All hail the yoga nidra

I hate ‘doing nothing’ too!

After signing up to a free trial of Gaia, a platform for a host of wellbeing films and series, most of which I discovered are pseudo-scientific crap, I found that it offers a multitude of yoga and meditation sessions with a range of teachers and styles, and set about going through them all.

I love meditating and have done the Calm app, Headspace and freebies on Youtube. Guided meditation is lovely stuff and I wholeheartedly recommend it to find that bit of space, to lower the stress levels, to get a breather in the middle of a hectic day or after a period of high anxiety. However, when I did my first yoga nidra, I felt like I’d discovered Nirvana – the spiritual kind, not the band.

For yoga nidra you lie down comfortably on your back, covered with a cosy blanket and some warm socks, arms by your side, palms facing upwards, and are guided through a complete relaxation of the body. The focus is on the chakras and you are told to focus on each of them in turn, relaxing the whole body and breathing deeply.

I believe in the relaxing power of a deep breath. Science backs that one up. But chakras? People who talk about chakras have usually been regarded by me with deep suspicion. What the hell is a chakra? My suspicion may well come from a deeply Christian background but I think it’s more to do with the spiritual nature of the idea. All the talk about chi and energy flowing into the body from some mysterious source of light and love gets me huffing and eye rolling.

The first time I did a yoga nidra, though, I found myself suspended in space with no sense of the weight of my feelings, my thoughts or even my physical body. I experienced myself as filled with pure light that shone from the stars on each of my chakras. ‘I am light’ I thought, and the knowledge of this filled me with joy so profound that it brought me to tears. What was that about?

The whole experience of this practice continues to bring me a sense of deep peace and healing such that I haven’t known since the time that some beautiful Christian people laid their hands on me and prayed for me when I was really sad. They weren’t strange controlling Christians – just loving people who wanted me to feel better, and I did.

Every time I practice, I feel this weightlessness, and a sense that I am made of light. Even the thought of it makes me smile, and the more I practice the more I can summon up the feeling. When I’m anxious, I recall that I’m made of light. I delivered a two hour training session today and had been anxious about it for weeks, but for half an hour before the presentation, I breathed slowly, focused on these points on the body, and reminded myself that I’m light and free. It’s as though the me of me, the deepest core of my identity, is a being of purity and goodness, and this is a great thing to feel, given that I’ve spent most of my life feeling the opposite! It also reduces the pressure of pleasing others and worrying about what people think of me.

I don’t believe in an eternal soul and I don’t believe in chakras or anything else that isn’t supported by proper science. But I know that there is plenty of evidence for spiritual, meditative practices changing the brain and transforming the neural pathways so that we come out of the limbic system and into the calmer states that bring a sense of calm and peace.

Gaia costs £9 a month and it’s worth it for the yoga alone. I do the strength stuff as well but it’s this meditation that’s been a game changer. If you, like me, have to reduce anxiety for medical reasons or just because anxiety is horrible and unpleasant, this is definitely a strategy worth a go.

Social Anxiety

The doorbell rings and my panic rises because it might be a friendly neighbour who wants to talk to me or doesn’t want to talk to me and I might talk too much or too little and they’ll think I’m annoying, rude or both but I can stand in front of three hundred teenagers and talk to them about self harm, gender identity and love.

I am reminded that somebody should do a toast at a party and that somebody could and probably should be me and I think I am about to fall over because of the sudden buckling of my knees and the terror of getting the words wrong or looking stupid but I am about to deliver training to a county wide team about strategies that I have used to teach GCSE English to low ability classes.

Somebody I know a little has invited me to celebrate their birthday at a local pub and I really want to be sociable but I worry about what to do if nobody speaks to me or they do speak to me and I can’t hear them over the music or if everybody else there knows the person really well and they think I’m pathetic because I turned up looking so hopeful in this new town full of people who don’t know me but I can dance like a maniac at a party or do a random handstand in a park.

I stroke a person’s cute dog and the dog starts licking my ear and wagging its whole body and I’m so happy but then the person starts chatting and I worry because I don’t know when to stop the chat and how to say goodbye or end the conversation without looking weird but I can rock up to a therapy training course and talk about anything and everything with a class that I just met.

Coming up to any social occasion where there are people who are posher than me, which isn’t difficult if you saw where I come from opposite a high rise block of flats in a council maisonette with a corridor outside that people urinated in and a washing line that people stole underwear from, I spend days worrying about whether to kiss one cheek or both cheeks, how long to hug them for, whether to hug them at all and what to do if our mouths accidentally collide, but I can talk to a homeless alcoholic and offer him a job helping me to move house and I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t.

There’s a new neighbour and I know I’m supposed to be friendly and welcoming so I see him and say ‘hello I’m Ruth lovely to meet you’ but the words stick in my throat and I don’t think he’s seen me so I quickly open the door and scurry in like a terrified cat but I write about almost everything in my life on my personal blog and I don’t care whether or not anybody likes it.

My crazy overactive thyroid, mark 3

(Actually, it’s now a tedious underactive thyroid)

So now we’ve got four months down the line, the fun and joy continues with medication for my overactive thyroid now making it underactive. The situation goes like this: a) Get blood tests once a month b) wait for the endocrinologist to see the blood tests c) wait for the endocrinologist to write to the GP and d) get a change in medication. There are a few pitfalls to this system and they are as follows: a) the blood tests go to the clinic and are unavailable to the GP and to me b) the endocrinologist can take up to two weeks to see them and respond c) the GP can forget to respond at all and d) the patient continues to experience unpleasant symptoms because they are on the wrong medication now.

At 40mg of carbimazole, my thyroid levels went to within the normal range, at 30mg, the thyoid became underactive and at 15mg I have gained well over seven pounds, am cold all the time, am down and tearful and, worst of all, am so tired that I can barely function. It’s difficult to drive from child to child as a home tutor because I want to pull over and nap in the afternoon. I have done so just for five minutes on occasion.

The NHS response times are so slow that I have now reduced my own medication to 5mg a day on the grounds that I feel like crap. I will inform the clinic of this on Monday. If I can get through. Unlikely.

I think I say this every time I blog about health, but the system really is broken. I understand why and I’m not complaining or offering any solutions, but it’s really unsustainable. If I don’t get a suitable and timely response to the next blood test (Thursday – and I know the numbers will be very low) I will go private again. This is so unfair on people who can’t afford to go private, but I guess at least it frees up the NHS a bit more. The private system can’t cope with the influx, however. Their waiting times are also getting too long. What are we all going to do?

I had a test for Graves disease in the middle of December and am still waiting for the result. Is Covid affecting the labs as well? It’s all so miserable! Sometimes in these blogs I offer advice to fellow sufferers of hyperthyroidism/hypothyroidism and everything in between. I am sad to say that I have nothing of much interest. However, I am still adamant that the wealth of nutribollocks and self-help crap that can be found on the web is of no use whatsoever, but I understand why people fall for it all in a world of inadequate healthcare, long delays, poor communication and uncertainty.

Some recommend intermittent fasting, others say Paleo fixes autoimmunity and still others say to cut out all ‘processed food’, or go raw vegan, or ‘eat clean’ or give up gluten, dairy and sugar. Who are the people doing IF, Paleo or cutting out half the food on the planet? I don’t think I know any, although I know people who do the 5-2. It doesn’t seem very sustainable somehow. Intermittent fasting for life? Can’t imagine anything worse.

I’ve got a funny suspicion that autoimmunity is caused and exacerbated by stress. When I get a feeling in my head of being time-starved, overtaxed, anxious and obsessive, there’s a physical tension that accompanies that. It makes my shoulders tight, my jaw clenched and my forehead furrowed. I can’t imagine what it’s doing to my insides, but I know that high cortisol levels are really baaaaaaaaaad for us. I wonder if there were systemic measures in place to reduce stress, whether we would all magically become less plagued by weird and worrying diseases.

A four day week for all might help. Cycling in towns only so that we have to get fresh air and can avoid stupid gnarly traffic. Compulsory phone curfews so that we have to talk to each other. Maybe a community centre within walking distance of every home, with big comfy chairs, huge colourful fruit bowls, good coffee and board games. Sparkly pavements. Table tennis everywhere and public pianos. A better minimum wage and more effective public services.

Or getting together at a neighbour’s house to make crafts for the Jubilee, which is what I’m doing tomorrow. And walking, somewhere beautiful. Deep breathing, warm baths and favourite music. Smelly candles. A banning of winter. Booking a massage. Being kind. Pushing back the world of busyness and creating a home haven. Watching comedy. Right – that’s my Sunday sorted.

Locus of Evaluation: who makes your decisions?

There is a spectrum when it comes to decision making:  at one end is using an internal locus of evaluation and at the other is using an external one.  A person lucky enough to have an internal locus of evaluation, my oldest daughter, for example, makes decisions by consulting herself.  She always has!  I joke that she raised me and not the other way around, except that it isn’t a joke.  When Abi was 6, she decided that animal consumption was immoral and cruel, and in my maternal ‘wisdom’, informed by mainstream thought about meat, protein and growing children, I persuaded and cajoled her to continue.  Sorry, Abi!  But by the time she was 9, she pointblank refused, and I realised that she really was going to exist on potatoes, pasta, vegetables, baked beans and toast unless I intervened.  So I joined her in the meatless way of life but persuaded her to continue eating fish and dairy and eggs, for protein and Omega 3.

Abi continued to consult herself on these matters, doing research and ordering informative leaflets from a range of animal welfare organisations, and made it increasingly clear that she considered fish eating also immoral and bad for the planet, as well as dairy and eggs.  She presented me with information that corroborated her internal suspicions, and she educated me about the reality of the egg industry (which involves shredding up male chicks) and the dairy industry (which involves shipping unwanted males off for veal or just shooting them in the head at birth or a few weeks old).  By the time she was 12 we were vegan.  I couldn’t unknow the facts that she had presented me, and we have been vegan ever since – her more successfully than me as I have had the occasional unvegan day. 

My point is this: up to the age of 30 something, I had believed all the nutritional advice that I’d been taught, never questioned it, did the same as everybody else and didn’t question the status quo.  Having a prophet in the family – somebody who is prepared to stand on the hill and speak truth loudly and clearly – somebody who is prepared to question the status quo and ask:  ‘Is this right?  Does this sit right with who I am on the inside?’ isn’t always convenient but I am deeply grateful for her.  She has brought me to a more ethical life and one that is better for the planet.  Without her, I would undoubtedly not have made those choices all those years ago.  She has also brought most of the family to her way of thinking and made a significant difference to our carbon footprint as a result.  All because she has an internal locus of evaluation.

I have always had a largely external locus of evaluation.  This isn’t to say that I haven’t followed the light of inner knowledge, because I have.  I managed to get a degree, train as a teacher, leave a bad relationship and become a better partner as a result of that, learn as a parent and choose a career path that suits me and my needs.  But there’s still a hell of a lot of worry about what people think of me.  I ask my husband:  ‘Do YOU think this is OK?  Was that BAD?  Should I have said that?  Do you think I upset him/her?’  I sometimes spend bloody hours after a conversation analysing what I said or didn’t say, and worry that the person will think less of me or not want to see me again, regardless of how much or how little of a role they actually play in my life.  I also spent years of life hyper focused on my appearance, which was always, always about how others perceived me because I honestly do not care how I look to myself in the mirror.  I really don’t.    I was always looking at myself through the lens of imaginary other people.

When we have this external locus of evaluation, we become performers for the benefit of others.  We have performative sex instead of loving fun together with our partners.  When we light candles so our partners won’t see the wobbly bits, who are we in this except bodies to be looked at?  A person with an internal locus of evaluation would ask:  ‘How does this feel?  What do I want to do right now in this moment?’  Not, ‘What do I look like?’

And when it comes to food and eating, this has to be the biggest personal one for me.  If we’re counting calories, following a plan, using a food log, tracking fat, macros or carbs, doing the 5/2, intermittent fasting or any other form of rule based eating, what has happened to our inner knowledge?  Our awareness of who we even are?  We were born with an instinct to eat until we were satisfied and then stop and rest and then eat again until satisfied.  As children, we chose an apple sometimes and a piece of cake at other times.  I used to give my kids a plate that they called a picnic, with bits of sandwich, cubes of cheese, little chocolate buttons, a few crisps, some raisins, some slices of apple and a few iced gems.  Sometimes they didn’t even touch the chocolate buttons!  They were using their internal locuses of evaluation – before being whipped into obedience by external expectations about their bodies, their choices and their autonomy.

Our gendered behaviours and expectations are also external.  I didn’t care about being slim, toned and sexy when I was charging around the park like a feral chimpanzee aged 10.  I was fit, strong, happy and full of energy, free of all that expectation.  That all came later and I forgot my identity in a confusing whirlwind of trying to be whatever a girl was supposed to be back in the 80s.  I recall that having a ‘good body’ was a part of that but heaven forbid actually enjoying said body because we weren’t supposed to be a ‘slag’ and I don’t think much of that has changed, sadly, for our teenage girls today.

I just want to be free of all of it now.  I want to be able to look inside and ask myself: ‘What do I want to eat?  How much of it do I want?’  I want to go out without any makeup and not give a crap what anyone else thinks of my face.  It’s a 51 year old face: sometimes its tired and sometimes its pale, and nobody suggests that my husband hide his eye bags or spend time making himself more agreeable for others to look at and I’m damned if I’m going to suggest that to myself.  I have no issue with people wearing makeup, high heels, glamorous styles, nail varnish and fake eyelashes.  I have no issue with people having botox, face lifts, breast implants, tummy tucks or acrylic nails.  Your body, your choice.  Do it if it makes you happy and makes you feel good.  Do it for yourself.  Do it because it makes your heart smile.  Don’t do it for anybody else or for some societal expectations about how a person ‘should look’.

So, where is your locus of evaluation?  Most people are going to consult others and care somewhat about their opinions.  None of us live in a vacuum.  We do need to consider our loved ones and perhaps our colleagues.  Using deodorant and refraining from unlawful behaviour are pretty useful external expectations that help us all.  But for most of us there is a vast amount of material going on in our minds that we really could shed.  In the words of Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls:  ‘Lose your mind and come to your senses’. 

The New Year Pledge

‘I want’ is usually false crap.
I am not all that I lack.
There is a light hidden within
webs, masks, mazes and locks.
Until the day I die,
I will silence the distractions,
and self improvement dictats,
let her fill the hollows
and feel what she feels.
I am not all that I lack.
Already, I am all that I ever needed,
And all that I will ever need.

Was my sports watch worth it?

My overall experience of owning a sports watch

First it was a Galaxy smart watch, followed by another, fancier one, then a Garmin Venu, which was, as watches go, brilliant. I had a sports watch for around five years altogether. I was a runner with two marathons under my belt who still did plenty of events, trained long and often, and liked the stats. I used the Garmin to check my mile on mile pace, heart rate, elevation and mileage. It linked automatically to Strava where I enjoyed looking at other people’s routes and activities as well as sharing mine. My Garmin Venu showed me a gradual increase in heart rate that culminated in a diagnosis of overactive thyroid, which took me to the GP early and caught the condition early. It had a really cool screen and was comfortable to wear. These are the pros.

The cons are more complex and individual. When I started wearing sports watches it was harmless and helpful. By 2020 my Garmin Venu was a noose tightening around my thoughts as my 38 year long eating disorder took ownership of it and became obsessed with the numbers. As Covid numbers rose and I watched it all unfolding around me, I felt strangely detached. I surprised myself by not being swallowed up by anxiety like others around me. I ran a lot.

The Summer before, I had started using an app called Cronometer to track my iron intake. I had been to give blood and told I was borderline on the iron front therefore not eligible after at least fifteen years of giving blood regularly. Menopausal women need more iron, apparently, and I wasn’t about to start eating red meat, so I started to log my nutrition more precisely. I easily fixed the iron and started giving blood again. But by that time I was calorie counting again and losing weight after not engaging in dieting behaviours for several years.

Where does the Garmin Venu come into this? I realised that for every run, walk, workout or movement of any type, it counts your calories and gives you a daily total. This, for a person who is becoming rapidly obsessed with weight loss and calorie tracking, is a menace. In my previously disordered times I had reams of notebooks lying in kitchen drawers full of numbers, scribbles and food lists. The Venu made the eating disorder streamlined, slick and almost sane. In other words, it enabled it and enabled my denial.

There is research being carried out, currently, as to whether there is a correlation between fitness watches and eating disorders, with inconclusive evidence. This post is just my experience. The Venu did not cause an eating disorder. I had a chronic one already that was lying dormant and the Venu exacerbated it. I would have had an ED regardless of the watch. Cronometer was another enabler. The trigger was Covid anxiety. I realise now that the detached feeling I had was because the lifelong safety behaviour of food and body control was kicking in, like an anaesthetic, and it felt as familiar as childhood.

My watch is now gone, to somebody who is not eating disordered, and I feel good about that. I have deleted Cronometer and Garmin and don’t have the option of running at the moment as I have completely knackered my sacroiliac joint by digging. I don’t know what my running will look like when I start again, but I will figure it out as I go along. In the meantime, here are my thoughts about whether a smart watch is a help or a hindrance.

IT’S A HELP IF:

  • You love the stats relating to your sports performance
  • You like to train within certain heart rate zones and are a fitness nerd
  • You’re keen to develop and maintain good sleep hygiene
  • You follow training plans
  • You want to create routes on it and follow them

IT’S A HINDRANCE IF:

  • You use the calories to inform your food choices for the day
  • You go for a walk or a run, even when exhausted, to burn calories
  • You walk or jog on the spot to get your step count to a target
  • The watch dictates your daily activities and not the other way around
  • You can’t go out wearing a normal, time-telling watch because you can’t imagine life without the watch recording everything

It’s worth noting that disordered people will deny, even to themselves, that the second list is happening. We tell ourselves that it’s OK really and one day we will get control of it. But here’s the thing. If we feel shame about our addiction to the numbers, control and obsession, then it’s a problem, because we know that our behaviour isn’t normal or balanced.

And finally, feeling shame about having disordered eating or exercise behaviours is really, really sad. As if it’s our fault! We are taught from a young age that our bodies are of immense importance, and that a certain appearance is more valued and makes us more acceptable. When everything around us is as crazy as it is right now, with ominous words and talk of lockdowns, a palpable sense of fear and a world that feels unsafe on every side, it’s no wonder that we shrink ourselves and hide behind a blockade of addiction and obsession. We are struggling as a nation. Some drink too much, some binge eat junk food, some spend too much, some rebel and break all the rules, some become too anxious to get out of bed, some lose all hope, some get angry at other drivers and explode into tears of helpless rage and some, like us, get into food and body control as a way of avoiding all this crap. But one thing is for sure – none of us are OK. So please – ditch the shame, never give up and always keep reaching out for help.

Possessed

Am I here without my smart watch?   Do I ever get to sleep?

Do I get my light, my REM and plenty of the deep?

Does the oxygen go in my blood and do I respirate?

Do I fluctuate in energy or ever menstruate?

Is there ever any stress and do I ever have a drink?

How am I feeling?  Do I have capacity to think?

Do I have a heart?  Without my watch, how does it know to beat?

Who’ll remind me when I need to breathe, or wee, or eat?

Do my workouts even happen when it isn’t on the app?

Do I ever move at all or am I just having a nap?

How will I know if I am on a cycle or a walk?

What will I do without the virtual coach for my pep talk?

If I lose track of the stairs I climbed, was any of it real?

If my calories aren’t counted, did I ever eat a meal?

Now my smartwatch is discarded, do I still have a face?

Do I exist at all?  Who knows?  I’ll have to watch this space. 

To the eating disordered at Christmas

10 anti-shame mantras

Up until last week – yes, literally last week – I was one of you. I had been eating disordered for 38 years, which isn’t really a fact to relish, but nonetheless is true. My eating disorder ranged in severity from, say, a 7/10 to a 3/10, with zero being completely fine and 10 being life-threatening.

I would like to expand on this further, for those who think that they might not be unwell enough to call themselves ‘eating disordered’. This thinking brings a lot of shame because others can sometimes insensitively suggest that claims of mental illness are nothing but attention seeking. Really? People who have disordered eating usually hide their behaviour from everybody around them. People who can’t relax without tracking every single calorie are doing it surreptitiously, pretending to look at text messages as they frantically log the crisps that they just ate, or might even still be eating. People who can’t eat breakfast without weighing it by gram are waiting until the kitchen is empty so that nobody realises. So – if you think you are eating disordered then you probably are. Eating disorders exist on a spectrum and if your eating causes you discomfort, anxiety or shame in any way, then this is a disorder.

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Pexels.com

What I want to say in this post is a message of hope. After years of trying everything from therapy, self-help books, talking to friends, more therapy, following recovery Instagrammers (which I will reference at the end), keeping a journal, looking after my needs in other areas of life, more therapy and now training to be a therapist, I am free of it. It shook loose, like a pesky knot that I had been picking at for years, and now it is gone. I know that it will not come back in the same way that I know I will never return to fundamentalism or my ex-husband. So there is hope.

The last and most stubborn piece of my recovery is sudden and dramatic. I can testify to the fact that I have: weighed a carrot, ran a half-marathon when hungover to burn the calories, logged a meal as I ate it, checked my calories to see if I had enough for 3 dried apricots, drank gallons of water to make myself feel full, weighed myself after using the toilet to see if it made a difference, trained for marathons with injuries to burn the calories, limped around with a popped achilles to burn the calories and ranged at least four stones in weight throughout my adult life. This morning, I shook some muesli randomly out into a bowl and didn’t even think about how much it was, what brand it was or how to establish how many calories was in it. If I gain weight over the next few months, I trust myself to decide what to do and to get it right, for me, always.

I haven’t made my own eating choices ever in my adult life as a free person. My decisions were made by my mum and, from thirteen upwards, by my eating disorder. At 51 I am facing a world of decisions and will curiously watch as the world of food choices opens up to me and I learn to navigate that. I trust that I will learn wisely and I am excited about what unfolds. I have learned to make my own choices in every other aspect of life. I have rid myself of people-pleasing, mollifying others and choosing to keep ‘everybody’ happy (as though that’s possible). I think that path towards autonomy is a pre-requisite to recovery. Food was the last bastion and I have now re-claimed that, too.

So, I have so much compassion, empathy and sorrow for those still suffering any level of anxiety as Christmas approaches. It can be a time for significant angst. For those trying to track and keep control of their food intake, it’s nothing short of a nightmare. And for those who ‘take a holiday’ from the normal control, it is full of anxiety and dread of the weight gain. And whatever you decide to do, to mollify your eating disorder, it won’t be right and it won’t feel good. With an eating disorder, there is no winning.

This next section gives you ten eating disorder thoughts. Every single one of them is an eating disorder thought. And below it is a potential response. Say it as though you believe it, even if you don’t. And eat! Eat anyway!

ED 1. I am going to gain so much weight but it’s OK. I will burn it all off in the New Year.

SELF: I have the right to gain weight, keep the weight on and never lose it again. It doesn’t make me less of a person.

ED 2. I don’t know how many calories are in that, therefore I will have the tiniest slice possible.

SELF. Calories are life giving units of energy that fuel my brain and my body and give me a great deal of pleasure. I will eat the amount that feels right to me.

ED 3. I might as well binge everything for the entire week because I have lost all control in any case.

SELF. All food is equally valid and allowable. I am free to eat whatever I choose, whenever I like. I do not need to say ‘fuck it all’ because I am a free agent who can eat it anyway!

ED 4. I have to go to the bathroom to log all of my calories before I forget what I ate.

SELF. Wait for an hour, do some deep breaths and remember that I am a whole person, not a computer or an automation that lives by a formula of calories.

ED 5. I have to go for a massive run tomorrow or purge as soon as I can leave the table. I’ve got to get rid of the calories somehow.

SELF. I need to find a quiet place and meditate. I am a worthy and valuable person whatever my weight and however much I ate.

ED 6. I am disgusting. I ate so much. My stomach as huge and my thighs already look bigger.

SELF. I would not talk to anybody else like this. I love and respect others regardless of their size and I owe that to myself, too.

ED 7. Tomorrow I’m going to drink water and not eat until evening.

SELF. Tomorrow is another day and I deserve to eat, no matter how much I ate the day before. I am deserving of nourishment and pleasure, just as everybody is.

ED 8. I am so full. I always eat until I’m so full at Christmas. I am pathetic and have no self-control.

SELF. Christmas is a time of feasting. It’s understandable to feel uncomfortable because I am usually ruled by shame. But Christmas isn’t a time for shame and, actually, neither is any other time.

ED 9. I can’t go to that Christmas meal/party/event, because of the food. I will be eating enough over the Christmas period and can’t risk any more.

SELF. The only valid reason to isolate myself is Covid, and if I choose to stay in because of that, I can still treat myself with as much food as I like.

ED 10. I can’t stop thinking about what to eat, when to eat and how much I’ve eaten. I can’t even enjoy the company I’m in.

SELF. It’s understandable to feel that way. This thinking has dominated me for so long. I will try to listen and focus on what people are saying, and if I struggle, it’s not my fault. I am a good person just trying my best and I respect myself for always showing up.

I recommend practising this sort of dialogue, even if it feels untrue. I got my recovery by practising and practising until, one day, it became true for me. I took back the territory that was always mine, and I know that recovery is possible.

And to finish, my top ten people to follow are: @jennifer_rollin @chr1styharrison @virgietovar @bodyposipanda @foodisntmedicine @laurathomasphd @glitterandlazers @sofiehagendk @lindobacon @evelyntribole

These people range from nutrition experts and dietitians to weight science researchers and diet historians. They are all brilliant in their own way. Education is almost everything and these people will educate you. The missing piece is self-empowerment. Pushing the shame away. Kicking it into the gutter. It has no place in your food, your body or your exercise choices. Have as happy and peaceful a Christmas as you can carve out for yourself, and never, ever give up.

Sergeant Shame’s Christmas Letter

12th December, 2021

Dear Sergeant Shame,

I am writing with regard to your role in my life about food, exercise, weight control and body image.  This will take a while to read, so sit down, make a coffee, shed your mind of prejudice and try to focus.  If you are not interested in learning through reading, it doesn’t matter.  Over the next few weeks, you will realise that your role has changed, because I will keep reminding you until you learn.

First, I would like to thank you for all of your incredibly hard work.  You have kept me safe in so many ways.  Because of the little guilt trips you put me on regularly, I am a good daughter, I remember to send cards and messages to people I care about, I am a good mum and a reliable worker.  I have positive relationships in my life and everybody I know would describe me as a person with a good heart, even if they don’t personally like me.  For this I am grateful to you.  You’ve done a good job of keeping me safe, secure and firmly rooted in social connection within this society.  I know how to behave.  I can hold a knife and fork.  I even know which soup spoon to use, because I’ve observed others and you have reminded me to follow the lead of those in the know.  I’m not sure about cheek kissing and general etiquette among the more refined in society, but you have tried to help me to fit in, so thank you.

You have accepted a lesser role in many areas of my life and I hope you feel more relaxed because of that.  For example, you stopped making me feel ashamed about not believing the Bible and not being a fundamentalist Christian pretty much straight away once I pushed back and informed you that this wasn’t your place.  You did put a fear of Hell into me at a young age and you haven’t quite stopped doing that but you’re almost there.  I will be getting back to you on that at some point, but for now, it’s not important enough to worry about.  It’s not your fault; you were only going on what you heard at church and at home.  I know you were trying to keep me safe. 

What is of crucial importance now is your role in my life about food, exercise, weight control and body image, which you started to take over when I was 13.  I went on holiday to Eastbourne and a lad there fancied me.  The excitement of being desired for the first time made my stomach go funny and I could barely eat all week, so I inadvertently lost weight and got visibly thinner.  On my return from that holiday, everybody and I mean everybody (!) praised me lavishly for my slimness.  ‘Wow!  You look amazing!’ people said.  ‘You are the slim one in the family!’ said my Auntie.  And there you were, Serge, taking it all in.  You witnessed how loved I felt, how accepted I was and how this slimness was a cherished status and a prize to be attained.

I didn’t know any better.  I was thirteen and my Mum gave me ‘The Greatest Guide to Calories’ to help me continue my weight loss journey.  She had struggled with weight cycling all of her life, too, and she was ruled by her own Sergeant Shame, a relentless witch who had her believing all sorts of tripe.  But neither she nor I knew any better.  Before I knew it, I was eating a ridiculously small number of calories every day and became very slim indeed.  I was driven by you.  ‘You must get a flat stomach’.  ‘Imagine how much people will love you if you are tiny’.  ‘Don’t even think about cake’.  ‘Eat even less and you will get even smaller’. 

I became a shadow of my former self.  I struggled to walk upstairs at school.  My legs were weak.  I thought about food all day.  I fantasized about big, sugary, fatty snacks.  And, at weekends, I began to binge them, which kicked you into overdrive.  ‘No!’ you screamed.  ‘You are pathetic!  You are so weak!’  As I slowly but surely began to gain the weight back, you shamed me relentlessly.  I didn’t know that the voice was yours, Serge.  I thought it was my own.  ‘I am disgusting’, I said to myself.  ‘I hate my legs.  I hate my thighs.  I hate my stomach.  I am a shameful thing’.  I thought of nothing else. 

I know you were trying to help me.  Up until that weight loss, I had felt a nothing girl.  Nothing special.  I knew my mum loved me.  I wasn’t entirely sure that my dad did – after all, he spent quite a bit of my childhood smacking me very hard – hard enough to leave bruises on my skin and in my mind.  I thought he probably did love me in some unusual way, but it didn’t feel like love.  I was clever at school but in the assemblies that was not worth a bean.  Women couldn’t speak, or preach, or do anything other than wear a head covering and learn in silence.  I wanted to be a teacher one day and I worked hard at school, but the lure of being slim and staying that way became more important, because it was the only thing that seemed to give me the status and attention that I needed.  I know why you took over in the way you did.  I get it. 

Since then, you’ve stayed in charge with food and body matters.  Through my life, as I escaped the religion and fought off the false guilt, as I got my first class honours degree and became a teacher, as I studied for a masters and took on different work responsibilities, as I made relationship choices that affirmed my developing self, as I learned and grew and thrived, you stayed on guard in this aspect of my life: restless, dominant and hypervigilant.

Because of you, I have swung between food control and food freedom but never escaped your drills and sayings.  I have heard them every waking minute of every day.  When I have obeyed you for years on end through tracking and exercising and limiting and fencing in, you have whispered in my ear: ‘you are OK now but don’t get complacent’.  ‘You are acceptable like this but careful with that cake’.  ‘You’ve eaten too much.  You’d best go for a long run tomorrow’.  ‘Oh, you can’t run?  You can go to the gym then or bloody well eat less’.  Once again, I heard that voice as my own. 

When I had years of freedom with food, which I did in my teens and again in my forties, I generally gained weight and your whispers became a shout, reminding me that I didn’t look as good, that my legs were too big and my stomach stuck out and I had cellulite and chubby arms and my boobs were embarrassing.  So it wasn’t really freedom because there you were, with your loudspeaker turned up, marching along the fence line, hopping over it and in my face, yelling, in my way, blocking me.   Serge, you have ruined my experience of food and my body.  You have taken away the pleasure that food and my body should have given me.  You made me want to hide, and shrink, and turn off the light, and cover my stomach, and apologise for my womanliness. 

When Covid struck, I returned to obedience.  It seemed inevitable.  I lost weight, trained for marathons, once again received lavish praise for my strong, toned, slim appearance, and achieved the shiny status of a smaller body.  How tragic is it that, as women, we are praised for taking up less space?  Amid fear, anxiety, panic, shouting news stories, the Coronavirus Daily Update, doom and gloom, the decimation of the NHS and the shock of racist uprising, I returned to the comfort and safety of your rules.  I gave in to the lure of tracking and counting and working out and shrinking.  But I had read the books, listened to the podcasts, learned the possibility of freedom and lost the complete faith that I once had in you.  The compliance was an inconvenience and a chore.  I wanted out. I reluctantly complied for the duration of the pandemic and then I started my counselling course.  I learned about the mind and applied the psychology that I learned.  I realised what was happening here.  Your cover was blown and I cannot unlearn what I learned. 

Serge, it’s over now.  Your time is up.  I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Imagine that the rest of this letter is being shouted through your very own megaphone.  I am not angry at you.  But you’ve done your job and you need to hear this.

Sergeant Shame, there is no room for you in my decisions about food or the way that I see my body.  There is no morality in food.  It is just food.  There is no superiority when it comes to doughnuts and lettuce.  If I ate doughnuts all day I would be sick.  If I ate lettuce all day I would starve.  I need them both.  A varied and satisfying diet is what I need.  It’s what we all need.  A diet that is boring results in rebellion.  Rebellion leads to shame.  And you are no longer welcome.   

I have obeyed you for long long long enough.  I obeyed you at 13 and I obeyed you at 51.  When I disobeyed you I suffered the whiplash of your disapproval.  But I am no longer living my life according to your strictures.  Remember something.  I am your superior.  I am YOUR boss.  You are not mine. 

And as your boss, Serge, your higher ranking officer, I’m here to give you a few facts about food, body image and weight.  Ready?

  1.  Eating food that is tasty is better for digestion, enjoyment and satiety.  For example, putting butter (in my case vegan) on my vegetables, makes them easier to digest.
  2. Eating a wide range of food that I enjoy is healthy. 
  3. Shame about my body makes my brain hurt and it’s bad for my health.
  4. Societal fatphobia is a curse that should be kicked to the furthest depths of all darkness.
  5. Weight gain is not a moral failing.
  6. I have the right to be fat and stay fat.  And so does everybody else.
  7. I don’t owe society a slim body.  I’m not here to be admired.
  8. If I have to count every calorie and log every bit of exercise that I do in order to maintain a slim figure, then I am not meant to be this slim.
  9. Even if weight gain is bad for the health – even if that is true – even if (which is dubious) – so is a life of obsession, shame and guilt around food and body.
  10. I don’t owe anybody my health, anyway.  Health isn’t a moral obligation, so go deal with that.

Finally, Serge, I am here to tell you that I’m going to finish my counsellor training, and become an eating disorder therapist, inspired by the likes of Jennifer Rollin, Christy Harrison, Laura Thomas, Megan Jayne Crabbe, Lindo Bacon and Virgie Tovar.  I am going to educate myself about how societal fatphobia is rooted in racism, sexism and immense privilege.  I will learn about how eating disorders affect those affected by food scarcity, how race can play a part in body shame and how my own privileges impact my work with others. 

In order to do this work, I will take back my territory, the territory that I never occupied but is mine by the rights conferred upon me by my humanity, and I will take personal responsibility to tread each step of my ongoing relationship with food and my body.  There will be no rules.  Rules have no place in this territory.  There will be only love.  Each choice will be made with respect for myself and love for my inner child – who needs to be taken care of and has been taken care of in every way except for this one.  Each choice will be made according to the context that I am in.  Sometimes I will eat too little and sometimes I will eat too much.  Sometimes I will eat emotionally and sometimes I will eat out of boredom.  But you are not welcome in any of it, because I am going to be learning.  Like a little child at 51, I will be learning and will stagger and fall and pick myself up and remind you to back off and keep going, every day, without you and your stun gun and your whip.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your reign is over.  This happened on 7th December 2021, a day where I found myself metaphorically standing in bright sunlight in an open field with an exciting journey ahead and realised that this is my land to claim and it always has been.  I just didn’t know it.  You are demoted.  You may take a rest from all the whip brandishing, which must be exhausting anyway, and return to your vital function of presenting me with guilt about sending cards, cleaning the bathrooms and calling my mum. 

Thanks again, Sergeant Shame.  Without you, I wouldn’t be here.  But without you in my food choices, where you have no place, I am finally, fully, gratefully and gloriously here. 

My self, your self, our selves.

The fragmented beauty of the inner world.

The part of the mind that Freud described as ‘the ego’ can be described as ‘I’ – the part of the personality that we think of as ‘ourselves’ and that needs to arbitrate between our drives, passions and desires and the internalised constraints of the society within which we live and work. We all know the struggle of wanting to do something, like punching some work colleague smack in the mouth, and suppressing it, only to stick a middle finger up at an impatient driver. The id and the superego are easy enough to define: one wants sugar all day and the other wants us to be disciplined and well-behaved. For those in committed partnerships, one imagines random strangers getting naked and the other reminds us to behave like a civilised adult.

Photo by Merlin Lightpainting on Pexels.com

However, it’s the ‘I’ that I’m concerned with. What is the ‘self’? Some say it’s a construct, always changing, thought up by the imagination – a construct that exists within the particular cultural and social context of each individual. The ‘self’ might be ‘kind’ or ‘generous’, ‘passionate’ or ‘brave’. The ‘self’ might simply be described as a character that we have assigned to ourselves and thus ‘self-esteem’ relates to how that perception is created. Therefore it can change with focused work in this area of linguistic description.

I don’t think the ‘self’ is exactly this simple a construct. I think it’s the part of our brain that experiences the world, and interprets each and every experience that confronts it, in a way that works for the individual. When, for example, I stand in front of a crowd and am asked to speak, my ‘self’ is the fragile hologram shaped by a combination of abject fear and the requirement to present myself as confident, articulate and knowledgeable. My ‘self’, therefore, is the receptor of a bombardment of emotional, sensory and intellectual stimulation, required in each given moment to interpret these and respond in a way that doesn’t shatter me in a hundred different ways. As people, we are exposed to dangers, both real and perceived, on a minute by minute basis, and our ‘selves’ have to negotiate these in a delicate balance of inner and outer worlds.

Our ‘selves’ therefore are amazing, intricate marvels of evolutionary development. But how do most of us face each moment and its infinity of stimuli? There are a gazillion answers to this but I suspect that lots of us use a variety of defensive techniques. Humour is one of them. Intellectualisation is another. How many of us show our ‘selves’? How many of us even know our ‘selves’?

I believe that we are drawn to those who feel intensely. It’s surely why we love animals. They do not hide behind humour or intellect but demand love and attention. Anyone who sees the bliss in a dog greeting its owner, the complete abandonment of joy and adoration, smiles in recognition of its purity. When we see a scared cat, revealing its fear in a cowering posture, seeking to make itself as small as possible, we feel a sense of love for the helpless creature. Children and babies captivate us with their emotional transparency. When they’re sad, their lips shoot out and when they’re happy they jump and hug themselves. I’m not sure what to say about people who don’t feel these reactions, other than that I pity them because anyone who doesn’t like animals or children has really just lost at life already!

At times of emotional need in my life I have attracted people who want to defend me. Open and obvious vulnerability brings attention as does passion, excitement, happiness and enthusiasm. It’s fine to be a closed book – if we want to live a lonely life. If we want to be loved, then we need to let at least one person in. Which leads me to connection.

What connects people? Is it inane conversation about the weather, how many kids they’ve got or what their job is? Although these chats can be sociable, enjoyable and engaging, they are precursors to true connection, which only occurs with the sharing of emotion. Not just the re-telling of emotion, but the experience of it. Tears in the eyes, whether of laughter or grief, bring an opportunity for that spark of magic. The re-hashing of emotion isn’t the same; it doesn’t work in words alone. It’s the experience. Being present in the face of genuine emotion is a privilege and a gift. If somebody lets us into their world, they show us who they are on the inside. They show us their ‘selves’. And only in that revelation, can we truly connect.

It is these connections that make us healthy. Knowing that at least one person knows us and has experienced the revealing of our emotions and has our backs makes us live longer. I don’t mind having friends on the fringe, but I want to know people deeply, too. At least a handful is enough for me. Some people need less.

Even outside of my closest friendships, I love to discover what people experience. I remember and treasure heartfelt observations from others. At Newark Toad Rescue, a high-end operation which involves buckets, nets, torches and high-vis jackets, I chat with a woman who obviously loves the warty little creatures as much as I do, for ‘their intrinsic value’ as she put it. This revelation of her inner world and perception, combined with the tenderness with which she places toads into her red bucket, makes me feel connected to her. A child told me recently that his mum makes him happy and I felt warm and fuzzy. Another child started to cry when it was time for us to leave, and his untamed emotion made us all adore him.

Who we all are on the inside is an amazing kaleidoscope of perceptions, memories, images, connections and experiential truth. We all have this treasure trove of worth within. It’s not connected with what we do in my opinion. People do terrible things because the ‘self’ has experienced and interpreted something badly, in a way that doesn’t reflect the society within which they operate. It doesn’t make them fundamentally less worthy. Like the toad, each individual has intrinsic worth.

Psychoanalytic theory believes that anxiety, depression and a host of other mental conditions occur because of an imbalance in the parts of the personality. Superego has a lot to answer for with its internalised shame. The healing of the ego, or ‘I’, is the only way to heal the whole person. It is possible through the formation of a ‘bond of trust’ with another person, who may be a therapist, and the development of health promoting behaviours in daily life. The type of therapy doesn’t matter. It’s the ‘bond of trust’ that creates the healing.

Therapy provides an opportunity for two ‘selves’ to connect in a way that probably doesn’t often occur in daily life, because of time constraints, embarrassment, self-absorption and distraction. As a therapist, I hope I can bring my deepest self, my ‘I’ into the therapy room and meet other ‘I’s, and connect with their experiences, perceptions and emotional lives. The privilege of doing this work is something that fills me with anticipation because it’s real in a way that most of us rarely encounter.

And outside of the therapy room, I want to focus on the fact that it’s this ‘bond of trust’ that promotes healing, no matter what the approach or the technique. I want to focus on that because, in the final analysis, what heals us every time is love. Not the self-seeking, pleasure-grabbing, exoticised type of love that is portrayed in our shallow media, but the sharing, compassionate, powerful acceptance of one another’s deepest selves.

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