21 May 2016

One Achievement at a Time...

I have done it! I have completed my business administration apprenticeship! Granted it has taken longer than expected, but with an incredibly supportive team of colleagues, I have managed to come out of this hellish period of my life with an achievement that I can be proud of.

Leaving university, I was at a complete loss as to what to do with myself. I felt like a failure, I had no motivation and unbeknown to me, my health was taking a frightening turn for the worse. Oblivious of my current mental and physical state, I began researching my next move. I decided that I wanted to learn about business administration, as I thought that it would provide me with a range of skills that would be applicable to any future job role. Specifying my search with this interest in mind, I came across an apprenticeship opportunity that really grasped my attention. The job was situated at a school specialising in helping children with special educational needs, behavioural difficulties and medical needs. I felt that gaining some experience in such a challenging environment would not only be interesting, but it may open my eyes to a potential career path. I filled out my application form, attended an interview, and within the space of a few weeks I was starting my apprenticeship.

Now, this is the point when I knew I was going to struggle writing this piece, as I can already feel myself tearing up. I cannot help but acknowledge a question that is continually circulating around my head, which has been present since the moment I began trying to find help for my illness- How am I ever going to be able to show my appreciation and gratitude to my work colleagues for being the most patient, supportive and compassionate people that I could have ever asked for?

No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to explain just how much my work colleagues mean to me. They have had to experience this entire journey with me, and as guilty as I feel about that, I know that I could not have done any of this without them. They were there for me when I would return from every assessment, in floods of tears. They were there for me after every rejection, discussing with me what avenue for help I could look at next. They were there for me when I was in hospital, driving all the way to Grimsby just to come and talk to me. I never would have expected this from anybody, let alone the people that I work with. It is their patience, understanding and caring attitude that put my mind at ease whilst I was enduring my hospital and outpatient treatment, in the knowledge that I would be allowed to return to complete my qualification. They never put any pressure on me, which was exactly what I needed, as not one of us, including myself, knew how long this process was going to take. When I say that these people have been exceptional in aiding my recovery, even I know that this is an understatement. They are special, and I hope they know that.

As mentioned in a previous item about returning to work, I was extremely nervous about reentering the environment that I can only ever remember declining in terms of my health. However, once again, it was the support from those around me that helped me stay on track. I hear of so many people experiencing discrimination for their illness whilst in the work place, and I find that extremely upsetting. I am with my colleagues 8 hours a day, 4 days a week- if I did not have their continual encouragement, I cannot imagine the rate at which my health would have declined.

Apprenticeships have a huge stigma attached to them in terms of academic level, and this was an additional issue that I felt impacted on my health. I had decided not to pursue the expected degree route, and turning to work based learning made me feel like a failure, purely because of what everybody else thought about this method of education. However, this decision was the best decision I have ever made. I dread to think what state I would have been in if I had have tried to stick that first year of university out. As much as I doubted the choice at the time, I know that I made the right move for that point in my life. I consider myself to be very fortunate for being accepted for the apprenticeship at the school. It has allowed me to learn so much about work, life and myself, which is absolutely invaluable.

If you are a sufferer reading this, I want to encourage you never to let your illness get in the way of your goals, motivations and achievements. If you are an employer reading this, I want to encourage you to always be supportive of the people that work for you; your support can be vital in their recovery. Finally, if you are one of my work colleagues reading this, thank you. I can never express how grateful I am to have you all in my life, and for your ongoing support throughout all of this. It is down to you that I have managed to take the steps to overcome this illness, and consequently succeeded in gaining this qualification.

I was not going to mention any names, but I would like to say a special thank you to Shen, Vicky and Diane. You have been my rocks throughout my entire journey, and the reason that I keep smiling. You manage to turn every bad day into a good one, and if I had the choice, I would take you all to university with me. Thank you.

15 May 2016

One Baking Session at a Time...

A new day, and I am ready for another challenge! Even saying that frustrates me. When has anybody ever referred to baking as a challenge? Yes, maybe when perfecting an identical array of petit four to meet the standards of The Ritz; but never for a bit of home baking. However, this is an enjoyable activity that, once again, I became convinced that I hated.

Memories of baking with my Gran and cousin, arguing over who can lick the bowl, were overshadowed by negative thoughts. Questioning how I was so stupid as to let myself desire cake mixture. Doubting what on earth would have possessed me to ingest baked goods composed of fat, sugar, and undoubtedly, calories. Asking myself why I would want to even partake in an activity that may have presented some temptation. Not once did my unhealthy mind consider the laughter, joy and opportunity for bonding that family baking sessions brought to my wonderful childhood. Analysing the way in which my eating disorder has made me question my intentions in the past made me realise just how demanding this illness is. It is not just satisfied with making you question everything that you are doing right now, it also delves into your past and tries to control a time in which it was not even affecting your life! My childhood was special, and I will not let my mental illness skewer that.

In order to rekindle my love for baking, I needed to establish what prevents me from wanting to engage in the activity- the ingredients. In the past, and even up until recently, I trawled the Internet in pursuit of recipes that I can use to create a certain type of snack without the normal ingredients. Endless searches for ‘fat-free’, ‘sugar-free’ and ‘flourless’, my quest could take hours of precious time; but I was determined that such recipes existed. Using substitutes such as yoghurt, sweetener and black beans, I felt somewhat more at ease with whatever it was that I was baking. I convinced myself that cookies made with yoghurt were so much more delicious than the real thing. I persuaded myself that biscotti turned out ten times better when made with sweetener. I was confident in the fact that brownies were improved when made with black beans. Yes they tasted nice, but they didn’t taste like the real thing. They may have left my mind more at ease, but I still felt guilty when I ate them, so why didn’t I just endure the guilt whilst eating something that was actually so much more palatable? I tried to remind myself of this whilst choosing a recipe for my most recent baking venture.

I established that I wanted to make something that was going to challenge me, but not push me over the edge, especially considering my recent set back. With the weather warming up I wanted to make something that was refreshing, but that I could also make plenty of for snacks and desserts. So lemon drizzle flapjack it was! Typing the product into the search engine for a recipe, I clicked on the first link, and it dawned on me just how difficult this was going to be. There on the ingredients list was butter, sugar and lemon curd- along with the porridge oats and lemon zest of course. My instantaneous reaction was to immediately close the link and adjust my search to ‘healthy lemon drizzle flapjack’. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but it was force of habit. It must have been some kind of sign because the search results did not alter at all. I was left with one recipe, and one recipe only. I could have completely differentiated to another product, but I had committed, and was not going to give in to the pressures circulating my mind. I was going to tackle this project, and I was going to tackle it properly, so I headed to the supermarket to buy the necessary ingredients.

Hurdle one- butter. Who knew the variety of butter that is available! Salted, unsalted, spreadable, light, with olive oil, organic- the list goes on. As if in a trance, I stood and stared at the display cabinet. How on earth was I going to do this? I referred back to my shopping list and refreshed my memory on the need for unsalted butter.
Hurdle two- the temptation to go for the ‘better option’. By this point I had told myself that I was not going to leave the shop without butter, whether it took my two minutes or two hours. My eyes kept drifting to the ‘lighter’ options, which regardless of their additional ‘salted’ labelling, I was going to take it. Placing it in my trolley, I glanced back at the full fat unsalted block and shook my head. I grabbed the ‘lighter’ product and placed it back on the shelf, replacing the space in my trolley with the full fat unsalted package, swiftly marching away from the area.
Hurdle three- doubt. As soon as I made it to the end of the aisle, I halted. Like a crazed woman I made an instant U-turn back to the butter display cabinet, removed the product from my trolley and placed it back on the shelf. I allowed the mental battle to play itself out in my head, grabbed it again, put it back in my trolley and walked off.
Eventually I managed to purchase the full fat unsalted package of butter, but as you have just read, the process was long, challenging and exhausting. But I did it!

The actual baking activity itself was also demanding, but I found it pleasurable. I don’t know if it was the wonderfully refreshing scent of the lemon, or the pride in knowing that I was defying everything my illness wanted me to experience, but I was enjoying myself. Chatting to my Gran as I coated the oats with the melted concoction of butter sugar and lemon curd, I was reminded of those precious childhood memories and felt comforted. Placing the tray in the oven I was content in the knowledge that I had followed the recipe to a T. Not a substitute in sight or a gram missed. I felt like it was mission accomplished, but I knew that the hard part was going to be consuming a piece.

So far I had disobeyed the needs of my Anorexia by firstly acknowledging that I wanted to bake, secondly choosing the lemon drizzle flapjack recipe, thirdly shopping for the ingredients, and then actually baking the product itself. I had taken responsibility for my desires and actions, and up to this point, handled a manageable level of distress. But I was not quite sure how I was going to react mentally to eating the product, or if I would even get as far as getting it on a plate in front of me.

It was snack time. The flapjack had cooled and was drizzled with its citrusy icing. I made Gran and I a cup of tea, accompanied with a slice of the freshly baked produce. My initial reaction was to break it up, but I managed to overcome the need to cave into this behaviour, as I knew exactly why I wanted to do it. I took a bite, and it was absolutely delicious. I am smiling even now as I write this because it was at that point when I finally realised that now it was mission accomplished. I was well aware of what had gone into this product, and yet I still found the strength to not only eat it, but also acknowledge that I enjoyed it. I think it is important to add here that making and consuming the flapjack did not prompt me to engage in any other behaviours, particularly restriction. In fact, I even made a completely new recipe for my evening meal, which challenged even more of these stubborn rules in my head!

Now, today has been one of those exceptionally good days, and who knows what tomorrows mindset will bring. But I wanted to document this experience to prove to myself that these good days do happen, and when the do, they make the fight incredibly worthwhile. I may not have pushed the boundaries in terms of my culinary skill, but in terms of my self-belief, the bar appears to have been raised up a notch.

12 May 2016

One Honest Reflection at a Time...

I am struggling. I am openly admitting to myself that I am struggling. The torturous, tantalising tentacles of my Anorexia have managed to gradually coil around my ankles; pulling me under the body of water that just a few weeks ago, I was buoyantly surfacing.

Visiting my dietician this afternoon, I knew that I needed to be honest with her, but more importantly, honest with myself about my current relationship with food and my body. For a few weeks now, I have felt the rocks crumbling under my feet as I continue to hike up the tentative slope of recovery. A few opportunities for restrictions here, a few moments of obsessive body checking there- the behaviours have crept back in, and I am ashamed to say that I let them. I have become complacent with my stage in recovery, thinking that I can take that step off the weight gain track. Truth is, I cannot. I still need to gain a substantial amount of weight to not only resolve my physical health, but crucially, my mental health. Once again, I have allowed myself to be convinced by my illness that I no longer need to confront my fears about food, my body and my emotions.  

You may all be curious as to why I am writing this post, as I have been demonstrating a clear determination to fully recover and embracing my current situation. However, I have come to realise that I have been directing all of my efforts into my blog, my campaign and other ventures to distract myself from the issues that were resurfacing. I didn’t want to admit it for fear that I was clambering up that illusive slope with no stable surface to catch me. It petrifies me how real that fear could become, and I did not know how to deal with the prospect of it. I toyed with the idea of bottling it up again, but we all know how damaging that is; so instead, I found courage from my flourishing healthy mind, and acted upon the difficulties I was experiencing. For that, I am proud of myself.

The discussion with my wonderful dietician was incredibly motivating, but she also managed to help me visualise my challenges in a way that has made them appear tangible and achievable.

‘Imagine your mind is a forest. You are situated in the centre, surrounded by a mass of trees and shrubbery. In front of you is a path- a direct path leading you to the belief that a certain ‘fear food’ is bad. Every time you avoid that ‘fear food’ you are choosing to walk down that exact same path; some would say, sticking to what you know. However, when you challenge that ‘fear food’, you take a little detour from that path, and start trampling down a new one, reaching a new belief. It takes a lot of effort, hard work and it can be scary, but you have done it the once, and now you know that you can. Yet if you decide to avoid that food again, walking the original path, you let that new one overgrow. So what happens the next time you are faced with that food? You have to experience all of the anxiety, fear and distress all over, as you attempt to trample, once again, down a new path in the forest. But if you had just continued to challenge that food, then the new path will slowly become the only one, and the original path towards to damaging beliefs will be the one that will become overgrown.’

Now I am sorry if this makes no sense as you read it, but it has allowed me to put a realistic scenario to my problems. For myself, this is an effective form of treatment, as I like to be able to visualise myself tackling my illness in a situation that is so convincing.

I left my appointment feeling an unsurprising range of emotions. Disappointment in my weakness, pride in my decision to speak out and defy my illness, yet fear of knowing what I have to do to cut myself loose of those grasping chains. The difference this time round is, I know that I can do it. I have excelled in recovery before, and I will excel in recovery again. Support, self- motivation and a reevaluation of my situation now and where I want to be will see me through. Whether it takes me 10 months or 10 years, I will not give in.

I refuse to let this illness encapsulate me- unquestionably refuse.

5 May 2016

One General Overlook at a Time...

I am sure that I am not the only one when I say I have trouble accepting my body. I think it is something that we all struggle with, but most people do not let it rule their life. I wish I was one of the few that don’t care what they look like as long as they are happy and healthy, but at the moment I am not.

If I am honest, I never wanted to believe that some aspect of my Anorexia stems from my unhappiness regarding my body; I thought it was mainly an outcome of my obsessive label checking and a complex range of external triggers. Truth is, there have been plenty of times in my life where I have felt so uncomfortable about the way I look, that I have felt the need to change. My earliest memories are from attending a dance school and being involved in the annual shows. I remember sitting on the floor as we were categorised into small, medium or large for our dance costumes. At the time it didn’t have an impact on my eating habits, but I did start to question my size and compared myself to others. Whilst I was doing the dance shows I had no negative thoughts about my body image, and was just so proud of my talent! However, as I watched the DVD’s back, I started to pick out elements of my body that were different to others, and I recall feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed. This did not prompt a change in my eating at that moment, but unbeknown to me, these were all negative building blocks that would accumulate into something more damaging.

As I started secondary school, there were again more events that caused me to have more of an awareness of my body shape. This included the comparison of clothing sizes as my age group progressed onto the womenswear section. Again, I started to become confused about the inconsistent link between my clothing size and my age, in relation to others in my peer group. I know that these comparisons are prominent in all age groups, and are just a part of growing up, but it is only now that I become frustrated with the fact that I questioned it so much. In the early stages of treatment, I used to wonder, if I hadn’t have made these assessments during this time of my life, would I have been through what I have? But, rightly or wrongly, I strongly believe that I was going to develop Anorexia at some point in my life, it was just going to take something, or multiple things to trigger it. I think the only difference that could have been made is early intervention. That may well have been initiated by myself if I had have known that what I was going through wasn’t normal through learning about mental health at school. In connection with the main subject of this post, I also strongly promote the need for body image work in schools.

As part of my treatment plan, I embarked on several sessions of body image work. These varied from assessing what my main issues currently are, exploring issues in the past around my appearance, and confronting a full length mirror. It was this final session of looking in the mirror that had the biggest impact on me.

I was asked to stand in front of the mirror and describe what I saw. It was only when I had scanned my entire body and picked out the multitude of features I wasn’t happy with, that I realised I had not once looked above my neck. I was so focused on my body that I hadn’t even noticed that my hair has a few natural highlights or that my eyes appear to have freckles in them. I didn’t need prompting to realise this, it just dawned on me after I had scrutinised every other feature of my lower body. For a moment I fell silent and questioned why I do this. What does it bring to my life? I know it brings me unhappiness. My Anorexia strives for me to restrict my eating, or over exercise in order to manipulate my body shape, probably in an attempt to achieve ‘perfection’. But perfection doesn’t exist! I have pushed my body to extreme limits, through no intention of my own, and at no point throughout that process did I witness ‘perfection’, or felt like I was even close to it. But what I want to know is, what does my mind think that perfection looks like? In Jess’ healthy mind, perfection doesn’t include my organs shutting down, the inability to walk and a fragile skeletal frame; but that was the only route that my Anorexia was directing me down.

I need to continue to shift my mindset and realise that body shape isn’t the be all and end all in life. People are still going to love me regardless of my shape and size. It doesn’t effect who I am as a person. At no point whilst I have been in the depths of Anorexia have I ever been happy, and that was because I could never make 'it' happy. I don’t know what my illness was trying to make me achieve, whether that was in terms of my body shape, social life or self worth, but I never got to a point where it released me from its grip. I need to learn now to continue to challenge 'its' ideals, and accept my body for what it is. I need to learn to take a general overlook of my body, and not isolate areas that I consider to be flawed. I need to learn that the only perfection that exists is that of health and contentment with who I am.