31 May 2017

One Long Summer at a Time...

And so it begins. 130 days to fill. For the past 9 months I have constantly had things to focus on- assignments, volunteering and socialising, leaving little room for my eating disorder to make a potentially catastrophic reappearance. However, as the activities at university dwindled down, I feared more and more about the expanding capacity of my mind that could allow for those negative thoughts to take centre stage. I know just how quickly anorexia can grasp onto any sense of vulnerability and as part of my recovery plan that I formulated following my discharge from hospital, having something to focus on is a crucial aspect of my ongoing journey. Plus, if you have not gathered already from my previous activities, it is not in my nature to just sit around and do nothing. So, in preparation for this long summer, I started my research into things I could do way back during the Christmas break. Two weeks in and the first of my ventures are already underway.

I found out about Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire through a family friend and was instantly intrigued as to what the organisation was all about. As soon as I looked at the website, I realised that this was a fantastic opportunity to develop both my personal and professional skills through another volunteering placement, and it involved lots of roles that I enjoy doing. When I saw the ‘About Us’ page, I knew that my passion to help others that are using services in the local area would be satisfied.
Here is Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire’s description:
‘Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire works to help local people get the best out of their local health and social care services. Whether it's improving them today or helping to shape them for tomorrow, Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire is all about local voices being able to influence the delivery and design of local services. Not just people who use them now, but anyone who might need to in the future.’
If I am honest, even though I have had my fair share of using an array of healthcare services (or those available anyway!) in the East Riding, I had never heard of Healthwatch. I had no idea about what they do, how much involvement they have in speaking to local people and how much they care about making a positive difference to people’s experiences whilst using health and social care services. But I wanted to find out more. Soon after my application form was submitted I was invited to go for an interview.

It was not long before my diary was filling up with training and volunteering opportunities and I could not be happier with my experience with the organisation so far. I have asked on several occasions if I could help out more than initially suggested, and although I don’t feel as though I am making a huge difference, the staff members are so appreciative of any work that I am offering to undertake. However, they are nowhere near as appreciative as I am of them. I have been made to feel extremely welcome and am constantly encouraged to use the skills I possess. Aside from that, the chance to be involved is also massively improving my mental health. Being able to apply my mind to research tasks, take part in Enter and View visits and inputting survey data, are all activities that I enjoy and keep me focused; not only on a task, but also on my recovery.

I know a lot of people will be confused as to why I opt to volunteer instead of finding paid work, and to be honest I would be too. Of course, I would love to have a job to earn some money over the summer, and this would definitely help with the lingering difficulties I experience surrounding financial guilt, but with the summer I have lined up this was just not a feasible option this year. Money is still a significant aspect and challenge throughout my recovery, and reassurance from my parents has been a constant feature of my daily life since leaving university back in December 2014. I constantly feel like I do not deserve to be in the fortunate position my parents have allowed me to be in, but I am gradually starting to accept it, albeit with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and appreciation on a scale that I feel I will never be able to express to them. However, I know that I find myself in this situation because I am trying so hard to grasp any opportunity that comes my way to hopefully benefit my future in the long run. Therefore, volunteering has become a huge aspect of my life and I enjoy every moment of it.

Dedicating your time to other causes is such a rewarding experience and something I would recommend to anybody. It gives you the opportunity to learn new skills, meet new people and have a go at tasks that you may never have thought of. Prior to my diagnosis I also loved to participate in volunteering activities, but as I focus on my recovery and try to pave my future career path, I realise how beneficial volunteering is.

I think that as a student that suffers with mental health issues, keeping your mind preoccupied throughout the long breaks between teaching schedules is crucial to maintain a stable mindset. Everybody has different ways of ensuring good mental health and I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I am now discovering mine. As we all know, recovery is not a smooth journey and every day I am finding out new additions to my relapse prevention plan. My little bank of tips and tricks expands with every challenge I tackle, but what may work on one day may not work on another. However, this is what recovery is all about- finding what works for you and having the resilience to not be defeated if it does not work the first time round. I have not appreciated how vital working on establishing these tools will be until the prospect of having 130 days without my life at university dawned.

So my first venture is underway, and what a success it has been already! But this is only the start. I have many more activities lined up and I am so excited to get involved and continue my learning throughout this long summer.

If you are interested in Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire, you can look at the website by following this link:

If you are also interested in volunteering with Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire, express an interest via this link:

20 May 2017

One Leap Forward at a Time...

It’s 5:30am, and as the sunlight illuminates my bedroom, I am reminded of my forgetfulness in closing the curtains following my return from last night’s event- the Societies Ball 2017. As I gradually awaken, snippets of memories from a great evening circulate my mind; the celebrations of the Psychology Society’s success, spending the evening with a lovely group of people that have supported my ambitions for the Sheffield Hallam SU Student Minds society and admiring the hard work of students at the university. But wait, something seems to be missing.

Throughout the evening’s proceedings, we were served each element of a three-course meal- an activity that would have previously caused great anxiety and fear. The knowledge of being faced with this prospect would have led to a continual over-analysis of everything I had consumed throughout the day, an inability to engage in conversation and the slow retraction of my presence from the rest of the world. Food has dominated every chance of having an enjoyable time at any occasion, and I was slowly coming round to accepting this as a fact of the rest of my life. However, this time felt different and I knew this from the moment I started getting ready.

Sitting on the floor in front of my mirror, I applied my make-up with the usual routine. But I spotted a vibrant lip colour in the bottom of my bag and felt a sudden rush of confidence to give something new a go. At first I was not sure about the adventurous move, but convinced myself that it was just a ‘different' look, not necessarily a ‘bad’ look, and pushed away the make-up wipes. Maybe not a spectacular revelation for some people, but having spent most of my life finding comfort and security in what I am used to, making this slightly bolder move was a perplexing yet welcomed change to my usual routine.

Make-up complete, it was time to put on my dress. Buying this dress a few months ago for my 21st birthday meal was also a big step at that time, with its ‘clingy’ fit and shoulder-exposing neckline, but I fell in love with it. Not one for believing in you should only be seen wearing something once, I decided to pull it out again for this glamorous occasion. A factor I did not take in to consideration was that of weight gain. Since my 21st birthday I have in fact gained weight- an achievement that unsurprisingly brings along with it a lot of confusing emotional states, although I am happy to say that pride dominates on the majority of occasions. However, with Mum stood in the doorway ready to zip up the back, I stepped into the garment. As it reached the top of my thighs, the ease of the fabric up my body seemed to grind to a bit of a halt. I looked up at Mum and the first of a few giggles escaped my mouth. What followed can only be described as the most unsightly dance routine that I have ever performed. But with a few wriggles, shimmies and a finale of a hop skip and a jump around my bedroom, the dress was on! Turning to the mirror, I admired the dress- the design, the construction and the colour. I am not going to say that I did not notice the slight monthly bloating of my lower stomach, but I was excited for the evening and was not going to let that insignificant, uncontrollable, natural detail of my body detract from that.

Walking to the venue with the most wonderful group of people I have met during my first year at university, I knew that the night was going to be enjoyable. Everybody looked stunning and it was amazing to see all of the beautiful outfits that they were wearing. Having experienced body image difficulties, being at an event like this used to cause quite a bit of distress. For years I have attended events and could have spent about 95% of the time comparing my body to others, completely distracted from the purpose of the occasion. But in my favourite dress, with my new lip colour, I felt confident in myself. To be honest, I was spending so much time laughing, talking and catching up with people I had not seen in a while, that the negative thoughts did not have chance to overshadow my mind.

This next significant proceeding during the evening may be deemed as somewhat trivial to most people, but it is important to me. 

I accepted a glass of fresh orange juice. What? I hear you say. But yes, I have identified this moment as one that contributes to the major leap in my recovery yesterday evening. Ordinarily, I would have opted for a tap water- a safe, comfortable drink. However, as we entered the ballroom, trays of glasses filled with either bubbly or orange juice greeted us. Due to my disliking for alcohol, it was clear that this was not an option, but in the fancy flutes the orange juice looked enticing and fitted with the glamorous ambience of the evening. Over-thinking my food and drink choices throughout the day and the unknown three-course meal I was soon to consume was not an option. I was living in the moment and feeling pretty good about it.

The event kicked off with the first of many awards, and I was once again inspired by the outstanding work of the students and their societies. It was exactly what I needed as I work hard with my committee to start planning our activities for Sheffield Hallam SU Student Minds for the next academic year. It is amazing to see what can be achieved and the impact that societies have on student life; and I am excited to be working towards contributing to that next year. These were the thoughts whirring around my mind, as the starter course was served- a welcomed delight to satisfy my developing hunger. If I am honest, I cannot really say much about the starter, or the main, or even the dessert other than that they were actually quite tasty. I was spending so much time enjoying the conversations happening on the table, discussing plans for my society and applauding the winners of the awards, that memories of the food are non-existent. I was going to write that I apologise for not being able to elaborate any further, but I am not sorry at all. This is something that I have not experienced in a very long time and I could not be any more unapologetic if I tried. This feeling of freedom and clarity in my head is a moment I hope I will remember and refer back to in the future.

It can happen; you can experience an escape from negative thoughts. It may be for a minute, or in my case a few hours, but surely this can mean that days, weeks, even months without negative thoughts can be achieved! It may take another couple of years of hard work, but I have experienced those few hours now, and I will not stop trying in order to make those moments a reoccurring familiarity in my everyday life.

Who would have thought it? A bit of lipstick, an impromptu dance routine and a glass of orange juice- turns out that is the recipe for a leap forward in my recovery journey!

12 May 2017

One Year at University at a Time...

Well, who would have thought I would be saying this a couple of years ago, but I have just finished my first year at Sheffield Hallam University; a year full of amazing memories, beautiful friends and a wealth of knowledge to develop and grow my future ambitions. If you follow my social media accounts, you may have noticed that I have made the most of every single opportunity that has come my way, and sought out many more! I do not think I have actually taken the time to think about everything I have participated in, worked on or helped with this year, until recent weeks and the events that I have attended. There is no denying that I have been busy, but I can honestly say that I have loved every single minute of it!

In the majority of my posts, I often emphasise my reluctance to look back on my previous attempt at university education. However, I think that during recovery from any mental illness, as important as it is to remain positive about the current moment and optimistic for the future, if possible, it is also important to reflect on how far you have come. I know for some, this can be a horrendously frightening, and potentially triggering act, in which case I would not advise doing so, but for myself, doing this at key milestones strengthens my recovery.

I always like to keep my writing positive, but I often think of some of the people that may be reading this, and hope that they may be able to relate to some of the difficult moments I have dealt with and see how life can change for the better if you can find the strength to reach out and ask for the help that you need.

I want to take you back to September 2014- the start of what I can only describe as one of the most distressing times of my life. I found myself stood in a room at Storthes Hall in Huddersfield trying to convince myself that the decision I had made to attend university was the right choice. It soon became apparent that it was not. The negative thoughts started, the unhealthy coping strategies developed and the brave face was quickly adopted. I am not sure if you know this, but trying to put on a performance and suppress exactly how you feel is absolutely exhausting. I didn’t exactly make it any easier by allowing Anorexia Nervosa to convince me that restricting my food intake, over-exercising and spending every moment analysing, scrutinising and fretting about food was the best way to regain control over the situation. Again, it soon became apparent that it was not.
I snapped. I could not take it any more. I literally felt as though my head was exploding. Anorexia had taken over my life and I had no idea how to make it stop. Not only did I feel trapped physically, but I also could not escape the endless mental chaos. That was when the panic attacks started. I cried endlessly, struggling to breathe, unable to talk and with no knowledge of how to stop. I confided in a couple of my flat mates at the time, but I was so embarrassed and so unaware of what was actually going on. I was a student, wasn’t I supposed to be having the time of my life? Why had I not met my best friends for life? Why did I not want to go out and drink until 4am? I felt like I was the only person that had not found myself living this amazing, carefree and fun-filled student life; and that was hard. In fact, it escalated the negative thoughts to a point where my health had left me with no other choice than to leave university- ironically vowing that I would never attend again…

Where would I have been? What would I have been doing? What would I have been passionate about? Who knows! But I can tell you something; my life would have been completely different to what it is now. Making that decision last January to pursue my dreams, send off my application and face the demons of my previous attempt at university was undeniably one of the most daunting, yet best decisions that I have ever made.

Looking back at everything I have achieved this year has been an extraordinary realisation that the moment I stepped foot into Rharian Fields Specialist Eating Disorder Unit on 16th July 2015, literally transformed my life. Every blood test, every tablet, every ECG, every meal, every therapy session, every explosion of emotion, it had all been worth it. But during that time, who would have known that being that sick would have ignited such a passion to prevent it from affecting anyone else. Sure, I wish this situation had not been the way in which I discovered this desire, but life does not always take the route we hope!

So, here I am, planning my second year at university (if I pass this years modules!). A house signed for, exciting plans for Sheffield Hallam SU Student Minds and ready to absorb the knowledge from the year’s academic schedule. First year was hard, and I anticipate my time at university to only get harder, but I am ready for the challenge. At the end of the day, any moment I have at the fantastic establishment that is Sheffield Hallam University is an absolute blessing. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to study there and no matter what happens during the next couple of years, I am proud to have made it this far and enthusiastic about the future that lies ahead.

6 May 2017

One Evening of Recognition at a Time…

Last night I found myself lying in bed crying; not with tears of sadness, but tears from feeling overwhelmed. See, last night, I did not just win the Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union award for Outstanding Contribution to Student Welfare, I also had a moment of incredible realisation. How did I end up in this position? How have I found myself living a life where not only am I waking up every morning loving what I do, but now I am winning an award of recognition for it? It is something that I cannot seem to justify deserving.

Being invited to attend the SHSU Awards Night 2017 was an amazing opportunity and something I never envisaged myself having the pleasure of attending, never mind being in the running to receive one of the awards! As each award was presented, I was absolutely in awe of the students that had been nominated. I think a lot of the time, students are perceived as being lazy and unfocused; well had you have attended this ceremony last night, I think their beliefs would have been completely turned around. Hearing anecdotes of the most successful campaigns, student-led groups, volunteering projects and social enterprises was outstanding and incredible inspiring. As a student myself, I could not believe that I was a part of this fantastic community of people that were all striving to make a positive change, and I guess that was the moment when a burst of realisation struck…

This time 2 years ago I found myself stuck in the viscous cycle of pleading for help, assessments and rejection for my eating disorder. I was at my weakest both mentally and physically. I was living a life, but not living the life that I wanted. Every day my thoughts were consumed with food, over-exercising, calorie counting, label checking and fear. I could not concentrate or focus on a task without looking at the clock to indicate when the next snack or meal was due. The enthusiasm and motivation I had for life was sucked out of me, taking most of my ambition and interests with it. Every day I was taking a step back towards a dark hole that snatched away my ability to think rationally, my feelings of self-worth and most tragically, my relationship with family and friends. It was at that very thought when I looked up and heard the Students’ Union Welfare and Community Officer reading out a speech of a young woman who has dedicated her time to fundraising for mental health charities, blogging about her eating disorder, chosen as a story for International Women’s Day 2017 and founded Sheffield Hallam SU Student Minds; and that was when it suddenly dawned on me how far I have come. It goes without saying that I did not reach this point without the support of the most beautiful people in my life today- old friends, new friends and my amazing family.

I know that when most people are nominated and when an award, the speech goes something like: “I never thought I would win this award!” or “I cannot believe I was even nominated for this!” But you have to trust me when I say, that I genuinely never expected this to happen. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph to this blog post, I cannot seem to justify winning this. When I think of somebody winning an award, I imagine that they have gone out of their way and worked hard towards receiving this level of recognition. But to me, this is my life. I enjoy every moment of what I do, whether that is sharing my story, talking to and supporting others or fundraising for a charity. There is nothing I want more from my life than to see other people receiving the help and support that they need, and going on to thrive within their own lives. I cannot imagine my life without these activities being a part of it; it is what makes me wake up every morning and fight my own personal battles.

Winning this award, however difficult I fathom to justify, means the absolute world to me. Not only has it shown me that I may be having more of an impact than I thought, but it has given me the drive and belief that no matter what happens academically at university, I know that I will be leaving here in a few years time with the knowledge that I have tried my best to make a positive difference to this around me. I want to thank those that nominated me to receive this award, the Students’ Union for the opportunities they have given me this year, and most importantly, I want to thank my amazing friend Amber for sharing that special moment with me.

‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’