Homecoming

I wrote this in my thirties, having woken up with this beautiful dream. I had been searching for myself, not yet having found her, and this was the beginning.

A child came to live with us.

I was married with three children

when she arrived,

a small, dark girl,

with knotted hair and

vague features.

All I knew was that

she had not received

the right sort of care.

With a gentle invitation,

I bathed her in gentle soapy bubbles,

luxurious warmth for her pale smooth skin,

shampooed with even, circular movements,

the knots and stickiness from her hair

and conditioned the neglected lengths;

when we had done,

it free-fell, snaking

liquid glossy down her back.

When it dried

it was tumbling and healthy,

alive with movement and

vibrant chestnut tones

catching the light every way.

Her paleness gave way

to a rosy glow.

I took the boxes of dressing-up clothes

from under my bed.

Rumpled, twisted armfuls

of fairy dresses, wire wings

with sparkles, sequins, colours

of pink and purple and

eggshell blue,

long drapes and scarves

from Japan, caresses of

satin gliding over the skin.

She stood, watchfully

silent while I dressed her,

picking out the items

with care.

She lifted her arms

while I slid a fairy dress

over her shoulders and

enveloped her in sparkles.

I led her to the mirror,

her warm hand

snug and safe in mine.

She stood, shyly in contemplation,

then smiled with trusting satisfaction.

In the warmth of our bed,

she lay facing away,

snuggled in close and curled

until, overwhelmed,

I began to silently cry.

Then gradually

we merged in tears,

becoming one,

and I awoke,

lying on my damp pillow,

my husband sleeping next to me in

the early morning hush.

Outside were the first crimson streaks

of a dawning winter day.

Woman in Adultery

Trigger warning: A poem written during a time of despair, this explores themes of religious judgment, condemnation, gender inequity and divine forgiveness. Not a morning cuppa kind of read as it’s visceral and violent.

The inevitable judgment descends.

Voices in the corridor outside.

Her lover melts into the background.

He will never feel the full weight of condemnation,

 an unfettered, liberally raised male.

The door busts open, battered by blood-lust,

hateful hands grasp the soft skin of her upper arms.

Sobbing, she stumbles down the muted hotel corridors.

‘Take her to that Jesus of Nazareth’. 

‘Yeah, he’ll have to condemn her. 

Him with all his forgiveness;

he’ll have to acknowledge The Law.

She’s guilty and she even knows it. 

Look at her, snotting and snivelling’. 

Tart.  Liar.  Bitch. 

She doesn’t know Christ, she’s never known him.

He died the death that we deserve, they said.

Stretched flesh hung in toe-curling agony,

blotched, weeping face like an over-ripe plum,

a scorching suffocation,

solemnly described every Sunday.

‘This is his body, broken for us.’

‘This is his blood, spilled in our stead.’

And now they’re dragging her along the street…..

Dad once said he’d break her neck.

Now they’re going to break her bones.

She’s seen others, floppy limbed,

brains spilling out on the sand.

Smashing tearing chunks of skin and hair,

and after that, the God

who’d turn his face away:

‘Depart from me, I never knew you’.

Waking up cold with sweat,

Stumbling through darkness to the bathroom,

giddy with the magnitude of nothingness.

A doctrine of violence,

of slaughtered firstborn sons, youths killed by bears,

milk-mouthed,  peachy-headed babies

 ripped from their mothers’ breasts

and skewered by marauding warriors at the Lord’s command.

A gaping eternity of flame that tortures but does not consume.

As a child, padding through darkness

 every night to make sure

Mummy and Daddy

hadn’t been Raptured away

in the twinkling of an eye.

What about Christ?

Sitting calmly there in the sand,

he turns  from conversation.

Thrown to the floor she waits,

naked, miniscule.

They tower above her.

She never was the same as them.

Now they’ve got her and they’re

going to do what they should have done

years ago –

bury her to the neck in the sand.

Her head will be tiny and trapped and

unable to twist or turn any more

they will snuff her out,

til all that’s left is a broken skull

and a mess for the vultures to clean up. 

Quite right, too.

Now just a matter of time.

A lifetime.

She hears their voices staccato sharp.

Jesus, drawing in the sand.

The crowd are silenced.

 ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’.

……………………………………………

Too many fuckers forgot.

Fundamentalism and me

My misguided quest for freedom

Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

I was raised within a Christian sect commonly known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’. Born in 1970. my indoctrination took place throughout the 70s and 80s and still has an impact to this day. The key belief of the assemblies, as they self-identify, is that the Bible is the one inspired Word of God, handed down directly from God to the men who wrote each one of its pages, as they are with us today, and that it contains everything that humanity needs to know about him. My Dad was an elder in our assembly and over time he became stricter than many about the central tenets of faith. He became convinced that the Authorised Version of the Bible was the only correct version, and put a sign on the pulpit asking all visiting speakers to use only this. There were many others within the assemblies who used the New International Version or the Good News edition, but these, said my father and other, stricter ‘brothers’, were taken from an inaccurate source and were not the Word of God.

What I’ve realised, as an adult, is that in every walk of life there are those who dabble or sit at the fringes of a movement, and there are others for whom every detail and every doctrine is of the utmost importance. It happens with exercise, health, veganism and other types of lifestyle choices. These people will create new rules and expectations over time, repeatedly more narrow and strict, and are never satisfied with ‘good enough’. Initially I was taught that girls should have long hair and not wear men’s clothing ie trousers. Over time, this became long hair with no fringe or layers (although I got away with both), and no shorts, culottes or anything which revealed the womanly shape beneath. ‘Modest apparel’ became longer-than-knee-length skirts, up to the neck tops, nothing too tight and definitely no bare arms or shoulders.

Our family had no television (devilish), and I wasn’t allowed to go to discos or anything too worldly. My one and only dance party was at the age of five where I swirled around in a long, pink nylon dress to Abba, had an amazing time with the glamorous Galbraith family and, on being picked up, told that nobody realised it was a disco and it wouldn’t happen again. Men wore ties and suits to church, Sunday was the Lord’s Day, we did not play outside or do anything that could be construed as ‘work’, there was no musical instrument at the morning meeting (distracting), the ‘breaking of bread’ service was a plain and bleak affair, where men stood and prayed, preached or gave our hymns according to the leading of the Spirit, and women sat in silence as ordained by God, and learned in subjection to the men, their heads covered by a headscarf, hat or beret.

As children we sat through two meetings on a Sunday, after already doing Sunday School earlier, a midweek meeting on a Wednesday by the time we were a little older, a Bible class on a Friday and Tuesday Special (games for children followed by an epiloque) which was actually fun, except for the epilogue. We were not allowed colouring books or other distractions and were taken out and smacked if we wriggled or whispered too much. We were taught unquestionable facts about God. That Jesus is the only way to God, that anybody who does not believe and accept Jesus will go to Hell, an eternal torment in flames, and that once we understood and still rejected this message, we would go to Hell upon death, no matter how young we were. Messages about Hell were the main content of the ‘gospel’ meeting in the evening, accompanied by graphic descriptions, and even in Sunday School we were presented with flannel graph boards depicting its fiery flames and taught the inadequacies of our own good works. Only by trusting in Jesus and accepting the gift of salvation would we be saved.

Other churches were not to be trusted and were wrong, although it was conceded that there were individuals among them who were true Christians. I was ‘saved’ at the age of six in response to a conversation about Heaven or Hell. Of course I chose Heaven and I prayed the prayer, felt incredibly happy and excited, and was presented with a little picture bible, inscribed with the words, ‘To our dearest Ruth, on the occasion of joining the Christian family’. I treasured this and still have it.

Growing up, I faced a few traumatic and repetitive anxieties. The first was about Hell, because I believed that if I had any doubts, this meant that I wasn’t truly saved. So I prayed to be saved repeatedly, often in tears, through sleepless nights. The other was about the Rapture, when Jesus would return to the earth in a twinkling of an eye and snatch away all of the Christians both dead and alive and take them to Heaven. All who remained on earth would face the Anti-Christ, a man who initially would appear to be a man of peace, who would re-unite the warring factions on earth, and would be universally popular. But after three and a half years of his seven year reign, he would become an unstoppable tyrant, a force for evil, who would behead all those who rejected the ‘mark of the beast’ on their hands or foreheads, and those people would be unable to buy or sell or survive, would be tortured, tormented and executed, this being their only last chance of getting into Heaven through the back door, so to speak. I worried in the dead of the night that the Rapture had happened and I was left behind, padding across the landing and checking that my parents were in bed, listening for the reassuring snores emanating from my father.

Later, as a teenager, I rebelled, in dramatic style. Never questioning the truth of what I was taught, I did, however, want the freedom that my friends had. Inevitably I made friends at school, as we were not home-schooled, and I became aware that other people had other beliefs. I’d known since primary school that my family were out of line with the mainstream, but as a small child I didn’t really mind that. I thought that we were right and they were wrong. But as a teenager, I began to enjoy pop music, Radio One, ‘Jackie’ magazine, makeup, jeans and, most of all, flirting with the boys. I was a Class A flirt and would put my makeup on on the bus on the way to school and get changed into the jeans I’d bought with my pocket money in an alleyway whenever I wanted to meet up with friends. I kissed several boys at school and ‘went out’ with them, which meant hanging around at lunchtime and kissing on the way to the bus – not actually ‘going out’. And then at fifteen I fell head over heels in love with Shaun, who I lied about to my parents, went to the cinema with, kissed every afternoon on the school field, and dumped when he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Shaun broke my teenage heart when I discovered that he really did just want to get laid, and I returned to the brethren fold as a good Christian girl, truly subdued and sorry for my mistake.

See, the thing was, I couldn’t lie for long. Every time I met a boy (the next one was called Matthew and the next one Keith), I left the meetings, told the parents I wasn’t able to attend because I was seeing somebody, which was forbidden, unless he was a Christian and we wanted to get married some time, and there were massive rows over it. Every time. And thus began my two sides: the good Christian girl side and the worldly boy-chasing flirty girl side. I couldn’t have them both until I finally met and fell in love with the tall, red-haired, deep-voiced Scot who became my first husband, who everybody approved of, and who was also an assembly boy.

Eventually, after having three kids, I went to university, studied literature, came to believe that the Bible is a fascinating collection of texts with amazing contexts of production and reception and not the Word of God in a complete sense at all. For years I tried to escape all of the influences of the assemblies and find freedom of the heart and mind. I hated what they’d taught, the fears that I’d been subjected to as a child, the emotional manipulation, the physical punishments and the rigid doctrines which excluded anybody who disagreed or had the audacity to make human mistakes. I hated what I thought of as stupid beliefs: the seven day creation, the Rapture, the six thousand year old Earth and the binary beliefs about gender, sexuality and marriage. I mocked them, developed a raging dislike of all evangelical Christian beliefs and fought to release myself from the influence.

But here’s the thing. Hating something so passionately means that we haven’t escaped at all. I was still scared of going to Hell. Still am, a bit. Especially as a divorced would-be atheist who can’t quite believe in anything except the beauty of a sunset, a baby, a loving hug or a robin. Especially as a wishy-washy non-believer who can’t decide whether God exists or doesn’t, or whether we are all a serendipitous accident of the universe.

I have come to realise that the brethren isn’t just a group of people who raised me, shaped me, brainwashed me and then rejected me. Some of that is true, and some of it is not. There are those who only ever showed love and kindness and mercy. Some of the most amazing people I ever met were in those meetings. Preachers who spoke with such eloquence that the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. Sunday school teachers who really loved the children they taught and invited them round for dainty cakes and sandwiches on a Sunday afternoon. Married couples who adored each other and lived with love and affection for decades.

The brethren isn’t outside of me. It’s a part of me, entwined into every synapse of my brain. Indoctrination is permanent and, even if it’s unconscious most of the time, it’s there. I still think in black and white, I still find subtlety and nuance difficult to decipher. I feel uncomfortable dancing at a disco and I’m still moved to tears by parts of the bible. I remember the words of hymns and choruses, I still love everything that Jesus stands for and the story of the resurrection makes me want to stand up and punch the air. If I’m at a carol service, I sing and believe with all my heart, even though I don’t, really. It’s a fairly common paradox to believe and not believe, simultaneously.

Those of us who were raised in a fundamentalist religion are misguided to think of escape. There isn’t a full escape from something engrained in the psyche. The Jesuits apparently said, ‘Give us a child til the age of seven and he’s ours for life’. We can, however, keep the beauty, the wisdom and the kindness of it and cherish that as part of the rich experience of life. The harshness and fear can be dealt with by facing it square on and subjecting it to logic. If, for example, I start to think I’m going to go to Hell, I ask myself ‘who would I be down there with’? I don’t believe my kids are going, or my husband, any of my friends, colleagues or neighbours. I’d be hard pushed to think of anybody who I think deserves to burn forever in tormenting flames. So why would I? It’s ludicrous. Using logic I can face out most of the fears. Likewise, the Rapture. I get scared of the apocalyptic tone of some of the news: the global warming, the melting icecaps, the looming extinction of thousands of species and the bleak outlook for humanity. But does this mean the opaque prophecies of Revelations are coming for us? No, I think we are doing this to ourselves and only we can save the situation.

So I look to the good in humanity and in myself. We can’t escape our childhoods. Awareness that our early indoctrination is part of our DNA makes it easier to stop fighting, learn to love who we are and to respect the process of how we got here.

Spirituality

What does it mean to be ‘spiritual’?

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.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

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.

My crazy overactive thyroid

My first seven weeks with an overactive thyroid.

Hyperthyroidism and me

When did it start?

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.

Diagnosis

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

  1. Go to bed early and nap during the day even if you only have time for 10 mins.
  2. Get on a beta blocker
  3. Eat as many carbs as you can fit in your belly
  4. Do some yoga (I can’t be bothered but I know I should)
  5. Walk every day and get some fresh air. Don’t try and run unless you’re a nutter like me
  6. Lift some weights as this disease wastes your muscles and can cause osteoporisis
  7. Eat a ton of calcium foods. For me it’s enriched plant milks. Bones will need it.
  8. Get a journal and write down all the worries. There will be loads. Writing them helps.
  9. Talk to anybody who will listen. This is a time when friends are needed.
  10. Use a meditation app every day to get some calm

Veganism and Disordered Eating

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.

 

 

 

Teaching, holidays and Tory stupidity

This is a ramble about breaking up for Christmas and the mental space that accompanies that.  Every time a term ends, I feel weird for the first few days of the holidays.  Often, the weirdness is accompanied by illness.  Everybody likes to mock teachers for our apparently pathetic moanings, holiday ailments and constant tiredness.  But it’s an experience common to most, if not all of us.  And the reason is that we go from fast and furious, bustling busyness to mental silence, overnight.  The adrenaline continues to pump, the cortisol levels are up, and the only thing to stress about is, in my case, vegan Christmas dinner.  So the adrenals are pumped and primed for constant fight or flight, and there’s a shopping list and some wrapping.  That’s it.  The body then decides to get ill, just so that it has something to do with itself.  Orange juice, vegetable smoothies, little walks and plenty of sleep don’t seem to do anything to help.  Fingers crossed this year might be a healthy first.

Now I’ve got a day to reflect, though, I’ve decided to acknowledge the facts, in writing, to remember every year, in order to respect my 47 year old, understandably tired end of term self.  I started a new job in September, in a very different school, with kids who are more defiant and a lot tougher than those in my previous job.  I stepped back from having additional responsibility to being ‘just a teacher’, which means more lesson planning and more marking and more time in the classroom for less money.  I’ll be applying for a TLR again asap!  These kids rubbed their hands together in glee when I stepped into the classroom.  Year 10s who had had four different teachers over the past two years, had developed a self-appointed reputation as being a tough class and saw a kind, smiley new teacher, older than their parents, with a ‘posh voice’, thought that they’d have a ball.  They did.  There was paper throwing, loud singing, noise so loud that I couldn’t speak over them, a perpetually husky voice on my part and four hours a week of hell in a classroom.  The same, to a lesser extent, with two year 9 groups.

I had to ask for support from my HoD.  I felt ashamed of this.  The class were rude, obnoxious, loud and manipulative.  They’d behave impeccably when the HoD stepped into the room.  They behaved beautifully when I was inspected by Ofsted.  But the minute it was just them and me, they went wild.  Blue slips, detentions, arguments and about a hundred confrontations in the corridor later, they now like me.  At least that’s something.  But the reality is that they’ll never be a well-behaved class.  And I had to decide whether to up sticks and leave the school in despair or stick the bugger out.  It’s a very good school, outstanding in fact.  But the teachers are tough and I’m having to get tougher.  I’m from a council estate in Margate but I’ve become middle class and I’ve got used to teaching ‘nice’ kids.  This is a journey into the rougher-edged side of teaching.  I’m not going to leave.  These kids are little shits but I was one, too, and still am, deep within, and I’ve stopped being ‘posh’ and started shouting back, louder and stronger.  I hear myself yelling ‘WHAT ARE YOU SMILING AT?’, ‘HAVE YOU FINISHED?’ or ‘GET OUT OF MY CLASSROOM UNTIL YOU CAN BEHAVE’ in a way that I’ve never done before.  It’s strangely liberating and the children seem to like it.  Very bizarre.  But my lessons are still a circus.  It’s like being an NQT again.

Every morning, we wake up in the dark and try to dress in a professional manner.  We get to school and have to lead a tutor time and 4 or 5 hour long lessons with children who will do anything and everything not to complete any work.  The lessons have to be planned to the enth degree so as not to give any opportunity for unstructured talking time, which can get rapidly out of control.  There is no time in between except for a 20 minutes break, 5 of which is taken up with behaviour talks and another 5 taken up with setting up the next lesson ready to go the minute they stroll through that door, shouting and hollering like hooligans.  Lunchtime often comprises of sitting with a defiant detention completer, or even worse, a chatty one who just wants to be mates, when all we really want is a cuppa soup and some quiet.  Admin, planning and marking has to be completed outside of school time and we are never up to date.

This term my anxiety got out of hand again and I got diagnosed with severe Generalised Anxiety Disorder and moderate depression.  I’m back on meds, Citalopram this time.  It works a dream and I’m much calmer now.  Lots of teachers are on anti depressants but we rarely discuss it, because there’s little tolerance for mental illness in schools.  This is still the case, ironically, because my GP said that her most stressed patients are teachers.  She offered me time off but understood that, as a teacher, this is often a career killer.  Self-help sounds like a great option but it takes time and attention, neither of which we can afford in term time.  We either change our circumstances or change our brain chemistry.  In my case, the former isn’t an option and the latter is practical and works.

In my opinion, the only thing that will make teaching a feasible and enjoyable job again is another curriculum reform and a re-visit of teachers’ employment conditions.  The kids are bored of Shakespeare and Dickens and trying to teach this in a low ability 11 plus fail school with some kids barely being able to spell or punctuate properly is utterly pointless and frustrating for all concerned.  They love writing stories, creating characters and settings, reading relateable stories and sharing their own experiences.  Not reading about Victorian England in language that they cannot access.  I feel sorry for them and was delighted when said Year 10s announced that Pip is a ‘wasteman’ and a ‘melt’, because at least it showed some engagement.

Most of us love teaching and are good at it, given the right curriculum, support and time.  But teachers are leaving in their droves, feeling like failures, when it’s the system that is failing, not them.

This term has been challenging.  There have been some good moments with lower school:  Year 7 and 8 are fantastic fun to teach and my Year 12 language class are equally lovely.  But the daily reality and the Sunday anxiety has been quite crippling at times and I fully understand why young teachers leave in their droves.  What should be a wonderful career is blighted by the stupidity of education ministers who know nothing about a classroom, and by expectations of achievement that are beyond all possibility, given that socio-economic status and home circumstances are far more influential in a child’s life than anything a school or an individual teacher can do.

This has turned into a rant about teaching, but sadly this term has been very much about coming to terms with a new job, and that has taken precedence over setting up a new home with my new husband.  When we need the steady income and the personal sense of efficacy that a job brings, it becomes a pressing priority, and I can but hope that the work-life balance rights itself as the new year progresses.

And to all struggling, tired, anxious and disheartened teachers out there, have a bloody good break, do whatever you have to do to get some quality time and don’t give up unless you have to.  Things will eventually get better.  They always do.

 

 

 

 

 

The many functions of running

1.  Weight Management

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).

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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.

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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.

Deep Connection

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.

Kirstin and me

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.

 

 

A teacher is, first, a person

Packing up my house contents for the second time in two years means re-visiting the memory box.  It’s more interesting than Ebaying vintage die cast cars.  In my memory box, I found things I’ve kept since the age of 10.  My school projects (that my Mum did), cards and letters, and my signed Clarendon House Grammar School for girls blouse, covered in scribbles containing advice such as ‘watch out for the boys’ from when I was 14 and about to move to Milton Keynes.  I did watch out for the boys.  I bloody loved them.

Some excerpts from my diary age 14-16.  I feel they show my development:

Maths – ah oh!  More algebra – I HATE the stuff!

Pete’s got his eyes bandaged ‘coz of welding with no wotsit.

I’ll write out the Greatest Love of All now OK?  (and did)

PS I’m badly in love.  I’m only 14 but I swear to heaven that this is love.  Sorry, I don’t swear, but I’m positive that I’m IN LOVE.  AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

(in mirror writing) I’m going out with a boy called Jason.  He’s black. 

Last night Mum, Dad and I had a massive WAR over Shaun.

I love Wig more than I did Shaun, and if I love someone, I’m not just gonna give up.  It really isn’t so unreasonable at 16 to want a boyfriend.

In 10 mins I’m going!  Breaking out at long last – I can’t quite believe it but I think it’s gonna happen!  I’ll write back later.  I’ve written Mum a note.  She’s playing with Jonathan – I’ll slip out soon.  Man am I scared!!  Hi.  It’s 11.10pm and I’m back.  Wow I did it!!

Dad blah blah blah mum moan dad wants to meet Wig to tell him off dad don’t respect Wig cos he won’t finish with me no pocket money and they’re selling the piano.  Wow that did hurt.  The piano goes and my main life goes.  I’m not joking I’ll be depressed without that piano I need it it’s part of my life.

Hi.  All I’ve done today is talk to teachers.  First, Mrs Lawrence was persuading me to stay on the 6th form because she said I’m too intelligent HAHA and I’d be bored doing typing.  Thing is I really want to earn money and be independent.  I think in my situation that would be good.  Later on Mr Andrews said the same thing and we had a really long talk about Mum and Dad and Wig etc.  He said he’d come across very religious people in a Christian guest house who based their whole lives on the bible and so he could understand Mum and Dad.  I didn’t slag them down at all and Mr Andrews noticed that.  He said he’d heard me talking to Ceilidh and she’d said ‘Oh you just oughta tell them to ____ _______’ and I said ‘yeah but they mean a lot to me’.  So he said he wouldn’t know what to do. 

Every day I’m gonna say whether or not I stuck to my diet.  I did today.  Had 952 calories.  Exercise – walked in woods for ages and did some exercises to my fave songs for half an hour.  Cor Richard is nice.  I’m getting badly behind with the Bible and prayers and it is showing.  I am HARD and COLD again and at the mo I’ll fall in lust and be besotted and GIVE IN if anyone pays me any attention so I MUST pray hard and read the bible even when I don’t feel like it.  See I’m eyeing Richard up and I’m neglecting bible and those two factors make things very dangerous indeed. 

I’m in a bit of a mood.  Mr Mawer called me to this office in Maths.  Said about my denim jacket and I argued a bit and he arranged for us both to count how many people in leather or denim jackets.  He won the argument but he’s ok he was really nice and I like him now.  Then after that he asked me about the time Nicole offered me crack.  I didn’t know how he knew.  Paul takes drugs too and I say it’s up to him if he wants to. 

So it seems I liked my teachers and talked to them.  I don’t remember any of that.  I was kicked out of school half way through sixth form due to doing no work and spending most of the time skiving.  I hung out at people’s houses or on the field mainly.  I didn’t see the point of school any more and I started drug taking.  I think I was depressed.  I never knew it at the time, or for years later, or that I had a significant eating disorder.  It’s so obvious looking back.  I was troubled and anxious, eager to please and attention-seeking, upbeat and positive, and I wish I could talk to her, the girl in the diaries, whenever I read them.

I realise now that that’s what I do when I teach.

My latest set of cards, on leaving my current teaching job, will probably always move me.  I have so many cards from vulnerable kids.  This letter is a couple of years old and already getting tatty from being in my memory box.  So I’m going to write it out as for me it proves that my life has become meaningful and my early experiences have formed my understànding.

I’ve been seeing a counsellor for my diagnosis of what experts call “Being a miserable fucker” for going on 5 years.  When I finally mentioned it to Mr P, he was nothing but understanding and reassuring.  He told the rest of my teachers, and a few of them even went out of their way to awkwardly ask me if I was okay.  I appreciate their good intentions, but you were the only person who managed to say it and sound like a human being at the same time, and as you regrettably may know from your own experience, that goes an incredibly long way.  You were always a great teacher, but I can’t thank you enough for being able to show empathy to somebody that at the time, desperately needed it.  As it stands now, I’m both improving of my own accord and seeing a clinical psychologist, so fingers crossed for the future not being quite so grim.  If I told you that you made learning fun I’d be a liar, but you were and are still a real inspiration, if not in English or Critical Thinking, then as a person.  For a school that seems so full, it sometimes feels hard to find other human beings – for offering support, mercy and kindness when I needed it, you easily count for ten in my books.  I hope this letter can convey at least a fraction of my appreciation, and I wish you all the best in future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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