27 June 2016

One Meal Out at a Time...

The most common social event, yet unfortunately, the most common trigger of overwhelming anxiety. Vast menus containing dishes with unknown ingredients, and being served in unknown portion sizes; the whole process is full of daunting notions.

In my progressive decline, the thought of going for a meal out would cause an extreme increase in damaging behaviours, both before and during the event. I would try desperately hard to avoid this situation, but if I were obliged to attend, I would only go to one of three restaurants; where I would pick one specific meal. These eateries were chosen after completing an extensive amount of research into an exact dish; the preparation of the food, the nutritional information and the portion size. Once I had selected a meal at one of these establishments, I would repeatedly choose it, to the point where I did not even open the menu upon arrival.

As previously described, my eating disorder inspired the creation of meticulously calculated lists of foods that I could and could not eat. As more ‘food rules’ developed, so did the extreme lengths that I would go to when planning meals. These lists developed into exact meal plans. For example, if I knew what we were having for dinner, I would already have a list of what foods I could eat throughout the day; making sure that all rules were adhered to. You can now see why a meal out would cause such distress, as I had no rules, lists or plans that would accompany a spontaneously chosen meal.

Throughout my time in treatment, I stressed how much I wanted these behaviours to change, as I knew that eating out was going to be a huge element of me rebuilding my social life. I suppose this started almost immediately, as I was faced with a meal plan devised by the hospital that had no place on any of the lists that I had archived mentally. Every Monday, I was required to face a menu and choose 8 elements that I would have to eat throughout the day, for the next 7 days. I cannot begin to describe the overwhelming emotions that I experienced for the first few weeks during this process; anxiety, confusion, distress, guilt, regrets; the list goes on. This is one aspect of my hospital admission that took a long time for me to challenge. During the first few weeks, I started to develop these harmful lists; picking the same foods repeatedly in relation to what I felt were the ‘right’ foods. With time, I began to acknowledge that the majority of the options I was choosing, I did not like at all. This encouraged me to start utilising the support I had in the unit and select foods that I wanted to challenge, in order to dispel the fear I had around them. Consequently, this would allow me to build up the courage to try new foods once I had been discharged; particularly when attending a meal out.

As with all aspects of recovery, I am aware that even after taking these steps at hospital, and continuing to pursue them at home with support from family and friends; eradicating the researching behaviours and feeling comfortable in new settings, is going to take a long time. Every week I try to enjoy a meal out, or even just a snack out; varying the individuals that I partake in this activity with. Doing this without the comfort of having my parents there has been a difficult phase that I have had to endure, as I became very attached to them at my weakest point. However, I am proud to say that I now have the ability to ENJOY a meal out; and this is through learning to acknowledge, discuss and deal with the distressing feelings before, during and afterwards. I do need constant reassurance, and I am not ashamed to say that this mainly comes from a supportive text from my mum. I normally detail my anxieties around my meal choice and the other elements that I know I have to eat throughout the rest of the day, and she always knows what to say to calm me down. In the future, I know that I will be able reassure myself, and this will be another aspect of attachment that I can progressively let go of.

I look forward to a point in my recovery where I can be excited about visiting new eateries, without prior research, without anxieties and without being influenced by the nutritional information that is now being displayed everywhere!

19 June 2016

One Successful Event at a Time...

I have always been a very keen fundraiser. As a child I always wanted to get involved in helping charities or people in need. With my friends I helped to arrange coffee mornings in the village hall, collections of necessities to be sent to those in extreme poverty and bric-a-brac sales in my driveway. I have always been passionate about giving to charities, and this is a personal attribute that has only been enhanced due to my own experiences.

Pen and paper in hand, I began to scribble down ways that money could be raised for two fantastic charities- Mind and SEED Eating Disorder Support Service, as a stallholder at the annual show in my village. The main focus that I had in mind was for the setting to feel approachable. Not only in terms of the fundraising opportunity, but also for people to feel that they could comfortably engage in the activities, and ask questions about the reasoning behind my appearance there.

As anticipated, the raffle and Play Your Cards Right set up was very well received. Thanks to multiple fantastic donations for prizes, I was overwhelmed at the outstanding collection on display- there was no wonder it was so popular! The amount of businesses and local people that generously donated was beyond my expectations, making a massive contribution to the profile of the stall.
Play Your Cards Right was very kindly hosted by two fantastic friends of mine- Leah and Sarah, who selflessly dedicated their day to the cause. Their incredible personalities attracted an audience of all ages and made the game a great addition to the atmosphere of the stall!

I also wanted an activity that could have a hidden meaning incorporated. Guessing Jars are a little activity that anybody can get involved in and I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to give a visual representation of a statistic about mental illness in the UK. I did some research and came across a fact that, once revealed, would really make people question there ideas about mental illness. Finding two contrasting coloured sweets- Black Jacks and Fruit Salads- I began filling a jar with carefully counted amounts in response to the statistic that 1 in 4 people are suffering with a mental health condition. The Black Jacks represented the individual experiencing mental difficulties and the Fruit Salads signified those that are healthy. I wanted people to see just how many people this type of illness affects, giving them the opportunity to realise that if they are going through it, they are not alone. In hindsight, I maybe should have promoted this fact at the time, as well as following the event on social media. However, I felt that it would be more effective for people to contemplate the fact after a fun day with their family, as apposed to confronting quite a shocking statistic whilst the activities were in full swing.

On the other hand, I made no secret of the fact that I was attending the show as a result of my own personal difficulties. I embellished the tables with leaflets and business cards, kindly given to me by Mind and SEED to help with my efforts in raising awareness of their services. I also made some business cards of my own to promote my blog, as I felt that this was a resource that people could look to if they wanted to learn about eating disorders from a personal perspective. I was thrilled at the response that this harnessed, with people openly asking why I was raising money for the two specific charities. I explained about difficulties and guided them to my blog to learn more about it, which I can only hope will have the desired positive impact.

Although my initial motivations for hosting a stall at the local show was to raise money and to raise awareness of mental illness, I did not anticipate the amount of happiness I would feel from doing such an event. Speaking to local people, catching up with old friends and seeing people that I haven’t seen for many years; the social experience was fantastic. Team that with the positive comments that I received about my determination to make a difference in this sector of health and charity work, I came home feeling elated and empowered. Hearing other people’s experiences of the mental health services, and comparing them to that of my own, it fuelled my aspirations to make change happen.

After quite a demanding week in terms of appointments and heightened emotions, this event was just what I needed to make me realise why I wake up in a morning and continue to fight through my struggles. I am not going to make out that I am going to wake up tomorrow morning and everything will be fine, but for as long as I continue to struggle, I will remind myself of the joy I have experienced from doing such positive events. I think the important thing for me to focus on, especially after days like today, is that I need to fight this for me, fight it properly and fight it for good. Not fight it for everybody else.

I must better my health and myself, before I can better the lives of others. But there will be no stopping my determination to support the fantastic charities of Mind and SEED Eating Disorder Support Service- so that they can continue to help those in desperate need.

9 June 2016

One Fundraiser at a Time...

On the 18th June, it is our village's annual event- Eastrington Show. This year I have decided to set up a stall, which will have a raffle, a guessing jar and the opportunity to have a go at Play Your Cards Right! Obviously I hope that the stall will provide fun and enjoyment for everybody, but, as I am sure you will appreciate, the reasoning behind why I want to do the stall is of a more serious nature. Mind and SEED Eating Disorder Support Services are two charities that are very close to my heart, and all money raised by my efforts on the day will be solely donated to them.

Now for the begging spiel...

Evidently, a raffle is not a raffle without some prizes! I would be incredibly grateful for any donations that can be given to help support my fundraising goals. If anybody is willing to contribute a prize, no matter how big or small, please use the details on the 'Contact Me' page of my blog to get in touch.

Again, I cannot express how appreciative I would be for any donations, as it will make a huge difference to the amount raised for these two very worthy charities. 

There are many activities taking place at the show, and if you do come along, please come and see us!

I also want to say that if anybody does have any questions about my experiences, feel free to approach me. I am also hoping to have leaflets and information about support services for eating disorders, and would welcome you to utilise these resources.

Just a reminder that if you cannot make it to the event, but would still like to support the charities mentioned, you can always donate to my Virgin Money Giving page:

I have been overwhelmed by the money raised so far and cannot begin to tell you how much this will go towards improving the services that these charities provide, so thank you for your generosity! I will continue to fundraise for these voluntary organisations, as I cannot stress the importance of them for those in need.

6 June 2016

One Week of Joy at a Time...

“Just be prepared Jess, this week may set you back. It is going to be a real challenge you know.” For days, weeks and even months before my departure to Majorca, this mental pep talk echoed the warnings I had listened to during my various appointments with medical professionals. I was trying so desperately hard to look forward to my first holiday away with my closest friend, yet with every positive thought followed a negative realisation. Was there any wonder that as I made my way to the airport, consuming my usual evening bowl of three chocolate Weetabix, it somehow felt like my last supper. I am not going to lie, it was at this point when it did sink in just how much I was going to be challenging in just seven days- staying at an all inclusive resort, eating food that I have no control over the preparation, the ingredients or options available. There was the added difficulty of adjusting to set meal times that didn’t correspond with my usual routine, most likely veering off my meal plan and also listening to what my body was telling me in terms of hunger recognition. On top of all of that was the comprehension that I would be exposing my body in a bikini, shorts and sleeveless tops. Most people would welcome these deviations to their usual lifestyle, as isn’t that what a holiday is all about- a change from normality? Four years ago I would have shared that same enthusiasm, but a lot has happened since then.

Arriving at the airport, I was greeted by everything that I could have needed to make me realise that actually, everything was going to be ok. My beautiful friend- Abbey- opened the door to our preflight hotel room, and as I hugged her for the first time in a month, I suddenly felt at ease with the adventure we were about to embark on. As we set our alarm in preparation for our 6:30am flight and got tucked up in bed, I tried to focus on the aspects of the holiday that were going to bring me joy- the warmth of the sun, the sound of the sea and the break from the reality of my situation. As I relaxed into a deep sleep, it wasn’t long before the ringing of the alarm stirred my slumber. It was 4:30am, and as we filtered through the check in and security operations, I realised that I was about to encounter challenge number one.

Breakfast. Now usually, I would eat this at around 7am, but obviously today was different. It was around 5:30am and I could sense that my body was pining for fuel- a feeling that I wasn’t used to at this time. As we made our way to the departure gate I knew that I had to inform Abbey about my need for food. We walked into Boots and selected a yoghurt and chocolate granola pot, which I paired with a tub of fresh fruit. I had never come across this yoghurt pot before, and with limited choices available to me, I refrained from the force that was pulling me in to peruse the label- for fear that it would make me put it back on the shelf. As quickly as we purchased the items we were directed to our plane, and adjusting to the motion of the activity, I put the food in my bag, ready to consume it during the course of the flight.

As mentioned in all of my writing, I am completely honest about my thoughts and feelings as I recount my experiences- and this is no exception. While Abbey drifted off into a snooze once the plane took off, I sifted through the bag to find my magazine. Still feeling notable hungry, I spotted the yoghurts and fruit, yet I couldn’t help but feel a sense of greed about the fact that I was going to eat, but Abbey wasn’t. In fact, it actually crossed my mind that I should force myself to go to sleep, hoping that the sense of appetite would simply drift away. As these thoughts circulated my mind, I looked down at my hand, witnessing the speed of my hunger-induced shaking increasing. I had flashbacks of the relentless blood sugar level checking pricks that I experienced daily in hospital, and quickly scooped the food items out the bag, placing them on the table in front of me. Before I knew it, the plane was making its descent and we were reminded of one-hour-ahead time change. This again threw me into a slight feeling of discomfort, as I recognised that I had just eaten my breakfast, and if I were to adhere to my usual routine then I would be eating a snack in the next hour. I understood from this that I now needed to break out of the set routine I usually live my life complying to, and I needed to adapt.

As we stepped off the plane the heat impressed onto my skin, immediately relaxing my previously tense disposition. We swiftly collected our luggage and seated ourselves on the transfer coach. Looking out of the window, I don’t think that it had quite sunk in where I was. Arriving at our hotel, we checked in, headed to the room and was greeted with the most incredible sea view from our balcony. Abbey and I froze, both staring at the picturesque vista. This was the first moment in a long time where I felt that my mind was completely clear. No negativity, no questioning, no debating- just warmth, disbelief and satisfaction. I had made it to Majorca, and I was going to enjoy every moment that the week had to offer.

Challenge number two made an appearance in the form of my first visit to the buffet style restaurant- the setting for all three meals, every day, during my seven-day holiday.  My anxiety levels where running high, as I worried that if this visit didn’t quite go to plan then the rest of my holiday would be somewhat disastrous. I hate to assume that I fitted the stereotypical eating disorder sufferer criteria, but yes, I was thankful when I saw a beautiful array of fresh salad gracing the first countertop. Teamed with baskets of fresh bread, and a selection of cold protein sources, I felt like even if I couldn’t face any of the hot food, then I could survive eating a balanced diet based on the offerings of the first buffet counter. With Abbey by my side, we progressed onto the next stage of the buffet selection. The heat from the lamps released a multitude of aromas from the food displayed underneath. The assortment of unlabeled produce made me feel slightly uneasy, particularly as the majority was smothered in ‘unknown’ sauces. As we paced the length of the counter I can remember feeling lost, unsure and frustrated. There were elements of the hot food that I was very tempted to try, but with each contemplation followed an exhausting battle of question and doubt.

With every mealtime, I approached the task in exactly the same way. Well, I call it a task, but as the week progressed, so did my confidence in my ability to choose a balanced plate of food- pushing myself on the days I felt more comfortable. I always did a full walk of the buffet, particularly the hot food, and made a note of the things I wanted to try. Carbohydrate sources are a struggle for me, so I established this aspect of the plate first. This pushed me to try paella, white pasta and fried potatoes- food that I would have ordinarily avoided, but in this scenario I was pushed out of my comfort zone on a lot of occasions. I then selected the protein source. To my initial horror, most of the meat and fish were cooked in oil, as a sort of display cooking presentation. Seeing the griddle laced with fat immediately heightened my anxiety, and I could sense myself becoming fidgety and tense. Most of the time, my reaction was to flee the situation and desperately seek out another protein source that looked like a safer option. However, I realised that this was not a viable alternative, and to be honest, if there was ever a time that I needed to confront my irrational fear of oil, it might as well have been now. Most days I had at least one plate of food containing a grilled item, whether that was fish or chicken, and even though I knew I wouldn’t prepare it like that at home, I cannot disagree that it was enjoyable. As my confidence grew I decided to challenge other items such as onion rings, fried rice and ratatouille.

I decided that I was going to have three large meals, and only have snacks if I genuinely felt hungry. This meant that I had a two-course breakfast and three courses for both lunch and dinner. Of course this was difficult, but it tackled my beliefs around greed, and after the long breaks between meals, I was actually very ready for such a large meal. Puddings were a bit of a challenge as none of them were labeled with any descriptions whatsoever. Consequently, I found myself having ice cream twice a day everyday, but I was surprisingly ok with this. I would add a wafer or a few of the toppings to mix things up a bit, but there is no denying that my love for chocolate was going to fund my desire for ice cream after every meal.

With every meal came challenge number three- body image. Whether it was feelings of guilt, shame or lack of control, the thoughts of how my body looked in a bikini were continuously circulating my mind, more predominantly after each meal. I did engage in lots of body checking, assisted by the full-length mirror adorning the entirety of one of the four bathroom walls. I repeatedly picked out sections of my body that I was not happy with, but I am proud of myself for not letting it influence my eating habits. Every time I felt unhappy, I would remind myself of how much better I look now than this time last year. Not only that but also how much healthier I am, and physically capable of actually being abroad and enjoying a relaxing week away with a very special friend! Repeating positive self-affirmations was a challenge to uphold, but I knew how important they were in terms of realising my accomplishments over the past year. I also decided to message a few of the nurses from hospital to thank them for helping me rebuild my life, obviously still not managing to express my enormous amount of gratitude. Their responses spurred me on even more, and allowed me to understand just how much I have managed to achieve in such a short space of time.

Venturing from the comfort of our hotel, Abbey and I decided to go on a boat trip around the south coast to some of the more undiscovered bays. It was a beautiful cloudless day, and I was more than content with the warmth of the sun beating against my skin, and the warmth of my beautiful friend sat beside me. I do not know what possessed me to do it- I hate the sea- but when the opportunity arose for us to jump off the boat, I did it! I think it was the belief that I could do something that was out of my comfort zone, I could remove the element of control, and I could take a plunge into the unknown. To most people it would have just been viewed as an opportunity to cool down, but I guess that reflecting on it now, it was probably viewed by me as a test of my psychological boundaries. Exposing my recovery tattoo as I prepared myself on the edge of the boat, I felt a sense of confidence and pride.

Throughout the entire holiday I did suffer with some distress regarding confusion and frustration about how my body actually looks. In the mirror, I felt uneasy about the size, shape and distribution of weight around my body. Yet when I looked at the pictures that we had taken, I could see a completely different body. I continuously commented to Abbey about how I felt too thin- to which she responded in an incredibly supportive manner. My head was torn about how I actually looked and this threw me into turmoil when it came to mealtimes. Should I try that extra dish, or do I look like what I view in the mirror? Have I actually got enough on my plate considering how I look in the photographs? The conflict was tiring, and as much as I tried to block it out, it was a prominent feature in my everyday battles.

With the exceptional views, glorious sunshine and relaxed atmosphere, the negative thoughts became insignificant. There was no way that I was going to let me mental challenges overrule the fantastic experiences that I was having. I was enjoying the time I was spending in this beautiful country, and it was that positivity that I focused on. I had one week of freedom- a chance to escape the usual routine of work, the constant appointments and the reminders of my recent episodes. I embraced it. I had the most pleasurable time, made some fantastic memories and did nothing but smile and laugh for an entire week.

This holiday was also an opportunity for me to spend some much needed quality time with my best friend, and when I say much needed, I absolutely mean it. The friendship that I have with Abbey is something that I treasure very close to my heart. She may live four hours away, but the bond that I share with her is incredible. Throughout all of my difficult times she has been there for me, maybe not in person, but most definitely in spirit and heart. I have never felt alone in all of this, and her confidence in my recovery is what motivates me to keep trying every single day. The fact that she wanted to go on holiday with me, considering how difficult it could have potentially been, is so valuable to me. It proved to me that she was willing to support me through what could have been an incredible distressing experience, and I could not have asked for a more special person to hold my hand throughout it all. It saddens me that this week that we have spent together is a very rare occasion, but it encouraged me to cherish every single moment we spent together. I do not think Abbey will ever know how much she means to me, not only in terms of her perseverance in standing by me regardless of the distance between us, but also for her incredible attentiveness in listening to whatever I have to say without making judgments.

It may have only been seven days, but it has been seven days that have been invaluable in making me realise my potential and self-belief in my ability to recover. The change that I have felt within myself has been irreplaceable- I feel motivated to maintain my health, excited to embark on my European adventure, and eagerly anticipating my next step at University.