonky genes along with wonky joints and that’s taken quite a lot of adjustment to get used to. Throughout my secondary school years, I had a catalogue of bizarre injuries including my finger being dislocated and the main tendons being snapped when my friend held my hand in a French lesson, dislocating my knee by standing up (yes, really!), numerous broken bones, dislocating my shoulder doing a press up…I could continue! People found it funny, I had a reputation of being clumsy and often resembling Bambi on ice and the school matron was sick of the sight of my face. My mum raised how abnormal my injuries were to medical staff and was dismissed: they also thought that I was just a clumsy teenager.

In short, EDS is a connective tissue disorder: my joints dislocate really easily, my immune system is pretty rubbish and I’m in constant pain all the time. More recently, I’ve been experiencing issues with the tissues in my digestive system and it’s likely that I have gastroparesis. This has been a hard blow and adjusting to the latest symptoms has made the past few months tough. Dealing with being malnourished makes life a lot harder and I’ve had to give up a lot of things because physically and mentally, it was just too much.

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As a teenager, despite my various illnesses, I had a really active life. I was dancing numerous times a week and performing in dance shows. I was also on a county trampolining team and competing frequently. I loved playing netball and hockey and was on the school teams for both. I still love all of those things and it makes me sad that I’m unable to do most of them now. When I was in 6th form, my health declined at quite a dramatic rate: I literally woke up one day and was unable to walk. Months of investigations later and I was told that I had torn the cartilage in my right hip. I went from being independent to being reliant on my mum and staff at my school to help me get around: I couldn’t walk and was frequently on crutches and I was scared and in so much pain. My two 6th form years are a bit of a blur, thanks of the medication cocktail that I was on to try and reduce the pain that I was on. The stress of A-Levels and my health combined turned me into a bit of an emotional wreck and all I can really remember is how often I ended up sobbing at my year head – a wonderful lady who never gave up on me, even when I gave her hell.

The summer before I moved to university, I had major surgery on my hip to repair the tear. It was initially a success, however the cartilage re-tore under two years later and I had major surgery on the same hip again in the summer before my final year at university. Even at this point, I hadn’t been diagnosed with EDS: I was being treated as a medical anomaly, with medical professionals doing a lot of head scratching about my symptoms.

Like I said above, the past few months have been especially tough, with the suspected gastroparesis. In January I was offered my dream job, working with the early intervention team in children’s social services. However, I had to decline the job due to how unwell I’ve been. I was also at college part time, doing a counselling course and I’ve had to defer from the course due to low attendance. My hope is that in time, I will be well enough to work again, but I know that working full time just isn’t possible. That realisation is hard, I so desperately want to be working full time like the majority of my friends, instead I’m battling the universal credit system and being made to feel like an utter burden to society because I’m too unwell to work.

Going back to being diagnosed, I need to thank my incredible physiotherapist for putting all the puzzle pieces together and telling me about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. She went through the Beighton Scale with me and told me that I scored eight out of nine, with only my left thumb not showing signs of hypermobility. In general, my right side tends to be more symptomatic, with most of the dislocations being on that side. In the time since being formally diagnosed, I have had major surgery on my right shoulder to prevent it from dislocating and having the joint reconstructed. It hasn’t stopped the dislocations completely but the joint is now stronger. I’m going to need surgery on my right knee and my right wrist is really starting to struggle from general wear and tear but it’s being managed fairly well through physiotherapy treatment and splinting the joints.

My flare ups tend to follow the pattern of being down my right side. The joints most affected are my hip, knee, wrist and ribs. I had an unfortunate rib dislocation incident when I went to see Russell Howard live and laughed so hard that my top right rib popped out. Flares are unpredictable, there doesn’t seem to be a particular trigger for me going into a flare, although being unwell goes hand in hand with a flare. The length varies as well, if I catch the flare early and am able to see my physiotherapist, that can reduce the severity, but normally I just need to ride it out and sleep a lot. I’ve learnt how to control flares, as much as possible: I know that I’ll need to sleep twelve plus hours to try and combat the fatigue, the hot water bottles are in regular use and I have emergency morphine for the worst days, when tramadol isn’t enough to ease pain levels. I try not to take anti-inflammatory medication because it can cause additional digestive problems, which is the last thing I currently need!

Remembering to take all my medication is becoming more of a struggle, as more and more medication is being added to the regime to try and keep my body functioning. I’m on regular pain relief, anti-sickness medication, medication to try and speed up digestion, vitamin and electrolyte supplements and medication to try and keep my mental health balanced. I don’t like being so reliant on medication but I know that the alternatives are much worse.

Over time, I have learnt that I need to be honest with myself and other people; it isn’t always evidently visible when I’m struggling due to the invisible nature of EDS. Some people aren’t going to understand, you can try and educate them, but if they aren’t willing to learn, that is a reflection on them, not you. You learn who your true friends are when you have chronic illnesses and they are the people who stick by you and don’t give up on you when you’re at your most unwell. Losing friends because of your health issues is a horrible experience, but the flip side is that you meet other people who similar conditions, who understand on a whole other level. I’m truly grateful for my spoonie friends, I can’t imagine doing life without them!

Whilst being unwell has resulted on me having to stop working and defer from college, it has also meant that I have so much time, allowing me to focus on writing and raising awareness.  Educating people on chronic and mental illnesses is something that I’m really passionate about, so in some ways, I’m grateful that I’m able to write about them and even more grateful that people are interested in what I have to say. And I can watch day time TV without any guilt about needing to do something more productive!

Staying positive can be so flipping tough at times. There are days when I want to stay in bed and cry about everything that I have to deal with, but deep down, I know that isn’t going to make me feel any better, if anything, I’ll feel worse. I’m not averse to having a good cry but I also try and focus on the fact that things could be so much worse (yep, cliched I know). For the most part, I have a fantastic support system, preventing me from spiralling out of control and I owe it to them to keep on swimming.

My biggest hope for the future is that EDS won’t be classed as a rare disease. That isn’t me saying that I want more people to be diagnosed with it because it is hell, but I want more people who be aware about it. I don’t want it to be such a medical mystery in the medical world. Things are slowly changing, there’s evidence that younger medical professionals are more EDS-aware and I hope that continues. In the mean time, these hooves will keep on running.

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…And that’s when it came out in her hand.

One of the biggest problems that people with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome have is the dislocations or joints subluxing (moving out of place but not fully dislocating). As I have mentioned before, the lead up to me being diagnosed with EDS was long, medical professionals didn’t have a clue what was going on and I was just passed off as being a clumsy child and teenager. Throughout my secondary school years, I was constantly getting injured in stupid ways, which looking back was because of EDS and not because I was clumsy and incapable of walking without recreating Bambi on ice. I was fortunate in that the majority of injuries that I sustained were in school – had they not been then social services probably would have been crawling all over my mum and I due to a pattern of random and unexplained injuries. Every school term, my mum would challenge me to stay out of A&E and every term, within a few weeks I would be sat in minor injuries or A&E, on first name terms with staff members, silently waiting to be given a loyalty card from the NHS trust overseeing my care. Every new year, my mum and I would count up all my injuries and say optimistically that next year would be better. Next year came along, as did the injuries, illnesses and list of bizarre things that my body did.

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Let’s rewind to 2010: it is autumn and I am in year 11 and in a GCSE French lesson. Our teacher was fairly lenient and allowed us to sit with whoever we wanted as long as we still got the work done. Throughout the two year GCSE French course, I sat in the corner with one of my close friends. We had been firm friends since day one of Year 7 and are still friends now.

So, the lesson. We were doing some form of group task, the exact details have been long forgotten along with my ability to speak actual French and not Franglais. I don’t know if we were working in pairs or alone, but somewhere amongst all the excitement of the lesson and learning all the random vocabulary that I am yet to utilise in conversation with a French person, my friend grabbed my hand enthusiastically and pulled it.

There was a sickening crack and a pop.

I froze.

She froze.

We looked at my left hand.

And that was when we realised that my finger had dislocated in her hand. It literally came out of place, in her hand.

She dropped my hand, looking mildly [read as completely and utterly] traumatised. I did what I normally did, in situations whereby I am in pain and burst out laughing. This momentarily reassured my friend, I was laughing, I was okay.

We looked at my hand again. My index finger was facing completely the wrong way and was hooked in a position that I couldn’t move. I laughed more. My friend found her voice and asked the teacher to help.

The teacher, faced with me laughing hysterically, like I had lost the plot, didn’t understand the situation. And then she saw my finger and very quickly changed her mind and sent me to the school matron.

Matron rolled her eyes and gave me an ice pack. Another teacher examined my finger closely and asked me if I would like him to put it back into place. I declined, on the grounds that he was a history teacher, not a doctor.  I was taken to hospital, my finger was relocated to the correct position and I was informed that along with it being dislocated, my friend had also managed to flip the main tendon around the bone aka not where it should be.

I recovered from this ordeal. Seven years later, my left index finger remains in a hooked position, a lasting memory of one French lesson in year 11. I’m not sure if my friend still feels any guilt over my deformity, but I like to remind her of it every now and again.

I’m pleased to say that my friend also recovered from this ordeal, although it took slightly longer. She had to deal with being called a savage beast by our French teacher for the remainder of our time at school. She also has to deal with me pulling the “you put me in hospital” card out when I want her to buy the first round of drinks when we go out.

Is someone even your best friend if your finger hasn’t come out in their hand? I think not.

Living with: anxiety

Looking back at my childhood, I was always fairly anxious. At the time, I didn’t label it as anxiety, or anything really because it didn’t strike me as abnormal. I placed a ridiculous level of pressure on myself, even from a very young age and to a certain extent, I still do now.

When I was in year two, I made myself physically unwell because I was so overwhelmed by anxiety about SATs and not being good enough. As exams go, they weren’t terrifying in that we didn’t all have to sit down in the school hall in silence, my memories of the tests were being taken out one by one with the class teacher and doing various tests in a small room. I fell apart in my reading test and my ordinarily above average reading age came out as almost illiterate because I just could not do it. I was seven, I am now in my twenties and I can still vividly remember this.

Thankfully, I’m now past sitting exams and lead an exam free life but my self doubt, combined with high expectations does hold me back because the thought of failure or not succeeding is such a major factor in trigging anxiety. I am in the process of applying for a masters degree at university; I am over half way through the application form but have stalled because I’m too scared to submit it because I’m scared that I won’t get in and will therefore have failed. Next week, I am due to start an evening course at college and I can’t begin to describe how anxious I am about it. New people. New place. Not knowing where I will be going. Not knowing anyone. What if I can’t do it?

Over the past weeks and months, I have noticed that I have been struggling more and more with anxiety. Whilst I have always been anxious, identifying as “having an anxiety disorder” is different, because it marks a change between being anxious and managing and being anxious and it having a noticeable impact on my day-to-day life. Anxiety isn’t just hyperventilating and not being able to breathe, although that does happen.

I find anxiety really hard to explain, mainly because in my head I don’t understand it myself. The way that anxiety manifests from person to person can vary, it is rare that I start hyperventilating and more likely that I will freeze and not being able speak, which makes explaining how I feel pretty difficult. I zone out, I disassociate, I start sweating even though I feel cold, I can’t stop shaking, I feel sick, I fixate on things that are totally irrational. I convince myself that I will die or that something awful is going to happen. I obsess about hygiene and dirt and spend hours and way too much money cleaning because I’m convinced that I will get ill.

Situation 1: I get on a bus.

What if it crashes? What if I counted my money wrong and I actually don’t have the right amount? What if there aren’t any seats? What if I’ve got one the wrong bus? What if the driver isn’t really a driver and is actually going to kidnap everyone and torture us and kill us? What if there is a terrorist attack?  What if suddenly I feel unwell?

Situation 2: Someone coughs or sneezes near me or I come into contact with someone who I know is infectious.

I need to wash my hands now. I need to clean where they have been sat. Oh God, they have touched the door handle, that needs cleaning. What if I get ill? My body is crap at fighting infection. WHAT IF I DIE?! I feel sick. Oh shit, now I am ill. Where is my anti-bac? Is it rude if I use anti-bac now? Will they notice? Will they hate me? 

Situation 3: I have heartburn.

This is unpleasant. Nothing is helping. I am going to die. I am having a heart attack. I’m going to die and no-one will know. My left arm hurts. Okay, I am definitely having a heart attack. Do I need medical attention? God I hate hospitals. I’m not going to hospital. But I am dying. I feel sick. 

Situation 4: Part of my body hurts [related to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome]

What have I done? This is new. Have I injured myself or is this just EDS pain? What if this ends up with me needing an MRI scan? What if I need surgery? I don’t want surgery again. WHAT IF I DIE?! What if there are complications during surgery? What if I’m ill post surgery? What if recovery is awful? How long will the waiting lists be? I don’t want to tell anyone for the above reasons. People are going to think I’m making it up. 

The above scenarios are ones which I have faced recently. Unpicking them and putting it down in black and white, it almost looks and sounds comical and as I was writing it, I can’t deny that I am thinking that I need to chill the fuck out and stop panicking about everything, but it isn’t as simple as that. Most of the thoughts that I jump to are completely irrational, but my fears about needing MRI scans and surgery are for logical reasons and my fears about becoming unwell are also semi logical because my immune system isn’t the best and I do become unwell very quickly. That said, I don’t need to spiral into an anxiety attack and the internal monologue of convincing myself that I will die because someone has coughed or sneezed. And I certainly don’t need to get my anti-bac out to clean the door handle in my office at work because I was freaking out about infection.

When my mind is racing with irrationality, trying to calm down or ground myself is close to impossible, often because I can’t recognise for myself that I am having an anxiety attack until afterwards. It becomes a negative cycle of thoughts, feelings and actions, which then leads to levels of anxiety of increasing.

I don’t have the answers in how to stop this, as with everything it is going to take time, work and set backs. Anxiety, like every other mental illness, is not glamorous. It isn’t a beautiful girl, crying gracefully under a spot light, with ragged breath. It is snot, sick, sweat. It is obsessing over bodily changes and fearing the worst: heart burn feels like a heart attack, pins and needles becomes the fear that you’re having a stroke and stomach ache definitely means that your appendix is about to explode and You. Will. Die. Quite often, my thought processes end up with me convincing myself that I am imminently about to die and it doesn’t matter that I haven’t died the 756830 times before when I have felt like that, because I might this time.

Anxiety: the superpower you didn’t ask for but get given anyway.

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Swings and Roundabouts

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about the importance of acknowledging when things are good or when life is going well. The same can also be said about the opposite, when things aren’t going so well and when life becomes an uphill battle. In the case of acknowledging the bad times, a lot of it relates to self care and knowing how to look after yourself and if necessary ask for help.
The last couple of weeks or so have been hard. There hasn’t been a specific trigger, I was conscious that starting therapy could cause a wobble, but I have been incredibly lucky to have an understanding therapist who hasn’t pushed me into talking about things that I’m not ready to talk about, meaning there isn’t any anxiety about appointments. The first two sessions progressed in quite a clumsy way, broken up by me filling the awkward silences by saying “well this is awkward.” Any silence to my ears is awkward, simply because I don’t like it. But I’m learning to accept it.
I just feel sad. I don’t know why. I feel very anxious. I don’t know why. Things feel a bit hopeless and life is a mixture of sleeping, working and medical appointments. And by sleep I mean artificially induced sleep because I am incapable of naturally sleeping for more than two hours which certainly does not improve my mood. A few weekends ago, my artificially induced sleep extended from Friday evening to Monday lunchtime, punctuated by doing a wee, feeding my cat (only after he had woken me up by chewing my hair) and trying to stomach a meal. The most frustrating part was, I was still exhausted, mentally and physically.
Anxiety has dipped in and out of my life since I was a teenager. It appeared at all the predictable times: exams, exam results, my fear of mice, grandparents being ill and personal illness. I could deal with that, anxiety was to be expected. Anyone who can walk into an exam hall with their shit totally together and not plotting on blowing up the headquarters of AQA or Edexcell deserves a champagne toast.
More recently my anxiety has manifested in other ways and isn’t so “normal”. Leaving the house is hard, unless I’m going to work or for a medical appointment. My pulse rate shoots up, breathing becomes rapid, I get sweaty and feel dizzy. These are calmed down by driving, but on arrival at my destination, I feel like I’m going to collapse, so I have to hope for the best.
The thought of going to sleep scares me because of nightmares.
I’m having to double and triple check things at work, almost obsessively to make sure I haven’t made a mistake. I have a routine which I need to follow and when following that, my pulse rate shoots up, breathing becomes rapid, I get sweaty and feel dizzy.
I’m scared that people hate me. This ordinarily wouldn’t bother me, I can’t ever please everyone and the reality is, some people would choose not to have anything to do with me, which more often than not, is reciprocated. I’m scared that I’ve done or said something really awful and can’t remember. I’m especially scared of my mum hating me.
I’m anxious about finances.
I’m anxious about the future.
I’m anxious about my health.
I’m anxious about being anxious because it’s taking over my life. I miss my friends and I feel guilty that I don’t feel in a place to be able to go out to the pub and do the stuff that a non-anxious me would do.
Whilst I undoubtedly feel really rubbish at the moment, there are things that I can do to help myself. They can be trivial things or something with a bit more clout. A previous mental health team referred to these things as protective factors, which I guess they are, but they are also ways in just looking after myself, even when that feels impossibly tough.
Spending time with my cat makes me feel happy and safe. Watching him play makes me laugh and hearing him purr is one of my favourite noises. Cuddling up with him in bed and putting the TV one is one of my main distraction techniques. I don’t have the concentration to focus on a film (unless it’s something like Lizzie McGuire) so I’ve settled for watching all five series of Outnumbered, on a loop, or making my way through Absolutely Fabulous. I love reading and always have done, but the same applies with concentration, so I have downloaded some audiobooks and can listen to them, whilst curled up in my den-like bed. Dawn French narrations are particularly good.
I like to go swimming and rely on old fashioned endorphins to do their job and cheer me up. A post-operative infection has now cleared up so tomorrow I can have my first swim in months!
Basic self care is crucial whatever your mood, but perhaps more so when you feel shit because looking shit is not going to improve anything. It’s something that I really have to force myself to do and I won’t lie, my consumption of dry shampoo sees a dramatic increase. My legs are a bit more hairy lairy and I’m less fussy about my makeup. Fortunately I have good skin so can just about get away with only my eyebrows being sorted and some mascara slapped on.
Forcing myself to see friends, whilst initially is leads to almost unmanageable anxiety, is worth it in the long run, especially when I see friends who understand me and never fail to make me laugh. A wonderful friend is coming to stay this weekend and I’m sure there will be plenty of laughter. During times when socialising really does feel impossible, I know that I need to make an effort to maintain some form of communication with my friends going. Making phone calls is a big no for me, so I rely on texting. And who wouldn’t want to receive a text about one my students turning up to school dressed as the grim reaper on home clothes day?! Scintillating stuff.
Most of all, and this has come with time and many learning experiences, I need to know when to ask for help. I think that is the most vital part of acknowledgement. I can’t always face this alone, nor should I have to. I have people around me to make sure I’m alive, safe, coping etc. I have people who strategize with me, to help me stay above weather, or at least float in a dignified way. They can’t wave a magic wand and cure me and that is okay. Maybe not tomorrow, but it will be okay.

 

 

Nicky Morgan, in case you’re listening…

Just over a year ago, I left my PGCE teaching training course, six months into the year long course. It wasn’t an easy choice to make, since about the age of five, I had wanted to be a teacher, more seriously wanting to becoming a teacher when I was a teenager, inspired by the people educating me. The GCSE options that I took were with the career choice of teaching in mind, the same with my A Levels. Initially I had planned to go straight into teacher training, doing a three year undergrad course. I would have been a qualified teacher by the age of 21 and my life would be sorted. My mum and head of year advised me against that, instead suggesting that I did an undergrad course and then went onto doing a PGCE in teaching. So I did and spent three years at uni with mixed feelings of loving the English Language course I chose (the education studies side less so, but we live and learn…) and wishing I was training to be a teacher instead.

Hindsight is a really wonderful thing and it is just as well that I listened to those around me and did an undergrad course. I didn’t go into my PGCE blind, I knew it would be hard work, I knew that I would be giving up my social life for the following few years and I knew it would be stressful. But nothing prepared me for how it really was and honestly, it was probably the six most miserable months of my life.

Teaching by nature is a very demanding profession and I truly admire anyone who does it. I found it soul destroying. I was living at home with my mum and I never saw her. When I was on placement, I was leaving the house at 7am at the very latest and not getting home until about 6pm. Then there was the marking, planning, university assignments, the piles and piles of paper work needing to be completed for university. And it was heartbreaking to spend literally hours planning a lesson, making 30 sets of resources, plus a few spares in case of emergency and to then have your lesson fall to pieces in front of you and have 30 blank faces staring at you, with the occasional murmur of “I don’t get it…” and the observing member of staff not being able to keep a neutral face when scribbling down all the many failings of a lesson. Even if a lesson was rated as good or outstanding, and that did happen, I wasn’t a “bad” teacher, there was still so much wrong. By nature, I am a perfectionist, but the pressure I placed on myself didn’t even begin to compare to the pressure placed on you by the government to be teaching outstanding lessons at all times, regardless of whether you’re thirty years into the profession or thirty days.

It wasn’t even the constant pressure that made me leave. It was a contributing factor, especially after I ended up in hospital for a week seriously ill. I just felt like I was failing the children. Lessons weren’t good enough, there wasn’t enough time in the school day to really get to know the children as little people who have individual minds. But it was more that I developed such a deep hatred of the educational system, I felt that I could not play a part in delivering it to children.

Teach love, generosity, good manners and some of that will drift from the classroom to the home and who knows, the children will be educating the parents.

Roger Moore

I feel very strongly that the government is forcing the educational system down a road that is going to be so detrimental to young minds that it actually ends up hindering growth and learning. If you look at happiness rankings across the world, the countries with fewer exams in the education system rank so much higher than countries like the UK or other countries which force feed knowledge for the sake of exams. Standing in front of a class, watching them sit mock SATs papers and seeing children being reduced to tears or panic attacks over the questions and not being able to do anything is so wrong. Hearing that children are too anxious to go to school, when they are only six years old, because they are so worried about the Key Stage 1 phonics screening makes me so angry.

I now work in a school but have the best of both worlds; I get to work with teenagers who are funny, witty, inspiring and often bloody hard work but I can be the person to support them, instead of the person who effectively becomes the tormenter because of exams and government expectations. As we get nearer to GCSE exams, the number of students that we see cracking under the pressure is shocking. Children who are 15 or 16 years of age are turning to self harm as a way to cope because they can’t handle the pressure. In a previous blog post, I touched on the fact that a close friend committed suicide when she was in year 11, partly we think, due to exam pressures. She wasn’t going to achieve her target grades of straight A* in every exam so at the age of 16 she was being taught that she was a failure.

Things are worse now. As I mentioned above, children as young as five and six are too anxious to be at school because of phonics tests at the end of year 1, very young to be told you either pass or are a failure. It says a lot about the state of education when parents are choosing to keep their children off school in protest about education in the UK.

SATs hold no place in education; they don’t tell teachers or parents anything that they didn’t already know. In fact they probably give less information because children are falling apart in exams and under performing. Your life does not depend on GCSE exams either, despite what you’re told.

The spark has gone from education. Children are being taught to pass exams. That isn’t inspiring. Schools are bending over backwards to please OFSTED and at what cost? It isn’t just the mental health of children which suffers.

In the extremely unlikely event that Nicky Morgan ever reads this (she won’t, I’m not delusional) or actually listens to society: let our children be children. Celebrate their kindness and innocence. Encourage them to learn new things because they want to. Let them play, explore and discover new things. Allow them to make mistakes and not be classed as a failure because of it. Understand that using the subjunctive or passive voice at the age of 11 is not ever going be useful. Likewise, expanding algebra at 16. Give children and teachers a choice. Make education personal and enjoy the uniqueness that each child has. Praise the successes, no matter how small they are. But most importantly, stop branding children as failures, before we end up with damaged young minds, too afraid to try and explore for fear of never being good enough.