I think it’s safe to say that most of us know that meditating is great. It’s good to temporarily dial down the pace of our thoughts, whether for 10 minutes, half an hour or a few moments. A few deep breaths and a quiet moment of mindful observation is restorative.
I am sure we have all read about other evidence based benefits. Lower blood pressure, recovery from stress, lower cortisol, reduced risk of chronic illness, better sleep, changes in the brain and more helpful thought patterns.
There are apps like ‘Calm’ and ‘Headspace’, both of which are fantastic tools for grounding and finding some inner peace over time, when used regularly.
Most proponents of meditation say it’s a daily practice. 10 minutes or 20 minutes a day is ideal. Personally I find even one every few days is good. I get a bit obsessed about streaks and it works for me to be a bit less rigid. Even one a week is good for the head. The most important thing is practising enough, initially, to learn it and train the mind to go into a meditative state, which is so beneficial.
About a year ago i started to look into transcendental meditation but quickly found out that it requires training with a registered TM teacher, for a cost of several hundred pounds. I joined a zoom chat with one in Leicester to find out whether or not I wanted to invest. I decided not. I would be paying for somebody to bestow upon me a sacred mantra which i must never disclose, and then to teach me how to use the mantra to reach my inner calm. I figured that i couod repeat ‘o mani omin a’ or ‘mummbo jummbo’ to myself and find my inner calm whilst keeping my £500.
I don’t subscribe to anything now as I can do my own thing to very good effect. It is a mishmash of mindfulness, a mantra and a visualisation. I’ve attached it as an example. Just write one out, record it and be your own guide. Or feel free to use mine. It works. I can get to my calm place within seconds now, whenever I want to. Very handy pre interviews, public speaking or facing a terrifying person, not that I know any.
And if it doesn’t work for you, or you think I’m batshit crazy, I hope you have a good day anyway and thanks for reading!
As I’m training as a counsellor and am currently only a baby at this, with an exam in January, I have spent a fair bit of time pondering what the theory all means. I don’t mean what it actually says, or even what it means on the surface, I mean – how does it actually help anybody?
Last week we scratched the surface of Freudian theory. Despite all the problematic elements of the ideas and the person himself, he remains the founder of psychotherapy and his ideas still form the bedrock of more modern interpretations of the ideas. We went through the idea that the personality is made up of three parts: the ego, the superego and the id.
I think most people know more or less what these are. To recap, the id is an inner child with no conscience or awareness of morality, societal norms or acceptable behaviour. It is the part of the personality that wants everything and gives nothing. Its only concern is survival and it does not constitute rational thought: it exists in the subconscious and presents itself as emotions, desires and perceived needs. The superego is the foil to the id. It is the part of the personality that cares deeply about morality, society and acceptable behaviour. It is the part of us that is concerned about fitting in, being liked, looking the way that society expects us to and behaving in ways that will result in positive outcomes. The ego is the wavering, confused, often weak and sometimes exhausted person in the middle, trying to tread a path that keeps the others happy. It isn’t moral and it isn’t especially thoughtful. It just has to make a decision that will make the person feel OK and won’t end in disaster. I think that about sums it up.
How does this help? I know that there’s a ton more to psychodynamic theory, but I’m just thinking about this tiny bit. I like to apply knowledge and ask whether it’s useful, which is why I love Professor Steve Peters’ ‘The Chimp Paradox’. It’s not only a useful analogy of the brain, but he provides lots of really useful and practical advice about how to manage the chimp and how to become more human.
As somebody who struggled most of my life with an eating disorder, starting at thirteen with anorexia and then developing binge-eating, then exercise bulimia and a whole host of EDNOS stuff in between, I often try to figure out what was going on in my brain. I think that in Freudian terms, my obsession with food and eating must have developed in some sort of rebellion to the control and dominance of the church community. There was no escape from it; we were controlled in every way. But there were always cakes. Yummy, sugary, pink French fancies, homemade chocolate tiffin, moist Victoria sponges and of course Mr Kipling varieties every Sunday at home, church, bible class and Tuesday special. There were sweets, sandwiches, roast dinners, packets of crisps, club biscuits, penguin biscuits, jelly and icecream, crumbles and tarts. Churches in the 70s were a smorgasbord of culinary delights, and ours was no exception.
I enjoyed eating so much that, aged 18 months, I snuck into the larder and ate the centre out of every piece of bread in the bread bin. There’s a photo of this auspicious event. As a child, I was a big eater and remember the doctor patting my tummy and complimenting me on ‘enjoying my food’. I guess this eating enjoyment was driven by the id, but then the superego kicked in at the age of 13 when I inadvertently lost some weight on holiday and was told how amazing I looked and how I was slim like my Auntie and pretty now. All this societal praise and admiration made me determined to lose another half a stone like a good girl and be slim, worthy and more acceptable to everybody. The great thing about this strategy was that the approval came from everybody and not just the Christians! School friends, boys, my pervy piano teacher, more boys and everybody in the family and at church. Nobody ever expressed any concern as I got thinner, developed a thigh gap and became too exhausted to walk up the stairs, never mind bike to my piano lesson.
I started eating so little that I was starving by the weekend and started bingeing cake. The id would win at that point – survival instinct – but then by Monday the superego would kick in again and the diet would re-start.
Where was the ego in all this? I don’t actually think I ever made a decision that was based on anything good for myself. I was so busy trying to please everybody around me that I didn’t know who I was. I’d say it wasn’t really until I was 33 at university and achieving 1st class grades at a good university that I began to consider myself as even having a brain and possibly using it from time to time. I started to reason, to be logical, to apply critical thinking and quickly the whole pack of cards of my internalised belief system came crashing down.
I have built myself up from scratch and spent considerable time getting to know who I am. The upshot is that I’m an OK person who likes to learn, read, talk about meaningful issues, have a few good friends, keep to myself a lot, exercise every day in fresh air and is kind, loyal and sensitive. I’m OK with myself now. I can spend whole weekends in my own company and look forward to it. I am friends with myself. I didn’t know how to do that before and I think it’s that and only that which can drive significant change in life.
When there’s one of the three Freudian components running the show, whether it be the id or the superego, the person is described as ‘neurotic’, which to me just means unhappy and unbalanced in some way. It might be anxiety, depression, eating disorder, OCD, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or just low-level dissatisfaction. The ego needs to be in good shape to take charge of our lives. Here some some of my thoughts about achieving this.
Get superego into perspective
Getting the personality in good shape might mean burning down traditions, scrapping the status quo and doing whatever it takes to be in the centre of our own lives. So many of us go through life in servitude to what others think. Pretty much every woman I know has had ‘mum guilt’. What? Has anyone even heard about ‘dad guilt’? Why do we drive ourselves insane feeling guilty because a) we go to work or b) we don’t? This is the superego and, really, it can piss right off. We are here for a reason and it isn’t living a ghost life trying to keep everybody happy. Instead of saying, ‘I can’t keep everybody happy’, just accept that we can’t do that and get on with doing the best we can to live a meaningful life as best as we can and in a way that works for ourselves and our families.
Be kind to the id
If you’re craving sugar, or finding yourself binge-eating, shopping too much or doing anything that you don’t really want to do and wish you could stop, and your id in running the show, there’s probably a very good reason for that! Are you living your own life or is superego in charge, shouting expectations at you about how to behave, what to wear, how to change your body, judging your parenting, saying you look tired and should be wearing makeup? This aspect of the personality is annoying and mostly wrong and inappropriate. It’s helpful to have superego because she will stop you murdering your child or throwing dinner over your partner when they bring mud in the house. But mostly I really think she is shouting abuse in an attempt to control what she thinks is dangerous. It’s wrong! And if superego is shouting unrealistic things, then id is going to kick off. Id doesn’t like to be controlled and there will be an outlet somewhere along the line. The answer to this is to look after yourself. Properly! Say ‘no’ to people, practice being honest and setting boundaries and take time to actually have fun and do what you enjoy for once.
Boost your ego
I’ve had therapy and it’s really helpful. Nobody ever told me about the id, ego and superego, but along the way I learned to make good choices and build a solid relationship with me. It’s so worth it for whatever it is that’s making life difficult. Buy less shit and get a course of therapy. Best money ever spent.
I wrote a few weeks ago about my crazy overactive thyroid, which is now within range. What this means is that the 40mg of carbimazole that I’ve taken daily for the past four weeks has drastically destroyed some of my thyroid tissue thus rendering it incapable of excess T3 and T4 production. The TSH hormones that drive production of the T3 and T4 that circulate around in my blood are still ‘switched off’ but other than that I am ‘normal’. I feel fine, although a little tired. I have gained back the few pounds that I dropped, and it will be difficult to stop eating so much, as I got used to whole days of grazing, non-stop, on carbohydrates, just to hang onto the weight I was at. The downside as that I’ll need to be ‘titrated’ now which means staying on exactly the right dose of carbimazole to maintain the correct range. I think it can be tricky and can go under, in which case I’ll need thyroxine, and my private endocrinologist has still got me on 30g of carbimazole for another four weeks, although by that time I’ll have seen an NHS endocrinologist who might say something else entirely.
The other downside is that my liver function is now borderline. It was borderline at diagnosis, which was due to the toxicity of all that excess thyroid hormone floating about in my bloodstream, causing the liver to work harder. Either that or it was the borderline wine addiction but to be honest I don’t think so. It’s only ever been 2 or 3 glasses at a time and often none at all for weeks at a time, so probably not that. I’m now off alcohol completely and will be until I’m off carbimazole, because the liver function has worsened and is now causing my skin to break out and probably some of this fatigue. I don’t know whether the NHS endocrinologist will try a different medicine but I’ll ask at the appointment. I also still don’t know what the cause is, because the test for Graves disease that the private endocrinologist asked for was messed up by the lab, and my GP cannot request the test as it needs to come from a specialist.
This whole business of going private is sad. Not for me. It cost £200 and it was money well spent. But the fact that so many are having to wait five months to get seen. If I hadn’t have gone private, my condition would’ve worsened and the symptoms would’ve been really unbearable. I’d have had to give up work and be signed off sick, and had no income because I am classed as self-employed and don’t get sick pay. If I hadn’t have had the wherewithal to research my condition and realise what I needed, and discovered that GPs are not experts in endocrinology, and would be unable or unwilling to prescribe carbimazole in the doses that I needed, I would have suffered so much more than I did, and for longer. If I wasn’t the kind of person who makes a decision to get things sorted, and then acts like a bull in a china shop until they are sorted, nobody else would have conducted that fight for me.
I’m an intelligent woman with a will of iron and, although I’m genuinely kind and caring, I’m not gentle when it comes to getting what I need or getting what my family needs. In the past I advocated for my daughter by regularly bombarding the CAMHS unit and reminding them of the NICE guidelines. I contacted my local MP who also advocated for her. I got her treatment earlier because I kept on. My letters were well-informed, articulate and medically accurate. But how unfair is this? I’ve realised more than ever before in my new job how much the system is screwing over the most vulnerable members of our society.
How are these people supposed to get help? There are those around us in situations which are festering, problematic and downright unsafe. A single parent with severe mental health difficulties who cannot see a psychiatrist for months or even obtain the medication that would help them to find some space and calm. A child who can’t sleep because their routine has become completely upside down, who has missed so much school that they can’t tell the time, a child who is out all night and in all day, whose parent has learning difficulties and doesn’t really know how to parent, despite all the love in the world. A clinic where nobody answers the phone. Informative leaflets emailed out to people who don’t have the capacity to understand them and nobody to advocate for them. Local councils with social workers so snowed under with enormous caseloads who, through no fault of their own, are unable to support these families. GP surgeries with locked doors and phone queues over an hour long. Single mums haven’t got the time to wait over an hour. The baby’s crying, the washing needs doing, the cat needs feeding, the kids have to be fetched from school. They’ve got jobs that they need to pay the bills. They can’t get any help from anyone.
It’s a horrible speculation but is the NHS deliberately being run into the ground so that we can all go the American way and buy into lucrative personal health insurance schemes where the rich get richer and the poor just suffer? Where poor people with diabetes can’t get insulin because it’s not covered on their insurance? Where self-employed folks have no incentive to carry on and they have to go back into the corporate world? Or are we already there? I know that the families I work with are suffering because the NHS is no longer fit for purpose – which was to provide healthcare to every single person in a timely manner regardless of socio-economic status. If we are going the American way can we just get on with it then? Because what we’ve got now is neither here nor there. It’s a half-way house where people like me can badger, bombard and be heard, or pay the odd £200 for some timely treatment, and other people can just fall through the cracks in a ‘survival of the fittest, every man for himself’ kind of Trump-esque dystopia.
My thyroid condition will probably be well-managed and I’ll cobble together a path through it in a combination of self-management, education and professional input. But I’m sad for the NHS and all the amazing people who work in it. I hope against hope that this government really does put in some considerable funding and keep it going. I’ll never give up hoping that they really mean it and something will change. I don’t want to become the next state of America, driven entirely by consumerism, corporations, power and heirarchy. I want to live somewhere where every body is seen, valued and cared for with the same ferocious drive to thrive that most of us extend to ourselves and our own.
For years, I resisted this word, connecting it to religion, man-made (as opposed to woman-made) structures, strictures, boxes, rules and shame. ‘The spiritual man’ is a concept discussed in the bible and many born-again Christians talk about ‘being in the spirit’, or being ‘spirit-led’ and they may be talking about being moved to pray, or heal, or speak in tongues. I was not raised to believe in these modern Pentecostal practices and indeed the brethren church in which I was raised preached that they were actually devilish. So any mention of ‘spirituality’ has previously made me deeply suspicious, deeply sceptical or deeply bored.
In the brethren, ‘spirituality’ meant MEN praying in deep, monotonous voices: ‘Our Heavenly Father we thank thee today for thy great mercy in giving thine only begotten son for our heinous sins and crimes against thee’, by which time my inner child is screaming to run away and dive into the sea and swim for the nearest ship to take me as far away as possible. And the Pentecostal tongues, happy clapping, dancing, Toronto blessing style of spirituality I find simply baffling. If anything, I put it down to the charismatic nature of a large crowd egging one another on to greater displays of abandonment.
Despite these negative views of spirituality, I have known forever that there is something in me and in others that constitutes a beautiful knowing and wisdom that is beyond logic or explanation. It’s what I felt when I sat in church listening to a compelling preacher and tears came into my eyes when they preached about God’s love and mercy. It was in the power of the words and the power of the love in their hearts, that thrummed in their voices and thrilled even the air. It’s what I felt when I first heard the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and lay on the floor, unable to move, physically trapped by the mighty power of each unspeakably sad outpouring of Beethoven’s grief-stricken heart. It’s what my brother felt when he was at an abbey on holiday, standing in front of a set of stone steps that were worn by the bare feet of monks, many thousands of monks through the ages who trod those steps in prayer and contemplation and Jon felt that inner knowing and awe that I have come to call spirituality.
I don’t believe in mediums and fraudsters who claim to be in touch with the dead. Having born witness to the great Derren Brown’s ability to ‘read minds’ using trickery, memory and neuro-linguistic programming, I think these people are using the same skill set and conning people ruthlessly and callously. But I was once hosting a German student who had become depressed and increasingly lonely, sitting in her room reading every day and even avoiding her friends. For her 18th birthday, I decided to make her favourite cake and invite some of her college friends over. As I was whisking up the ingredients for a black forest gateau, in my kitchen, alone, thinking of her and her inexplicable sadness, I found myself rooted to the spot, unable to move. A tingling feeling took hold of every atom of my body, tears came into my eyes and I was filled from top to toe with the deepest, most profound love that I have ever experienced. In that moment I knew that her father loved her and was thinking of her and that I should tell her so. I didn’t hear a voice but I experienced a knowing and, when the tingling stopped and I returned to normality, albeit very shaken and confused, I considered how to share this information with her.
The next morning, she emerged from her room for a coffee and some breakfast, and I said I’d like to talk to her about something that she might find confusing and odd, and that my intention was not to upset her. I shared my experience and the feeling that her father wanted her to know how much he loved her and was thinking of her, at which point she broke down in tears and explained that her father had died in a car accident when she was seven. She had been thinking of him for the past few weeks and wishing that he could see her at 18, becoming an adult. I held her as she cried, and witnessed her return to her bubbly self later that night when her friends came for her little party, and I knew that this was a spiritual experience that had nothing to do with church, or religion, or anything man-made of any type. It had never happened before nor since and I do not think of myself as psychic. I believe that something greater than me occurred, that could well be explained by psychology, buried memory or intuition, but the explanation does not matter when the outcome was nothing but pure love and healing.
I used to want to have a set of beliefs that would be unchanging, wise and ever-helpful. I looked to books, programmes, philosophies and theories to try to find them. When I left the brethren there was a gaping empty hole in my way of being because up until then there had been certainty, security, community and structure. Anyone who has left a fundamentalist church will know the aching emptiness that happens when it is gone. It goes far beyond the loss of friends and the community. We were shaped by that religion. It is in our DNA. Without it, we are lost, like de-programmed computers that don’t function properly. But we aren’t computers. We can think outside of the conditioning and brainwashing. We left the fundamentalism because, despite the loving community that it provided, it hurt us and harmed us. I was offended by the shunning of a friend, the demands that my six year old child cover her head and the rigid and often contradictory, cherry-picking interpretation of the Bible. As I completed a literature degree as a mature student, I began to see the Bible as a collection of texts, with fascinating historical contexts, and I began to see the brethren’s insistence on seeing it as one cohesive message from God as an addiction.
Because we aren’t computers, we can re-programme ourselves by learning who we are outside of our conditioning. It’s hard, because it seems like everything. But since I left, over fifteen years ago, I have realised that my deepest self is wise and good. Somebody told me to ‘head for the light’ when I was lost in a bad situation and wildly grabbing for external guidance. When I thought about it, I knew what he meant. The light of intuition, the lodestar of MY truth. These are my truths: life is not fair, we cannot control people and love is the only thing that matters. Love for others and love for ourselves.
My truth actually resonates with what Jesus said, and every other religious leader that ever existed. It’s not the religious leaders that are at fault in this world: it’s the humans that grab it and twist it and make it a tool to control or manipulate. Inside and outside of churches, there are beautiful, wise, loving souls who live in light and love.
When I am digging the allotment and Mr Robin comes and waits for a worm, I feel an inner peace wrought in silence, physical exercise and the energy of nature. When I write, I am lost in the quest to speak truth and bring value to myself and others. When I walk in the mountains or look at the stars, I experience that inner knowing that I have come to call spirituality. I’m not sure what it is that I know. God? Possibly. But I have so many issues with the name ‘God’, infused as it is with patriarchal bollocks.
I know that there is more, so much more, than what we can understand or explain. I know that there is an energy, a lifeforce, a mighty power in every leaf, beetle, cloud and rainbow that we can’t explain or understand. I know that we’re connected to the stars and the cosmos and that a newborn baby carries in its tiny, helpless body and searching, grasping fingers the very essence of the divine love from whence it came. And I know that, when I die, I will return to that divine energy. While we live, we can be spiritual, when we are still for long enough to notice. The fact that it escapes definition and can’t be captured in words matters not; if it could, it would become something else, trapped and limited within the confines of human communication. And it’s so much more than that.
I was out on a run on the 4th August, my last run before the Belper Rover, an 18 miles trail run that I’d had planned for a while. This was my last long run and I’d planned a 15 mile route around the beautiful Stapleford area of Nottinghamshire. From the very get go I felt horrible: hot, out of breath and heavy. It was a muggy, warm day and I put it down to the heat, sipping at the water from my carry pack and persevering doggedly through country lanes and footpaths until, on mile 7, I realised that it was not going to get any better. Deciding to significantly slow my pace, I shuffled along for another few miles and realised that my heart rate was up to 200, which panicked me. At 50 that’s way over my maximum heart rate and I stopped to walk. The last 5 miles were a nightmare of heat, exhaustion and confusion as I wondered what the hell was wrong. Arriving home, I put it down to a virus as my stomach was churned up and painful. I rested for the remainder of the day and went to bed.
The next day my resting heart rate was ten beats a minute higher than usual at 65 and once again I thought that this confirmed a virus. The next evening I had a 7 miles race booked in the Peak District with my stepdaughter Jess. It would be hilly and hot and I knew I shouldn’t do it. But I messaged Jess and told them I’d be there but may have to stop and walk if I felt unwell. Next night I started the Saltcellar race and made it three miles before feeling sick, exhausted and anxious. I was already running at the back and I stopped to let the two women behind me past and then told the next marshall I was heading back. He kindly accompanied me back and I decided not to run again until I felt much better.
Through the month of August I did no running but lots of walking. After a holiday in Whitby where I ate all the chips, chocolate and cakes physically possible to get in my belly, I got home and found I’d lost weight. The heart rate was still ten beats a minute higher than usual and I was going to the loo a lot more (putting it politely). Googling my symptoms led to my suspicion that my thyroid had gone overactive and finally, beginning of September, I had a blood test which revealed this to be true.
What it’s like
Having this condition for me has been manic. Up until yesterday, when I started betablockers, I was hyper all the time. I would try to go to sleep but my heart would be banging in my chest so loudly that I could actually hear the swooshing sound of the blood. Needless to say, this is not the most relaxing feeling I’ve ever had. My husband even said he could hear my heart one night, which made me feel even worse. The hunger for carbs was overwhelming until I started on carbimazole, which dulled the appetite. I couldn’t even get all the food I wanted, because I’d get full and then be hungry an hour later. Nothing was able to keep me energised and I was bored of eating the same things but trying to avoid filling up on sugary foods (which I did occasionally do). My anxiety was the worst thing. I’d be going about my daily life and then, apropos of nothing, get a feeling that I was about to die. My stomach would churn, I’d get sweaty, and feel complete panic, with nothing triggering it and no way of knowing when it was going to happen. I also couldn’t stop my mind from racing and worrying, in a pointlessly circular track that said, ‘I can’t teach, I can’t teach, I can’t teach’, or ‘I can’t plan, I can’t plan, I can’t plan’, and, occasionally, for a little respite from the shit talk about work, ‘I might die of cancer’. It was a laugh a minute in my head. Thank goodness that the betablockers have stopped most of this incessant self-imposed verbal abuse.
What to do
GP will refer to an endocrinologist for further testing. Ask for an antibody test to see if it’s Graves disease. This is the most common cause and is an autoimmune condition. It can lead to eye disease and needs to be managed. If, as in my case, the antibody test comes back negative, it’ll need further testing. It could still be Graves as some people don’t show antibodies even though they have it. You need an ultrasound or a thyroid uptake test to see if it’s nodules, most of which are benign. The treatment is similar in any case. It might be an anti-thyroid drug like carbimazole, which makes you knackered for a bit but eventually works. After a while you might be offered radioactive iodine, which kills the thyroid and then you have to take thyroxine for the rest of your life. This is called ‘block and replace’. Whatever the treatment, you need regular blood tests for ever after to make sure the thyroid levels are right.
Some GPs are crap and some are great. I had a crap one first and then asked for another one because the crap one said he couldn’t prescribe anything and I’d have to wait for the endocrinologist. This was a lie and downright dangerous as my free T4 was rising rapidly and had doubled in two weeks. A GP can prescribe carbimazole and also betablockers for the palpitations and high heart rate. The worst symptom for me was anxiety and I’m so happy to be able to say that in the past tense as just one day on betablockers has knocked it out. So far my 10mg a day of carbimazole is doing nothing so that’s under review at the next blood test.
Our poor NHS is gasping for air and a hair’s breadth away from irretrievable decline. I was told 18 weeks for an endocrinologist and, in the event, it was 12. With the small possibility that it might be something malignant I have decided to see a private endocrinologist for £200 a pop plus the cost of any tests. I realise that I’m privileged to have some savings and not everybody does. But if you do, or if you can shove £2000 on a credit card and pay it back over a few months, I’d recommend getting it sorted asap.
Recommendations for living with an overactive thyroid
Go to bed early and nap during the day even if you only have time for 10 mins.
Get on a beta blocker
Eat as many carbs as you can fit in your belly
Do some yoga (I can’t be bothered but I know I should)
Walk every day and get some fresh air. Don’t try and run unless you’re a nutter like me
Lift some weights as this disease wastes your muscles and can cause osteoporisis
Eat a ton of calcium foods. For me it’s enriched plant milks. Bones will need it.
Get a journal and write down all the worries. There will be loads. Writing them helps.
Talk to anybody who will listen. This is a time when friends are needed.
In order to raise sponsorship money for my sixteen year old son’s school trip to Peru with Camps International, we decided to attempt the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge. Our initial idea, to complete the National Three Peaks attempt, was a logistical headache for a full-time teacher and single mum with limited date options, no time to organise a group effort, and a summer house move. The Yorkshire option takes less time, is straightforward in terms of driving and accommodation and is allegedly manageable for anyone with a decent level of fitness. I duly looked up the official challenge website, ordered a pack of information and maps, booked a date, told Billy to keep it free and got round to thinking about planning the finer details a few days before going.
(First: don’t leave planning until the last minute)
Planning the trip so late in the day was risky but luckily I managed to find accommodation at The Station Inn for £12.50 per person per night. The Inn is only eight miles away from the start at Horton-in-Ribblesdale and is a friendly, traditional country pub with hearty food and a bunkhouse for walkers or bed and breakfast in the inn. We wanted to spend as little as possible as the trip was a fundraiser. It was a last minute panic, though, as several places were fully booked and I had underestimated the enormous popularity of the Yorkshire Dales as late as October. The day before leaving, we hurriedly checked the map, thinking it would be easy to map out the suggested route. The pack from the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge website includes three Ordnance Survey maps, one for each peak and surrounding areas, as well as a little plastic card per peak. The cards are helpful as little pocket-sized reminders but aren’t detailed enough for use as standalone directions. No doubt the maps are accurate and up to date but we have no experience of reading them and the symbols and lines left me befuddled. However, we weren’t too concerned as some friends had assured us that the paths are really easy to find and that the route is well signed.
(Second: Don’t believe people who say the route is obvious)
If you don’t know how to map read with a compass, learn. Or take somebody who knows how. Just don’t try starting in the half-darkness at 6.50am in October, armed with a map that you can’t read very well and no idea which direction to take. We arrived at Horton-in-Ribblesdale at 6am in the pitch black and waited in the car until it was light enough to start. The night before, in the pub, we’d chatted to the group at the next table, who had paid for a guide and were starting at 6.30am. With no idea how long we’d take to walk round, we got up at 5 next morning, grabbed a roll and a cereal bar each, glugged some water and left for the Horton car park, which took about 20 minutes. A guy who had arrived even earlier, and was parked near us, was walking about with his head torch on (oh yes, taking a head torch would have helped at this point) and, when we met at the ticket machine, I discovered that he was the other group’s paid guide, had driven up from his home in the Peak District, and was just waiting for his clients.
(Third: Research the hours of daylight in advance)
It would have made more sense for us to check the time of sunrise and sleep a bit longer at the inn, as we ended up dozing with our seats tipped back until we began to see the light seeping through the trees and decided to make a start. We knew, from various websites, that walkers can officially check in at the Pen-y-ghent café, which is next to the village car park, in order to receive an official time, but figured that the café would be closed at that time in the morning, so we made a note of the time and left. Later, we discovered from other walkers that we could have signed a slip of paper with our names and start times and put it through the door, doing the same on our return.
We left before the other group arrived, full of confidence that there would be a clear sign, hopefully with ‘Yorkshire Three Peaks’ written in large letters for all to see. Our little card told us to start at Horton train station and take the footpath to Brackenbottom and then on up to Pen-y-ghent. There was no sign for Brackenbottom anywhere and no sign of a footpath. It was so cold that thinking was difficult and so foggy that seeing further than a few metres was impossible. We felt ill-equipped and scared of going the wrong way and wasting time, so decided to wait for the group and see where they went. When they saw us loitering with our teeth chattering it was obvious that we had no idea what we were doing and we accompanied them over the railway crossing, onto a footpath, and into the surrounding fields in the swirling mist. I confessed to the oldest man in the party that we were struggling to make sense of our map and offered to pay something towards the cost of their guide if we continued to tag along with them. He was very gracious about it and said not to worry, the guide had already been paid, but agreed that I would buy them all a drink later in the pub and maybe give the guide a tip. All very good, but clearly we shouldn’t have been so blasé about finding the way.
Filled with determination and anticipation, we strode along for a few miles. After around an hour, we started to climb. Periodically, I was checking the OS map for Pen-y-ghent, trying to figure out where to go if we ended up going ahead or falling behind. It made absolutely no sense. We didn’t appear to be heading towards Pen-y-ghent, according to my reckoning, but I trusted their guide and we stayed with them until we reached the craggy ascent. The pleasant, wide field path became paved, narrow, slippy and steep, winding its way around the mountainside. Billy and I walked ahead and resolutely ploughed on until we reached a plateau near the top. As I headed around the last sharp bend, Billy was standing on the ridge with the sun almost breaking through the white, opaque mist and the ethereal light lent a mystical quality to the scene. We stopped and played around with our phones, taking pictures for a while, both entranced.
Approaching a looming, stone-built monument, we figured we must be at or near the summit, and managed, with freezing fingers, to hook out our first rolls and cereal bars from our rucksacks, painstakingly and clumsily unwrapping them and rewarding our efforts with some high-energy snacks. We did get the food right! We had made up five rolls and five bagels, filled with peanut butter, wrapped them in cling film and packed them into plastic bags the day before. We had also packed about ten cereal bars and ten bananas, as well as six or seven 330ml bottles of water each. Towards the end, a couple more water bottles would have been welcome, but what we took felt ok. Replenished, we looked at the direction card and the map again and found it of no help whatsoever. There didn’t appear to be any path apart from the one on which we had ascended, yet according to the OS map, there should be another that would begin our long haul to Whernside via the Ribblehead viaduct. We wandered the ridge for a while, found nothing, got a little concerned about falling over the edge, circled back to the monument, heard voices and reunited with the other group. When one of them asked if we had a compass, and we replied in the negative, he looked pityingly at us and I admitted that we evidently didn’t have a brain between us. This didn’t appear to impress him. We followed them back down the way we had come, which completely baffled me, forking off to the left and down a very steep, slippery and treacherous route all the way down to flatter ground, where we took a paved, well-maintained path through very boggy land for an hour or so, eventually reaching a road. Assuming that we’d want to go ahead again, the guide pointed towards a distant zigzagging trail up the side of a ridge and said that this was the way up to Whernside.
‘Whernside?’ I queried. According to my route, that should have been a ten mile hike, and we must have only done a couple. I was still utterly confused and asked the guide to show me our current location on the map. He looked at it and pointed out that it was the map of Pen-y-ghent.
‘Yes’, I replied.
‘We’ve just done Ingleborough. Your route is taking you anti-clockwise. I’m taking them clockwise’, he informed me.
It took a few seconds for this stunning piece of information to sink in. It was slightly weird to realise that we had climbed a different mountain to the one we thought we had climbed, but at least the map now made sense. Not wishing to go on about it, as our ineptitude was becoming a glaringly apparent embarrassment, Billy and I walked steadily ahead all the way to the top of Whernside, determined to manage independently now we knew which direction we were going in. The climb up this way was tough. Really steep and intense and near the top my asthma kicked in and I wheezed like a steam train for about three minutes, wishing I’d brought my inhaler.
(Fourth: don’t tell yourself you won’t need your meds)
After feeling faint and almost vomiting, I thankfully recovered my breathing and carried on. Following the ridge up to the peak was less challenging – a nice, steady climb – and the midday sun infused the shades of auburn, brown and green with a vibrant, iridescent quality. The undulating moors swept away epically towards the surrounding horizon where distant peaks formed a dramatic frame for this massive panorama. It was warm now and we walked comfortably, stopping briefly at the peak and chatting to a seventy year old lady who had been climbing these dales since she was a lass and looked as solid and indestructible as any of them.
Billy wasn’t keen on stopping for too long. He isn’t competitive, he reminded me, along with his opinion that I was the one who would be gutted to fail the twelve hour time limit. The path down to the Ribblehead Viaduct and beyond, to the foothills of Pen-y-ghent, was easy to follow, clearly signed and for me the most enjoyable section of our walk. The viaduct was impressive at 3pm, its geometric shapes in sharp relief against the pure, blue sky and its light grey stonework stark in the afternoon light. Billy was intrigued by caterpillars, stopping a couple of times to watch hairy specimens inching across the path, and later finding a newly emerged butterfly with dark, folded wings that opened into a burst of kaleidoscope patterns. Otherwise, he found this part tedious as it really was a trek and, at sixteen, he is built for short bursts of energy and challenge, not ten mile hikes on flat ground.
We were caught up just before the viaduct by a young walker, flying along at a speed just short of a run. We walked together for a while, which picked our pace up considerably. After telling us about his and his wife’s adoption plans and having a deep, philosophical discussion of the type that can only happen between strangers on trains, walks or holidays, he pointed us in the direction of the best route towards Pen-y-ghent (which wasn’t even on our OS map) and headed back to his car. He was training to run the entire three peaks route next summer and was just cooling down when we met him. Crazy but brilliant; I have to admire the fitness and training commitment of anyone who can do that.
(Fourth: don’t forget to chat to other walkers)
Our day was enriched by our brief encounters with others. We asked some for directions, with helpful outcomes, and were asked for tips by others, which was generally pretty pointless for them, but were consistently met with friendliness, humour and genuine kindness. There is something about the scenery and the exercise that brings out the best in people (or walkers are just great people). The path to Pen-y-ghent was a bit confusing. We evidently followed the Pennine Way for a bit too long, observing the many surprising similarities between the Yorkshire Dales and Tolkien’s middle earth, then sort of doubled back on ourselves in the end, only a couple of miles from Horton-in-Ribblesdale. It was mildly tempting to give up. By this time, our legs were leaden, our shoulders ached from our rucksacks and we had little left to give. But a fleeting glimpse of a little red squirrel daintily skimming a garden gate and streaking up into the trees made us smile again.
We braced ourselves for the final push, ate another roll, banana and cereal bar each and took a left turn that took us, flagging now, over two or three little hills and then steadily and relentlessly up and around the shoulder of the mountain, higher and higher along the ridge and finally straight up a shale path to the peak. That final two or three hundred metres was the killer for both of us. Billy found it demoralising to walk at my pace so ploughed straight up and waited for almost half an hour at the top. I had to stop a couple of times for extra layers. My hands had swollen to a ridiculous size and looked and felt weird. The sun was cooling, the wind chill was biting, I had a runny nose and chapped lips and an inner voice that persisted in querying my judgment in undertaking this enterprise.
(Fifth: don’t leave your gloves in the cupboard)
No need to dwell on that one. Just take some. As I grimly shuffled up this last steep climb, I experienced the kind of jelly legs and heavy exhaustion only previously felt during the last leg of the London Marathon. Granted, I’m not as fit as I was, but can still run ten miles with relative ease and this was crazy hard. At the top, I was emotional with relief and enormous pride. Billy was equally knackered but summoned up his last ounce of strength and managed to climb up onto the tor to pose for a photo. He took a picture of me in return that went straight into the recycle bin. I looked slumped and haggard and beyond the effort of expressing any emotion. Within minutes, the original group arrived. Clearly, we had taken a longer route than was necessary, given that we had been at least an hour ahead of them all the way from Whernside. Three of their seven had dropped out with injury or exhaustion and the remaining four looked exactly how we felt. Billy and I started our descent, waving goodbye, only to see the guide pointing in the opposite direction and shouting through the wind that his way was quicker.
(Ref the second point about route planning skills)
We descended to Horton-in-Ribbesdale with the sun treating us by anointing our surroundings and ourselves with a fantastical tangerine-tinted transcendence. Inspired by the imminent finish, we were renewed with a sense of wonder, so I took some photographs and sent them to my boyfriend, while Billy informed me that I’d done this too many times already and exhorted me to hurry up because the group were catching us up and that couldn’t happen because it would be stupid (along with a reminder of my competitive streak and his own disinterest in our time). So we shuffled faster with strange, distorted movements, comparing notes about sore toes, tight calves, dodgy kneecaps and shortened hip flexors, all the way back to the picturesque country lane that meandered back to the little car park where we started. We offered the guide a tip but he opted for a beer in the nearby pub instead. Once in there, warmed and refreshed, in a perfectly fitting finale to our epic day, he congratulated us both on our mother-son team effort and tactfully suggested that we meet up with him in the Peaks for a course that he teaches in navigation skills.
I’ve recently started actively trying to unlearn the weight bias and eating choices foisted upon me by diet culture, by following the anti-diet, ‘health at every size’ nutritionist @laurathomasphd, and by listening to a number of her podcasts, including one recently with guest Fiona Willer. She acerbically referred to her ‘phase’ of being a ‘vegetarian’ and how ‘we all go through it’. As a vegan of 12 years standing who is highly unlikely to ever go back to being an omnivore, I was a little concerned to hear vegetarianism labelled as part of a phase that everybody goes through, and I have seen advice on a number of body positive blogs to eating what you like and ‘screwing’ diet culture, which seems to include any diet that cuts out whole food groups.
As it is for many people, food is a complex issue for me. Since my first diet at the age of 13, which resulted in significant weight loss, a slimmer silhouette and a ton of compliments, I have weight cycled my anxiety-riddled way through life and, just when I thought I’d finally beaten my binge-eating disorder, and achieved four years of highly socially acceptable thinness and fitness, I was forced by a number of difficult family circumstances to acknowledge that I was FAR from well, and was indeed living my life under the tyrannical laws of numbers, scales, calories and prescribed doses of excessive exercise. I was diagnosed with bulimia, and realised that my exercise was almost exclusively compensatory and completed with weight management in mind. There was little joy in it, and I felt compelled to burn hundreds of calories per day even when exhausted and stressed. I lost my periods and am still a little confused as to why a doctor didn’t pick up on the link between my disordered eating and the menstrual problem. They said it could be menopause but it wasn’t, as once I embarked upon a course of most excellent counselling and regained some eating normality, I returned to full health in that respect.
So far, so good. I am so over diet culture and am now angry at the way that it messed up my relationship with food, my body and my ability to set a healthy example to my children. I am angry that a white, thin body is the only type to be actively admired by the vast majority of our population. I am even angrier that the vast majority of our population spend so much bloody time thinking about the appearance of our bodies when there are so many more important things to do than to focus on how much people weigh and the size of their thighs. Why is it all about being ‘sexy’? For heaven’s sake, we don’t all have sex twenty-four-seven and I’m sure people don’t think about it anywhere near as much as the advertising industry would have us believe. I say ‘people’ loosely as it’s still primarily women who are constantly objectified in this demeaning way, but I am aware that many of our young men are developing ‘bigorexia’ and muscle dysmorphia in response to the objectification and rampant sexualisation of the male body also.
I really admire @bodyposipanda and I love what many of the #bopo community are doing on social media. However, the narrative is still ‘beauty’ and what constitutes ‘beauty’. Whilst I am completely in agreement that thin white bodies are far from the only ‘beautiful’ body type, I cannot help but feel sad and sorry that we are apparently reduced to whether we are ‘beautiful’ or not. Do we have to be? Are we simply here for our aesthetic or our fuckability? I really think the world would be a better place if we could simply be ourselves with all our flaws, and ugly bits, and just get on with our relationships with each other, and talk, and listen, and try to fix important things like, for example, the pressing concerns of global warming, social inequality, the iron tight hold of big corporations on our economy and this self-absorbed and corrupt government that is literally throwing people from our most vulnerable demographic out to the coldness of our city’s streets.
As for veganism, I’d like to point out to the body positive and health inclusive community that it is far, far more important than a diet. Many vegans are indeed unhealthily obsessed with kale smoothies, avocado and sourdough and protein smoothies for their post-gym refuel, and doubtless many middle-class white women are vegan for the alleged magic of vegan detox mumbo jumbo peddled by the likes of Simply Ella. I’m not denying that this exists and is an extension of diet culture rubbish, marketed under the guise of ‘health’. But for the vast majority of us, we have become irrevocably convinced that the meat industry is cruel, unsustainable and immoral. We do not want to contribute to the suffering of dairy cows who are separated from their calves. We don’t want to contribute to an industry that sends young, helpless male calves on a 3 day trip to Spain to be sold for veal. It’s obscene. We also want to make a difference to global warming and veganism is the single biggest thing we can do to achieve this.
Veganism isn’t perfect. Soya products are grown in cleared rainforest, and orangutangs and other wildlife are affected by this, but the vast majority of soy is grown to feed cattle. Stop the demand for cattle rearing and a tiny fraction of that soy would feed the same number of humans. We can’t be perfect and none of us are, but veganism really makes sense. I wouldn’t change my lifestyle for the world, and am now body positive, anti-diet and more and more ‘woke’ by the day (stupid word but relevant). So don’t take a genuinely moral stance, one that will change the world, and dismiss it as a diet or a fad. You can be a vegan whatever your size, shape, ethnicity, sexuality or socio-economic status (although the government needs to make fresh foods more affordable, to be honest, but that’s a different post). And I hope that the vegan trend will continue to grow. Now off to browse @thevegankind for some very anti-diet Christmas treats.
I started running, age 31 or thereabouts, to help with weight loss. I’d gained a couple of stone during three pregnancies, breastfeeding and several years of being a stay at home Mum. I ate for comfort, to relieve boredom and to reward myself for the hours of cleaning, cooking, wiping up, tidying, entertaining, comforting, teaching and training. When Billy was 3 I went to university to do an English degree and after that, to become a teacher. It was then that I lost weight, through healthy eating and exercise, and began a regular jogging practice. My love of the peace and quiet of a solitary run through fields and lanes developed during this time. The calming sound of my footsteps, the steady breathing pattern, the gentle sounds of wildlife and the rustling of grass became necessary me-time. This really helped me to tone up and maintain the weight loss, and I built up to half marathon distance and ran my first Leicester half in 2 hours and 4 minutes (I think). But my speed didn’t really pick up until we moved to Stoneygate and I decided that some running buddies would be nice and joined the Leicester Roadhoggs (with Jackie and Clare below).
2. Friendly Competition
My first training run, on a Wednesday night, was with the now legendary Jackie Brown, who is a regular winner or in the top 5 in her age category in league races and other events across the country. She is a brilliant runner now, but then, on our first Roadhoggs run, we were well matched. She pushed me on, being slightly quicker and much more determined, and I came away feeling exhausted but happy. Regular training runs with other people made me quicker.
I began running league races and my first Glooston 10k I did in around 48 minutes. I was very competitive with others of similar ability, and really enjoyed xc. My fastest time was on the Boxing Day handicap at Barrow-upon-Soar, where I achieved a 46 minute 10k with a slight hangover. I began to experience a runner’s high, which I only got when I pushed myself to the max. Like a drug, it made me feel exhilarated and, when it happened, I felt as though I was floating around the course, all pain gone, no effort, totally in this wonderful, bubble-like zone. I’d be aware that I was overtaking other runners and was smiling as I glided along. It was incredible. I began to chase the high and relish it when it came.
I started doing some speed work with Roadhoggs at Saffron Lane and built up to my first London marathon, which I ran for YMCA. I trained up to 39 miles a week and achieved a sub 4 (just). But a chest infection kicked in about a month before the marathon and my asthma flared up badly. I had to take a couple of weeks off and began to consider that doing that mileage as well as being a full time teacher was a bit much. I know people who run 100 miles a week and can only admire their incredible stamina and commitment. My problem might have stemmed from the sudden increase, due to following a training plan, and a more consistent pattern would have been better. I also became obsessive about maintaining a low body fat percentage, counted calories religiously and worked out every day, always worried about loss of performance or weight gain.
Shortly after this, my daughter became ill and many troubles began at home. She developed an eating disorder and ran to shed excess calories. There were two awful years and I undertook the steepest learning curve of my life. Supporting her through the ED was the most difficult thing for a parent to do, and I tried to do it well. There were many failures and difficulties on my part but she persevered in her recovery and she taught me how to help her. She got good help eventually and, in turn, I began to recognise my own problems with food and exercise. During this time, albeit for negative reasons, she got very good at running and, as she recovered, she used this ability to set herself the goal of completing a half marathon. Running over the finishing line with her was one of the proudest moments of my life. She’d experienced rock bottom at such a young age, had achieved so much recovery, ran her half in just under 2 hours and, most importantly, raised several hundred pounds for BEAT, an eating disorders charity.
During these difficult years, several good friends forced me to go out running, and it served as a kind of therapy. But three years after the marathon, my marriage was over and I was a single parent on anti-depressants. I completely lost the urge to run beyond a jog. The pills made me calm, relaxed and clear-headed. They were definitely worth it for the benefit to my mental health, and helped me to benefit from counselling, but I gained over a stone in weight as I addressed my obsession with dieting and found ways to manage my now very different life. My metabolism seemed to have slowed and I felt bloated every time I ate. On the plus side, I went from crying for hours on the sofa every night to feeling normal.
Part of a Balanced Lifestyle
My full recovery to pill-free mental health took a year, and during that time I ran my second London marathon. But it was a different animal this time. My training consisted of one long run every Sunday, up to 20 miles, as I ambled along from Stoneygate to Billesden and back again, thoroughly enjoying the view and the experience. My weeks were too busy to run. I struggled to find time between working full time, running around as chauffeur to my youngest, and conducting a long distance relationship. I ran the marathon in 4 hours and 16 minutes, with my partner cheering me on in his rugby coach voice that boomed out across the crowds and made me feel like a champion.
Since then, I’ve maintained a commitment to running but it’s very different. The competitive streak has disappeared and I’m genuinely happy for other people to overtake me and improve beyond what I’m prepared to commit to. I always aim to run for 2.5 hours a week and often manage 2. My last half marathon took 2 hours and 4 minutes (back to the early days) and the only way I’d get quicker again would be to lose the stone and train more. The thought of doing that fills me with gloom. My latest health check revealed that I’m in excellent shape. My diet is good and I’m happy and healthy. I no longer count calories and I eat to nourish my body and mind. Nowadays, it seems unnecessary to get all worked up about improving my speed.
So I run a few times a week, because it’s enjoyable to explore the lanes and fields, to hear my breathing, to feel the mind-body connection and to enjoy my physicality. My long runs are slow ambles for 6-7 miles, more if there’s a half or a big event coming up. I enjoy doing 5k fundraisers, like the Louth Run for Life, with Tim. I do yoga most days, which would have bored me to tears previously. Meditation has become part of my overall self-care, and I’m much better at acknowledging how I feel, what I need and where to find support as well as when to give it. And when I occasionally feel energised enough to push myself, like I did at the Hungarton 7 2017, I still get the runner’s high. It’s great when it happens, but I don’t chase it, because life is sweet enough to go without.