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

Do nothing; rest afterwards

You can tell I’ve been busy recently as I haven’t found the space to blog.

I say ‘space’ rather than ‘time’ because I probably could have found an hour or so to scribble a quick post. But what I feel I haven’t had much of in the last few weeks is ‘space’ – space to process, space to think, space to connect to what I’m feeling deep inside, space for my creativity to flourish, space to do that most wonderful of things that I do so rarely: NOTHING.

Oh, to do nothing! At the thought of it, I take a deep breath and my shoulders sink down from their usual position far too close to my ears. If you have any tips on how to do nothing, I’d love to hear them. I always seem to be doing SOMETHING. Even my leisure time isn’t particularly leisurely. I’ve got a lot to learn.

Happiness is ...

Happiness is …

I’ve mentioned before that I have a framed card on my bathroom wall of a woman snoozing in the sun, slumped in a deckchair. The message reads: ‘How beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterwards.’ I bought that card partly because the woman reminds me of my mum, who can sit in the sun until the cows come home, but partly because I need to be reminded everyday that it is, in fact, beautiful to do NOTHING and then rest afterwards. So far, though, the message hasn’t quite sunk in. In fact, it was almost two years ago when I last blogged about that same card and my need to do less (Great Expectations). A fair bit has changed since then and I deserve to give myself credit where credit is due but it’s a little concerning that very little has changed in the ‘doing nothing’ department.

Of course, NOTHING doesn’t have to mean sitting motionless or zoning out on the sofa in front of the TV. To me, it can also mean hanging out with friends, walking in the park or by the sea, rambling through a forest or up a hill or going for a cycle. But whatever the activity, to qualify as NOTHING I’d say it needs to be done without an agenda, without trying to achieve something or tick something off one’s list.

In other words, the walk in the park would be to enjoy some peace and space in nature, rather than to burn off a big lunch; the ramble would be to smell the pine forest or hear the sound of the sea rather than to reach a set point and then come back again; the cycle would be to switch off my thoughts, rather than to work through my feelings or train for a longer ride; and the time with friends would be timeless, effortless, unscheduled, fun and free.

Thinking about it, I’m quite far away from that kind of NOTHING, although I’m closer to it than I ever was. There’s always stuff I need to get done (or I think I need to get done), plans to make, things to achieve, dreams to pursue. And having realised I won’t have any friends to hang out with unless I put dates in the diary, I’ve taken to scheduling rather a lot.

I guess that’s the same for most of us and perhaps it’s inevitable and not necessarily the wrong way to go about things. Having a sense of purpose, direction, something to do or a coffee date planned can help ward off a depressive slump. And having a vision for our lives, as I wrote in my last post, gives us an impetus to do what we can to meet the desires of our heart.

But couldn’t there be one day a week, or perhaps two, of NOTHING? A day without an agenda, a day when we just go with the flow? A day when we go out for a walk without knowing where we’re heading or when we meet a friend without any plans and just see what we fancy doing – if anything – there and then?

I guess our ability to do nothing and then rest afterwards is a reflection of the degree of faith and trust we have in the world, in life and in ourselves. Of course, realistically, other factors come in to it – the number of small children or elderly parents we have to look after or the amount of disposable income we have. But whatever our circumstances, I believe faith and trust have a role to play.

Because doing nothing flies in the face of control and it’s when we’re most in fear – the opposite of faith – that we most try and control the outcome.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be tempted to look at those who are getting things done or achieving a lot and think they’re the ones who’ve got it all going on, that they’re the people to emulate. But perhaps it’d serve us better to aspire to be like those who are doing less, those who are quietly surrendering their days and their lives, those who are just letting it all flow on by.

As ever, though, I’m left with questions and contradictions.

How to square the ‘doing nothing’ or at least ‘doing less’ philosophy with what we know about the benefits of having dreams for our lives and taking action towards them? I don’t have the answers but for starters, I’d guess that we could keep the word ‘vision’ in the forefront of our minds rather than ‘goal’ and that when we take our action we don’t strive, grasp, grab, exhaust ourselves or stress too much when things don’t work out as planned.

Instead, we trust. And maybe take a bit of time out to sit in a deckchair.

Funnily enough, this blog wasn’t going to read like this. I’d planned to write about relationships and commitment or about my inner introvert. But here I am letting go of my agenda and writing about doing nothing, writing what came to me and what flowed.

And I’m looking at the big 2014 year planner I’ve put up next to my desk – with the idea of being more organised with my time – and thinking the first thing I need to do is to write NOTHING or NO PLANS in capital letters on one day every week.

So perhaps the message is starting to sink in, slowly, gently, in its own time, which I guess is quite fitting really.

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Looking forward

It’s been a while since I made New Year’s resolutions. I decided a while back that they no longer served me – I would set myself unrealistic goals then beat myself up for not sticking to them.

In the past, those goals often involved weight loss and I’m incredibly grateful that I no longer wake up on New Year’s Day feeling that I need to starve myself for weeks to lose the excess Christmas weight. Yes, I indulged a little over the festive period – mince pies, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding and a little bit of chocolate – but I indulged in moderation (if that makes sense) and I don’t feel the need to go on a crash diet. Healthy eating, yes – sugar isn’t good for me and I’m discovering that I’m better off without certain foods in my diet – but that’s as far as it goes. As I eat well and exercise, my weight takes care of itself. Given where I’ve come from and my eating history, starting the year free from the need to diet is an absolute miracle.

But even if I’m not making resolutions as such, the start of a year has significance and I like to see it as a useful marker to plan the kind of year I would like for myself.

I’m actually really looking forward to 2014. I sense that it’s going to be a year of change – change that no doubt will be difficult and challenging but that will hopefully take me a lot closer to the kind of life I long for.

I’m excited about being much more intentional about the way I use my time and spend my money. I’m excited about confronting my addiction to adrenalin – stress, tight deadlines, rushing, lateness, being unprepared. I’m excited about scheduling nice things into my week, month and year – weekends away, holidays, courses and so forth – rather than leaving everything until the last minute or ending up missing out on things I really wanted to do and feeling annoyed with myself for not making the most of my time and money. And I’m excited about the prospect of moving to live by the sea and having beautiful scenery on my doorstep.

Happy 2014! Photo by hin255,

Happy 2014! Photo by hin255,

Of course, moving out of London – if I follow through – will be the biggest and scariest change but I have to listen to my heart. I spent Christmas in North Wales and the few days I got out to walk on the beach and look at the hills lifted my spirits to such an extent that it brought tears to my eyes (good tears or perhaps tears of longing – a longing to experience that feeling every day). I then compare that to how I felt arriving back into the craziness of London Euston station or walking towards the underground so I could meet my friend for a cup of tea – my heart sank (because of the underground, not meeting my friend!) – and it’s absolutely clear to me that I deserve to give myself the gift of living in a smaller town by the coast. Inevitably, as I write that, I think of all the things I would have to leave behind – friends, networks, communities – but fortunately, it’s one step at a time.

So while I’m not a big fan of resolutions – even that word sounds harsh, punishing – I do believe in having a vision and living intentionally. So on New Year’s Eve, I got out a drawing pad and some coloured markers and had a think about what I would like my 2014 to look like. What I came up with is a mish-mash of words and pictures that goes something like this:

Sunshine, freedom, a Volkswagen Golf, the sea, swim, hike, bike, camp, climb, drive, dance, travel, love, joy, smile, time management, money management, peace of mind, clarity, abundance, gratitude, community, belonging, partnership, spontaneity, coach, write, teach, inspire, love who you are.

My vision is to create space for more of those things in my life this year (and to buy a Golf with the proceeds of my time and money management and subsequent abundance and then use that to enable me to travel, swim, hike, bike, camp, climb and so forth).

But the great thing about this New Year is that I’ve realised that if nothing changes, if everything stays exactly as it is in this moment, then that will be OK. In fact, it’ll be more than OK – it’ll be really great.

Because I think the biggest gifts I can give myself in 2014 are acceptance and gratitude for who I am, where I am and everything I have.

So on that note, I wish you all a Happy New Year and a 2014 filled with peace, abundance, acceptance, love and gratitude.

Posted in Addiction, Eating disorders, Fun, Love, Recovery, Self-Acceptance, Travel, Women | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Last Christmas …

… I gave you my heart … I was going to call this blog post ‘This time last year’ but I love that Wham! song. It takes me back – to my early teenage years when a massive poster of George and Andrew adorned my pink bedroom walls.

I was also going to write a lot in this post about last Christmas, which I spent in Mexico. I was going to recall my friend’s fabulous wedding, the evening I spent on a yacht under the stars in Acapulco bay watching the cliff divers, learning to surf and riding a wave into the shore in Puerto Escondido, Christmas Day spent in peace on the beach and touring a beautiful lagoon, Boxing Day dancing salsa with new friends, my brief encounter with a young, Australian surfer dude and my not-so-brief encounter with an American backpacker.

I was also going to recall that we take ourselves with us wherever we go, because as much as my time in Mexico, in many ways, was idyllic – beach, sun, surf, you get the picture – I was also plagued by some of the things that trouble me at home: chronic indecision, loneliness, low self-esteem, insecurity and a compulsive need to create stress in my life and have adrenaline coursing through my veins.

But, the truth is, I haven’t got time to go into any of that because this year, I’m spending Christmas with my family in North Wales and I’m going to have to battle gale-force winds, rain and travel disruption to get there. And to avoid creating more stress – and elevating my adrenaline levels any higher than they are already – I’m going to have to leave. Now. Much sooner than I had planned to leave, rather than much later, which is my normal modus operandi. In fact, what I am doing still writing this!

Suffice it to say that as much as I prefer the sunshine, sea and surf to wind, rain and grey skies, none of that external stuff really matters if I’m not in a good space internally, if I’m not taking care of myself, if I’m not acting in my best interests and if I’m not at peace.

So, this Christmas, I hope I can act in my best interests and maintain a state of peace and self-love, while being of service to and sharing joy and love with those I hold dear.

And I wish the same for all of you, dear readers. 

Merry Christmas!

Posted in Happiness, Recovery, Self-Acceptance, Women | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Dreaming of greatness

mandela“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living” – Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.

Of all the inspiring Mandela quotes I’ve read since his death, this one moved me the most. Partly because it was spoken by a man who did everything possible to live the life he was capable of living and to encourage others to do the same. But also because I came across it just as I was pondering what it takes to live to our potential and what differentiates those who achieve what they are capable of achieving from those who struggle to do so or don’t even dream of trying.

And how do we know or measure what we’re capable of anyway? Do we take into account the cost to ourselves or to others of achieving this potential? Or do we gauge our potential by looking at what we can achieve without harming or abandoning ourselves or others in the process? Should we look at our potential as that which we are capable of doing while maintaining our peace of mind, being kind to ourselves and others and enjoying our lives?

Why so many questions and why now? Well, these questions came to me last week when I was helping out at a women’s rights conference hosted by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Over the course of two days, I was blown away by the level of passion, commitment and dedication to a cause shown by the long line of women’s rights activists, writers, photojournalists, documentary film makers, anti-slavery campaigners, lawyers, prosecutors and human trafficking survivors, amongst others, who took to the stage. Here were people who, to my eyes, were living to their potential, passionate about their work, inspired to change the status quo and who were actually making a difference, rather than merely thinking about it. They were game changers, if you’ll excuse the jargon.

And there I was, in the audience, doing work which I felt was a fair way beneath my potential. I was live blogging the sessions for a small audience and capturing the best quotes to use in video wrap-ups. I couldn’t help but wonder why I wasn’t on the stage, talking about an impact I had made or a cause I had championed to great effect. I have passion, I have a desire to make a difference and I have plenty of skills. Why wasn’t I putting them to better use? Why was I observing and documenting instead of doing? Why was I, to use Mandela’s words, settling for a life or for work that was less than what I was capable of? And what would it take for me to achieve my potential?

But I wasn’t just impressed by the speakers – I was also a little bemused by them. Because so many of these people were not only making a difference, using their gifts and talents to expose injustice or help those less fortunate than themselves, but they also had rings on their fingers – engagement and wedding rings – not to mention children back home.

OK, so this may seem a strange thing to notice but it’s not the first time I’ve felt utterly in awe of a person’s ability not only to do game changing work, but also to have managed to have found a partner, committed to a relationship and had a family. Why? Because each one of these things on its own seems such a momentous achievement to me – never mind both at the same time. How do they do it?

That said, I’ve learned enough over the past years to know it’s unwise to compare my insides to other people’s outsides. None of us know what goes on behind closed doors, what condition other people’s relationships are in, how much their dedication to their work has jeopardised or damaged their personal lives. It’s all too easy to assume a sharp suit, a successful cause, a number of published books or a sparkling ring equate to a contented professional and personal life.

But it’s not always the case.

Perhaps some of the passion, commitment, dedication and achievement I witnessed at that event came at a cost. Indeed, I have come across enough people who have been brave enough to share the reality of what lay behind a façade of achievement or success. And I’m prompted to ponder the impact Mandela’s indisputable political and social legacy had on his closest personal relationships, particularly his children.

Do some of those people who are out there making a difference harm those close to them – their partners and offspring – because they never see them or have time for them? Does living to one’s potential always come at a cost? And is the price worth paying in some cases? Or can you live to your potential, be true to yourself, avoid self-harm and avoid harming others? How do you strike that balance?

And how do we know how high to aim? We’re not all destined to be like Mandela – to change the course of history. Is it enough to love and be loved, to find contentment, to bring up children (if we have them)? Is it enough simply to enjoy our lives, if that’s something we struggle to do?

Besides those questions, though, I’m left wondering what makes a man like Mandela? What is it that makes the difference between those who go on to do great things and those who only dream of them or never dare to dream of them? Self-belief, self-discipline, persistence, motivation? Faith, healthy self-esteem, good parenting, great support? I imagine one needs a strong sense of self, a solid core, an inner strength and perhaps a great sense of humour to truly explore one’s potential, particularly in the face of adversity.

But whatever it takes, I question whether I’ve got it. Have I got what it takes to live, in Mandela’s words, “the life I am capable of living”? Have I got what it takes to do this without paying a price? And what does that life look like anyway?

Years ago, I was living and working in a way that, from the outside, must have looked like I was achieving my potential. Living abroad, working as a foreign correspondent, travelling the globe with prime ministers, using my gift for languages, covering extraordinary news events from the Asian tsunami to the Haitian earthquake.

But even when I was out there doing that, I never felt I was working to my potential. In fact, I know I shied away from it. From those years of foreign travel and extraordinary access to momentous global events, I can count the stories I’m truly proud of on one hand, or perhaps two. They’re the stories that took guts, initiative, imagination and emotional risk-taking (I was always good at taking physical risks – jumping out of planes, hitch hiking alone – but not the emotional ones). But there were too few of those stories, despite there being so many opportunities. I’m sad to think I had the Amazon on my doorstep, with all the wealth of possible features contained therein, and I was too scared to aim high, to suggest exciting stories, to plan interesting trips and come back with great ideas. My reporting was reactive. I did what I was told – and I did it really well – but I rarely ventured outside my comfort zone. I rarely did the work I really wanted to do. I had plenty of ideas, many moments of inspiration but I was held back – by fear, by a sense my work would never be good enough, by a deep-seated belief that I was an imposter on the verge of being found out.

Then in the final years of my work as a jetsetting political correspondent, I uncovered a truth I’d been hiding for quite a while – that I was in that job because I thought others expected great things of me. I was doing it to impress people, to give myself an external status because I felt so undeserving on the inside. Perhaps to be someone others would feel wowed by, inspired by and even write a blog about out.

And all the while, whether I was achieving my potential or not, the cost was high. I was too scared of making a mistake, of getting it wrong, of being judged; too mistrustful of myself; too doubting of my abilities. I climbed high in my profession with the help of a number of crutches that got me through the stress, smothered my anxiety and compensated for my low self-esteem: primarily unhealthy, compulsive, destructive behaviours around food (bingeing, starving, overexercising) but also around alcohol, work and other people. In short, I completely abandoned myself.

Looking back over those years has got me thinking about my time at Oxford University. I remember telling my tutor towards the end of my final year that I wanted to be a journalist – apply for a masters in journalism or to the Reuters or BBC trainee schemes. She told me I wouldn’t make it. I hadn’t done any journalism at Oxford so they wouldn’t look at me, she said. She didn’t have any other suggestions, as far I recall, but the careers advisory service did. After completing a test and having a chat, a university careers’ advisor suggested I consider working in insurance and perhaps returning to Liverpool. ‘You must be crazy’, I thought. ‘I’m destined for great things! I’m not going back to Liverpool. I’m moving forward.’ And off I went, around the world.

I use those two examples when I speak to teenagers in schools about how you should never let anyone understimate you or suggest you’re not capable of achieving what you want to achieve. After all, I went on to work for Reuters as a foreign correspondent – exactly what I’d been aiming for.

But I can’t help thinking whether perhaps those advisors had the measure of me. After all, the cost of achieving my dreams turned out to be pretty high. I couldn’t – at the time and perhaps not even today – get where I got without addiction, without self-harming or using crutches to try and compensate for my feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth.

All this leaves me wondering what my potential is today and how to achieve it, without having to pay a high price. I want to write, teach, coach, inspire and give of myself. But I also want to feel peace, joy, love and be content with who I am and what I have. I want to work hard and live the life I’m capable of living, but I don’t want to harm myself in the process or sabotage my personal life or my emotional or spiritual wellbeing. How can I do that? Is it even possible?

But perhaps there is a way. Perhaps I need to take everything more slowly and more gently than I’d ever have imagined. Perhaps I have to keep stopping and checking in with myself, asking myself what I need to be healthy and happy and being bold enough to respect the answers. Perhaps if I do that, I will achieve my potential without a cost. And maybe as I continue to honour who I am and what I need in order to feel peace and experience wellbeing, things will flow, without effort, struggle or strain. I can only experiment, step out a little, pull back a bit, accept the mistakes I’ll make along the way and keep nudging at the boundaries, while always respecting myself and my vulnerabilities.

As an aside, I wrote some of this post in my head (and dictated it into my iPhone) as I wandered alone across Hampstead Heath in the autumn sunshine on Sunday morning. As I pondered my potential, who I was and what I wanted to do or be, and what made great men and women great, I said to myself, ‘I’m inspired to write.’ Because I was. It felt true, it felt real, it came from my heart and soul. But then if I didn’t write, would it matter? I could let this blog slide. I haven’t written for over a month (travel, holiday, ear infection, food poisoning, amongst other reasons). I could let the ideas, the words and phrases come and go without ever sharing them. Nobody would be any the wiser. No big deal.

But I am inspired to write (all 2,000 words of this post!). And perhaps all I have to do is listen to that and go along with it, slowly and gently.

Posted in Addiction, Creativity, Faith, Happiness, Recovery, Women, Work | Tagged , , | 3 Comments