Intolerance

What makes us name call, roll our eyes, call somebody disgusting?

What makes us recoil at a person who doesn’t conform to societal norms?

The plus-sized women dancing in bikinis, men swirling in skirts,

I say ‘us’ because it isn’t ‘them’. Intolerance is within us all, but why?

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

I wonder if it’s to do with our own insecurities.

A person at ease with their innermost self, the same inside

as outside, the living embodiment of their own values and beliefs,

a person who looks in the mirror and thinks ‘this is who I am meant to be’,

a person who lives not for the approval of others but for

the approval of their own pure, untainted self, would

not be disgusted by another living soul because of such trivialities.

I wonder if it’s to do with jealousy. To see another unfettered,

wearing what they like, choosing their gender, living

their own best life, may cause us to feel resentful, perhaps.

I mostly live my way, pushing aside the voices from the past

that manifest as guilt and shame, and heading towards the light

that comes from inside. When I do, I see the light

inside everybody. I call it God and I cannot judge.

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 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!

 

 

The New Year Pledge

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

Was my sports watch worth it?

My overall experience of owning a sports watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

IT’S A HELP IF:

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

IT’S A HINDRANCE IF:

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

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

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

To the eating disordered at Christmas

10 anti-shame mantras

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

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

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When your loved ones think you are going to Hell.

This. Is. Tricky.

I have a close bond with my mum. Despite my breaking away from the way she raised me, tightly bound by fundamentalist doctrines and lifestyle, we have a deep and abiding love for one another.

I care for her as she has cared for me. This is a human love, born from the nurture that she gave me: the bedtime stories, the cuddles, the walks in the woods and the warming heart-to-heart cuppas around the table in my teens.

She was a good mum – the sort who you feel goodness emanating from like sunlight. Her love was tangible and it got me through the abandonment in my first marriage, the stress and anxiety of a child’s mental illness and even my own mental illness in the form of an eating disorder. Knowing that she had my back was enough, at times, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She didn’t approve of my divorce, but she approved of me, and that was enough.

Mum has supported me through re-marriage, which she disagrees with. She is always on the other end of the phone to chat things through with. We are close.

As for me, I strive to be there for her as she cares for my dad, who has dementia. Her role is a tough one as every day he loses a little more of himself. She needs equipment to get him through each day and carry out his little routines of washing, toileting, eating and getting back into bed for the whole, boring, unremarkable process to start again. Anyone who knows or is a carer will know how it is.

In my turn, I am committed to being there for her as she is now in a weaker position and I love her with all my heart. She is an amazing carer with a determination to keep her man with her until she can no longer manage. He is the luckiest man alive when it comes to a wife, and I have her back as much as I can whilst still having to work to earn a crust.

Yesterday I had a shock as Mum received a card from a friend and couldn’t read the writing. ‘I’ll read it out’, I offered, only to read that the friend is praying for mum’s family members’ salvation. I read out the words as though they were the most natural thing in the world, trying to blank out what I was reading, knowing that it was deeply upsetting but putting my responses to one side. When I finished reading it, there was no comment. Mum looked a little embarrassed. We went about the rest of the day as usual.

It has bugged me ever since. How can we really be close to people who believe, deep down, that we are going to an eternal hell of perpetual flames and suffer forever?

From their perspective, the bible says this is true. ‘Should not perish’ suggests that unbelievers will ‘perish’ (‘perish’ isn’t really the same as burning forever but there we are). Jesus talked about Hell though. It’s clear that the evangelicals have put bits together and concluded that Hell is real and that anyone who is not a Christian is going there. For my Mum, this isn’t something that she relishes. I expect it causes her a great deal of anguish, hence the prayers. But, I wonder, if they REALLY believed that their children were going to bodily be tortured in a furnace forever, would they go about their days in a normal manner? Is there cognitive dissonance going on here?

I am trying to see it from her perspective. I know she wouldn’t want it to be true but is resigned to the ‘fact’ that it is. Perhaps I should have compassion for somebody with such an abhorrent and miserable belief.

But here is a thing. How can they be so happy and joyful about going to Heaven forever to be with the Lord, when most of the world around them are going to Hell forever to suffer torments? This is something that I would love to ask but probably never will.

It isn’t Mum’s fault that I read the card. She never talks to me about her beliefs in this respect. She didn’t know that I was going to read it. These are the sorts of rationalisations and defences that can sometimes calm me and enable me to move past things. But they’re not really working. The issue has got me riled up.

The card was a stark reminder that, despite it all, my own mother believes that I am doomed unless I become a different person. I will never be able to believe that Jesus is the only way. I have too much respect for Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, agnostics and good people everywhere. I will never be able to believe that God, if She is real, has only space for one branch of faith. Is a faith in eternal torment for unbelievers even a faith? People need salvation from what? Their own God?

I have a love in my heart that is pure and good. I don’t need a label for it. It is just who I am and it’s good enough.

The card made me sad. It completely disrupted the feeling of harmony with my mother that I have enjoyed for years. I need time to recover from that. It was upsetting.

A lot of life is about muddling through and trying to be authentic and real despite the challenges of loved ones who differ. I cannot be other than who I am and, I suppose, neither can my mum. Therein lies the problem.

I expect that I, and anybody else in my situation, must find a way to box these matters, shelve them up, never open them, and focus on the commonality that they share with their loved ones. I have three brothers and we all cope with the cruelty of fundamentalism in different ways. My youngest brother knows the bible better than I do as he was raised to be a preacher, and he teaches A Level Religious Studies with academic rigour and theological understanding. He finds immense satisfaction in intellectual rejection of fundamentalism.Some anger, some forgiveness, a lot of goodwill and kindness; one has religious faith, the rest of us do not. For me, I suspect that we need to somehow find a way to focus on what we share: the memories, the laughter, the weird, bendy thumbs that we all have and the mutual support that we offer.

Finally, the family that we choose – our friends. I share this here because I know that there are so many who understand and are in this situation. I know how many people forge a path through their escape from nasty fundamentalist beliefs and how deep the hurt goes when confronted with those beliefs in the present day. We can find fellowship with each other and with friends who share our values. Friends are the family that we choose. For me, after this brush with something so painful that I don’t think I can raise it or discuss it with my mum, I need a break. I need my friends, my space, my husband and my own company to recalibrate and rejuvenate.

Sergeant Shame’s Christmas Letter

12th December, 2021

Dear Sergeant Shame,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My self, your self, our selves.

The fragmented beauty of the inner world.

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

Photo by Merlin Lightpainting on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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