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

The other me

Sometimes the best blogs are the ones I don’t post – at least not immediately. I wrote the below blog (the indented paragraphs) seven days ago, aside from a bit of tidying up today. I wasn’t going to post it at all but having re-read it, I think it’s worth publishing as it reminds me how much can change in a week.

I’m in quite a different place to when I wrote this. But more of that at the end …

There’s this other me. She looks like me, although perhaps she’s a bit longer and leaner. She sounds like me, although maybe she speaks a little softer (my friends are often politely asking me to pipe down in restaurants). But she thinks and acts differently.

Her life flows, she makes decisions with ease and without stress and follows through on them. She honours her hopes and dreams and behaves consistently towards herself and others. She squeezes joy out of every day. She doesn’t exhaust herself with endless rumination.

Right now, I’d love to be that other me. Because despite everything I’ve learned and written about self-acceptance, I’m not getting on too well with the real me. I’m frustrated with her, tired of her, angry with her. I’ve had it with her.

I want to keep the bits of her that dream – that ambitious side of her that wants a bigger life, that wants to put her gifts to use in a way that brings her joy and is of benefit to others, that imagines a life filled with love, peace and creativity.

But I want to lose the other side – the stress, the worry, the indecision, the rumination, the low self-esteem, the insecurity and the fear. The fear of living, of choosing, of risking; the fear of people, of death, of life; the fear of saying no to others, of saying yes to myself; the fear of hurting and being hurt; the fear of poverty and homelessness (yes, despite my relative wealth – I’m a home owner in London – that’s a deep-rooted one); the fear of failure but, more importantly, the fear of success.

I want to lose that side of me – all of it. If I had a cleaver, I’d cut it off, chop it into tiny pieces and discard it, or burn it and sprinkle the ash in the Thames. Extreme? Yes, but that’s how I’m feeling right now.

Sometimes I think I used to be this other me and that I’ve lost her, but maybe I’ve always been like this – I just had some pretty efficient, albeit self-harming, mechanisms to turn me into someone else in the past. But they stopped working or I chose to give them up.

And as much as I love and cherish much of what I’ve uncovered since, right now I despise the other part. I’m so bored of it – the way it drags me down, exhausts me, robs me of hours of my day or nights of sleep, leaves grey circles under my eyes or furrows on my brow.

I’ve even taken to thinking, once again, there must be a pill that can turn me into that other me, take away the worry and anxiety, remove big obstacles that seem to sit in the middle of my path – generally put there by me – blocking out the sunlight, forcing me to take unpleasant detours. Maybe there’s a pill that can give me the impetus to hurdle those obstacles, or smash through them. Maybe there is – maybe I’ll try. But would that be me? Would that restore me to who I think I should be, turn me into who I hope to be? Or would that produce a false me – a me who constantly questions whether it’s her who’s hurdling the obstacles or whether it’s a chemically enhanced version, someone that could never truly be her …

That’s as far as I got a week ago and although it might sound self-punishing, self-critical and self-harming in parts, not very self-accepting, I can tell you it was cathartic to write at the time. It brought my anger and frustration right to the surface and triggered some healing tears. It showed me the real power of words – at least for me.

And seven days later, as I sit here feeling much calmer, more self-accepting and quite loving towards the me I wanted to chop into pieces a week ago, it’s really good to read.

So what’s changed? Well, I’ve made a lot of the decisions I was grappling with and I’ve discovered some really useful tools to help me make those decisions – most importantly, other people. I’ve shared my concerns, my worries and my constant to-ing and fro-ing with friends and then I’ve given myself some time to reflect.

But even more importantly, I’ve come to a better understanding of myself and how I function. I used to like to be in perpetual motion, to make decisions quickly, get things sorted, done and dusted, out of the way. But it’s becoming apparent that I need a good amount of time to process feelings and information.

I am capable of making good choices for myself – yes, I am – but not immediately and not under pressure, from myself or others.

The other interesting discovery is that these deadlines I so often give myself when it comes to choices generally do not need to be respected. Yes, there are practicalities that need to be considered when it comes to certain choices but I don’t have to hurry everything. I can take time to reflect. And while consideration of others is important, I’ve learned it’s vital to ask myself what is right for me and use that as my starting point. It’s when I throw everyone else’s potential feelings and opinions into the mix that I get muddled. And that muddle, after a while, turns to paralysis.

On the other hand, it’s also interesting to look at how much time I spend on decisions that generally don’t matter a great deal. This was pointed out to me on Saturday by a sales assistant in a shoe shop as I returned a pair of boots and tried on a few others. Indecision takes up a lot of time. Maybe I wasn’t ready to make a decision in that moment. Maybe I didn’t have all the information. (I’m pleased to say that in the end, I bought some boots.)

All this is really useful information for myself for the future and I hope I can take it into account. And as I’m sitting here, a number of choices under my belt, I do wonder what all the fuss was about.

But I don’t want to dismiss or chop off that other side of me anymore. And I have compassion for it. And as a dear friend said with a laugh the other day as I imagined this other me, floating through life with no stress, worry, indecision or fear, “you’d have no mates if you were like that!”

Because I’ve also discovered I’m not the only one who struggles with this stuff. And if you don’t, you’ll likely struggle with other stuff that I might find a breeze. Strengths and weaknesses. That’s why we need each other.

So I can temper that side of me that stresses and worries by understanding the core issues at the root of my rumination and indecision, but I can also accept it, try to understand it, find tools to make it easier to deal with and, ultimately, embrace it. With a big, warm-hearted hug.

Because it’s part of me.

It’s as much a part of me as the part that propelled me this lunchtime – yes, November 4th – into the sea off the coast of Dorset (without a wetsuit) for an icy cold but glorious swim as the sun shone.

From the sand, the water looked amazing and enticing and I knew I’d enjoy a dip but initially I was put off by the walkers, all wrapped up in coats and scarves. What would they think? They’d point and say I was crazy? I was more deterred by other people’s opinions than the prospect of blue toes.

Sunshine on the beach

Sunshine on the beach

And then a jogger arrived, stripped down to his shorts and walked in as though it was the Mediterranean in August. I thank that man. Yes, people pointed and I’m sure the word ‘crazy’ was uttered a few times. But I didn’t see a crazy man – I saw the most sane person on the beach!

So in I went. And as I put my head under and did a few strokes, my whole body came alive, my heart filled with joy and I felt like a child again. All the worries – all the shoulds and musts – dissolved as I swam on my back looking up at the sun. And I’m still feeling the benefits seven hours later.

In that moment, the decision I made to move out of my flat for a month to explore living at the beach and to go on holiday – which seemed completely insane as I frantically packed up my flat on Saturday and got on a late night bus and train – felt like the best choice I’d made all year.

And that cold dip also confirmed what I already knew – that I really am moving to the sea.

 

 

Posted in Leisure, Recovery, Self-Acceptance, Women | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Ode to London: I love you, but …

There are so many things I love about London but I’m going to have to start with my friends.

For someone of my age, stage and relationship status living in such a huge metropolis, friends become family. They’re whom we call when we find ourselves unexpectedly in hospital, or when we lose our purse, our keys, our boyfriend or our mind. I’d be lost without my London friends – I love my non-London friends too, but this vast and sometimes lonely city means us Londoners form a special bond.

What else do I love? I can draw on so many images. Like scootering or cycling at night across Waterloo or Blackfriars Bridge and taking in the river and the buildings on either side – St Paul’s, the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament, the Tate Modern – all lit up, majestic and imposing. That scene never fails to take my breath away and it always reminds me how privileged I am to live here.

Or biking along the disused railway track from Finsbury Park to Highgate and up the hill to the top of the Heath. Stopping to take in the view from Kenwood House or speeding downhill and taking a sharp right turn towards the duck pond. Sitting on a bench admiring the colours of the trees – they always look picture postcard-perfect and warm my heart, whatever the season.

Swimming with the ducks at Kenwood Ladies' Pond

Swimming with the ducks at Kenwood Ladies’ Pond

Or lying in the late evening sun at the Ladies’ Pond, overhearing snippets of conversations from the beautiful, half-naked women all around me – their passions, dreams, worries, frustrations, loves (lost and found), their heartache, depression and joy – or having similar chats with my half-dressed pals (there’s something so freeing and disarming about nude chit-chat, if you know what I mean). Or hearing ladies laugh as they lower themselves gently into the cold water or jump off the platform with a shriek.

Then there are the other open spaces – the deer and ducks in nearby Clissold Park, the roses and fountains of Regent’s and the vast expanse of Hyde Park, which is often host to huge concerts that end with magnificent fireworks displays.

Or those moments inside the Tube or on the Southbank when I stumble across a busker with extraordinary talent, like Susana Silva from Portugal, who lifted my spirits and moved me to tears when I heard her sing by the river one evening.

There’s the eclectic mix of races and cultures into which I so easily fit sometimes – I can practice my Spanish or Portuguese and relive my Latin American years. I can nip down to Tito’s salsa bar at London Bridge, where it’s perfectly acceptable – and fun – to show up on your own. There are colours, flavours and music from all over the world around every corner – eateries, music venues, art classes and dance halls tucked away.

Then there’s the huge recovery community – the myriad of support groups for those of us struggling with addictive, compulsive behaviours. This underground world of church halls and meeting rooms has, in a way, saved my life – it’s shown me I don’t have to live in bondage to food, weight, exercise, compulsive work, people-pleasing, obsessive thinking, or doom and gloom. It’s shown me how to thrive – not just survive – and taught me about spirituality, love, freedom, service and the power of asking for help and helping others. On top of that, there’s my church community, a wonderful mix of people and stories and a space where I can sing out loud, find peace and feel part of a family.

And of course, there’s my little flat. The first home I’ve ever owned and a place of safety, belonging and peace and quiet over the past 11 years, aside from the odd interlude of neighbour noise. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere. It seems I spent decades moving around, never making home, but in London, I stood still. No wonder I feel so attached to my cosy, attic apartment, with its wall of windows, views of treetops and spires and abundance of daylight. Will I ever feel so at home?

But there are things about this metropolis I can’t say I love.

Although the Tube’s fast, I have a deep dislike for travelling underground (aside for the odd encounter with a talented busker). And I don’t like the fact many of my friends live on other sides of the city and that we all have such busy lives. These days, too many of my close friendships are conducted mostly over the phone – usually when one or both of us is walking to public transport, washing up or preparing food. Of course, there are the dinners and drinks and cinema visits but they take planning and they’re all too rare. And sometimes the prospect of bracing crowds or taking long journeys on public transport requires more energy than I’m prepared to muster. Perhaps I’m getting old.

And while London’s parks, greenery and cycle lanes seemed like a Godsend a decade ago after the congestion and concrete of Mexico City and Sao Paulo – millions of people and one major park each – or the dryness of Brasilia, London’s open spaces don’t feel so open anymore.

So my heart, soul, body and mind are yearning for space, for a different panorama. I long to be by the sea and closer to Nature; to get out on my bike after a day’s work and go further than the local park; to swim in open water without having to scooter to Hampstead’s ponds; to spend the weekends in the countryside without first taking buses, Tubes, trains or negotiating traffic; and I long for a different pace of life.

You’ll be pleased to hear I know I take myself with me wherever I go and I’m aware I could be doing what’s known in the therapy world as a ‘geographical’ – thinking a change on the outside will fix the inside.

It’s clear to me that some of my battles with London are of my own making – poor time management, over-working, bad planning, under-earning so I can’t get out as much as I’d like or afford a car, and so forth. That’s stuff I’m going to have to deal with wherever I go.

The wide open spaces of North Wales

The wide open spaces of North Wales

But having just had a few days among the hills and beaches of North Wales and after spending most of the summer in Dorset by the sea, I know there’s a voice inside me that deserves to be listened to and a desire of my heart that I’d like to honour – even if it turns out I was wrong. Because I can always come back – London will still be here.

It’s the sea that’s calling me more than anything else. I grew up in Liverpool, a short walk from the open spaces of Otterspool Promenade – on the banks of the River Mersey, which opens into the sea. It isn’t quite Sydney or St. Tropez, but the coast was never far away and we spent summer days in Blackpool, Southport and Crosby and weeks by the beach in North Wales. I began my days not far from the sea and I can’t imagine going any further from it than I am today.

Leaving London won’t be easy, which is why I’ve only talked about it for the past few years and never made the move. Perhaps more than many, I struggle with indecision and ambivalence, with a push-pull inside me. There’s an urge to go but a desire to stay. There are the pros of moving but I can write a cons list just as long. But when I ask myself which bit is the head – the worry, the fear, the self-doubt – and which bit is the heart – the faith, the trust, the excitement – the answer comes back loud and clear.

There’ll be so much I’ll miss – too much to even write about here – and I know there’ll be times when I’ll feel lost and lonely. But I have those times in London too, more often than I care to admit. The crowds, the buzz, the packed cafés, the queues and the endless list of things to do make me feel I’m at the centre of the action, that I belong to a big club, to the London family. But on many occasions, I’m walking through the crowds on my own or peering into restaurant windows before eating alone at home.

Perhaps that’s what’s changed, at least enough for me to countenance a move to a quieter place. More than ever before – although not as often as I’d like – I’m finding a sense of belonging within myself. I don’t need to be surrounded by people to feel safe and at home.

Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me I spent my most turbulent years – the years of bingeing, starving, binge drinking, compulsive exercising, low self-esteem and self-harm – in some of the biggest and busiest cities of the world. Maybe being at the centre of things reassured me I was OK inside, that I was safe and special. But I also recall leaving the buzz of trendy Sao Paulo – dubbed the New York of South America – for the smaller, quieter and rather odd city of Brasilia and finding contentment running around its parks, windsurfing on its lake and hiking on weekends in a nearby national park.

In one way, I’m surprised it’s taken me so long to find the courage to move given I’ve packed up my life and crossed continents so many times. But I also understand why. While most of the time I’m aware of the amazing opportunities ahead of me and feel full of life and young at heart, I have moments when I think the years are slipping away and I’m running out of time. Playing it safe, not listening to the part of me that longs for change, seems easier sometimes.

But holding on to that idea of a life of opportunity, I have a dream to follow my heart to the sea, to write, to teach, to love, to cycle, to swim, to jump off rocks into the water, to stretch on the sand, to have endless visits from my lovely London friends (please), to have more spare time, a slower pace of life, more space to create and to make my heart and spirit sing – in a small or a big way – every day.

We’re told it’s good to write down our dreams and goals so there you go. But while it feels brave to do so, it’s also terrifying. Because I guess now I have to follow through.

So, Dear London, I love you … but I’m leaving.

It’ll take time to sort – I’m not sure exactly which bit of the sea I’m going to yet! But I’m going to prepare for change, find out some information, knock on some doors then surrender the outcome, trusting I’ll be led in the right direction.

In the meantime, I’d better post this fast before I change it to, ‘Dear London, I love you … but I think I’m leaving, maybe, perhaps, some day …’

In my element - after a dip in the sea this summer in Dorset

In my element – after a dip in the sea in Dorset

Posted in Addiction, codependency, Faith, Happiness, Health, Recovery, Spirituality, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Cultivating compassion

I just starting rereading my last blog post and I couldn’t get to the end, so if you did, congratulations and thanks for staying with me! But I’m thinking that perhaps it’d be good to write shorter posts, but blog more frequently. It doesn’t have to be a magnum opus or a lengthy brain-drain.

So let’s give that a go, shall we?

Last night, I wrote myself a letter.

I didn’t want to, but someone who knows me well and has my best interests at heart thought it would be a good idea to write a loving letter to myself, given I’d been struggling for a while with a whole set of difficult emotions – grief, loss, sadness – and giving myself a hard time for not getting over them or for exposing myself to them in the first place.

She also suggested the letter because I’d realised I’d probably made a mistake or an error of judgement with my work and was just about to head down a self-critical, self-punishing path that would have involved me calling myself every name under the sun and questioning how I could have been so foolish. I was stopped in my tracks, told to put down the stick I was about to clobber myself with and to pick up a pen and paper.

The goal of the letter was to develop qualities of inner compassion or, in simpler terms, to learn to be kind to myself. As I started off (Dear Katherine … ), I began by acknowledging that writing a compassionate letter to myself was, for me, extremely challenging because self-acceptance and understanding did not come easy. I noted that I’d always been a striver, a fighter and that showing myself compassion felt like weakness, like I was letting up on the fight. But I also noted it was OK to struggle like this.

I went on to acknowledge that it wasn’t surprising that I made some of the choices I did, that I felt things at such a deep level and that I struggled to overcome pain, loss and grief. I noted that pretty much every part of me – every feeling, every reaction, every choice – had a connection to my past and to a deep sense of loss, insecurity, low self-esteem and fear.

It’s normal to feel sad and to grieve, I told myself; it’s understandable to feel angry with myself when I don’t do things ‘perfectly’ or to want to punish myself when I get things ‘wrong’; it’s natural to want to stay sad and to stay stuck, to not want to change; and it’s understandable to want so desperately to be loved and to feel special – because there was a time when the little child within me felt deprived of that.

My letter ended with me acknowledging how well I’d done that day – I’d been to the dentist, done a full day’s work and reached out to get support – and with me acknowledging how well I was doing overall.

“You’re doing really, really well,” I wrote through tears. “And your joy and your inner sparkle will come back soon. This too shall pass. Take it easy on yourself. Love, Katherine.”

To be honest, before I started writing, I thought this letter wouldn’t touch the sides. I didn’t think I could tap into any compassion and if I did, I didn’t think it would make a difference to how I was feeling.

But it did. Just the act of sitting down and being gentle with myself – instead of engaging in the much more familiar pattern of self-criticism – brought tears to my eyes and accepting how hard it was for me to be kind to myself felt like a giant leap in the right direction.

Perhaps I can do this more often – write myself a compassionate letter or at least speak to myself in a compassionate, gentle and accepting way.

I hope so. I think I deserve it. And I think you deserve it too.

So there you have it. Short and sweet at less than 700 words. Maybe that’s an act of kindness too – both to me and to you!

 

 

Posted in Recovery, Self-Acceptance, Women | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Baking my way back

It’s been more than three weeks since I’ve posted on this blog and I’m hoping you’ve all been having such a wonderful summer that you haven’t noticed my absence.

If you have, you may have been thinking I’ve been having such a fabulous time myself that I’ve been too busy to write. Or you may have suspected I had some feelings going on that I hadn’t felt ready to share, particularly if you noticed the reference to feeling a bit blue in my previous post.

As it happens, both would be true. I’ve had an amazing summer, but I’ve also been dealing with a lot of sadness in the past week or two.

The relationship I started a few months back – the one I managed to enter into wholeheartedly by battling my deep-rooted ambivalence, the one I committed myself to as much as I was able and about which, therefore, I have no regrets (as I wrote about in A life that matters) - has ended.

I won’t go too deeply into the reasons for this – other than to say simply that we wanted different things and we were both brave enough to stay true to ourselves, despite how much we cared – but I do want to acknowledge how grateful I am for the experience, for the fears I challenged, the risks I took, the amount of fun I allowed myself to have, the incredible lessons I learned and for the degree of closeness and intimacy that I managed to feel. I think there’s always been this little part of me that’s wondered whether I actually wanted to be in a relationship. Well, I most definitely do.

This was all made possible, it seems to me, because I confronted my ambivalence and threw myself in. But the flipside of that, of course, is that I’m left with a deep sense of loss when it doesn’t work out – a lot more pain than if I’d just kept things superficial, than if I’d kept one foot in the door or one eye on an Internet dating site.

I’ve been dealing with this pain, I confess, not in a wholly healthy way – at least not until now. I tried my best to do the things I know are good for me – a few swims in the Hampstead ladies’ pond, time spent with my closest girlfriends, a good novel, prayer, meditation and so forth. But I also pushed myself too hard, overestimated my resilience and my ability to bounce back and forgot to be compassionate with myself.

What’s more, despite feeling low, I forced myself to do the tasks I find most challenging in relation to my freelance journalism work – such as cold-calling magazine editors, with all the potential for rejection that brings. Why do I do this? Expose my vulnerable, sensitive self to another bashing when she’s just taken a hit? Is this part of that familiar self-harming streak? You’re feeling low anyway so let’s see just how low you can go. Or you’ve failed at one thing so let’s crack the whip and try and achieve something else to make up for it. Whatever it is, whatever drives me to do that, I don’t think it’s healthy.

Note to self – go gently when you’re feeling blue.

I also abandoned myself in the most tried and tested way: I overate. And not on anything particularly tasty either. I lost all interest in food as something nourishing, warming and heartening and used it to beat myself up – we’re talking rice cakes with margarine, oats with yoghurt, or handfuls of nuts for dinner or a post-dinner snack that went on far too long. I’m not saying I ate stacks of hamburgers or tubs of ice cream, but for me it’s the act of overeating that causes the pain, not what I actually consume. You basically end up with double the problem – the original one and then the shame and remorse on top for having overeaten.

But the good news is, I knew where to draw the line and was able to coax myself back to self-care. So on Saturday, I went to the health food shop and stocked up on healthy foods, to the green grocers’ for lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and to the corner store that sells everything to buy a baking tin.

And then I baked coconut bread (the gluten-free, sugar-free, but fortunately not the taste-free variety). And the process of doing so lifted my spirits. Just a little bit.

For some of you, baking won’t be a big deal. You’ll be able to whip up a batch of cupcakes or a walnut loaf while you make dinner and you’ll have been doing so for many years. For me, this was something quite new.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve filled a container with cake or bread mix and put it in the oven. There were the scones I made at secondary school – memorable because I forgot a key ingredient, perhaps the sugar, or maybe the butter, I can’t quite recall. There was the healthy carrot cake I baked a few years back to impress a previous boyfriend, surprising myself – and a fellow novice baker who came round to watch the proceedings – with how well it turned out. Then there was Saturday’s coconut bread.

And I honestly think that’s the sum total of my baking over the years. But maybe if you ask me again in a few weeks, I’ll have banana bread, another carrot cake and a few more items to add to my back catalogue.

So why so little baking up till now? And what’s with the change of heart?

Well, if, like me, you’ve had an eating disorder in the past, you could go a number of ways. As you recover, you could develop a real interest in cooking, baking and preparing nourishing food for yourself and others. Or, you could maintain a certain disinterest in food – unless it’s for the purposes of stifling feelings or numbing pain – and hold onto a rather irrational fear of getting fat if you start developing an affinity for baking. I fall into the latter category. Despite having been in recovery for an eating disorder for some nine years now, I’m still rather challenged in the kitchen. My cooking is pragmatic – quick, easy and not particularly tasty. I can eat the same things for lunch or dinner several times a week. I’ve never cooked a full roast (shock – I’m 42!) and I’ve never made soup.

But making my coconut bread at the weekend, eating small slices of it over the past few days and sharing it with friends tapped into something that I guess other regular cooks or bakers out there experience often and that was described – to a degree and along with lots of other valuable musings – in this New York Times piece on bakeries, happiness and having it all: You Can’t Have It All, but You Can Have Cake.

A friend sent me that link just as I was pondering blogging about how my weekend baking had calmed me, grounded me and lifted the dark cloud for a little while. What Delia Ephron wrote in the piece about life’s simple pleasures and achieving peace of mind struck a chord. Here’s an extract:

To me, having it all — if one wants to define it at all — is the magical time when what you want and what you have match up … It might be a fleeting moment — drinking a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning when the light is especially bright. It might also be a few undisturbed hours with a novel I’m in love with, a three-hour lunch with my best friend, reading “Goodnight Moon” to a child, watching a Nadal-Federer match. Having it all definitely involves an ability to seize the moment, especially when it comes to sports. It can be eating in bed when you’re living on your own for the first time or the first weeks of a new job when everything is new, uncertain and a bit scary. It’s when all your senses are engaged. It’s when you feel at peace with someone you love. And that isn’t often. Loving someone and being at peace with him (or her) are two different things. Having it all are moments in life when you suspend judgment. It’s when I attain that elusive thing called peace of mind.

Having had a taste (pun intended) of a little bit of peace on Saturday as my coconut bread warmed in the oven, I’ve decided this cooking/baking thing is worth pursuing. I’ve bought a hand mixer to make soup, mash and whisk cake mixes and, for my next trick, I hope to be producing a gluten-free banana bread, followed by some homemade soup.

An Edward Monkton card that really spoke to me

An Edward Monkton card that spoke to me

It seems I’ve spent a long time searching far and wide for a sense of wholeness – but maybe I didn’t need to look beyond my kitchen. I’m not expecting miracles or any major turnaround, but I’m looking forward to enjoying some of life’s simple pleasures and sharing them with others.

Before signing off and on a separate, if loosely related topic, I wanted to highlight a radio interview that eloquently and powerfully describes the pain a lot of women who want to be mothers go through when they realise they can’t have children for whatever reason. I’ve mentioned Jody Day and her organisation Gateway Women that supports childless-by-circumstance women a few times on this blog before. Jody’s interview with Radio Gorgeous about her experience of childlessness and why she set up GW starts around the 22-minute mark. Enjoy.

And if you have time on your hands (two minutes exactly), check out the podcast I made for the Radio 2 Pause for Thought competition. They were searching for a new voice. They didn’t choose mine. But I really enjoyed the process of making the podcast, which I’m calling Be Still And Know That I Am God.

Posted in Addiction, Body Image, Childless, Dating, Eating disorders, Faith, Happiness, Infertility, Recovery, Relationships, Self-Acceptance, Spirituality, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A life that matters

What would you do if you believed your life really mattered?

I asked myself this the other day while sat on a striped deckchair outside Foyles bookshop on London’s vibrant South Bank. It was early evening and I’d nipped into the store to buy a couple of novels – I was feeling a little blue (more about the reasons for that in a future post when I’m more ready to write about it) and was trying to practice as much self-care and self-love as possible. I thought a couple of works of fiction – bought after browsing the shelves of an actual book shop rather than clicking on an Internet link and waiting for a brown cardboard package to land on the doormat – would do me the world of good.

I’ve started with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which I’ve wanted to read for ages, and I’m already loving it. In fact, I’ve already got that feeling that I don’t want it to end and I’m not even a quarter of the way through.

Before opening Harold, however, I sat on my striped deckchair reading The Little Book of Confidence by Susan Jeffers. It’s one of those handbag-sized books they place at the till, knowing that in the few minutes it takes to complete a transaction, you’ve probably flicked through a couple of pages and decided it’s worth an extra three pounds. In this case, I bought it for a friend who I was about to meet for dinner (doing something for others is a great tonic when you’re feeling blue and a little self-obsessed, I always find, it gets you out of your own head). But they didn’t have any gift paper to hand, which meant I could have a glance at its contents before giving it away.

I was struck by a lot of what Jeffers wrote – I read her Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway a number of years ago – and although The Little Book of Confidence is a little simplistic in places, I found it powerful and very relevant.

Here are a few of the passages that caught my eye:

“Life is always bringing us new adventures. New challenges arise involving career moves; relationships end and so on. But if you have given 100 percent, when the time comes to move on, you have nothing to regret.”

Giving 100 percent, I guess, is the opposite of ambivalence, which is something I struggle with and a topic I blogged about in a previous post. It’s particularly relevant to my book – The Baby Gap. Sometimes, I feel it’d be so easy not to write it, to give up, to move on to something else. But I’m pretty sure this would leave me with deep regret and I’m just as confident that if I give it 100 percent and it doesn’t work out – it doesn’t get published or it doesn’t sell many copies – I’ll feel a lot happier in myself and will be able to congratulate myself for giving it my all. The same goes for relationships, but more about that another day.

Jeffers says “knowing that you count and 100 percent commitment are the magic duo“. She suggests we ask ourselves what we would be doing in each area of our lives – say personal growth, relationship, career, family, spiritual growth, contribution to the community, alone time and play time – if we believed we really counted. It’s a great question. And a challenging one. And the answers will be different for all of us.

As I sat on the deckchair outside Foyles, I tried to come up with some of my own answers. What would I do if I believed I really counted? Well, I would love and be loved, write, use my gifts and talents to bring joy to myself and to be of service to others, grow, experience and appreciate the beauty of the world and its people, do my best to touch people’s lives and to be open to be touched by the lives of others. I would walk through my fears, take leaps of faith, worry less, try to have fewer regrets and seize life’s opportunities with an open heart and as much enthusiasm as I could muster. Jeffers suggests we “interpret inappropriate fears as a green light to move ahead, an opportunity to grow and live life more fully – instead of as a signal to retreat“.

I would also love, cherish, nurture and care for myself more. I would commit to nurturing, stretching and strengthening exercise and activities that make my heart sing and bring me peace, from swimming in the sea to meditating in the sunshine. I would speak up more – in a measured, thoughtful way – I would be more honest (with myself and others), less afraid of confrontation and other people’s anger. I would give more (Jeffers writes that “when giving is about getting, fear is created. Give with an open heart with nothing expected and peace reigns“. And I would accept myself more, since this is the way to learn to accept others.

Which takes me to a meditation I heard this morning. I’ve been doing the 21-day meditation challenge led by Deepak Chopra and while I haven’t loved all of it and haven’t been hugely diligent with my meditation, I particularly liked this morning’s message: The world is my mirror.

We are all mirrors of each other and we see ourselves in others in relationships, particularly the most intimate of relationships. If you’re like me and you struggle with self-acceptance and are prone to self-criticism, it’ll be the things you most dislike about yourself that you see so clearly and most want to change in others. It can be a painful realisation but, as Deepak says, one that becomes a tool for the evolution of our consciousness. In other words, it helps us grow. I’ll end with a quotation Deepak read this morning that particularly moved me:

The good you find in others, is in you too.
The faults you find in others, are your faults as well.
After all, to recognize something you must know it.
The possibilities you see in others, are possible for you as well.
The beauty you see around you, is your beauty.
The world around you is a reflection, a mirror
showing you the person you are.
To change your world, you must change yourself.
To blame and complain will only make matters worse.
Whatever you care about, is your responsibility.
What you see in others, shows you yourself.
See the best in others, and you will be your best.
Give to others, and you give to yourself.
Appreciate beauty, and you will be beautiful.
Admire creativity, and you will be creative.
Love, and you will be loved.
Seek to understand, and you will be understood.
Listen, and your voice will be heard.
Show your best face to the mirror, and you’ll be happy
With the face looking back at you.

- Unknown

Posted in Faith, Love, Relationships, Self-Acceptance, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment