Late Bloomers

It was recently National Poetry Day, and a feeling waved over me that has been kept at bay since being in Spain. It has been around a month now, and I can’t remember the last time I was this happy. Aside from the usual stresses that come and go, especially when settling into a new place, I have had no doubt that coming here has been the right decision.

Yet, I still feel a pull back to London, something partly a fear of missing out (FOMO), but also more than that. FOMO has become all the more common since the age of social media. This means that I am seeing so many of my peers in poetry do all these amazing things I wish I was going. To be clear, I am pleased for their success, but I feel a gnawing at me that I have never really given myself a chance to truly reach my potential in writing.

I know that with full dedication, I am capable of doing what others are doing, in carving a space in the poetry world where it is possible to make some sort of living from what you love doing. So, I know that I want to return, to give myself that chance to blossom without having to dedicate so many hours to a full-time job. At twenty-eight, I will be doing this much later than anticipated, but I wouldn’t necessarily be where I am now if I had done anything differently up to this point. And, like I said, I’m happy where I am.

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The point is, that one of the things that has been infringing on my contentedness is my own habit of comparing myself to others. Especially when others are younger than me. I berate myself for not having that version of success, for not doing what they’re doing. Even when I’m actually doing something completely different, with its own set of goals. I mean, how amazing would it be if, by the end of the year, I could actually speak Spanish. If I could write and perform poems in Spanish. I’m having an experience that may just be for this one year, and so I need to appreciate every moment of it.

I came here to learn Spanish, to make that my priority. I’m going to be having around 8 hours of lessons a week, plus homework, plus living somewhere that I can gradually use it in everyday life. The concierge at my block of flats already told me that I was getting better… after I asked how he was. I’m in the lowest group at A1 level, but I hope that with a bit of hard work, and a bit of Duo Lingo, that I can improve. I’m also obviously working to teach English as a foreign language, and still acquiring a whole lot of skills whilst doing it.

I’m still writing all the usual things – poems, stories, articles… blog posts! Just because I’m not earning money for the writing I’m doing at the moment, doesn’t mean I have to hand back my “writer” badge. So, in the vein of these thoughts, I wrote a poem that I started in the early hours of the morning following National Poetry Day having been busy with things not poetry related. It’s dedicated to all the late bloomers out there. Enjoy.

Wellbeing: World Bipolar Day

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I’ve never been properly diagnosed, because I’m sure it would be more official, but a doctor once told me I have cyclothymia. It’s a mild form of bipolar disorder, and means that my functioning isn’t as impaired as those who have bipolar type I or II because it consists of mild depression and hypomania. Interestingly, I have had a diagnosis of GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder), and below it states that 62.9& of those on the bipolar spectrum also have an anxiety disorder. I feel like a lot of the time my mood is an internal thing that fluctuates, just as anyone’s does, but it means the extremities aren’t always visible. It can then get to a stage where, not necessarily feeling like I bottle things up, but, it can feel like things have built up to boiling point.

The last couple of days I’ve gone from mild depression to hypomania. I would say that today has been close to “normal”, but it can be hard to define what that is, and I’m currently writing this past 11pm, knowing that this will mean a late night, but also feeling anxious about how it will impact on my day tomorrow. I want to exercise in the morning and have time to fit in washing my hair in time for me to be able to go out later with dry hair. I have a CBT appointment and I have no idea whether I’ve been doing what I was meant to be doing.

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So, yesterday my mood was sent spiralling after feeling upset about a conversation and that relationship, and had a stressful time after I booked a train ticket to arrive at home when I’ll already be in another city. I had expected to do a whole load of things that afternoon and ended up only just getting through my emails. I was meant to cook for my mum, but after falling into a deep sadness, combined with incredible rage and sense of hopelessness, I had lost my appetite. Anyone who knows me will know that I very rarely lose my appetite. I felt guilty about what little I’d done, and the hassle with trainline.com had me feeling pessimistic about recovering any positive feelings that night. So, what helped? The cooking I eventually did helped, talking to my mum helped, and so did accepting things the way they were. I had a bath, ate chocolate, watched a film and a reasonably good night’s sleep, though disrupted by waking early. I did also write some poetry for pleasure before I went to sleep, and it was a really important, cathartic experience.

Today I was lucky to have a main focus for my attention, which was a poetry commission I’m working on. I had a doctor’s appointment, and I have to walked through a field of horses to get there, which always seems bizarre to me. I felt really irritable throughout the walk – towards dogs, towards children, towards everyone – but I also felt empowered by taking ownership of the day, and I think the walking helped. The sun was shining, I had shades on, and I was listening to Destiny’s Child. I returned to my poems when I was home and combined research and writing. I didn’t finish, and I didn’t get to write any of the novel, but I was glad at my focus and what I had achieved. I was also able to fit in a couple hundred words of that novel in between getting injections and getting some soup at EAT before attending a poetry workshop. My focus on these creative pursuits enabled me to move on from how I was feeling the day before, and also to take the focus away from the relationship, personalising the conversation I’d had, so that when I talked to that person again, the conversation was good for both of us.

So, other than the parts highlighted in bold in both of these passages, I thought I’d write a list of things that have helped me in my own wellbeing. I thought it was interesting to describe about it in terms of these two days, but it’s also worth noting that it can be outwardly more extreme from cartwheeling in public spaces to crying lots and self-harming (although anxiety might have a bit to do with this too). So, some things:

-Meditation
-Relaxing baths
-Massages
-Playing sad songs/watching sad films (or uplifting ones)
-Singing
-Exercise
-Good support system – talking to friends and family, or online forums
-Being creative in a cathartic way (as opposed to professional/work stuff)
-Cooking (cleaning and gardening may be similar for others)
-Reminding yourself of positive qualities and who you are
-Making fun plans to look forward to
-Chocolate/treating yourself

Things to avoid:
-Long internet sessions without purpose, especially when comparing self with others
-Not doing anything or wanting to do too much – focus on one goal at a time
-Pushing away loved ones
-Drinking alcohol excessively

So, these things are just touching the surface, but for me it was important to make a list, to remind myself that all these things are as worthwhile as ticking things off my to-do list. It’s really hard to listen to what you need in the moment, and I don’t really know what my own patterns are in terms of cyclothymia, but that’ll be something I figure out. With or without such labels, these things are important for everyone to remember.

Oh, and for poetry, play the video on here – Emily Harrison, open about her own bipolar disorder, and also an excellent poet.She also has a book out.

Wellbeing: Learning to Listen to Myself

When you’re a planner and your life is made of calendar dates and Excel spreadsheets, it can be hard to relax. Even a fun poetry night or a social occasion can be in danger of becoming another item to tick off. Trying to listen to what I actually want to do with myself? Almost impossible.

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So, I am trying to do less, to give myself more time to reprioritise, because sometimes part of this comes down to being unable to know what’s important. During my last CBT session, I admitted that even I – known to many as being hyper-productive – can procrastinate.

At the moment I want to continue a currently unfinished novel I started two years ago during NaNoWriMo. Whilst at times I had reasonable excuses to avoid completing it, since the beginning of this year I have purposely been staying in more, so I can write more. And I have written a lot of poems, and that has made me happy. I’m taking part in an online writing group where we are writing a sonnet a day for 40 days to coincide with lent (just let me not to give up, but to take on).

So, working out things at the top of my priorities, with an impending deadline being that I am leaving the country in less than two months. So, I want to finish my novel, and I want to edit and consolidate my existing poetry. Instead of tackling these after I’ve written the poem of the day (not to mention the past few months before I started doing that). I will complete easier tasks, like emails, researching travel, doing applications for things, and I will even put things off by playing games (like a normal person).

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However, even as I write this, I’m thinking… actually, I wanted to blog more regularly, and I’m doing okay at that at the moment. But other things pop into my head – I want to learn Spanish, or at least go on DuoLingo regularly enough to keep my topics golden. I want to write creatively everyday, which I’m doing and would like to keep up. I want to keep on top of my diary. And I want to read more! I just read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in less than a week because I set myself that as a goal, and it helped that it was an incredible book – a captivating storyline, but also rich in its language, very poetic.

Apparently, I could also do with some “unstructured time” and have been trying that with my CBT. Maybe it’s because it’s connected to building tolerance to uncertainty (I hate uncertainty), and that I feel guilty when I spontaneously play a game, but I feel like I would benefit more from structuring this time loosely… having a reading goal not only helped me achieve something in a sense, but I was able to enjoy it because the activity itself is a form of relaxation, as well as being mentally and creatively stimulating.

One of the best things about having creative ambitions means I never run the risk of becoming bored. Even when I thought I would be bored re-reading this terrible “novel” of mine, it was actually interesting and giving myself a time-goal really helped with that. I’m nearing 27 years of age, and whilst that’s a terrifying prospect having quit my job and moving (temporarily) out of my parents’ house to go abroad, there are some cool things that maybe some people can only experience at such an age.

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Although it’s not specifically related to being 27, I feel like I’m really focused on different goals, and actually being able to begin to prioritise a bit more successfully. Except maybe for the rare urge to drink lots and dance, I now take great pleasure in meals out and quiet pubs. Like, can we go somewhere we can actually hear each other? And did I mention ‘Things the Grandchildren Should Know’ by Mark Oliver Everett? Not the book format, but the audio version. For a while I got really excited about audio books, but didn’t manage to find another one like it. The storytelling was on point, but it also utilized the form by playing music (Everett is in the band Eels) throughout it. If anyone can recommend me any more of those, please do. I tried to listen to one on Patti Smith, but felt frustrated by the lack of music.

I also used to hate sleep, and being cyclothymic I sometimes want to stay up late/all night, but for the most part, I enjoy that feeling now of getting into PJs fresh from a hot bath and cuddling up in bed. I’m lucky if I get 7 hours, but I actually appreciate sleep so much more than I used to. It’s a habit I’ve not quite ingrained in my psyche, but I also enjoy a bit of meditation (Head Space, standard) and mostly use it to settle before bed (okay, on a good night, I’ll fall asleep during it). It’s still difficult to pull away from activity, and nowadays to even look at just one screen at a time, to relax in ways not involving screens.

So, what I’m trying to do more is to be flexible, to be kind to myself and not punish myself for not finishing my to-do lists when they’ve been overly ambitious, or when getting expensive travel vaccinations have delayed going home. I’m learning to listen to myself more, in terms of what I’m doing with my time. The other week, I had an argument that resulted in me being intensely emotional, and I felt a strong need to write in my diary. I couldn’t do anything else until I had got my feelings out, feelings I had been avoiding expressing, without even realising I needed to, because I couldn’t form the words until that point.

Life even at its most comfortable, isn’t always easy to figure out how to do. So, turning 27 soon is just about continuing the journey, trying to listen to what you need and want to do day-to-day.

What would you do if this happened to you?

Today has been a good day. I reflected on how I’d appreciate my job more if I wasn’t so focused on things outside it (making it in the poetry biz). In this moment, I realised that I can enjoy my job a lot more by adjusting how I’m looking at it. Sometimes I see it as something preventing me from doing things I want to do. I’m sure we all do from time to time. Actually, there’s room to be quite creative in my role as an Academic Mentor for English, and it’s given me a lot of experience that is sure to benefit me in my future career.

Today I also took the opportunity to read some of my poetry on the theme of adventure to some visiting primary school students as part of World Book Day/Week. They were in Year 6 and were adorable, and so hardworking and talented. It was a real pleasure to work with them to produce their own adventure poems! I saw only a handful, but I was really impressed by the imagination and creativity of their work, and how enthusiastically they scribbled away.

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I left work having read an Irish myth with some Year 11s, and having written some sonnets with my Creative Writing Club. I was feeling pretty chuffed, and looking forward to writing a different blog post and hoping to revive the novel I started a couple of years ago now. I then passed a man who, mid-crossover, held out his hand to me. There was a wad of cash and a piece of paper, and he was gesturing to me to take it. He told me, “you’ve had a good day, you deserve it.”

I was really taken aback, and for some reason, I said “that’s alright” and refused the money. It was about £20-60. I didn’t look at it long, and soon enough the moment was over. But it got me thinking. I was so curious as to why someone would do that. And why me? Pure chance, luck of the draw? It also made me think about my reaction – why did I reject it?

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Well, my first thought after rejecting it was that I could have given it to someone who needed it more than me; if this was a random act of kindness, I could have accepted it and passed it on. Remember the film, Pay it Forward? I thought of the woman who is regularly on the streets outside Bethnal Green tube station, about the poets coming to perform at my place of work for very little money, and the friends and loved ones who are struggling to earn who I could treat with it.

If my first reaction was that I’m not deserving of it, why was this? I’m on relatively low pay for the job I’m in, for my qualifications, and still live with my parents due to this. Plus, with my artistic ambitions, saving every penny should be important. Maybe because it was near payday, and maybe because I had been reflecting on how lucky I was already that day, I felt like I should reject it, that I didn’t deserve it.

This idea of what one deserves is interesting, especially as I tend to make a lot of assumptions about what I deserve. However, as I’m writing now I realise that these assumptions are  bound up in exchanges. Perhaps it felt bad for me to accept the money because I’d feel guilty: no exchange took place. However, by rejecting it, I may be denying him the good feeling of this random act of kindness, if that was his intention. There are two strands of thought to which this is then tied. Firstly, this idea of exchange, I’m guessing, must stem from living in a capitalist society. I hadn’t done anything to earn that money, so why should I have it?

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Secondly, my mind jumped from thinking about what I could have possibly done to earn the money. That maybe I didn’t do anything, maybe I just was. I began to wonder of the intention in a way that may not make sense, but I wondered about the gendered aspect of this situation. Would he have offered the money to a man? I questioned this, and when I told my dad, he not only said that he would have taken the money, but that he imagined if he was a woman he would be wondering about the intention of this.

I’m not saying there is anything gendered in terms of taking the money or not (yet) as my mum also said she would take it. But I have to admit that these years of walking as a woman have made me defensive when it comes to men talking to me in the street due to the amount of negative, intimidating situations I’ve encountered. A random act of kindness did provoke some suspicion. I felt the same way when a man offered me a seat on the train once: do I look pregnant? I panicked.

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I wondered what was written on the note, probably a nice message about having a nice day and doing something nice with the money. The guy that approached me was just a normal guy, nothing stood out to me as unusual. And he did seem genuine and nice. Perhaps it links back to experiences as a teenager with what strangers were to me. They threw water balloons at you. They slapped you in parks. They called you to their van to ask directions. They kissed you at drunken parties. They called you and threatened to “shank” you. What is sad is that I’ve internalised these experiences, so that when a stranger does something we can probably safely assume was kind, I question these motives – and my deservingness – so automatically that it is simply a reflex to reject the money.

I’m really interested to know what others would do, so please comment below to let me know how you think you might react to this situation. I’m also really curious to find out why this man offered me this money, so if he ends up reading this, please let me know! I wish I had stopped to ask why. For now, I’ll override my initial concerns and put it down to a random act of kindness. And maybe next time I’ll be more aware of it happening.

 

Wellbeing: Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy

Before this turns into a rant about the state of mental health care in the UK, I’m going to give a brief overview of my experiences and where I am at the moment, as well as looking at one of the books that started my journey into looking seriously at my wellbeing.

I see my mental health issues as being quite situational, so most of my problems stem from how I react to things rather than feelings that come out of nowhere. I don’t feel like I’ve had any formal diagnosis and a lot of the help I’ve been offered seems to be more to do with what is fashionable and cheap. At the moment that has meant a recent movement from CBT to Mindfulness. In terms of managing my mental health, both of these seem like good options for me.

I went to my first counselling appointment as a teenager, in reaction to a difficult period where I felt there was something wrong with me, but left with the therapist telling me that I was “okay” and didn’t need to come. This was at a point where I actually was a lot better, but looking back, my teenage years at secondary school are probably the most likely time I would label as having suffered from clinical depression, though I never got that label.

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The next time I looked for counselling was at university. They offered person-centred therapy and I finished it, but didn’t find it any more helpful than talking to a friend. I realised that it was the constant going out and binge drinking that is accepted as such a normal rites of passage at university, which was causing me problems. Again, this was a situational thing, but also chemical. Alcohol is obviously a depressant. But more than that, as an introvert, going out so much was exhausting and unnatural for me, and it resulted in a physical illness so bad it could have developed into what the doctor termed “leukaemia and other nasties”. For me, my mental and physical health are intrinsically linked.

Anyway, I don’t think the way we drink in the UK is normal, and although my behaviour was much like any other university student, I wanted to reach a position where I felt I didn’t need to binge drink. Lying in bed all day was something I should do (and still should do more), but without the horrible feelings that come with being hungover. I decided to go to alcohol counselling. The sessions were helpful and interesting, but it is still something I struggle with if given the chance to drink into the early hours. More helpful has been getting a job and focusing more on my career. I do like the odd night of dancing, but generally I prefer pubs and restaurants.

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It was this focus on my career though, that has meant for the last three-four years since graduating from my MA I have been working so hard that I’m risking burn-out again. People have different tolerance levels, but for me working 35 hours a week, travelling 3 hours a day to and from work (often standing in rush hour), and on top of that trying to work a second job that encompasses many roles within it – writer, performer, event organiser, workshop facilitator, editor – is impossible to keep up for much longer. For the last couple of years I have been trying to find a way to make this work better, and although I feel I’ve have anxiety from a very early age, I’m now at a stage where assessments have shown that I have GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder). It feels slightly more official than a doctor at university saying it sounds like I have cyclothymia, but in both cases I’m highly functional with it, so the only problem is how I feel inside rather than anything else.

I was recommended the book ‘Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy’ by David D. Burns. What I found most eye-opening and helpful about this book was the list of cognitive distortions. I was guilty of so many. There are many different techniques and suggestions that are in-line with CBT. I’m not always very good at actively doing these things, but I do find it useful to have these exercises at hand. Burns also makes the point that having therapy alongside medication is much better than just using medication alone. Its guide to anti-depressants made me feel lucky that my problems are mostly mild-moderate, as there are so many side-effects and so many different types, the trial-and-error you have to go through to get the right medication is a battle in itself.

During the time of reading this, I also got some CBT phone-calls, because the journey to my “local” psychological service was too difficult and stressful to get to. Sometimes with CBT it feels like you understand the logic of what you’re doing, but it has very little impact on the very real feelings associated with these thoughts. Maybe this is because the cognitive distortions are so embedded, but at times I felt like I was lying to myself and the therapist when the percentage I gave linked to a particular thought. Initially they had offered me to join a group Mindfulness session, which provoked lots of negative emotions, feeling like I wasn’t getting what I asked for, and just being offered it because it was cheap and fashionable. That said, I have come to see how Mindfulness is what I need, but it’s actually setting aside the time to do it that I find difficult.

My partner is a visual artist, so over Christmas, and beyond, I’ve been able to take some time to colour-in, which I’ve found to be a good exercise. I’m into all that return-to-childhood type stuff, so though I know it’s become a bit of a cliché, I think it’s good for people like me who like to be constantly doing things, as it’s an activity that keeps you occupied, but means you can relax your mind and zone-out a bit too. Meanwhile, I’ve also started some CBT sessions as part of a research project comparing CBT to a particular drug. I’ve found this quite interesting, and more useful than the phone calls. This isn’t just because it’s face-to-face, but because there is more of the B (behavioural). I’ve been set small steps to try to deal with uncertainties better – a massive problem for me, being quite the control-freak! Some of the stuff that has come out of it has been really eye-opening and I feel like I’m discovering things about myself, like how I actually have a lot of positive associations with worrying, such as it being a sign for care (inherited that one from my parents).

One of my tasks for this weekend is to leave some time for “unstructured activities”. I always set myself too many things to do, so even when I intend to do this, or to do more relaxing activities, the time gets eaten up and I always end up sacrificing it. As it’s homework, it should hopefully push me to actually do it. I’m also doing something extreme to help with the pattern I’ve got into with over-stretching myself with work etc. I’ve handed in my notice at work! But this post is quite long enough, so I’ll save that for another time…

Why I Don’t Believe in Diets

So, the video above is from a poem that was published by Nasty Little Press in the Podium Poets #1 anthology, in partnership with Spread the Word. We’re all familiar with the “New Year, New You” cliché and I wrote this poem after being sick of the post-holiday obsession over weight, perpetuated by adverts that play on our insecurities.

This year we saw the epitome of this came with Protein World’s advertising campaign, below. Now, it’s not so much as this is anything new, but it was more that it’s the last straw. These kinds of messages are so insidious and as much as I refuse to let them get to me, they do. Please, come up with a new way to sell your shitty weight-loss products. I mean, the product in itself is something I loathe.

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I’m even embarrassed to admit that I was conned into getting some “free” weight-loss tablets that ended up giving me heartburn and a hole in my bank account instead. I really paid for my stupidity as I could only get half the cash back after telling them what awful human beings they are. But really I think this shows how difficult, but imperative, it is to rebel against these kinds of campaigns.

So, when I was on my second membership to Move Your Frame and saw them post the same rhetoric, but this time linked to exercise, I vowed not to go there again. I mean, at least a weight-loss product is all about unrealistic expectations and isn’t trying to be something it’s not. But for a company whose message is meant to be about keeping fit, being healthy and being active in a fun way to jump on board the body-shaming bandwagon, it’s just a whole other shade of wrong.

Kate Tempest & Hollie McNish: Reclaim Touch from RANDOM ACTS on Vimeo.

One of my favourite poetry videos is the collaboration between Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish ‘Reclaim Touch’. I think more of this honesty is needed in our rebellion against the diet and weight-loss industry.

This was meant to be a short post, but I also wanted to mention Juliette Burton who spoke about Protein World during a panel at Feminism in London. I had already come across her on the Twitter-sphere, but hearing her in person was a privilege. She spoke about her experience with eating disorders, where at her lowest weight she was just 4 stone and a UK size 4, or the infamous US size 0. She was a month away from dying when she was the size that it is said that 11-17 year old girls are encouraged to desire, stating how advertising is the wallpaper of our lives. She also became an overeater and increased her weight to 19 stone, at a size 20, which had an impact on her mental health and resulted in feelings of suicide. She was able to find a healthy medium, but also suffered from bulimia. Here you can see why this matters.

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I write this as I’ve been too busy to go to the gym over the last few months. But I decided not to make myself feel guilty about it, and accept that I would get back into a routine when the time was right. Being so busy, I spend a lot of time walking anyway, and on New Year’s Day, after a lot of guiltless indulgence, I went on a 3/4 hour walk from Kingston Hospital to Kew Gardens and around the illuminated trail. Tomorrow I plan to do some dancing in my house, I’m going to a spa with my mum on Saturday, and then on Sunday I plan to return to the gym. But I will continue not to diet – the idea in itself an illogical concept where it’s a known fact that any weight loss is put back on. Instead, I will eat healthily, treat myself to nice things like chocolate, and exercise regularly to keep physically and mentally fit!

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