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.

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Moving On From Hypomania

As with every episode, as it comes to an end and I regain the ability to think I start making plans to try to stay well. I reflect on what has been helpful for me in the past or in general. I look at the advice given by others with similar difficulties. I try to do what my CMHT tell me is helpful and not helpful.

It’s a lot. It’s a lot of studying yourself and others. It’s a lot of analysing what perhaps didn’t work so well, and what did.

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I’ve made a plan, which focuses mainly around reinstating a form of routine to my days. Prior to this episode I had routine due to uni and studying for my exams. I’ve lost that and feel it needs to be established in some form over the summer months until September.

My Stay Well List:

  1. Keep engaging with the Headspace app for daily mindfulness practice as well as practicing mindfulness in general such as whilst brushing my teeth, whilst travelling and checking in throughout the day with myself.
  2. Eat well. Whole nourishing food. Start with eliminating added sugar to my hot drinks. Aim for an 80/20 distribution of micronutrient rich food and food just for fun.
  3. Sleep. Try to keep to a routine of waking up at a decent time. Currently aiming for 7:30am – with the view to push it to 6:30am.
  4. Make a routine out of nothing. Busy myself enough so that there is no abundance of unfilled time.
  5. Talk to and work with my care coordinator: even if I don’t particularly want to.
  6. Exercise – follow an outline training plan, which gives routine and predictability to each week.
  7. Create purpose by signing up to volunteering roles to help with routine as well.
  8. Take vitamin supplement with particular focus on magnesium and zinc in chosen supplement. Take it every other day. Also keep taking meds.
  9. Don’t get drunk. Just the occasional 1-2 drinks.
  10. Read for pleasure to keep the mind occupied. Recognise when to reduce stimulus and do it, even as caution if unsure.

That’s a lot! Unfortunately it all feels necessary. Mood swings seem to be accompanied by a lapse in my self-care regime and routine of activities. It can be hard to get the balance of busy enough but not too busy. Engaged enough but not in excess.

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Balance is something that I’ve been working on trying to achieve more of since the beginning of the year. I’m still working on it. I suppose this is going to be quite the journey.

 

The ‘Restless and Repetitive Motions’ Phase

:The Phases and Faces of Hypomania

The restlessness can become very intense. You want to sit down and chill out but you need to keep moving. It feels slightly compulsive, like if you stop moving you’ll die. However, there is less logic than that painted scenario, and less purpose. There seems no purpose to this need to move other than to channel the excessive energy.
Your heart rate pounds. Your breathing is struggling to keep up. Your GI system seems on fast forward too with the little you’ve been able to eat because food doesn’t even come into the picture. It is like being slightly mutant, you don’t need food or sleep. You are super human in a very human world.
Music can both help and worsen this situation. Having a rhythm to move to helps with the repetitive dance moves that are more of a motion than any dance move. The body feels kind of rigid but unable to stop moving at the same time. After a while, the motions become soothing in some way. They bring a sense of calm amongst the chaos. They bring something that will eventually calm down when I do – a helpful indicator of where I’m at.
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Can I stop? Sometimes I can but it is more comfortable not to. Sometimes I can’t despite my wanting to. Sometimes I can stop and I do stop. This is the most favourable outcome.
Going out can help and walking. I just walk and walk until I’m done. 20,000 steps in the day isn’t even scratching the surface as to how much I can walk. This helps burn and channel the energy in a more purposeful movement. My distracted mind can become occupied with all the distractions there are outside: birds, shops, people.
I try to keep myself to myself if I can. It’s a form of containment. The thing with hypomania is that you don’t always lose insight: which means I know I’m a flight risk of just going on an adventure on a whim, which could include regretful activities. In a certain mind frame, some street drugs seem like the magical answer to unlocking my super powers: that sort of temptation and thinking can get me into a lot of trouble. With this insight, I try to keep myself to myself. It’s a tricky one to call.
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When I’m 100% in control of myself: or I feel that way, odd movements at awkward angles isn’t a problem. My head can stay still and music can travel through my ears without physically jolting my head in a number of different directions.Eventually the restlessness subsides despite how uncomfortable it can be at the time.

I Have a Big Mind, So I Can Keep Dreaming

I have a very big mind. I don’t know if you can quantify the size of a mind seeing as it is abstract. What I mean when I say I have a big mind is that it wanders. I have high ambitions for myself, and sometimes believe in them. I think I’m going to become an award-winning author, a Nobel prize receiving nutritionist (has that ever even happened?). I’m going to run marathons and go on to running ultra’s. I want to play instruments and dance like Darcey Bussell

I don’t just want to do all of this stuff. I strive to do it all. However, one obstacle keeps getting in my way. My mental health. I can be very disabling for me. Sometimes, when I am unwell, I can’t even cook or eat properly. I can’t wash. Going to the toilet feels like a chore. Understanding and depicting between reality and fantasy can be a challenge.

I think a lot. I use mindfulness to tame my thinking – and often my mind may be empty, and still I think a lot. I can switch off, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t want all of these things for myself, along with a fantastic relationship, and friends, and above all – learning to manage my mental health.

One thing I still struggle with a lot is knowing how much I can do. I often feel like I want every waking moment of my days to be achieving something – be that studying, learning, writing, reading, running, climbing, art. Perhaps I expect too much of myself. I’m not sure.

When I’m depressed though, something I always struggle with is my inability to do very much at all – and learning to reign in my ideals of how I want to live my life. Accepting the limitations placed on me by my illnesses is something I have not fully accepted. I have accepted it more than I could a few years ago: it is a process. At the same time, I don’t want to not live my life because of my illnesses. I don’t want to sell myself short. I think most people can relate to wanting to be the best version of themselves, and to wanting to live their life as the best version of themselves.

So accepting that I can only read a paragraph at a time, accepting that I can’t go out or leave the house, accepting that I can’t run 4 times a week because quite simply, I am too unwell is difficult to adapt to each time I get unwell. Unfortunately, for me, getting unwell is still a frequent part of my life and I wonder if ever I will be as well as I hope to be. I expected to be a fully functioning member of society with a brilliant job after being off work for 6 months. That was 6 years ago. Evidently, these hopes and desires didn’t quite pan out.

There are times when I wish I was someone else. There are more than numerous times when I wish I didn’t have my illnesses. In fact, I wish this most days that I’m affected negatively by them. I think that is natural, right? So here, on that point right there I need to do some more acceptance work. By that I don’t mean stop fighting and give in. By that I mean learn when to pull the reigns in and accept that for a period of time I probably can’t do everything I want to do or wish for.

The difficulty of this acceptance I think is compounded by the highs I experience. During these times, life is bloody wonderful and I’m functioning at 200%. I’m productive beyond measure, goal orientated like a world champion athlete chasing after an Olympic Gold. I’m talented. I’m brilliant. I’m capable of anything and everything I set myself to. This is called hypomania – and the part that gets me the most is the comparison.

When I am hypomanic, experiencing myself at 200% and loving it, producing grand plans and ideas of how I’m going to become successful in every sense of the word makes the contrast between this state and being so low I cannot leave my bed a more bitter pill to swallow – and in swallowing my meds, I am to an extent, forfeiting these periods of my best self.

Overall, I know it is worth it because I get severely depressed much more than I get hypomanic – yet the contrast of the, “but I’m so brilliant” during those times is a difficult price to pay for stability. Over the years I have refused medications and not taken my medication. Slowly I have learned that this is in fact the worst thing I can do because 90% I will go down, down, down. I have learned the importance of taking my meds, and the importance of self-care in terms of sleep hygiene, and keeping calm in my overall performance, because what is the use of functioning and being my best self at 200% for a few weeks once a year or so, compared to a functioning level between 60-70% for the majority of the time? It is an equation of better odds in longevity.

But I have a big mind and I despise not being capable. I despise not being independent 100% of the time. I resent the fact that I am resigned to not working full-time, perhaps ever. At times it eats me up inside that I may never reach my full best self due to my illness – and actively accepting that going to the shop for some milk and watching Netflix is as good as it’s going to get for a few weeks is a painful realisation to find yourself in when you have such a big mind.

I know that I need to tame my mind. I may not be able to be brilliant all the time, much to my disappointment – but I can be above good for most of the time when I’m well? Is that a fair price to pay for being 5% of myself, and totally disabled by my mental illness? No. I don’t think so. Is it reality though? Is that just how mental illness goes? Yes. I suppose it is. Do I want to accept that? Not at all. Do I need to accept that? Most definitely.

Many brilliant minds in the public eye are tortured by mental illness, yet they manage to be really quite remarkable. Stephen Fry. Ruby Wax. Catherine Zeta Jones. Demi Lovato. When I see how successful they are, I find myself thinking, why not me? There is an element of self belief required, but the truth is, these people are exceptions. Exceptional minds and personalities with mental illness. They do not represent the majority of people with mental illness. I think society forgets that and that help me to also forget that.

I see a lot of people where I live, and amongst the services and hospitals I’ve been to who experience severe mental illness, and for them, just living in supported accommodation or volunteering 4 hours a week is as good as it’s going to get. Yet I don’t see myself amongst that population. I don’t see myself as higher or better, but I see my mind as bigger. I don’t identify with the people in my living complex who spend all day every day staring into space smoking and drinking – I see myself in the Stephen Fry’s and the Demi Lovato’s: but I just can’t sustain my abilities at a high enough level – and that is something I suppose I need to learn to accept. That is something I need to learn to live with, without thinking I may as well kill myself at the same time. That is something I am sure many of us struggle with, mental illness or not.

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I just wish I could be my 200% for 100% of the time. I can dream. We all can. If I keep dreaming, and keep trying, it might become reality – until then, I need to reign in my expectations of myself again – and the heart wrenching reality of my illness hits me hard in the gut, in my soul, at my very core of what I consider to be my being. This is why I don’t work. This is why many people with mental illness don’t work and that’s OK – I just wish every person understood that without judgement. Maybe one day I too will work full-time, maybe I won’t.  Like I said though, I can dream right?

That Tough Mudder for MIND

In the pub one December evening in 2014 a friend and I decided it would be a really good idea to sign up for Tough Mudder. We decided it would be fun, it would be a real laugh and a challenge that was totally do-able. We 100% had it in the bag already, after a pint or two I was convinced I could run it right now and with nine months to train. We were gonna smash it. We teamed up and began to raise money for Mind in the process.

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I was originally signed up for Tough Mudder in September 2015. However, in early September I found myself stuck in hospital in the middle of nowhere. On section, I wasn’t allowed to leave and there was no leeway for negotiation. I deferred my entry until May 2016 with the assumption that I would be better and have had enough recovery time to focus on training again.

Some new meds, some disruptions and some turbulence later I was admitted on section in April 2015. This meant that again, I couldn’t go. This time, ashamed and disappointed I retreated into the distance. I went quiet. Overcoming that admission took a very long time; it had a profound effect on me and when I came home I struggled to even go to the shop on my own. My social worker described what I went through with that admission as a trauma, and no wonder I was overwhelmed. I guess it’s hard to know when everything is so confusing and you don’t understand why you’re stuck on the inside, and everything is a whirlwind of screaming, fighting, restraints and tears.

As a result, I went quiet about all the races I missed during that admission and the money I raised was donated over to Mind regardless. I was upset and felt guilty for having accepted donations and money and having not actually done the challenge I was sponsored for. I also felt guilty asking for a Mind charity place for a third time. So I didn’t. I let it go.

I accepted that I had been too unwell to be able to go to Tough Mudder twice in a row, and for as unfortunate as that was I accepted that it wasn’t my fault. I had to accept that these circumstances had been beyond my control and even though it didn’t feel ok, it was ok. That’s the nature of mental illness right? I put it behind me and focused on getting better, yet it still felt like unfinished business. In my mind, I was going to revisit it and tie the loose end for myself when I was more stable and more well, whenever that may be.

Then December 2016 happened. I had a rocky time with starting uni but during a particularly ambitious patch of behaviour I signed up. I had a touch of realism about me still, thank goodness, and I opted for the half distance. I kept it quiet and only told a close few incase I didn’t do it again.

The date crept up on me and fortunately I had managed to start running regularly again. It became harder to keep it quiet; a tad of excitement, a touch of self realisation that I could do it, and a growing sense of self belief spread the secret out a bit more than I had initially intended.

On the day, Wifey and I travelled to the venue together. She wasn’t running however, said she may consider running one next year? *nudge nudge – that would be a really great idea – hint*. She sat with me during the pre-race nerves and put up with my excessive neediness for affection and reassurance. in the run up to the race. Like the boss of a Wifey that she is, she stood by me right until it was time to go into the warm up pen. At the start line, she waved me off.

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This was it. This was the moment that had taken be 1 1/2 years to get to. This was the event that had hung over me for the past 2 1/2 years and I had finally crossed the start line. It seems to be a theme that getting to the start line is the hardest part for me. I was on my own. The tough Mudder mantra is that no one is on their own. The challenge is about comradery and teaming up with people you don’t know. You’re all in this together, you start together and you finish together. However, running a race that most people sign up with for in a group can make running it feel a little bit lonely at times.

I’m no stranger of doing things on my own. I am an only child after all. I’ve been wanting to start running trails lately, so running the off-road terrain was something I really enjoyed, even without music. The constant challenge and excitement of the terrain was enough to keep my mind occupied: the scenery and the challenge of the hills, of which there were plenty was enough. Sometimes the course led us up a hill just for the fun of it to come back down. It’s like a reminder of a lot of what we do in life. Why do we run in big circuits, and climb walls to just come back down again? For the fun of it of course, and the feeling of accomplishment that you can’t get from not climbing the wall or running in a big circuit just for the fun of it.

The obstacles around the course were a good challenge and totally do-able. My favourite was block ness monster; I love water obstacles. It always takes some nerves to dive into a cold pool of muddy stinking water, but afterwards, despite stinking of sewage, you feel great. The other obstacles on the half course included: mud mile, the pyramid scheme, inverted walls, high walls, and the grand finale, Everest 2.0.

Everest 2.0 is one of those obstacles wherein which you have to break down barriers and put your trust in a stranger to haul you over the ledge all after you’ve run up a quarter pipe upon which it is highly likely to end in a royal motherfucker of a face plant. It took a number of attempts and to my surprise, I didn’t land on my face.

Also surprisingly, hanging from someone’s hands whilst straggling legs in all directions in an attempt to get over the ledge is really exhausting. Eventually when I was hauled over I had no strength left in me to help drag anyone over. In fact, i felt positively nauseous. Slowly I climbed down the ladder on the other side to be greeted by Wifey taking my photo and an upheaval of vomit into my mouth.

She ran to the hydration station and got me some water to drink to one of her infamous pep-talks. I could do it. It wasn’t far until the finish line now. I had already covered most of it. I recollected myself.  Picked my sorry arse up off the floor and using her words of encouragement began to run again. I wasn’t far now. I was nearly done. I soon saw the finish line, with Wifey running up beside me to take my picture crossing the line.

There’s nothing quite like crossing the finish line of a race or challenge and seeing Wifey’s face beaming at me. I collected my treasured headband that certified I had indeed done a Tough Mudder challenge. I had done it. Two and a half years after I was originally signed up to line up at the start I made it. I crossed it.

Crossing that finish line was more than just a Tough Mudder challenge. It wasn’t just for fun anymore. It was unfinished business as a result of my mental health difficulties. Crossing that finish line signified finishing something I signed up to for myself years ago, and making it to the event and crossing that start line signified a new era of mental health better than I was for a long time. That’s very wordy, I don’t know how to say that in a less wordy or awkward way – I’m not great or at my best, but I am better, and that’s a big fucking deal.

 

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Running Tough Mudder Half, for this reason, was a massive moment for me. It’s a year since I last signed up, and also a year since I was last roaming the corridors of a hospital ward. I’m not always well and I’m not unwell like I was back then. I’m bigger than I was due to medication. I’m slower than I was when I signed up and felt like I had the running world at my feet. I’m not as confident about my strength and abilities, yet I’m more confident than I was a month ago. Finally, thank you to everyone who sponsored me and yes, I finally ran it. I did it. I crossed the line. Loose end tied. I think this story is less about Tough Mudder and more about keeping on keeping on. When life throws you a royal shit storm, grab the hand of your right hand (wo)man and damn well dance, because together you’ve got this. We’ve got this.

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She said ‘strike a pose’ – This is what comes to mind whenever anyone says strike a pose, right?

Coming Out of Hospital After 4 Weeks In

From the end of April to late May I spent 4 weeks in a psychiatric hospital, hence my absence. It was a difficult admission and still now I am struggling to quite get my head around what happened, what’s happening, and what I went through. I am also struggling to get back to every day life. Having spent 4 weeks in an NHS institution with nothing to do but sit and talk crap with other patients, sleep and eat I have struggled with going out, with my desire to leave my room, with socialising, with public transport and with getting up in the morning amongst other things.

I am still, after almost 2 weeks out, trying to pick myself up and get going with my life again. It’s been a hard ol’ slog. At the moment I am focusing on getting up and dressed in the a.m and trying to spend my days doing more than staring at the TV until I’m sleepy again. I haven’t managed to start exercising again yet – for some reason I’m really scared to go for a run, or get on my bike. I think this is going to be a long process that seems to be moving at a glacial pace.

I am however, trying to implement skills and tactics in order to get going again, and in order to cope with my new found freedom, in addition to coping in healthier ways than those I employed prior to my admission which landed me in hospital for 4 weeks. My journey from public place, to police van, to 136 suite and then to hospital was quite a surreal one. I did write a lot whilst I was in hospital about what I was going through, some of which I plan to share over the coming days in order to explore my experience. It kind of illustrates my journey with my experience.

After 4 weeks of doing very little, and becoming accustomed to sleeping the days away in order to pass time and be perceived ad the “good quiet” patient, I am slowly getting used to getting up and dressed, as I barely dressed or washed whilst I was in hospital. In fact, every time I have showered since coming out (2-3 times) I have lost the knack of keeping soap out of my eyes and mouth in the shower – this is also something I am currently grappling to re-learn.

So what am I doing to get myself back on track?

1.Set an alarm for 8:30 and 9am to try and get  up and out of bed in a decent time.
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2. I decided from today to not watch TV before 3pm, otherwise I will sit there and watch it all day at the moment. This isn’t usually something I struggle with but it has cropped up since I have come home.
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3. Making plans on sites like Meet Up to go out with people, socialise and become slightly active again.
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4. Making daily To Do lists to try and do something productive with my day and to get chores done.
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5. Trying to go out and acclimatise to using public transport again.
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6. Planning fun things to look forward to.
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7. Keeping a functioning and mood reflective diary.
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The Happy Stuff Are What Friends Are Made Of

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Nowadays my phone has a use beyond trawling forums and moaning on a pseudo-twitter account. Now my contract doesn’t seem like such a waste of money. I would phone Wifey, but it was most often small conversations organising where we would be meeting, or having a 5-minute catch up on my way home from somewhere.

I’m not really talking about my phone though. I’m talking about an absence of human contact, and ultimately, friends. At many times during my illness did I isolate and want nothing more than to be alone, but the contrasting fact is that I needed friends. I needed someone other than wifey to be silly with. I needed human connection to help me realise that not all people are bad.

Not everyone is going to try and manipulate me, or fuck me over, or lie to me to try and twist my already skewed reality for me. Not everyone is a snake. Not everyone is out to get me, nor are they trying to set me up for failure to prove their own selves right. Yes, some people do these things, but not all people.

For the one or two friendships I maintained throughout the worst of my illness it was hard to not put these scarred feelings onto our relationship. The main learning point is accepting that not everyone is like that, and learning to trust again. In order to learn that, I needed someone to prove me wrong: a volunteering organiser, a social worker, a doctor, and someone who’s job it wasn’t, who by a kind act here and there, out of pure free will proved my existing truths to be wrong.

I needed someone to send silly pictures to, someone to text when I’m happy as well as sad. I needed someone to rave with, and rant with. I needed someone to idly smoke cigarettes with. I needed a friend or two. Not many, just a small few to share my life with.

Now I am a bit better and I have been able to re-connect with people. I attend college where I’ve made friends. I go to the pub from time to time with another, and drink wine with another. Like I said, I only desire just a small few.

I am grateful for my friends, and thankful for finally finding a few people who I can be myself around, who I enjoy spending time with, and who make me smile. I am also grateful for those who stuck by me as a friend when I was unwell: who visited me when I was in hospital, or sent me a little text here, and invited me to the pub there.

So, to my friends, for being my friends, thank you. You’ve changed my belief in all of man kind. We’re not all so bad after all.