Madness: A Bipolar Life – Book Review

Marya Hornbacher is known for her gripping memoir Wasted, about her experience with anorexia. I read this as a teenager whilst I was unwell. It was amazing; she’s an incredible writer at telling her story of and through mental illness. Although our experiences were very different, at the time I felt she captured how my mind was working in relation to food. She was the first person who’s writing I read that really resonated with me. She got it, she really got it. During this time I read a number of eating disorder related books as the obsession becomes entrenched into every aspect of your life and nothing else is of interest, programmes, channels, websites, books, journals, academic books; all of it becomes much more interesting than spending any time with anyone else or doing normal teenage things. My tutor described me as an oddball when he asked what I’d done over the summer and I told him I just read all summer and didn’t see anyone. I was 17 so I accepted his comment and took no offence because it is a slightly odd way to send your summer holiday at 17.

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Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life, a memoir of living with bipolar spoke to me, again 10 years later. At 16 when I read Wasted I never realised our illnesses would remain in a similar vein. She spoke about her experiences from childhood to learning how to manage her bipolar illness in adult life, including a good period of reluctance to accept her illness, comply with treatment and trying to deny anything much was wrong whilst conveying very deeply how very much was wrong. How very much she felt different and how bipolar disorder although known as a mood disorder is not simply about moods alone.

By exploring the cognitive aspects of the illness: forgetfulness, memory loss, psychosis and winding up in hospital to only realise a while into the admission that she’s there at all. Again, through writing about her experiences her experience resonated deeply within me. I am quite sure I am not the only one, her account is so accurate and profoundly detailed. Our stories are very different and our illness takes different forms at times: as is the nature of any mental illness despite having similar diagnoses. Having said that, whilst reading on my kindle I found myself highlighting paragraphs and pages of “Yes. That! Exactly that!” moments.

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It made it clear to me how much I didn’t understand my illness as much as I thought I did. It also encouragingly gave me the hope that my current stay well approach plan, which has been shaped through many years of successes and failures, is going in the right direction for the lifestyle changes recommended for those living with bipolar.

The book provided me with relief of reading someone else’s story that I could relate to, comfort in knowing many of the strategies I’ve started incorporating are on the right direction of track and sorrow that we have to live through and experience this illness at all: and how much of our lives we lose to being unwell, seeking the right treatment and trying to figure out what and how to manage living some form of purposeful life with bipolar.

It’s such a multifaceted battle that when you initially get a diagnosis it seems pretty easy and straight forward. Take some meds and you’ll be fine. Sometimes because of the information about coming off meds for other illnesses you simply come off your meds when your feeling better. Learning and realising that this isn’t the case, the hard way can take years upon years and lengthen the amount of time that it takes – which is already extensive – of finding the right combination of medication.

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It’s only when it gets to a certain point of illness that you start to resign from life a little and accept your disability. It takes a long time to accept that you can’t when you previously could, that you might not be able to like you’d previously dreamed, or that you have to put so much extra effort into functioning and getting through your days and life than – what feels like – everyone around you.

Yes people manage to work full-time and live very purposeful and successful lives with bipolar. This perpetuates the illusion that it’ll be just fine within a few months of diagnosis. For some I suppose it might be. For others, which is often not posted on self-help media and information online because it sounds a bit bleak, it might not. The key is to be realistic with people about how much they need to twist and turn and bend over backwards to accommodate their illness. She’s not going anywhere and you really need to walk on eggshells and twist like a contortionist to make your life work in a way you would like whilst working with and alongside your bipolar.

The temptation and automatic reflex to self medicate in some way can make things more complicated: drugs, alcohol, sex, food are all eligible candidates for self medication that significantly complicate the journey through illness to management. Pushing home the importance of taking your meds religiously as prescribed even if you feel well or good, and to avoid the temptation of letting a hypomania early signs become a hypomania or full manic episode can be difficult. This aspect of self-care with bipolar takes a lot of self-discipline because who doesn’t want to be achieving and having fun 24/7 with boundless energy to be the perfect super human being who can achieve all and encompasses almighty greatness above everyone else around them? Who doesn’t like feeling like that? It’s an illness filled with many steep learning curves, many great troughs that follow the epic highs that quickly become more menacing than exciting.

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In my opinion it takes a number of mistakes, fuck ups and slips to learn this lesson and that although far less exciting, balance really is the goal, and balance doesn’t include highs of grandiosity, marathons of achieving from hours of energetic and directive goal achieving.  It takes learning to forgo the excitement and euphoria of the start of a manic episode in order to avoid the devastation, chaotic destruction and yet alluring manic episode. Winding up in hospital bounding around the ward is not a good place to be, even if you’re still enjoying yourself and your ability to achieve with your goal directed exertion is stripped away from you. You are in there bare, on forced rest by sedative medications and IM injections when you become the embodiment of the untamable beast that bipolar can become.

Remembering the patches of these memories – because solid memories don’t seem to form during this time – enough times will eventually teach the lesson of balance, staying out of hospital, and really taking self management seriously whilst respecting your new lesser limits as a result of your illness.

The frustration and anger are very real. The hurt that you won’t be the amazing person you were destined to be cuts deep. Knowing that you might not even be able to pass as normal with a regular full-time job when it feels like everyone else is managing just fine is upsetting. Not only will you not be magnificent, or great even, you may remain someone disabled by your condition no matter how much effort and time you put into following the prescribed lifestyle guidelines of living with bipolar.

The reality of living with bipolar disorders has the potential to be bleak. It also has the potential to be a life changing illness through which you learn a lot about the mind, yourself, and people. Bipolar can turn you into the biggest grandiose asshole and a very sympathetic friend to lean on because you ‘get it’. Bipolar can turn your life upside down and in the words of Daredevil, ‘no one can give you your life back. You have to take it back’. This entails a lot of learning, a lot of self exploration, a lot of ups and downs, naturally, and a lot of damaged relationships. It can be ok though. It can and often does get better. Hornbacher’s memoir takes you on this journey in 300 or so pages, and it’s an accomplished and succinct tale of her journey that I am sure, resonates deeply with many who live with bipolar.

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Orthorexia is the New Anorexia, and It’s Not Cool

Social Media is bursting with #BodyPositivity #LoveYourself and #ICanSoYouCan to messages seemingly aimed at the average health conscious woman. At face value it seems like a pretty brilliant and groundbreaking trend that’s taking over. People are going to fitness events more, we are health conscious now thanks to a decade of public health campaigning.

Dig a little deeper and there’s another layer to this trend. People who have recovered from eating disorders posting transformation pictures from then and now. They’ve usually managed a level of good weight restoration – which is great. They often claim psychological healing from the eating disorder too, and who wouldn’t believe that when someone has restored and maintained their weight? That is what eating disorders are all about right? Weight. No, nope, nada, that statement couldn’t be any more wrong. Eating disorders are a psychological illness and mending the mind takes much longer than weight restoration.

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Especially when those same people are posting comparison shop of body shape and muscle with their weight displayed in numbers on each picture to prove that you can be smaller and leaner at a higher gravitational mass. The point seems to prove that weight loss doesn’t always count for stronger and weight gain can mean a leaner body. I don’t know when it was discovered hat muscle is more mass dense than fat. I think it was a long time ago. The proportionate representation of a Kg of each next to each other send this message home enough. I don’t know about you but I don’t need six packs and weight numbers emblazoned across two pictures to show me as well.

Back to the #BoPo trend, why am I sceptical of the complete recovery claims and love yourself campaigns by some influencers? Because the same woman pushing these messages of self-love seems to have migrated from one way of obsession over her body and food to another. I know, it sounds hypocritical considering my ED past and that I’m now studying nutrition, but hear me out on this.

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I’ll be frank, seeing your perfectly lean body, with no cellulite or wobble with a six-pack and long blonde hair (Why are so many successful influencers white and blonde?) does not encourage me to feel all #bopo about myself. The lack of diversity amongst the influencers is a whole other matter but in this instance I think what has really occurred is a shift from one beauty ideal to another in the last decade. This woman has successfully transitioned with the trends, from skeletal to sculpted. I further this stance by pointing out the body positive and self love messages still all revolve around “I love what I see in the mirror” or how they look clothed, barely clothed and basically it all revolves around reflections. Self love isn’t found in your reflection, it is deeper than that. Imagine a couple who are shit hot, heck, I hear this is what Love Island is about – what happens when they irritate each other or age, or sag – will they still be in love if it’s all based on a skin deep love? Anyone will tell you these kinds of relationships are shallow and won’t last at the very least.

Going back to the body trends. In the 90s we had heroin chic, then that was deemed too dark so we transitioned to 2006 with Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Mary-Kate Olsen who could be summed up at the time as bones, bones and more bones. They were idolised as the beauty ideal, put on a perfection pedestal that translated to being as skeletal as possible without being sectioned or dying because then you kind of lose by default. Thinspo became a thing, and sometimes the ones who did die from their eating disorder were further idolised by many as being the ultimate goal. These people were as unwell as it sounds. Many were genuinely unwell, how do I know? I was one of them. However, the mass media (this is pre-social media boom) perpetuated these images, this ideal and humiliated any celebrities who had cellulite by blowing the picture up in their magazines and encircling said fault with a fat red circle.

We’ve moved on from that. Its been 10 years after all. However, the retaliative movement was health and fitness: strong is the new skinny, suns out guns out and all that jazz. It’s not all bad, but there is a dark under layer of migration of pathology with food, body image and exercise emerging in the surfaces of popular media, magazines (ahem, Women’s Health) and social media platforms (Oh Hai Insta!). During the process super foods became a thing thanks to clever marketing and buzz words. Paleo, veganism and the ultimate heathen of ‘healthy living’ that we all utter under our breath as if he who should not be named, clean eating. We bought it. We buy it every time and in a capitalist society why are some people pushing these ideas? Obviously, there is dollar in health. There always has been and always will be. Each trend earns some people big bucks.

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Most of them have a singular continuous trend threading throughout them since the thinspo days of 2006: restriction. Each fad is a new way to restrict the diet, introduce vast numbers of rules around eating and achieve beauty ideals. Except in 2006 we knew being so thin meant an anorexia/eating disorder epidemic, not the trends and trend setters are more sinister; they’re disguising their restrictive eating and compulsive relationships with exercise and their reflection as health. We’re buying into it, they’re getting paid for it. the difference since 2006 here is that making money from social media didn’t really exist then. If it did I think a lot of people would have made a living from being anorexic and online; just like hoards of people are now for being orthorexic or an over-exerciser. We are paying them for their compulsions, and they are lying to us and more importantly, themselves. Evidently, I have a massive problem with this.

To all the body positivity social media gurus with six packs, steel thighs and a built derrieré from going to the gym more times than I blink in a week, I’m calling you out and I’m hoping that more people see through the rose-tinted veil of beauty you show to us. Orthorexia is the new anorexia, and it’s not cool.

Moving On From A Haunted Past of Home and The Inner Caverns of Self Hatred

As a child I moved a lot. Sometimes once a year, sometimes within 6 months of settling we were moving again. We didn’t stay in the same area either. We lived all over the south half of the country. When it came to going to high school my parents decided it was time to try to stay in one place. For the duration of those eight years I didn’t live in the same house the whole time: that would be a ridiculous expectation to have from my parents. I did however stay in the same town at least. I also managed to stay at the same high school from year 7 to 13. Unfortunately it turned out that the only school I stayed at happened to be the one I hated the most. It was perhaps the most damaging school I’ve ever been to in terms of self belief, self-esteem and building yourself during your teenage years. I don’t think the role of high school is to destroy you from the inwards out, but it seems to have that impact on many teenagers.

I remember walking up the hill from the bus park and one of my friends stated, ‘these are supposed to be the best years of our lives’ as if some wisdom of hindsight and insight had been bestowed upon her from the future. I hoped she was wrong when she said it. I know she was wrong 10 years later. School was not any of the best years of my life. Not at all. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Never.

When I was in high school I started to develop my first signs and symptoms of mental illness. This quickly turned into a long battle with bulimia, and consequently eating disorders and all the shenanigans that erupted at 21. I didn’t feel supported at school. I wasn’t supported at home, although my parents did somehow get me referred to CAMHs via my GP and this is where the one constant figure of hope and support came into my life. I would see her at the outpatients department of the hospital, which I would walk to most weeks. I was very much left on my own in this journey with CAMHs but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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During those years, mainly 2005-2009 I would haunt around the city streets and parks on my own. I spent a lot of time on my own, struggling to maintain friends and my illness in any form of harmony, such as mental illness goes. I would eat in strange places and vomit in even stranger places. The country lanes where I lived for the most part of time in my home town were haunted with my running and cycling endeavours in a constant bid to lose weight, disappear, punish myself and repeat after me, ‘nothing is more important than losing weight. Nothing is more important than losing weight’.

If I cast my mind back to this period of time it is shrouded in a mass of thick black smog. I couldn’t see my way clearly at all back then. I struggle to see through it without the inner of my emotive self construing into tangles of excruciating pain. Yes, this place is technically my home town because I spent the most time growing up here but it was never home. Where we lived was never home. I felt outcasted, strange and extremely alone in my own dark world of writing in coffee shops, puking in public toilets, hedges and woodland, and trying to muddle through school at the same time.

I did have some good times, mainly whilst drunk. Often these weren’t even good times though because drinking on an empty stomach is a bad idea any time, but drinking on a stomach that hasn’t seen any form of solid food for 3 or 5 days is just a recipe for an involuntary puking disaster. Surprisingly I remember many of these moments well, puking in the gutter outside my friend’s house, collapsing in a field as the vodka spins took over and I could move, curling up in a hay bail in a barn completely disconnected from the music or people around me. Even my year 13 prom ended with me being traipsed home from throwing up in the hotels toilets for an amount of time that no one has any idea of. No one knows how long I had been in there puking and passed out.

Making connections with people was very difficult for me. It always has been. I put this down to moving house a lot and my impending shyness that creeps into each corner of my life. There was nothing healthy about these years. There was nothing positive to come from my life other than it could only get better once I moved away. It did for a while and even during my times of being very unwell in London I wouldn’t say they were as dark as my time growing up. I lived 4 of my 8 years waiting to leave. This hope is the only thing that kept me going and things did get better in my final year. I went to art school and had one of the best years of my life. Finally there was a crowd that accepted my quirkiness and invited me out anyway. Finally I had friends who I could actually relate to and I was old enough to drink my way through all of my problems without needing to sneak around, climb over fences into clubs and get creative in my ways of obtaining alcohol. Looking back, it really is remarkable that I survived those years as in tact as I did. To this day, I don’t know how I did it.

When I left home to move to London for university it very much felt like a second chance at life. It felt like a clean slate to move away from my demons, move away from the turmoil of my home life as a teenager and make my own way. It didn’t go quite to plan but here I found a home. Since I moved to London 8 years ago I have lived here for as long as I’ve lived anywhere and I’ve been to my home town 3 times. The last time was this year. Before that I went home for one christmas in which I was reminded very much how much it didn’t feel like home to be home, and how much it never really had felt like home. I went back a few years later, then left it a few more years before going back again.

The town felt haunted to me. Seeing my old school as I went by on the train sent a great discomfort through my body. Seeing the old hospital I used to walk to each week, sometimes multiple times a week, swamped me with all the emotion tied up in that experience at once. Seeing the old streets upon which I would wonder alone and drunk in a bid to escape my reality filled me with sadness at how alone I really felt at home. The first time I went home I realised how much I actually hated it. I cried and although I didn’t plan to not return for so long it felt necessary.

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The next time I went home it was slightly lesser of a haunting experience but still it felt strange. It was odd and nostalgic in the most unpleasant way in which nostalgia can stir up old feelings and experiences to churn them over into a curdled mass of sour substance within your stomach. This time I went home, it was a last-minute decision. I was hypomanic and struggling with it. It had become uncomfortable for me and I spoke to my Dad. He said he’d pick me up that night and drive me down.

He has moved house a few times since I left home. He has finally settled in one home which oddly feels more like a home than any of the buildings he has occupied previously. With is having been so long since I left and started to build my own life in London, London is my home. London is the place I’ve been more able to be myself, received more intense help for my mental health problems and met people who are ‘my people’. Sometimes they come and they go but being able to come clean about my mental health illness and still be accepted as a friend to people is something I never experienced growing up. My illnesses being met with compassion and support in my education settings since I’ve started studying up here is something else that has been new. Finally, an education institution with support services and compassion and the belief that you can succeed rather than being surprised when you don’t fail is a place I can learn the thrive.

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My experience of life in London has been very different to the one I knew before. It hasn’t always been easy or good by any stretch of well wishing, it has however taught me a lot and encouraged me to grow. I haven’t been suppressed, I haven’t been dismissed in the way I was at school or home growing up, I have been encouraged out of my dark cavern of self-hatred that I had grown to call my comfort zone. I left home more comfortable hating myself and actively acting on it. I am now in a place where that cavern is becoming a place of the past – and because I’ve managed to move forwards in my life, because i’ve made and had so many new experiences that i chose, because i made a home for myself with what I had even when that meant a back shed with slugs, mice and leaky rooftops it was home. It was the first home i had really experienced. All of this nurturing i have experienced from myself, my partner and friends through these years has shuffled me along to a place where I can go back to my home town when I’m unwell and find it a helpful respite from the chaotic surroundings I create for myself when I am unwell.

Life in London hasn’t been perfect but it has eventually gotten better than where I came from. This allows me to go home and appreciate the nature and beauty of the countryside with fresh untainted eyes. It allows for me to go home and sit in a pub with an old school friend and enjoy their company, fully present rather than drinking until I can barely stand any more.

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I have grown since then. I continue to grow and within that growth there is a strength to face those past memories in a less tangled, less curdling to sourness light. I can be. I can enjoy the place for what it is, a nice seaside town, then I can come home refreshed rather than stressed about my history with the place, and finally, my home town doesn’t haunt me, taunt me or internally destroy me ever so slightly more with each day that I spend there. I am also able to remember the good times from that period of my life.

Rules To Live By In Numbers 

I am on holiday. Some people they may ask, ‘from what?’; I don’t work but I do study, part-time. I have been off from university for 2 months now, surely that counts as a holiday? I’m going to say no, not really. Firstly, I spent  ~a month of that time being unwell with the dysphoric hurricane of hypomania. I went in hospital and had my meds increased. I have since spent time trying to find my feet.

Although I’m not having a holiday from working, I am having a holiday, but what from?  I am having a holiday from being surrounded by mental illness. I live in a specialist supported accommodation which means there is no escaping mental illness at home because someone is always unwell, everyone is on meds and we talk about it amongst ourselves. There are no awkward questions about mental health because we all live there for a similar category of reasons. Also you’re constantly having to answer questions and attend assessments for how well, or not you are doing. Whilst here I have to keep taking my meds twice a day, and I need to use DBT skills to keep my emotional expressions proportional, and I have to take care in the heat because of my meds – there is no holiday from yourself after all – I am kind of taking a holiday from mental illness.

I am taking a holiday from appointments, seeing my social worker, psychiatrist and support workers. Whilst they provide me with a lot of support and access to specialist mental health care, it’s nice to not be talking about symptoms, side effects and how am I really so much of the time. I am taking a holiday away from the bubble I live my life in at home. I am exposing myself to new and unfamiliar territory. At the same time I’m staring anxiety in the face as I gain confidence with new experiences.


I’m taking a holiday from living well within the borderlands of self-imposed restrictions. I am taking a holiday from documenting habit trackers and mood charts. I could stop forever at any time but they are an important tool for my overall well-being, awareness and insight. Taking a week out to just be, live and experience is quite the luxury and a welcome break. This can only be done when I am relatively well and stable: which I am at the moment. This is as much of a break from myself I think it is possible to fathom.

Finally, I am taking a holiday from numbers. Numbers have played a significant role in my life for over a decade: calories in and out, body weight, body fat %, muscle mass, weighing food portions and the numerical data from my FitBit that I try to make perfect: steps, calories burned, hours slept, minutes of restlessness and wakefulness during sleep, heart rate, minutes of activity and exercise. My FitBit data doesn’t just quantify my existence, it quantifies the goals of my existence: calorie goals, BMI goals, body fat % goals, sleep hygiene goals, number of days active goals, heart rate goals, step goals – literally any way of quantifying my life via a watch that you could possibly want for under £200, it does. If I had blood sugar and blood pressure monitors, I would record that too. I shit not, I have previously looked into buying them – all in an effort to feel in control and achieve a way to be perfect.

 

I realise now that I treat myself more like a machine, rejecting how anything feels in order to try to obtain numerical perfection. It’s a great watch and that is what I bought it for but it can be tiring and distracting from the bigger picture. It seems this focus on numbers has become a replacement for my eating disorder behaviour. It is healthier and less destructive but that doesn’t mean it is healthy and not destructive. More numbers can be obtained to quantify my existence further with a premium subscription to FitBit. I have so far managed to resist.

When I left for the airport I saw my analogue watch, ticking away in it’s box from having been rooting for something else in the same drawer. I spontaneously, (get me being spontaneous) decided to switch it up. My analogue watch, get this, doesn’t even have any numbers on it. Not a single one. I need to have access to the time, I don’t like not knowing and can become disoriented with myself without a watch. I don’t think this is mental health related, I’ve been like this since I first got a watch and learned the time as a nipper. With this analogue watch I don’t know the time to the exact minute – which is why I haven’t worn it for the last 3 years it’s been sat in it’s box for. How could I possibly tell the time without knowing the exact minute of the hour? In answer, based on this week, just fine. Vaguely knowing the time of day and hour it turns out is enough.

My holiday from numbers includes not stressing about getting enough steps, enough sleep and enough activity to hit goals that equate to perfection. I have been able to let go a little this week. In my world, this small freedom equivelates letting my hair down, wild child I know.  On the way back from the hiking day to the Gorropu Canyon I wondered how many steps I had done that day, as if I needed to know the number as it would validate my experience and tiredness. Then I answered myself in my mind, it doesn’t matter; that day wasn’t about steps or minutes of activity. The day was about the experience, the memories and the nature I saw in numerous various forms. The number of steps wasn’t important to the experience in any way – and I recited this in a forced way in my mind, as if repeating fake it til you make it to myself.  The amount of calories burned was not important. The amount of time spent at fat burn, resting and cardio heart rates was not important. What was important was that my heart is strong enough to adapt to demand and by doing so allowing me to have days such as that one hiking through the mountains.

I feel quite liberated since cutting back on the permanent numbers game I’ve ben playing. I do find numbers calming, it is a form of coping mechanism for me which crops up more, naturally, during times of stress. Having said that, I feel like I do not need so many numbers in my life. They have evolved from a calming coping mechanism that allures a sense of control, to a controlling cage that traps me in trying to achieve the perfect set of figures across all platforms of my life: diet, weight, sleeping habits, heart rate, blood pressure…the lists goes on. Sounds familiar huh?

It is in this way that I have been giving numbers too much power over my life, letting them govern how I feel I ought to live my life and what I think is the right amount of everything. It initially manifested in an eating disorder, morphed into another eating disorder and now this. I’m a walking project of equations and sums. My experience is invalid without numbers in my opinion. I also know this to not be true.

 

I have had a desire to be clockwork and machine like for a long time, again, this was initially achieved by having an eating disorder. More recently it has been achieved by wearing my FitBit. The purpose is to not feel and to function impeccably. I want to do and power through life and for the whole while that my digits remain imperfect i have work to do. It hasn’t always been a helpful approach and has held me back in many ways in addition to always having work to do because I am human. I am an animal not a computer. Ironically, for want of a lack of feeling and human nature, this makes me upset sometimes. Most of us are familiar with not being what we want to be: a marathon runner, a CEO, rich, living in paradise but I have turned one impossible goal for another: being weightless for being numerically perfect in other ways. By doing so I have been choosing numbers over intuition and listening to my body or mind for what it really is.

Using numbers to control and restrict my life is not healthy. I don’t feel like I can preach balance when I am living my life so purposefully out of balance. Balance is not achieving perfection in any way be it weight, hours slept or heart rate. Perfection is not possible and life needn’t be constantly quantified in order to be living well – I am human. I am not a machine of equally spaced cogs designed to work like clockwork. Balance is less balance in the numbers of life and more adapting to the essence of change found in living. Evidently I have some way to go.

Realising What It Is To Feel Truly Alive

Today I was thankful to myself for having picked up and persisted with exercising regularly. Why? I was thankful for being relatively fit and to my body for allowing me a beautiful experience hiking to and through the Gorropu Canyon in Sardinia. I had the strength and stamina to hike and ramble over rocky and hilly terrain. If there is any gift the body can give you it is being capable, not of achieving but capable of experiencing.

In life the final destination is death. We all get there one way or another some day. Death doesn’t seem to be the highlight of living, the highlight of living is found in the journey and the experience of living. We all go about this in different ways, no way more right or wrong than another. Each way is entirely valid – and the way me meander the choices that cross our paths is one defining factor of our existence.

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Lets be more specific and less grandiose with this idea: today my previous choices to be healthy, mentally and physically have allowed my journey to include this trip to Sardinia, and today my trekking to the Gorrpu Canyon. As an able-bodied person I know all too well the feeling of being less able due to my mental illnesses. I know the feeling of can’t for the small tasks, the disappointment of  ‘I can’t go, I’m unwell’ for the planned events and, ‘I have mental illness’ for the explanations of all the things I can’t do but ought to be; working, driving and not self harming.

This inability in so many areas of  my life fuel great levels of gratitude for everything I can do. Furthermore when past choices have made me more able than I would have previously been also exemplifies my gratitude for the very basics of human life; the feeling of being alive, very alive, not too alive because that can become illness too, but very alive all the same.

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Another wonder of being alive is mindfulness practice. Generally mindfulness practice opens yourself up for space, observation and tuning into your body and mind. Mindfulness isn’t just for sitting silently and practising. Being mindful of moments in time and space opens up for really experiencing what is around you. Tuning in to how the mind feels gains understanding of what makes us feel good, or otherwise.

The little things make up our experience. Trekking in the Canyon of Gorropu was not a little thing but an accumulation of many little things to tune in with in one day make the Gorropu Canyon a big thing. The rock formations, the river, the wildlife and drinking water fresh from the spring. The stunning heights and great vastness of what nature created in this unforgiving climate and environment created by mother nature.

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My body again, thank you nature, was able to climb, scramble and hike in the heat of a 34 degrees celsius humid day. This was not due to nature alone though, my own input into myself contributed too. Earlier this year I chose to be more active. Years ago I originally made the choice. Getting to today has been a journey of multiple successes and failures. It has been a learning curve at times. I am not at my final destination, yet knowing what makes me feel alive, knowing what ignites a fire in my soul and knowing what really makes me happy about living can help form the decisions I make today and tomorrow for my future.

It turns out that exercising and nature are two of the most impacting aspects of life that make me feel alive. Even when it is hard and not so enjoyable the challenge is part of it that works for me. Feeling alive encompasses both positive and negative experiences. I don’t think this is a wildly new revelation but more a forgotten basic foundation for experience. Since the beginning of time people have led active lives and a lot of people like nature. We have only become so sedentary in the last century or so. To me it makes sense that we need activity and exercise to feel alive.

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Being alive is exactly that: your heart beating as you reach the peak of a climb, the profuse sweating that pours from your face, the motion of moving our muscle and the burn of lactic acid that means your muscles are working. The swell of your fingers as your blood vessels dilate in order for you to continue being and feeling alive whilst you enjoy the challenge and observe your surroundings.

Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes our body won’t allow you to do what you desire and that doesn’t mean you give up and resign, it means you do it more. You practise, you keep moving in order to fulfil your desires to do what you want to do, to experience what you want to and to ultimately feel fully alive in a way that lights you up and keeps you yearning with a passion for life itself.

Today I walked to and through the Gorropu Canyon. I saw nature in many forms from rock formations to dragonflies tinkling in the wind. I felt the coolness of the river water as I tipped it over my head with my hat whilst my heart beat pulsated through my entire body. I must have sweated litres, and I experienced the burn of the sun – the engine of all life forms – whilst hiking through the mountain followed by the relief of shade. I saw a cruel beauty at the canyon in an unforgiving climate and terrain that also has the ability to destroy you as much as it does amaze you.

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I am grateful for today, for being well enough and strong enough for today to have happened. I am now lusting after another trip for climbing and more hiking. I have had a snippet taste of this island and I want more. I want more experiences from the island that I can’t do now, rock climbing and harder hike for example. I also want more from myself, more strength, more experiences, more from the core of life. I want to experience life in a way that makes me feel alive and leaves me wanting more that money can’t buy. Today a spark became a flame and I want it to be a bonfire.

The All-or-Nothing Conundrum

The other day I scrolled through Twitter and stumbled upon a poll that went something like this:

‘I feel anxious, do I…?’
a) take a diazepam and risk napping and messing up my sleep tonight
b) drink a coffee
c) other.

In my response I opt for other. I suggest mindfulness. They don’t ‘do’ mindfulness. I suggest the Headspace app, they tell me their opinion of mindfulness is summed up in one word: bollocks. Fair enough. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Then I realise something in myself. I am recommending mindfulness because I know the benefits, I’ve felt them. I recommend it as a useful tool for everyone to take a few minutes out of the day to just notice. I say this as if I couldn’t imagine a day without it. I say this as I realise I haven’t practised in over a week. Why haven’t I practised in over a week?

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I haven’t practised because I started to get unwell. I started to feel hectic and out of control. I started to sway from my stay well plan after a while of not being well. This is definitely the time when embracing and holding onto mindfulness would be really beneficial and I’m not. I wonder about why this could be and realise I am indulging in another patterns of ‘all or nothing’.

All or nothing thinking featured during my eating disorders, friendships, studying, relationships, working life, attending uni and now in my stay well plans. I’m getting well? I’m full force ahead: day plans for routine, exercising, goals, writing, eating healthily and of course, mindfulness. I try to stick it out for a while each time I get unwell. As my stay well plans slip and slide on the suds of soapy thoughts slipping in and out of my mind as I lose my routine without noticing until presented with the gift of hindsight I stop. I just stop.

I don’t eat well. I stop work outs on my plan. I skip mindfulness and daily structure plans. Before I know it, all structure is gone and I am at mercy to any whim the weather may take. I am flitting about in wing it mode in regards to filling my time. No longer is not having time in my schedule for helpful things to take an extra benzo or drink a bottle of wine to forget it all the motion of the moment. I have all the time. I have all the unstructured time to get wasted because I can’t handle myself. Self discipline is gone. The will to even engage with my stay well plan ebbs into a low tide further and further from shore.

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I have successfully gone from maintain all of my plan to none of it in days. I realise as i re-offend mindfulness on a pedestal to someone else sailing a ship with anxiety at the helm. I recommend this as I am no different. I know some of what helps me. I know some of what doesn’t. What I haven’t learned yet is fully how to keep going with just something, I haven’t learned mastery. I think moderation is a skill. I am learning. We are all always learning – this is something I realise I need to put more focus and thought into still. Just how I do that I don’t yet know.

How We “Should” Live

During the last weekend of my hospital admission I was granted escorted leave. Initially I was excited. I was relieved because these are the landmarks of an admission towards discharge: lower levels of observations, escorted garden leave, escorted community leave, unescorted community leave for gradually increasing amounts of time. This is providing you don’t end up on section, or 1-1. This is the general run of the mill for a general voluntary admission. These steps can be taken forwards or backwards like a snakes and ladders game. They serve as miniature tests to see how well you cope with the outside world, a gradual gradient of re-exposure to the community from the controlled and predictable bubble wrap world that ward life provides during periods of being unwell.

Before I went in I had noticed a growing reluctance to leave the premises upon which I live except to get to the shop across the road – only when absolutely necessary. Out of toilet roll? Scour the flat for any scraps of anything that marginally represents tissue paper. It’s just a wee? You can drip dry a few times like you’re at a festival or caught short in nature. You keep your number 2 in because that necessitates toilet roll no questions asked. You drink herbal teas you’ve not touched for months when out of milk. You scrap together the scrappiest roll-ups for the time being despite living 20 steps to the left of a 24 hour shop and across a residential road from a Sainsburys local.

There comes a point when the inevitable occurs. There’s more paper than tobacco and you could quite happily eat your own arm with the right amount of anaesthetic because you’re so hungry. It’s a quick scurry across the road and back again in as little time as possible. A sense of safety and relief follows returning home and staying home. It’s not outside per se; the garden is fine but beyond the driveway? That’s where it gets complicated. The more you honour the anxiety the more ferocious it grows. That quick lift of relief really disguises the impeding onset of incalculable amounts of grief ahead.

So I had unescorted leave. I may have been one of the only ones at that time on the ward with such freedom, which is something the others were vocally envious about. They’ve been stripped of their freedom, often detained against their will on section. Some are allowed in a highly fenced enclosure of a garden, through which the outside world stares back at you as you pine for the freedom of those on the other side.

I should have been very happy to be allowed to go out as much as I want. I should have been grateful to not be feeling caged by the restraints placed on me by someone else’s assessment and decision. As I wrote this a fellow inpatient made a run for the double locked doors in an attempt to seize the freedom I have.

I did go out. The truth is though, that I didn’t want to. I didn’t go out on some days when I could have. I didn’t want to then either. Some days I forced myself to swallow my anxiety about going out. I swallowed my anxiety and pushed a few streets past the park the hospital is parked alongside to the next park. I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t happy. I should have been happy, relieved and enjoying my relative freedom.

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And this is where the problem lies, ‘should’. I fucking hate that word. I should be happy. I should be working full-time at my age. I should be living independently. I should be a lot of things that I’m not. I should be happy, more than happy to have the choice of going out with a fair window of about 10 hours of the day, on my own and going anywhere within the local area for up to 2 hours a day, and I wasn’t. I’m not a lot of things that I should be.

All of these “should be’s” don’t come from me. They come from the outside. They come from the general consensus of what we should like, dislike, want, not want, do and not do. Our emotions and values are often shaped by the ‘should’ of our culture. This is a fault in the system. It is invalidating for the feelings that are our reality if they conflict with what we should be feeling. Often these messages are also conflicting. I should be body positive and happy with my figure. I should also weigh less, be slimmer and so toned I look sculpted with long blonde hair according to the fitness industry that thrives on this core of conflict around should and should not. Read any issue of a  women’s magazine and the contradictions run rife with such instructions on how i should be living my life and how i should be feeling about it.

You can see the dilemma here? We reduce our reality from what it is to become what we should be – as told by who? Who decides? Ironically, we do collectively. We pressurise one another because we are society. I wasn’t happy about going out on leave. I didn’t particularly enjoy it but decided to push past my anxieties because I know the more I allow it and give it control the harder it becomes to break its suffocating hold on me. What else is my reality that “shouldn’t be”?

I’m not overly in love with my body right now as it is. I try to practice gratitude for what it can do and does for me. I try to reframe self-deprecating thoughts and accompanying feelings. I don’t work. I study, and I don’t even study full-time. I don’t always eat a healthy diet. I am not always happy. I don’t live fully independently. I don’t speak to most of my family. That’s a long list of “should nots” I am committing right there, and it’s by no means an exhaustive list. I have accepted a lot of my situations. I understand them and readily defend them to the “shouldn’t you be…?” commentary often from complete strangers who know nothing about me.

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In this I try to own my discrepancies from the “how should we live” prescribed ideology of western living. No I didn’t enjoy my leave, no it didn’t make me happy and I accept that. I have chosen to own my personal discrepancies and acknowledge which I want to work on because I want to, for me, not for you or for “society”. The question is, do you? Do you accept not only my discrepancies and deviance from our “should be” lives, but do you accept yours too?

How many “shoulds” of our world are your actual existence? And how many “should nots” are you currently living? Acceptance is a silent resistance to the pressures of “should”. In owning our own we reduce the pressure we place on ourselves and each other. Diamonds may be formed under high pressure but they have a monetary value only, whereas you being your best self doesn’t. Go on, be priceless.