My authentic self

Being my authentic self in relationship – particularly in relationships with men whom I find attractive and with whom I want to be in relationship – is my biggest challenge, according to well-placed sources (my therapist).

Because being myself carries huge risks, risks in the present but also risks that are associated with painful memories from my past: if I speak my truth, there’s a chance or a fear I might be rejected, abandoned, ignored or ridiculed. I might not get my needs met. I might not be loved. And that hurts.

But not being myself in relationship, trying to be something I’m not or hiding my true self to avoid rejection, abandonment and so forth, is more painful in the long-term, for both of us. Because the relationship I get myself in will be based on a lie or a version of the truth, but not the whole truth.

What am I talking about exactly? I’ll try to be more explicit, while also being mindful of the fact that writing about relationships inevitably involves other people and that I really value my relationships with others, even when they’ve ended. I also value other people’s privacy and hope I always manage to respect that in my writing, by keeping the focus on me.

So a fledgling relationship – if you could call it a relationship – has just ended. It’s probably more accurate to say I’ve split up with the guy I’ve been dating for the past eight weeks (two months, really? I hadn’t realised it had been that long) as we’d never really established whether we were in a relationship or not. In fact, it was my desire to establish whether we were in a relationship or if we were heading that way that brought it to an end.

I liked him, a lot, and we clicked on a number of levels. In many respects, we were a good match. But I had a sense, early on, that I might be at a different life stage to him, that we might be looking for different things.

What life stage am I at? Well, when it comes to dating and relationships, if I meet someone I get on well with, I want to give it a shot. I want to put two feet in, as opposed to one foot in, one foot out, which I used to do in my past. I see now that my previous half-hearted attempts at relationships disguised a fear of intimacy, of getting too close, in case he left me or in case he actually loved me, which would then bring the risk of him leaving me – the pain of which felt too much to bear in my younger years.

Having learned from my mistakes and having understood that the magic I’ve been seeking in so many other places for so long actually happens when I risk my heart and allow myself to get close to someone, I tried a wholehearted attempt at a relationship last year. It was a wonderful, rewarding experience, even if it did end. It also helped me define the kind of relationship I’m looking for.

So I’m at the stage where, if I click with someone, I’m going to want to nudge things forward after a while, to spend more time together, make a few plans, for days out or weekends away. I’m going to want to put some fun in the diary and make space for spontaneous stuff too. I guess I’d like to know I have a boyfriend, even if that word still makes me cringe a little.

Am I looking to ‘settle down’? It’s an interesting question and one that I had to ask myself recently. If I’m honest, I loathe the phrase and I reacted quite defensively when it was put to me. It seems to carry connotations of monotony, sameness and trips to B&Q on weekends (not that there’s anything wrong with B&Q on weekends, particularly if you work a five-day week and your home is in need of repair). It runs contrary to what I like to think I am, which is a bit of a free spirit.

Feeling happy doing the things I love (hiking in the Isle of Wight)

Feeling happy doing the things I love (hiking in the Isle of Wight)

What I’m looking for in a relationship, at least in part, is adventure, laughter, camping trips, days at the beach, weekends spent in foreign climes and, in time, potential discussions about a joint investment in a VW campervan and a couple of surf boards (I realise some of this is weather dependent and nor is my surfing the best).

I guess I want to continue doing what I’ve been trying to do in recent months and years – the stuff that makes me feel alive, which generally involves the great outdoors, exercise and amazing scenery, but I’d like to be doing that with someone I’m getting to know and learning to love.

Happy again, this time in Cornwall

Happy again, this time in Cornwall

I’m not set on dating a carbon copy of myself (that wouldn’t be much fun). He doesn’t  have to want to swim in the freezing cold sea (I swam off Cornwall last weekend, albeit for about 3 minutes) or share my love of salsa dancing, but a desire to try out some of my interests while I try out some of his would be great.

But I also appreciate that it’s difficult to find adventure and some sort of stability in the same person or the same relationship and there’ll have to be some give and take – I’m ready for that. And I realise that B&Q trips, home repairs and a more stable existence can be really fun if you’re with someone you love (apparently).

But I digress – this wasn’t meant to read like an online dating profile.

Back to authenticity.

In the relationship that just ended, I took a big risk, made myself vulnerable and was my authentic self. At a time I deemed appropriate – not too soon (I hope) but not too late that I could end up really hurt – I verbalised what I was looking for – a ‘two-feet-in relationship’ – in as clear a way as I could. I spoke my truth and I think I did so in a way that was gentle and considerate of the other person’s truth, feelings and potential uncertainty about what he was looking for. I did this while knowing that I might be inviting rejection. In fact, I was pretty sure that, despite all the good stuff, a break-up was on the cards.

That break-up took a little while to happen, but it did happen.

It’s only two days on so, inevitably, lots of questioning and second-guessing is going on. Did I speak up too soon? Should I have just gone with the flow and seen where it went? Should I have behaved differently, kept my cards closer to my chest, silenced that side of me that always wants to share her feelings, not worn my heart emblazoned on my sleeve? Was I too much? And, ultimately, should I have ignored, for a few more weeks or longer, that still, small voice inside that was telling me I might not get my needs met here?

I can question, second-guess and beat myself up as much as I like but these behaviours are part of my default setting that dates back to my childhood: to blame myself when someone decides they don’t want to be with me or when something breaks down. As the psychotherapists say, when we’re children, we think it’s all about us and we can carry that sense of everything being our fault or of not being good enough into our adult lives.

But when I look at it rationally, I’m proud of myself for speaking up and for taking care of my needs. I did things imperfectly – I may have shared some feelings that I could have run by a trusted friend on the phone first. But it was good enough. More than good enough. I was myself. And on this occasion, as it turned out, my authentic self and the other person weren’t the best match – for reasons of timing, age and stage in life or whatever else.

But what I deserve to remind myself of in the moments of grief (because grief follows every loss, especially if we’ve experienced a lot of loss before and even if we know the ending was for the best) is that my authentic self is enough and there’ll be someone who’s a better match.

So I can tell those ‘if only’ voices – the voices that tell me I messed up – to pipe down and I can turn up the volume on the ones that tell me I did really well, that I was courageous and brave, took a risk, shared my vulnerabilities and honoured my hopes and dreams rather than ignoring them for the sake of extending, probably only for a little longer, that wonderful sense of possibility and the delights of being affectionate with someone I really liked.

For a little while, it’s back to basics: self-care, self-love, work and fun with my friends. And then, when I’m ready, it’s back on the dating scene with a renewed sense of hope and a greater confidence in my ability to tackle my biggest challenge: to be my authentic self in relationship.

Posted in codependency, Dating, Love, Recovery, Relationships, Trust, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s your truth?

How do we know what our truth is? How do we know that what we sense is our intuition or instinct is actually that, rather than deep fears rooted in our distant past? How do we navigate our way through the swamp of old patterns of thinking, feeling and reacting to understand our feelings today?

I say swamp because it often feels like that – like wading through a green, sticky mass, through a sea of gloop that wants to keep pulling me under, sucking me down just when I’m coming up for air.

In the past, my answer to not knowing my truth was to ask somebody else. And I got pretty good at it over the years – either directly asking for advice or tuning in to another person’s words with such concentration to see if I could interpret what they said. I’ve learned over the years that nobody else can know my truth, but that doesn’t stop me from asking, even today.

But when I ask for people to tell me my truth, or at least to help me find it, I also have to remember that they’re hearing and responding to my interpretation of reality, along with all the baggage I’ve attached to that reality when I’ve shared it. And inevitably, they’ll also have their own filter or lens through which they see my reality, shaped by their own past experiences, fears and hurts.

I love reaching out to friends, support groups and therapists. I love sharing my stuff. And I cherish the love, understanding and empathy that I receive – and that I give in return.

But I’m also learning that only I can know my truth. And I’m accepting it might take me a long time to get there – much longer than I would have liked – and there might be a lot of pain, struggle and wrong turns along the way. I might have to sit in uncertainty for a good while, which I find excruciating, but I’m getting a lot better at.

Having understood this, I was heartened to read a meditation this morning that reminded me I’m not the only one on this difficult path.

It’s from The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie, a book I cherish, that often speaks to me and that I highly recommend to anyone who’s on a journey of self discovery, self-love and self-care. Today’s reading is called Finding Our Own Truth and I’ve copied a few extracts below:

We must each discover our own truth. It does not help us if those we love find their truth. They cannot give it to us. It does not help if someone we love knows a particular truth in our life. We must discover our truth for ourselves … We often need to struggle, fail, and be confused and frustrated. That’s how we break through our struggle; that’s how we learn what is true and right for ourselves. We can share information with others. Others can tell us what may predictably happen if we pursue a particular course. But it will not mean anything until we integrate the message and it becomes our truth, our discovery, our knowledge … We may want to make it easier. We may nervously run to friends, asking them to give us their truth or make our discovery easier. They cannot. Light will shed itself it its own time … Each experience, each frustration, each situation, has its own truth waiting to be revealed. Don’t give up until you find it – for yourself.

Today, I will search for my own truth, and I will allow others to do the same. I will place value on my vision and the vision of others. We are each on the journey, making our own discoveries – the ones that are right for us today.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

There are many truths I’m trying to uncover right now, but one truth I’m becoming more aware of than ever before is how my first experience of love and closeness with a man – my Dad – affects my romantic relationships today.

As much as I can do the ‘strong, independent, knows what she wants’ woman thing really well and despite the fact I’ve been feeling extraordinarily content and emotionally stable in recent months, there’s a deep wound inside when it comes to men. That wound, which formed not because my Dad did anything terrible but simply because he didn’t or couldn’t give me the kind of love, affirmation and emotional closeness I needed and wanted as a little girl, opens every time I get close to a man today.

My functional adult knows all about boundaries, respecting each other’s space, taking things slowly and the importance of making rational decisions around relationships based on good information, shared values and so forth.

But the child inside, who sometimes gets in the driving seat, just wants to be loved – wholly loved, loved 500 percent (despite knowing from my financial journalism days that 100 percent is as high as you can go).

I know nobody can give me that amount of love, fill the deep hole or completely heal the wound. I know that the wound can lead me down a path of craving and wanting something so badly that inevitably I’ll push it away. And I know the wound at times feels so painful that the prospect of exposing myself to any further hurt by engaging with a man who might be offering love feels so scary that I’ll walk or perhaps run as fast as I can in the opposite direction.

The presence of this wound makes me hypersensitive to any hint of abandonment, rejection or not being wholly, 500 percent wanted. It makes it incredibly difficult to know my truth or to trust what I think is my instinct. It clouds my intuition and judgement. It leads to me to conclusions that may or may not be correct. And it drives me nuts.

I’ve done a fair bit of healing of this wound over the years – self-love, self-care, meditation and prayer all help – but it’s still there, lurking under the surface.

So what’s the answer? Awareness comes first, awareness of this particular truth, even if I’m still struggling to work out all my other truths. With that awareness, I can then continue to self-soothe, self-love, self-nurture and connect with my faith so the wound isn’t quite so deep or exposed. I can talk to the child inside who didn’t feel loved enough and doesn’t feel loved enough today. I can reassure her that she is – at least by me. And I can find the courage to allow my adult rather than my hurt child to make my decisions in the here and now, based on the truth of today, not on my past experiences.

Psychotherapists say that our hurt happens in relationship and so it follows that our healing happens in relationship too. But of course it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it feels absolutely terrifying and so much easier to stay away.

But I know the answer is to engage, to walk the wobbly tightrope between my past and present, to take chances, to expose myself to potential hurt as well as to love and healing. And to keep searching for my truth.

Posted in Dating, Love, Relationships, Self-Acceptance, Trust, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

One day at a time

Don’t ask me how it happened but more than three weeks have passed since I last posted here. I know some of my readers (particularly my non-London friends) start wondering whether there’s something wrong if I don’t blog. But this time, my absence is down to being very busy with work (in a good way), with my social life (in a good way, too) and to feeling as peaceful and content (generally, most of the time) as I felt on the eve of my birthday – and therefore not having quite so much to say.

Because this blog, over the last few years, has been a place to work through my struggles, to find some catharsis through the act of writing and creativity, to understand what’s going on in my head by getting it out of my head and hopefully to inspire and encourage a few people along the way.

But right now, there aren’t so many struggles, even if it feels dangerous to say that, to write it down. And the struggles I have are short-lived – short-circuited by writing in my diary, taking ten minutes out to meditate, pray or phone a friend. I guess this is one of the gifts of working at something for a long time (in this case, recovery from addictive behaviours and self-sabotaging thought patterns) – at some point, it really starts to work.

But there’s a reason why the recovery movement (be that recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction, food addiction, love addiction, codependency and so forth) uses the slogan, “One day at a time”. I remember in the early days when I was trying to quit compulsive overeating, starving and generally messing around with food for purposes other than nutrition. Back then, the idea that I only had to get through that one day, that I only had to get my head on the pillow that night without having stuffed my feelings down with food was a real life-saver. I’d tell myself that whatever I wanted to eat in that moment of madness, stress, anxiety, anger or tiredness late in the evening I could have the next morning if I could just hold out that long. On many occasions, that promise to myself got me through. And of course, the next morning, with the benefit of sleep and a bit of distance from my emotions, the crazy, compulsive feelings had subsided and I no longer wanted the cake, chocolate or (often in my case) the organic cereal and natural yoghurt (I was always quite a healthy binge eater – in the later stages, at least).

Today, now I’ve made peace with food, ‘one day at a time’ means something a little bit different. It means I try not to project into the future, live in some fantasy land or imagine certain outcomes in my head. I try to remember that all I have is today and that, for today, I have everything I need to feel safe and happy.

This is particularly important when I’m dating. I know I’m not the first female to let my mind race off into some fantasy future where men are concerned and I won’t be the last. Many of us do it, but then we share it, laugh about it, and with a bit of luck, haul ourselves back to reality and remember to keep it in the day. Do men do this too? I’d be interested to know. Guys?

Of course, this is much easier to do if we’re starting from a solid base – if we have a lot of our needs covered and we’re not desperately looking for someone else to fill the gap. And while I guess it’ll never be perfect (because I’m human and perfection doesn’t exist), I feel I’m more in that place than I’ve ever been.

There isn’t such a great, gaping hole inside, such a deep longing for love or such a big fear of loss and abandonment as there has been in the past – because I’m giving that love to myself and I’m showing up for myself. I’m taking care of myself – emotionally, physically and spiritually. I’m resting when I’m tired, crossing things off my ‘To Do’ list when I feel stressed, strengthening my body through exercise, meditating most mornings and eating well. I’m pursuing my creative dreams – slowly, very slowly when it comes to the book, but I’m pursuing them all the same – and increasingly I’m doing work I enjoy that fits with who I am rather than with the image of myself I wanted you to have. (Last week, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of sixth-formers about eating disorders, anxiety, stress and perfectionism and it felt like such a gift). My finances are reasonably manageable – I have a good idea of what comes in and what goes out – and I have a little home of my own, so I’m not in need of rescuing. I have fun and exciting things in the diary that I’ve chosen to do because I love them and they make me happy, irrespective of anyone else. And I feel supported and loved by my huge network of friends and family members. Thank you all for that.

In short, I’m pretty confident that whatever happens, I’ll be OK.

And I guess it’s that confidence – that trust in oneself and, in my case, in God – that helps me go out there and take some risks with my feelings and my heart.

If I fall, I know the ground is really well cushioned. I feel anchored. I feel held.

Interestingly, this has just come to me, but this sounds like the secure base that, ideally, all children grow up with, which is something I was researching recently for work. Babies and toddlers feel confident to go out and explore the big world because they know they can always come back to the safe embrace of their primary caregivers. Their parents’ support is consistent, unwavering, like a safety net. Psychologists say these children grow up with healthy self-esteem, a strong sense of self, an ability to take risks and they’re less prone to anxiety.

Exploring the world as a little person without a secure base can be a scary experience and those fears, that sense of trepidation, that idea that the world isn’t a benevolent place and nobody’s got our back can stay with us for years. We either shy away from taking chances or we cling to things or to people to support us that actually can’t help – in other words, we look for love in all the wrong places.

Some of us didn’t grow up with a sense of a secure base for one reason or another and we spent a lot of years looking for love in the wrong places or trying to keep ourselves safe from hurt. But the amazing thing is we can recreate the secure base for ourselves, as adults.

And once we’ve done that, we can send our inner children out there to join in with all the other kids, to get messy, play and jump from great heights, safe in the knowledge they’ve got somewhere to come back to if they end up bruised or things don’t go to plan.

I guess that’s what I’m doing right now – I’m encouraging her (me) to get out there and play, reassuring her it’s safe to take a chance because I’ve got her back.

Posted in Addiction, codependency, Recovery, Relationships, Spirituality, Trust, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How did I end up here?

This blog post could go two ways.

It could either turn into a sombre reflection on the fact it’s my birthday tomorrow and my life looks nothing like I expected it to look at this age and stage. I could ramble on about how I started this blog at 40, filled with excitement and hope for the year ahead, never imagining that three years would go by and I’d still be here, writing about similar things (I’m laughing out loud as I write that!), still struggling with some of the same issues, ruminating over some of the same stuff, procrastinating over some of the same actions.

Still – yes, still – trying to work IT all out, whatever IT is! Still – yes, still – trying to find THE ANSWER – even if I’m not quite sure what the question is. Because what is it all about anyway? And why am I so determined to figure it all out, to get it right, to arrive somewhere (as I wrote in my last post), rather than to just enjoy the journey.

So instead, this post is going to go the other way. Rather than a sombre reflection on another year passing by and a critical analysis of how I got here, it’s going to be a celebration of where I am today, of everything I’ve got to be grateful for and of all the things I have to look forward to.

I’ve no doubt there’ll be plenty more ups and downs, twists and turns and unsettling bumps along the way but right now, in this moment, I feel content, happy even. I use those words rarely, always fearful that precious moment of contentment will be snatched from my grasp before I have the chance to savour it. But I’m daring to use them today – on the eve of my 43rd birthday. I’m daring to register them here, so I can look back and read them when I’m hitting those inevitable bumps in the road.

My search for happiness (if it exists – perhaps contentment is a better word, or peace) has taken me around the houses. Half-read self-help books line my shelves or are gathering dust under my bed (and if I’ve got one of yours, I’ll return it next week!). Leaflets and magazines advertising personal development workshops and courses are piled up in a corner of the living room. And if you were to examine my Internet search history, you’d discover I’ve looked up pretty much every psychological condition – along with causes, symptoms and remedies – under the sun.

Everything I’ve done, no doubt, has helped a little bit and I can’t quite put my finger on what, if anything, has made a difference in recent weeks. But I’m finding I’m waking up a lot of the time filled with excitement, hope and with a big smile on my face. And when I do wake up with anxious palpitations (which I do sometimes), I find I can ground myself much faster – with a bit of prayer, meditation and writing – and find some peace.

I’m also finding time and space a few mornings a week to stop by the local park and say hello to the deer, ducks and goats. Yes, we have a little chat in the sunshine. And I’m putting on cheesy music and dancing around my living room and kitchen (which are one and the same thing).

Oh yes, and I feel loved, really loved, which I realised as I picked up the birthday cards from my door mat this morning. I’m not loved, perhaps, in the way I wanted or expected to be at this age and stage, but I’m incredibly loved by family and friends. And I’ve learned to love, if I wasn’t quite sure how to do it before. And that’s all very special.

But at the core of it all, I guess, is a new level of acceptance. An acceptance that I am most definitely not in charge. That I can do my best, step out in faith, take steps to look after myself and courageously seek the things I would like in my life, but that trying to engineer a particular outcome – for the next years, months, weeks or even the next day – will only send my head into a spin.

Recent experience has taught me that the level of peace and contentment I feel is directly related to the degree to which I am able to surrender my life and hold my dreams loosely. It’s that peace and contentment that has me waking up filled with excitement for my day and dancing around my kitchen.

So, on the eve of another birthday, it’s all about acceptance and surrender.

Happy Birthday to me!

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Wouldn’t it be great if we could take shortcuts – if we could get where we wanted to go with a click of our fingers or make things happen with a twitch of our nose (anyone remember Bewitched from years ago?), without having to go on what can often be a lengthy, painful and circuitous journey first or put in lots of time-consuming effort?

So we could have the book written and displayed on our bookshelf without actually having to sit down for hours, days, weeks, months or even years to write it.

Or we could have that amazing, loving relationship we’ve always wanted without having to do loads of work on ourselves first to break our self-defeating, self-sabotaging patterns or to build our self-worth. Or without having to go through that tricky “ordeal” stage of negotiating boundaries, making compromises and confronting our fear of commitment, pain and potential loss. (I’ve linked before to Recovery and The Couple Relationship - a talk in which psychotherapist Paul Sunderland describes the three stages of a relationship: the ideal, the ordeal and then the real deal. Or in some cases, the no deal!).

Or we could have a strong, supple and pain-free back and legs that will carry us as far as we want to go without having to work out to strengthen our muscles or doing four hours of Pilates a week (which I’m doing right now) to resolve problems we’ve ignored and allowed to get worse over years.

Or we could have a mind that’s free – at least for a small part of the day – of worry, stress and anxiety, without having to learn the difficult art of meditation, be that mindfulness or some other form.

Or we could have the body we’ve always wanted and be the weight we’ve always dreamed of without having to limit our food intake or deal with the underlying reasons why we’re overeating in the first place.

This was my story. In fact, the other stories are mine too, but for now I’ll focus on food.

Following on from my previous posts – Food is my friend and Finding my way back – I wanted to share something of the shortcuts I endeavoured to take before realising that I couldn’t resolve my issues with food, eating, body and weight simply by trimming stuff off the surface. I had to go to the root.

I’ll begin with the diets – the two that stick out are the egg diet (eat loads of eggs and little else) and the cabbage diet (lots of cabbage soup – yuk). I did both in my teens and no doubt repeated them later in life. The promise was that you could lose a stone in a week. Then there was the straightforward starvation diet – try really hard not to eat anything all day, except perhaps for a few apples. Diets always backfired because I’d end up ravenous and unable to stop eating once I inevitably began again – and because I didn’t understand why I was overeating in the first place.

But I’ll be here all day if I recount all the ways I tried to resolve my food issues by just focusing on the food. And I’ve mentioned all the running I did already, so I won’t go on about that.

I will mention the diet pills, though, partly because I feel sad that I took them, and that they were given to me without any health checks or questions about my emotional wellbeing.

I remember rocking up at a private doctor’s surgery in Mexico, handing over a cheque or some cash (I can’t recall) and receiving in return a small tub of pills, unlabelled if I remember correctly. I’ll never know what was in them, but some form of speed wouldn’t be a bad guess.

The idea was to speed up my metabolism so I could lose weight, even though I only had a stone or so to lose. They worked, to a degree, on the outside at least – although I put some of the weight back on again pretty soon (and no, I’m not recommending them to anyone!).

I did the same once I got to Brazil. I went to a private doctor and was prescribed a different set of diet pills – again, I couldn’t tell you what they were. And these magic pills, together with periodic starvation and plenty of running and spinning classes, helped me to get down to a weight I deemed acceptable, perhaps even the weight I’d always thought I’d wanted to be.

But – surprise, surprise – once I’d got there, I wasn’t happy. I was still miserable and still obsessed with food, diets, my body and my weight.

So the problem, actually, wasn’t on the outside and it couldn’t be addressed by focusing on what I put in my mouth. It was only by going right to the core, addressing the root, exploring why I felt the need to use food as a crutch to cope with low self-esteem, low self-worth, fear and pain that I could find any peace. And that journey has taken years – maybe a decade – and it continues today.

In my case, there was no magic pill and there was no foolproof diet. The journey has been long and arduous at times but, right now, I wouldn’t change it for anything.

And I’m reluctant to admit it but I guess shortcuts won’t work in other areas of my life either – the book, the relationships, the Pilates. I need to do the work, build solid foundations, strengthen my core. Bewitched, after all, was a “fantasy sitcom”. It’d be nice to twitch our nose and just make stuff happen, but that’s not reality.

It's the journey, not the destination (Photo by Dan/

It’s the journey, not the destination (Photo by Dan/

There’s a line in the literature from the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowships that talks about how members “trudge the road of happy destiny”. Now, “trudge” may not sound a particularly appealing way to journey but as well as “plod” or “walk laboriously”, it’s also understood as “to march steadily” or “to walk with purpose”.

But the key to this phrase for me is “the road OF happy destiny” rather than “the road TO happy destiny”.

As a compulsive achiever, I’ve always wanted to get somewhere, to arrive, to reach a set point. Or I’ve always wanted to sort things out, to fix myself, to get things right as quickly as I could.

And I’ve always thought happiness was over there.

But actually, the journey continues and will always continue until I’m no longer around – and the joy is found along the way – on the journey, not at the destination (although we hope there’ll be some joy there too if we ever get where we think we’re going!).

With that in mind, I’m happy to keep on trudging.

Posted in Addiction, Body Image, codependency, Eating disorders, Happiness, Relationships, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Finding my way back

Always smiling - at least on the outside

Always smiling – at least on the outside

This photo was taken when I was 22. I’d just finished at Oxford University and was about to head off to Italy to drive minibuses across Tuscany for a high-end travel company. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life but I knew it had something to do with languages, travel and adventure. Driving minibuses and planning champagne picnics for well-to-do British ramblers in the Italian countryside seemed like a good place to start.

Sometimes I look at this picture and I don’t think I look too different to how I do today. On other occasions, I really notice the few extra stone in weight I was carrying and the baggy shirt that I used to cover up the parts of me (which was pretty much all of me) I didn’t like.

The smile is still there, though. It always was – whether I felt it on the inside or not. But as I wrote in my last post – Food is my friend – it often disguised a deep sense of shame, pain, chronic self-consciousness, low self-esteem and disgust with my appearance. It also masked a pretty much constant mental obsession with my weight. I wonder how I ever had time to think of anything or anybody else – maybe I didn’t – when all my thoughts were taken up with what I had eaten or not eaten and how to avoid eating anything else.

That extra weight was an outward manifestation of the turmoil going on inside. It also acted as a layer of cushioning that I hoped would keep me safe from the world, safe from having to engage with people at a level that involved the potential to get hurt. And the mental obsession distracted me from feelings I didn’t want to feel.

That photo is also a reminder to me that our lives rarely turn out as planned. We take unexpected detours or we’re thrust onto a path that we don’t think is ours. Sometimes we find our way back, sometimes we don’t.

And sometimes we find that the detour leads us to a place that’s far better than anything we could have possibly imagined.

If you’d have told me, when I was 10, 12 or 14, where I’d be and how I’d look at 22, I’d have struggled to believe you. Up to that age, my life was all about being thin and staying thin by avoiding food and running fast.

And if you’d have told me, at 22, that it would take years but I’d eventually find my way back, make peace with food and end up looking not too dissimilar to how I looked at the age of eight – give or take some wrinkles and curves – I wouldn’t have believed you either. I may have hoped that you’d be right. Or perhaps I’d have wondered what you were talking about, perhaps I’d have been stuck in denial, somehow thinking I was happy. (Which isn’t to say we have to be slim to be content – it’s just in my case the overeating was a form of self-harm).

But I did find my way back. It was a circuitous, often painful route, full of difficult lessons. But it was a route dotted with amazing adventures and people I’ll never forget.

Maybe my path was never going to be a straightforward one – neither in the past, nor going forward. Because if you’d have told me I’d be approaching 43, be single and living on my own in a London flat, I’m sure I wouldn’t have believed you either.

But somehow, today, that all seems OK – more than OK. The past, though it saddens me at times, is simply that – the past. And the future? Well, from where I’m sitting right now, that feels bright.

MelittlegirlSeems my dress sense Mecropolympicshasn’t changed too much over the decades and the broad smile is the same. But these days, I’m pleased to say a lot of the time I’m smiling on the inside too. And although I’m a work in progress, I’m delighted to be on the road to becoming the person God intended me to be.


Posted in Addiction, Body Image, Eating disorders, Faith, Happiness, Recovery, Self-Acceptance, Spirituality, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Food is my friend

In recent months, I’ve shared some of my culinary adventures on Facebook – my first attempts at making soup or my forays into baking coconut and banana bread – and a few friends have expressed surprise that I got to 42 without exploring the joys of cooking.

But for me, making soup and baking – and inviting friends around to share what I make – are major steps.

Because for most of my life, food was my enemy, not my friend.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while or if you read its predecessor (Just As I Am – An Experiment in Self Acceptance), you’ll know my problems with eating disorders, erratic food consumption and body image began in my early teens, if not sooner, and continued through my 30s, when I got in to recovery and began to come to terms with my eating issues, explore their root causes and learn tools to help me make peace with food.

So until relatively recently, I had little interest in food for its nutritional value, for pleasure, or for taste. And I had little interest in spending my precious time cooking.

Instead, my life was about avoiding eating for as long as I possibly could to try to get thinner, then inevitably bingeing on food – including things I didn’t really like – then punishing myself with a period of starvation and hard-core exercise. Food was something I was scared of, something I ran away from and something I used to beat myself up with.

I ate to suppress my feelings, to numb myself out, to keep fear, pain, anxiety and low self-esteem at bay. I binged to comfort myself, then I binged again because I felt ashamed. Then I starved. And then I ran, ran, and ran some more.

Thinking about it now, it seems such a crazy, self-defeating, road-to-nowhere cycle – starve, binge, run; starve, binge, run – but I kept doing it, over and over again.

Yes, I had some favourite foods but there were so many feelings and so much shame attached to eating that it was hard for me to enjoy them. And yes, there were favourite restaurants, but consuming food in public was challenging. I always felt fat, no matter how slim I was, so when I ate a decent-sized meal in public, I’d fear I’d be judged for over-indulging (‘Oh, that’s why she’s fat,’ I’d imagine people would say). So I’d choose the salad, or the grilled fish and vegetables or some other low calorie option.

And then I’d go home and raid the fridge.

My erratic eating went hand-in-hand with my work life. The more stressful the job or the tighter the deadline, the more I’d starve or binge. The more I felt exposed, unable to meet my incredibly high standards or attain ‘perfection’, the more I would starve or binge. And the more I ignored my real feelings – anxiety, exhaustion, fear – the more I would starve or binge. Food was my crutch and, at the time, I may have even thought it was my friend. But with friends like that …

Inevitably, the more I punished myself with food, the more I hated my body – no matter what it looked like. When I lived in Brazil in my early 30s, I was probably thinner than I am today or at least more toned, because of all the running. But I cringed every time I stripped down to my bikini on the beach – which was most weekends. I remember once I was due to go to a weekend-long beach party with a friend and a bunch of guys and girls I’d never met. All I could think about in the run-up to that was what I would wear, how I would look and what they’d think about my body. What a sad waste of my precious time and energy. And not only did I eat more because I was so ashamed, but I drank myself silly too. Alcohol was my second crutch.

Diet coke was my third. I couldn’t get past 11 am at work without a can (the bubbles would fill me up and help me avoid eating for as long as possible) and I couldn’t get beyond the afternoon slump without a second. If I worked late, I’d have a third. It doesn’t surprise me when I look back that I couldn’t survive without my coke fix. I’d either skip breakfast or eat some ‘slimline’ cereal packed with sugar or sweeteners, along with watery, skimmed milk, and follow it up with some lettuce leaves for lunch. I’ve been educating myself for years about the importance of eating protein with every meal and keeping blood sugar levels steady to avoid the spikes and slumps that inevitably trigger cravings and a binge. It’s amazing what a difference it makes.

My relationship with food isn’t perfect today (and I’ve learned that perfect doesn’t exist) but when I think about how I used to be, I sometimes feel like a different person. I don’t recognise myself when I whip up a batch of soup, bake some coconut bread and roast vegetables in the oven, all in an hour or two. I don’t recognise myself when I sit down to food I’ve cooked from scratch and actually savour its taste. I don’t recognise myself when I don’t obsess about food in between meals or think how I’m going to run off the calories I’ve consumed. I don’t recognise myself when I’m not hopping on and off the scales several times every morning, adjusting the dial (I weighed myself every morning of my finals exams at university). And I definitely don’t recognise myself when I pass over the fat-free yoghurt or low-fat coconut milk in favour of the full-fat versions. For years, everything I consumed was low-fat or slimline – and no doubt packed with artificial chemicals or sweeteners. Today, that feels like half-living. Full-fat coconut milk, avocados, nuts and other good fats are a staple of my diet. And unlike in the days of slimline foods and starving, my weight doesn’t change.

In many ways, it’s a miracle – but who knows if I’ll ever be out of the woods completely. Food was a crutch for so long and it’s still my first port of call.

Yesterday, I felt anxious about something at work and I instinctively reached for a cup of muesli and yoghurt, one of my main comfort foods. Ok, so a mug of gluten free muesli and organic natural yoghurt is barely worth mentioning compared to what I used to consume but I’m aware that in that moment, I wasn’t eating because I was hungry, I was eating because I was scared. And when I try to fit food into a fear-shaped hole, of course it doesn’t fit. When I eat to soothe my emotions, my stomach becomes a bottomless pit and I’m at risk of not being able to stop.

Fortunately, I’ve come a long way, I’m conscious of what I’m doing and I know how to draw a line. I can call a friend and share how I’m feeling, I can write in my diary or go out for a walk until the discomfort passes – it always does. Then I can return to savouring food because it’s tasty, enjoyable and nutritious, as I did last night.

And when I eat in a balanced way – when I don’t diet, starve or binge – all those body image problems seem to dissolve. I can walk on a beach in a bikini without feeling self-conscious or fat. I still have my niggles. I can still fall into the familiar trap of looking at my body with disgust or giving my wobbly bits a poke. But they feel like momentary lapses today rather than a way of being. When I’m at peace with food, my weight seems to take care of itself and I’m at peace with the way I look.

I can also start cherishing my body for what it can do for me rather than for the reaction it may provoke in others. Which is why I’m investing a fair amount of money and three hours a week in intensive studio Pilates. This isn’t about burning fat or getting a trimmer waist. It’s about working towards a pain-free, supple body that can take me on long walks, bike rides, swims and even runs. Because when I exercise for the right reasons and not to punish myself for what I’ve eaten, it feeds my soul.

Here's one I prepared earlier: coconut bread from a few months ago

Here’s one I prepared earlier: coconut bread from a few months ago

I’m writing this today not just because of the pleasure I got last night from baking coconut bread, roasting butternut squash and making lentil soup, then eating in silence and savouring all the tastes, but also because of what I’ve heard and read in recent days about diets and body image.

BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour has been talking a lot about body image, eating and diets in the past few weeks. Therapist and author Susie Orbach (I can recommend her book ‘On Eating‘) spoke about women and body image and took some emotional calls from women who’d struggled for most of their lives with food and body image on January 13th; there was a feature on ‘Every Other Day Diets’ on the 15th, and a follow-up on men and body image on the 20th (you can find them all on this iTunes page if they’re no longer live on the Woman’s Hour podcast).

I was really moved by Susie Orbach’s exchanges with a number of distressed callers and loved what she had to say about getting in touch with our bodies and our hunger. But I was disappointed there wasn’t more of an exploration of the deep-seated issues that often lie behind negative body image and unhealthy eating behaviours.

I understand that today more than ever, the media and the fashion and beauty industries propagate negative body image among women and men. And for some people, the reason for body hatred, poor self-esteem and erratic eating may be down to what they see and hear. I believe TV, films and fashion magazines have a lot to answer for, particularly when it comes to the messages they’re feeding to today’s young girls.

However, in my case and in the case of many other women I know, our unhealthy relationship with food began decades ago, in our childhoods, when it became a substitute for love, for feelings of safety or security or a means to soothe fear and pain. And that way of reacting to the world, of using food as a crutch, continued into our adult lives. Our views about food and our eating patterns became entrenched – habits we couldn’t break – all inevitably exacerbated by the media, the fashion and beauty industries and the opinions of our peers.

In these cases, sometimes the only way to resolve these issues is to go back to their root and work through our past. At least this is what I’ve had to do. Years of psychotherapy and sitting in support groups of fellow overeaters, undereaters, anorexics, bulimics and exercise addicts have helped me change my relationship with food and find the tools to cope with my feelings instead of turning to the fridge.

It hasn’t been an easy journey but it’s brought me to where I am today – to a great degree of freedom around food and body image and to a new sense of joy around cooking and sharing food with others. (I smiled to myself last night as I greased the baking tin with full-fat coconut oil and poured the full-fat coconut milk into the mix. What a turnaround from all those years of fat-free, starvation diets and distressing binges.)

We are all individuals. We are all at different places and have different reasons for behaving in the way we do.

All I know is that I was exhausted from fighting with food, weight and negative body image and I only found freedom when I realised the real battle I needed to fight ran a lot deeper.

Your story may be different but whatever it is, I wish you peace around food.

Posted in Addiction, Body Image, Eating disorders, Health, Recovery, Self-Acceptance, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment