Redemption

In these monochrome days I breathe my way to a still lakeside

where all living creatures retreat into sandy banks and underground spaces.

Out there, my spirit has sung with sounds of orca,

the curling fingers and wise navy eyes of my three newborns,

a halo of shining hair as my three year old ran towards me and

pinpricks of warm energy rooted me to the freshly cut grass.

I have communed with others so completely that I could not

tell you where I ended and they began. As a speck among

craggy mountaintops and volcanic wastelands, and even here,

in the silence, so far within that each atom is a universe,

I hear the rhythmic harmony of the stars.

Daughter

Flung together into the ocean,

some found safety,

some disappeared from sight

and some stayed alongside her

as she clung, disrobed and

white-knuckled, to debris.

The future shrank to terror, of

salt-eyed thrashing through

mountainous waves and needle-sharp rain.

Darkness tore her to unearthly spheres,

ravening lions, bulls of Bashan,

starless, infinite stretching of night.

Hands beneath, above, around, she

gasped at raw morning air and

saw the faint, tangerine-tinged horizon.

Neurotypical privilege

(and don’t eye roll at me)

The fact that many people would eye roll at this title is because of neurotypical privilege. Just the same as a running friend eye rolls at the term ‘white privilege’ because he has it. We were out running when he stated that he’s going to scream the next time anybody mentions white privilege, because he grew up poor and got stopped by the old bill as much as any black person, on account of his youth, gender and style of dress and speech. But when I pointed out that it would have been worse for a black boy from the same council estate, he refused to acknowledge this.

I know that I have white privilege. I know this because I’ve never worried about people assuming that I don’t speak English, I’ve never been asked where my family oiginate from and I jog around Newark on my own without any worries about racist abuse. The odd bit of sexist abuse, yes, but never based on my skin colour. I educated myself about racism in the UK after BLM, which is sad, because I’d not done so before, but at least I’ve done it now, although there’s always more to do. But recently I have worked with several autistic young people and have come to a realisation that neurotypicality is also a privilege.

Our world revolves around neurotypicals. Our ways of handling conflict, dealing with business, forming relationships, making friends, attending social occasions and sitting exams at school is all based on neurotypicality. Over the past few months I have tutored four young people, all autistic, in their homes, and got to know their families. I have seen how they suffer. Here is the gist of some scenarios that occur in our mainstream schools.

A neurodivergent child feels deeply uncomfortable with eye contact, physical touch and excessive noise. In a loud room with multiple conversations and sounds, the noises blur together into a confusing stream of input. This is common with autistic children, and the teachers have all been informed of this and it is on the child’s EHCP (education, and health care plan). Teachers are paid to read these documents and to adapt teaching strategies for each and every child in the classroom. Of course it’s impossible to deliver 30 different lessons, but neither is that necessary. It’s about delivering the content whilst adapting to individual children and their needs.

‘Look at me!’ demands the teacher. The child looks at the teacher’s right shoulder, which is the closest he can manage without feeling unbearably stressed. ‘You aren’t listening properly!’ says the teacher. ‘Look at me when I’m talking’. The child puts his head on the table, overwhelmed, and is then banished from the classroom.

On another occasion this child is eating his lunchtime meal when another child leans across and spits in it. The child shoves away the food and stops eating. The other child pushes him and shouts, ‘Miss, ***** isn’t eating his lunch’. The child is scolded and reminded to eat up. By this time he can’t even explain that his dinner has spit in it, and he is covering his ears and starting to groan. The child is cajoled further into eating and crawls under the table where he sits, rocking and groaning. Other adults come and drag him from under the table and carry him off to a room to calm down. By this time he is screaming and a video is sent to the child’s mother to show how badly behaved he is.

The child ends up having no school because school is too distressing and the staff state that they can no longer meet his needs. Special school? Possibly – if he can travel fifty miles a day when there is one adult in this family with one car and three other children who go to two different schools. Oh – and he hates travel. The child ends up out of school on a waiting list for home tuition through an agency or the local authority, with no friends, no extra-curricular enrichment, no Duke of Edinburgh, or sport, or music lessons, or cultural capital, nothing but the four walls and a walk outdoors if the parent is not too depressed to face another day of not being able to work, or support the family, or function in a world that seems to hate her and her autistic child.

Special school places are few and far between. Autistic children don’t enjoy sitting in mini buses with loud music and chatter. By the time they get there after a half hour journey, they are already on high alert and triggered. Mainstream schools don’t cater to them very well and label them as naughty, challenging or weird.

Even the so-called ‘high functioning’ children struggle. Many neurodivergent young people simply don’t understand the way that neurotypical people function in the world. If you think about it, we are the odd ones. We skirt around issues, we avoid saying what we mean, we lie all the time, and we make up nonsensical rules about gender, like a false binary, which is frankly weird. Of course I am aware that many neurotypical people reject the gender binary, but it remains that more neurodivergent people experience gender dysphoria.

A neurodivergent young person I recently worked with talked about this openly when I opened the conversation by asking what their pronouns were and was told ‘they and them. I’m non-binary and thanks for asking’. This young person is studying gender and is more confused by the false binary than by the allegedly complex queer theory that, to them, is actually obvious. The queer theory stance is that sex is biological and nothing more. The fact of the matter is that even biological sex is not as simple as binary opposites. There isn’t even a binary opposition in the biology of our bodies! There are six really common biological sexes. XX is female. XY is male. There is also single X, XXY, XYY and XXXY. It’s easy enough to research further, but the point is that nothing is EVER as simple as we neurotypicals like to make it out to be.

As for gender, queer theory posits that it is a performance rather than anything to do with our bodies. Gender is how we live, how we present ourselves and how we feel on the inside. The word ‘gender’ became used instead of ‘sex’ because of the naughtiness of the word ‘sex’, but it originally refers to the idea of ‘type’ or ‘class’ and is much broader semantically than biological makeup. We neurotypicals love to classify things and ‘gender’ offers a classification for people so that we can conveniently box them up, label them and I suppose control our understanding of the world so that it’s neat and tidy.

The problem for neurodivergent people is that many don’t like neat and simple rules that actually don’t make sense. They can see that every person with a female body is a completely unique person with likes, dislikes, sexual preferences, style of dress and personal range of interests. They can see that every person with any body in fact is equally unique. It has been said by the autistic comedian Hannah Gadsby that neurotypicals are motivated by what is important and that includes gender. Autistic people, however, are motivated by what is interesting, and that really does not include gender. But neurotypical folks often get their knickers in a massive twist over the fact that a person with a male body is wearing a dress. HEAVEN FORBID. They then want to know is this a boy or a girl? What the hell is a non binary? What is this nonsense? What is the label? I can’t say ‘they’ and ‘them’; it is not grammatically correct.

Here, I would love to reference the fact that grammar was a concept invented after the linguistically anarchic times of Middle English and Shakespeare by people who wanted to impose order on the world. We call them prescriptivists. They were mostly rich, white, neurotypical men.

OK. So neurotypical privilege means that we understand the world as we see it. We know how to conform to the norms. We are mostly cisgender and do not question the gender that we were assigned at birth. We broadly fit the category that we were assigned and the way that the world has been prescribed for us and we adapt ourselves around the bits that don’t quite fit, because we can.

We also use face work in language, which many neurodivergent people find difficult. Face work refers to the multitude of politeness strategies which we adopt to make each other feel comfortable and to maintain our ‘face’ or our sense of dignity and respect. For example, when somebody says, ‘it’s cold in here’ we will offer to close a window or turn up the heating. We understand that they were not simply informing us of their discomfort. When we are asked, ‘what do you think of this dress?’ instead of replying, ‘it’s hideous’, we say ‘it’s a beautiful colour isn’t it?’ and other indirect avoidances, hedges and skirting of issues. We don’t talk politics, death or religion unless we know each other well because these topics impinge on others’ sense of personal face when there is inevitable disagreement.

The autistic young person I recently spoke with did not understand face work. A friend had been crying and complaining because she had done badly in exams, and they helpfully pointed out that she needed to do more work. Their friend was more distraught by this and accused them of being insensitive. They were totally confused, feeling that their helpful advice had been ignored. The concept of simply listening, offering a cup of tea and making sympathetic noises was insane to them. When I pointed out that the friend probably just wanted them to listen, they put their face in their hands and said, ‘It’s all so exhausting!’

The neurotypical world is exhausting to autistic people. Our language is complicated and nonsensical. I can understand why but I also understand, implicitly, why we use it. We perform a delicate dance every day of mitigating rudeness, avoiding bluntness, making others feel positive, using praise and politeness, and adopting idiomatic small talk mechanisms for the sake of oiling our social trajectory. The neurodivergent person has to learn this, because it is not implicit. At the end of a social gathering where every interaction has to be considered from a point of view that is not their own, they are knackered. Their heads hurt. From us.

I wish that autistic people could have an easier experience of life on this planet and I wish that we could all adapt so that our interactions flow more easily for everybody concerned. I am sorry that I am writing about neurodivergence when I am neurotypical and I have probably got a lot wrong. But I am trying to hammer out what I understand and how unfair it is. Just because we are the majority, we should give space, empathy and respect to everybody. And use the right bloody pronouns!

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.

Religious Trauma Syndrome

A very secular problem

Most of us have a mental health problem of some sort or another and most likely won’t fit any particular label. It’s more likely that we all exist on a spectrum between perfect, unabated joy and unbearable mental anguish, oscillating between two points on that spectrum much as we lose and gain a certain amount of weight over the course of the average year. Our mental state, when poor, is often an amalgamation of conditions: depression, anxiety, OCD, disordered eating, PTSD, bipolar, BPD or countless mixtures of each. What are the labels for anyway? Mostly diagnostics to ascertain how to treat the condition as cheaply as possible on the NHS. Or perhaps that’s overly cynical and the diagnostics are genuinely helpful and informative. They can certainly be useful in helping others and ourselves to understand and show compassion.

In amongst my particular mental makeup and the challenges that present themselves as I face the world every day is the result of my religious upbringing and it was brought to my attention during my counselling training when I ticked every NHS question for diagnosis of PTSD except for the triggering event (because religion isn’t officially a triggering event). There is now some growing evidence that religious trauma is a real issue for many and symptomatically it’s the same as PTSD: nightmares, severe anxiety, replaying of terrifying scenarios, flashbacks, feeling of imminent doom and certain situations that are triggering. I generally don’t have these symptoms badly but I have, and do, experience them all. Most of the time I jog along OK. But sometimes a comment about Hell or a preacher in town shouting about the last days can put me into a state of fear for days such that I can’t sleep or think about much else.

Anybody raised in a fundamentalist church will know how it goes. The second coming, the antichrist, the tortures, beheadings, burning fiery flames and everlasting torment. Of course there were wonderful parts of it, too. There was divine love, a God of mercy and forgiveness and an eternity in Heaven for the saved. The resurrection was a particularly pleasant story that sent happy shivers down my spine. But I focused on the negative as a child. I’d wake up in the night and feel the flames of hell because I knew, deep down, that I did not believe. When it all hinged on my belief I felt fragile and disconnected. I’d get a floating feeling of flying away from the edge of the world, into space, where I’d whirl around into outer darkness and nobody would be able to reach me. I know now that this is dissociation. It happened a lot in the middle of the night.

For years I tried to resolve these fears by seeking to acknowledge and understand a more liberal Christianity. I realize that the brethren presented the bible in a narrow and simplistic way that is not representative of Christianity on the whole. I’ve been to churches that do not preach hellfire the way that they did. Many Christians don’t believe in it at all or any kind of afterlife. Many say that the Bible doesn’t even teach it. It’s hard to unlearn and rewire the brain, however, and I wonder if even going to theological school would completely undo the interpretation of scripture that I was taught.

Now I am beginning to see that everything in the bible is human. The God of the Bible can be merciful, forgiving and expansively, endlessly loving. The God of the Bible can also be jealous, exacting, cruel and breathtakingly unfair. I could cite countless examples of both. I mean – sending bears to eat some young people who laughed at a prophet is pretty horrific. Striking down a couple with immediate death because they told a lie is fairly despotic I’d say. As for whether the biblical God actually condemns millions of souls to eternal torment because they failed to trust in the sacrificial and atoning blood of Christ, specifically, is questionable, but if the brethren got that right, it’s unspeakably horrific!

All of these attributes, both good and evil, are human. The Bible was written by people. I really feel that this is the point. If we are to gather anything from the Bible, or any other holy book for that matter, we have to understand that it was written by people, which sounds obvious, but in a fundamentalist faith the holy book is a magical, divinely inspired revelation for all mankind for all eternity. It is imbued with an unquestioned stamp of authority and then the fundamentalist must find a way to make it a cohesive whole. This requires mental gymnastics of the sort that made my mind boggle even as a 5 year old. ‘Did God create evil?’ ‘Does God love Satan?’ ‘Why did the grannies have to drown in the flood?’ I was seeing contradictions as wide as a barn door before even tackling the great questions of predestination, free will, pre-millennialism and the question of what happens to those who couldn’t accept Jesus (babies, people with learning difficulties and those who never heard of him).

No. The Bible is human in all the glory and diversity of human thinking and emotion. There is love, beauty, transcendence, radical forgiveness and stunning wisdom. There is eroticism, intelligence, logic and redemptive hope. There’s also vengeance, hatred, jealousy and rage. There’s hunger for power and longing for control. This is humanity. We’ll never be in a perfect world. Never have been. We’ve got war in Europe again after all we should have learned from the last ones. There will always be people like Putin who become megalomaniacs and somehow others have to limit the damage caused by them. We humans fuck things up. That’s why the Bible doesn’t make sense and is so far from being cohesive. Because people don’t.

I once wanted to rip the Bible up and throw it out of the window, or burn it to shreds, or stamp on it. It incensed me so much with its capacity to strike fear into my soul that I wanted to destroy it utterly. But I never did that. Somehow that Bible had woven itself into the fabric of my being and I loved it despite the damage that it caused. Some might call this a toxic relationship. It was certainly dysfunctional. But I could no more stamp it out of existence that I could harm or disappear my family or any other human (except potentially Putin). We are all glorious in our imperfections and that includes the Bible, which has all of the characteristics of any other expression of humanity. It’s the perfect representation of what it is to be human in this world. Light and dark, yin and yang, good and evil: call it what you will, it’s all of us and in all of us and thus it stays on my bookshelf while I continue to work on my mental health!

The good enough parent

Perfectionism and modern day parenting

As a special needs teacher, I work with families every day, going into their homes and helping young people with learning difficulties or social and emotional health problems to make progress academically. This role often involves listening to stressed out parents. As a teacher in school, I also spent time making calls home or holding meetings for chats with parents. As a friend to others with children, I see people trying to raise children in a world that is more complex already than the one in which I raised mine. It’s a minefield of social media, online bullying, distance learning, and increasingly pressuring expectations for them to go to university and get a degree.

When my parents raised my siblings and me, I do not think for one second that they often stopped to wonder if they were doing it right. In conversations now, mum might reflect whether she made mistakes, but this is 30 years later! At the time, they seemed pretty certain that what they were doing was correct. I don’t remember receiving apologies from either of them, or hearing them ruminating over a perceived failure!

And yet nowadays, I hear so many comments like: ‘I just feel as though I’m letting them down all the time’. ‘I don’t feel as though I’m good enough as a mum’. ‘I feel so guilty’. ‘I have terrible mum guilt’. ‘I worry all the time that they will become unwell’. ‘I worry that I’m going to mess them up’. ‘What if they never forgive me for mistakes that I make?’ ‘I feel awful because I didn’t (insert some type of caretaking gesture that might have been pleasant but definitely wasn’t necessary)’.

I remember feeling guilty when I had to leave Will with a childminder whom he did not like. He used to complain bitterly about going once a week for two hours at a time. A wise friend told me to stop feeling guilty because I wasn’t neglecting him, the childminder was a lovely kind person, and Will was miserable only because he wanted mummy and actually being with somebody else for a couple of hours was not doing him any harm at all. He has subsequently grown up without any longstanding resentment about this trauma!

In other respects, I did let my kids down. I had poor mental health, for a start, for years, and didn’t know it. I knew that there was something wrong with me, because I’d fly into a rage about minor things after being as patient as the proverbial saint for weeks on end, and I was an awful mum at times, saying and doing things in an explosive temper that I then grovelled about afterwards. I thought it was just a case of learning to control myself and become a better person. I felt shame about it. And yet, now, my children love me and accept me despite these failures. We have an open dialogue about it, and they can see and respect that I have grown loads as a person and have worked on my mental health.

And yet, I hear younger parents than me striving continually to be perfect. They worry about losing their patience, missing a symptom of illness for a couple of days or failing to check everything in the child’s school bag one morning. They feel shame and guilt over really minor things. They feel responsible for everything that the child experiences every day. They want to wrap the child in cotton wool and ensure that their lives are always happy and always positive.

This collective obsession with perfectionism is driving people insane! Our younger generation have worse mental health than ever. The wrapping them up in cotton wool isn’t achieving anything. When parents are anxious and worried, the kids then become anxious and worried about the parents’ anxiety and worry. It becomes a vicious cycle of doom, with kids not opening up to parents for fear of triggering an anxiety and guilt response.

I have had to learn the hard way that my anxiety and perfectionism isn’t my kids’ problem. When they have suffered with health problems both physical and mental, I have had to learn to deal separately with my emotional reaction. The worst things a parent can say are: ‘I am so worried about you’, and ‘I can’t stand it when you are suffering’. By saying those things, we make their suffering about us. One of my children took the time to tell me so and I am forever grateful for that honesty. I am grateful because, faced with my own anxiety, guilt and shame, and unable to share it with her, I sought therapy and grew as a result of that.

If I were able to talk to my younger self as a parent, I would tell her that she doesn’t have to be perfect. She just has to show up every day and do her best. Many her kids experience is out of her control. They will go to school and get treated unfairly by a teacher, bullied by some hideous friend, excluded from a party, put in detention for forgetting their pencil, dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend and suffer with physical of mental illnesses that we cannot protect them from or prevent. From a parent, they need consistency and self-care. We have to take care of ourselves so that they can see how it’s done. They need us to be mentally robust and to have strategies for peace and calm internally and externally. They also need us to be able to get it wrong and to then take accountability for that and, when needed, to apologise and to learn from it.

There is a term coined by a child psychologist, Bowlby I believe, that the ‘good enough’ parent really is good enough. Perfectionism and unrealistic expectation has no place in family life. We muddle through and mess it up, and then get up and try again. And again. The most important thing to do is to love: both the kids and ourselves! I am close to my adult kids now, despite being a hopeless twat a lot of the time, because I loved them, I tried my best with what I had at the time, and if that’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me!

My crazy overactive thyroid, mark 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locus of Evaluation: who makes your decisions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The enjoyable rationalism of a good atheist.

I am slightly jealous of people who can live without any religious belief at all.  I still carry about the shadows of introjected beliefs from my fundamentalist childhood and, irritatingly, they tend to be the darkest ones.  I find it much easier to believe in eternal Hell, for example, than in a loving and benevolent God.  It’s a childlike fear of demons in the night that makes it unwise to watch a horror film if I’m alone in the house.  Satan is easier to picture than God.  I imagine that’s because it was really scary and traumatic to be afraid of these things as a child.  I really think that it’s helpful to question internalised beliefs and subject them to rational examination and evidence.  So I found it really refreshing, interesting and genuinely hilarious when I found myself asking my pragmatically minded atheist husband for his views.  Here they are.  I hope they prove helpful to someone out there who struggles, like I have, to shed beliefs that no longer serve them. 

Me: How do you know that there isn’t a God?  How do you know that?

Tim:  He’s just a mythical being like werewolves, vampires, ghosts and other things like that. 

Me:  You must know that Christians don’t believe that God is the same as werewolves, vampires and ghosts.

Tim:  I know they don’t believe it’s the same but still – they’re all mythical things and God is too, you know.  They don’t see God.  They tell themselves that they feel his presence or… did I say him?  I don’t know whether he’s a he or a she or a they but for some reason they seem to refer to him as him which is probably because men ruled the church for millennia and they think God is shaped in their image.  But it’s really just a mythical thing.  It’s all made up.  All made up for the convenience of answering these questions for people who don’t know anything else.

Me:  So how do you know that God didn’t create the world?

Tim:  Because we know all about the bloody Big Bang and the explosion in the universe and that there are many universes and we are just a tiny bit of it and over millennia the planet has cooled down and life forms have evolved and then we have evolution and we have evolved as part of that.  We probably won’t be here forever, the rate we’re going anyway.  We’ll probably wipe ourselves out like the dinosaurs went – although they didn’t wipe themselves out – or like the film we watched last night; there’ll be a 10 kilometre meteor hit the world and that’ll be it, bye bye.  But then something will spring out afterwards.

Me:  You must know that some people contest The Big Bang theory

Tim:  Well I know they do but there’s a lot of science and scientific evidence to support it.  Whereas there isn’t any scientific evidence to support God.  It’s all stories.  Dinosaurs aren’t stories.  We found dinosaur skeletons.

Me:  How do you know God didn’t create the dinosaurs, the same as he created people?

Tim:  Well, if he did, then they need to re-write all their books and things, don’t they?  And their stories.  The Bible and so forth. 

Me:  How do you know that there isn’t an afterlife?

Tim:  Why would there be?  We get buried or we get incinerated.

Me:  So that’s our bodies.  How do you know we don’t have a soul?

Tim:  I think we do have a soul while we’re alive but then it expires – disappears – gone.  I mean who would want to be going on in an afterlife?  It would be dreadful.  It would be like eternity.  Sounds like a real punishment sitting around in clouds and things forever.

Me: What do you think the soul is if you say we’ve got one while we’re alive? 

Tim:  I suppose it’s character really.  Some people are described as not having a soul or having a good soul or ‘he’s a good soul, she’s a good soul’ or ‘that person is soulless’ because it’s the way they behave; it’s their character.

Me:  So you think it’s a figure of speech?  It’s not a natural part of the person?

Tim:  It’s not a physical part of the person, no.  It’s part of what makes us who we are individually.

Me:  How do you know that we don’t get reincarnated into another animal?

Tim:  Because it’s just a fucking silly idea.  It’s like kids’ stories.  I mean, if we get reincarnated into other animals, why not into buildings or a lettuce leaf or something?

me:  Because buildings and lettuce leaves don’t have souls.

Tim:  Well, how do you know animals have souls?

Me: Because they’ve got personalities.  Mia has a different personality to Heidi.  Oscar had a different personality to Tilda. 

Tim:  There’s a lot of people who say buildings have got a soul.  Some buildings, not all buildings.

Me:  I’ve never heard anybody say a building has a soul.

Tim:  You have.  You’ve heard of people walking in somewhere and saying ‘it was so soulless in there’ or the opposite when they walk into a building and they feel it has a soul because it’s magical and wonderful and whatever; it has a presence, an aura.

Me:  How do you know the religious people aren’t the ones that got it all right?

Tim:  Well obviously they haven’t.  Completely mad.  They make it up as they go along and they all contradict each other and they’ve all got different versions of the same thing. Which religious people have got it right?   There are loads of different religions as well.  Before things like Christianity and Islam and so on you had all the bloody Greeks and Romans and all their myriad gods and things and the Aztecs – they had a whole load as well, and the Mayans had a whole load and the Vikings and the Druids.  They’ve all got different gods and different things they worship.  Primitive people worshipped the land and the sun and the sky and the sea and the trees. 

Me:  So why do you think modern people still believe in God?

Tim:  Probably partly as they’ve been brought up that way and it’s been passed down generation after generation but fewer and fewer people do believe in God.  Congregations are shrinking.  There are many that do, especially in churches like the Church of England; it’s a very kind of casual relationship with God – more for convenience and conforming and being part of society and  sometimes the good side of it is that it gives a sense of belonging and getting along to the various activities and things that are associated with churches: whether it’s a mother and toddler group or a choir group or a reading society or whatever.  So I don’t believe churches are bad; in fact, churches are wonderful places to go into – the atmosphere in there and the peacefulness.

Me:  But you know evangelical churches are growing so why do you think that is?

Tim:  Because the world’s going mad.  Because of people like Donald Trump.  People are becoming more extreme and becoming more divided so they look for a more extreme answer to things.  I mean, the evangelical churches in America are just multi million dollar businesses.  The pastors or whatever they’re called that run them are just ripping off their congregations.  It’s obscene.  I mean, if you want to believe the stories of Jesus and things like when he goes into the temple and the money lenders and all that – imagine if he came on earth today and saw all this in his name!

Me:  So do you think Jesus existed and all the stories are true?

Tim:  I think Jesus existed yes.  I don’t see any reason to disbelieve that he existed.

Me:  Do you think he did miracles?

Tim: I doubt he did miracles.  He probably did some good deeds. I suspect the feeding of the 5000 was more likely feeding for 50 or 500 and there was probably a bit more there than was suggested but the story wouldn’t have been as good, so it’s been made yeah like one crust and a fishtail shared amongst 5 million. 

Me:  You know the Bible says that Jesus brought people back from the dead?

Tim:  Well, I don’t believe that. I should think what happened if anything would be that they were not very well when he came to see them and he cheered them up and they said ‘ooh; thank you very much! I’m alive now!’ and then he went onto his next next duty or whatever he was doing and everybody left.

Me:  He was a carpenter

Tim:  He didn’t do much of that though, did he?  He was on tour like a rockstar.  He was busy going around preaching to people. I don’t see when he’d have got time to make anything.  And you know after he’s brought people back to life or whatever supposedly and goes onto the next thing they probably find that person just would have croaked it and it was just a momentary respite because they were so pleased to see him.  He was a nice bloke.

Me:  So how do you think this whole religion built up around him?

Tim:  Because people liked what he was saying.  There were probably a lot of people disillusioned with the Jewish faith and the temples.  I’m not very good on all these Bible stories but I believe that he thought it was all a bit corrupt and they had lost their way.  Certainly I believe the story about the money lenders in the temple.  Can you imagine today if he just popped along to check up on things and found people being charged money to go into cathedrals and things and evangelists raking it in off the congregation?  Obscene. 

Me: What do you think Mohammed is then?

Tim:  He was a very very good boxer.  Very entertaining… Mohammed was a prophet like Jesus.

Me: what do you think a prophet is?

Tim:  Someone who comes and prophesises and declares how they think things will be or should be. 

Me:  Do you think they were deluded when they talked about God then?

Tim:  Probably but then that’s how they were brought up.  I mean Jesus was brought up as a Jew, wasn’t he?  So that’s what he knew and what he believed. 

Me:  Do you have any respect for people’s faith?

Tim:  Yes. that’s what they want to believe that’s what they want to believe – as long as they’re not harming anybody.  Unfortunately, historically they have harmed people – seriously harmed people – butchered and massacred people in the name of Jesus and God.  Those people – no I don’t have any respect for their faith.  Used as a tool to destroy people who they disagree with or who disagree with them. 

Me:  How do you know people don’t go to hell?

Tim:  Because I don’t believe in hell.  I think they get incinerated or buried just like everybody else.  Heaven and hell are used just like so many other things in religion to threaten people to get them to toe the line.  They had to make hell sound like a dastardly place so that people would fear it and then that was the threat: ‘If you don’t do this this and this you’ll go to hell.  Fall in line’.  And they do. 

So there we have it.  I think the man has some fine theology and that it’s worthy of a share.  If you are an aspiring atheist, like me, feel free to take notes!

 

 

Was my sports watch worth it?

My overall experience of owning a sports watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

IT’S A HELP IF:

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

IT’S A HINDRANCE IF:

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

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

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

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