health, love, mental health, personal journeys

a toast to the scary times

he’s a good guy

Halloween night saw me in the emergency room for antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication withdrawal. I had the shakes, electric shock-like headaches, nausea, lightheadedness, tunnel vision, etc. My boyfriend got me ready to go to the hospital, got me in the car, and held my hand the whole way there. Long story short, I’m fine. I’d had toxic levels of that med in my bloodstream before I even started withdrawing, so it just all really sucked. On the other hand, I had someone by my side who loved me 100% of the time, who loves me and shows me how to love myself when things feel dark or like I’m failing at being strong.

Today I’m paying that forward.

To anyone going through any kind of mental health struggle:

Being afraid of yourself, your body, your mind, the medical system–it’s normal. Chances are we’ve cried over the same thing at the same time. You’re really not alone.

You can be afraid of the dark places your mind goes and you can shake and cry and you can still let yourself feel all of it. You’re handling this, even when you don’t feel like you are.

You can let yourself have bad days.

You can get up. You can fall down after you get up, and you can get up again.

Social media is all bullshit. Everybody can look good with the right filter, the right hashtag, the right cocktail, the right words, the right job, the right school, etc. Don’t compare yourself.

And lastly: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies–if you haven’t, you’ve missed out–but there’s part of the first movie that always sticks with me. In summary, a conniving piece of shit tries to break young Elizabeth’s heart, career, and life. Instead of banishing or executing him, she decides to keep him at court forever. She keeps him close and she tells him why:

because you will be my reminder that I beat my enemies, even if it takes me a moment to figure out who they are

because you will be my permanent reminder that I’m smarter than you, even in my most worst moments

because you will be a reminder of my strength–that I am and will always be stronger than you

because it’s my own weakness that shows me how strong I can be

Any bad days, any rough day? Keep them close. Let them remind you that you’ve been here before and, even in the worst moments, you’re that strong.

I’ve been through a well-balanced (hah) sampler of mental health struggles, and when I think about my passions in life, about anthropology, about sustainability, adventure, and the mountains, I know hard times just make those loves more worthwhile. It’s cliched, maybe, but it gets truer the more I experience.

Caring about people and the earth all becomes richer when you know what it’s like to not care about yourself. Loving the mountains deepens when they’ve given you a sense of wonder and smallness when you’ve most needed it. When you come back to yourself, when you see all that and love yourself, it’s a richer love. You know you can love yourself through it all and come out of the worst, safe in the knowledge that you are your own unfailing best friend. The mountains are no longer postcards. Loving yourself is no longer a hashtag. This is the real shit now, the real adventure. It’s so much bigger now, and there’s no going back.

The mountains are no longer postcards. Loving yourself is no longer a hashtag. This is the real shit now, the real adventure. It’s so much bigger now, and there’s no going back.

We humans (and, I assume, any bored stoner aliens busy binge-reading human blogs–in which case, hi bro!) are here as a species because we’ve found some finite meaning and peace in this crazy life. We’re hunters and gatherers whose greatest achievement is rigging up traps of belonging to stop some hard falls. (I’m really sorry everything is somehow a climbing metaphor.)

This is the time of year where many remember the ancestors. Maybe take a moment to think about what they went through. Think about the hands they’ve held in the dark, about the traps they laid to keep loneliness at bay. Thank them for being badass bitches who sometimes gave up and cried but always came back.

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feminism, love, mental health, personal journeys, poetry

what’s helped me: on recovering from mental illness

This is very much a practical post. Lately, I’ve really wanted to share the resources (blogs, books, podcasts, apps, etc) that have really helped me during this process of recovering from panic attack disorder, depression, and disordered eating. I know I talk a lot about the outdoors and adventures, but I couldn’t have done those things without these smaller bits of help. They have and continue to work small-scale, everyday changes in how I think and process the world around me, and have thus enabled me to experience life in a more balanced, more joyful way. Thus, without further ado, here are my ‘top resources,’ in no particular order.

I – Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

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This book is a memoir of dealing with depression and finding hope and reasons to live in the small things. The chapters are short, the reflections are captivating. It completely changed my perspective on depression and helped me see not only how to get through it, but how to learn from my struggles and empathise more with others.

 

II – Goodbye Ed, Hello Me by Jenni Schaeffer

Jenni Schaeffer’s books gave me the crucial skill of learning to separate myself from eating disorder and depression thoughts: to see them as an illness, not as truly me or what I really value. This enabled me to ‘talk back’. It helped me get in touch with what I really believed and loved and to use that to build truth back into the fabric of my life. Chapters are super short–it was perfect when my depression was really bad and my attention span basically nill–and there are lots of practical exercises to help you separate from the negative voices in your life.

III- Jessi Kneeland 

This is a recent find of mine–a random google result–but it’s already had a huge impact on me. She’s coach, counselor, and writer dedicated to helping women love, live in, and make peace with their bodies. Think body acceptance versus body change, empowerment versus perfection. A lot of her blog posts dig deep into the messages women receive about their bodies and worth on an everyday basis, and almost all of her writing features probing questions that have helped me to uncover and let go of the root of many insecurities. Honestly, I wish her so much success. Very few bloggers have had such a powerful impact on me in such a short time.

IV – Emily Dickinson

It’s simply impossible to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry and not feel wonder for the small things. My paperback collection of her poetry seems to find its way into my hands very, very regularly, and it never leaves my hands without having left something in my mind’s eye. Find a poet or writer or musician or anyone whose work you connect to, and give yourself a daily dose of beauty.

V – Food Psych

Food Psych is a podcast devoted to body acceptance, intuitive eating, health at every size, and eating disorder recovery. Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating counselor, leads weekly discussions with people from all backgrounds and walks of life about their relationships with their bodies and their journey to body acceptance and health. I listen to a sampling of this podcast’s extensive library of episodes a couple of times a week, and I’ve learned so much about the history of diet culture and how badly it affects our society, from sending people on diet cycles to completely messing with hunger and fullness cues. In turn, I’ve started to learn to honor my body’s signals, let go of a set beauty ideal, and have a hell of a lot more energy (since I’m not massively restricting or binging nearly as much).

VI – Pacifica

A free app, Pacifica is essentially CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) in your pocket. You can track your moods, write down your thoughts, and it guides you through recognising ‘thought errors’ that reinforce negative emotions. It also guides you through ‘reframing’ those thoughts and offers free guided meditations and podcasts. Awesome resource.

VII – YouTube’s free yoga

Not everyone can afford yoga studio prices, but if you have access to a phone, computer, fancy tv, tablet, or laptop (granted, a privilege of its own), you can pull up yoga teachers on youtube. Yoga’s health benefits–from mental calm to decreased pain–are very widely known, but for me it really powerfully connects me to my body and brings my anxiety levels way down. Some of my favourite teachers are BadYogi and fightmaster yoga. They have videos for all levels and you can pause, stop, or modify without any judgment and without an audience.

VIII – the sun and her flowers by rupi kaur

This book of poetry is simple and stunning. It speaks to so many aspects of what it means to be a woman in the world, addressing love, lust, poverty, politics, and far more. I can’t really say enough to describe it, so I here’s some poetry throughout in the hopes that you’d become a fan as well.

 

 

Much love to anyone who’s struggling or supporting someone with mental illness. I hope these practical tools prove helpful–much love xx

 

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anthropology, culture & society, feminism, mental health, personal journeys

blubber

Here is a guest post I wrote for Women from the Blog, a wonderful site run by dear friends. Follow me there for the rest of this story. 

I was four years old and my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world.

She was much taller than me, and I felt very tiny next to her, especially when we compared feet and she tickled my toes.  I loved her hair, which was long and which I loved to watch her dry, and she had a smiling laugh, bright blue eyes and straight white teeth.  I remember being very young and showering with her and wishing, hoping that I would be like her when I grew up.  Even the water seemed to run over her skin and through her hair like it was made of magic.  She was flawless. 

I remember her reading me a book about whales.  I watched videos about them, too.  They sang in the deep, the book said.  The blubber meant dolphins and whales were more buoyant…follow me to Women from the Blog for the rest of the story. 

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mental health, mountains, personal journeys, travel & adventure

small victories

 

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Newtonmore, photo by Brodie

Small victories 

when you start being able to sit anywhere in a restaurant–even in the middle, where you can’t see much–and not have an anxiety attack. You might still penguin-shuffle race to get the corner chair, but your hangups are gradually fading into quirks.

when you get your own vehicle and sleep in it, twice, within the first week and a half of driving it, and you wake up feeling like a million bucks.

when your mother is starting to walk without crutches after a major surgery.

when you look back over the past year and a half, and you realise that a year and a half ago your depression and anxiety was so bad you were terrified of being alone, but now you look forward to a solo road trip or hillwalking excursion or even a day of simple silence just as much as you look forward to going out with friends or meeting interesting new people.

when you realize you can feel at home anywhere, just as much as you used to feel lonely everywhere.

 

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Durness, Scotland, photo by me

when you can laugh and roll your eyes at the thoughts that used to petrify you, even though they still sometimes petrify you. 

when you look at time away from mountains not as a total curse of Biblical proportions, but as a time to get stronger, eat healthier, get your shit together, love your family, earn money, write a story, and plan. (though it is sometimes a curse of Biblical proportions.)

when you feel safer and stronger and happier in your own skin.

when you know these feelings will come and go, but this world will still be around you: big, beautiful, overwhelming, impassive to your many capitulations but always tender to the touch.

these small victories are all we have; we have no banner but laughter, no weapon but resilience, no strength but the ferocity of unrequited love for people and places, no legacy but their unrequited grace for us.

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mental health, mountains, personal journeys, Uncategorized

how I’m learning to use my panic attacks for good

I want to talk to you about how I’ve learned to deal with panic attacks and anxiety.  To do this, I’m going to describe what a panic attack feels like. Then, I’m going to talk about, you know, fear in general. These days I’m healthier, braver, and a lot less afraid–thanks to ever so much help, medicine, love and unabashed fun.

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photo by Maryam. Me “dancing” while sorting out our Skye hillwalking roadtrip stuff on the side of the road

But panic attacks? They completely and utterly suck. I’m not describing them to complain or garner sympathy; I’m describing them so anyone struggling knows I’ve also been there. If you know someone struggling, hopefully this gives you a bit of an insider’s perspective.

The day usually starts off with a vague but unshakable sense of unease. Nervousness. Edginess. Maybe a bit of crankiness. I don’t really know why, but it’s there–a low, persistent hum.

Then, all at once the pressure and fear build and I feel an increasing sense of dread. Something terrible is going to happen, I’m convinced. I don’t know why I’m panicking so much, but I’m confused and disoriented.

Everything around me feels like a threat and I feel like I’m probably going to get hurt, or someone I care about is going to be badly hurt, or that I’m going to die. The physical sensations of fear overwhelm me; my hands can’t stop shaking and my legs feel very weak; my heart pounds. Sounds and lights are oppressively lurid.

My chest tightens and I can’t breathe. Sometimes this suffocating feeling last just for a minute as the panic attack peaks. Sometimes, especially if I start sobbing, I ebb back into that unease and the shaking, only for waves of panic to peak several times over. I need things to be quiet and I need to be alone to calm myself down.

Last year, these panic attacks happened between once and several times a day, usually in the mornings.  I would need lots of extra sleep each night just to recover from the stupid amounts of adrenaline. Now, they only happen anywhere between once a month and once a week. In short: better, but still a difficulty.

I used to feel like a total idiot for dealing with panic attacks. I go to university on another continent and love hitch-hiking and narrow ridges, but I become terrified for no reason whatsoever? What kind of sense does that make?

They only really improved markedly when a realization hit me about five months ago: “As someone who’d love to do first ascents and lots of anthropology fieldwork, I’m being routinely confronted with inordinate amounts of fear. This sucks, but it also means I have a unique opportunity to get good at dealing with fear in one of its worst forms.”

See, I believe that many of our problems as humans boil down to the fact that we don’t often take the time to slow down and try to define things carefully. “What do I mean by that? What’s fear, anyway?”

Obviously, many things will mean many different things for different people. But if you don’t ask what you mean by fear, happiness, love, joy, challenge, or pain, chances are you’ll miss out on a chance to live in a healthier way.

I missed out for years with fear, until I asked I changed my mindset and asked that question.

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a photo I took when on my own on the Isle of Arran, looking out towards Kintyre

I also then realised that, on mountains, I rarely saw fear as helpful. If I was in a shit situation, getting all worried was just going to make my thought process shakier, so I literally just decided to not be afraid. Instead, I just tried to be “rational” in a fit of radical anti-anxiety. This led to sometimes suppressing legitimate fear to an unhealthy extent–after all, panic attacks were way worse, right?

However, when I sat down and tried to define fear, this is what I got: “Fear is an emotional, physical, and instinctual response to perceived threats in one’s environment. It often expresses information or assumptions one would otherwise overlook.” Simple as that.

This changed things. It meant that I could accept fear as a legitimate feeling that I could reflectively examine. I didn’t need to feel ashamed. After all, fear was just telling me a little more about what it thought it saw or what my assumptions were. If my assumptions were wrong, I could be grateful that fear pointed that out. If fear brought accurate information to the surface, all the better.

In other words, my definition never pretends that I don’t feel fear or shoves it out of mind. Fear either gives me the opportunity to change my assumptions or to build common sense. Most importantly, this definition reminds me that I’m responsible for dealing with my own fear. Only I can ask myself what I see as a threat. And only I can change how I see the world.

This totally altered the game for me. It might not be the perfect definition (if such a thing exists), but it’s a powerful one.

I didn’t realise how radically this simple act of defining “fear” would completely change my life. Not only has it drastically reduced my panic attacks, but it has helped me make smarter decisions on ridges, be less nervous for first dates or job interviews, be bolder and happier around strangers, and not stress the small stuff so much. It takes some work to put it into practice, but doing so is a hell of a lot easier than dealing with panic attacks.

Please, if you have someone in your life dealing with panic attacks or anxiety, show them patience. Hell is dancing inside their head and lacing their ribs together. The last thing they need is extra pressure or to feel like an idiot for struggling with legitimate mental health issues. Tell them you believe in them–that you know they’re stronger and more resilient than they think, and that life and adventure is out there. Above all, show them love. Dostoevsky once said that love is the opposite of fear, which is a topic for another time and another post.

 

 

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mental health, mountains, Scotland, Uncategorized

when the mountains kept me here

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ridges are fun. Especially if you’ve just come up the Devil’s Punchbowl on the Isle of Arran in total cloud.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post on a hillwalking facebook group in the hope it would help someone who’s going through mental health issues or addictions. I got an overwhelming number of responses, messages, and stories, which inspired me to take a stab at blogging again. It’s revised here in the hope that maybe it can reach a few more people.

 

Over the past eleven years or so, I’ve struggled off and on with a variety of disordered eating behaviours, and the past five years or so have been marked by depression and panic attack disorder. It all came to a head a year ago when I narrowly avoided suicide.

One of the few things that stopped more or more lethal attempts was, quite simply, that there were lots more munros* to climb. I would eat well for the munros; I would wake up thinking about munros.

Whilst walking, I got a hit of something I now recognise very easily as pure and simple joy.

But for me, in what I now think of as the Grey Cloud (because it’s not nearly as awesome as as whiteout), I couldn’t quite recognise it as joy that I could feasibly feel in my everyday life. I just knew it was Something. I was very lost, but I could navigate a ridge in cloud.

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Me, very much having fun on munro called Lochnagar and Not Dead, Not Starved and actually rather flexible.

Fast forward a year and through lots of help, through medicine (thank God for medicine, and fuck the stigma) and therapy and incredibly supportive family and friends. Fast forward through the good fortune to have that much support. A few weeks ago, after a few months largely consisting of hillwalking and camping and solo hitchhiking and lots of ferries, I was on the Isle of Rum, wild camping very happily on my own. I made friends with the ponies. I wasn’t weighed down by the pressures of dark thoughts that used to descend whenever I stopped moving. The next day, I would tackle the Rum Cuillin Traverse. And I would feel something more powerfully than I’d ever felt before: gratitude (also sunburn). For this body, that I’ve starved and binge-stuffed and abused, but now can tackle 1900+ metre days and 40k if I ask it to. For this mind, which is now happy and healthy and sweary and rather lecherous and bloody stubborn. For the fact that I now feel totally safe by myself and that I enjoy my own childish sense of humor and stupidly energetic company far too much. For Scotland, seeing as it kept me on this planet with its ridges and summits.

Scotland kept me on this planet with its ridges and summits

A week later, however, I turned back from a walk after about a kilometer and only the tiniest bit of ascent. I don’t know if it was a fellow gardener remarking too often on how much I ate (because I climb loads of hills, bitch?) or if it was worry for my mother’s surgery or whatever, but bad eating habits slipped back in without my knowing. Over three days I ate maybe 2000kcal total, and that’s with lots of moving around. I was at the base of Stob Ban in the morning—a munro I saw and lusted after a year ago from the Ring of Steall—and I just couldn’t do it. My legs, which on a gym day can squat 120kilos 30 times in a row if I so choose, were impossibly weak. My head hurt. I had a nasty metallic taste in my mouth. What normally took me 15 minutes had taken me an hour and a half. When my legs buckled, I knew it was stupid to keep going. But more than anything, I was pissed. I wanted Stob Ban like some women want Ryan Gosling (I just don’t see it, soz), but it just wasn’t happening.

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me (red jacket) on enjoying the Five Sisters of Kintail during one of the hardest times

Recovering from mental health problems and/or addiction is not easy. It is not straightforward. But yall, there are hills. There is that wild gratitude (on sunny days, at least), that breathlessness as you reach the summit. Sometimes you’ve just got to fight it as tactically as you would (should) plan an expedition, and that’s okay. But when I turned back from Stob Ban, I knew that these habits just had to go. There are too many hills. I am not going back to that dark place, and I am not letting those habits eat me alive. They tell you they’ll make your problems smaller but really—and I’m telling you this with every ounce of belief I have—they just devour your sense of self and make joy a stranger. You don’t need to make your problems smaller, not with substances or food or lack thereof. You’re enough to fight them now, as they are, no matter how scary they look. You can’t choose your challenges, but you can choose your joys and you can choose life for yourself. You can choose to fight for the mountains.

Please choose with me, pack some goddamn chocolate and never turn back.

 

*mountains in Scotland above 913m or 3,000″

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