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.

30 before 30 – An Update!

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A few years ago, in 2016 to be exact, I wrote a blog post about 30 things I wanted to do before the age of 30. I am now two and a half years away from the big three-oh (OHMYGOD) so I decided to look back on those goals and do an update.

1) Complete a masters degree.

I have applied for a masters degree and if all goes to plan, I should have finished by the age of 31, so I’m counting that as in process.

2) Work in a role which supports young people with mental illnesses.

Done, since leaving university, all my jobs have been supporting young people with social and emotional needs in some capacity and it continues to be my plan for the future.

3) Travel the world.

This hasn’t been so successful. I have traveled in the past four years but nowhere near as much as I was hoping. As I became more unwell, my priorities changed and I realised that as much as I want to explore new places, I also like being near an English speaking hospital or somewhere with a good healthcare system. I’ve realised that owning my own house is also higher up on the list of priorities so when I’m able to save money, it goes towards that.

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Copenhagen, Denmark 2016

4) See the Northern Lights.

See above. Although I do plan on going to Iceland one day because I think it is a beautiful country. Maybe when Rona has stopped ruining everyone’s lives.

5) Marry.

I am literally the most single person you could find. I am happily a cat lady and not sure how my cat would cope if I started sharing a bed with someone else. That said, I would like to marry and probably have children, just right now that’s not something I’m focusing on. If it happens, that’s great but equally, I’m not actively looking for Mr Right.

6) Have children (hopefully).

As above. I wrote a blog post recently, about frequently asked questioned that people with EDS get asked and I touched on the baby and child thing in that. In short, yes, I would like children, but I have to consider the risks to myself, but more importantly my child. EDS complicates things a bit. I’ve said more about the whole thing here.

7) Have my own house.

Twenty-three year old me was very naive about the cost of Adult Life. I’m in the process of saving and am considering selling a kidney to fund a deposit. Joking, joking. I like to torment myself by looking at Right Move and to admire all the houses that I can’t afford (aka so all the houses) but I really hope that by thirty, I will be in a better financial position to be able to afford my own little abode.

8) Be financially stable.

To be fair, I would say that I am fairly financially stable. I was on universal credit for two years and it really taught me about the importance of budgeting, although even before that, I was pretty good with money. I don’t take money for granted and I love the feeling of satisfaction when I’m able to buy something that I have saved a long time for. Right now, I’d much rather save money than spend it, however that doesn’t include buying books or anything from the Body Shop.

9) Sing on a West-End stage.

As if I’d ever really have the confidence!

10) Sky dive.

I plan on doing this, as soon as it is possible! As I’ve said in other posts, I spent over six months as a psychiatric day patient in 2019 and I really want to give back to the day hospital to say thank you. The building is old and the interiors are more than a little run down and I would love to be able to contribute to a more cosy atmosphere, making it feel even more like a safe place. Watch this space!

11) Bungee jump.

I think I was being a bit over-optimistic here. This would probably break me.

12) Complete a half marathon

Really, Laura?! I have no desire to do this.

13) Complete a triathlon.

I haven’t completely ruled this one out. I found out that there is a Superhero Triathlon which is specifically for people with disabilities and I think I’d to complete it.

14) Raise £1000 for Blue Skye Thinking.

I raised just over £500, so I’m happy with that.

15) Write a book.

Ahhh I don’t know about this one. So many people have said that I should write a book and there’s part of me that would like to, but the thought of it also fills me with so much anxiety.

16) Publish an article for Huffington Post.

Done! And I have also had articles published on The Mighty.

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17) Meet some of the people who I have met online and thank them in person for all they have done for me.

This list is ever growing but I have been able to meet so many people, who I originally met online, including trekking up to Scotland and meeting friends there.

18) Cuddle an orangutan.

I’d love to do this, but I’m more aware about conservation and actually, cuddling orangutans isn’t good for them.

19) Complete the North Wales zip wire.

I’m still desperate to do this.

20) Teach young people to not be ashamed of who they are.

I’d like to say that I try and do this in day to day life, it’s something I’m really passionate about and I will forever be people’s biggest cheerleader.

21) Become and MP and fight for what I believe in.

No and right now this is not part of any plans. I am interested in politics but I’m more comfortable contacting my current local MP and having a rant on twitter.

22) Learn basic Polish.

This hasn’t happened, but I have self taught myself British Sign Language and Makaton/Sign Supported English.

23) Thank every single person who has made a difference to my life.

I probably haven’t thanked every single person, but I do make a point of thanking people regularly.

24) Go to a festival and not spend the entire time grossed out by the toilets.

Let’s be realistic here, I can’t think of anything worse than festival toilets. I’ve gone to festivals on a day ticket and that’s enough for me.

25) Visit all of the the seven wonders of the world.

See above for why travel is complicated.

26) Live for a week without internet, TV, phones etc

I haven’t done a week, but I have spent a long weekend away from social media/TV/my phone, when I was visiting a therapeutic farm and living in a therapeutic community. I was not a fan.

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Kent, England

27) Go to Wimbledon men’s final

Maybe one day.

28) Leave a note for a stranger in a public place.

I’m not sure if I’ve done this or not, but if I have, I’d like to do it again.

29) Learn how to take a compliment 

I’m getting there, slowly. It still makes me feel uncomfortable and like I want to hide under a stone but there has been progress.

30) Fall in love, deeply, properly and unequivocally.

I have fallen in love but not romantically. There’s plenty of time.

April Favourites

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A slightly delayed monthly favourites blog post for April, if you’ve read my recent post about depression, you’ll know what’s been happening in my life and where I’ve been. Anyway, that aside, April has been and gone and it feels like 2019 is flying by, or is that just me?

Over to what I’ve loved in April.

Books

My standout book from April has got to be Internment by Samira Ahmed. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen to me to read this book. Set in a near future United States of America, seventeen year old Layla is forced into an internment camp for Muslim-Americans along with her parents. Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards. This book is chilling and powerful in equal measures, mostly because the plot could become a very real prospect if social divisions escalate. The real terror of Internment is how close it is to the present-day United States, with the narrative making it clear how few additional nudges are needed. In addition, there is a deep-running theme about complicity and about how not standing up to something can be the same as letting it happen. This is not only how non-Muslim people either allowed or actively voted for the laws and internment camp seen in the novel, but also how people can turn on those who rebel.

Another bookish favourite from April is My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. The title makes the book pretty self-explanatory. Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in “self-defence” and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. This book was addictive, leaving the reader with the question of who is more dangerous? A femme fatale murderess or the quiet, plain woman who cleans up her messes? I never knew what was going to happen and I love that in a book. Highly recommend, although the Nigerian language intertwined throughout the book got a little confusing at times.

Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. by Malcolm Duffy is a humorous and heartbreaking debut novel with the fresh, funny, honest voice of a 14-year-old Geordie lad recounting the trials and tribulations of family life and finding first love. The literacy ward nominations alone for this book speak volumes: Waterstone’s Children’s Prize 2019 Shortlisted, Sheffield Award 2019 Shortlisted and Carnegie Medal 2019 Nominated to name a few. Danny’s mam has a new boyfriend. Initially, all is good – Callum seems nice enough, and Danny can’t deny he’s got a cool set up; big house, fast car, massive TV, and Mam seems to really like him. However, cracks begin to show in Danny and his man’s new life and they cannot be easily repaired. As Danny’s life spirals out of control, Danny does the one thing that he can think of and find his dad. Malcolm Duffy has done an amazing job with his book which will appeal to so many readers on so many different levels.

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Films/TV

Having spent the majority of my time at home (in pyjamas) you would think that I have loads of film and TV recommendations. However, I am a creature of habit and will happily rewatch Happy Valley, Line of Duty and Silent Witness, to the point that I know the plots of by heart. That said, I finally finished watching Broadchurch, which I started watching last year but then never finished. Honestly, by the time I got half way through series three, I was a little bored but it still provided plenty twists and turns that I wasn’t able to predict.

I also sat down and finally watched The Hate U Give, based on the book by Angie Thomas, of the same name. I loved the book more than I can put into words, I very rarely cry at books or films, but both the book and film has me crying in sadness and anger at the unjustness of the situation being played out. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping film about one girl’s struggle of justice and equality.

After a lot of deliberation, I watched The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, after a number of people recommended it to me. I’m not sure how I feel after watching it, it certainly showed various things in a different light and it gave a balanced account of what happened. That said, it didn’t offer any new facts or insights. Unsurprisingly, The McCann family refused to take part in the series and asked those around them not to either, which leaves me feeling that the documentary itself wasn’t a necessity, more recapping of an awful situation that doesn’t have an end.

Spoonie Favourites

I’ve been really struggling with restless legs/arms/body and muscle spasms, due to some of the medication I’m currently taking. I was given a couple of suggestions of things to try, aside from the midnight baths and diazepam which I had been relying on (not an ideal combination…I don’t advise it!), including a weighted blanket and various prescribed medications. However the suggestion that came up the most was magnesium, specifically magnesium oil spray, which you spray on the soles of your feet. It hasn’t completely cured the spasms but it has made a difference.

What did you love over April, I love hearing your recommendations!

 

March Favourites

Here we are, another monthly favourites blog post. I was too unwell to write a monthly favourites post for February, and I’m not going to lie, I missed it a little bit. It’s such a good way of looking back over the month and picking out the good bits; chronic illness can be miserable and isolating so it’s nice to remember that life isn’t always like that!

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Books

My standout book from this month has got to be Paper Avalanches by Lisa Williamson. I’ve read Lisa’s previous two books and fell in love with The Art of Being Normal but was underwhelmed with All About Mia. Put simply, Paper Avalanches was a beautifully powerful book that I read in one sitting. Looking at parental mental illness, through the eyes of a teenage young carer, it gave a fresh look at the stigma surrounding hoarding and how dangerous it can be. Ro Snow is a character full of warmth and wisdom, way beyond her fourteen years of age and her frustrations towards Bonnie are quickly shared by the reader. I hope this book wins all the awards that it deserves.

Another book which I have loved this month is Looking at the Stars: How incurable illness taught one boy everything by Lewis Hine. Diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour and water on the brain at 17 months, he wasn’t expected to survive. But Lewis proved everyone wrong; he’s not only surviving but thriving. In one Facebook post on his sixteenth birthday Lewis invited everyone to see how he faces head on the challenges from his ongoing illness, and he went viral. Thirty million views later, Lewis now spearheads a campaign, Friend Finder, to make sure no one ever faces childhood illness alone. In his book, Lewis reflects on his brain surgeries and continual health problems, which are a daily challenge. He is at high risk of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) and has a pump in his brain just to keep him alive and experienced horrendous bullying. Lewis shares how he finds the strength to overcome all this and still lead a fun and fulfilling life. 

My third and final literary favourite for this month is A Girl Called Shameless by Laura Steven which is part of the Izzy O’Neil series. In Laura’s first book in the series, we met Izzy, a loud and confident teenager who was subjected to revenge porn, something which is yet to be criminalised in the United States and the double standards surrounding the videos, in terms of gender stereotyping and feminism. In this second book, we catch up with Izzy, two months post sex scandal, The Bitches Bite Back movement is gathering momentum as a forum for teenage feminists, and when a girl at another school has a sex tape shared online, once again Izzy leads the charge against the slut-shamer. This time she wants to change the state law on revenge porn. If you’re interested in politics, feminism and gender debates, this is a book for you.

 

Film and TV

I haven’t watched much on television this month, combined with needing a lot of sleep and binge watching the box sets of Waterloo Road (judge me if you must), there hasn’t really been enough time. That said, I’ve been loving the Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off and have chuckled away and the celebrities’ awful baking skills, whilst being left wondering how they actually function in real life.

 

Spoonie Favourites

I’m fairly sure that I’ve taken about Nuun tablets before, but they’re so great, I’m going to mention them again. Designed to keep you hydrated wherever your active lifestyle takes you, Nuun tablets are packed with optimal electrolytes, containing clean ingredients. I was recommended Nuun tablets by a doctor in London to try and keep my hydration levels up and now use them daily. I’ve noticed a huge difference in terms of my concentration levels, which is saying something, considering I often have the worst brain fog possible.

Because of how unwell I was in February, being admitted to hospital was looking very likely. I (like many people) find hospital environments really stressful and I became aware that I wouldn’t manage with just my iPad to distract me due to battery life and charging etc. This lead to me to buying a portable DVD player which has been one of my best purchases ever and it has saved me during the long nights of insomnia when I haven’t wanted to turn my TV on and wake my mum.

Odds and Sods

I’m ending this blog post on a slightly different note. At the start of February, a friend lost her long battle with mental illnesses and sadly died. Megan devoted her life to helping others, even when she was struggling immensely herself. Her death has left a huge Megan-shaped hole in the mental health community and people are still trying to come to terms with her sudden death. In 2012, Megan founded the Recovery Shoe Box Project, Recovery Shoeboxes are mental health toolkits containing items that help you cope when times are hardest and coping feels difficult. Each box will include items that might distract, pamper, soothe and motivate and they are personalised to the individual receiving them. Since Megan’s death, £8,785 has been raised in order to keep her project on-going as a legacy to her. The aim is to reach £10,000 and after that who knows. If you’re able to donate, it would be much appreciated.

 

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Simon Godsave and Recovery Shoe Box Project

 

 

 

 

 

 

Universal Credit Saga – A Year On

So it’s been one whole year since I was signed off work and started the sole destroying task of applying for Universal Credit. If you’re a long term reader, you might remember my Open Letter to Theresa May, I was really reluctant to apply. I never thought that I would be in the position where I needed to apply for benefits and honestly, I felt a level of shame over applying. My usually proud front was shattered by admitting that I needed this financial help, but my health comes first. That was what I told myself.

And my God, was my front shattered. I had opened up about my health in a way that I never had before. I was begging strangers to take pity on me, in the hope that the application process might be made a little bit easier. Only, they didn’t take pity on me. Honestly, I felt a bit like a criminal. I was warned about sanctions if I couldn’t attend appointments if I was ill. Let’s remember at this point, that the whole reason that I was applying was because of how unwell I was and still am. I was asked when I was going to get better, because the government doesn’t seem to understand the concept of chronic or life long conditions.

I felt and still feel like a failure because I can’t work. I feel ashamed that I am ill, even though now, a year one, I am able to accept that life’s a bitch and doesn’t always go the way you want it to.

Anyway, after the initial stress of the first few months of the application, things calmed down a little. I had my work capability assessment and thankfully, the person leading the assessment had an ounce of common sense and agreed that I wasn’t fit to work. That was until. October, when my payments were stopped for no reason. I have real anxiety issues about going into the job centre because of the bad experiences that I’ve had there, but nonetheless, in I went to find out what had happened. I explained, very calmly, to the work coach that my payment hadn’t gone in and as a result, I was overdrawn. I kid you not, the work coach shrugged in reply and told me that “these things happen”. There have been admin issues over the past few weeks, which has meant that not all payments have gone out on time. Admin errors happen, what I am more frustrated about has been the sheer lack of communication, so I had no idea that this was the case.

I told the work coach, again, that I was overdrawn as a result of the payment not going on and was told that I would benefit from seeking advice from the Money Advice Service. The Money Advice Service is an organisation established with cross Government party support, that provides free and impartial advice on money and financial decisions to people in the United Kingdom. It is a really useful service, but not a service that I required at this time, because when my payments go in, I am very able at managing my own money. It’s very hard, however, to manage your money when you’re not receiving the money in the first place.

This leads me to now. I think maybe that I had become a little bit complacent when it came to Universal Credit: nothing has happened to offend me in a few months and I thought that things would remain that way. I went into the job centre to hand in my latest fit note and was told that my payments had been stopped and that I was being sanctioned.

 

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I cried. A lot. The past month has been awful, I’ve been really unwell (more than normal) and the last thing I needed was finding out that my financial security was at risk. The person I saw at the job centre wasn’t able to reinstate my payments and was only able to tell me that it looked like I’d missed a phone call. I rang the Performance Centre and was told that my payments had been stopped because I’d missed a review phone call. Yes, I had missed a phone call, but I had also notified them that I was in hospital at the time of the phone call and therefore unable to take the call, and please could it be rearranged.

I then had to wait a week for the actual review phone call. There was me thinking that it would be to ask me if there had been any changes to my health etc but no, they wanted to know if I was still single (as a pringle, for what it’s worth) and if I had any savings or investments. My favourite part was when they asked me if I was receiving a World War Two pension. Dude, I wasn’t even alive then…

Whilst none of this is especially dramatic, it really knocked me. There isn’t one single aspect of Universal Credit that is easy to understand or logical. It baffles me that they have such poor customer service skills, when they are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in society. There have been so many occasions over the past year when the process of Universal Credit has made me more unwell than I was already. It really seems like the government will jump upon the smallest thing as a reason to stop payments.

Until that changes, people will still be failed. They will still be struggling to pay rent and afford food. They will still feel penalised for being unwell and genuinely unable to work and I’m ashamed to live in a country whereby the government think that is okay.

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Self Love in 2019

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Image from Hayley at Spoonie Village

I’ve made no secret about the fact that 2018 was a pretty rubbish year for me. I entered the year unwell and was diagnosed with gastroparesis and Addison’s Disease, as well as my body having the usual EDS related wobbles and issues. The idea of making resolutions at the start of the year is a bit of an alien concept to me, I’ve never really done it because I never saw the point. If I want to do something, I’ll do it and I won’t wait until a new year to make changes.

So why I decided to make resolutions at the start of 2018 I do not know. Realising that I had failed with two thirds of my resolutions made me feel miserable. Okay so I managed to read at least 52 books over the year but I didn’t buy my own house and I didn’t make progress with my new job because I had to turn said job down because I wasn’t well enough to work. Honestly, I feel like I’ve failed as a person, not just failed at resolutions.

I’ve learnt an important lesson here. You have absolutely no idea what is ahead of you in life. Things happen, both good and bad. Whilst I talk about the negatives about 2018, I need to remember that there were good parts and I learnt a lot thanks to the bad times. I made some incredible friends over the year, visited new places, won against the broken universal credit system and most importantly, I survived. And I read a lot of books.

As well as learning the important lesson of not being able to predict the future, I’ve also learnt that really, the only thing that I need to do is to be kinder to myself. I still have aims and ambitions, but they don’t matter as much as I thought they did. There’s literally zero point in beating myself up for things that are out of my control. No one asks to be unwell and we all face our own struggles in life.

My aims for 2019 are varied. First and foremost, I want to have a better understanding over the illnesses that I have. I’m still learning what I can and can’t do, so naturally I make mistakes. I want to be as physically fit and healthy as possible: I know that I experience fewer EDS symptoms when I exercise, so when possible I’d like to go swimming, go for walks and do strengthening exercises at home. I’m never going to run a marathon but by the end of the year, I’d like to be able to comfortably run 5km. Running isn’t something that comes naturally to me. In fact, I hate it. I would use any excuse under the sun to avoid cross country at school and I fail to understand why people run for fun. But I still want to be able to test and push my body; running 5km isn’t a challenge for some people but it will be for me.

I’d also like to write more over the coming year. I was incredibly lucky to have some amazing writing opportunities last year and I’d like to put together a mini portfolio of what I’ve written about and how I have written for. Writing opportunities are hard to find, especially when you’re freelance so I need to make a real effort in getting out there and finding them, instead of waiting for them to come to me.

As well as hopefully doing more freelance writing, I think that I’d like to write a book. People have been saying to me for a long time that I should use my experiences and write a book, but fear and impostor syndrome has put me off. By publicly saying that I think that this year is the time to actually start putting pen to paper (or fingers to keypad) I’ll be held accountable and can’t hide away from something that I would potentially be good at. If nothing else, I should probably try and utilise my linguistics degree.

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Finally, I would like to develop and stick to a more structured routine. I know that being out of a routine and having endless amounts of free time is really bad for my mental health, although I’ve coped miraculously well not working. Having something planned every day simply isn’t realistic for me at the moment, but I would like to try and implement leaving the house every other day, even if it’s just for a short walk and getting some fresh air. The nature of being unwell means that I need a lot of sleep however I want to be stricter with myself and try and sleep less during the day, unless it’s absolutely necessary, and use other rooms in the house more and keep my room for sleeping. The temptation of going up to my room to watch a film and then drifting off to sleep is strong and it’s a habit that I need to break.

If I stick to and achieve these goals then that’s great. If not, that’s okay. Life is an unpredictable bastard and I’m not going to be hung up over ambitions not being achieved when life is kicking me down!

Things I’ve Learnt: 2018 Edition

I’m not exaggerating when I say that 2018 has been really tough year. I went into the year high on the news that I have been offered my dream job and my main aim for the year was to buy my own house and live independently. The reality has been very different. By the end of January it was becoming clear that I was very unwell, meaning that I had to turn down my dream job because I simply was not well enough to even get out of bed, let alone work in social services. With my sudden unemployment, I was forced to take on the benefits system, which was utterly soul destroying. My dreams were shattered further when I realised that not only was I too unwell to move out, I also couldn’t afford it.

 

  1. I know my body better than anyone. The NHS is fantastic and I wouldn’t be alive without it, but the nature of living with rare conditions and being medically complex means that I need to advocate for myself and education medical professionals, because very often, they aren’t taught about the conditions I have.
  2. I have got to fight, even on the days when I’ve lost all hope. Don’t get me wrong, there have been days when all I’ve wanted to do is hide in bed and that is okay. But things won’t ever move forward if I don’t speak up and demand the treatment that I need.
  3. Friendship is a two way thing. Toxic friendships aren’t helpful and I’m better off without some people, as painful as that is.
  4. Not everyone will understand. The nature of invisible illness is that you can’t see it. A lot of the time, I look pretty healthy but that doesn’t mean I am well. People often say that I look well and therefore assume that I’m better or cured. Unfortunately, I’m never going to be cured and just because you can’t see what’s going on inside my body or the amount of pain I’m in, it doesn’t mean that I’m well. Over the years I’ve been given well-meaning, but quite frankly stupid advice about how to make myself better, ranging from eating quinoa, to drinking beer, to following a clean and plant based diet. It takes a lot of effort to not roll my eyes to these suggestions.
  5. My hopes and dreams will change. Unlike most healthy twenty-somethings, I don’t dream of traveling the world or getting a promotion or having an amazing holiday. My hopes are simple: to stay out of hospital and for my other sick friends to be as okay as possible.
  6. I can never have too many books. At the beginning of the year, I set myself the challenge of reading 52 books over 2018. This is one thing that I succeeded with and my book collection is slightly growing out of control.
  7. It’s okay not to be okay
  8. I’m allowed to be terrified. This year has thrown many new things at me, that I never expected. My new normal has taken a lot of adjusting to and I’m still not fully there. Having numerous illnesses that can’t be cured and are likely to worsen is scary.
  9. There will still be good days.
  10. I can’t face things alone. I need people to support me, whether they are family, friends or medical professionals. I can’t fight the shit stuff alone.
  11. I have got to pace myself.
  12. I’m allowed to miss being healthy and I’m allowed to be resentful.
  13. As much as I hate it, medication keeps me alive.
  14. Never underestimate the power of a pair of comfy pyjamas.
  15. My body will change and I won’t always be in control of that.
  16. Being as healthy as possible requires work.
  17. Medical professionals who get it are incredible and I need to appreciate them.
  18. I’m a lot stronger than I give myself credit for.

I’m hoping more than anything that 2019 is a little bit kinder to me and doesn’t throw any more illnesses at me.

Happy New Year to all, keep fighting and know that you’re not alone.

2018 Favourites

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Well, we’ve made it to the end of 2018: a year which has caused the British population to overdose on Brexit, we had the Beast from the East and the hottest summer in forever. Baby Shark made us want to spoon our eyeballs out and the I’m A Celeb Class of 2018 gave us the ultimate body confidence song, I Like My Bum.

I’ve really enjoyed writing about my monthly favourites, throughout the year, so it only seemed right to reflect on the whole of 2018 and the things that I’ve loved.

Books

My stand-out book of the year has to be I Am Thunder: And I Won’t Keep Quiet by Muhammad Khan. Put simply: this book was amazing, literally the only fault that I could find with it is that it finished too soon. Despite this book again coming under the YA category of fiction, I honestly feel that everyone needs to read it. Muhammad Khan is a teacher in a British secondary school. He is also Muslim and writes about growing up as a British Muslim in the 21st century, having been inspired by media reports of the three Muslim girls who fled east London to join the so-called Islamic State. Since first reading this book in May, I have gone on to re-read it numerous times, each time picking up different aspects of the plot that I hadn’t noticed when reading before. I’m really pleased that Khan is releasing his second book in early 2019.

Another book which I have to mention is We Are Young, the latest book by YA author, Cat Clarke. Having only discovered Cat Clarke this year, I very quickly made my way through all of her books and it is a close call between We Are Young and Girlhood over my favourite Cat Clarke book. We Are Young was emotional, raw, powerful…I could continue. What I loved most was that Cat writes about mental health in such a sensitive yet balanced manner. She doesn’t sugar-coat how difficult being a teenager can be and We Are Young also touches on the government cuts to mental health services and youth services and how this impacts on the most vulnerable in society. I can’t wait until Cat’s next book is out. No pressure Cat!

A book that hasn’t featured in any of my previous monthly favourites posts is Vox by Christina Dalcher. This book was extraordinary, so much so that I read it in one sitting. It’s very unlike any books that I normally read, but I was drawn to it because of the linguistic and neurolinguistic element in it. In dystopian USA, women and girls are limited to speaking only one hundred words a day. This is measured by a word counter which is fitted to their wrists, speaking over one hundred words means that the bracelet emits an electric shock, which then intensifies. Think 1984, with a neurolinguistic twist, I really loved it.

Films/TV

Like most of the British population, I was obsessed with Love Island and still feel that there is a hole in my life, come 9pm, as it’s not on TV to watch. Despite this, however, I will fully admit that Love Island is not a healthy representation on society and it highlights many issues, with how women are viewed and treated. I wrote a blog post about The Problems With Love Island, where I talked about being a feminist and if watching Love Island makes me a bad feminist. I don’t necessarily agree with the behaviours shown by some of the people in the villa, but Love Island was a winner for some summer evening TV viewing and I will be remaining loyal, babe to it.

Obviously I can’t write about my yearly favourites without mentioning Strictly Come Dancing. As always, I have loved loved loved this series, especially with the added controversy and drama. Stacey and Kevin were well deserved winners, having had the SCD journey, with Stacey going from complete novice to a talented dancer.

My stand-out TV programme of the year has to the The Bodyguard. Being a huge fan of Line of Duty, also written by Jed Mercurio, I had high expectations of this series and I was not disappointed. It. Was. So. Good. Although not to be watched in the middle of the night when you’re home alone. The twist in the final episode was outstanding…is Julia alive or not?! Roll on series two.

As for films, the ones I’ve loved the most are Ladybird, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and Wonder. 2019 is looking good in terms of film releases and I’m especially looking forward to Toy Story 4 and Lion King.

Spoonie Favourites

The Body Shop has to have a mention here, as their skin care has (mostly) kept my skin in reasonable condition, when I haven’t felt eel enough to properly look after it. A lot of the time, I don’t have the energy to spend ages and ages doing my makeup or having a long beauty regime, but at the same time, I don’t want to get into a downward spiral of not making any effort. Products which deserve a mention are: Tea Tree Anti-Imperfection Night Mask is specifically formulated to care for blemishes and imperfections whilst you sleep and the hydrating face mists which saved my skin from heat induced sweats over the summer.

Another spoonie favourite from this is Tesco jeans. Okay, stay with me on this one. I have really short legs – being just over 5ft is a bit of a curse in that sense – so I find buying jeans a very painful process. Once I find a brand that I like, that’s it, I’m on a convert and buy all the jeans in different colours (I say different colours and I mean dark blue and black). They are so comfy, they fit perfectly, with a slight stretch which is perfect for when my hips and knees swell up, or when I’m bloated. Plus, they are so much cheaper than my usual Jack Wills/Oasis/Top Shop jeans and they wash well as well, which is always a bonus. I’ve lived in Tesco jeans, since discovering them earlier in the year and I’m so impressed by the longevity of them. They’ve faded slightly but for the most part, they still look as good as when I first bought them.

This year, I invested in a memory foam pillow. Where has this been all of my life? Thanks to EDS, I have endless issues with my back, neck and ribs and need a pillow which offers support and it fairly firm, to support my wonky bits. It hasn’t completely resolved the issues, but being able to sleep with my neck and shoulders getting more support has made a difference.

Since I was a teenager, I have struggled to varying degrees with stretch marks. Oh I know, the glamour, but I’m nothing if not honest. Skin issues go hand in hand with EDS, so I’m always going to be more prone to the little buggers and I know that so many people also have stretch marks. But that doesn’t change how they make me feel and how much they knock my confidence. After using a combination of bio oil and Palmer’s Cocoa  Butter and not noticing any difference, I did some research and came across Udderly Gorgeous Stretch Mark Oil by Cowshed. Whilst it was developed with pregnancy in mind, it has also had a good write up in improving stretch marks in general. It smells so much better than bio-oil, is less greasy and is absorbed more quickly. It hasn’t got rid of my stretch marks (that would be asking for a miracle) but they have improved: they aren’t as red or deep.

 

Odds and Sods

My first Odds and Sods yearly favourite overlaps with Spoonie Favourites. Last year, I stumbled across Spoonie_Village on Instagram. Run by the lovely Hayley, there is also an etsy shop, where you can buy all sorts of spoonie related items such as postcards, stickers, notebooks and calendars. I honestly can’t praise Hayley enough, her illustrations have made me smile during some really dark times this year and I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings.

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Over the summer, I was well enough to travel up to York, where I spent the best three years at uni, to catch up with old friends an lecturers. York itself is a beautiful city, with individual and unique shops that I could happily spend way too much money in. I’m able to look back on my week in York and remind myself that 2018 hasn’t been all bad, and I’m very lucky to have such supportive friends, dragging me through the tough bits.

My final favourite is the general blogging community over on Facebook and Instgram. Through this community, I have met so many like-minded people, learnt how to develop my blog and writing for an audience and had the space to talk about content and what people want to read about. Big thanks to the people who give up their time to facilitate the groups which allow this to happen, especially Amy, Pippa and Jenna.

 

 

 

 

Universal Credit Saga – Part Seven

It’s been a while since I had anything to say about universal credit. Mostly this is because I haven’t felt well enough to battle the broken system and for the most part, it hadn’t been causing me any issues, personally, so my feelings and views on it have been forced to take a back seat.

That was, until this past month. I check my bank account regularly because I don’t trust the benefits system to continuously pay me without any issues. When I checked my bank account a few weeks ago, I realised that I wasn’t paid my last universal credit payment, meaning that I was very overdrawn. It’s been an expensive few weeks with birthdays and various other things so my outgoings were higher than normal but that still didn’t explain how I was so massively overdrawn.

I’ve always been very careful with my money and budgeting was a skill that was instilled into me as a teenager. Finding out that I was overdrawn caused a whole new level of anxiety but I pulled myself together and went to the job centre to ask where the hell my money was at.

If you’ve been a regular follower of the universal credit sage, you’ll know that my experiences at the job centre have been less than positive: I’d like to say that this time things were different but that was not the case. I explained, very calmly, to the work coach that my payment hadn’t gone in and as a result, I was overdrawn. I kid you not, the work coach shrugged in reply and told me that “these things happen”. There have been admin issues over the past few weeks, which has meant that not all payments have gone out on time. Admin errors happen, what I am more frustrated about has been the sheer lack of communication, so I had no idea that this was the case.

I told the work coach, again, that I was overdrawn as a result of the payment not going on and was told that I would benefit from seeking advice from the Money Advice Service. The Money Advice Service is an organisation established with cross Government party support, that provides free and impartial advice on money and financial decisions to people in the United Kingdom. It is a really useful service, but not a service that I require at this time, because when my payments go in, I am very able at managing my own money. It’s very hard, however, to manage you’re money when you’re not receiving the money in the first place.

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I thought that things were taking a more positive turn when the work coach asked me if I needed vouchers so that I could access the food bank. The situation that I’m in means that actually, I don’t need them, because I eat very little due to gastroparesis, and the supplement drinks that I have are on prescription. This is where it gets interesting: the average person will spend between £15 and £20 per week on food shopping. The job centre were offering me a £5 voucher, to last me a month. That is not enough to cover even the very basic amounts of food that I am able to eat.

 

This left me in a somewhat desperate situation. By the time I got home, I was in tears because of anxiety and felt pretty ill, in general. With my mum’s help, the situation was de-escalated and we agreed that she would lend me some money to help me until my next payment date.

The end result has been that I had a double payment on my most recent payment date, so financially, I’m back to where I should be.

Universal Credit makes people vulnerable. You’re constantly at the mercy of an admin system that may or may not work. And when it doesn’t work, things can go really wrong. People can so easily end up in rent arrears, which can put their housing at risk. Mortgage repayments can be missed. Bills don’t get paid. So many people expected that Universal Credit would be a Universal Failure, however the scale of the failure really is shocking. It has cost four times as much to run per person as predict, at approximately £700 per claim. A fifth of claimants’ payments have been delayed and it is pushing unsustainable burdens onto local authorities to pick up the pieces when it does go wrong. Food banks, churches and charities are having to support increasing numbers of people, yet despite all of this, we are told that we are too far along with the process now, for it to be reversed. Universal credit hasn’t been rolled out across the whole country yet, so all these failures are set to increase further by 2023, when the rollout is set to be completed.

All these reasons are why I want to be working and not living off the state. Ten months on from the start of my experiences with universal credit and I still feel like a failure.

 

 

Knowing When To Take A Break

When I first started blogging, way back when, around 2011, my main focus was mental health and living with various mental health conditions. My blogging was very much anonymous; I was so scared about sharing with people who I knew in real life what I was going through out of fear that I would be judged or that they would think differently. University completely changed my perspective about mental health. I realised that it wasn’t a battle that I needed to fight alone and, more importantly, that other people also struggled with mental illnesses.

Talking about mental health is still something that I am passionate about. The mental health system in the UK is very broken and it is failing so many people. I can’t change that, but I can advocate for people and remind them that they aren’t alone. I’ve seen both sides of the mental health system: I’ve been a patient and I’ve also been the professional, supporting service users and fighting to get them the help that they need and deserve. The number of people being failed really worries me. It worries me personally, as I have been failed by the system and it worries me as an ex-professional who had to fight on behalf of vulnerable young adults, to simply access a referral into mental health services.

A lot has changed since 2011. I am (for the most part) open and honest about my mental health. But, saying that, my own mental health has been forced to take a bit of a back seat, especially over the last year, as my physically health deteriorated to the point that it took over my life. Things as I knew them suddenly became very different and it was something totally out of my control.

I have been having therapy for just over three years. For about two years of that time, I found it a really useful process and I was getting a lot out of the sessions and was learning new coping strategies that I could implement into my daily life. As my physical health worsened, this changed the way that I worked with my therapist. I would frequently turn up to sessions so exhausted that I couldn’t function, a large chunk of the session would be a debrief on the week’s hospital appointments, whether I’d stayed out of hospital, if anything drastic had changed. Without realising it, my therapy sessions (which I am paying privately for) have become a space for me to talk about my physical health, completely ignoring my mental health. My physical health is important, it impacts my life daily and at the moment, it is very unpredictable. But my mental health is also important and I have been neglecting that and the reasons why I am in therapy in the first place.

So, I guess you could say that I’m going round in circles. Therapy can’t cure my physical illnesses and I am doubtful that it can fully “cure” my mental illnesses. It can, however, give me the skills to cope, manage, survive and pick myself up again when things go wrong.

During one sleepless night (painsomnia is fun) I ended up thinking about what I am getting out of therapy. The answer was not much. Because I have been so focused on trying to stabilise my physical health and was fixated on trying to avoid hospital, I hadn’t realised that I had slowly and silently slipped backwards in terms of my mental health. I have been anxious, really anxious, probably 90% of the time. This has manifested in an increased number of anxiety attacks, nightmares, my heart feeling like it’s going to explode and so much sweat. Gross but factual. My safe haven of my bed has been where I have wanted to hide much of the time and it has taken a lot of effort to go against that instinct. I guess I can be thankful for the many hospital appointments that forced me out of my bed, my pyjamas and my house.

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For me, anxiety goes hand in hand with OCD rituals and again, without realising, they have also worsened and I am more dependent on them, in order to feel safe and less anxious.

Relapses happen. They are part of life and I know that being able to recognise this slippery slope is positive.

This week I made the decision to take a break from therapy. Not ideal, you might be thinking, given what I have said above, but I think and hope that this is also a positive step. I was honest with my therapist and said that I felt that the sessions were becoming too focused on EDS, gastroparesis, Addison’s and all the other fun things that my body does. I am not addressing the reasons that I am in therapy and that has been the case for too long. Those reasons aren’t ever going to diminish or become less problematic if I continue to ignore them, either consciously or subconsciously. I am a pro at changing the subject and I think my therapist needs to be stricter at forcing the difficult conversations because I can’t do it for myself. It won’t be a long break and it was agreed on the condition that I made contact with my therapist if I needed to.

I’ve been here before and I know the feeling of “stop the world, I want to get off” will pass. As anyone with a mental illness will confirm, sometimes you will have days when you feel on top of the world and able to take anything on. Other days aren’t quite so great and you end up feeling frustrated and demoralised about life. And moments when I feel like that are when I need to take a break and re-evaluate things, without piling hideous amounts of pressure on myself.

For much of 2018 I have felt like a massive failure. I haven’t achieved my goal of moving out and as the year has progressed, it has become more and more unlikely that I will be able to fly the nest any time soon. I am crazy jealous of people who are living independently. Rationally I know that I need to be at home, financially I can’t afford to move out and I also need too much help with regards to my health to live alone.  I’m not working and the whole universal credit process destroyed my soul a little bit, so much so that when I get an email or text from them, I want to be (and often am) sick. Classy. But I know that I can’t work, even the pleb who met me once for my fitness to work assessment agreed with that. I’m not well enough, but I am taking tiny steps forward to engage in the workplace again.

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I used to hate it when people told me to be kind to myself. My counsellor at university ended every session by saying “go well out there” and looking back, that was possibly the best thing anyone could have said to me. I’m not going to succeed in everything I do, life doesn’t work like that. All I can do is try my best and “go well.” And yes, I need to be kind to myself, particularly when the world doesn’t feel like it’s being very kind.