13 Reasons Why

I understand there has been a lot of criticism about 13 Reasons Why, much of it valid in dealing with such a sensitive topic as suicide. I wouldn’t recommend the show to anyone who is suffering or has suffered from suicidal thoughts and feelings. Netflix have now added a warning before the first episode, which really should have been there already.

Yet I have to admit that I was drawn into the story that was based on the book by Jay Asher, which I have not read. I was gripped by the narrative, and although it may be questionable to use such a subject matter in this way, I got a lot from watching it. Whilst it was a story of suicide, it was also about love and friendship. And although messages about suicide can be problematic, the basic idea of openly communicating with others and reaching out to those who may be in need, is a positive one.

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Being a teen drama, it brought me back to my own teenage years, and I related to Hannah’s character, who we know from the onset has killed herself. I didn’t just relate to Hannah because of her long, dark, curly hair. When I look back over those years of adolescence, I would now say I was depressed, though I had no clinical diagnosis. I feel a sadness for my younger self and my mum at the memory of screaming that I want to kill myself. I associate a lot of negative feelings with those years, despite there being some positive elements. I went from someone who loved going to primary school, to struggling to make it through each day, just trying to exist.

There’s a video of me as a child saying ‘I’m not weird, I’m Carmina.’ I’ve received a text from a friend meant for another saying I’m weird, received a light-hearted card from a friend about being so strange I make them feel normal, and the head-teacher of a school I worked at once joked that the teachers had had a meeting and concluded that I was strange. For the most part, this isn’t something serious, but throughout my life I have often felt like an outsider. And my closest friends would probably admit they are a little strange too.

Then again, I remember going for counselling once, and the man told me I was okay and didn’t need to come back. It is something that I often feel therapists think about me. Sometimes I think my ability to articulate myself to them means I manipulate them into thinking I’m “normal” and everyone else is “crazy”. Since then, a doctor has nonchalantly told me I’ve got cyclothymia (a very mild form of bipolar disorder), and I’ve been treated for anxiety disorder. Being told I’m okay or normal doesn’t exactly help, because although I’m high-functioning and my mental health doesn’t generally have a big impact on my life, being told such things doesn’t match up to my life experiences – how I am treated, or viewed, by others, or the feelings inside me that may not been obvious to others, but are very much real.

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So, when I was a teenager, my mental health was much worse (as I think it can be for a lot of people during this time). It can be damaging to think of this as simply a phase, when support is very much needed whatever age. I think being a teenager can be the most difficult time in your life, but then I’m only 28, so we will see. I had issues at home, and I had a difficult time getting on with everyone at school, and, although I had friends, I often felt like a target for a lot of different groups. Our school had a hostile environment, from the pushing up and down stairs, to the power games in the cafeteria.

I was also desperate for male attention, being at a girls school, but was also terrified of boys. I was like Raj in The Big Bang Theory, only able to talk to the opposite sex when fueled with alcohol (as a slightly older teenager). This naturally led to slut-shaming from boys (and some girls too). Boys who called me a beast, who slapped me round the face, who knocked me with their bike, who rated me out of 10. Boys who cheated on their girlfriends with me, without my knowledge, who said I was fucked up, who called me chewbacca, who said they’d like to rape me, who circled me at the bus stop aggressively saying things I couldn’t hear over my headphones (okay, that was all one boy). Plus, so-called friends revealing things told in confidence.

So, long story short, when I could see these issues reflected in Hannah’s story, it did trigger me, but not in a way that was negative. It brought back these memories, and it allowed me to progress them. I cried a lot, but in a way that was very healing. Whilst I agree with the criticism of the show, and can see it is not something that is suitable for everyone, for me, it helped to see my own life reflected in the story and helped process these feelings that I find difficult to let go.

My top 8 favourite things about Córdoba.

 

1. It’s beautiful.

When I first moved here, I walked around the streets in disbelief that I had the fortune to spend a year in such a beautiful city. Being surrounded by beauty has a way that lifts the spirits. Sure, it was bathed in summer sunlight then, but even in winter, it often is still and the fresh chill in the air doesn’t make the streets any less beautiful. I love the traditional cobbled streets, white and yellow houses with balconies, and the statues that are still popping up around the city. I was also lucky enough to bag my own apartment in the centre, which is equally as pretty inside.

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Pretty, even in the rain.

2. It’s chilled.

The general vibe of the city is pretty chilled out. People are friendly, and forgiving for those like me who struggle to speak Spanish. This means I can enjoy my job relatively stress-free, and day-to-day life is easy-going. Whatever reason for the happy-vibes here, it has had an enormous impact on my wellbeing and mental health. I used to find it hard to relax, but now whenever I get a voice that says what I “should” be doing, I am able to justify my decisions, whether that’s going for a long lunch at De Tapas instead of staying in and being “productive”, or whether it’s taking time out of Spanish classes (which had been stressing me out) and going swimming instead, or even just making more time to indulge in reading. I write poetry regularly and naturally, and whenever I sit down with the intention to write a short story or article, it feels unpressured and enjoyable.

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3. It’s sunny.

Okay, I’m not going to lie, the weather was one of the main motivations for moving here. My first focus was that I wanted to learn Spanish, but I didn’t even look at places in the north like San Sebastian. Long days, that are often sunny and often without rain, are naturally going to make you feel good. With bright blue skies, you can’t complain.

4. It’s small.

Along with the sunny weather, something that is paramount for my mental health is not having to travel on tubes and trains everywhere. Growing up in London, you get so used to its chaos. I’m a highly sensitive person, and I’ve been reminded of certain aspects of this recently – parts of myself that I hadn’t truly taken note of, having not realised the emotion impact. It is absolute bliss to be able to walk everywhere. It’s under five minutes to walk to work, under two to the gym, and the friend that lives furthest from me is only a twenty-minute walk. I’m surrounded by restaurants and shops. Everything I could want is practically on my doorstep. Sadly, it’s impossible to find this situation in London – either too expensive or too difficult to live near work. I know I want to come back to the UK, but moving back in with my parents is a massive compromise on the happiness and independence that I have here.

5. It’s clean.

This point doesn’t need much explaining. It goes along with the beauty, that it needs to be maintained. During the night, the streets are washed down, made fresh and sparkly clean for  the morning.

6. It’s cheap. 

Again, the fact that I can afford an apartment on my own, with a fairly modest wage, right in the centre of the city, is incredible when compared with the UK. I can eat well for less, and eating and drinking out is cheap to, having already mention De Tapas, where you can get a caña for 60 cents, and a small dish for 90 cents. It’s 2.50 for churros con chocolate at Marta’s, and you can get an ice-cream for between 1-3 euros, depending on size. Perfeco!

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These skewers from Mercado Victoria are the best!

7. The food.

So, speaking of food. I had to change this from 5 to 8 things, because I couldn’t leave out the food. I love the typically Spanish dishes such as tortilla and paella, but one of the reasons I love going to De Tapas is that I am surprised by so many new dishes. It’s also very unlike me to enjoy something like that, as I usually order the same things if given a choice, and I don’t tend to fare well with the unexpected. But I like how it forces me to relax and be in a state where I am not in control. It’s also all so delicious.

8. The culture.

It’s a strange thing to feel connected to Spanish culture, but also that it is still something  from which I am an outsider. I love walking through the streets to hear the music play, and recently got to see the most amazing flamenco show. The passion of their voices, the skill in the movement, the rhythm of the music. I want to write more about this, but I almost find it hard to describe. I just know that each day I am making memories, and I will look back on this year as a highlight of my life.

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“She used to run a night.”

When I lived in London I was working full-time, commuting about 3 hours a day, and on top of that I would, like clockwork, do something to do with my creative practise. Increasingly, this felt like I was doing more and more admin (such as things to do with running my night, She Grrrowls) and less actual writing.

Some people may think that since I’ve quit my job and moved to Spain to teach English, that I’m no longer pursuing these creative endeavours. Hell, they may have thought it before, since I was working full-time before, and just changed location. The difference is, I guess, at least I was connected to the world of poetry before; in Córdoba this just won’t be the same, and any poetry is likely to be in Spanish.

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However, as Paula Varjack explores in her show, ‘Show Me The Money’, a lot of writers have other means of income. Even if they’re not honest about it. There are many different ways to be a writer and a performer. That said, I’m not planning to stop any of what I’ve been doing. I took a teach and travel break, and now I’m making a change.

Moving to Spain is not something I would have thought about doing seriously until my partner planted the idea of living abroad. I had always wanted to learn Spanish, and it seemed to be a good way to do it. So, after exploring South East Asia, I came here. I also thought that a change of scenery would also be good for my mental health, as well as encouraging me to be more independent.

I couldn’t believe it had been five years since I had been to university, which means five years of living with my parents. That’s why, when I heard the expression “perpetual adolescence”, I thought ‘that’s me!’ At the age of twenty-seven I am now living completely on my own. I’ve already set an oven glove on fire, and cut myself with both a knife, and a pair of scissors.

So, this year I am shifting my priorities. I have decided I want to make a real effort to learn Spanish; that’s my number one priority. However, I have a theory that this focus might help me write more, as it will be what I do with my spare time, for fun. Even my Netflix-time will be a form of studying, and being in South East Asia, I still wrote a lot – both blogs, articles for The Norwich Radical, and poetry.

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I’ve been in my new apartment for just over a week at the time of writing, and without WiFi (which may also be an influence) I have prepared lots of blog posts, written some poetry and completed one short story. I’ve been enjoying it a lot, and I’ve been more in tune with when I need to take breaks.

One of my problems is that I also set myself too many goals. This is why I’m trying to focus on learning Spanish as a focus. I see writing as something that will naturally happen, and beyond trying to schedule some time to do it, it’s not something I need to stress out about. However, I do want to keep some other things ticking along. I still want to write journalism, and I still want to keep She Grrrowls going, albeit in a different form.

I’m planning to start up an online zine, where I will feature poems in print, and hopefully videos, and essays, rants, pictures and so on. This way, I can hopefully keep people in the loop about re-launching the event on my return to the UK. I’m also thinking of taking the event to Edinburgh Fringe Festival, inspired by going the previous year, as well as fellow Kid Glove member, Joel Auterson, taking his and Jake Wildhall’s night ‘Boomerang Club’ there this year.

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I do have a show I want to write (and the idea was Highly Commended by Ideas Tap when I got to the interview stage for the £30,000 fund). But I’m not going to rush the process, especially as I found out from Jack Rooke (another inspiration, with his show ‘Good Grief’) that Soho Theatre have opened up their writing project up to 30-year-olds, and obviously I will be 28 by the time I’m back!

So, the point I’m trying to make, is that I’m not going anywhere (to those people who put thumbs down on my YouTube videos). Obviously, something I need to work on is the fact that I still care what people think…

Anyway, so the plan is to be able to write poems in Spanish… then back to London, where funnily enough, my partner may be moving after all these years of long-distance. Let’s hope he likes it and wants to stay. I will then have enough experience to get some income from teaching English as a foreign language, and run some workshops. I want to apply for funding for She Grrrowls, which I would have to do in June in order to make a swift return after the Fringe! Ideally I can then make my show with Soho Theatre, and generally do more writing, performing and freelance stuff!

So, there you have it. That’s the plan. Working full-time before meant my old five year plan hasn’t really worked out. But as you can probably tell, I’m itching to write a new one, and even more excited about enjoying the process a bit more, trying to be more present in the moment and generally continue living life to the full, through both tears and laughter!

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Patience and Dealing with Uncertainty

When I attended CBT, one of the biggest revelations that emerged was that I have great difficulty dealing with uncertainty. This makes me incredibly impatient with myself, and other people. This is exacerbated when there’s a problem. Anxiety affects people differently – some people put things off, but, for me, I feel that I can get rid of that anxious feeling if I can deal with it as soon as possible. To the extent that, even if it is not possible, I will try to make it possible. The same goes for when things don’t go as planned; it’s like forcing a jigsaw piece into the wrong place, and it never does work.

Dealing with uncertainty means you have to accept that something is out of your control. I’m currently undergoing a learning process as to how to actually do this. Accepting we can’t control something does not mean stewing and constantly thinking about whatever it is, and doing things surrounding the matter. What I think it means, is taking a step back, and occupying yourself with something different.

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As I write this I’m currently waiting for a number of balls to get rolling. Or rather, dominos, as they are all linked together. My patience is being tested since moving to Spain. The first test was finding a place to live. In my head, I had about a week, had booked a hostel, and imagined having viewings every day, and simply selecting which one I liked best. I remember it being quite simple at university in Norwich. However, the reality didn’t quite match up to my expectations, which is one of the main points about uncertainty – your mind tries to manage the uncertainty by creating these imaginary scenarios, none of which are really helpful.

I managed to arrange one viewing, but I didn’t know what to say to the agent when I came out. What I learnt from this was how important aesthetics are to my wellbeing, and I tended to much prefer the more modern spaces, with light rooms and bright colours. After finding out that the next day was a public holiday and I couldn’t go to any viewings, I spent the rest of the evening trying to arrange them for the next day.

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¿Habla usted inglés? This was not Norwich, it was Córdoba. I couldn’t speak Spanish, and after a negative answer, I translated a few key sentences through Google for the next attempt. The person on the other end of the phone understood me… but I didn’t understand their answers. Both conversations resulted in them hanging up on me. After just one successful conversation with someone needing to call back because they were driving, I gave up, and they didn’t call back.

I spent the next morning continuing my search online, and then walked around the city with one of the other new teachers. The day after I had the idea of texting instead of calling, as well as getting some help from my place of work. In the end, I managed to find the perfect place through the agent I’d first met. However, when I was unable to get enough money out for that evening’s contract signing, I was upset and frustrated. I wanted to do it immediately, but it was impossible. I was up late that night on the phone to Barclays to try to retrieve the PIN for a card I didn’t usually use, to make sure I would have the whole amount needed the next day. This was a waste of time, as I then easily got my mum to find it for me at home.

So I was able to get the money the next morning and moved in that afternoon. Having a base now is helping with the next set of challenges. I still have to wait for an NIE number, which I need to be able to open a bank account, which I need to be able to set up the Internet. I also need to wait for my timetable before I can really start looking at course books or planning any lessons. I have no choice but to wait. Obviously, my impatience isn’t solved overnight. However, I’m trying to make the most of the free time I will be wishing I had in a week’s time, especially currently being without the distraction of Wi-Fi.

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I have done a lot of walking, and a lot of shopping for things I needed in my flat, as well as a lengthy exploration of supermarket shelves. But I have also written a short story, a poem, and a couple of articles. I have played Adventure Time Card Wars, and completed puzzles in a puzzle book. I have been reading books, magazines, and my Spanish phrase book. I have even meditated. I tried watching TV, but my Spanish isn’t up to that level. And lastly, I’ve been cooking again, which I haven’t done on a regular basis since university (and I graduated in 2011).

So far, I’ve been distracting myself from thinking about my fear of everything I’m uncertain about, and it’s been working. It also helps to reflect back on what I learnt from the previous few months travelling and working in Vietnam. I’ll being working mornings and evenings, with a big break in the afternoon. In Vietnam, like many language schools, it was similar deal. What I learnt was actually how adaptable I am, so knowing this about myself now has challenged preconceived notions of myself, and also means I can reassure myself that I will find my routine, but that there is no rush to do so. Meanwhile, I’ll try to enjoy a slower pace, and ease myself into what is a big change in terms of both job and country.

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: 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…