25 August 2016

Mental Health Awareness Project

As many of you know, I have decided to use my personal experience of suffering with a mental health condition to make a positive difference in the way that such illnesses are perceived in society. This is mostly seen through my writing efforts on my blog, but I also dedicate a lot of time to organisations, charities and media outlets. My work is usually produced independently, however, for this next project I require some help from family, friends and the public.

I recently signed up to be a ThinkWell Ambassador for a wonderful organisation called Pixel Learning. Their aim is to ‘use film to inspire empathy in young people, empowering them to deal with challenging issues before they reach a point of crisis.’ I would welcome you all to have a look at their website or follow them on Twitter to look at the exciting projects and workshops they are working on; I will note the links at the end of the post.

On 10th October it is World Mental Health Day and along with the team at Pixel Learning and the other ThinkWell Ambassadors, we concluded that using the fundamental aims of the organisation, we should create a project to support this special day. The idea is still yet to be finalised, however, we are hoping to use film in order to communicate an inspiring and informative representation of how mental health is viewed in society- this is where I need your help!

We are proposing the following questions to the public:

What does mental health mean?
What does mental health mean to you?

I would like you to respond to either or both of these questions through a drawing, a phrase or a word. I then require you to take a photo of your piece of work and send it to me via email, Facebook message or a direct message on Twitter. I will not pass on any names of the people that have produced the work, but I would really appreciate it if you could please send a second message telling me your age and location. I will write my contact details at the end of the post.

It would be fantastic to get a wide range of people responding to this, so if you could ask your children, parents or even grandparents to participate that would be amazing! It does not matter about your age or location- the more responses the better! I think it could potentially be a very fascinating project and I am excited to see the outcome.

As always, I really appreciate the time that everybody takes to read my writing and support my work. It is so important to me that people understand mental illness and do not fear opening up about their problems; this is why I embrace every opportunity to raise awareness of the topic. I am pleased to tell you about this film project because you too can contribute and help to make a difference. I look forward to seeing your photographs!

Facebook- Jess Mell
Twitter- @JessMell

Pixel Learning Website- www.pixellearning.org

Pixel Learning Twitter- @Pixel_Learning

22 August 2016

One Week of Holiday Blues at a Time...

How do you reintroduce somebody back to the reality of life after they have had the most incredible time away exploring Europe. Arrive home to a text from the doctors to say that you have an appointment for blood tests and ECG’s the following day? Check. Open a letter from the dietician to say that an appointment has been scheduled for within the next two weeks? Check. Tear open an envelope that contains all of the information you will need for starting University in a months time? Check. Wake up in your own bed and realise that you do not have to pack your suitcase ready to explore another city? Check. I think it is fair to say that as soon as I walked through my front door, the reality of life hit me like a smack to the face.

This past week at home has not been easy to say the least. I have had time to reflect on the challenges that I have faced and this has led to second-guessing how I dealt with them- by betraying what my Anorexia desired. Was there a ‘healthier’ option that I could have picked at that restaurant? Did I serve myself the ‘correct’ portion size when I dished that up myself? Should I have spent money on that snack, or could I have gotten away with not eating something? The negative thoughts have had the opportunity to circulate round and round in my mind. It was the exhausting battle that I usually dealt with at the time of the situation, but with so many distractions, I had not given my eating disorder the chance to make an appearance. However, as I settled back into home life, the reality of my mental condition was swift in making an unwelcome reintroduction. It has tried to make me doubt my meal and lifestyle choices. It has tried to make me feel guilty. It has tried to make me over-analyse my body. So how have I responded to all of these thoughts and emotions? Through positive affirmations- appreciating my body, my achievements and my life.

In making these positive affirmations, I cement in my own head the possibilities that I can experience if I continue to nourish my body, learn to value myself and not try to live my life according to what I believe others expect of me. Every single day I look through the photos of everything that I had the opportunity to see and do during my tour of Europe. Whilst looking at the images, I have never felt so thankful of life and what it has to offer. I know all too well just how quickly the prospect of making precious memories can be taken away from you, and I refuse to let my illness have that impact again. So as I tackle the negative thoughts, I counteract their influence by acknowledging all of the positive memories I created on the trip. However, this has also enhanced the holiday blues.

After opening up to my cousin about the difficulties I have experienced whilst being home- another significant reminder of my transformation during recovery- the enormity of my recent venture came to light. I reflected on just how clear my mind felt whilst I was away. Amazing people, beautiful scenery and a wealth of activities surrounded me; the chances I had to become absorbed in the negative thoughts of my illness were minimal. It wasn’t that my mind was silent; I was just focused on so many other things, making my eating disorder become inaudible. Moving forward, this is how I want my life to be like. Not so busy that I push myself to the point where I cannot be at peace with my body and mind, but establish contentment with myself to enable me to live a happy and healthy life full of worthwhile focuses. Time, personal development and the nature of life itself will play a significant part in this ambition, however, the motivation has stemmed from spending just 18 days out of my comfort zone with some very special people, so I am willing to persevere.

I think the impact that my fellow travellers have had on my time away has become very apparent. Having conversations with such interesting people, all with different lifestyles, ambitions and outlooks on life was inspiring. Listening to others who share the same enthusiasm for adventure and travel has fuelled my desire to explore the world and seeing them move on to different destinations has been difficult to witness. It has been fantastic to follow their journeys so far, yet I cannot help but feel saddened that I cannot join them. It is inevitable that close friendships are formed on this kind of trip, but I did not expect to feel so upset about departing from a certain few. After sitting with an individual, sometimes for 8 hours a day, you form incredible bonds with them and once separated, this can be difficult to adapt to. However, there is no denying that this has only boosted my ambition to work hard and be able to visit those people in the near future.

On the other hand, the return from my trip has not all been bad news. In fact, I am more proud of myself than ever. After visiting the doctors for a blood test and ECG, I was informed that my results are perfect. Not only that, but I have managed to maintain my weight! The confidence boost that this has given me is enormous. It firstly confirmed that it is possible to have an amazing time, participate in activities and enjoy food, without putting my health at risk. I am clearly starting to understand the need for food as fuel and the importance of replenishing my body. I know that I still have more weight to gain, but after living on a diet of bread, chocolate and biscuits whilst on my trip, I have proven to myself that consuming my biggest ‘fear foods’ are not going to make me rapidly gain weight. I cannot say that I still whole-heartedly believe this, as my Anorexia is continually trying to tell me otherwise, but as with the positive affirmations, I will continue to remind myself of that moment when I stepped on the scales.

Writing about my week at home has actually made me realise that my holiday blues aren’t all doom and gloom after all. It has made me more determined to maintain my health, challenge myself and strive towards full recovery. Travelling has always been a huge part of my life and I will not let my illness take that away from me- it happened last year and it will not happen again.

15 August 2016

One Voyage of Discovery at a Time...

18 days, 11 destinations and 52 new friends- my Contiki European Whirl tour was by far the most rewarding experience of my life. I have no idea how I am going to condense every memory and accomplishment into this post, as I enjoyed every single second! Meeting new people, seeing the highlights of Europe and proving to myself just how far I have come in terms of my recovery, the smile that adorned my face during day one is still engrained right to this very moment.

After checking in with the tour manager-Adam- in London at 6am on 27th July, I found myself waiting nervously amongst a group of fellow travellers for the coach to arrive. As the cases were loaded I embarked the vehicle and scanned the seats to decide where I would place myself. My gut instinct was to sit next to the female traveller just in front of the door; consequently, this was the best decision that I think I made throughout the entire trip! Chatting to this lovely Australian lady completely put me at ease, as I soon came to realise that I was not the only solo traveller on the trip. Crossing over to France on the ferry, I had a further opportunity to meet a few of the other group members and the nerves seemed to completely drift away. My mind was completely clear of negative thoughts- no compulsions to restrict my eating, no doubts about my capabilities, just excitement and anticipation of the adventures that lie ahead.

Following a round of speed dating on the way into Amsterdam, I quickly came to realise that not only was I part of a minority group in terms of being a non-drinker, but I was also the only British traveller! This could not have turned out any better- it enhanced my travelling experience so much more, as I learned about the Australian lifestyle as well as that of mainland Europe. They were all incredibly friendly, relaxed and made my time on the tour a league above what I could have ever expected. I genuinely think that having a good bunch of people on a group tour could literally make or break your entire trip, so I was extremely fortunate to have found myself travelling with this fantastic crowd.

Amsterdam was the first stop on our tour and after visiting here last year, I was intrigued to explore the city from a new perspective. The experience was entirely different- pacing the streets with friends that I had only known for 6 hours, finding out new places from other knowledgeable travellers and thinking about how best to plan your time in order to prepare for the next activities that were lined up. I had already decided that I was not going to waste a single opportunity that I was given on this trip, so I did all of the included and optional activities. Therefore, in Amsterdam I did a canal cruise, a bike ride around Edam, learnt how clogs and cheese are made, developed new friendships over a dinner in Volendam and something that I definitely did not expect to be doing- watching a ‘cultural’ show. Now I have heard of a few icebreaker activities in my time, but this was on a whole different level. I will leave it up to your imagination as to what the evening’s activity was, but it was definitely a good conversation starter for the next few days.

Berlin was destination number 2! As we all seated ourselves on the coach it was time to hear our ‘wake up song’ for the first time- HandClap. At first I thought there was no way I was going to be able to listen to the same song every morning for 18 days, but the uplifting impact it had on the group was brilliant. Even the biggest drinkers would somehow find the strength at 7am to clap along. It became the highlight of every morning and you needed it if you knew you had a long day of travelling ahead. In Berlin we had the option to do a 3 hour walking tour, which I thoroughly enjoyed. We saw so many of the iconic structures and learnt so much about Berlin’s history. The tour guide was fantastic and so incredibly knowledgeable that it was hard not to be interested in the facts and information she was giving. I think it is admirable how the German’s are so open about their history and willing to expose all aspects of their actions through memorials and preservations in order to learn from them.

Prague was next on the list. I wish I had have spent more time exploring the city, but as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to do all of the optional extras. I do not regret doing the canal cruise or the bunker tour, but I would have liked to see more of the beautiful architecture, cobbled streets and learnt more about their culture. I suppose that is just the nature of the tour though and now I know that Prague would be somewhere that I would like to visit again in the future. However, in contrast to that seemingly negative statement about the tour, the positive aspects are that you end up doing and seeing things that you may not have necessarily thought of taking the time to see. For example, one of the highlights of my trip was spray painting on the John Lennon Wall, and I know that this was an opportunity that was only brought about because of our fantastic trip manager-Adam.

Next stop was Munich. This city was beautiful and had an amazing atmosphere; I was so upset that we only had the chance to spend one afternoon here. As soon as we arrived it was time to head into the city centre for a bike ride with Mike’s Bike’s. Cycling through the streets with everybody was a brilliant experience and another chance to make more memories. My favourite area of Munich was the Chinesischer Turm in one of the parks. The setting was incredible and the food was unreal. I devoured a half roast chicken and a pretzel with some salad and it was amazing. It was quite expensive, but for the amount you got it was so worth it. We all ate our meals on picnic benches, the majority with a stein full of beer and if I am honest, I think this was the point when it hit me how far I had come in terms of my recovery. To be enjoying a spontaneous, huge meal, with a group of people I had known for a week, and not experience the negative force of my eating disorder- it was an incredibly rewarding feeling. As we cycled back to the starting point of our adventure I felt completely elated and could have burst with pride. A few of my roommates were aware of my mental illness, but there was nothing that I wanted to do more than share my happiness with my family. I was having the time of my life and I could not wait to tell them about it all.

Austria was by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. After a short drive from Munich, we once again took to the bicycles and headed for the hills. This was most definitely the day that tested my fitness and I have to admit I struggled. The constant heat with little breeze did not work in my favour, but there was no way that I was not going to complete the bike ride and I am so glad I endured it. The views were absolutely exceptional. The scenery was so picturesque that it did not feel real. Every home was in pristine condition and there was nothing at all to spoil the landscape. I tried to capture as many photos as I could, but was continually frustrated as not one single image portrayed the beauty just as I had witnessed. Lunch was a jacket potato, coleslaw and sausages- not a meal I was entirely thrilled about. However, this was when I noticed a change in my mindset- I needed to eat to live. I had exhausted my body from the bike ride and I knew that I needed to refuel, particularly as I was about to paraglide off the edge of a cliff. That afternoon was probably the most standout moment of my entire trip. Stepping into the cable car to the top of the mountain, it had not quite registered what I was about to do. As I watched the paragliding equipment being laid out on the side of the mountain, it still had not quite registered as to what I was about to do. Only when I was buckled in and the guy yelled, “RUN!” did it suddenly dawn on me what I was about to do.  Gliding through the air, mesmorised by the magnitude of the views I was observing, the whole experience did not feel real. This time last year I was sat in a wheelchair gazing out of a window in Grimsby hospital, now I was paragliding- soaring above Austria. If that does not encourage anybody suffering with a mental illness to fight for recovery every single day, I do not know what will.

The following day we headed to the start of the whitewater rafting! Again, another activity I have never done before and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The weather was lovely which consequently made the scenery look stunning. When we reached the bottom we had to take off our wetsuits, meaning I had to strip down to my bikini. This really did not affect me at all, after coming to know everybody in the group, I knew that there was not going to be one single person that was going to be scrutinising my body or making any remarks if they saw my tattoo. I am proud of how far I have come and would have been more than happy to discuss my tattoo should it have been mentioned- I am not ashamed of my journey, it has made me the person that I am today.

After another 5 hours on the road, we arrived at the campsite in Venice. This was the day that I completely lost my voice and the ‘Contiki Cough’ started to make an appearance. I had heard of this allusive illness, but I did not realise the scale of the epidemic once it hit. Fortunately, I got off lightly in terms of it having an impact on my trip, although, I did use it as an excuse to have plenty of gelato whilst in Italy! Our first activity was a gondola ride and this was something that I really enjoyed. It was so relaxing and even though we did not have a singing gondolier, it was still a lovely experience. We then did a walking tour past all of the iconic Venetian sights such as the Bell Tower, St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace. I was in no way disappointed with any of the Italian cities that we visited, but I was definitely surprised at how busy they all were. I would definitely return to all of them but at a different time of year, but again that is the beauty of doing a tour like this, as I managed to see all of the highlights and take note of where I would like to go back. I vowed that I was not going to leave Italy without having a pizza dish, a pasta dish and some gelato- they did not disappoint and I have no regrets for indulging in these regional delicacies. We also decided to go to the top of the Bell Tower during some of our free time and the views were incredible. Unfortunately, we made it up there just as a storm approached, but ever the optimist, I managed to get some beautiful photos as the black clouds came rolling in. However, it then dawned on us that we had to run back through Venice to catch the boat back to the campsite whilst the rain absolutely saturated us.

Rome was our next destination and if I am honest, I did not quite know what to expect. I was hoping that the Colosseum would be everything that I wanted, but besides that I did not really know what Rome had to offer. As we spent time exploring the city, I was very pleasantly surprised. Every street led to an unexpected piece of architecture or a lovely square housing a beautiful statue. The scale of the buildings was extraordinary and the attention to detail was fascinating. Again it was a shame that the city was so busy, however, I can now see why everybody visits. We also had the amazing opportunity to watch the Pope read a blessing in St. Peter’s Square. People from all around the world had come to listen to the event and although the heat was exhausting, the atmosphere was surreal.

Our final Italian city was Florence, which to my disappointment, we only had the pleasure of staying for one evening. We did a walking tour in the afternoon and managed to experience just a snippet of what this beautiful city had to offer. The architecture was exceptional, the statues were remarkable and the cleanliness of the city was impressive. Unfortunately though, it seemed that as soon as we arrived we had to leave again, but all the more reason to return! That evening we attended a traditional Tuscan dinner, which although the food was not great, it was again another opportunity to socialise with the group. This was what I loved about this style of tour, was that like-minded people- people that want to travel surrounded me. It was exciting to hear of their adventures and future plans, it has given me a lot to think about in terms of where I want to visit in the future. Unsurprisingly, Australia is right at the top of the list!

From Florence we visited the stunning Swiss Alps. Due to the weather, I decided not to participate in the train ride up to the top of Jungfrau Mountain. Therefore I had the perfect chance to walk around the town and absorb the striking backdrop. With delicate waterfalls and snow topped mountains, the scenery so picturesque and a world away from the bustling Italian cities. Being from the countryside myself, I found that Austria and the Swiss Alps were a particular highlight of my tour. I loved exploring the cities, however, there is something incredibly comforting and relaxing about being surrounded by nature and greenery. After a morning of discovery, I headed to the Adventure Park to have some fun on the high ropes, wooden obstacles and zip wires threaded through the forest. As somebody that has continually suffered with a fear of heights and lack of control, I think it would be fair to say that this tour has changed me. I have done activities that I would have never done before and this high ropes course was no exception. Perched on a wooden pallet amongst the trees and latching my harness onto the wires, I was not really aware of the enormity of what I was doing in terms of challenging my fears. The activity was fantastic and was the perfect way to finish off my time in the Swiss Alps.

Paris- our final destination of the tour! After an entire day on the coach, we did a drive around of the city and saw the majority of the iconic buildings. Knowing that we had a free day coming up, I was excited to spend more time at each of the legendary hotspots. Venturing into the city centre we decided on a few of the landmarks that we wanted to explore. We started off at the Sainte Chapelle- a gothic building embellished with kaleidoscopic stained glass windows. Moving further down the street we headed into the Notre Dame- a peaceful setting filled with religious decorations and tales. At the other side of the river we walked through the lesser-known areas until we arrived at the Eiffel Tower. I wish I had have taken the time to see this structure on an evening, as I am sure it would have looked far more captivating. As a child I remember this area to be clean and well cared for, however, this time I was not as impressed. I suppose this is just one of the downsides of tourism, but I know that it cannot be helped. On the other hand, I was still pleased with the time that I spent in Paris and as I have mentioned before, I did not want to waste a single opportunity on this trip. That evening we all attended a traditional Parisian meal then headed to a cabaret show. It was sad knowing it was our last night together, but after reminiscing about all of the notable moments of the trip, it made me realise just how much of a great time we all had together.

The 13th August was by far the worst day of the tour. As some of us embarked the coach, we waved goodbye to those that were staying behind to either fly home or continue on with their travels. It was only at this point when I realised just how quickly the tour had flown by.  Now that I think back, it was as though as soon as we hit Italy, everything seemed to run at 100mph. I cannot even pick one moment that was a highlight- every single second was a new and notable experience. I am incredibly sad that it has all come to an end, but the friends and memories I have taken away from the past 18 days will be something to treasure forever.

For those that were with me on the tour, I cannot thank you enough for making my entire experience everything I could have dreamed of and more. I do not think any of you will realise just how much this trip meant to me in terms of my motivations and recovery journey, but you have made the past couple of weeks the most rewarding and memorable of my life.

Next stop...Australia!