All hail the yoga nidra

I hate ‘doing nothing’ too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation Mashup

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.

A visualisation for regular practice

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!

Journey of an overactive thyroid

Plus the sad state of the NHS

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

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.

Why ‘healthy’ is a stupid concept

The truth about what ‘healthy’ means

We are a society that thinks in polar opposites. Man or woman. Black or white. Good or bad. Maybe I am more this way than most. As the product of a fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught about good and evil, us and them, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, and everything seemed so simple. But now I’m officially grown up, at 50, I find it glaringly obvious that the world doesn’t consist of polar opposites. We aren’t either a man or a woman. We might be male or female, although that’s not the case for intersex folks, and many people with bits of chromosomes that muddle the issue, and as for gender – well that’s a whole confuddling mess of cultural norms which many just don’t get. Even happiness isn’t that clear cut. Why do we have to be either happy or unhappy. For me, I can be 80% happy most of the time but there’ll be a small element of irritation or worry about some aspect of my life and that doesn’t make me unhappy – just a bit of a mixture.

So why do people still insist on saying that they are ‘trying to be healthy’ or comment on others being ‘so unhealthy’? People aren’t either healthy or unhealthy. What is meant by the word ‘health’ anyway? It is NOT used by most people to signify an absence of sickness. We all get colds and coughs but can still be considered by those around us to be healthy. Some people have chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis or even Stage 4 cancer but are deemed to be ‘healthy’ and people raise their eyebrows in confusion as to how they became so sick. ‘She/he was always so healthy’ and I find this quite pernicious as though the person somehow failed and nobody knows how. I was asked by a good friend if I would be really pissed off to get cancer. Well, the answer to that is definitely yes! But not for the reason that she asked. She was alluding to the fact that I’m a vegan runner and therefore shouldn’t expect to become seriously ill. But people do! I’d be pissed off because it’s a vile illness, not because I didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves it.

So ‘healthy’ is not used in our society to signify an absence of illness. If this were the case, we would not discuss our plus-size friends and acquaintances in terms of them being so ‘unhealthy’. Are they sick? Probably not. So why are they ‘unhealthy’? Oh, the risk of heart disease? Well, in that case, we are using ‘unhealthy’ to allude to risk. But lots of risk is genetic. My Nan and my Dad had heart disease so therefore I am at risk. But nobody calls me unhealthy. A friend in Leicester had a double masectomy because women in her family were 90% likely to get a hereditary and aggressive form of the disease. Did this risk make us think of her as unhealthy? It did not. There is a massive risk of heart disease from being sedentary. But 39% of British adults are failing to meet the recommended quota of weekly exercise, but we don’t know who they all are and have no way of knowing who they are, and I’m pretty sure that if we see them eating a salad every day and they are thin, we’ll think of them as ‘healthy’.

If health isn’t used to signify the absence of illness, then, for the purpose of this blog post I will assume that it refers to a long, good quality of life. The chances of having such a blessing is determined by so many things that we couldn’t possibly know who was healthy or not without a PhD in long term health and its causes and many many case studies from different social groups and countries. For example, the biggest indicator of good quality of life in old age is socio-economic status. Yes, money. Why? I suppose having enough of it results in less stress and better quality fruit and vegetables, more information and opportunity regarding exercise and social opportunities as well as the gift of time – time that can be used in the pursuit of meaningful hobbies and interests. Another indicator of good quality of life in old age is social contact: laughter, friendship and the knowledge that there are people who have your back, always. People in happy loving marriages have better health outcomes. I can’t reference all this because it’s not an academic essay but it’s easy enough to fact check on google!

What are the indicators of poor health, early death etc? Being poor, being unloved, being part of a stigmatized group such as a gender minority. These are the things that make a difference and our focus should be on making a world of greater equality and acceptance. A world where a bearded person who wants to be called Annabelle is just fine. A world where a hairy person wearing a lace dress is just fine. Just another person in the street or, even better, the room. A world where people can be addressed using the pronouns that they choose, and where they can express their identity and be with the person they love, without fear of violence, ridicule or death. We are so far from this in the world as it is that it beggars belief. People are still being killed for being a minority and that’s not just in some far-flung, desert country that, deep down, we think of as barbaric and backwards. It’s here in the UK.

The real reason for this rant is the way that people seeing me lately, perhaps after a long time, comment on my appearance and, in particular, my weight loss. I started losing weight last year and put it down to marathon training although I had trained before without getting quite so thin. Comments have ranged from how much better I look, to whether I’ve forgotten to eat, to how ‘healthy’ I am. I’m not healthy. I’ve lost weight because my thyroid went berserk and my body is flooded with thyroid hormones which, untreated, are literally toxic. My skin has broken out in spots, I am exhausted from the carbimazole and I still need a betablocker at bedtime to stop my heart from attempting to escape my body. But I look healthy, apparently. Which leads me to the conclusion that ‘healthy’ means ‘thin’.

To be thin, in this culture, signifies obedience. We were trained up, us 50 year olds, to look after our figures, to battle the bulge, to not pinch an inch. We had Slimfast and the cornflake diet, now 80/20 and intermittent fasting. We still have Slimming World and Weightwatchers, and a hundred ways of losing weight that just stubbornly clings to our thighs, tummies and ‘problem areas’. Our bodies are a battleground of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and in order to be ‘good’ we must appear to be ‘healthy’. This means either losing weight, being thin or talking about losing weight. We must denigrate ourselves in order to fit into the ‘well-behaved’ group or women who, heaven forbid, must never eat cake with unrestrained pleasure or let their tummies flop out with happy abandon.

I’m tired of it. Now I’m on the right dose of medicine I am gaining weight again and hallelujah for that because it means health! Real health! I am a naturally curvy woman with thighs that touch and a rounded tummy, sturdy arms and quite a big bum. I want to be healthy again and that includes eating cake with friends, spending time with family, laughing, loving, moving with freedom and joy and trying to make the world a genuinely healthier place for every body of all colours, genders, sexuality, size, shape and socio-economic status.

Allotment Honeymoon

Crazy about a plot of land

‘We’re gona have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and live off the fatta the land’, says George to Lennie in the classic American tragedy ‘Of Mice and Men’, a novel that I taught for fifteen years and know pretty much off my heart, along with all the themes, motifs, figures of speech and structural features. Now I also know the dream of land and why it’s so important as I walk the mile to my new allotment, with my spade at my side and a snack and drink in my rucksack.

This morning I could have written a journal for my counselling course, done some housework, gone to the gym or tidied up a bit before my daughter and her boyfriend arrive for a visit. But the lure of the allotment won out and once again I wondered up to the grassy, brambly, overgrown rectangular plot, 8 X 10.5 metres, that I can now call mine. It’s actually the council’s, but never mind that. My mum had an allotment for twenty odd years and I remember thinking it so tedious when I went to see it. She gave the kids little sections to cultivate in whichever way they chose. Abi had a flower garden, Kirstin had vegetables, Billy had a mix, and they all had sunflowers. They all enjoyed it but I used to drop them off and collect them with complete bewilderment at what the fuss was about.

My morning companion

I’m not sure what’s changed but gardening has grown on me over the years. I like to be physical and strong and enjoy working hard, and renovating the Victorian house that we bought has reinforced the sense of satisfaction when a tough job is completed. Hiring a concrete breaker and removing most of a kitchen floor (my stepson did some, too) was an absolute joy. Making concrete crumble into piles of rubble that could be removed to reveal the original brick floor which was then transformed again into modern polished concrete for a modern family kitchen made me feel productive in an act of creative transformation. I also liked the aching shoulders and the happy tiredness because I knew that part of me was going into the house in the form of my labour and my energy.

I think the allotment taps into this same energetic drive as I’ve spent three sessions now digging over grass and pulling out huge weeds and stinging nettles. I’ve piled up wood, netting and beer bottles left by the last allotmenter and sat in between efforts with my water bottle, admiring the evidence of my efforts. This morning, I munched on some chocolate covered almonds and realised that I’d got stronger as I managed to dig for an hour and fifty minutes instead of getting exhausted after an hour. There’s now a wholesome looking strip of soft, brown, crumbly soil with none of the irritating builders’ rubble found in gardens. It’s inviting, healthy and full of enormous, helpful worms, along with an extremely friendly robin who has visited on each occasion hoping to grab one.

The other allotmenters are friendly so far. My mum recalls when she started and all the others were sexist old men who told her that the last woman ‘didn’t last long’ and ‘didn’t do much’. She went on to win the ‘best kept allotment’ award for two years running so screw them! There are lots of women at the Barnby Road allotments and it’s good to see that times have changed. I do not have my mum’s green fingers but I do understand now what she loved about her plot. It’s peaceful, in the way that there is literally no sound except the fork crunching into the soil, the wind howling through the trees, a loose bit of somebody’s fence tapping away in the distance and your own hard breathing as you work up a sweat that’s more productive than any weight lifting in the gym.

I hope to get the plot cleared myself. Alan with the rotivator could do it for me for a charge of £30 but I’ve got stuck in now and I’d like to put myself into the work as I put myself into the wallpaper stripping, floor digging and wall-painting in the house. I want that allotment to have my energy in the soil and the produce that we grow. I’ve learned about green manure, plastic sheeting and where to get seeds at a discount and I’m good to go. Tim will be the shed man and the designer of an aesthetically pleasing outcome and Mum will be the consulting expert.

Abi at her Grandma’s allotment

Decisions decisions

The frozen state of instant indecision

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Over the past year, these are some of the things that I’ve told my friends: ‘We are going to adopt a dog’, ‘we’ve applied to become foster carers’, ‘we are getting an allotment’, ‘we’re planning to rescue some chickens’, ‘we’re going to Canada to see my brother’, ‘we’re not going to do any more long-haul flights’, ‘I’m going gluten free’ and ‘I’m applying for a job at a nursery’. There are probably dozens more and frankly I’d be amazed if anybody believes anything I say.

When I say the plans, I mean every word of it. But when life changes so completely and at such a fast pace, it’s almost impossible to make sensible and realistic plans. Over the last few years, we’ve gone from owning three different houses (long story) to owning and living in one, to our own vast relief (although there’s enough stuff in this house for three, and that’s another post). I’ve paid off a mortgage. Our youngest sons have both become independent. I left my teaching job after fifteen years and am now a supply special needs teacher for my local council. I can work whatever hours I like, as long as I do a minimum of ten hours a week. This new life is a big experiment as I calculate my new earnings at my new hourly rate, with no holiday or sick pay. I’m also training to be a counsellor, through evening classes at a college in Lincoln. For years I was restricted by school hours, timetables, planning and marking, and now, although still working, there’s more freedom.

First, there was the fostering idea. Through my years as a teacher, I’ve always loved the troubled kids with their pain manifesting itself in a million difficult ways. I’ve had children in my classes who shout, scream, walk out in a temper, try to ingratiate themselves with me whilst ignoring instructions or distracting the class at every opportunity. I’ve had students with challenging behaviour put into my class from elsewhere because I could keep them in the room. The secret to this is, surprisingly, to treat them with kindness and unconditional positive regard (a great counselling term). Helping these children to have a go, to trust that they won’t be in trouble, to see them realise that they will always and only be met with kindness, has always been incredibly rewarding.

When I got increasingly tired and frustrated with teaching in schools, and could finally afford to take a pay cut, I was delighted to accept this special needs work. But I can’t afford not to work at all, so fostering is out of the question. I discovered that the ideal foster carer is around for visits, pickups, school meetings and problems during the day. There’s also the indisputable fact that my husband would be unlikely to react very well to potential police visits, destruction, mess or rudeness. Nothing wrong with that; it’s better to be honest. It’s no secret that I have fewer boundaries than most people, am rarely shocked and have pretty endless patience. These qualities are ideal in the job that I’m in and I get to work with kids who need me. So that’s all sorted for now!

Adopting a dog. See above. Not going to happen. I can’t help but wonder how people DO have dogs! All I’ve read makes it clear that they shouldn’t be left for more than four hours. Does everybody get a dog sitter or a walker? Really? It’s pretty expensive to do so. As a perfectionist, I would want to be the perfect dog mum and leaving it all day wouldn’t work for me! I did go gluten free because I read that it can help with Graves disease, which I am undergoing tests for. However, the bread is the worst thing I have ever eaten and it’s not vegan, so that’s on the back burner for now. I’m sorry for people who have coeliac disease and I hope they make you better bread, soon.

Supply teachers don’t get paid in the holidays, so I have applied to work as bank staff at my local nursery. I’m quite looking forward to working with littluns again to be honest. This one was a decision that I definitely made well. Another one was planning to go to Canada to see my family over there and, other than that, no long-haul flights. In fact, no flights at all.

Having time, space and fewer financial commitments presents so many choices that it’s overwhelming sometimes! But the one thing I’m really glad I decided to do was to get an allotment and rescue some battery hens. The allotment is now ours. It’s a mess. I’ll need to take considerable time clearing and rotivating the overgrown plot. It’s right next to a field and I’ve already met the resident Mr Robin, who hangs about hopefully waiting for worms. There are inspirational plots around me for all the good ideas. I’m excited about the future raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries. Tim is excited about sprouts, cabbage and potatoes. We are both waiting for our first rhubarb moment. Being allotment and chicken parents will be a new high.

Younger me would have scoffed at this sedate life of allotment plans and part-time work. It’s not what I dreamed of as a young woman, although even back then my dreams were mostly to do with raising a family and earning enough to afford the odd holiday. I never longed for a life of glamour. Success is about being happy with a life of our choosing, not making a load of dough and wafting about in overpriced clothes in a house with a gym and a pool. I would like a gym in the house, to be fair.

Making big decisions is difficult and making these sorts of ‘how shall I curate my life now’ decisions is also a challenge. But trying them out for size, speaking them to friends and then carefully sifting through the possibilities is possibly the most fun opportunity I’ve ever had the privilege to engage in. Hurrah for midlife, allotments and rescue battery hens!

Don’t sleepwalk through life

Tim and I went to watch Derren Brown yesterday in Leicester
and, despite the majority of the audience being maskless dickheads, had a great time. Derren wrote the show in celebration of his Dad, who died of Covid in March, and a recurring theme was authenticity. One of the regrets of the dying is, apparently, ‘I wish I’d lived the life that was my choice, and not the life that others chose for me’. The only life I want for myself and my kids is the one we choose for ourselves.

Now, an empty nester, in a quiet house and only two people to cook for and clean up after, life has changed. It’s a wide open space of opportunity. It’s time to ask the question: ‘what do I want?’ The question itself can be scary. I am with a life partner who I love, which is great, and not everybody is in such a happy position, but what do we do to be happy and enjoy life? I suppose the thing to consider is how to avoid sleepwalking through it all.

Sleepwalkers often buy lots of stuff. Our house is full of stuff that accumulated during years and years of life with other partners for both of us.  Boxes of books, weights, paperwork, magazines, photographs, tins of paint, rucksacks, weird spiky rollers that nobody ever uses, plugs, mugs, odd earrings, Feliway, screws, tat, tack and pointless rubbish. I think the first thing to do in the pursuit of happiness is to jettison, jettison and jettison some more. Keep the things that actually bring enjoyment and chuck the rest.
Ebay is my friend. Freecycle is my second best friend. The tip is next, and the shops are only to be approached with care, and a thought out list.

Sleepwalkers keep busy all the time. It’s tempting to fill the spaces and silence of an empty nest with projects, work and social occasions. Nothing
wrong with any of them but one of the things I’ve learned over lockdowns is to sit with myself. It was hard at first, all that quietness. But I came to the
fortunate realisation that I am my own best friend and a very good one at that.  Reading, playing the piano, looking at the sky and stroking the cat whilst
listening to some music are all very worthwhile ways to spend an afternoon.  When I changed jobs I deliberately sought something with more flexibility, so that I can have afternoons off, to see my poor old parents, or rest. I could fill up my time and earn more money but I feel that money is only useful as a means to an end. It’s not necessary to get as much as possible, which links to point 1 – getting fewer things.

Sleepwalkers get really involved in social media. I am addicted to social media just as much as the next person even though I don’t
post all that often as a way of curbing the craving. I can still occasionally lose the last ounce of sense in my brain and spend hours scrolling through and
looking at the lives of people I barely know. It doesn’t lead anywhere good. I either get FOMO or a massive inferiority complex. I keep Facebook off my phone and somehow I’ve weaned off Instagram, only going on now and again and looking at a heavily curated feed, full of people who I find inspirational and who actually teach me something.

So, what to do? How do we live purposefully? I think it’s
important to carry out experimental activities and if they make you feel good,
do them again and make them happen regularly. Since I’ve had all this gift of time, I’ve played netball (can’t at the moment due to counselling course taking
place on the same night), gone for a million walks, discovered beautiful local places, learned the first part of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on the piano, read some great books, written a blog because I enjoy writing, laid in bed for whole mornings, listened to new music, chatted to friends, gone for coffee and cake, or wine and crisps, camped, watched the sun rise over the ocean and watched it set over a mountain. Life is for living. The fact is that it’s never perfect.  Our wittering minds get in the way. But it’s definitely got enough potential
for joy to stay awake for.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Purposeful living

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

The Art of Failure

Making things better is the mission that drives me. In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.

Making things better is the mission that drives me.  In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.  Relationships, nutrition, work life, home environment, fitness and strength, education and understanding of the world.  It’s not just myself that I try to better: other people and animals are a part of my mission.  In my teaching career, I have strived to provide children with a better understanding of literature and the worlds within the texts that we read.  As a mum, I worked relentlessly to give my children a better childhood than mine, and better opportunities as they grew up.  As a friend and acquaintance, I try to support others to achieve better states of mind and happier lives.   As a vegan, I want to improve animal rights and the environment.   

Alongside these worthy thoughts and dreams, I have become aware of a subtext, born directly from my inner ‘truth’ that I must always get better.  I regularly find myself pestered by thoughts and ruminations about all the times in my life that I have got things wrong, and I haven’t known how to handle the sense of failure.   The list is long and goes back to incidents at school where I made up stories for attention.  ‘My cat has had kittens’, I told the class one afternoon, in circle time.  When a friend turned up at the house, with her mum, to buy one, the truth was revealed.  I’d made it up because I wanted the class to look at me with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ that other children received, with their exciting lives.  I can still feel the shame of that doorstep conversation, with my mortified mum denying the existence of any kittens, and my friend’s accusatory voice.  ‘But Ruth told the whole class!’ she persisted, disappointed and shocked. 

I don’t intend to write a list of my failures here.  The kitten story is difficult enough to confess, even now, although it happened when I was five.  There are many more.  I’ve been bitchy, two-faced, untruthful, cruel, weak and immature.  I have a failed marriage, which still bothers me.  He wasn’t the only one who messed up.  I did, too.  Many, many times.  It’s true that we were never compatible, and something was always off from the get-go, but there were times that I behaved badly and it’s difficult to live with that.

Why is it so difficult to know that I haven’t always been ‘good’?  I guess in my case there is a lot of conditioning behind that.  A Christian girl should be (insert a list of self-sacrificing bullshit).  Raised in a small sect of conservative Christianity, wearing a headscarf in church and being taught that men are leaders and women should submit to their leadership, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel, or express, anything challenging.  Taught that self-denial is a virtue, I learned to keep my true self hidden, and I simply behaved ‘well’ and mimicked the words and actions of others, to ensure my own acceptance and safety.  It has always felt like a terrible thing to say, ‘I failed’.  Getting things wrong is not acceptable.  I have tied myself in knots, time after time, trying to convince myself that what I did was understandable, and what I said was actually alright.  Given the circumstances, I couldn’t have done different etc etc.  ‘I failed’ has never been a phrase that I could live with.  It has seemed like a pointing finger – pointing to damnation and self-loathing.  In trying to forgive and accept myself, I have exhausted my frazzled mind attempting to justify and explain away my mistakes and wrongdoings.  When asking myself, ‘Am I a good person?’, I find that the failures make the answer a firm ‘no’.

Until this morning.  As I bumbled about, getting my breakfast and cogitating on the previous few days, analysing everything and anything as usual, something changed in my thinking.  I considered a recent failure, and instead of trying to justify it to myself, I said aloud, ‘I failed’.  The world did not change.  I said it again, with a growing smile: ‘I failed’.  It was strangely freeing and acceptable as I found myself accepting that failure is human.  We can be glorious and we can be diabolical.  I have been glorious and I have been diabolical.  We all fail.  Instead of justifying and explaining, I accepted, this morning, that I sometimes fail, and that’s not great but neither is it a disaster.  It is a fact.  If I wish to forgive myself, I must first acknowledge that I was wrong.  It wasn’t OK.  It was crap.  But that doesn’t make me any worse than the next person.  I’m no better and I’m no worse.  The average person gets many things wrong.  Even the most saintly type has a bad day.  So today I see my failures.  They make me human.  ‘I failed’.  And what?  It would be impossible to stop trying to get things right, to take the better path and to be the kindest version of myself possible every day.  But when I fail, I fail – and from now on, those are the times that I will put my arms around my fragile, failing self and remind myself that forgiveness and compassion are the most important qualities of human kindness, even and especially when it comes to ourselves.

Older and newer: embracing the grey

When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection. So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.

I have started this blog to document some of my thoughts and experiences relating to perimenopause, which is, for me, more than a bunch of hormones conspiring to age me beyond all recognition and turn me grey.  Far more than that.  And a million times better, too.  I feel as though I’ve been gearing up for this for years, starting at the age of 33 when I developed feelings for a man other than my husband.  That was the beginning of a process of reassessing my life, and it started with an infatuation.  I thought it was love, but it was really a glimpse into a multi-faceted world of opportunities: different people, places, conversations and friendships.  It turned out to be nothing; we were both married and he wanted an affair, nothing more.  I stopped seeing him and spent months agonising over what had become of my marriage.  When I told my husband that I thought it was over, we decided to go to counselling (Relate) and managed to negotiate some changes that suited us both and gave it another go for ten years.  But the unrest of that fling stayed with me.  It was the beginning of the end – or the end of the beginning.  And that’s what I think this midlife business is all about.  Whether we stay in a relationship for life or not, our relationships do change.  We change.  I started to want more for myself.

I was brought up brethren.  Plymouth brethren.  Strict parents, nothing worldly, long hair, a head covering in meetings and a skirt and never trousers.  No discos, no version of the Bible other than the good old King James with its ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘sayeths’.  The meeting was a solemn affair and women were under what was termed ‘the headship of men’.   I married under that and we didn’t really stray far from the tree until I went to university to study English Literature at the age of 32.  Suddenly I had options.  I was getting good grades and realised I had a brain and over the next years I graduated, took my PGCE and became a teacher.  I left the brethren, got fit, ran two marathons, raised my three kids, kept an eye on my ageing parents and got grey hair.  I coloured it religiously, obsessively, red, purple, blondey, streaked, dark, covering the roots increasingly often, sometimes every three weeks.  I couldn’t afford hairdressing fees and did it myself using L’Oreal products and then, scared of carcinogenic chemicals, Holland and Barrett brands.  The greys grew in abundance.

My marriage ended, finally, in a fizzled out mess of empty abandonment.  He moved to London with his job and I got to spend all week raising my two youngest whilst holding down a job and dealing with the middle daughter’s bulimia.  They were the most heartrending two years of my life and certainly the most difficult and painful of hers.  Whilst he was away pursuing his dream job, I wrote letters, chased the NHS, called my MP, shouted a lot about the CAMHS waiting list and funding problem and finally she got treatment.  During her time waiting for treatment, she went from mild anorexia to full blown bulimia, characterised not only by binge-purging but also regular panic attacks, self harm and, on one occasion, after a relationship breakup, an impulsive suicide attempt.  He told me I was exaggerating her illness and he continued to return home later and later on Friday nights, we returned to Relate, nothing changed and I ended it.

For the next year, I battled depression and anxiety, took a course of antidepressants, learned to look after myself, started dating again, had loads of fun, and developed more grey hairs.  When I met my current partner, who I’m shortly going to marry, I dared to hope that this would be a modern, interdependent relationship, where we lived with mutual respect and love and affection.  So far, that has been the case, but when I tentatively told him the truth, on a cycle ride, that my hair is actually grey, I honestly expected him to be rather upset.  His response, ‘Is that it?’ surprised me.  I still hung on to this idea that men do not fancy grey haired women.

Now, I’m a feminist.  Honestly.  A strong-minded, educated, mid-40s woman who believes in absolute equality, despises shallow frivolity and obsessions about perfection and considers our brains to be our biggest asset.  But I still want to be considered sexy and that, although I hate to admit it, equates with youthful.  I think we all do.  Men, too.  But lots of women I know struggle with the whole grey hair thing.  Although, I was talking about this with a colleague the other day and he said he reckons loads of men dye their hair secretly.  Loads.  Anyway, I toyed the the idea of going grey for some months and finally went to the hairdresser, asked them to chop out as much colour as they could, take it as short as they could without shaving my head, and went natural in one fell swoop  I bought a L’Oreal purple shampoo, which tones the remainder of the previous brassy overtones, and now I have silver streaks that are all mine.  People think it looks lovely.  I’ve had so many compliments.  My fiance loves it.  My kids think it’s cool.  My students have commented positively.  And I feel like my hair now matches the rest of me.  Older and newer.

My youngest is about to go to university, my house is on the market, I’m saying goodbye to the first half of my life: the day to day life of a working mother and the packets of hair dye.  I’m about to move away, buy a place with my fiance and say hello to the second half which is still brand new, with doors to be opened and memories to be made.

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